THE LEGEND OF CAPTAIN SPACE​

 

ONE

 

           The Lotus came to rest in a lush damp meadow, with several yards of barbed wire round its front wheels. The two men fell out of it into the grass.

           'Are you in one piece, Barney?'

 

           'No.'

           'That's all right, then.' Nick got up precariously. 'It's the drink that saved us — kept us relaxed.'

           There was a sign nearby, stuck up on a post.

           'What's it say, Nick? Slow on the curve?'

           'No, mate. It says Beware of the Bull.'

           The bull was a low black hump in the distance.

           'OK.' Nick uprooted the signpost.

           'Where you heading, man?' Barney sat up bloat-faced in deep grass, but Nick was already tramping towards the bull.

 

           'Bull!' he shouted at the top of his voice.

           Barney got up and felt himself. He was large-built and fat, there was a lot of him to bruise. Nick was a thin black shape against the green.

           'Christ! Come back, will you?'

           He came up with Nick, as Nick came up with the bull. Two yellow eyes in the blackness watched them.

           'Er Nick, do you know this bull?'

           But Nick was absorbed, confronting it. His overhanging forehead came forward like a shelf, he looked as if he might butt the bull.

           He banged on the board. 'Get up and fight!'

           Barney goggled. 'Slow down, man.'

           Barney's legs melted, a cloud hid his sight, as the bull stirred bulkily and lurched to its feet. When he saw clear, still the bull stood staring at Nick, and Nick, dead white, stared at the bull. He kept giving quick blinks, the muscles of his neck stood out like ropes, he had the look he had when racing-driving. He held the sign upside-down, so it was more like a cricket bat than a cape.

           The bull lowered its head, its heavy wattle hung down in a curtain.

           'Nick, let's shove.'

           But Nick was struck rigid.

           Barney nudged his arm, the bull stayed where it was. Eventually they began to walk away. Nick looked at the ground, his face drawn to a point.

           There were only seconds in which they heard the thudding pads. They swerved and turned, saw the bull growing big at them, black, smoking, like a container lorry on top of them.

           It had gone between them. Now like slow-motion it braked, turned round, and pawed the ground as it saw where they were. But Nick was ready, he stood forward at the bull waving the sign.

           Barney's heart banged as the bull ran again. He could hear it through the ground. He saw Nick jump as the bull went by, but immediately it turned and came again. Again Nick jumped and this time, as it passed, he gave the bull a great thwack on its rump with the sign.

           Barney gazed. The bull seemed surprised: and Nick too, for the sign had split, and as they looked at it the bottom half hung down and dropped off.

           They looked at the bull, the bull looked at them. It slowly butted its head, appraising them.

           'Come on, you bugger!' Nick shouted.

           'Here, man, enough is enough.'

           The bull moved. In a lumbering run it moved past Nick and trotted some distance up the field, where it turned its head and scanned them.

           'Right, Nick, that's it, time, all out.'

           They backed away. When they were at a good distance, the bull sat down again.

           They got out more beers from the car, and lay in the sweet grass, drinking. Afterwards they jacked up the car, took off the front wheels, and unwound the wire. They reversed out of the field the way they had come. Then their rear wheels spat, they were quickly back to eighty.

*

           At dusk they paused on a hilltop, with the shadowy Midlands below them. There was a huge moon, like a bronze wheel on the edge of the world.

           'I don't have to go through with this.'

           Barney was miles away. 'What's that, Nick?'

           'I could take off. We've got the car, we could clear off in the other direction.'

           Barney eyed him sideways, Nick looked again in his dangerous mood.

           'You can't get out of it now, Nick.'

           Nick stared ahead. He seemed to see something Barney didn't see, a black wall on the hills.

           Wobbling his head, comical, Barney warbled, 'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.'

           Abruptly Nick turned to him. 'We'll shake it up tonight. We'll take the place apart.'

           He flashed his famous grin, in which his mouth smiled, wide and tight, showing his teeth while his eyes were sharp. He raised his head, and bayed at the rusty moon. Barney joined him, in a high long canine howl which descended in a series of yelps. Presently a sheepdog in the valley below gave a surly, growling bark. They barked back, the sheepdog snarled, then some little whippet further off began a furious yapping. Another dog came in. Nick and Barney stopped, and sat back getting breath while further and further away dogs and more dogs joined in, and a ripple of dogs barking passed outwards, expanding through the lowlands of England.

