Lord Byron and the Meerkats by Jeremy Thomas

I was a landlocked eel, shooting blanks, masturbating in a cold lavatory in the ruins of Byron’s house.

‘Talk about how you feel.’

‘Let it out!’

‘Have you shared it with the group?’

‘Get in touch with your anger!’

‘Spring is coming early! Have you seen the crocus and daffodil buds?’

‘Why? What fucking difference does it make?’ I yelled, preparing to run my fingernails down their mental blackboards.

During my release assessment interview, I had made a bad mistake.

The interview had taken place in Dr Simmer’s consulting rooms at the back of the hospital. It was a white-walled room with fashionable African tapestries hanging on the wall and straw matting on the floor. The three doctors were sitting somewhat uncomfortably behind Dr Simmer’s desk. I sat casually on a single chair, with my legs crossed, making sure I looked relaxed.

‘So, Sidney.’

Simmer always called me Sidney. I think he did this to make himself seem more important in front of the others. ‘So Sidney, perhaps you could tell us what you intend to do with yourself once you leave here. You mentioned having a holiday?’

I told them I wanted to go away to Rome, have some Time to reflect and recuperate in a historical environment.

‘Oh yes?’ asked Dr Simmer suspiciously, ‘and when in Rome, what will you do?’

Without thinking about the implications of what he had asked, I replied, ‘I need to see the Pope.’

‘Really?’ The three psychiatrists whispered in reverential unison. I should have stopped talking there and then, but an overriding voice kept telling me to show them what I was made of.

‘Oh yes, the Pope is very interested in recruiting me as a figurehead to help launch a massive recruitment drive in the U.K. A question of needing someone to attract young people, a person they could believe in and easily relate to.’

Simmer clasped his hands together, glimpsed at his two colleagues, ‘I see.’

There was an awkward silence. Simmer tapped his pen against his clipboard back and forth like a metronome. Eventually he said, ‘The Pope eh? Is he one of the people who have been telephoning you here, Sidney?’

I was not going to be caught out by such a simple trick. I laughed, lit a cigarette, and said: ‘We’ve never spoken directly! I’m not that mad! His people have been in touch on a fairly regular basis. But it’s only at the drawing board stage and probably won’t come to anything.’

The three psychiatrists stared at me as if I was an auditioning actor who had yet to complete the lines to an important speech. There was another silence. I decided to play it straight.

‘Look, I need to leave here and restart my life. Can’t you see that?’

‘Yes, of course we can see that. However, we don’t want you coming out too early. Imagine you are a diver coming up to the surface after a deep dive. You don’t want to have the bends, do you?’

‘Why should that happen? I thought that’s why I am taking these pills?’

‘Yes but most of them are to protect you from repeating what has just happened, not the downward swing. ’

‘Well, I am one hundred percent okay. I just need to get back and resurrect everything I started.’

‘Do you really think that’s possible?’

I sensed this was some form of test.

‘Yes, of course, why the hell not?’

Simmer held out the palms of his hands.

‘I don’t want to add to any worries you may already have’ said Simmer as if he was suddenly talking to a child, ‘but...’
‘But what?’ I interrupted.

‘The point is Sidney; you owe a great deal of money.’

‘That’s why I need to get out, don’t you see!’ I interrupted again.

Simmer tilted his head and smiled a sincere but sickly smile, and continued.

‘And it may be Sidney, that you will not be able to pay it back.’

‘I am not going to go bankrupt. I am not going to lose my apartment. I am going to get my company off the ground and pay people back. Listen, sixty odd thousand pounds is not a lot of money!’

Another silence. Maybe they did this with everyone, teased them and made them sweat, to see if they broke down and confessed. Not me.
Pushing the hair from his eyes, Simmer opened a blue folder on his lap.

‘Sidney, how long have you been here?’

‘Seven weeks?’

‘Eight and a half actually.’ Simmer said, reading from the open folder.

