I'll Tell You the Story of My Life
It was raining. Then again, it was almost always raining in Arkanis1 — not that the slight, slender boy standing in front of the window minded.
“Armitage Patrick Hux,” he said, proclaiming himself to the weather outside, “twenty-one, clumsy and shy2 — thin as a sheet of paper, and just as useless.”
He threw out his arms and took an exaggerated, dramatic bow.
But paper wasn’t useless, Armitage knew. That was what his father said, and his father didn’t know the value of paper — paper printed with words already written, blank paper with the promise of words yet to be written. The only paper his father cared about was worthless: money — pound notes and cheques with an excess of zeroes.
There was a pounding on the door of his tiny bedroom, and Armitage quickly straightened. His straight, light copper hair flopped over his forehead as he turned toward the door.
It was his younger sister, Cassandra. He cracked open the door and she was peering back, with the same green-flecked-with-gray-and-gold eyes as his, her nose crinkled, and her mouth twisted in annoyance.
“The General has seen fit to grace us with his presence this morning, just when it’s most inconvenient,” she said. “Get your arse downstairs before he bombs the moors or something.”
‘The General’ was Brendol Hux, their father — General Manager of First Order Manufacturing, the largest employer in Arkanis. Its factory was the source of the gray smoke that darkened the already-always-gloomy sky.
Armitage pushed back his hair, tucked in his shirt, and took off his glasses, which his father told him made him look like a “bloody swot.”
“Such is the lot of bastards, eh?” he said to Cassandra as he stepped out of his room. “Always to be at the beck and call of the whims of their illustrious sire.”
She nudged him hard on the shoulder as they jockeyed for space on the narrow staircase.
“Speak for yourself,” she said. “Call yourself a bastard, but I’m Miss Fitzhux, if you please.”
Armitage blew a raspberry and stomped down the stairs past her, his footsteps deadened by the rust-colored shag carpet. His mother, Bridget, looking wan and stressed in her suit skirt and blouse that she wore to her job in the basement offices of a government building, stood near the wall on the landing. She held her hands clutched in front of her, a faun-colored overcoat draped over her arm. Armitage bent down over her, kissing her cheek.
“Good morning, my lady mother,” he said, grinning.
“Go on with you,” Bridget said, good-naturedly giving her son a gentle chuck on the arm. “Greet your father. He has something for you.”
Brendol Hux seemed to materialize out of the sitting room, gliding into view. His hair, red like his children’s, was slicked back severely, and he wore a double-breasted suit that did little to hide the round paunch of his belly. Armitage felt the same instant, simultaneous loathing and anxiety to please that he always felt around his father.
“Hello, Father,” he said, his hands in his pockets.
Brendol glared until Armitage took his right hand out of his pocket and held it out. Then he took his son’s hand and gave it a firm shake.
“No improvement since the last time I was here, I see,” he said, looking over Armitage.
Over six feet tall but skinny and swaying as a calla lily, incorrigible red hair falling in his eyes, dressed in jeans and a Bowie T-shirt, Armitage Hux knew he was not the specimen of manliness that Brendol Hux wanted in a son. The word “queer” had been spat at him from his father’s lips more than a few times.
Armitage returned his father’s gaze, forcing himself not to look away. “I live to disappoint yet another day,” he said.
Brendol’s right arm twitched, as if he were about to raise it — to strike Armitage with the back of his hand as he’d done so many times before. But he merely hardened his gaze on his son until Armitage felt his father’s full contempt for him.
Cassandra made her way tentatively from the landing, ready to intervene. She fared better than Armitage, since she met Brendol’s expectations for a daughter — on the surface anyway. She was willowy and lovely, the fair complexion that was pale and almost unhealthy on Armitage creamy and blooming on her skin, the full pink lips that made his face appear sullen making her the picture of femininity. Besides, Cassandra was a master manipulator, and she appeared before her father with a green ribbon that matched her eyes holding back her strawberry blonde hair, dressed in her school uniform — the tie neatly knotted, her blouse crisp, her knee socks pristine. Out of her father’s sight, Cassandra smoked cigarettes behind the town hall with boys in leather jackets and got top marks in school even though she rarely attended class. But Brendol Hux didn’t know either of his children well enough to know what they did outside of the brief visits he made to the narrow red-brick terraced house. Brendol Hux didn’t exactly hide his illegitimate children; he just kept them someplace where he wouldn’t see them unless he wanted to.
