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       Breaktime, p.1

           Aidan Chambers
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Breaktime


  Contents

  Cover

  About the Book

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Challenge

  Journey Out

  The Leap

  End Game

  About the Author

  Also by Aidan Chambers

  Copyright

  About the Book

  When Ditto challenges Morgan to prove that literature is crap he triggers off a chain of events to alter his outlook of life forever. Ditto faces a series of charges from Morgan against literature: that all fiction is Done. Finished. Dead; a sham and a pretence. He undertakes faithfully to record a life in the week of Ditto – with all the chaos of reality thrown in – and his literary creation reveals more about himself than he originally bargained for.

  For

  Nancy

  CHALLENGE

  Coffeetalk

  ‘I TELL YOU no lie,’ said Morgan, slopping his coin-machine coffee on to the scuffed woodblock floor of the sixth-form common-room. ‘Maureen Pinfold is a dream.’

  Ditto stared at him in what he hoped was an enigmatic fashion. Since term began he had been perfecting this cool exterior manner, an attitude of unshakable intellectual poise.

  Morgan licked dribbling coffee from the side of his plastic mug.

  ‘She’s ripe for dissection,’ he said, affecting his medical style. ‘I plan to operate as soon as the patient is prepared. And a theatre found, of course.’ He laughed. ‘It might have to be a field trip.’

  ‘God, the mixed metaphors,’ said Ditto.

  ‘I do not believe in purity.’ Morgan laughed again. He always preferred his own witticisms to anyone else’s. His laughter shook another expectoration of coffee on to the abused floor. Surveying the morning-break crowd that filled the room, he said, ‘You know the trouble with half this lot?’

  ‘Tell me,’ said Ditto indulgently.

  ‘And with you too, I might add.’

  ‘Say on.’

  ‘They talk a lot . . .’

  ‘So do you.’

  ‘. . . but they’ve done nothing. They talk very knowledgeably about Life and Sex and Politics and Religion and all that guff. But they’ve got it out of books.’

  He lobbed his empty mug like a shuttlecock half across the room, into the metal wastebin by the coffee machine. A group standing by the bin turned and applauded. (Why did he have to be so insufferably gifted, hand and mind, Ditto wondered.)

  ‘What’s worst,’ Morgan went on as if unimpressed by his skill or the applause, ‘they get it out of stories. Out of lit-er-arr-tewer.’

  Ditto remained studiously unmoved.

  ‘And what’s so bad about literature?’

  ‘Literature is crap,’ Morgan said. ‘Fiction is, anyway. Novels and stories. It’s like that coffee they make us buy. A pretence. Ersatz.’

  ‘They ought to let us make our own,’ said Ditto, draining his mug.

  ‘You might say the same about the literature they force on us,’ said Morgan and chuckled.

  ‘Midgely says literature offers us images to think with. That its unreality has nothing to do with untruth.’

  ‘Cods,’ Morgan said. ‘Images out of a book make you think like a book. And old Midge can be a pompous ass. He should have retired years ago.’

  ‘That doesn’t diminish the truth of what he’s saying.’

  ‘No, but it does make it a lot less attractive.’

  ‘Get back to literature.’

  ‘I’d rather get back to Maureen Pinfold.’

  Ditto conceded a smile.

  ‘You’re spoiling for a fight,’ he said. ‘Okay. I challenge you to prove literature is crap.’

  ‘You’re on,’ said Morgan, rubbing his hands with relish.

  The klaxon sounded the end of break.

  ‘Damn it,’ said Ditto. ‘Can’t stay. Got a double period with Midge and Jane Austen.’

  ‘Pity. I’m free. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll jot down my Charges Against Literature—I mean fiction—and serve them on you at lunch.’

  ‘A subpoena I’ll enjoy discharging,’ Ditto said. ‘But why bother? Just tell me.’

  ‘Innocent!’ Morgan said. ‘My Charges will give me just the excuse I need to trap Maureen Pinfold behind her typewriter in the commercial room. While she does me the favour of typing my Charges, I’ll prepare the patient for dissection.’

  ‘If this was a story,’ Ditto said, ‘you’d call that typecasting.’

  Morgan laughed.