I jumped in quickly: ‘Well then, I’d be off your hands and giving my bed to someone more deserving!’

The three psychiatrists grinned silently at one another, shaking their heads as if they were all about to sneeze.

‘Did I say something funny?’

Simmer leaned back in his chair, lost the smile on his face, and folded his arms.

‘Sid, let me be quite straight with you so there are no misunderstandings.’

‘Good. That’s the way I like it.’

‘I am not authorising your release from this hospital.’

I let out a long theatrical laugh, ‘Ha! What, never? Am I going to be stuck in here for the rest of my life?’ I said, wanting to ram Simmer’s pen and clipboard up his nose.

‘That’s up to you.’ Simmer said, now looking hard-faced and almost sullen.

‘Oh yes?’

‘Looking at your notes I can see you’ve shown considerable skill during the group meetings you have actually attended…’

‘Skill? I have?’ I interrupted cheerfully.

‘Great skill in never saying anything.’

‘It has just never seemed convenient. There are people there far worse off than me who need to speak. Of course, if you want me to speak, there’s no problem…’

Simmer interrupted this time: ‘Well, tomorrow it’s going to be your turn and again two days later and two days after that. It’s time, as they say, to play hardball… ‘

It was easy to guess what happened. It was pure blackmail. So there was nothing for it, no other option but for me to break out and take control of my life again and prove my sanity. Talking within a group for goodness sake! Who on earth do these people think I am?

It was Idwal who lent me the bicycle. I admit I should have told him what I intended to do with it. But by my calculations, if he didn’t know, he could not be accused of being an accessory. We had become friends. Him and his wife and kiddies, him and his squash, showing me how to hit the ball in the sweet spot, how to hit the ball down the side of the wall, him and his German shepherd dogs, him and his love of poetry.

I had persuaded Sue in the canteen to save me some fruit and some slices of bread. She agreed and then bashfully told me she had a crush on me but asked me not to tell anyone. I said I would be totally discreet, providing she got me the food and managed to wrap it up in tin foil and a napkin.

‘Give us a kiss then! Go on please?’ She asked, opening her arms wide and walking towards me. ‘I haven’t been kissed for such a long time. Kiss me underneath the clock like they do in films? Kiss me slowly, a nice kiss, a long kiss, a lingering one’.

I felt like D’Artagnan again but without the sword or the hat. I kissed her without thinking, stroking her face, and pressing my lips against her soft mouth. It tingled like the first kiss I had ever had at a teenage party. I wondered if I was experiencing “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or the “Great Escape”.

My plan was to leave immediately after breakfast. To be certain of a safe getaway I had left the bicycle against a wall of overgrown ivy at Byron’s house the night before. I intended to cycle through the morning mist, along the ridge, and quietly disappear into the countryside. I planned to use the Red Indian method of putting my ear to the ground and listening for the roar of the traffic to determine where the M40 was. Once there, I would camouflage myself with bracken leaves and branches until I saw a lorry or an estate car with a roof rack, then put my thumb out and hitch hike, put the bicycle on top or in the back of it. Of course once I got to London, I would contact Leroy, persuade him back to work part-time and have him put Idwal’s bike on a train back down to Oxford.

I awoke with a renewed sense of purpose. I dressed quickly and began packing the rucksack that Mark-From-Eton-Actually had lent me the night before. First in was the suit, still wrapped in plastic and making too much noise, then the cutlery, the paper plate, the tin mug, the binoculars, the matches, the Wilfred Owen poetry from Idwal, the fruit, the string, the packed lunch in tin foil, the book of lists, the photo frame and the vegetable soup my father had brought me in a thermos flask.

I fastened all the buckles on the rucksack and positioned two pillows inside my bed so it appeared I was sleeping there. I laid my cashmere coat and an extra sweater on the back of the chair and took one final look through the fading yellow curtains, before opening the door and walking down the corridor to breakfast and the drug hatch and pretending that everything was normal.

