Lost in Zektoria

Joseph Sykes

Floor 16. The glass doors opened, and you stepped into the lift. Instant recognition. You were someone I’d once known. But I was invisible to you. Jeans, jacket, trainers. What was there to see?

You pressed ‘G’. Doors closed. Descent.

You were on the phone: a friend. You were peppering your conversation with obscenities, adding a bit of flavour. Would you have dropped these words into conversation up there on the sixteenth floor, with the creative executives and digital marketing managers? Maybe so.

Floor 10. Doors opened. A body stepped in. Doors closed.

Your conversation moved to evening plans, and you performed a small work of theatre to signify your annoyance that he (and it was a ‘he’) couldn’t make it. You layered on the guilt: ‘bants’ – a word that went unsaid, but must be part of your lexicon, right?

Who are you? It was driving me mad. Just another white twenty-something male with stubble and a satchel, like everyone else in the building? I don’t say this disparagingly; I know that I, too, fall firmly into this category. I do know you, I thought.

Ground floor. Off you went. You pulled your lanyard out of your chinos and out fell a twenty. You didn’t notice.

“Excuse me.”

Still on the phone.

“Excuse me.”

This time you turned and pulled your mobile from your temple.

“You dropped this.”

You ended your call. Your lanyard was red, the word ‘VISITOR’ in block white capitals repeated in a loop.

“Cheers, mate,” you said.

You accepted the twenty with the hand holding your visitor ID, a pass which identified you as Sholto Ness, and suddenly I was back in the playground at Newport Road Primary School, arms stretched out with my coat above my head, you at my side doing the same, both of us running down the yard against the wind in a desperate attempt to take off.

“No problem.”

You walked to reception and threw your lanyard at the receptionist. You were gone.


***

Sholto.

I gave you a head start. You were probably heading to the tube station, and I wasn’t, so twenty seconds would be enough. Rain lashed against the glass panes. Hood up, and away. Outside, passengers were vying for space under the bus shelter. I could stay put at the entrance until the 141 was in sight.

“Pig of a night, isn’t it?”

I jumped. You, again. Phone in hand, eyes on phone.

“Yes,” I agreed.

“You waiting for a cab too?” Your eyes still glued to the screen.

“No,” I said. “The bus.”

You looked up this time, lines across your forehead. “Unlucky.” You paused. “Where do you live?”

“Harringey,” I answered, honestly.

“Me too. Where abouts?”

“Hornsey.”

You insisted that I shared a cab with you, repeatedly, as etiquette demands. I didn’t accept, not immediately. Lingering hope that the bus would appear. One final offer from you – the sort which can’t be accepted – and then:

“Sorry, mate. I’ve got this weird feeling I know you.”

“Really.” But you thought it was a question.

“What’s your name?” you asked.

“Ashley,” I answered, and wondered if you’d caught the resignation in my voice over the rain.


***

You got the drinks in and I saved a booth. It was the kind of bar with lots of dark wood and brass; all heels and shirts and dresses. A DJ on a mezzanine: separate, no requests. My toes curled in my trainers, and I kept my jacket on. I smuggled a beermat under the table and began to shred it as I observed you: one elbow on the bar, chequered sleeves now rolled up, showing off your inked forearms. Hand pointing at this and that, flirting with the barmaid.

Back at the entrance. Ashley? Then a blaze of recognition: Ashley! And you were a different person. I didn’t have plans? It was meant to be! You wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but a full-on reunion. You directed the cab driver not to Harringey, but to the bar, your favourite in the area. So much to catch up on. You were an ‘analyst relations’ intern. (Excuse the inverted commas. You certainly didn’t insert them into your speech, and I nodded politely at the time.) Your office was south of the river but you had a meeting here in the city last thing, in an office thankfully just as relaxed as yours: “I fucking hate wearing a suit.” You guessed my firm was the same, a reference to my jeans and trainers. I concurred with confidence.

You, to the cab driver: “Here’s fine.” What did I do? You were paying, so I got away with, “Nothing exciting. Health and safety. I’m new to it, too.” I shifted in my seat. What would I say when you probed this flimsy answer?

You came back with two enormous tankards – steins, you told me. I refrained from saying, I know. You really were taking this primary school reunion seriously.

“How many years since I last saw you?” you asked.

“Twelve... thirteen?”

“Half a lifetime ago,” you said. “Literally. I’ve just turned 24. God, they were good times, weren’t they?”

I couldn’t disagree. Especially not with a litre of beer to drink. And maybe you were right? What did my aversion to bumping into you have to do with our time at primary school? They were good times. You and I, we were inseparable for six years. Where to begin?

Where, indeed? You had an idea. “Remember the time we went half way across London on the bus?”

“As in, the time we truanted?”

“Yeah. Funny thing is...” you took a gulp. “I know we were right little shits a lot of the time, but... I don’t think we were trying to be naughty, were we? I mean, were we? Did we even realise what we were doing was bad ass for a pair of ten-year-olds?”

“Eight-year-olds. It was in September of Year 4.”