Cassandra stepped between her father and brother. “Hello, Daddy,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
Armitage held back a shudder. He couldn’t imagine kissing that ruddy, blotched face. Shaking Brendol’s hand disgusted him enough.
“Well, boy,” Brendol said. “Do you want to know what I have for you?”
Something useless, no doubt, Armitage thought.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
Brendol pulled an envelope from his breast pocket and held it out, looking like some kind of predatory Dickensian benefactor, Armitage thought as he took the envelope and opened it.
It was a letter, on First Order Manufacturing letterhead.
Dear Mr Hux: it read. We are pleased to offer you an internship in technical writing at First Order Manufacturing.
“You’re giving me a job?” Armitage asked.
“Not a job, an internship,” Brendol said. “Whether it becomes a job depends entirely on how seriously you take it.”
Armitage was silent, scanning the brief letter as if for a clue of how to answer.
“Well? ” Brendol pressed. “It’s not as if you’re doing anything worthwhile since you left college and decided not to apply to university.”
“I’m writing music reviews,” Armitage said quietly, feeling that it was a mistake the moment he did, knowing that it was when Brendol turned on Bridget. It was what his father always did when he really wanted to hurt his son.
“Look at this useless little cunt you birthed,” Brendol said with piercing, sadistic precision, each word level and perfectly enunciated in his acquired Received Pronunciation. “But of course I should have known what he’d be. Like births like. It’s a wonder Cassandra isn’t a bloody slut like you.”
Even as Armitage winced, he balled his hand into a fist. He kept his gaze fixed on the second button of his father’s suit jacket. Punch him there, double him over, knee to the groin, elbow in the face.3
“Armie,” Bridget said in her lilting brogue that Brendol hated so much, “what do you say to your father?”
He swallowed hard and looked up at his mother, at his sister. Cass had her hand on their mother’s shoulder. She mouthed Thank you, I’m sorry at him.
“Thank you, Father,” Armitage said, raising his eyes to look Brendol in the face. “I’m sorry for being ungrateful for the jo — for the opportunity.”
Brendol turned the corners of his mouth down farther. “Don’t disgrace me, boy,” he said.
Armitage nodded, looking back at the floor. “Yes, sir.”
Brendol hmphed and then walked to the door, holding his hand out expectantly in Bridget’s direction.
“Aren’t you going to stay for breakfast?” she asked while handing him his overcoat.
“Breakfast here?” he said dismissively. “I’d sooner eat in the factory cafeteria.” He gave a last glance at Cassandra. “Learn from your mother’s mistakes,” he said to her. Bridget opened the front door for him.
He walked out into the gloom, turning up his collar as he waited for the chauffeur of the car at the curb to come over with an umbrella. And then he got in the car without looking back, and they drove away to the First Order offices in central Arkanis.
Cassandra and Armitage gave a shudder as the door closed and then looked at their mother. Bridget stood with her hand still on the doorknob, looking at the toes of her worn work shoes. Cassandra put her arm around her.
“Buck up, Mater,” she said, leading her mother away from the door and into their tiny kitchen. “We know you have to put up with him so we’re not all put out on the street. We don’t believe a thing that pompous bag of gas says. He’s a monster.”
Armitage put the kettle on and then spooned tea into the pot as Cassandra settled her mother at the kitchen table.
“You’re not really going to work in that dreadful place, are you, Armie?” Cass asked.
“If I don’t, he’ll take it out on Mum,” Armitage answered.
“Don’t do something you don’t want to do on my account, love,” Bridget said.
Armitage bent his slender frame, like a sapling in the wind, and kissed the top of his mother’s head. “I want to do anything that helps you, Mum.” He went back to the stove and poured the water into the teapot. “Drink your tea. Now, if you will excuse me, destiny is calling me on my typewriter.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes dramatically.
“I’m off to work in a quarter hour,” Bridget said. “Armie, eat something besides toast today.”
“I won’t!” Armitage promised as he made his way to the stairs.
The next Monday morning he got up at an ungodly hour to catch the bus, then spent a half-hour hunched in his seat over the composition book on his knees, scratching away with a stubby pencil in his cramped handwriting.
