Alfred was growing a moustache.
An untrained observer might think he was idling, at a loose end in the countryside, but this wasn't the case. In fact, he was concentrating, thinking his way through every bristle, making sure they would align and be all right.
His progress so far was quite impressive: a respectable growth which already suggested reliability and calm. There were disadvantages to him, certain defects: the shortness, inelegant hands, possible thinning at his crown, habit of swallowing words before they could leave him, habit of looking mainly at the groundand those few extra pounds at his waist, a lack of conditionbut he wasn't so terribly ugly, not such a bad lot.
Mainly his problem was tirednessor more an irritation with his tirednessor more a tiredness that was caused by his irritationor possibly both. He could no longer tell.
It wasn't that he was awkward, or peculiar, quite the reverse: he was biddable and sensible and ordinary, nothing more: but even an ordinary person could sometimes have enough and get browned off and, for example, want to be offered, every now and then, a choice.
That was only reasonable, wasn't it? A man had to imagine he'd got a chance at freedom, a bit of space. The interval between alternatives, that gave you space. But sometimes you would consider yourself and all you could see were obstructions and you'd be amazed that you ever were able to leave your houseyour bed, never mind your house. You'd look in the mirror some mornings and wonder why it didn't show; the way most of you was always yelling to get out.
Moustache or no moustache, that wouldn't change.
The trouble was, you had too much to do: breathing, sleeping, waking, eating: you couldn't avoid them, were built to need them, and so they just went on and on. Where were the other possibilities, the changes you might want to makelike walking off beneath the oceannot being a fish, he bloody hated fish, but being a man tucked away in the ocean, why couldn't he try that? Why couldn't he try out whatever he thought?
And thinking itself, that wasn't helpful and yet you had to do it all the time. It was there when you dreamed, when you spoke, when you carried out your very many other compulsory tasks. If you couldn't keep control and stay wary, you might think anything, which was exactly the one freedom you'd avoid. You could dodge certain thoughts, corkscrew off and get yourself out of their way, but they'd still hunt you.
You have to watch.
This morning he could feel them, inside and out, bad thoughts getting clever with him, sly. They lapped like dirtied water behind his face and outside him they thickened the breeze until the surface touching him, pressing his lips, was far more quick and complex than only air. Today it had the smell of blue, warm Air-Force blue: the stink of drizzle rising up from wool and everywhere the smell of living blue: polish and hair oil and that sodding awful pinky-orange soap and Woodbines and Sweet Caporal and those other cheap ones, the ones they gave away after ops: Thames cigarettes, to flatten out the nerves.
"Hello, looks like London Fog again."
Pluckrose had started them calling it London Fog: the Thames smoke haze in the briefing roomhim first and then everybody. One of the things they had between them as a crew: "London Fog again."
But he wouldn't remember Pluckrose, wasn't going to ask him in.
Chop it. All right?
And this time I mean it. All right?
So the noise throttled back, obedient, let him be where he was.
Not that he was any too clear about thathis precise locationbeyond the fact that he was sitting, sitting behind a young moustache.
They'd left the path an age ago, Alfred hadn't noticed when, and there was no doubt they were lost now, if they ever had known where to go. And that had been something of a pain, an irritation: arriving in nowhere, having to stumble and tramp along on a track that divided and twisted and then abandoned them completely: sent him sweating through ragged scrub behind a man who was a strangerVasylsomeone you heard about: rumours of bad history and a knife.
Excerpted from Day by A. L. Kennedy Copyright © 2008 by A. L. Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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