Like A Caged Thing Freed
“...like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run.
Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame,
She gorged on bitterness without a name:
Ah! fool, to choose such part
Of soul-consuming care!
Sense failed in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind-uprooted tree
Like a foam-topped water-spout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life ?
Life out of death.”
-from Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti
The building seemed, to the boy, immense. The stonework was such a pale shade of grey that it appeared to gleam against the darker clouds beyond, and the wide, gently curving lawn that swept up in front of it was clipped short with an almost military precision. Arnold imagined he could take a ruler to that grass and it would all be cut to an exact and equal length, down to the nearest millimetre. He walked dutifully beside his mother along the winding grey path that bounded the lawn’s edge, towards the building. It would have been quicker, more direct, to walk across the grass, but that was unthinkable. Keep Off The Grass, Arnold thought to himself. There was no sign – there didn’t need to be. With lawns like that, one simply knew.
They approached, silently, not towards the main entrance but to stone steps along the building’s side in more of that same pale grey stone. Like the ocean, Arnold thought, in those vids of Earth that his brothers watched sometimes. Books always called the ocean blue, or sometimes green, so he hadn’t recognised it at first, and Frank had laughed at him. He knew better now. The ocean is grey, and if you don’t know something you should never, never let on.
At the top of the steps his mother dropped a hand onto his shoulder in what might, from outside, seem a reassuring gesture. “Make me proud,” she said, and it felt like a threat. He said nothing. An answer, he knew, was not required.
Inside their footfalls were loud and clipped on a wooden floor that had been polished so well it put Arnold’s smart black shoes to shame. Up ahead of them a man Arnold knew to be the Deputy Headmaster stood, impossibly tall, unsmiling.
“Ah,” he said. “Mrs. Rimmer.” Mummy shook the man’s hand. “And your youngest.”
“Yes. Arnold,” she replied stiffly. Later, he would wonder if she was nervous as he was. If she was ever nervous at all. “Here for his interview.”
Beside them a door Arnold’s brothers had told him led to somewhere called the Red Hall opened, and another boy of Arnold’s age walked out and was met by a pale, blonde woman, presumably his mother, as she rose from a wooden bench beside the tall windows. Arnold hadn’t even noticed her. The woman nodded at the Deputy Headmaster and she and the boy left, without a word.
It seemed to Arnold at that moment that no place he had ever been before had been so quiet. Even their footsteps were muted, as if the building absorbed any noise within into the stonework. The realisation took him then that he was afraid, breathlessly afraid, like in those endlessly recurring dreams where he was drowning in deep, grey water.
He knew he’d not done well in the entrance exam. He’d tried, but sat in front of that desk he’d felt like he was choking, being strangled. The words had danced in front of his eyes. Outside the window a class of sixth formers played cricket and the last thing he could remember thinking was to wonder if Frank was among them.
They’d said, later, that he’d fainted.
To say that Mummy was unimpressed was rather an understatement. But, to her credit, she had rallied. Spoken to people. Gone to meetings.
Everything rested on the interview now, they said. The exam could be overlooked, they said. Such a good family, they said, what with all the brothers attending. This is the reason we have entrance interviews, they said. There are things that can’t be gleaned from examinations, after all.
“Mr. Rimmer,” the Deputy Headmaster spoke, sudden in the stillness, holding out an arm towards the open door.
Arnold swallowed and turned to it. Beyond, he could see a long, bare room with three evenly spaced desks along a wall papered in ornate red. Three masters in their long, black gowns stood behind them.
This is important. Remember what Mummy told you. He walked forward a step, on feet of lead. Another. Don’t smile. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t be yourself. Don’t talk too much about Daddy.
The door clicked shut behind him.
The history of the British Empire, from the savage conquest of already populated corners of the planet Earth to the colonisation of Jupiter’s moons, has always been littered with ineptitude and procrastination. Nowhere is there to be found a better example of this than that great and ancient institution, the Royal Mail.
So really, Rimmer thought as he watched Lister sort through millennia old post that was so late in arriving at its destination that even the word late had itself given up waiting and smegged off to find something better to do - really, all things considered, and given that this was second class post they were talking about here, it seemed almost unpatriotic to be surprised at bumping into the post pod.
He watched Lister frown and pull apart a crisp manila envelope like it was cheap Christmas wrapping paper, and hold up the letter it had contained.
“Dear Old Ionian,” he read, with a mocking grin, and the sound of that voice – that accent, wrapping around those words, was all wrong.
“Bin it.” Rimmer’s voice was tight, almost unfamiliar in his own ears.
Lister, of course, continued unheeding. Goit. “Members of your year group have arranged a function this coming summer to mark the fifteen year anniversary of your year’s departure from Io House.”
“I said bin it, Lister.”
“A reception has been arranged in the courtyard –“
“Lister!” Rimmer felt, for a moment, as if he were drowning. It was a feeling he often got at moments of acute stress which, given that he had died, been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of co-workers, and been revived to live out eternity babysitting a man who made the Teletubbies seem like scintillating company – and all before his thirty-second birthday – could only be described as a fairly regular occurrence. Memories of a thousand panic attacks in school bathroom stalls flooded his brain, and he had the urge to breathe very hard through the sleeve of his blazer until he felt more composed. He settled for reminding himself that he didn’t need to breathe at all any more, and glaring at Lister as if looks could eviscerate.
“All right, all right, keep yer knickers on.” Lister shook his head with a grin and crumpled the letter in his hand, letting it fall onto the pile of discarded junk mail at his side. Rimmer watched him pick through the other letters on the desk in front of him. He held his panicked, simulated breath. The room fell oddly silent.
