I’ve got to say that The Association of Ideas are a pushy bunch. They’ve been on my case all week; worse than the tax man, one of their Reps just hanging around, loitering, while I’ve been trying to work – “have you written anything yet?”
“No, I’ve made some notes…”
To which they raised their eyebrows and sighed.
“Look, I’m exploring whether one-dimensional characters can ever be truly justified and useful
in a plot.”
My proposal fell upon indifferent ears. The Rep merely reacted by taking out a certain photograph from the back of a memory box and chuckled quietly to himself.
“Is that the picture of a ten-year-old me after I accidentally gave myself a medieval haircut?” I said, annoyed and knowing the answer.
But then I started to have severe doubts. You see, the 1970s was a different world: there wasn’t enough cyan in the photographs, foreign goods were exotic and the high street cut a different landscape before the penchant for double and triple dip recessions. Britain was grey and poor; it was neo-Dickensian, only with flares, long hair and glitter. That is, long hair for some of us. Before the alleged accident.
I had woken up with a chill about my neck – it had started last night just before bed, by me trimming stray hair flicks with nail scissors and soon had developed into a full-on attack with the biggest scissors I could find, probably pinking shears.
It was true: kids should never be left unsupervised with scissors as the bathroom mirror of harsh reality attested – the lobotomy look would not, and probably should not, catch on. I realised that no one could see me like this, I had to get my hair fixed and the only place open this early in the morning was the barbers at the back of the sweet shop*
(*sweet shop: an independent retailer of sugar-based treats, now condensed into a few shelves around the supermarket checkout.)
So I left under the cover of darkness before the teasmaid had boiled its brew and my parents had had a chance to stir. I had no cloak of invisibility, nor anything resembling a ‘hoodie’; the nearest coverall to hand (in those days) was the trusty old blue quilted anorak. I pulled the hood over my head, drew the cords and ran through the glowing sodium-yellow streets, my breath hanging in huge nervous clouds of vapour. I couldn’t go back now.
A gang of street urchins hung around the coral reef of litter outside the sweet shop which housed the barbers at the back. But why were they waiting? This had been my greatest fear: the gang represented some semblance of a queue when clearly my need was greatest. Dilemma: go to school with this haircut and be placed in the insane wing or wait in line with these guys? They would never let me skip to the front, especially when none of them went to my school – instead they’d hate me and beat me up. It was a chance I’d have to take. I pulled the cords of my anorak hood tight to leave only a fleshy disc of face exposed and attempted to blend in unnoticed as I tried the sweet shop door handle.
“Oi! Spaceman! What’chu want?” said the biggest, eldest urchin as he slowly swaggered
up to me.
“Depends,” I said coolly. I had heard it was always better to keep a line of negotiation open than to be confrontational in these circumstances, which in this case were that although the barbers at the back of the shop was clearly open, the sweet shop was firmly locked.
“I’m Ruben Hood, they call me the Paper Boy; if you want anything – you see me. I’m the only one delivering round here.”
I didn’t need anything other than a proper haircut but I couldn’t let the Paper Boy know that, so I nodded slowly with narrowed, half-open eyes, an expression which I’d seen in a Clint Eastwood film. And I continued to rattle the door handle in the hope of attracting the barber’s attention.
“Hit the early-morning blood-sugar low, have we? You’re amongst friends here.” The Paper Boy folded an arm around my shoulders, led me from the door and with a sweep of his free hand introduced the spottiest bunch of ill-looking urchin kids you could imagine. “Society thinks we’re broken, they’ve cut us loose which is why we drift; the only school we go to is Sucrose High -
just because we act differently doesn’t mean our brains are addled.”
One of the short kids leaped out from the gang.
“Luv a duck,” he blurted in my face.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Luv a duck,” Ruben repeated.
“He’s a Cockney geezer, ain’t he.”
“He’s too young to be a geezer.”
“He’s an apprentice, working your way up the social ladder, ain’tcha?”
“Luv a duck,” said the short kid.
“Why does he keep on saying that?” I asked.
