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His Greatest Ever Present

by Joel 

Posted: 29 August 2006
Word Count: 2368


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I can see still her now, sitting astride me, unbuttoning her blouse, eyes shiny wet from tears. I can smell her rose perfume and hear her voice murmuring fast as if she wanted rid of the words. I can remember my thoughts of disbelief that Rachael Dean, unknown to me in any real way until the funeral two hours before, had pushed me with such force to the floor. This is a surprise I’d said, as if the sun was shining on a day when it was meant to rain, which in a way it was.

Memories, though, aren’t forever and as my brain cells pop and die, over nine thousand a day so I’m told, the journey to this episode, this final present from my oldest friend, loses its clarity. I don’t want that to happen, so on its twenty-fifth anniversary, I’m writing it down for me and for him. Malcolm Dean, this is your life, he’d like that I’m sure, except of course this isn’t really about his life. It’s about mine. Or the start of mine, losing my virginity and gaining my manhood.

It was an August afternoon. I was fifteen. Malcolm was a year older. We were hanging around at the bottom of my garden tossing darts at my Dad’s shed.

“I’ve seen it for real,” Malcolm whispered, pushing a finger between a hole made with the digits of his other hand. “Have you seen it?”

“Yeah, of course I have,” I said, despite the fact I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You’ve seen hers, have you?”

“Whose?”

“Your mum’s of course, spaz.” He pushed his tongue in front of his bottom teeth and stuck his chin out. His spaz impression wasn’t as effective as he thought, just serving to highlight his big features, as my mother called his nose and ears, as if they were some special circus attraction.

“I always see hers. Drive me nutty,” I said, playing for time.

“Always?”

I nodded, wondering how long it was before I found out what this mysterious it was, that made him do such strange things with his hands.

“Wanna see another one?”

I nodded again. He knew I would. He may have been older than me, but I considered myself his intellectual superior. He, though, had older brothers, not one but three and as such he was the knower of special things, the key master to mysteries of life hidden behind silences and blank stares of adults. He was my guide to the their world, a place he was so determined to map out but would never know. I always said yes to the sneak preview he used to present.

So, when I was eleven and we were walking back from school and he’d hung one gangly arm around my shoulder and whispered, he always whispered on these occasions, that he had a fag and did I wanna try it was no surprise when I nodded. Grinning and with a magician’s flourish he’d produced a bent cigarette, sparked it up and taken a big puff. There was a faint crackle, his head became swathed in blue smoke and he started coughing like a demented seal. I laughed. He thrust the cigarette in my direction, and despite the sight of his suffering, I snatched it and took a drag.

When the smoke hit me, I felt like I’d just stumbled off a waltzer, but there was no coughing, no tears in my eyes, no pain, so I took another. This time I breathed out of my nose and marvelled at the sight of two thin steams of smoke floating into the sky.

“That ain’t fair, you must have done it before. You’ve been practising.” Malcolm said, hands on his hips, snot dribbling from one nostril.

“I haven’t. Really, I haven’t.”

And so it was with everything. Where Malcolm led, I inevitably followed, but whatever new activity he devised in his desperate effort to be a man, he always seemed to turn out second best. When we guzzled a half bottle of whisky stolen from his Dad’s drinks cabinet, he vomited spectacularly, while I enjoyed a comfortable buzz. When we smoked a lump of hashish, cadged from one brother, I had a giggle fit that made me roll on the floor, while Malcolm coughed and said he felt nothing. It’s cruel the way fate toyed with him, but at the time I just saw it as a confirmation of my lucky coexistence with life. Despite not knowing what “it” was, I was then confident that whatever it turned out to be, I’d find it enjoyable.

“My cousin Rachael is staying over ours while her mum has an operation. You remember her? She came to my birthday party. Stuck up, doesn’t speak much, well not to me anyway?”

“Wasn’t she the only girl?”

“Yeah, well. I didn’t invite any others. Anyway, I’ve seen hers from the tree in my garden. If we sit in it we might we be able to see it again.”

Then it clicked. There could only be one thing that Rachel Dean shared with my mother that would drive Malcolm to scale anything higher than a kiddies’ climbing frame, and that was the thing between her thighs.

“You’ve seen her fanny!” I shouted.

“Shut up, will you! Yeah I’ve seen it, twice as it happens. We might be lucky again.”

I dragged him by the arm into the street. The thought of Rachael naked made me want to jump up and down, scream a loud thank you to the heavens. She was older and she was almost a woman, and even though I’d slow danced and fumbled around with some unfortunate girls, I’d never come close to seeing that so much discussed part of their anatomy, except on pages of crumpled up porn magazines Malcolm had swiped from his brother.

The tree, our viewing tower, was an oak with low hanging branches that were as thick as my waist. It sat squat in Malcolm’s front garden. Once we arrived, he leant against its trunk and let me in on his secret.