It seemed as if everyone knew what was about to happen. Was I imagining all the nods and the winks, all of the wide-eyed open-mouthed smiles? Yet the only one who I had told was Mark. I made good eye contact with each of the nurses and made a big point of jokingly saying how much I liked the drugs I had just swallowed, I picked up a bat and played ping-pong with Belinda the Pee, Mrs Wire-Wool, and Bobby the Shock, who, for some unknown reason, were all smiling that day. Perversely and as always happened, as soon as I was leaving somewhere, I began to feel at home.

Mark and I walked back down the corridor and when we stopped outside my room, he turned to me and said, ‘Sid I want to apologise.’
‘You want to apologise? No, I want to apologise.’

Looking over both shoulders, Mark surreptitiously handed me two light blue packets of Gauloises cigarettes.

‘I know they’re not your brand, but I thought they might help. For God’s sake be careful and remember to call me once you’re through.’

It was as if we were pilots with handlebar moustaches and I was flying off on a mission from which I might not return.

I was choked that he had given me the cigarettes. I went to shake his hand but he turned away, gesturing his head towards the danger of the nurses at the end of the corridor.

‘Good luck Sid.’

I stuck my thumb in the air and winked: ‘Good luck Mark.’

Once I had made my getaway from the hospital and arrived on the terrace at the back of Byron’s house, I knew that there was no turning back. It was like running away from school, riding your bicycle along the forbidden path down to the vegetable patch when you are a child.

I pulled the extra sweater on, buttoned up the cashmere, repositioned the straps of the rucksack on my shoulders and ran my hand across the leather saddle of Idwal’s ancient bike. There was little time left before the mist lifted and I wanted to say goodbye to Byron’s house. I stood close to the wall pressing my face against the dew-soaked vines, hoping a process of lyrical osmosis would occur and inspire me to complete my journey. I pulled some leafy vines from the wall and tied them around the handlebars and saddle. In anticipation of victory, I wrapped more vines around my neck until they resembled the laurels given to triumphant racing drivers at the end of a race.

After pedalling unsteadily for two or three hundred yards along the ridge, I was no longer sure of where I was. It was as if someone had lowered the clouds to the ground, or picked up Oxfordshire and transplanted it into the surf of Big Sur in California. Either that or the Hounds of the Baskervilles were making a return that day. I dismounted, lit a cigarette for company, and set the dynamo rubbing against the back wheel of the bicycle. Gripping hold of the crossbar, I checked the lights were now functioning, and looked around me.

The sky, or what I could see of it, was mottled in dark aluminium, like an old-fashioned saucepan. The mist, far from lifting, seemed to be growing thicker like a fast rising tide, growing a foot higher each time I blinked. There was no sound of anything or anyone nearby or in the distance, just sheep stepping through wet grass.

I carried on pushing the bicycle along the ridge. In an attempt to freeze out the fear I was feeling, I tried to imagine the steam trains that must have passed over this path. I wondered for a second whether Byron might have travelled by train with Mary Shelley, but then recalled that trains had not been invented then.

I wasn’t sure if I heard the car or saw it first. At first I thought it was the hull of a Laguna funeral boat coming out of the mist. But seeing its curved radiator grill, sloping bonnet, and yellow fog lights, gashed, smashed, and mangled as they were, I knew it was the Gaulle. A neon sign was dimly flashing in my head but I could not tell what it said. At that moment I wanted to be a secret agent sniffing out a double-cross at a border crossing point. But I was not. I was Sid Lomax escaping from a mental institution, trying to sort out the mess I was in. I put my finger in my mouth, and realised I was toothless, my gums bleeding, blood politely oozing over my lips and chin. Yet it was as if I had pulled out all of my own teeth, using two fingers and doing it one by one. There was no pain.