           Nick slapped Barney hard on the shoulder, so his head wobbled again. 'Let's hit the road, man!'

The car-engine revved, they slid down the hill.

 

*

           There was commotion inside the house, women's voices laughed.

           'You'll see her tomorrow, Nick, you're not to see her now.'

           Sandy's friend Pearl stared at them a moment, her round potato face flushed and bright-eyed, then she ran upstairs. All the women must be up there, trying on clothes.

           Nick shouted after her, 'We'll be down the Wagon. Send Vince down the Wagon if he turns up!' Someone laughed him away.

           They drove to the pub. 'We'll live it up tonight. Woo-hoo!'

           The Wagon was solid, everyone bawling. Barney sat back with his drinking look, eyebrows up, eyes shut, mouth pursed small, his belly slack in front. He looked virtuous, like a soft monk. Nick crouched forward, scowling at his glass.

           'I could go up Vanessa's.'

           Barney made big blinks. 'Up Vanessa's? That's a dead letter, man.'

           'What you mean? I could go to Vanessa now. I'd say, "Come with me, darling" and she would.'

           'Are you serious? You and Vanessa — that was death. You're well out of that, Nick.'

           'There's Karen, she'd come running.'

           'You're sure of that, are you? It hurts, doesn't it, Nick. But still, it's happening. I never thought I'd see you get married. Because Nick, if truth is told, you're bad. I mean, frankly Nick, admit it, and I only say this as your friend — you're a bastard.'

           'Right.' Nick laughed, looking depressed.

           'No, but she's a nice girl, Sandy. I mean, she's really nice. And besides, you can't go, can you?'

           'What you mean?'

           'Well, you know . . . bun in the oven.'

           Nick eyed him slowly, then he stood up.

           'Drink?'

           He took the glasses to the bar. There were two women behind the counter. One was behindhand hurrying through the orders, banging down glasses so the beer jumped out of them, chucking change on the counter, catch it that would have it. The other did nothing but wash and dry glasses — she paused and puffed fluff off a glass — while her eyes were far away.

           'Come on, darling,' Nick shouted at her. She ignored him.

           He took the beer to the table and drank it fast. Barney had got maudlin, he'd decided he was in love with Sandy's friend Pearl.

           'And it's true her face is a bit round, Nick —'

           'Round? It's like the rising sun.'

           'But what lips, eh?'

           Nick shrugged at large, and eyed the pub ceiling. Barney put his lips forward, and kissed the smoky air. 'Mmmm!' he said.

           'By Christ!' Nick kicked his legs out. 'Ah, you wait till I'm a racing-driver. I won't stay around then.'

           'Forget it, man. You're a wage-earner now. You won't be a racing-driver.'

           'Thanks a million. Bastard. You're a good friend, aren't you, Barney?'

           'I'm a man in love.'

           When Vince arrived with Sandy's father Barney was sitting back with closed eyes, babbling about his dream-girl. Nick they could not find at all.

           'He went to get some air,' Barney said at last.

           They looked round the car-park. They found Nick hanging out of his car unconscious.

           'Nick.' They shook him. 'Here, Nick.'

           A bloodshot businessman came by with his wife. 'What's wrong with him?'

           'He's getting married tomorrow.'

           'Good for him!' The businessman burst into laughter, and moved on laughing.

           They got Nick and Barney into cars, and drove them back to the house. They supported Nick up the stairs, lolling and mumbling, 'Don't let Sandy see me.' At the top of the stairs they met Pearl and Sandy supporting Sandy's mother full of sherry to the bedroom.

           'Don't let Nick see me,' she murmured. 'Oh, I'll be so ashamed in the morning. Sandy, you must help me unzip.'

           In the living-room Pearl sat by herself on the sofa: she livened when Vince and Barney came in. Barney was already half undressed, he paraded in the room white-bodied, fat-bellied, with a towel round his waist. Pearl moaned, 'I'm left on the shelf!' Barney drew up beside her, and reached round her a fat white arm…

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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