“Don’t forget to polish the oji, Zak.” Elaine Flaherty looked up from her computer. “We don’t want to upset the Iroko man!” Elaine smiled and turned back to her thesis. Jerry was in the greenhouse.
“OK, mum.” Zak sighed and wandered through the kitchen into the garden, plucking the can of cumaru oil and a rag from the shelf. The waves in the bay plashed gently as Zak mounted the steps on to the lawn. The crimson block of oji wood glimmered in the afternoon sun on its granite plinth. Zak knelt down beside it. If he really stretched his arms he could just reach the furthest edge. Zak lay his head on the surface and imbibed the sweet scent of cinnamon and saffron, and marvelled at the textured architecture of the grain. He breathed deeply and eased his body on to the plane, his arms gripping the ends of the slab. Could he feel movement, a perceptible breathing and motion within the sacred tree, the soft beating of a pulse?
Zak turned his head and squinted up at the sun. He closed his eyes again and lay, arms and legs akimbo, feeling the planet’s slow turn and rotation, and sensing the new moon travelling as a satellite in the constellation, and the stirring of animals and insects and birds around him. The eclipse. It was happening, shifting, moving. Zak could sense his body stretching and growing and regenerating. How come he knew this but no one else seemed to? Izzy knew. That’s why she Instagrammed him. She knew and wanted to be with him. Zak listened to the ocean, bathed in light, feeling the energy on his hands and face. It was time.
* * *
Zak had persuaded his reluctant father to rescue the square slab of iroko oji from the sea. Its dense flesh was blood red. As they were dragging it from the water and the waves crashed about them, Zak felt the sea surge and thunder of the African shore. The wood block – big as a treasure chest – was hauled back to their modest seaside bungalow by a tractor. Dad had mounted it on a granite slab and gave it pride of place in the garden. One of Zak’s chores was to stroke cumaru oil into its smooth surface; he could see his reflection in the sheen. On one side, there were several long slits in the wood skin.
“Dad,” said Zak, as his father slumped into the armchair feeling his back. “Can I keep it in my room?”
Jerry grinned painfully and shook his head. “That wood is centuries old. People used to believe there’s a spirit in the tree. It’s a good spirit, but you must not look it in the face.” He winked at Elaine. “So we’ll keep it in the garden.”
Jerry and Elaine worried about Zak. “Don’t you want to play football with the village lads, Zak?” Or “Alice is having a sleepover. You like her don’t you?” And Zak would pull a face and take a reluctant Dixey – the family’s somnolent black Labrador – for yet another walk. “He’s seeing too much of Miss B,” said Elaine.
“Oh, she’s harmless,” said Jerry. “Just a bit eccentric, that’s all.”
“Eccentric! She’s as mad as….” Said Elaine. “Playing Wagner all day, and those weird paintings of ghosts and spooks and angels and stuff. She keeps talking to him about magic and the stars and all that rubbish. And Zak just laps it up!” she snapped.
Jerry sighed. “Well, she is your aunt.”
“I just wish he’d join in, that’s all. He’s ten years old. Do what other boys do.”
“Look, Zak has a world in his head he likes exploring. And he loves music. And he misses Izzy.”
“That can’t be helped. Why don’t you take him to watch some football? Or rugby. Go to a match?”
“I’ve tried that. He kept asking me when it was going to finish, and why they were all wearing stupid shorts. Mind you, he did scoff a Big Beast Double Cheeseburger with Fries on the way back. ”
“Miss Prism, his tutor, is worried about him. Doesn’t go in the playground. She says he sits on his own and reads or sketches all day. He can’t – or won’t – do Maths. Just draws and writes mad stories. Other kids think he’s weird.” Elaine turned and faced Jerry. “I think there’s something wrong. He’s got As…Asp…that thing.”
“Asperger’s. Look. He’s different.”
“Where is he now?”
“Out with Dixey, I think. Poor old dog.”
“He’s taken his phone and that leftover sausage.”
Jerry smiled. “Did he indeed. Well, I don’t rate Dixey’s chances of getting the sausage. Look. I’ll go and find him.”
“I’ll come with you, said Elaine. “We’ve got to get this sorted. Where will he have gone?”
“That’s easy. Mount Folly. He said today would be an eclipse and full moon at twilight. He’s probably up there doing a howling duet with Dixey.”
* * *
The tide had retreated so far out. As Zak slowly ascended Mount Folly, each time he turned to look, the ocean – kissed by the sun’s western fire – had drawn back further as in awe of the emerald coast. The shoreline was left stripped bare, sand sucked out to sea, and the beach festooned with rocks and, Zak imagined, debris from sunken ships. At daybreak, Zak had roused Dixey and they had explored below the beachline; he had peered down through the sliding wavelets and glimpsed ancient timbers, embedded in the seafloor, and dark beds of peat that underlay the old marshland. Now as twilight descended, he and Dixey climbed the grassy track that ran along the edge of the vast fields that swept up to the crest of the mount. Evening mists formed above the Avon river; a full moon, ghost-white, slid into the eastern sky. As he walked, Zak clutched the silver sun and moon Zodiac pendant – a gift from Miss B, Zak’s cheerfully eccentric aunt. He held it up to catch the sun’s dying rays.
