Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Making Friends with Michael Smout

 *

The birthday parties were an exchange between our mothers: a suburban pact, possibly never spoken, but certain nonetheless.  I had little, I suspected, in common with Malcolm. Naturally, I felt a certain kinship with any other boy who was weak of frame but, he was distracted, too soft, and ill constructed with thin legs and thin straight hair while I was merely small. 

And there was a current of aggression in the boys I usually played with: a tendency to destructiveness that I found charismatic, represented better in Graeme MacDonald's pugnaciousness and in Julian Dyer with his mad mass of blond hair and extraordinary collection of firearms (he shot Jonathan Rust in the leg, thus two weeks sentenced to a fortnight’s  nightly reflection in his bedroom in Deeside Gardens: we loved and admired him for this, though the shooting was surely accidental).

Michael Smout lived in one of those low suburban houses, coddled together like woodlice, pewter silver in sun-rain combinations, a dull violet most days. They’re a weird contrast to the august Georgian and Victorian that characterises central Aberdeen:  they sprall over Aberdeen’s wide hills, covering vast areas, but never really seem to add much to the city, they just lie there, mute, guarding  their tiny gardens.

His mother, avian, sweet, a friendly sparrow, so like my own mother, with that energy that small women sometimes possess; organising wonderful birthday parties in their densely carpeted front room with a game where you sang, “there was an old man called Michael Finnegan”, in a round over and over and another where each sat on the knee of the one behind, forming a sort of centipede, then laughing would topple over. I recall that game and its physicality, how the children became a squirming mass, too close, almost squalid, the smell of other skin.

But I could feel that it incumbent upon me to call alone, to cement the nascent friendship.  I can’t recall if that was because my mother said something: most probably there was more than a hint. But I made somehow the determination to visit Michael Smout. 

It was all arranged by the mothers.

Going up there, pollarded Elms remaining despite the British Elm holocaust,  twisted darked trunks, wiry, feeling that  the air up there on Countesswells road is damper,  windier too, no more sheltered by high granite walls  and soft green privet hedges, seeing the beginnings of muddy ploughed fields.

I arrived: Michael said, “let’s go upstairs”: he led me to a wooden stair rising from the narrow hall. He climbed; I followed to an attic, dark: inside was a dangling  bulb : he lit it and I saw the room with its low sloping ceiling, even for a boy of nine, too low to walk comfortably. There were coloured boxes of toys, a fair collection then piles of clothes, disorder, dampness. I had a stray sense of squalor, that something was not right. But I was determined to make the best of the play date.

While my Quaker mother forbade war toys and anything that might encourage my bellicose boy instincts, Michael’s mother was lax , or too kind to be severe and it transpired that Michael had a fine collection of Dinky tanks. These included, to my patriotic horror, models of German panzers: a horrific presence, symbols of evil.  Their cannons held little springs, and you could fire matchsticks from them. We sat on the floor, spread them out, we fired the matchsticks.

The floor was dusty and uncomfortable but I tried to respond creatively to Michael’s hospitality, diligently firing the cannon and trying to demolish his plastic legions of Airfics infantrymen. Some time passed like that, but Michael became restless. He decided to take off his trousers: he was wearing brown polyester underpants. I chose to concentrate on firing the panzer cannons. We continued to play with the toys. Then he stood up again and went to the far corner of the attic, where he took a plastic bucket. “Look, we can use this”, he said. “Oh”, I said. Then Michael placed the bucket on the floor, pulled down his brown underpants, sat on the bucket and proceeded to excrete.

The smell of Michael’s turd was not pleasant. Indeed, it disgusted me: I had never perceived that shit was so foul: my stomach wretched.
*

I cannot remember now exactly how the visit ended : I suppose I made my excuses and left. Perhaps Michael had intended the act of excreting publicly as a gesture of fellowship, a sharing of intimacies: if so it was a miscalculation, for it had the opposite effect.

I did not mention the incident to my mother.

*

This is a true story, but the name Michael Smout is made up.

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