The Unfinished Boy

(An extract from The Quiet Man by John Foxx)

Swift transition of time and place…
Hotel room overlooking an old churchyard in Preston, Lancashire… Early morning… A cold bright day in November.

I put on my coat and go out into an alleyway beside the high stone walls of the churchyard. Fallen leaves over the cobbles. Sudden noise of a busy main street. Cross the crowded marketplace, through a grim new shopping centre then out into the industrial side of town.
Here the streets become increasingly dingy. Damp red brick terraced houses, small brown pubs and corner shops displaying soft drinks and plastic toys in the windows. Worn flagstones with black dirt and velvety green moss between them. Smell of coal smoke and fried fish.

I go down a particular alleyway into a large, derelict courtyard. In summer, all this is overgrown by purple loostrife. Now the tall stems are dried and skeletal. Broken glass glints among the cobblestones. On the far side of the yard is a solidly built Victorian stone house with dark green painted woodwork and a big old conservatory. The Unfinished Boy lives here.

I open the lock with some old brass keys and step inside. A tangle of red geraniums crowds against the conservatory windows and a big old grapevine is knotted across the interior glass roof.
The main door to the house is up a single stone step. I pass along a dark corridor that smells of damp plaster, finally emerging into a warm kitchen. The Unfinished Boy is making a pot of tea. Kettle boiling on an old enamel-fronted gas cooker, coal fire burning cheerfully in the grate. Two worn armchairs stand on either side of the fireplace and a large rag rug covers the flagstones between them.

The Unfinished Boy turns and smiles. An old smile from years ago. Summer breeze from the river bridge echoing down the long tunnel into a blue sky.
I look away, back into the room. Something ruined about the smile now.

It’s always so hard to see how old he might be. At times almost middle-aged, then around fifteen years old. Occasional swift glimpses of someone very old.

We exchange the usual greetings then he chatters on brightly about some old electrical devices found on a junk stall on the market.
“ Remarkable how well they’re made, immaculate copper coils and handgrips – even the varnish is still good”.
I notice that his hands appear to go into the surface of things he is holding. At times he seems to go slightly out of focus. He’s also much thinner now.

We sit by the fire, taking tea from willow-pattern cups. Outside, a distant church clock chimes. Time seems suspended in the dim interior of this house, daylight filtering through old lace curtains.

Later, he waters the plants in the conservatory, still chatting.
“Even in the original cardboard box with those heavy copper staples and manufacturer’s instruction booklet. Someone must have got it as a present and barely used it, then put it away in a drawer for years. That one is a real find, I can tell you”.
His face seems momentarily translucent against the conservatory windows, voice shifting like a wavering radio transmission – at times close to the ear then growing fainter, as if received from a great distance.
I get the impression that he’s putting on a brave front, as if he’s having some difficulty holding onto his appearance. Inadvertently fading at times.

As we go back through the corridor, he stumbles weakly, falling on one knee to the flagstone floor. I quickly take his arm to help him up.
He is terribly thin and the arm feels almost weightless under the cloth of his shirt. It also seems to vibrate slightly, as if the molecular structure is somehow different. Makes me feel heavy and solid by comparison.

He regains his balance, smiling a little and glancing at me hesitantly, assessing my reaction.
“Well, time alters us all.” I say. No reply. Looks at me from all those years ago, autumn sun through the flickering streets.

I’ve long understood that he uses our conversations as a way of organising his thoughts and memory. The constant reiteration allowing him to understand and fit together various aspects of his own story. He went over it constantly and I would notice slight adjustments or new incidents each time.

“It started when we were kids, when we were at school. I got bullied a lot, and after a few months all I wanted to do was hide, just not be seen, so I’d be left alone. Couldn’t stand any more. I was permanently terrified.
Used to hide behind that little brick support column at the end of the playground, praying they wouldn’t find me. Ran out first, and stayed there all break. There was nowhere else to go.
I always stood very, very still in that small space, in complete desperation. Trying so hard to hold myself away from everything around me. Almost as if I were hovering, just out of reach.
One day, many months after I’d been in the habit of doing this every break, I became conscious of entering a sort of grey stream, just below everyone’s attention level. It took tremendous concentration and effort to maintain this at first, but it meant everything to me – a matter of surviving, or not.

That day, the whistle blew and I didn’t go back into class. Just stood there behind the wall. And do you know, nobody came out to find me. No-one had noticed I wasn’t in class.

After a long time, I got cold standing there in the little corner, so I went back – even then, no-one so much as glanced as I went in.
I took my place at the back of the class realising I must have made myself inconspicuous for so long that people barely noticed me. All I felt was a great relief. I was finally out of it all.
Let them fight and hurt each other. I could just stay quiet and hold myself away from it all and no one would notice if I was there or not.