  ‘Thanks for the compliment,’ said Ditto, and left.

  Gauntlet

  CHARGES AGAINST LITERATURE

  (I Mean Fiction)

  Morgan v Ditto

  I charge that:

  1. Literature as a way of telling stories is out-moded. Done. Finished. Dead. Stories as entertainment are easier got from film and TV these days. (And what was Fiction ever about except telling entertaining stories?)

  2. Literature is, by definition, a lie. Literature is a fiction. Fiction is opposite to fact. Fact is truth. I am only concerned with truth.

  3. Novels, plays, poetry make life appear neat and tidy. Life is not neat and tidy. It is untidy, chaotic, always changing. Critics even complain if a story is not well plotted or ‘logical’. (Life, logical!) They dismiss characters for being inconsistent. (How consistent are you, Ditto? Or me?) And they admire ‘the literary convention’, by which they mean obeying rules, as in ludo or chess. SO:

  4. Literature is a GAME, played for FUN, in which the reader pretends that he is playing at life. But it is not life. It is a pretence. When you read a story you are pretending a lie.

  THEREFORE:

  5. Literature is a sham, no longer useful, effluent, CRAP.

  As I said.

  Q.E.D.

  Lunch Date

  The morning over, Ditto joined Morgan in the dining hall.

  An aftertaste of Jane Austen lingered in his mind as he sat down opposite his friend. Often he went only half-heartedly to Mr Midgely’s literature class. (Morgan was right: Midge could be unbearably pompous.) But somehow the man always riveted his attention. Uncomfortably sometimes; he was never easy, never made concessions and could, when marking an essay, be ruthlessly cruel. Yet he brought to life every writer, every book he dealt with. He seemed to devour them, making them part of himself, and then he regurgitated them like spirits, alive, out of his mouth, by what he said and the way he read aloud. As though he were a magician, a medium even. No doubt about it, a great talker was Midge. Had the gift of the gab, Ditto’s father said—all too often these days.

  While Ditto pored over the Charges and inattentively ate his lunch, Morgan prattled on. Ditto only half listened. And Morgan’s voice, in any case, was almost drowned in the cacophony of three hundred people all talking too loudly as they chomped their way in concert through lumpy mashed potato, soya bean protein disguised as hamburger, and watery cabbage swimming in instant gravy.

  Ditto felt sustained against Morgan’s diatribe by the lingering pleasure of his morning’s work. Wasn’t that very pleasure itself proof that Morgan’s Charges were false? Could literature really be dead, finished, if it gave him, alive, such enjoyment?

  But how, he wondered, could he unsettle Morgan’s entrenched prejudice? Not by argument, that was sure. Morgan was bound to win, right or wrong. How then? By demonstrating his error? Perhaps. Be scientific, pragmatic. Morgan would certainly be moved by that. Show Morgan he was wrong.

  But how?

  ‘You’re saying nothing,’ Morgan complained when the pudding was served—mushy stewed apple resurrected from dehydration and soused in the customary glutinous custard. ‘Here I am, hungry for argument to distract me from the offensiveness of lunch, and you’ve said nothing since arriving.’

 
This menu of your Charges must be digested,’ Ditto replied, jabbing his spoon at Maureen’s immaculately typed page. ‘And your comments on each savoury item have left me no room to say anything.’

  ‘Then ruminate privately,’ said Morgan, standing up and clattering his empty dishes into a pile. ‘I’ve a first team practice now, a full afternoon of chemistry, and I’ve just fixed an evening mixing it with Maureen. So the Charges found their target. See you tomorrow. So long.’

  Ditto Goes Home

  After school, Morgan’s Charges Against Literature tucked into his breast pocket, Ditto sets off for home. Mode of transport: a dilapidated bicycle once used by his father to carry him to work. The sprockets squeak at every third turn of the pedals.

  Ditto’s legs push him on rapidly, for the weather is grey, damp, cold. But his mind is tardy. Home is not an attraction, school a livelier, friendlier place these days. The principal cause of this unhappy state of affairs—so Ditto complains—is his father.