“She’s got this dance class, see. And when she comes back here,” he pointed at his house with a stick, “she always gets changed. Always. That’s when I first saw it. I was just mucking around and wanted to know what she was up to, taking so long upstairs.” Another jab of the stick, this time at an upstairs window. “So I climbed up on that fat branch real quiet like a sniper, you know what my dad’s like. I’d’ve got a right whack if he’d caught me, and that’s when I saw it, must have been for a good ten seconds!”

“When does she get back today, then?” I said, studying the tree, trying to think of how to get to the best vantage point.

“Soon, she’s normally back here, prancing around at fiveish”

I spat on my hands and swung up onto the lowest branch like a gymnast. Malcolm was scrambling around unable to get a decent grip, so I dropped back to the floor and gave him a leg up, trying to ignore his palm in my face. Malcolm’s limbs always had a tendency to act independently, so a climb that should have taken about a minute dragged on as he flailed at twigs, ripped handfuls of leaves and got entangled in branches. Once I found myself a suitable spot, a branch above his, I asked him how he managed to get up on his own before.

He stared up at me as if I’d asked him how to go for a piss. His face was flushed and he had a nasty looking scratch on his forehead. “It’s a lot easier on my own. You kept nicking all my good footholds.”

I apologised. I felt embarrassed that he might see this as me highlighting my talents, while he floundered. If I could’ve I’d have given him any of the abilities I’d been blessed with, I really would. I’d have lain them out and told him to pick any one or any three or however many he wanted. Instead I sat, chucking acorns at the ground, enjoying being high above everyone, watching the world go by behind all those leaves, the smell of cut grass and the river blowing in my face. Even though my branch was smaller, I lounged on it like a sofa. Malcolm gripped his in a bear hug.

“You all right lying like that?” I asked. “Are you going to be able to see?”

Before he could answer, I saw her, Rachel with her tracksuit on, striding down the drive. I hissed at Malcolm who, wobbling, gave me a thumbs up. I held my breath until she walked into the house. Hindsight is a pointless exercise, I know, but I still wonder what he’d’ve said if I’d told him that I was starting to feel bad about peeping at his cousin. It’s quite possible that he’d have said okay, if you want to miss out lets go down the river or have a knock about in the park. Everything could have been so utterly different that the whole course of my life could have shoot off on another tangent and his carried sailing on, if I’d have said what I was thinking. But I was a boy who had the chance to see a fanny and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or scared or rubbish so I inched along the branch and tired to get the best view into the bedroom window.

“Look, look,” Malcolm hissed. “She’s in the room. I told you didn’t. I was right again.”

I stared through the foliage and sure enough, Rachel was busy admiring herself in the mirror. It was then I noticed that her window was open. I tried to tell Malcolm to stop shaking on his branch and stay calm, but he was giggling to himself. When she took her top off giving us a glimpse of her bra, Malcolm nearly fell from the tree, so eager was he to get closer.

“Can you see them!” he said.

“Shut up, the windows…” I whispered

It was too late. Rachel hearing the rustle of branches and Malcolm’s noise, stuck her head out of the window, saw him and screamed. And what a scream, her lungs, made more powerful by regular exercise, produced a shriek that hurtled through my ears, down the tubes and ricocheted round my head. It was too much for Malcolm. He dropped from the tree in a manoeuvre more elegant than I thought him capable of, started pumping his long arms and sprinted into the street. Then I saw the yellow van. I didn’t even have time to shout before it smashed into Malcolm’s gangly frame with a gunshot bang. I remember the breath leaving my body as he rolled up the van’s front and catapulted high into the air before smacking down face first on the tarmac. It really did feel, and I know this sounds clichéd, but it really felt like the whole world was waiting for him to land, that for one second it froze solid and then all came roaring back.

I squatted on my branch, hand over my mouth and did nothing. I knew he was dead, you see. I could feel it. It wasn’t only that he wasn’t moving or that blood was pooling around his head or that the van driver was on his knees screaming for someone to call an ambulance. It wasn’t any of those tell tale signs. I just felt it. I didn’t get down from the tree when Malcolm’s dad came tearing down the driveway nor when his brothers or even Rachel followed, nor when a siren pierced the air nor when Malcolm was stuck on a stretcher and people started pumping his chest and sticking things in him. I simply sat there watching, immersed in being me, alone in the tree and wondering how I could feel so distant from it.

No one knows to this day that I was there when it happened, a spectator to Malcolm’s last seconds. With all the commotion, all the wailing, the uniformed people looking busy, I manage to slip down from my branch and walk home. It wasn’t until later, when my mother got home from work and confirmed what I already knew that it was over and he was gone that I cried a tear, all the rest smothered by her tight embrace.