They could see me all right, but somehow I’d managed to arouse a sort of disinterest in those around me, so they simply failed to notice my presence.
I knew they could still be aware of me, because I still answered my name when the morning register was called. But I also noticed that none of the teachers ever looked up when I spoke. They simply marked me present and moved on”.

I remembered first seeing him in the schoolyard. A voice at my side said “Hello” and there he was, smiling that smile. A thin kid in baggy flannel trousers. I also remember how much I resented paying the fare on buses while he sat beside me, looking calmly out of the window. The conductor never even glanced at him.
There is little memory, though, of what he actually looked like. You can never retain details of his features. Shortly after I leave this house, I know I will barely remember him. Any detail fades rapidly, like the memory of a dream
“You seemed all right”, he said, “Not cruel or callous like many of the others”.

He appears to be arriving at some sort of turning point in his life now. I don’t suppose there’s any way back for him. In fact, he must have altered himself so much he’s become dangerously inadaptable. It must be difficult for him to even leave the house by now. He seems so embedded here.
He came to this in his own quiet way, as the only defence possible in a world he could not understand. He knew he could never be like everyone else, Even the normal rough and tumble seemed terrifying. So he turned away and made himself like this.

Over the years, he didn’t seem to age. You get impressions of a boy about fifteen years old, very thin, grey flannel school clothes. schoolboy haircut in the style of forty years ago.
But of course, he’s much older now. Glimpses coming through. A sort of composite, layers of other projected images. At times his face seems very clear – in sunlight, edges of translucence moving in and out of focus, faintly iridescent, mixed with other images of himself at various times. All very fragile. Thin as cellophane.

I remember when he developed a fascination with the visible manifestations of electricity. He’d accumulated a variety of apparatus from junk stalls on the market, then one afternoon he painstakingly set up a spark gap using some of the devices. He drew the curtains and watched the blue violet electricity leaping across it dozens of times with an almost greedy sensual appreciation.

The next time I visited, he proudly showed me how he could induce the sparks to run over his hands, utterly delighted when he also found a way of allowing them to leap between the fingers of his left and right hand.
“Electricity is connective – it holds the entire universe together”. He said. “Science doesn’t even know what it really is yet, though we use it in hundreds of ways. Manifests simply by proximity – isn’t that wonderful? – connects everything to everything else – and connects me to everything else”.

Then he had a phase of wanting to absorb as much current as he could stand. This had a remarkable effect. The impression of shifting images accelerated until he became a softly glowing blur – like cigarette smoke uncoiling in a strobe light. He claimed that electricity stimulated him, made him exhilarated, but afterwards I could see that he looked fainter and more distant than ever.
I was also beginning to catch glimpses of something ruined behind the boyish appearance. It all seems to have been maintained through an act of will, the maintenance becoming inattentive as he grew increasingly detached and distracted

He seemed to be unaware of how neglected the house was becoming. Eventually, even his electrical workshop was abandoned. When I looked in on one visit, all the devices were covered in a layer of dust and flakes of paint that had drifted down from the ceiling.
The machine he used to connect himself to that graduated electrical current was the only one still in running order. He wanted to be connected to it again, but his hands had become blurred and faint – too insubstantial to work the switches, so I had to do it all for him.
I was terrified of damaging him in any way, he seemed so terribly fragile. It took almost a day to get a few simple instructions from him. Many long pauses. Attention drifting. Voice like a distant radio broadcast now – so faint it was almost inaudible. A whisper through miles of static.

By that time I don’t think he knew me any longer – I was just a means to an end. He was uninterested in anything but the connection to electricity. At times, I found myself gazing down in utter detachment at the thin flickering figure.

I gently placed him in the old armchair and put the coils into his hands, just as he was going completely out of focus. The change was instantaneous. Like looking into a swiftly rotating fairground ride. Faintly glowing. A still face seemed to float momentarily on the surface of all the movement beneath.
The smile was there, faintly. Unmoving over the rest, transparent and sadly eroded now.

I came to see him again, later that summer. The weather was warm and the trees were full in the rear garden. He was thinner and more translucent, but much recovered, and plainly pleased to be talking again.
I noticed the electrical devices had been removed and the room was brighter.
A rustling sound as he shifted in the armchair. Faint silvery movements of his hands.
He’d always been perfectly frank in our conversations, but it seems he had recently realised a few things that were not obvious before.