“What are you writing?” a melodious voice asked him.
Armitage started and then looked up and saw two earnest, black-lined blue eyes set in round face, a red mouth wearing a cheeky expression, a mane of blonde hair sticking out in unruly waves. She was leaning over the back of the seat in front of him, arms in a black leather jacket and hands with black-painted fingernails draped over it as she peered down at him.
“Words,” he said, then exaggeratedly studied the page of his notebook, said “Words,” pointed at a line, said, “words,” another line, “words.”
She rolled her eyes in a way that reminded him of Cass. “All right, Prince Hamlet, I’ll leave you to it then.”
And, abruptly, she turned and slid back down into her seat.
Armitage frowned, trying to think of something to say to show he appreciated her understanding his Hamlet reference. But what was some girl with a posh accent, looking like she did, wearing what she was, doing talking to him?
Bollocks. He took a deep breath and just came out with it. “My name is Armitage,” he said to her back.
She popped back up, smiling. “Well met, Armitage. I’m Phasma.”
She smiled, showing a set of small, sharp-looking teeth. “Not the name Mum and Daddy gave me, but a girl’s gotta make her own way in this big bad world. Phasma Sterling.”
“Sterling?” He frowned.
“You’re just going to repeat what I say to you, eh? Yes, those Sterlings.”
“Your dad is my dad’s boss,” he said. “Hux. I’m Armitage Hux.”
“Well, well, well. Is that where you’re going, as well? Intern orientation day?”
“You got pulled into it, too?”
She changed her posture, tucking in her chin, squaring her shoulders. “‘It’s the family business, darling, and you have to learn something about it. You can’t just fritter away at your little drawings all your life’.”
“A bit. Graphic arts are more my thing.”
“What do you draw?”
She smiled again, close-lipped. “What do you write?”
He tipped his head slightly, side to side, then handed her his notebook.
She took it and began to read. “The sorry state of Arkanisian culture was on full anemic display Friday night at the Cog and Wheel as The Holodrones couldn’t be said to have taken the stage so much as to have been swallowed up by it —”
“Not out loud!” Armitage whispered, looking around the bus. “My contributions to AMW are anonymous.”
“Why? Are you hiding something? If that’s what you think, let it be known you think it.”
“Thank you for the life advice, girl I just met.”
Unexpectedly, she laughed, a rich, merry sound. “Don’t mind me. It’s the Sterling arrogance. Doing my best to cast it off.” She flipped the pages of his composition book, making the air blow into her face. “But I saw The Holodrones last Friday too. They weren’t that bad. What’s the point of slagging them off?” She opened his notebook where her thumb landed. “Oh! Perhaps this is a clue! What have I found here? Lyrics?”
He snatched it back from her and she didn’t resist.
“So you’re insulting them because it makes you feel superior?” she asked.
“No,” he said evenly. “I’m insulting them because I am superior.”
She raised her eyebrows. “What’s your band called, then?”
He didn’t bother to look abashed. “Don’t have one...yet.”
She laughed again, a hearty country manor kind of laugh.
“Why are you on the bus, anyway?” he asked. “I wouldn’t expect Daddy Sterling likes his daughter mingling with the hoi polloi.”
“Oh, he doesn’t like it,” she said, pulling a stick of gum from her jacket pocket and offering him one. He took it. “But I told him that if I’m going to do this bloody boring internship, I’m going to do it like everyone else does.”
“You are truly a champion of the common man — and woman.”
“Oh do fuck off,” she said, but she smiled she said it, and Armitage gave a little sniff of laughter in response.
Phasma and Armitage kept to the back of the group as a bored woman from human resources led them around First Order Manufacturing’s factory, pointing out features of the operations. Wearing plastic safety goggles and earplugs, they mimed small talk at each other so extravagantly that they were dismissed from the tour early to start training in the office.
This training, suffice to say, was mind-numbing, and between their competent exercises in writing instruction manuals and drawing accompanying technical illustrations, they produced a series of “Impossible Machines” — the Poetry-Writing Engine and the Flower Assembler and the Music Mill, the Soul Extractor and the Self-Terminator and the Groupthink Gin.
