From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.
Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.
Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.
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David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated from the Japanese the internationally bestselling memoir The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.
From the Hardcover edition.
Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d rung twenty-five
times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it’s a matter of
life or death. Don’t they? Dad’s got an answering machine like James Garner’s
in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he’s stopped leaving it
switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn’t hear it up
in her converted attic ’cause “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League was
thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn’t hear ’cause the washing
machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty
rings. That’s just not normal. S’pose Dad’d been mangled by a juggernaut on
the M5 and the police only had this office number ’cause all his other I.D.’d
got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in
the terminal ward.
So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard’s chamber after
being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dad’s office
smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so
it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. There’s a serious clock on the
wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school.
There’s a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional
sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not
Greenland the country.) Dad’s IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands
of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phone’s red like a nuclear hotline and
it’s got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones.
So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our
number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.
But the person on the other end didn’t answer.
"Hello?” I said. “Hello?”
They breathed in like they’d cut themselves on paper.
“Can you hear me? I can’t hear you.”
Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.
“If you can hear me”—I remembered a Children’s Film Foundation film
where this happened—“tap the phone, once.”
There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.
“You might have the wrong number,” I said, wondering.
A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.
When people listen they make a listening noise.
I’d heard it, so they’d heard me.
“May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief.” Miss
Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. ’Cause I’d sort of had a reason to
have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dad’s razor-sharp
blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the
Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of
sticking snow, worse luck. Dad’s swivelly chair’s a lot like the Millennium
Falcon’s laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming
over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and
Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages
and blackened wings. I’d shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as
they pressed their ejector seats. Our marines’ll mop them up. I’d refuse all
medals. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I’d tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
when Mum invited them in, “I was just doing my job.”
Dad’s got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils
sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencils’re sharpest, they’re Dad’s
faves. I prefer 2Bs.
The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked I’d left no
other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it
was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.
Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluff’s getting thicker, mind. “You’ll
never guess what!”
“You know the lake in the woods?”
“What about it?”
“It’s only”—Moron checked that we weren’t being overheard—“gone and
froze solid! Half the kids in the village’re there, right now. Ace doss or what?”
“Jason!” Mum appeared from the kitchen. “You’re letting the cold in!
Either invite Dean in side—hel lo Dean—or shut the door.”
“Um . . . just going out for a bit, Mum.”
“ Um . . . where?”
“Just for some healthy fresh air.”
That was a strategic mistake. “What are you up to?”
I wanted to say “Nothing” but Hangman decided not to let me. “Why
would I be up to anything?” I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel
“What’s your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?”
I still couldn’t say “Nothing.” (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as
a hard-knock. Adults can’t be expected to understand.) “My duffel’s a bit
warmer, that’s all. It’s parky out.”
“Lunch is one o’clock sharp.” Mum went back to changing the Hoover
bag. “Dad’s coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your head’ll freeze.”
Woolly hats’re gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.
“Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor,” said Moron.
“Good-bye, Dean,” said Mum.
Mum’s never liked Moron.
Moron’s my height and he’s okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears
ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage
that pongs of gravy too. His real name’s Dean Moran (rhymes with “warren”)
but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him “Moron” in our first
week and it’s stuck. I call him “Dean” if we’re on our own but name’s aren’t
just names. Kids who’re really popular get called by their first names, so Nick
Yew’s always just “Nick.” Kids who’re a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have
sort of respectful nicknames like “Yardy.” Next down are kids like me who call
each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like
Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, who’s Knickerless Bra. It’s all ranks, being a
boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just “Swinyard,” he’d kick my
face in. Or if I called Moron “Dean” in front of everyone, it’d damage my
own standing. So you’ve got to watch out.
Girls don’t do this so much, ’cept for Dawn Madden, who’s a boy gone
wrong in some experiment. Girls don’t scrap so much as boys either. (That said,
just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard
started yelling “Bitch!” and “Slag!” in the bus queues after school. Punching
tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish I’d been born a girl,
sometimes. They’re generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that
out loud I’d get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to
Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if
they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish
Magazine, was me, they’d gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with
blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.
So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the
Scalectrix he’d got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and
nearly wiped out his entire family. “Yeah, sure,” I said. But Moron swore it on
his nan’s grave. So I told him he should write to That’s Life on BBC and get
Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron
thought that might be difficult ’cause his dad’d bought it off a Brummie at
Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didn’t dare ask what a “Brummie”
was in case it’s the same as “bummer” or “bumboy,” which means homo.
“Yeah,” I said, “see what you mean.” Moron asked me what I’d got for Christmas.
I’d actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but
books’re gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which I’d got from Uncle
Brian and Aunt Alice. It’s a board game you win by getting your little car to
the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the
crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished I’d rubbed
ointment into my lips ’cause they get chapped when it’s this cold.
Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. “Last one
to the lake’s a spaz!” yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off
he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust
Moran. “I think I might’ve got a concussion,” he said.
“Concussion’s if you hit your head. Unless your brain’s up your arse.”
What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.