For Zak, this vivid day had brought an energy and excitement for change that he could see around him but seemed invisible to his bewildered parents. Jerry and Elaine would stare fondly at his freckled animated schoolboy face over breakfast, and wonder at his collections of coloured glass, exotic stones and pebbles harvested from the beach that he would arrange in bewildering rows and patterns. Some he would give names to. Or he would come stumbling up from the seashore, dragging a gnarled tree-branch, and sit cross-legged in the garden talking with the silent timber about how it floated from the heart of darkest Africa, or fallen from a whaling ship, or had been lifted by a storm into the sky before plunging like an arrow into the depths of the ocean.
Zak knew mum and dad fretted about him not liking football. Enjoying his own company. What was wrong with that? It wasn’t normal. And other kids didn’t get it. Only Izzy got it. And she wasn’t here. Yet she was. Izzy had gone to a place far away, and she had taken with her a portion of Zak’s young heart. He looked at his phone again. That same cheeky grin and smile, the flick of blonde hair. Was this ‘love’? Was this what it was all about? But love meant you had to live with someone for ever. Zak doubted he could do that with Izzy. Anyway, she liked horses. She watched that soppy programme Heavenland, about girls and ponies and boys, with that deep-voiced American dad with a droopy moustache, and that dim granny baking cookies all day, and barmy panting wolfhounds with cowboy hats.
Izzy’s mischievous face and blonde curls peered up from Zak’s phone as he walked. He sighed, dragging down his woolly hat over his ears as the chill north wind cut across the fields. On, on he walked, past the long dry stone wall that traversed the hillside, as Dixey loped and sniffed among the lines of turnips; there were hundreds – purple orbs topped by nodding clusters of leafy stems, quivering, and swaying like the disorderly tresses of ragdolls. Zak half closed his eyes and saw the pleading multitude, the mad waving and trembling of limbs and hands, all reaching skyward. So many. So many. Zak always wondered how it would be possible for all these crops to be gathered. And yet he saw it every year. He had watched as one of the farm workers bent low and sliced a knife under a turnip. He then stood upright in the sun, chopping the leaf stalks, and nicking the side shoots from the purple globe. He had turned to Zak and said, “That’s a good’un. You ’ave it, sunshine!”
The field swept on and up. Zak raised his eyes against the wind. There was a wide gap in the hedge, and it drew Zak’s stare to the next field and beyond. On and on, the nodding lines of crops. Incredible. Life rising from the earth. He turned back to the island. That too seemed to be drifting, sliding imperceptibly from the land, as a spacecraft undocking from the mothership.
Zak strode on towards the hill’s summit. A muddy farm track veered through an open gate. Finger posts marked an intersection of footpaths and bridleways. Zak imagined himself at the top of the world, having to choose between these ragged routes or to float weightlessly into the sapphire-starred canopy of space. He knew instinctively, there would be a time to do that. But not now.
He was pondering the choice of routes when his phone pinged, and Izzy’s smiling face appeared on the screen. Zak flipped open the video message.
“How are yer, lazy dude!” said Izzy beaming. “What yer doing, daft boy?”
“Hi Izzy,” Zak gasped. “I’m standing on Mount Folly.”
“Cool,” grinned Izzy. “I gotta go to school, but I ain’t gonna. I got a much better idea, bro’ Zak. Let’s dance like we used ta!”
“Dance?” said Zak, as Izzy turned her phone towards the TV. He saw her hand reach for the volume control. “Hey, let’s get down to these dudes. C’mon.” A rock band was at full throttle, the guitarist’s flowing locks bobbing to the licks and riffs as the drummer laced and thrashed the drum set. “Tsh, tsh, tsh, boom, boom, funf, friggin’ boom!” shouted Izzy into the phone. “Rock it Zak, and we don’t fuckin’ care. Let me see yer!”
“Erm, yeah….erm!” Zak looked about him uncertainly and was rewarded only by a baffled look from Dixey.
“C’mon Zak, you don’t dance, you don’t love me, and you don’t really give a shit! Boom! Boom! Get that dumb dog to shake his hairy ass with these dudes. “Boompf! Boompf! Tish, Tish, Tish, Rock! It!”
And Zak suddenly felt his hips snaking, his shoulders gyrate. He mounted the phone on the gatepost as Izzy’s laughing face rotated across the screen. “C’mon, Zak! Tush, tush! Boompf! Boompf. Boompf! Boompf!”