“He only started today,” said Ruben.
“He’s a bit annoying for a character, isn’t he?” I proposed, realising I’d just dashed all the kid’s hopes for a better future.
Ruben Hood studied my face.
“He’s got as much right to exist as you or I. Who d’you think you are? Royalty?”
When in doubt, deflect attention to an inanimate object – I rattled the sweet shop door handle again. “Shouldn’t the shop be open now?” I asked with more than a hint of nerves.
Paper Boy Ruben tightened his hold around my shoulders. “You’re not one of us, are you? You don’t look like you need a sugar hit. What are you really here for?”
But my words were cut mid-sentence – I felt a sharp tug at my head as my hood was pulled back to reveal the self-inflicted medieval pudding bowl haircut. All the kids dropped to the floor.
“Gawd blimey. It’s Richard the III. My liege, forgive me,” pleaded Ruben.
“No, you’ve got this all wrong – I’m not a king, this was all a big mistake,” I said pointing to the thatch on my head.
“Give us your dinner money then, rich boy,” demanded Ruben Hood, standing up.
“I’m not rich. I can’t even afford a decent haircut. Which is why I’m here.”
“Oh, don’t tell me they got you on the Prince and Pauper exchange scheme,” groaned Ruben.
“No, it’s nothing like that.”
“Richard the third,” exclaimed one of the knock-kneed Cockneys, “You’re a shit.”
All the boys started laughing. I didn’t understand why. “What’s so funny..? Apart from the haircut?”
“He said you’re a shit…” explained Paper Boy, “…in cockney rhyming slang:
Richard the third = turd.”
“Well, I’m not and I’m not Richard the III either. I just need a proper haircut.” The urchins had rattled me and I now rattled the sweet shop door handle, taking out my frustration. “Why isn’t this stupid shop open?”
“Can’t you get Merlin to magic the door open?” asked one of the urchins.
“That’s historically inaccurate. All of this is historically inaccurate – Street Urchins? Richard the III? Merlin? And who ever heard of Ruben Hood? This story is badly researched and sprawling.”
“Luv a duck,” repeated the short kid apprentice Cockney.
“And what use is he?” I snapped. “In fact, what use are any of you? You’re not fleshed-out characters, you’re mere cyphers, one dimensional.”
Ruben responded, “Listen mate, just because you have the benefit of a good education, doesn’t make you…” bearing in mind my accusation, Ruben then struggled to find an historically and socially accurate character to liken me to. “Well, smart-arse, what I’m saying is that you’d be no good stranded on a desert island – you’d need dates to eat, not dates to remember.”
It had reached that point in the situation where the war of words was drifting onto clenched-fist territory and the bumping together of shoulders.
The mumblings of ‘fight, fight, fight,’ took rhythm amongst the urchin gang.
Ruben and I circled each other, growling.
“You can’t call us one-dimensional characters, we made this story, without us you’d just be left trying to explain a stupid haircut you once had.”
“But I’m trying to say there’s no place for badly-sketched characters in literature these days…”
“Literature!? You call this literature?”
“Watch it! I’m a writer, I’m sensitive to criticism, I won’t be held responsible for my actions
if you continue.”
“How can I stop? You’re the one putting the words in my mouth, you’re the one who created this shallow personality for me to inhabit.”
“I told you at the start: I’m exploring whether one-dimensional characters can ever be truly justified and useful in a plot.”
“And can they?” Ruben demanded to know.
“Boys, boys!” said Mr Snip, the barber. “I seemed to have locked myself inside the shop. Please stop fighting and help get me out.”
“CAN THEY?” Ruben screamed in my ear.
* * *
So as I sit here in the insane wing at school, the teachers discuss my future.
“The Association of Ideas say he’ll never make it as writer.”
“I think he’s good for politics, man of the people, could be cabinet material.”
“Even PM: natural born leader, the way he handled those ragamuffin kids.”
“Absolutely… although, do we know why he was trying to shove that paper boy through the letterbox of the sweetshop?”