Io House… A brilliant school. He bit back a shudder. A brilliant school.
“Would you’ve gone?” Lister asked, eventually, without looking up from his rummaging. And Rimmer wouldn’t have answered, except that there was something barely there in Lister’s voice, something gentle without being patronising, something that had Rimmer responding before he could stop himself.
“No. I don’t know.” He paced the small quarters. Grey floor, grey bunk, Lister’s leather jacket hanging against the wall. A restless tickle under his non-existent skin. “No.”
“Why would I go?”
“Old friends?” Lister looked up, met Rimmer’s eyes. Whatever he saw there made his face fall a little. “Guess not.”
Rimmer sat heavily on the lower bunk. The bed sheets were unmoved. Everything felt distant, like he was out of synch with his own mind. He’d have to get Holly to run a diagnostic on his light bee. There was no reason a simple letter should have this effect. It had just caught him off guard, that’s all. He’d not thought of the place in years.
Lister resumed sorting through the mail like a demented and rather slapdash postman. “I never went to my school reunion neither, y’know.”
I don’t care, Rimmer thought petulantly. “You were in stasis,” he said instead. Lister nodded. Rimmer snorted. “I hope that flea-infested feline was worth it.”
Lister shrugged. “You can’t think of life like that, Rimmer. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Oh? Then how does it work? Pray enlighten me, oh curry-stained one.”
“I dunno. You just can’t go round blaming everything else for your decisions. Things happen.”
“Things happen,” Rimmer let his voice communicate his utter disdain. “Those are your words of wisdom, are they?”
Lister smiled, as if at a private joke. “Yeah.”
“Well bravo, Listy. I think the Dalai Lama’s got some stiff competition there.”
“Smeg off, Rimmer. It’s true. Things happen, and when it’s all over there’s nothin’ you can do about it by whingin’ and feeling bad. Look, so you didn’t have any friends at school…”
“Lister you shut up about my school!” A small, detached part of Rimmer remembered to hate how shrill he sounded when he was upset.
“Oh fer smeg’s sake. Why do I bother?”
“Excellent question.” Rimmer scrubbed his not-face with his not-hands, and for some reason found it was too much effort to raise his head again.
He heard Lister sigh. Heard the ugly scrape of the metal chair legs on the grey floor, the rustle of sheets as the bunk dipped and Lister sat beside him. Felt nothing. As always.
“You never talk about it,” Lister said quietly.
“Don’t I?” Rimmer’s voice was small. Distant. “No, I suppose I don’t.”
“What was it like?”
Like being on holiday with a group of Germans. “What do you think it was like?”
Lister snorted. “Posh.”
“You’d call anyone who washes their underwear more than once a month posh.”
“Man, are you kidding? That letter,” Rimmer glanced up to see Lister gesturing at the rubbish pile, “might as well’ve come from Mallory smeggin’ Towers.”
Rimmer was startled, and somewhat appalled, to find himself very briefly laughing. He covered his mouth swiftly, and put it down to shock. He noticed that his hand was shaking. For some strange reason, it made him want to laugh again.
Beside him Lister’s face had settled into an incredulous frown. His eyes were startled wide and he looked like he didn’t know quite what to say, how to react. “Seriously Rimmer,” he began, reaching out a hand then seeming to think the better of it and dropping it back into his lap again. “Are you okay?”
“Are you okay?”
Arnold huddled behind the astroscience block and frantically rubbed his eyes on scratchy, bottle green sleeves. He was sat scrunched up with his back to the brick wall behind him and his knees pulled up to his face. The sky above was a deep, brooding grey, like sack cloth, and there was enough mist in the air that you could taste it.
“You’re Frank Rimmer’s brother, aren’t you?” the older boy said, his school shoes crunching on the neat gravel that edged the building. “My brother’s in his form.”
Arnold resolutely didn’t look up from the knees of his grey woollen trousers, but out of the corner of his eye he watched the boy approach. An older brother in the upper sixth? Arnold wracked his brain but couldn’t put a name to the boy’s somewhat familiar face. He was in the year above, Arnold was fairly sure.
“Talbot,” the boy supplied helpfully. He thrust out his hand towards Arnold. “Eustace.”
Arnold pointedly did not shake the boy’s hand (did he look like an idiot? He’d been taken in by faked, mocking overtures of friendship before. No one was genuinely nice to Arnold Rimmer – it was a universal smegging constant) but he did look over his knees at him, properly, for the first time. Eustace Talbot was a tall, skinny boy with ridiculous coppery hair and broad shoulders that he would, perhaps, some day grow into, but for now made his blazer hang as if from a wire coat hanger. He didn’t seem put out when no hand shake was forthcoming, and instead dropped down beside Arnold, folding his unrealistically long legs beneath him.
“Look,” Talbot said. “Don’t take this the wrong way.”
Here we go, Arnold thought to himself.
“But you really shouldn’t take it all so seriously, you know.”
Arnold felt hot, indignant tears threaten at the backs of his eyes once again. Easy for you to say you horrid, horrid… Arnold couldn’t even think of a word for the horridness of Talbot at that moment.
“They’re just idiots. They were dicks to me when I first arrived, too.” Talbot glanced sideways at him. “I transferred over in second form. Assisted place,” he added, with significance.
Oh. Well. “Oh.”
They sat for a moment side by side. The astroscience block was the furthest from the main school building – in front of them was only grass and a copse of dark trees, and the fence they could not see but knew to be beyond. The lawns this far out were somewhat wilder, less obsessively manicured than the front lawns and cricket pitches further back. It gave a rugged, edge-of-the-world feel to Arnold’s favourite hiding spot.