A kindly reassuring Scottish voice spoke from within the mist. ‘Hello Sid, sorry not to have telephoned and let you know…’

I looked through the mist and at a woman wearing a light brown sheepskin coat, stepping from the driver’s door. My mind-camera flashed forward, and I was standing in a mortuary for cars and the Gaulle was parked inside a gigantic pullout drawer. I blinked and was relieved to see the car back on the ridge again, still damaged but without any smell of formaldehyde.

The woman had dark red hair and was wearing a sensible tartan skirt and a silk scarf tied beneath her chin over a black polo-neck sweater.
‘Sid? We seem destined to meet only in unfortunate circumstances?‘

It was only then when she spoke that I noticed she was cradling something in her arms. It was only when I stepped closer to her that I saw what it was. It was only when we met each other at the middle point between the bicycle and the car that I realised what she was holding was a cat. Not just any cat, it was my cat. But it was Ned with blood all over his chin, Ned with blood in his fur, Ned bleeding from the mouth and with a tooth broken off, a hyperventilating Ned, and a Ned who seemed about to die.

‘I won’t beat about the bush.’ Mrs Sheep-Skin-Coat said dryly.

I looked at the pearl bracelet she was wearing around each of her wrists, ‘So what’s the deal?’

‘I am afraid the cat is badly hurt.’

‘Will he be all right?’

I was speaking on autopilot. I could not tell if what was about to happen was going to be good or bad. She could have been a terrorist, the Jackal in disguise, she could have come from the place where they test-drive saints, she could have been eighteen, forty or the same age. I was certain I had never met this woman in my life before and yet I had a sense she knew everything about me.

The woman smiled and sighed, ‘Ach well, by rights he should have died. It’s up to you to look after him. I’ve done my part.’ She put the cat in my arms.

At first I held him slightly away from me, not knowing what to do. Ned turned his head to look up at me and made an attempt at a meow. I held him close to my chest and tried stroking his head but stopped as his breathing became agitated. Wheezing and gurgling started coming from his throat.

‘Don’t die on me Ned! You’re all I’ve got left! Come on, we’ll get you fixed up, we’ll get an emergency helicopter to land next to the sheep over there and whisk you off to the best cat hospital there is. Just hold on!’

Holding the cat within the crook of my arm, I eased my coat from my shoulders, laid it on the ground, and carefully folded a part of it around the cat. I crouched down and stroked his ears and wanted to hear him purr. But there was no sound coming from him. His eyes were wide open like two blank oval televisions, with no programmes on the screen. On an instinct gleaned from reading too many detective novels, I pressed two fingers against the fur on his neck and whistled a sigh of relief when it was warm. I took hold of his paw and closed my eyes and stumbled along the Lord’s Prayer, certain that if I remembered the words the cat would recover.

‘…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…’

I looked up for help from Mrs Sheep-Skin-Coat but she was no longer standing where she was. I squinted into the mist thinking she had got back into the Gaulle. I stood up but could only see three ugly sheep chewing noisily on the bank of the ridge. I held my breath to see if I could hear the sound of the engine. Maybe she was turning the car around in the field. The only sound was of twittering birdsong and what sounded like quarry-blasting in the distance. There was no sign of the Gaulle, not even tyre marks on the gravel. I decided I am suffering from astral blindness brought on by too much modern psychiatry.

I look down towards the cat but can only see the lining of my coat scrunched up like some minor mountain range. I kneel down carefully, frightened of finding something cold and dead. I run the palm of my hand slowly along the lining, inside the arms and pockets and underneath the coat itself and find nothing. I crawl on my hands and knees, trying to find fresh spots of blood on the gravel that will lead me to where he is. There was none. I stand up and pace to the top of each bank of grass to see if Ned has fallen down or staggered off into the field to die. There is no sign of anything black, save for three ravens feeding on the body of a dead lamb in the distance. I am now aware there is no longer any mist, any car or any cat any more. The view is completely clear. Then, I am certain I can feel the ground beneath me move and shake. I imagine this too cannot be real. Then as if someone was trying to break through the earth with a battering ram, it comes again boom-shake-boom.