The other interns avoided them; their fathers avoided them; and they were fine with that. They smoked on the roof during lunch breaks if it wasn’t raining, looking out over Empire Street. Four weeks into the six-week internship Armitage squinted through the rare sunlight at the record shop on the corner.
“Wait… who is that?”
Phasma sidled up to him, shading her eyes. “The ginger? Girl from St. Mary’s skiving off school, looks like. Too young for you, Armitage. Don’t be a letch.”
“Really, Phasma,” Armitage said, cringing. “The girl is my sister, Cassandra.”
“Sorry.” She dug a pair of mirrored sunglasses out of the pocket of her wool overcoat and put them on. “You mean the boy with her? Tall one, dark hair?”
“There’s only one boy with her, so, yes.”
“Ah, so that’s your type, then.”
Armitage felt his cheeks burn, and he knew with absolute certainty that he was glowing like a beacon. “No. No. I don’t have a type. I’m just interested in knowing who is hanging out with my sister.”
“So ask your sister. I don’t know him. He looks older than her, though.”
Armitage peered down again. Cassandra was talking, gesturing wildly, and the boy was leaning against the brick wall, nodding, making a brief remark here and there. He was tall, maybe even taller than Armitage, slender but not in the bird-bones way Armitage was. Wiry. His hair, almost black, was a mass of tousled waves; he wore a black leather jacket and cuffed jeans. But he didn’t have the cocky affectation of most boys putting on the postwar delinquent look. Something about his posture and his gestures seemed gentle.
Phasma peered over his shoulder, turning to look him in the face.
“You’re licking your lips,” she said.
“They’re chapped,” he replied.
“Likely story. C’mon, break’s about over, and you don’t want Shankly4 having a go at us with his clacky dentures and horrible breath.”
“Right —” Armitage said, distracted. “I’m just going to — check on —”
Phasma rolled her eyes. “Right, check on your sister.”
Armitage trotted down the staircase, winding his way around a couple of other interns with a muttered “‘scuse me.” When he opened the glass door at the front of the building, he realized he had no plan. He just wanted to see this boy up close. He debated turning and going back in, but his feet just kept moving him forward, and a bracing wind even picked up at his back as if to propel him along.
Bollocks. He was coming up right behind Cassandra. The boy shifted his gaze from her, looked right at him, and their eyes met. His were hooded, amber ringed in gold below heavy, earnest eyebrows that were slightly drawn together in an inquiring rather than hostile manner. Again: gentle. His mouth, though — seeing the full dark pink lips and the suggestion of a smile in the corners is what made Armitage’s knees momentarily wobble, his stomach drop, the skin on his hands tingle. Words, usually coming so fetchingly to his mind, failed him.
So he just slid up next to Cassandra, bumped his shoulder into hers, and hoped she’d take pity on him.
She did not.
“Bloody hell, Armie!” she shouted. “You want to give me a heart attack?”
“Aren’t you meant to be in school?” he asked, amazed that his voice worked.
She looked at him with disgust. “Sod off, loser. Since when do you care? Anyway, aren’t you meant to be at work?”
“I’m taking a break.”
“Sure. Where’s that blonde you’ve been spending so much time with? Fanny? Fuzzy?”
“Phasma,” Armitage said, glancing nervously at the boy. “She’s just my friend.”
“Sure,” Cass said again.
They stood in awkward silence for a beat.
“Is... is this your brother, Cass?” the boy finally said.
“Unfortunately, this sodding busybody is. Drawn out into the daylight — which you can see from his pasty visage he doesn’t get much of — by the Machiavellian machinations of our dear pater.”
Armitage sighed inwardly. She was showing off, so she must like this boy.
She nodded her head toward the boy. “Armitage, this is Ben. Ben, Armitage.”
Armitage expected a nonchalant poking out of the chin as acknowledgment, but the boy straightened his posture — he was indeed taller than Armitage — and held out his hand.
“Good to meet you, Armitage. Cass is a smart girl, yeah? Bit of a brat, but smart.” His voice was deep, almost as if the words were coming from inside a cavern, resonating in his chest before reaching the outside air. And his accent was American. “I’m Ben.”
“Erm… yes,” Armitage stammered.
Ben’s hand around his was so big — enveloping, soft, callused on the fingertips. Gentle, just as he thought. Armitage held on a fraction of a second too long.