Your eyes widened. “Fucking hell. Proper bad ass.”

We were unlikely accomplices, you and I. One of us, the fourth son of an English professor and the CEO of a human rights charity; the other, the oldest of four to a single father, a flawed man who had been shat on by God, or at least that’s how things appeared to him through the prism of vodka bottle after vodka bottle. Kids can be cruel but, with a dead mother and an alcoholic father, even the bullies took pity on me. I was left alone, given a wide berth. By everyone but you, that is. You could have played with the cool kids but for some reason – and I hope it wasn’t just out of sympathy – you were more than just my bus buddy. You were my best friend.

It’s uncontroversial to say we were the brightest in the class. But bright doesn’t equal compliant. Each day, we sought new ways to irritate, shock, baffle, frustrate. In Year 3, instead of reciting seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight... to Mr Welch, I went with eighty-four, seventy-seven, seventy, sixty-three... When asked why, I answered, “Today front to back feeling am I because.” You burst out laughing, gleefully swinging your legs in your little chair. Mr Welch’s reaction was glorious. He was a gibbering fool, unable to see that the more he spoke, the more I parroted pre-prepared utterances in our back-to-front vernacular.

“Ashley, stop it now. If you continue...” He couldn’t even finish his threat.

“Can’t I. Welch Mr. Sorry I’m.” Credit where credit’s due: the poor man held back from throttling me.

Whereas I was the gifted mathematician (even if I do say so myself), you were the eloquent one. With your home life, quelle surprise? You absorbed all those discussions about politics, morality and swinging parties like a sponge. Remember sex bingo? You taught me a list of new words at playtime, and we had to smuggle them into questions without Mrs Calder realising. My personal best was asking her if Florence Nightingale used bondage on the soldiers in the Crimean War. But at lunchtime I conceded defeat to your superior contribution, perfectly in synch with the climax of Martha Smithill’s moaning tirade: “All we get from you is minge, minge, minge. Put a sock in it!” And you got away with it! None of the others got it, of course. Their little minds hadn’t been corrupted by the language of sex yet. And Calder was a pushover. She just moved swiftly on to avoid an awkward conversation with your faux-pious parents.

And this was all before you and I – Sholto Ness and Ashley Dobson – truanted on the bus.



***

“Fucking hell, Ashley. You’re like fucking rain man, aren’t you? Reeling off those memories like that.” You clicked your fingers. “I’d forgotten all about sex bingo.”

The beer was good. More importantly, it was lip-loosening.


***


So, we were bus buddies. Your mum didn’t think twice about being my mum, too, for those twenty minutes each morning and afternoon as we bussed to and from school. I doubt my dad, on the other hand, thought once about the favour your mum was doing him. Social awareness was one of the qualities the bottle robbed him of first. I got myself up and ready for school. We lived in a high rise on an estate in Hornsey – yeah, I haven’t moved far – and the bus stop was a stone’s throw away. A stone’s throw away. That was my dad’s retort once when I’d started secondary school and Cassie complained that she and the twins didn’t like walking home from the bus stop alone in the dark. It’s just a stone’s throw away from home, Cass. His excuses were sounding more like pleas by then.

You lived in middle-class Muswell Hill, just two stops along and yet a world away. The bus turned onto your avenue and there you both were, you and your mum, you pulling your hand out of hers, thinking I hadn’t seen. You had a mother’s hand to hold. I didn’t. It wasn’t jealousy I felt, but fragility.

“You’re safe, Kip!” You would shout as you ran down the aisle on the top deck and jumped into your seat. “I thought the Cretotians had taken you.” And just like that, we were no longer on a bus, but on a wagon transporting zombie citizens across the Kingdom of Zektoria.

“Good morning, Ashley!” your mum offered, but she didn’t expect a reply.

“The same cannot be said for Agent W,” Kip replied to your character, Zep. “There was a Cretotian uprising. He was caught in the crossfire. Nothing is left of his legs but two stumps. He has to drag himself round now.”

Occasionally we assigned roles to unwitting fellow passengers – usually that hapless teenage girl with braces, remember her? – and insist they join in our role play. (“This is no game, fair maiden! The future of humanity depends on you. Now, admit you kissed him or we’ll throw you to the florazoids!”) Your mum rarely intervened, leaving us to embarrass the secondary school students to our hearts’ content. We crossed the line on one occasion, I’m sure you recall. Your mum gave us a ticking off when we quizzed the hapless girl on her galactical origins, wondering whether every being on her home planet had such lumpy red skin as her own.

But the make-believe did us good, on the whole. Isn’t imagination essential for critical thinking and creativity? The problem came when we made additional visits to Zektoria in the classroom. You once got so into character that you punched me in the nose during silent reading because you were convinced that I – or rather ‘Kip’ – was a Cretotian spy. We were often still Kip and Zep when we got off the wagon, or army tank, or space shuttle and headed into the Newport Road playground. And once we were so engrossed in our battle against Cretotian forces that we didn’t disembark at all.

That was in the September of Year 4.