Eventually – “I only got in because my brothers all go,” Arnold rushed out in one breath.
Talbot seemed to think about this. He tipped his head to one side and bit his lower lip, a gesture that Arnold suddenly realised might be called charming. “How do you know that’s why?”
“Everyone knows,” Arnold bit out, the words bitter on his tongue.
They lapsed into silence once again. What more was there to say? It was true, all true. Talbot’s family were too poor to afford the school fees, and Arnold would have been shown the door after the first entrance exam if it weren’t for his family. And everyone knew. Everyone would always know. He was thirteen years old and his life was a joke. It was all just so bloody unfair.
He blew his nose on his shirt sleeve. “How did you make them stop, then?” he asked, knowing he didn’t need to explain who they were, or what he wanted them to stop doing.
Talbot looked like he was trying to hold back a smile. “I’m good at cricket, I’m afraid,” he said, with a sympathetic tilt of his head. “Sorry.”
And because he didn’t know what else to do, Arnold laughed.
They drank, that night. Copiously. Well, Lister drank. Rimmer had Holly simulate the effects of unit after unit after unit of alcohol on his system, until he could barely see and Lister’s guitar playing seemed like the sort of music you might want to dance badly to.
They were always chummier when drunk, something Rimmer put down to Lister’s disgustingly tactile nature and his own lack of good judgement and tendency towards the maudlin when sloshed. He’d never used to drink, when alive. So it was hardly surprising, or his fault, if it affected him rather powerfully now.
He swayed a little where he stood.
“They’re all gone,” he said, under the thrashing, brain meltingly loud noise of what sounded like Rastabilly Skank’s greatest hits spliced with one of his Hammond organ records. It worked strangely well. Like an aural enema.
“WHAT?” Lister shouted back, leaning into Rimmer’s personal space in a way that he would ordinarily have found intrusive.
Instead, in response, Rimmer moved close enough that, had he been alive, his lips would have been brushing Lister’s ear. “I SAID THEY’RE ALL GONE!”
Lister grinned. “SO ARE WE!” he yelled, and slung an arm around Rimmer’s shoulders only to fall through him to the floor.
Rimmer stared at the man giggling and writhing about through his hologrammatic not-feet on the familiar beer-stained, ocean grey floor of the mining ship Red Dwarf. So we are, he thought to himself. So we are.
The next morning Holly refused to do anything about his simulated hangover, no matter how hard Rimmer begged, cajoled, whined, shouted or wheedled, so he covered his face with the hologrammatic pillow and went back to sleep.
When he woke up again, still dry-mouthed and shaky, he was annoyed to see that Lister was not in his bed. Normally Rimmer liked to wake up very shortly before Lister, and then pretend to have been up for hours accomplishing Important Tasks. He fell out of bed in an ungainly sprawl, and only just managed to remember to stop himself falling through the floor as well.
He never felt totally at ease sleeping in a room alone. Well, he’d never had to. From sharing bedrooms with his brothers to sharing a dorm with a veritable ocean of other boys to the Jupiter mining corporation’s twin living quarters, he was as used to sleeping with other men close by as he was to the low background hum of oxygeneration units. Without it he felt… bereft. Uneasy. Unsettled.
Right now, though, right at this moment, Rimmer was too smegged to begin to analyse what, if anything, any of that might mean. Or even, let’s be realistic here, to haul himself up to standing. So he didn’t bother trying.
Lister wandered in to their shared quarters, can of lager in his hand.
Rimmer frowned blearily up at him from the floor. From this direction Lister loomed over him, upside down. Rimmer could see the underside of Lister’s chin, and he had a feeling the toe of one of Lister’s heavy black boots was lost somewhere inside the top of his head. He licked his dry lips. “Hair of the dog?” he managed.
Lister shook his head. “Nah,” he said, with a relaxed, sleepy smile that tightened Rimmer’s stomach. “Not gone to bed yet.” He sat beside Rimmer, kicking his legs out in front of him, as if carrying on a conversation while sat on the floor with a dead, upside down room mate was par for the course. Which, for Lister, it probably was. All the social grace of a warthog. Lister took a swig from his can before speaking, very casually. ”D’you remember dying?”
Rimmer shut his eyes for the barest moment. He hoped it would pass for a blink. “I remember,” he said, before he’d even realised he was speaking.
“What’s it like?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.” Lister spoke with the air of a man who had infinite patience and understanding, rather than the brain and spirit of a goldfish with ADD. Rimmer wasn’t fooled.
“Why should I?”
Rimmer opened his mouth. It hurt, he wanted to say. It hurt like smeg and I was frightened. “I-“
Lister sighed. He did not say you’re a coward, Rimmer, but Rimmer was pretty sure he was thinking it. It was true, after all. Face it, Rimmer. He smiled to himself and it was a bitter thing.
“If you say so,” Lister said instead and reached out to pat Rimmer awkwardly on the head. Rimmer thought that his hair must be a disgrace, all the usual work he did taming it into some semblance of order undone by alcohol and bad sleep and sprawling on the floor like the type of uncouth moron Lister would ordinarily choose to hang out with. He felt – not the physical sensation of touch, not anything like it, but a small, cool buzz where Lister’s hand met the messy curls on top of his head.
“I’m off to bed,” Lister said, and crawled past (and at points through) Rimmer onto the bottom bunk.
“Er, Listy, that’s my bunk.”
But Lister, seemingly well on the way to sleep already, simply pulled the unused blankets up to his chin. The hologrammatic ones had disappeared the moment Rimmer had tumbled to the floor. “Mm hm.”