“Are you — do you go to school with Cass?”
“I go to a girls’ school, Armie,” Cass said.
“Yes, well… what I meant.... You can see how it would be easy for me to forget, seeing how infrequently you attend,” Armitage said, finally finding words again.
Ben laughed, his face lighting up in a goofy smile, his pink lips spread to show teeth that seemed almost mismatched, his eyes crinkling into half-moons.
Armitage was completely charmed.
“Yeah, he has you there, Cass. I’m out of school — got my O levels finished, still don’t know what to do with myself.”
“Ah, yes, same here.”
“I thought I saw you come out of the First Order building. Don’t you work there?”
He noticed me, Armitage thought.
“Just an internship our father lined up to me in hopes it would mold me into a company man.”
“And has it?”
Ben looked so serious, as if he truly cared about what Armitage was saying.
“No, that’s not what I’m meant for.”
“What is it you’re made for then?”
Cass cut in, ruining the moment. “You’re going to be a star, aren’t you, Armie?” She laughed. “A legend in his own time.”
Armitage felt the blush rising from his collar.
“We all have dreams like that, don’t we?” Ben said. “All of us worth knowing anyway.”
Armitage felt himself smiling but could think of not a single thing to say.
Ben looked down at the scuffed white toes of his Chuck Taylors. “I suppose you’re here to tell me I shouldn’t be encouraging truancy, huh?” he asked Armitage.
“Yes, Armie, why are you here?” Cass asked.
“My sister doesn’t need any encouraging in the delinquency department, I know that. Can’t a brother say hello to his sister?”
Cass narrowed her green eyes. The sun had given her a smattering of freckles across her nose. “Not when the brother is you. Go on, get back to work. You want to lose your job?”
“It’s not a job, it’s an internship, remember? Right, though, got to get back.” He rocked back and forth on his heels, smiling uncomfortably. “Well, goodbye. Good to meet you, Ben.”
Ben, he repeated under his breath as he trotted back across the street. He tried to ignore the hammering in his chest. Stupid. He didn’t get like this. Crushes were just a stop on the way to greater misery — and he was miserable enough already.5
Cass was in a state, pleading with Bridget in the kitchen, when Armitage came home that evening.
“But Mother, it’s all-ages night, that’s what makes it all right for me to go!”
“Not all right with me. What kind of men are going to be there, knowing there’s unaccompanied young girls all about?”
“Oh, la, Mum, you sound so — so — so Victorian!”
Armitage tried go straight up the stairs without getting involved in the argument, but Cass’ uncanny hearing picked up the sound of the door softly closing.
“Armie!” she yelled. “Armie come in here and tell Mum that it’s all right for me to go to all-ages night at the New Republic!”
“Cassandra, your brother doesn’t decide what’s all right for you.”
Armitage hedged over and peeked through the kitchen door. Cassandra was standing with her hands on her hips, still in her school uniform, while Bridget sat at the small table with a cup of tea.
“Mum seems to think I need a chaperone to go out. I told her I’d go with my friends, but that just isn’t — hey!” Her eyes lit up. “You could —”
“No,” Armitage said. “I have better things to do tonight than hang about with a passel of teenagers.”
Cass rolled her eyes. “And what’s that, Grandad? Staying in with your slippers and paper? Bring your friend Phasma if you think you’ll get bored. You two can make fun of everyone like you always do. Mum, tell him you’ll let me go if he goes with me. Please, Armie!”
“She can go if you go with her,” Bridget said.
“Cass, I have work to do. There’s the new album from Joy —”
“Ben will be there.”
His mouth stopped mid-word and it took a second for him to form a new one. “What?”
She gave him an arch, knowing look. “Ben will be there.” She took his hand in both of hers and shook his arm. “Please, please, please6 my one, my only brother, won’t you do this for me?”
Armitage sighed, trying not to seem too eager. “All right.”
“Oh, thank you, Armie! You’re the best big brother in the world!”
“Don’t overdo it.”
“And who knows, maybe you’ll get something out of it too, eh?” she said, smirking as she headed for the stairs.”
He ran after her, mock-swiping at her back. She shrieked and gave him a slap on the arm, and then rumbled up the stairs.