“You know, at one time I thought it would be good simply to watch people. Be an impassive camera eye. Of course, soon after I was able to do just that, I lost the desire. I suppose because their reasons for doing everything are predicated on needs and fears I can no longer share.
Instead I’ve grown fascinated by something else, something of real relevance to me”.
“For years now, I’ve taken increasing pleasure in watching all the minute changes that occur throughout the days and nights in these rooms. I can become completely absorbed simply sitting and watching, remaining still enough to experience the sounds, the movement of air, the passage of light through the rooms and the longer rhythms that come with seasons and the passing years.
I‘m also aware of some interesting physical alterations. At first, I imagined that things were actually speeding up around me. I often felt as though I was watching a time-lapse film, that the world was rotating faster and faster. Then I realised this is actually a result of my own gradual deceleration – as I get slower, time appears to go by more quickly.
When we were children an hour was an unimaginable amount of time – because we were so very speedy. Now we are much slower, so days, even months and years, seem to pass increasingly quickly.

This stillness and deceleration becomes a sort of travelling without moving –always accompanied by a sensation of great and welcome detachment.
I think it must be some extension of my old desire to be unnoticed, but this goes much further – eventually becoming a sort of gradual, almost imperceptible dispersal. A part of this involves a gradual letting go of the will that holds my physical structure in its usual form… allowing me to move even further away – become the hidden frequency of the rooms.
So – I’m taking great pleasure in witnessing my own extended dispersal into the fabric of this house”.

Walking back to the railway station that evening, I could only wonder what might lie ahead, He seemed far beyond any sort of apprehension – perfectly aware of what was happening, and in absolute collusion with it.

I had always visited him irregularly, arriving perhaps once or twice a year whenever I happened to be in the area. The rest of the time I would forget about him completely, often for very long periods.
Then I would be walking down that street again, keys in my pocket. Perhaps his condition also had some effect of disrupting the more general memory of him in some way.

On each visit, it was clear that he was becoming increasingly insubstantial, and this new phase only confirmed his resignation to that process. At times he could almost be his bright former self, but this now appeared to require a great effort of will. More often, he seemed barely present, a faint sparkling shadow.
I still caught glimpses of that old smile, but it was intermittent now, infrequent.
His manner too, became increasingly abstracted. Eventually, even our conversations faltered. His voice became fainter, then it began fading in and out, making it impossible to make out much beyond a few disconnected phrases.

Dust gathered on all the electrical apparatus and the rubber insulation perished with age, revealing blackened copper strands beneath. The house became even more neglected, appearing empty, almost derelict.

Once I returned to find shit and newspapers in the corridor and evidence of someone dossing upstairs. I attempted to ask him about this and after a long time his voice came back from the direction of that faintly sparkling shadow as if from miles away, slow and detached and faint.

I gathered that a couple of derelicts were coming in at nights. They hadn’t noticed him and he’d watched them in a detached way while they ate his food and slept in the unoccupied rooms upstairs. They’d occasionally used the corridor as a lavatory when they’d been too drunk to get up the stairs.

I spent the rest of the afternoon changing the locks on the doors and putting new ones on the windows. I cleaned and disinfected the corridor, then awaited their return.
At about nine I heard voices and waited until they tried the door. I opened it quickly and told them I was the owner – they were attempting trespass, and the police had been called.
They were no trouble, A bit of cursing then they staggered away into the darkness protesting innocence – thought the place was empty, ready for demolition, etc. One of them cursing again as they picked their way back through the courtyard into the darkness.

After they had gone, I returned to the parlour. He was standing there, a flickering, ruined thing, barely visible, faintly iridescent at the edges. The smile still glimmering occasionally but burnt and damaged, fixed like a torn poster on a city wall. Tinges of spectrum colours on the edges of the remaining light that he now seemed to be composed of.

It was difficult to assess precisely what was left of him beyond this ever-shifting nebula of unfinished images. I wondered if he could any longer be considered human.
I led him gently to the armchair and left him there. He no longer needed me or anyone else. Long gone. Just a flicker.
I returned several times after that. Just to be absolutely certain.

Each time, I sat for several hours watching the sunlight traverse the floor and walls. Feeling the resonance of the place, trying to detect anything of him there.
All was silent and still. The house felt completely tranquil. Perhaps that is what he had finally attained – a perfect stillness. I closed up the house and walked away for the last time.

One night, years later, I threw the keys from a bridge into the river.


Thin voice in the courtyard. Lost somewhere in these rooms. A version.

Fading out in the long sunlight across the park, across the river bridge. Standing there a long time. Years ago.

No-one there now. Stone steps down to the River Walk. Trains passing in the distance. Nowhere to go. Faint against the metal railings. Birdsong and shadows.

Walk by the buildings… Wind and rain sometimes… A faint impression. Someone almost there.

Avenham Colonnade, June 1980.

Where to now?

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011 THE QUIET MAN