“Lister do you have any concept of the penalty for being caught in a superior officer’s bed?” The rules on this were, for some reason Rimmer could never quite fathom, very strict indeed.
Lister’s breath was slow and steady around the thumb that had made its way into his slack mouth. On the floor the almost empty can of lager had been upended and was spilling a puddle of amber fluid under (through) Rimmer’s right thigh. Lister snuffled in his sleep.
“Smeghead,” Rimmer breathed, wondering why it came out sounding like a term of endearment.
They didn’t become friends. Being friends with someone in another year just wasn’t done, even by those boys who were far more popular and far more outgoing than Arnold Judas Rimmer. But he thought of Talbot, sometimes, and found he noticed him around school more than before. Eustace, he called him in the privacy of his own mind, and imagined Arnold in those lush, rich, breaking tones.
When Eustace kissed him, his mouth had the burnt-sugar taste of jam roly poly from the lunch hall. They were in Arnold’s dorm, and the late afternoon sun was low enough that it slanted through the windows in dusty gold bands, and made Eustace’s hair blaze. Arnold threaded a hand through it boldly. He had shot up over the summer, both as a natural result of the changes his pubescent body was going through and thanks to his father’s increasingly erratic and irrational behaviour, and was now almost as tall as the gangly older boy before him.
The deserted third year dormitory was a thin, low-ceilinged room, almost a hallway, with faded white walls and a cold stone floor that was murder on bare feet. The severe metal bed frames were bolted to the ground at meticulously spaced intervals, each made to within an inch of its life in case of a surprise dorm inspection. It was a room that felt, at the best of times, musty and airless. At the worst, desperately claustrophobic. Still, at this time in the afternoon it was empty, and the closest a student could get to privacy.
The two boys stretched out on thin cotton sheets itchy from too much detergent; a helpless, awkward sprawl of clumsy limbs, elbows and knees and hot, slender hands beneath school shirts that were starting to come unbuttoned.
“You… you…” Arnold whispered, words that seemed wrung from him. “Eustace.” He felt too hot, felt a flush swarming across his skin like lightning bugs at a window pane. Eustace bit his lip, that maddening, charming gesture, pushed Arnold back onto the narrow bed and settled between his parted legs. His body was lean and hard, and so warm that Arnold could feel it even through the crisp, grey fabric of their school trousers. The taut line of Eustace’s cock pressed itself into Arnold’s inner thigh, and he found himself trembling with the newness of it, white with heat.
They kissed, and Eustace smiled against his lips. When Arnold opened his eyes, he saw that Eustace’s were the colour of the ocean, and crinkled at the edges like tin foil. When they started to thrust, slow and lazy against each other, it felt like the ebb and flow of waves, like being pulled in with the tide and finally, oh finally, released again from a wide, soft shoreline…
He woke from the dream in a tangle of damp bed sheets and his own sweaty limbs. Through the window no sunlight, but the heavy pink dusk of Jupiter slung low in the night sky.
“Disgusting, Rimmer,” came the sneering, porcine voice of Thicky Holden from the next bed over.
Lister’s face was scrunched up in what looked, to Rimmer, like a distasteful frown. He held between his thumb and forefinger a glossy, pristine A5 rectangle of photo paper. From this angle, Rimmer couldn’t see the front of the picture. Probably something obscene, he decided, with a mental sniff of superiority. Knowing Lister’s dirty mind and pornographic magazine collection (Rimmer was always a master at hide and seek), something positively perverted. He was just debating with himself whether he could get away with confiscating it when –
“So these’re yer brothers, then.”
“What!” He skirted the desk quickly, stood behind the chair where his bunkmate sat, insubstantial hip overlapping Lister’s arm in his haste.
There they stood, as if alive. The four Rimmer boys, resplendent in their deep green uniforms, stiffly posed in front of the gatehouse. On the far left, Frank’s tie was bright with cricket colours, his face smug.
“Where did you get this?” Rimmer’s voice, so indignant in his mind, came out barely-there, throaty. He hadn’t looked at this photograph in years, hadn’t taken it out of the sheaf of papers stored safely in his trunk at the bottom of his…
“We share a wardrobe,” Lister said, as if that explained everything.
Rimmer was incandescent with rage, hot and bright and shaking with it. “You-“
“Hey, you go through my stuff all the time!”
“And I have the common decency not to flaunt it in your face!”
Lister lifted his hands placatingly, and spoke as if rifling through his room mate’s private personal private possessions was the most reasonable thing in the world. “Come on Rimmer, don’t be like that. I was curious, you seemed so… not-you. Since the other day with that smeggin’ letter.”
“Oh, well if you were curious,” Rimmer spat.
“You never talk about it!”
“You never ask!”
Lister sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. Rimmer wondered if he was counting slowly to ten, as they’d been taught to do in times of interpersonal conflict during their compulsory Team Dysfunction Training Course, then remembered that Lister had skived the class entirely. Stupid lazy thieving smegging smeghead. One, Rimmer thought grimly to himself. Two. Lister’s eyes opened again, and he dropped the photo face up onto the table with a sigh. He slid it towards Rimmer. “Maybe I’m asking now,” he said.
Rimmer stared, feeling the anger leach out of him no matter how hard he tried to claw it back.
Frank smirked up at him from the photograph. Howard scowled sullenly beneath the wild curls of his fringe. John smiled, and still somehow looked sad, like he was missing something that should have been there and wasn’t. While Arnold… Rimmer searched for some sign of emotion on his younger self’s face. Found nothing. You’re dead, he whispered silently, unsure of exactly what he meant by it.