  For two years an illness has stalled the man from working. Other afflictions have resulted. A depressed and moody atmosphere in the house. Irritability. A pinching of the family’s income. (Ditto’s mother has had to take a part-time job behind a grocery counter to supplement their income. She will not be at home when Ditto arrives. Ditto has had his pocket-money cut, he relying on windfalls from relatives and weekend work as a window-cleaner’s mate in the streets round his own to provide his private needs.)

  Most unsettling of all has been the souring relations between his father and himself. They have reached that pitch where neither can speak civilly to the other for more than a minute or two; more usually, sharp words and barely controlled insults serve as their daily discourse. It pains Ditto; he is certain it pains his father. But the hurt is apparently incorrigible.

  Pedalling steadily towards his next parental encounter, Ditto’s thoughts travel in another direction. He remembers a time before his father’s illness, before, even, he himself had left primary school.

  A photograph in Mother’s box of family pictures, me thin as a lamp-post on the sprout, ten years old, holding a fishing rod and grinning triumphant at the camera, a dace the size of a stunted sardine hanging from the end of my rod, the dace wriggling still when the picture was snapped by a nearby fisherman who obliged so that Dad could be in the picture too and he is there behind me and to one side, my left side I think, right as you look at the picture . . . Dressed in his work suit, grey and a bit baggy, but a starched white shirt collar and neat black tie, always neat your dad they used to say always just right, his hair still black then, grey now since his illness, and his face full still, moon round still, and used to shine blood-orange red after he’d had a few at the local in the evening or before dinner on Sundays, doesn’t bother now, can’t I suppose . . . After the picture was snapped he rubbed his hands together as though trying to crack the finger bones, and smiled to himself in the way he does, did, when pleased or proud, he was pleased and proud that day because I’d caught that dace my first and he had been there to see it and have the moment recorded, the capture captured, memorialized by the obliging fisherman.

  That same day, yes that’s right, just after slaughtering the dace with a sharp blow on its head we saw a snake swimming down the river its head above the surface like a submarine periscope. It turned just below us and writhed ashore entirely confident, not a jot of notice paid us who were standing there aghast agog me, my father, the nearby obliging fisherman, my camera still in his hands. An excited shouting boy came downriver with the snake, skipping along the bank crabwise, pointing at the riverborne reptile and bellowing Look, look, a snake, see, a snake. The minute the snake got ashore this boy and me we fell upon it hurtling stones and beating it to death in the end savagely—were we scared or were we hunting—and while we were assaulting it Dad said You shouldn’t kill it. It’s only a grass snake you know not poisonous . . . Afterwards he was silent did not celebrate the occasion with wringing of hands and did not join this stranger boy and myself who persuaded the obliging fisherman to take another snap of the pair of us each with a finger and thumb in tentative apprehension holding the snake by its tail end dangling dead between us as we had been big game hunters in safari Africa and our grins are wide and fevered.

  If not the snake why the dace? . . . Next day I was disappointed, the snake was like a deflated balloon after a party, but a wrinkled memory of itself not exciting or fearsome any more nor wondrous neither, just empty, and pungent . . . Dad reverently wrapped it in old newspaper and carefully placed it in the rubbish bin.

  And said nothing.

  Home

  Now, thought Ditto, he’ll still say nothing. Can he still?

  The front door snecked behind him, its phony pane of stained glass window trembling in the concussion. He hoped the glass would shatter one day and was experimenting with various forces of slam to find breaking point. At least when the window splintered the superfluous lead would serve at last some honest purpose and save the pieces from scattering.

  Coughing from the livingroom, rich, liquid, gurgling.

  A deadly liquefaction, Ditto thought. He’s gargling in his own sputum.

  He would have liked to climb the stairs at once to the seclusion of his room; but a sense of duty he was trying so far without success to corrupt forced him towards the livingroom. Inside, the air was greenhouse stuffy, smelt of rancid snot, stockinged feet and overheated television set. He tried not to breathe, but the only result was that finally he had to breathe more deeply still and savour the tangy odour. He sat down on the edge of the sofa, prayer-placed hands gripped between pressing knees.

  ‘Home then,’ the inevitable conversation began.