The three ugly sheep jerk their heads up; their scraggy rear-ends forcing out black beads of shit. I realise the pounding and shaking have a pattern and are getting stronger. The three ravens have abandoned the carcass of the lamb and are flapping their back wings to safety at the top of an oak tree. Either Oxford is having an earthquake or Goliath is about to arrive.

I raise myself up on tiptoes and scan the land either side of the ridge for cracks or giant footprints all the way down to the bend leading towards the gates. I swing round a hundred and eighty degrees and see no activity around the hospital but a lemon wedge of sunlight resting on its roof. The noise has increased to a serious pounding and by my feet bits of gravel are moving like loose teeth. I complete the reconnaissance of the hospital and Byron’s empty rooftop and return to the other end of the ridge. The pounding has changed into troops marching to the roll of a military drum. I panic and wrongly imagine I am standing in the middle of a military rifle range. Suddenly, a wide-screen target flips up; but it isn’t a target, it is a mega-wide heat-haze coming towards me like a mad swarm of wasps.

As the heat haze drops, high-pitched military trumpets are being blown, and I see an army of two thousand giant meerkats marching towards me, in front of two open-topped military cars. They are in a three-column formation dressed in the leopard skin uniform of the Zulu, and wearing a red bandana instead of a hat. Each one is marching proudly erect on its back legs, and holding a three-pronged spear and a shield. I cannot determine the identity of the civilians sitting in each car and pointing at me. Even though what is happening is not real, it is neither a dream nor a hallucination. This is a ridiculous field for an Agincourt.

The drumming is reaching a crescendo and the meerkats are now marking time. An unidentifiable man in the front military car stands up, holds a megaphone up to his mouth and shouts as a sergeant-major does on parade, to ‘P-R-E-S-E-N-T ARMS!’ In a tested 1-2-3 army drill, two thousand spears are pushed forward, then back and slapped hard against a metal shield. It is as if ten thousand people have slapped the lid of a tin box. Every bird on the ground, in a bush or a tree, is now frantically taking off into the air. Hundreds of sheep are bleating and running to the sides of the field. Guinea pigs, moles, ferrets, stoats, field mice and huge rats with long tails are bubbling out over the pasture like flood water. Forget the idea of a military shooting range this is Tennyson’s valley of death. I swivel round on my heel to see the bicycle lying on its side and wonder if I can escape by cycling straight through them. The power of two thousand meerkats marching and rhythmically slapping their shields with their spears is making my legs shake with fear. How long will they pursue me? How long until the coast of my soul is clear? How long can I hold out before I am captured and tortured by the people in those open-topped cars?

From the corner of my eye, I see something moving below in the top of the open rucksack. I step over and look down and see the cat has clambered into the rucksack, his paws slumped over the Wilfred Owen, and the packed lunch wrapped in tin foil.

‘Ned! Are you okay?’ I shout repeatedly, kneeling down and putting my head next to his face. The cat opens his eyes and closes them. I press my ear against his mouth and can just hear him breathe. As if to taunt me, the meerkats increase the tempo of banging their shields to double-time. I ignore this, and pull my sweater off and drape it around the cat. I try and make Ned as comfortable as possible while reaching into the rucksack for the binoculars. Then, carefully, dragging the rucksack so it rests behind the bicycle saddle, I give Ned a friendly stroke or two, light up a cigarette, and say, more to reassure myself than him. ‘Don’t worry, Ned it’s just a bad day at Black Rock, we’ll survive.’

I stand up, turn around, and peer through the binoculars. I see my opponent’s faces and am instantly terrified. They look merciless, stern and resolute. Their bared teeth show sharp teeth between salivating gums. Their eyes seem to be a circular smudge of boot polish, so black I cannot tell if they are wearing sunglasses or if they are simply two empty eye sockets. The meerkats have reduced to a two-column formation but have doubled their height by standing on top of one another’s shoulders. A tidal wave of two thousand meerkats' teeth, claws, and spears is about to engulf, pull, gnash and shred me into a thousand little pieces; then the same two thousand meerkats are going to eat me, slap their stomachs, lift a leg, and let out the most satisfied fart.