“Mummy commissioned this,” he said quietly, fingers not-brushing the paper.
No matter how many times it was cleaned, the desk in their quarters always seemed smudged and dirty. Lister kicked the scuffed leg closest with a booted foot, a rhythm that managed to flay Rimmer’s nerves like cheese wire. “You’re the youngest, yeah? How old were you?”
“Here?” he tapped his own face soundlessly. “Thirteen. Third year. Just.” The year before Frank left, the last year they were all attending at the same time.
Lister waited. If he was waiting for Rimmer to say more, he was going to be disappointed.
“You look alike,” he said eventually. Rimmer pointedly said nothing about Lister’s idiotic tendency to state the blitheringly obvious. “I never had a brother.”
Rimmer sniffed. “Just as well. Two of you would probably be more than the universe could cope with.”
“All right, very funny.”
This was safer ground. Rimmer felt himself start to relax, to unwind the complicated knots his mind had tied itself up in. “No, Listy, I’m serious. It’s probably a law of science. More than one Lister would surpass the universe’s critical mass for smegheadedness.”
Lister grinned. Rimmer, to his horror, found that he was almost tempted to smile back. “The universe seems to’ve done all right fer itself with four of you knocking about.”
And just like that Rimmer felt himself shut down again. Idiot, he thought. Don’t smile. Don’t be yourself. He looked back to the photograph.
“Man, this is really affecting you, isn’t it?”
Shut up shut up shut up. “Of course not,” he snapped. “Why would it.”
“I’m not an idiot, y’know, Rimmer.”
Rimmer snorted, and didn’t bother replying.
Lister laid a hand on the photograph beside Rimmer’s. If he’d been alive, he thought, if he’d been real, their thumbs would have been brushing. His thumb twitched. Lister’s voice was low. “You must’ve been close.”
“Look, piss off would you Rimmer? There’s a good chap.”
But Arnold was as unable to piss off as he was to move in any way at all. He’d lost all possession of his own body. He’d gone numb, immovable, like stone. “F-Frank,” he managed, in a pale voice that seemed to come from someone else’s throat.
Frank exhaled impatiently. “I said piss OFF, Rimmer.”
The cricket pavilion was long deserted, the triumphant Old Ionian team having retired to the dining hall for tea with the current student cricketers. The season culminated in this match every year, the O.I.’s against the school’s First Eleven, although this was the first year Frank Rimmer was on the visiting side. At the edge of the smooth, striped cricket lawn the pavilion nestled, cool white and squat in the heavy, false summer heat of Io – secluded. Inside it smelled of mown grass and leather, of pine and sweat and old paint. The wooden floorboards were dusty beneath Arnold’s feet, and there was no sound to break the stillness.
Against the flimsy wooden wall his big brother and Eustace Talbot, still in their cricket whites (well, Arnold thought snidely, half in), and wrapped up in each other’s arms, looked at him expectantly. Talbot’s skin, Arnold noticed, blushed the most charming shade of red. It clashed, vividly, with his ginger hair.
Arnold swallowed. Those dirty smegging perverts. There were rules about this. There were assemblies about it. Frank had a girlfriend at uni, for smeg’s sake. He could feel two itchy tear tracks on his face, and scrubbed at them furiously with his sleeve.
They looked too warm up against each other like that, their clothing rucked and rumpled. Frank still wore his grass-stained cricket pads, although they were unfastened at the top, and his white trousers, a little grimy from the heat and the day’s play, were undone. Talbot’s hands were tangled in Frank’s shirt, his own sleeves rolled carelessly up to the elbow. Even now, the mere sight of those long, slender fingers clinging to the sweat-soaked fabric drove Rimmer hot with despair and desire, and something like shame.
He should tell someone, he thought hysterically. That would really teach them. He should tell the headmaster. No, he should tell Mummy. He shook even thinking about it. Everyone knew what decent people like Mummy thought of those awful homosexuals. Everyone knew. The boys would be expelled. Well, Talbot would be. And Frank… could you be retroactively expelled? If it was possible for anything, Arnold thought grimly, it would be for this. They would be finished.
It would serve Talbot right. Mummy had always said they should do away with the assisted places, that it let the wrong sort in. Well here was proof! This boy had practically seduced Arnold into thinking those wicked, dirty thoughts, trying to make Arnold into a pervert like him. He was a victim, he insisted to himself. It was all their fault.
“Well?” Frank demanded, with a voice that sounded in no way frightened. Why wasn’t he smegging frightened. “We’re waiting.”
Thicky Holden’s voice resounded in Arnold’s memory, and the words forced themselves from his throat. “You’re DISGUSTING, Rimmer,” he croaked, fresh tears making tracks on his skin, unsure which of them he was really speaking to.
As the door banged shut behind him he could almost hear Talbot’s sweet, dark voice admonishing him not to take it all so very seriously.
It was always dreams that tripped him up. Often, when he dreamt, he was alive again, or at least had a physical body. He felt the ship beneath his feet as he paced the metal-floored corridors of the storage bays, heard the hollow stamp of his boots on the grating. Everything echoed.
That was the thing about this part of the ship. In the close quarters of their room, or the busy clutter of the drive room, you could forget the vast shell of Red Dwarf – the cargo decks like ancient, empty cathedrals, the walk ways you could lose yourself in. It was like a ghost town, Rimmer thought. Or a ship wreck.
Outside of dreams, he only came here when it was all too much. Too claustrophobic to bear, too much the two of them; when the air would get thick and charged, somehow, like the air before a storm. Of course, when he came here at those times there were no ringing footfalls on the silver stairs, as there were now. He was silent, soundless as a ghost, and if he didn’t concentrate then his projection would get confused by the grating and his feet would start to slip through.