Dixey wasn’t the most exciting dancing partner, but Zak grabbed his front paws, and they managed a turn or two, as Dixey tottered on his hind legs and barked. But Zak had suddenly gone full on Jackson, Astaire, Swayze with a soupcon of Ninja. Boom, Zak drop-kicked a fence-post, rattling the barbed wire; a flock of Marino sheep instantly scattered. “Say it, Zak!” As Zak swooped and swirled and whirled, high-kicking the footpath post that shivered and promptly shed some of its digits. “Say it, say it, Zak!” By now, Zak had gone full Madonna and was sliding his back up and down the wooden paling, as Izzy urged him on. Finally, he stood in front of the phone and rocked for all he was worth. For him, Izzy was audience enough as he pranced and paraded and sashayed and posed and snarled and postured and thrust and strutted his goddam stuff. Even Dixey rose to the occasion, barking and cavorting chaotically.
* * *
Jerry and Elaine peeped fearfully above the dry stone wall.
“That’s our son out there,” said Elaine. “With a hornet’s nest in his pants.”
“And he doesn‘t give a flying fuck apparently!” Jerry grinned at Elaine.
“Up here, hopefully, nobody else does.”
“The sheep weren’t impressed. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of his book?”
“What? Not give a flying fuck either?”
“Come on. Let’s get back. Don’t want him to see us.” They scuttled back across the field and disappeared through the gate.
* * *
Zak wandered disconsolately from the field past the dry stone wall, through the swing gate and gazed out over the bay. The receding tide had drained his energy and spirit and left him feeling empty and abandoned. Without Izzy, he felt completely alone; a terrible and frightening space remained within his heart. The last embers of the sunset lay like a rim of fire on the horizon. The Eddystone lighthouse blinked. Zak felt the urge to go, to run, to disappear among the flowing limbs of these gentle enfolding hills and valleys. To be gone. To discover a place that was the centre of himself. His world made flesh. That cottage of the soul where he could be truly who he was and not trouble or frustrate or bewilder anyone.
He returned to the warm glow of light from his home. Smoke spiralled up from the chimney in the moonlight, and the vegetable patch lay still and white, dad’s garden fork plunged upright in the soil among the innocent winter brassicas and artichokes. Two bean sticks had been tied together in a cross and leaned at a drunken angle. Zak thought of his Tarot pack and the Hanged Man. But there was home. The backdoor opened, flinging a shaft of light across the grass. Mum was standing motionless. “Are you there, Zak?”
“Yes, mum.” Zak walked down the path.
Dixey scampered through the back door, gulped from his bowl, and flopped in his bed, Zak hung up his coat and hat and slipped off his boots and walked through to the kitchen. Mum and dad were sitting at the simple wooden table – she had laid the purple and gold tablecloth that Zak had made for her birthday. Zak’s dad lit the tealights and dimmed the pendant. “Dad’s made your favourite Zak.” The odour of bacon, eggs and mustard was already warming him. Jerry bent down to open the oven.
“We know this is a special day, Zak.” Cradling the terracotta pie dish as an infant, he placed it in the centre of the table on a wooden mat. “We thought you’d like this,” he beamed. The heads of sardines poked through the golden pie-crust.
“Stargazy pie! Wow! Thanks, Dad.” Zak wrapped his arms round his father and clung to him. Mum joined them and hugged each other. Zak sobbed gently. “Thank you, so much. I love you.”
“No,” said Mum. “Thank you, Zak.”
“Yes, Zak,” said Dad. “We get it now. We get everything.” They held each other, as saplings clinging together in a breeze, swaying gently.
If anyone had passed the Flaherty’s bungalow that evening, they may have noticed the boom-boom of rock music, the much amplified voice of a young girl and swirl of disco lights through the beige curtains.
Dixey was dancing.
* * *
After his career as a teacher and school leader, John Simes founded Collingwood Learning – a consultancy for school improvement and international education. In 2013 he established Collingwood Publishing Limited. John lives with his family in South Devon, England, where he grapples with his addictions to cricket, literature, the stunning local landscape, and his continuing enthusiasm for education. A Game of Chess is his second novel and is the sequel to The Dream Factory – published by Matador.
Stargazy Pie is from John’s first collection of short stories – The Upperthong Thunderbolt – to be published in October 2021.
“This potpourri of stories is inspired by all the amazing people I have known and taught. I love writing comedy, stories about the supernatural, stories about important life issues, thrillers, romances; about our progress as we walk the jagged pathway of living through Covid and these turbulent times. Readers of The Dream Factory and A Game of Chess will recognise some of the characters – Reverend Thomas, Miss B, Yvonne and, of course, Peter and Navinda, and the village of Ringmore (aka Dingwell!). I am fascinated by the transformational power of human love, our need to believe in something outside of ourselves, and our desire to be something more remarkable than we can be – perhaps? In these stories, you will find your many selves! Enjoy the whole crazy ride.”
John also edited and published the collection of poetry by Laurence McPartlin ‘Wake the Stars’ (Collingwood 2019). You can find out more about John at www.johnsimes.co.uk or www.visitthedreamfactory.com or:
follow him on Twitter: @johnthepoet2010
Books by John Simes
The Dream Factory Trilogy: The Dream Factory (2017)
Matador A Game of Chess (2018)
Collingwood/KDP The Island (2021) Collingwood
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