***

You had your phone out. “Mate, don’t stop. This is golden. I’m just messaging my mum to ask if she remembers Kip and Zep. Seriously, I cannot wait to tell her these stories.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“My mum adored you, Ash. You were like a fifth son to her.”

You meant well, I suppose. But it hurt to hear. What mother cares for six years and is then indifferent when her fifth son is cast in an entirely different direction, never to be seen again?



***

Your mum was going somewhere, too. She stayed on the bus all the way to Middlesex University, where she lectured. Except one morning, when she had an appointment of some sort and got off the bus just before Newport Road. Surely she took us by the hand and forced us to look her in the eye and promise to get off in two stops’ time. So why can’t I recall it? Were we so lost in Zektoria that her words were just static?

We realised we’d gone too far was when Hapless Braces stood up and stuck her chewing gum to the back of the seat in front. “Looks like the red-faced Martian has successfully rid her metal cage of the intrusive rubber, Kip,” you told me once she was out of earshot. But I was no longer Kip. I was Ashley, and I was very concerned by the fact that the girl had pressed the ‘stop’ button and was racing down the stairs.

“We’ve missed our stop!” I leapt up in panic.

The shock on your face was momentary, then you were guffawing and snorting, your signature silliness.

“It’s not funny! We’re miles past school.” I pulled at your sleeve, but you were staying put.

“Fuck school!” you said.

I digested this. To be late to school was one thing; not to care was quite another.

You stared out of the window calmly. “Get off if you want. I’m staying here.”

It was my fragility which placed me back in my seat. The thought of this being your story and not our story, it scared me. The bus pulled out and away we went. You were already back in Zektoria, high as a kite and pumping every ounce of excitement into Zep’s character. But wherever we were going, I couldn’t go there via our fantasy universe. I sat tight.

“Get off!” you shouted. Sholto, not Zep. I felt your hand pull out of my own. How did that happen?



***

Of course I didn’t bring up the handholding and my creeping self-consciousness that night in the bar. Nor my dad’s drinking, nor the anxiety I’d felt since losing my mum. We reconnected through nostalgia, but nostalgia doesn’t equal trust. We cheated in our game of memory tombola, pulling out only the winning tickets, and even then viewing the various prizes through a rose-tinted filter. You talked all about nicking pick ‘n’ mix in Woolies, eating Happy Meals and singing with a busker. Nothing about the humiliation that afternoon, sitting in Mr Cohen’s office; your mum in tears, psychological punishment served; my dad absent, corporal punishment delayed.

You’d missed me at North London Boys’. A compliment, just the right level of sentimentality. A sigh, the sort that signals it’s time to wrap up. You drank the remains of your stein, the remains of our trip down memory lane. Life went on; life goes on.

“How was Hornsey Academy?” You meant: I suppose your school was fine? Agreement assumed.

“Fine, yeah.”

“Where did you go to uni?” Phone back in satchel.

“I didn’t.” How could I lie with this one?

“Oh really? Apprenticeship?” Satchel on shoulder.

“Mmm.” I was due to start one as an electrician at eighteen, but Cass was in her worst place ever on my first day and I never turned up.

Did I want to meet your friends for a couple more drinks? Thanks but no thanks. I pretended I’d get an Uber home. Good to see you. – Give me a missed call. – Take care. – Let’s do this again soon.

I didn’t like lying, and that’s what it was. Lying, deceiving, withholding the truth: what difference does it make? You thought we were speaking eye-to-eye, but you had a bird’s eye view all along. Looking up at you from down here, I’m sure I missed plenty, too. The difference was, I knew my view was obscured, whereas you thought an encounter in a glass lift in the city meant we’d arrived at the same destination.

I’m sorry.

For the record, I didn’t do badly at Hornsey Academy. Things started off well enough in the top sets, but the teachers couldn’t have been more patronising. Pupil Premium was the stickiest of labels. I got bored and slipped down a set, and got into extra-curricular activities. Not gangs and knives, but I dodged an ASBO. I was more or less back on track by my GCSEs, and I got into college without really trying, which was a good job since my dad had taken to knocking us about and revision was out of the question. I started my A levels; I wanted to do maths at uni. But it was too much. The commute to college, working at KFC, bringing up Cass and the twins. I was exhausted, behind, stressed. Something had to give. I’m not looking for sympathy, but things didn’t get any easier. Cass’s mental health, my dad’s diagnosis. I’ve worked here and there, never long enough to belong, always a stopgap, a springboard back to college, but then not.

I took the 141 home. I’ve moved into my own place, progress of sorts. It’s near enough to Dad’s to help Cass out. She’s his primary carer. Life’s not fair.

I kicked off my shoes and finally took my jacket off. My T-shirt, too. The embroidery was loose in the ‘B’ in ‘BERESFORD-KLEIN CLEANING SERVICES’. I headed to the kitchen to get some scissors.

Joseph Sykes has written a series of works (including five short novels and five short stories) for a German publishing house, all language-learning publications aimed at German learners of English. He lives in Manchester where he teaches French and German to secondary school students.