Authors: Graham Swift
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, MARCH 1992
Copyright © 1981 by Graham Swift
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published by Allen Lane, Great Britain, in 1981.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Swift, Graham, 1949–
Shuttlecock / Graham Swift.—1st Vintage International ed.
Today I remembered my hamster: my pet hamster, Sammy, a gift for my tenth birthday. It is over twenty years since my tenth birthday, since my hamster came to live in our house, but today I remembered it as if it still existed. I remembered its blond fur, its pink nose, its jet-black eyes which seemed, under certain circumstances, to be about to spill, like drops of ink, from its head. I remembered the sunflower seeds and bits of carrot we fed it and which, out of some primitive, needless instinct, it would cram into its pouches and unload about its cage in never-to-be-eaten piles. I remembered its noiseless feet, its stump of a tail; the way when I took it out of its cage for exercise it would never run across the room but always round the edges, following the skirting-board, in little furtive darts, between which it would freeze, one paw raised, head poised, in apprehension. And I remembered the day when my parents (who had already thrown Sammy’s corpse into the kitchen boiler) said: ‘We’re sorry, there’s something we’ve got to tell you.…’
Why should I have thought of these things? They say you only recall what is pleasant and you only forget what you choose not to remember. Perhaps. But do I say ‘remember’? This was not so much a memory as a pang.…
You see, I used to torment my hamster. I was cruel to Sammy. It wasn’t a case of wanting to play with him, or train him, or study how he behaved. I tortured him. Not at the very beginning. I loved the tiny thing that the man at the pet shop took from a warm heap of its fellows and installed in an aluminium cage for us. I wondered anxiously over the pale huddle of fur which for several days did nothing but whimper, cower and coyly excrete in its new home. But at some time after Sammy’s arrival I made the discovery that this creature which I loved and pitied was also at my mercy.
When did the torturing begin? I used to turn my hamster on its back and pin it down with a finger across the belly while it made frantic wriggles to be free. I simulated a bird of prey, holding my hand two feet above it like a claw, while it crouched, mesmerized, in a corner. I cupped it inside my closed hands with scarcely space for air to enter, and then, slowly, made a gap between my thumb and finger – not enough for it to extricate itself, but enough for it to squeeze its head through in straining, strangulated efforts. Once, I opened our oven door.…
And what was all this for? Will you believe me if I say it was all, still, out of love and pity? For love and pity hadn’t disappeared. I needed only new means of eliciting them. Love ought to be simple, straightforward, but it isn’t. All these cruelties were no more than a way of making remorse possible, of making my heart melt, of earning the doubtful luxury of putting my hamster away at the end of the day, a nervous jelly in its cage, and saying, my voice tight with contrition: ‘I didn’t mean it, Sammy. I didn’t mean it. I love you, Sammy. Really.…’
And today, twenty-two years later, coming home in the Tube, I went through it all again, saying to myself: I
terrorized my hamster, I tormented a living thing. And I never …
But what made me think of these things?
It can have no connexion with the other outstanding event of the day: learning I am going to get Quinn’s job. It all happened just before lunch. For the first time I can remember, Quinn was actually civil to me, even amiable. He called me up to his office on the pretext of looking over a report. He was his usual disagreeable, cantankerous self. And then, as he shut the report file, he came out with it. I’d never have thought it possible. It’s what I’ve always wanted, of course – longed for – and even in some ways, I think, deserved. But I’d never have thought I had the slightest chance. I am the most senior amongst the assistant staff – but they don’t always promote on seniority alone; they bring in people from outside. Quinn has a big say in the matter, and I’ve always thought that that old bastard had it in for me in no uncertain fashion. I would be the last person he’d want to see sitting in his seat. But this morning he closed the file and said quite casually: ‘Oh, before you go, Prentis. This isn’t definite, you understand – off the record and unofficial – but I think when I leave at the end of the summer you’ll be taking over my place here.’ He adjusted his glasses with a finger and thumb, and looked up at me through them. He has grey, mobile, darting eyes which his glasses sometimes hide and sometimes enlarge as if you’re being looked at under a magnifying glass. ‘You realize,’ he said, ‘for the time being, this is strictly between you and me.’ Then he turned, with deliberate nonchalance, it seemed to me, to get on with his paper-work. I was so astounded I forgot to pick up the file I had brought in. As I reached the door he called me back.