  Ditto nodded, eyed his father for signs of prevailing mood, slumped there in his bulky armchair with its rubbed-to-the-skin arm ends, his feet resting on a footstool. At the other side of the fireplace the TV flicked its images but the sound was turned off. His father disliked TV sound; said it gave him palpitations, and that anyway he could imagine what was being said because nobody ever said much worth hearing.

  ‘What you done today?’

  Ditto resisted the impulse to reply not much. He knew too well the fractious talk that would follow.

  ‘Jane Austen,’ he said, his throat stiff from restraint.

  ‘What did she have to say for herself?’

  Ditto squinted for hint of jest behind his father’s deadpan. None was intended, sadly.

  ‘She’s an author,’ he said.

  ‘O, aye?’

  ‘A dead one.’

  ‘Is she now? So you’ve been reading all day.’

  ‘For exams.’

  ‘What’s she write about, this dead woman?’

  ‘It would take too long to explain.’

  A long glance; a smile, sour. ‘You mean, you think I’m too thick to understand.’

  Ditto knew better than to bite on that bait.

  ‘How’ve you been?’ he asked.

  ‘Fairish. Cough’s bad.’

  ‘Had some tea?’

  ‘Couldn’t be bothered.’

  ‘Like a cup now?’

  A nod; small boy ashamed. ‘If you’re making one.’

  While the kettle boiled, he standing over it, Ditto remembered another day.

  He gave me a book that time, how old was I? About twelve, well I must have been twelve because it was my birthday and I had just started at sec school and was getting good reports. He was hand-wringing pleased, his lad was learning French and stuff that would help him get on in life. A proper snot I must have been. Am I still?. . . And he gave me this book, who was it by? I don’t even remember. Anyhow I thought it was some god-awful person, not to be seen reading it, and I said, I remember what I said if not who the book was written by, I said, not thinking, you don’t when you’re a kid like that, I said haughty, Thanks, Dad, but I can’t read this. Why not? he said his face fallen. Well at school they tell us what’s best to read and Mr Midgely, he said this writer wasn
’t very good, so I don’t think I can read it you see, I said, right little snot . . . And he just looked and went out of the room, my room, my bedroom it was, I remember now, where they’d brought my presents early to please me and see me open them . . . Mother looked daggers, one of those looks she used to promise me in shops when I was very little and not behaving, If you don’t behave yourself I’ll give you such a look, she’d say, well she gave me such a look then, that day, my birthday, and went after Dad. I don’t remember feeling I’d said anything rotten.

  Was that the start of it?

  Ditto took the cup of tea to his father.

  ‘Ta,’ his father said. ‘And I forgot. There’s a letter for you. On the mantelpiece. Come after you’d gone this morning.’

  Ditto took it. The handwriting he knew at once; knew too that he could not read this letter here, in front of his father.

  ‘If you’re all right then I’ll go upstairs and do some homework.’

  ‘Right-o,’ his father said, an agreement heavy with accusation.

  Ditto’s Room

  Upstairs. Front room of three-bedroom, semi-detached, late 1930s speculation-built house, half limey brick, half crumbling pebble-dash with bay-window on ground floor front room, the room below Ditto’s.

  Inside Ditto’s room. Single bed with blue candlewick coverlet. Wardrobe, laminated dark oak on chipboard. Bookcase crammed with books, mainly paperbacks, case made by Ditto himself in woodwork lessons during first two years at secondary school, painted white and looking now to him a hamfisted construction for which, nevertheless, he felt a nostalgic affection. Old, real oak kitchen table, four feet by two, sanded to the bare wood (having once been stained dark in days when virgin wood was vulgar) and sealed with varnish; now used as desk; found by Ditto languishing on a rubbish tip.

  On desk: blotting pad, pocked with surreal ink stains, doodles composed mainly of abstract combinations of squares, triangles and hachured shading: product of many hours of brooding contemplation. Portable Olympia typewriter, present from parents last Christmas. Pot, unglazed, red-fired clay bought for five pence at summer fête at school, profits in aid of Oxfam, serving now as pen and pencil holder. Seventy-second scale model of Mark V Spitfire on perspex stand. Rubber pencil eraser; chipped wooden ruler; small calendar cut from last year’s pocket diary and Sellotaped to a piece of stiffening cardboard.

 
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