I went to the funeral, my first and last, and that’s where I first spoke with Rachel. Her hair was pulled tight into a bun and she had shadows under her eyes. When she was told that I was Malcolm’s best friend, she clung to my arm and wouldn’t let go.

“I didn’t mean to scare him like that. Really I didn’t at all. You believe me don’t you,” she said. “I didn’t even know it was him. You believe me don’t you? You do understand that?”

On and on she went whispering to me all through the ceremony, even when they carried Malcolm out to get buried. I didn’t say a word, just let her hold me, let her get close, breathed her rose perfume. I didn’t believe in heaven even then, but I thought it would have made Malcolm smile to see me acting like a gentleman to the girl whose fanny we were trying to spy. I like to think that he'd still have been understanding, if two hours later he could have seen Rachel again, pinning me to the floor, her skirt riding up her thighs, her breath hot with drink stolen from his dad’s cabinet, grinding herself against my little erection, telling me how she so wanted to bring him back, begging me to understand that. I’d nodded of course, what else could I do. I nodded again when she unzipped my fly. I nodded when she grabbed my penis and I nodded when she pushed me inside her. I nodded all the time but I didn’t understand any of it, except that Malcolm by dying had given me his greatest ever present.






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Comments by other Members



Dreamer at 21:45 on 06 September 2006  Report this post
Hi Joel,

Great story with a great hook that kept me reading right to the end.

One thing. I would look at re-phrasing this
the smell of cut grass and the river blowing in my face.
as it sounds like the river blows in his face. Why not something like, the smell of cut grass and the river on the breeze?

Typo: shoot, shot?

Nice to be reading your stuff again.

Brian.


<Added>

One other thing. This:
This is a surprise I’d said, as if the sun was shining on a day when it was meant to rain, which in a way it was.
doesn't quite seem in character. The 'this is a surprise I'd said' bit. I have a hard time picturing a fifteen year old saying that at this particular time.


rmol1950 at 08:15 on 23 September 2006  Report this post
Hi
I like this very much. You vividly capture what it is like to be a male teenage virgin,with hormone soup for blood, whose every waking thought involves sex , and most of his night time dreams as well. And Malcolm is very real. I'm sure I knew Malcolm.I would be interested to read a woman's thoughts on the story.
Richard

Sibelius at 19:52 on 25 September 2006  Report this post
Hi Joel,

I enjoyed this story, thought you gave Malcolm a distinct voice and kept a nicely comic tone throughout. You also give the narrator a realistic, nuanced voice too (apart from where it slightly slips slightly out of character a couple of times.

I also enjoyed the way the 'power' in the relationship shifts from Malcolm to the narrator as we discover that being a year old doesn't actually count for much.

I did wonder about their ages though. They seemed to talk and act more like 11 year olds than 15 or 16 when it came to sex. They were smoking spliffs and stealing booze to drink, but had to climb a tree to look at a girl's breasts - this didn't quite match up for me and their dialogue exchanges seemed a little young for their age too.

I also felt there was quite a lot of telling rather than showing in terms of the relationship between the two. I would have liked more situations where their relationship could be demonstrated through interaction rather than the narrator saying how much better he was at things than Malcolm. Also perhaps building on the fact that he really liked Malcolm and didn't really want to be better than him.

I agree with Richard that it would be interesting to get a female perspective on this tale.







Irina at 20:36 on 02 October 2006  Report this post
Hi Joel
One female perspective coming up ; )

This is an interesting story with a very strong structure. The dialogue between the two boys, and their relationship in general, was beautifully observed. In particular the line "It’s a lot easier on my own. You kept nicking all my good footholds" really summed up the relationship between the two, and almost made the rest of the story inevitable (in a very good way!)

I did feel that while some of the writing was very strong, the quality was uneven in places and could perhaps do with a little tightening up. The line - “It really did feel, and I know this sounds clichéd, but it really felt like the whole world was waiting for him to land, that for one second it froze solid and then all came roaring back” - jumped out in particular. I know your narrator is young and chatty, but why draw a reader's attention to a possible weakness in your writing? Why not work on a more striking image of description of how it felt waiting for the body to fall? That could just be me.

On to the ending. I like the scenario a lot: the whole best friend's funeral, guilt/culpability tied into first sexual encounter. It's a powerful mix but it doesn’t quite come off for me - nearly, very nearly, but not quite.

The description of Rachael was very convincing and moving - this poor girl, devastated with guilt. However, I felt no echo of empathy with your MC. It must have occurred to him that he could have told Rachael the whole story of what happened and his part of it, which might alleviate part of her guilt? But instead there's this almost smug/triumphal feeling of "hey, Malcolm’s dead but he wouldn’t mind because I got to have sex", which felt to me to do an injustice to the quality of the writing up until this point.