In dreams each step thumped sharply as if he were alive, jolted the muscles of his leg as if they were real. He ran. His breath raced, real in his lungs. He was heavier than the air. Hot and dense, bone and flesh and blood. Up ahead, somewhere, Lister was waiting for him to catch up, just out of sight. Rimmer knew that he was getting closer. He had to keep moving forwards, faster. He panted and sweated his way around the ocean grey corner.
“There you are.”
Lister smiled as he spoke. He was wearing an Io House uniform, pristine white shirt tucked into those charcoal wool trousers, bottle green tie neatly around his neck bearing its fine gold stitch work of the school motto. He stood before a dark doorway and held out his hand. Rimmer knew that if he took it it would be warm and solid in his own.
“Come on,” the dream of Lister said. “Before they catch us.”
As if they were doing something to be guilty about, Rimmer started and took the offered hand, letting Lister pull him beyond the door into darkness.
He woke up too far from the ground. He yelped and drew back from the edge of what turned out to be the top bunk, which he had been perilously close to falling, face first, out of. He looked around, confused. It always took a while to adjust after dreaming he was real, something about the shock of all that sensation being suddenly switched off and turned numb again. Sometimes it was hard to work out which was the dream. It took a disoriented moment to get his bearings, and when he did he realised that Lister was leant against the wall by the end of the beds watching him. His eyes glinted like he was laughing.
Rimmer felt too exposed under that look. His grey pyjamas were too thin, almost transparent, the buttery soft cotton shirt shaped itself to his skinny torso like water and his hologrammatic name label, impossibly, seemed to scratch at his skin through the fabric.
“You… I-,” Rimmer began. He rubbed his eyes and tried again. He felt a sudden strong need to justify his choice of sleeping place. “You slept in my bunk the other day.”
Lister smiled, unrushed, all lopsided. He lifted an eyebrow and the glint in his eyes grew brighter. Rimmer had a feeling he was being mocked, however silently.
He swallowed, and licked lips that shouldn’t be dry. He tried to remember why he was sleeping in Lister’s bed. Had it really been nothing but tit-for-tat, paying Lister back for sleeping in his bunk yesterday? In the ship’s harsh, too-bright day lights it seemed like a stupid reason.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he said finally.
“I didn’t ask.”
The steady way Lister was watching him was unnerving. He wanted to get out of that uncomfortably insightful stare, before it saw something embarrassing. “Right,” he said, far too brightly. “Well. I’ll, er, I’ll just be off, then.” Rimmer edged towards the side of the bunk furthest from Lister. “Got a busy day scheduled today. Got to calibrate the, um… calibrations.”
Without warning or hesitation, without even looking like he was paying any attention to what Rimmer was saying at all, Lister took a step forward and buried a hand in Rimmer’s shoulder.
“Lister!” Rimmer sputtered, voice full of indignancy and outrage. Did this man have no concept of manners, of simple personal space? Rimmer ignored, for the moment, that he’d been caught sleeping in Lister’s bed. It was known that you never penetrated a hologram’s apparent physical boundaries if you could help it, everyone knew that. It was the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable. And Lister was not only flouting this social convention in the clumsy, everyday way he normally did, he was doing it intentionally, blatantly even. “Do you mind!”
Once again, Lister seemed not to hear him. This close Rimmer could see how warm and light his dark eyes were. An oxymoron, surely – light-dark. “Can you feel that?” Lister asked, watching closely where his fingers wiggled beneath Rimmer’s collar bone, where his pyjamas parted in a deep v.
Rimmer tried to keep breathing, which was both pointless, as he didn’t need oxygen at all, and surprisingly difficult. For some reason the thought of Lister’s fingers inside him seemed to steal all his breath away.
He shook his head. “No,” he managed in a small, unsteady voice.
Lister’s face fell. “Me neither,” he said, and drew his hand away.
Rimmer wondered why, if he couldn’t feel those fingers in the first place, the absence of them left him so bereft.
“Have you thought about what you’d like to do when you leave?”
“I want to be a test pilot for the Space Corps, sir.” Arnold knew he wanted to be an officer in the Space Corps because his father had told him so, and because of the model spacecraft he’d been given as a small boy. He’d enjoyed the painstaking process of assembling the sleek, miniature vehicle, and most of all he’d enjoyed painting her, each neat little section with its own coded pot of colour. He’d named her Wildfire, because it sounded like a name from one of Howard’s comics, and he’d printed it in dark red lettering down the side. That, surely, had to mean something.
The teacher sighed. “Look, Mr. Rimmer. Arnold.” He looked like he wasn’t sure how to go on. He was young, Mr. Chilcott, for a teacher. An Old Ionian himself, according to rumour. Years from now, looking back, Rimmer would remember him as being so very earnest. He searched Arnold’s face as if looking for something he couldn’t put a name to. “Is everything all right?”
“Sir?” Arnold was fairly sure nobody had ever asked him such a question before. He wasn’t quite sure what the right answer was.
“Are you getting on all right with the other boys?”
Arnold shifted uncomfortably.
“How are things at home?”
Well, sir, let’s see. My father is a petty minded lunatic sadist and my mother’s the president of a society called Parents Raising Inept & Cowardly Kids. My brothers like to play pranks on me, sir. The last one saw me in hospital for nearly a week. Mummy told me to say that I fell. She was so angry with me for the fuss that when I got home I was locked in my room for three days without food. It’ll be on my attendance record if you’d like the dates, sir.
