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Year Three: A Youth Misplaced

Beeston Orphanage was a wretched place, tucked away in an unfashionable borough of Nottingham. The building itself was a converted 17th century poodle farm, in which the kennels had been converted into four-bed dormitories. The dogs had been released into the wild but had fared poorly, and so were returned and trained to prepare an incredibly watery macaroni & cheese dish for our every meal. There were approximately fifty of us in attendance, all boys, but only because being female was, at the time, greatly frowned upon. 

Beeston was run by semi-reformed Taoist bikies who practiced compassion on a strictly-part-time basis and moonlighted as a touring men’s choir. Of all the staff, the orphanage Director, a passionate skin-headed man named Spider, was the most tolerant of his duties. Once a week, each boy would be sent to confessional and encouraged to admit their sins, to which Spider would gayly respond “WRONG!” and whip them around the mouth with a bicycle chain. 

For twelve hours per day, six days per week, we were forced to labour away in an onsite Edwardian-era warehouse developing cryptic crossword puzzles for local newspapers. We would receive two meals each day and a pig’s ear if we were cunning enough to develop a flirtatious relationship with one of the poodles. It was an incredibly dark period of time in my life and were it not for the friendships I established I would have no doubt gone insane, as many did.

In my first month at Beeston, I remained wilfully alone and would only converse with the other boys to loudly taunt them with my magnificent collection of pigs ears courtesy of a de-sexed-yet-incorrigible cocker-spoodle named Preston. But gradually, lonesomeness draped its heavy cape across my shoulders and the need for a meaningful conversation became overbearing. It was here that I became close friends with a pale, delicate young man named Joseph Darkfire, or Chief, as he proudly introduced himself.

“They call me Chief, short for Neckerchief. My mother once walked in on me masturbating into a neckerchief, so it sort of just stuck,” he explained, even though absolutely no one had suggested he do so, and a thousand false anecdotes would have sufficed.

As it happened, Joseph revealed himself a man to be almost flawed by honesty. So startling was his readiness to broadcast his each and every thought to anyone who cared to receive, even Director Spider considered his earnest nature undeserving of his chain and instead only subjected him to a light slapping upon the inner-thigh with a de-thorned rose stem. It was with pride that I assisted Joseph to funnel his natural gift of effortless articulation into the art of poetry, and he immediately began creating the most beautiful sonnets that provided a marvellous escape from reality for all the boys at Beeston.

Years later, I would carry a leaf of paper with Joseph’s adoring words scrawled upon it. It read:

Hark ringing bells, that toll to herald morning’s feast,

Come gather boys for roll, as called by vicious priest,

Leave tongues at loll, for food prepared by curlied beast,

And lay away those dreams of home, for now at least,

And lay away this gruel on which we live,

And lay away his chain with pain to give,

And lay away these hounds’ neglect of sieve,

And climb above this all and learn, forgive,

For sunrise kills each night we dread,

Though our brothers will lay around us yawning,

And never we must count our nearly dead,

As we promise to ourselves, ‘just one more morning’.

Joseph had written it for me following a fierce bout of food poisoning I had suffered following an epidemic surge of kennel cough in the Beeston kitchens, during which I would loudly announce my imminent death every fifteen-to-twenty minutes, and resultedly, foolishly liquidated my assets and donated them to an already-prospering chartered accountancy firm. The poem’s sweetness assisted in excreting the remainder of the offending instigators from my system.

There were diamonds among the rough as far as the Beeston staff were concerned. While most were bittered and angered by the sleep-loss and poor critical reception of their midnight choristry, there were some who offered lifelines to the boys. A particularly understanding night attendant named Dukey would bless us with access to the outside world so long as each temporary refugee would pilfer at least fifty pounds worth of goods from local retail outlets. These daring raids were committed to with such a delightful atmosphere of comradery and adventure by all that Dukey was not long able to purchase an island off the coast of Greece and retire. It was hard to hear precisely what he promised on the night he left, as his voice was troubled by the implant of a full upper row of newly implanted emerald teeth, but I assume he departed following an invite to all us boys to one day visit him on his paradisiacal getaway.

My first year at Beeston was relatively incident-free. I remained well-behaved and industrious enough to avoid any sort of scrutiny from the staff, and my initial reservedness was soon scuffed away, allowing me to establish a considerable circle of friends.

There was Joseph, of course, the young master of poetic literature, and then his bunk-mate, Ajak Chol, a dark-skinned hautboist from Mauritius who would serenade us with complicated oboe solos until someone mustered the decency to kick him in the ribs and tell him to fuck off. Making up the fourth of my tightest ensemble was a chap we called Whippet; a pastless fellow who chased the opposite gender with all the endeavour of a racing dog to a fake rabbit, and with the same success rate. 

Together, we labelled ourselves the Ramblers, and would stroll together in our twenty-minute ‘free-period’ between evening meal-time and our daily Morris Dancing lesson. 

One week we conspired to escape. Ajak had been silently tunnelling a way out of the orphanage compound at night, covering his work with a sultry four-by-four poster of Clementine Churchill so that the bikies wouldn’t notice. We planned our run for freedom during the night of the famous Nottingham Folk Festival, timing our footsteps with the clacking of sticks and the ringing of bells. Ajak was first to crawl through his hole and, once we discovered his excavational efforts redundant having being dug through to an adjoining dorm, we spun-kick the door until it was opened by an inquisitive ordley, who we overwhelmed with slaps to the head and additional spin-kicks to the groin. In a glorious tide of adrenaline, we stole the keys to the guard’s ‘hog’ and climbed the outside fence to freedom, racing off in the night against the waning drone of a shrill cantata of melodeons and accordions and totalitarian rhetoric. 

Following our ascension to freedom, we fared poorly. Our food reserves dried out by the following Monday and we quickly became cannibalistic and ate Whippet for a late night pudding. Ajak appeared disgusted by our inhumanity until he tasted a piece of the boy’s poached thigh lightly brushed in a brilliantly-sweet dark chocolate fudge sauce. Subsequently, he became enamoured with the taste of human flesh and departed our company to pursue a career in oncology. That left just Joseph and I, huddled against each other in the dark and wintry Nottinghamshire nights, cast away by society in a Godless existence, perched shivering within our makeshift encampment in the corner of a Salvation Army soup kitchen with irritatingly long queues. 

After a week, Joseph became fevered and ghostly-white. His trembling became not-that of the cold, but of the frenzied symptoms of a kind of chemical affliction. His sleep became filled with ghoulish moanings and twistings and turnings, and each night would a haze of his cold sweat dampen the canvas of our quarters. I would later learn that the bikies had been lacing our mac & cheese dinners with opium – all part of a dastardly plan to numb our memories, affect our artistic interpretations and sell watercolours and pop lyrics to a black-market of slave art –  and that this sickness was withdrawal, but at the time succeeding our liberty, I took these convulsions to indicate Joseph’s imminent death.

When I abandoned Joseph’s frailty just five days from our escape and helplessly returned to the only refuge I knew, Beeston’s haunting arches glared over me as a soulless eclipse. I trudged through its steel gates and dragged myself to the tattooed feet of Spider, who was still ‘coming down’ from something he’d ingested at the festival. He spared me his whip and instead gathered the more effete Sopranos from the gang’s ranks, and as one they struck me with something more bracing than a mere chain.

“Your father is up for parole,” they sung, over and over again, in an off-pitch, screeching falsetto for roughly an hour.

I was aghast. Could it be happening? Could I finally be free? I closed my eyes and willed myself away from the horrendous noise and dreamed of my father.

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