The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in
Fox’s Glacier Mints. Neal Brose had proper Olympic ice skates he hired out
for 5p a go, though Pete Redmarley was allowed to use them for free so other
kids’d see him speed-skating around and want a go too. Just staying up on the
ice is hard enough. I fell over loads before I got the knack of sliding in my
trainers. Ross Wilcox turned up with his cousin Gary Drake and Dawn Mad-
den. All three’re pretty good skaters. Drake and Wilcox’re taller than me too
now. (They’d cut the fingers off of their gloves to show the scars they’d got
playing Scabby Queen. Mum’d murder me.) Squelch sat on the humpy island
in the middle of the lake where the ducks normally live, shouting, “ Arse
over tit! Arse over tit!” at whoever fell over. Squelch’s funny in the head ’cause
he was born too early, so nobody ever thumps him one. Not hard, anyway.
Grant Burch rode his servant Philip Phelps’s Raleigh Chopper actually on
the ice. He kept his balance for a few seconds, but when he pulled a wheelie
the bike went flying. After it landed it looked like Uri Geller’d tortured it to
death. Phelps grinned sickly. Bet he was wondering what he’d tell his dad.
Then Pete Redmarley and Grant Burch decided the frozen lake’d be perfect
for British Bulldogs. Nick Yew said, “Okay, I’m on for that,” so it was decided.
I hate British Bulldogs. When Miss Throckmorton banned it at our primary
school after Lee Biggs lost three teeth playing it, I was dead relieved. But this
morning any kid who denied loving British Bulldogs’d’ve looked a total
ponce. Specially kids from up Kingfisher Meadows like me.
About twenty or twenty-five of us boys, plus Dawn Madden, stood in a
bunch to be picked like slaves in a slave market. Grant Burch and Nick Yew
were joint captains of one team. Pete Redmarley and Gilbert Swinyard were
the captains of the other. Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake both got picked before
me by Pete Redmarley, but I got picked by Grant Burch on the sixth pass,
which wasn’t embarrassingly late. Moron and Squelch were the last two left.
Grant Burch and Pete Redmarley joked, “No, you can have ’em both, we
want to win!” and Moron and Squelch had to laugh like they thought it was
funny too. Maybe Squelch really did. (Moron didn’t. When everyone looked
away, he had the same face as that time after we all told him we were playing
Hide-and-Seek and sent him off to hide. It took an hour for him to work out
nobody was looking for him.) Nick Yew won the toss so us lot were the Runners
first and Pete Redmarley’s team were the Bulldogs. Unimportant kids’
coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and
to defend. Girls, apart from Dawn Madden, and the littl’uns were cleared off
the ice. Redmarley’s Bulldogs formed a pack in the middle and us Runners
slid to our starting goal. My heart was drumming now. Bulldogs and Runners
crouched like sprinters. The captains led the chant.
“British Bulldogs! One two three!”
Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose)
just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. This’d
tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners. (Bulldogs
have to pin down both shoulders of Runners onto the ice for long
enough to shout “British Bulldogs one two three.”) With luck, my strategy’d
clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goalposts. My plan
worked pretty well at first. The Tookey brothers and Gary Drake all crashed
into Nick Yew. A flying leg kicked my shin but I got past them without coming
a cropper. But then Ross Wilcox came homing in on me. I tried to wriggle
past but Wilcox got a firm grip on my wrist and tried to pull me down. But
instead of trying to struggle free I got a firmer grip on his wrist and flung him
off me, straight into Ant Little and Darren Croome. Ace in the face or what?
Games and sports aren’t about taking part or even about winning. Games and
sports’re really about humiliating your enemies. Lee Biggs tried a poxy rugby
tackle on me but I shook him free no sweat. He’s too worried about the teeth
he’s got left to be a decent Bulldog. I was the fourth Runner home. Grant
Burch shouted, “Nice work Jacey-boy!” Nick Yew’d fought free of the Tookeys
and Gary Drake and got home too. About a third of the Runners got captured
and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs.
It forces you to be a traitor.
So anyway, we all chanted, “British Bulldogs one two THREE!” and
charged like last time but this time I had no chance. Ross Wilcox and Gary
Drake and Dawn Madden targeted me from the start. No matter how I tried
to dodge through the fray it was hopeless. I hadn’t got halfway across the lake
before they got me. Ross Wilcox went for my legs, Gary Drake toppled me,
and Dawn Madden sat on my chest and pinned my shoulders down with her
knees. I just lay there and let them convert me into a Bulldog. In my heart I’d
always be a Runner. Gary Drake gave me a dead leg, which might or might
not’ve been on purpose. Dawn Madden’s got cruel eyes like a Chinese empress
and sometimes one glimpse at school makes me think about her all day.
Ross Wilcox jumped up and punched the air like he’d scored at Old Trafford.
The spazzo. “Yeah, yeah, Wilcox,” I said, “three against one, well done.”
Wilcox flashed me a V-sign and slid off for another battle. Grant Burch and
Nick Yew came windmilling at a thick pocket of Bulldogs and half of them
Then Gilbert Swinyard yelled at the top of his lungs, “ PIIIIIILEONNNNNN!”
That was the signal for every Runner and every Bulldog on
the lake to throw themselves onto a wriggling, groaning, growing pyramid of
kids. The game itself was sort of forgotten. I held back, pretending to limp a
bit from my dead leg. Then we heard the sound of a chain saw in the woods,
flying down the track, straight toward us.
The chain saw wasn’t a chain saw. It was Tom Yew on his purple Suzuki
150cc scrambler. Pluto Noak was clinging to the back, without a helmet.
British Bulldogs was aborted ’cause Tom Yew’s a minor legend in Black
Swan Green. Tom Yew serves...
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