Arnold was almost amused to notice that the teacher seemed nervous. He was leaning against his desk at the front of the empty classroom, his black gown gathered under him, as informal a pose as Arnold had ever seen from a teacher. It was as if he was trying his hardest to seem relaxed and approachable, but had no real idea of how to go about it. Arnold, on the other hand, stood stiffly in front of the blackboard, his hands clenched tight into fists inside his blazer sleeves. “Everything’s fine, sir. It’s all just… fine.”
The matter was dropped, of course.
Still, it was Chilcott Arnold went to, in the end, the term after catching his brother with Eustace Talbot. Not about that, of course. He never did tell anyone what he’d seen that day, after all.
“It’s about my- my family, sir.”
They were in Chilcott’s study this time, which doubled as a storage room for geography textbooks. By the thin window a mismatched wooden desk and chair sat unused. Arnold shuffled where he stood between the bookshelves. He quite liked geography. Lots of labels and colouring in.
Chilcott seemed more at home here. Arnold wasn’t sure exactly why he’d chosen this teacher above any other to talk to, except that this was the only one who’d ever bothered to try to talk to him, and the only other master who taught law was Mr. Simpson, who was generally terrifying. So Chilcott it was. Only now he was here Arnold was having trouble getting the words out. “You said you had a question for me, boy.”
It felt strange to be called boy by a man who seemed barely a decade older than himself, Arnold thought. Chilcott hardly even had any height on Arnold, lanky and long-limbed as he was becoming. “Right, sir. A- a legal question.”
Chilcott’s pale eyes narrowed. “Legal?”
“It’s about divorce.”
“Oh,” he said, face softening into lines of gentle pity. “I’m sorry, Arnold. Are your parents-?”
“No! It’s not them. I was just wondering something…”
Chilcott’s hair was dark and, like the school’s front lawn, almost military-short, but Arnold could see that left to grow it would curl quite wildly, just as Arnold’s did.
“A person’s family, sir. I was wondering… is it possible to divorce them? Legally I mean, sir.”
The pause was so long that Arnold began to worry that he’d said something wrong, that Chilcott didn’t understand at all; and to mentally brace himself for the trouble he had undoubtedly gotten himself into. There would probably be shouting. Shouting was all right, as long no one called his parents. Mummy would be mortified. It would end very badly for Arnold.
When Chilcott spoke, however, his voice had the same forced calmness to it that people used when speaking to animals about to bolt. “Why,” he said, very quietly and clearly, “would you want to do that?”
“I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I’m sorry, sir.”
“For heaven’s sake Rimmer – Arnold.”
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Chilcott sighed. “Look. There are circumstances in which a judge can sever the legal ties between you and your family-“
“We’d be divorced?”
“Well, essentially yes, I suppose you could call it that. It’s similar to the process children go through when they’re adopted.”
“I don’t want any other family either, sir!”
“Well, you wouldn’t be a candidate for adoption anyway at your age. The options would likely be foster care or an independent living arrangement of some sort.”
Arnold nodded. “I’d like the second one.”
“I’m afraid it wouldn’t be your decision. Even if you were successful with the whole business in the first place.” Arnold must have let some of his upset at this show on his face, because Chilcott’s eyebrows gathered in sympathy. “Although, your feelings on the matter would probably be taken into account to some extent.”
“All right, sir. So what do I do? Do I have to fill in a form?”
“Mr. Rimmer. Arnold. You don’t seem to understand – this is a serious legal matter, it would go before a judge. You would only be successful if… if there were at least some evidence of serious, prolonged abuse and neglect.”
Chilcott leant against the nearest book case and rubbed his face with his hand. “Oh indeed. Is there any such evidence?” At the time it didn’t strike him as odd that Chilcott never questioned whether any abuse and neglect was actually occurring.
It’ll be on my attendance record if you’d like the dates, sir, he thought. And hospitals, too – they kept records, didn’t they? And there was still that small crater in the back garden where the sand pit used to be.
“I think,” Rimmer said in a whisper. “I think maybe- yes.”
In the end they’d not even gotten as far as the sandpit. One look at his father’s collection of assorted “equipment” and Arnold was out of there faster than you could say Geronimo. Not that his parents had put up much of a fight. Their exact words, as read out in a statement in court, were that they wanted nothing more to do with such an ungrateful little sod anyway.
There were times when Rimmer was glad that he was dead, and as such incapable of using several of his senses. Curry night was most definitely one of those times.
He screwed his face up into a grimace as Lister sucked vindaloo sauce from his fingers. He was watching some sappy, romantic, nineteen-fifties style drivel on the vid screen. There were tears in his eyes, but whether they were from the film or the curry Rimmer could only guess. Those fingers have been inside me, he thought, with a shudder of something he hoped was revulsion.
On the screen it was raining, the kind of heavy, movie-rain that was rare in real life. Or, at least, it had been on Io. Rimmer could remember the smell of it on the heavy tarmac pathways, the air afterwards thick with petrichor.
“Utter rot,” he snapped as soon as the credits started rolling.
Lister squeezed his damp eyes shut. “Yeh’ve got no soul, Rimmer,” he said, voice rusty with emotion.
“Oh, please. Two chronically poor, demonstrably fickle characters whose relationship is entirely based around physical proximity, sexual attraction and a nameless cat. It’ll never last.”
Lister sniffed loudly at the word ‘cat’. “I really thought you might get something from this, y’know.”
“What I “get” from this is that idiots shouldn’t make films.”
“So why d’you always watch them with me, then?”