You've done a great job showing how Rachael has been affected (and that all through external description - no mean feat!), but perhaps you need to go back and do the same for your MC? He is obviously a thoughtful, sensitive and articulate adolescent but he seems to dwindle to a spectator by the end: I was losing sympathy right when I should have been feeling it most. Even if the intention is to have him numbed with grief by his friend's death, I think the reader has to see that numbness. Perhaps what’s holding me back is the title: calling this incredibly complicated emotional mess of guilt culpability and sex a ‘present’ seems just a touch too glib.

So, to sum up, strong structure and excellent tension, but the emotional resolution isn’t quite there yet – or not for this female reader anyway. But judging by the rest of the story this should be something that can be fixed.

Hope this is useful and good luck!


Joel at 05:56 on 03 October 2006  Report this post
Dreamer, rmol, Sibelius and Irina,

Thank you all very much for your comments. They were very useful. This is the first draft and I agree with everything that has been highlighted. Having stuck this in the draw for a while and reread it, I can see how the MC can be percieved as smug and annoying. That for me is the most important element that needs to be addressed. I want him to be liked.

Thanks again, both for the male and female perspectives.

Joel

Jago at 11:31 on 06 October 2006  Report this post
Joel, I've heard about people getting it on at funerals for complex emotional reasons but this is the first story I've read about it.

For that reason, I think Rachael's actions are understandable. Your M/C's too – I think he would remain silent up the tree and go along with Rachael's seduction. But I agree with other postings that his 'present' sentiment suddenly makes him seem a bit twisted. I also go along with Sibelius in being confused about their ages.

I'm sure these two quibbles are easily fixed and the finished story will be very good.

Best, Robin

Sierrio at 04:22 on 21 November 2006  Report this post
Overall a great story. The first paragraph has a great hook to suck the reader in. You started with action and raised good mysteries that made me want to read on. The pacing is good. The characters are believable and real. You add enough details to bring the characters to life without slowing down the plot. Very well done. I really liked the scene were the MC is in the tree after Malcolm dies and how he seems removed from the whole scene. Nice.

I only have a couple of comments on things that could be improved:

The biggest flaw, like everyone else said, was that I had no sympathy for the MC. His best friend just died and the girl who caused it is a mess and he's happy to get laid? He takes advantage of the situation by having sex with her and this is a good thing? I really felt cheated by the MC because I felt he had no sympathy or empathy for anybody. Even when he was sitting in the tree while the paramedics were trying to save Malcolm, he said “I simply sat there watching, immersed in being me.” I really wanted to like the MC, but by the end I couldn’t and this makes the story really falter. If you can somehow make the MC more sympathetic to the reader, you will have a really powerful story. I’m not sure how though. My only suggestion would be instead of having the Malcolm always turn out second best and the MC always coming out on top with everything they tried (smoking, drinking, alcohol), maybe have it the other way around. Maybe have the MC always trying to do what Malcolm is doing but always failing. This makes the MC the underdog that we want to root for. The only problem with this would be that Malcolm would probably not run away when Rachel screams. This would seem out of character. You’ll need to do something different here, I’m not sure what.

The second biggest flaw, although related, is with the title and the premise. Again, billing this story and the greatest ever present seems heartless. Even in the beginning, the MC says “Malcolm Dean, this is your life, he’d like that I’m sure, except of course this isn’t really about his life. It’s about mine.” It sounds like perhaps you started the story wanting to go in one direction (a tribute to Malcolm’s life and the impact it had on the MC) but decided part way through to go in a different direction. Again, I felt the MC was selfish.

One minor thing–

I struggled with why Rachael would cling to the MC during the funeral. Why did she cling to him and not some member of her own or Malcolm’s family? Did she not want to be near them because she felt their blame? Obviously her clinging to the MC is important to the plot (it leads to the sex), but I didn’t really believe that she would have latched onto him as opposed to someone else. And the reason given about him being Malcolm’s best friend wasn’t believable enough.

Again, overall very well written. If you change the story so we have more caring and empathy for the main character and change the title, you will have a great story.

Thanks for letting me read it.

- Russ


billygotee at 22:47 on 30 November 2006  Report this post
Hello Joel, nice to meet you.

I mostly agree with the other comments, except. . .well, if it's your goal for the main character to come across as a bit selfish (I've done this in several shorts in the past), then by all means do so. I was wrapped up in the story from the beginning and found the main character, while full of himself, very interesting. Ditto for the story overall. I guess that's a little of my opinion on the theory-side of literature (and no, I don't consider myself an authority on the subject).

That said, he says a few things that are particularly more insightful than what the title would suggest of his potential. . .so no disagreements there. Another issue is that first paragraph, and even worse, that first sentence. It always bothers me to start a story and feel like it's cliche already, and the result whether I finish it or not sits on the edge of a knife. I'm glad I kept reading yours, but someone else might not for that reason. My two cents!

Excellent work, there was an adolescent part of me that loved it. Hope to read another from you.

-Brandon


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