‘You’d better take this.’ He tapped the file in a strange, slow way ‘We don’t want things to get mislaid, do we?’
And he actually smiled.
I haven’t told Marian yet. It’s probably best, of course, to keep quiet about it until I hear something certain. There’s no saying what games Quinn might be playing. But there’s something else, something which I’m not sure I can explain, which stops me from telling Marian. Why shouldn’t I tell my own wife, after all, about even a vague hint about my future prospects? It has something to do with the way I can never act simply and straightforwardly. Or about having thought about my hamster on the way home. When I got in today it was just an ordinary Monday evening and none of my family could have known that Daddy’s promotion was on the cards. On Monday evenings I am particularly bad-tempered. My family knows it. I am bad-tempered most evenings, but Monday evenings are the worst. On Mondays I work late and don’t get in till nearly eight. When I arrive, Marian comes out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea-towel and brushing the hair from her eyes, and says, ‘Hello, darling,’ sheepishly, as if she has just woken up from some day-dream and she is surprised that I have come home at all. And the kids, who are glued to the television in the living-room, don’t do anything.
Tonight they were watching
The Bionic Man
– or something like that, since there’s a craze at the moment for films with heroes who are actually admired because they are half robots. I know it’s probably my fault – because I’m the one who rents the television – but I don’t like the way those two boys spend all their time stuck in front of it. It’s not right; it’s not the way children should grow up. I’ve been wanting for some time to get rid of
that cursed little box. When we first got a television, years ago, we never thought of the boys, who were very young. It was more a present for ourselves, to relax with when we were tired – Marian after coping with the kids and I after work (I had just started, about then, in Quinn’s section). But we soon discovered that neither of us really cared for TV. When I’m at home I like three things: reading and sleeping and, better than either of these, having sex; and Marian likes pottering around the house, tending her ferns and cactuses – that is, in between having sex – which I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like any more, as I do. So, when the boys grew up, they started to usurp the television and establish special claims over it. And now it has become the focal point of their lives. Days have to be arranged according to the programmes they want to watch. Their sliding scale of bed-times, devised according to the best child-rearing manuals, has long since been abandoned to the demands of the air-waves. All this is bad enough; but when they can’t take their eyes off the screen to say ‘Hello’ to their own father – that is too much.
I kissed Marian briskly and brushed past her. After all, she is at home when the kids come in from school – she could stop this TV nonsense. I stood in the doorway to the living-room. ‘Hello!’ I said, and then again, more loudly, ‘Hello!’ Martin was sitting, both feet drawn up, cross-legged, in an armchair. In his lap was a plate with two or three digestive biscuits. He turned to look at me, actually biting, as he did so, on one of the biscuits. Peter lay, stomach down, on the floor, head propped in hands, feet in the air. He twitched his bottom.
I know they don’t look up to me. That is the nub of the matter. My own sons don’t look up to their father. They look up to the Bionic Man. The Bionic Man radiates
Californian confidence. The Bionic Man performs impossible feats, solves impossible riddles and bears no relation to anything natural. But they look up to him, not their father.
I give them three seconds. Then I cross the room, passing between them, switch off the television and in the same movement round upon them.
‘Can’t you give your Dad a hello when he comes in from work?’
Almost instantly they chime, in unison, ‘Hello, Dad,’ as if this will make me turn on the television again and go away.
I glower at them. I know I am going to go through my whole performance; after the angry indignation, the mocking lecture.
‘What do you think this is?’ I pat the top of the television. ‘A machine, an object. It’s full of wires and valves. And what do you think this is?’ I touch my own breast. ‘This is your Dad. Can you spot the difference?’
Peter, my younger son, aged eight, stifles a giggle and lowers his head.
‘Right! Just for that, my boy –!’