Rimmer wasn’t sure how to answer that particular question, so he scowled at his shoes instead. It wasn’t as if this place was crawling with things to do, he thought. And besides, they’d gotten into the routine of it. Every Wednesday evening Lister would wordlessly drag the metal chair out from behind the desk and set it in the middle of the floor, facing the vid screen, then sprawl out on his bunk with a curry while Rimmer sat primly, one leg crossed over the other, watching whatever sentimental bilge Lister had chosen for their entertainment. It was because the films were so boring, he told himself, that he spent most of the time watching Lister’s reaction to them instead.
He felt like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t. The room was so damn small. In front of him Lister frowned as if Rimmer’s lack of response was worrying.
“Smeg knows,” Rimmer bit out eventually, and stalked from the room.
By the time he got to the observation deck, Lister had almost caught up. They burst through the door to the narrow stairwell at virtually the same time. It was too narrow to walk side by side, so Rimmer marched up first, not looking back to see if Lister followed.
They were always quieter here. Perhaps it was how big the ship looked from the outside, like a harpooned whale – a great, blood-red carcass drifting back to shore on the tide. Or perhaps it was how small it looked, dwarfed against the galaxy beyond.
Beside him Lister put his hands on the grey metal railings. All around them, unfamiliar stars slipped past like lights on the motorway.
“You’re still thinking about it, aren’t you?” he said, without looking round at Rimmer.
“Don’t you think about it?”
Lister laughed and bowed his head for a moment as if praying. “All the time.”
Rimmer wrapped his arms around himself tightly. He felt restless, as if his skin couldn’t contain him. He watched Lister lift his head, track a planet as it soared past them.
“You never talk about it, Rimmer.”
“So you keep saying.” He rested his hands on the railing beside Lister’s. At least, that’s how it would appear. It had taken him nearly a month to learn how to make it look convincing, as if he were a real person with real hands that had weight and shape and physically defined edges.
“Will you tell me about it one day?”
It took a long while to answer, and even then the soft words were almost swallowed up in the silence.
One of Lister’s hands found his on the railing, traced the outer line of it as if it were solid. And although he could feel nothing, although there was nothing to feel, Rimmer turned his own hand palm up so that it looked like it held Lister’s in its palm.
They stood like that until the great ship’s lights dimmed below them.
He was allowed to finish up the year at Io House, since the fees had already been paid.
Mr. Chilcott had made it clear that Rimmer would be giving up more than just his family if he were serious about pursuing this. He’d helped him apply for a Jupiter Mining Corporation young apprenticeship, which he would start this summer straight from school. At fifteen years old he would be one of the youngest there. Hell, if he stayed with the JMC he’d have long service medals by the time he was thirty! He grinned to himself at the preposterous thought. He’d be a test pilot by then for sure.
He spent most of the time now keeping his head down, avoiding contact with the other boys – his brothers in particular. In that way, nothing had changed. But John sought him out one day in late autumn, cornered him finally in an empty practice room in the music block. Discordant violin scraping echoed through the halls.
“I don’t know why,” he’d rushed to say, pre-emptively. The air smelled of chalk dust.
John just shook his head. “I didn’t ask.”
“It was bad this summer.”
John nodded calmly. “It was.”
For a while they stood together quietly, and it was as peaceful as Arnold could remember things ever being between him and any one of his brothers. The paint on one side of the door frame was chipping onto the worn carpet tiles and the distant violin kept approaching something like melody, then skittering away again.
“You could leave, too,” he said into the stillness.
“I am in another year anyway.”
Their father had been getting worse lately, his already frail grip on sanity ever loosening, until it seemed beyond even their mother’s powers to hide. Something in Arnold’s joints ached to even think about it.
“I’m never coming back, you know.”
John nodded again and smiled the same sad smile that, three million years later, would stare out from a photograph of four long-dead little boys. “I know.”
Break time later that day found Arnold in the common room, driven in by the unusually heavy rain outside. Part of the main building, the common room was old and stately, with a softly patterned carpet that deadened the heaviest of footsteps.
He curled in a faded blue armchair by the window and stared unseeing at his navigation textbook, thinking of John. I’m never coming back. It wasn’t as simple as he’d made it seem earlier. Part of him knew that he would never be free, not for the rest of his life. That he would spend every day until he died regretting, and trying to atone for, this one horrible action, this one desperate attempt to break away from them. He could see the years stretched out ahead of him like train tracks – impossible to deviate from.
Behind him a group of fourth years discussed the latest ghost sighting. For years, far longer than any of the Rimmer family had been attending, pupils had claimed the old school was haunted. It was always a favourite topic of debate and gossip, and periodically groups would take to the Master’s Staircase at night, ghost hunting.
Rimmer found it almost laughably idiotic.
“I saw her walk through the outer wall,” Ratcliffe was saying. “Five stories up!”
“Can ghosts fly?”
“Well this one clearly can.”
“You don’t know, maybe she stayed in the wall. Or maybe she didn’t know it was the outer wall, maybe she fell to her… undeath.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Griffiths. Of course ghosts can fly, they float around don’t they? That’s why they don’t have any footsteps.”
Arnold thought it might be quite nice to fly. Even on a rainy day like this one. Maybe then he really could escape. Ghosts were free, weren’t they?
He thought of slipping away in the night, moving through the heavy doors and the tall school fence as if incorporeal, weightless – rising past the air, beyond the biodome, beyond Jupiter even, shucking his life from his shoulders like an old school blazer. Life out of death. Was it even possible?
Somewhere in the distance the bell for astroengineering rang loud and long, scattering the students. In the emptying common room Arnold Rimmer sat by a cold, clear window and gazed beyond it, imagined soaring through the oceanic depths of space like a ghost ship risen, or a caged thing finally freed.