I drop the binoculars on the ground. The noise is far louder than the Big Dipper at Battersea Fun Fair or being chased by five hundred galloping horses. I have less than a minute seconds left to live. I am not thinking about Khartoum, but am desperate to remember the words to ‘Bread of Heaven’, yet can only remember the tune. Despite my shaking body, I draw myself up and hum it as loud as I can. Despite being able to smell the sweat and the dirt of my enemy, I keep humming, making up the words as I go along. The noise is now a cacophony, as if the five hundred horses are galloping past my head. I stare up at the sky and with a hand on each knee, half-squat and shout the Maori ha-ka to see if that has any effect. It has absolutely none. One thousand meerkats are towering over me with raised spears, squealing like ten thousand bats, and waiting for a signal to kill. I return to singing ‘Bread of Heaven’, in the maddest, most passionate way I can, holding my head up high, keeping my eyes closed tight, and just wanting the end to be swift. I run out of words and come to a full stop. I stiffen my body in readiness for the first spear. There appears to be a two-second delay in the execution. All I can feel is the heat and the smell of the breath of two thousand meerkats and a warm stream of strangely comforting piss travelling down my leg. To distract myself from the inevitable, I roll up my shirtsleeve, half-believing a celestial anaesthetist will arrive to administer a pre-execution anaesthetic. As I debate whether to let my arm drop down by my side as a superstitious tribute to my girlfriend Leonie’s naval hand signalling, warm specks of sunlight come to rest on my face. And as if they were butterflies tickling my skin they make me open my mouth, and as I do, the words and the tune of ‘Stop the Cavalry’ come out.

The meerkats are transfixed, nodding their heads along perfectly in time to the tune. With each line that I sing, I feel my body growing in confidence and the fear somehow subsiding. Before long, they are all throwing their spears into the ground and using their shields as washboards to play along to the song. As I reach the end of the song, I stand there feeling transfixed and transformed; content to accept whatever fate awaits me. There is another two second silence and then the meerkats break into a happy screeching applause, rubbing their claws on their shields and chattering like oversized enthusiastic guinea pigs. The meerkats who are standing on the shoulders of the others jump down like a gigantic troop of acrobatic gymnasts, perform a somersault and, taking a packet from underneath the side of their bandanas start handing out cigarettes to their comrades. Just as I am thinking how to teach them to sing, I feel two hands on my shoulders. I turn around and see it is Idwal and Mark.

‘Time to come back inside, Sid, you’ve been standing here for quite a while.’

‘That’s right Sid, you’re going to freeze to death out here,’ chorused Mark.

Idwal was wearing a blue tracksuit with his weightlifting belt tight around his waist and seemed more a giant than ever before. Mark was dressed only in a simple T-shirt and jeans and would definitely freeze to death if he stayed waiting outside much longer. I knew it was time to go back but I didn’t want to leave.

‘Just give me a minute.’

I turn back and to my astonishment see that the meerkats have completely rearranged themselves into the shape of a school photograph. Three rows of kneeling, crouching, and standing meerkats have their paws folded politely in front of them, as if they are waiting for a photographer.
It does not seem out of the ordinary.

The tallest meerkat stands in front of his colleagues like a conductor and raises his paw to start. Two thousand meerkats start singing ‘Stop the Cavalry / Bread of Heaven’ in a perfect three part harmony, as if they are the Welsh Male Voice Choir. I am enchanted, speechless, Henry Miller, Glenn Miller, Steve Miller, the Miller’s Tale, I am inspired to carry on.

Mark spoke up behind me. ‘Sid? Shall we go?’

I smiled at Idwal and Mark, picked up the bicycle, carefully balanced the rucksack on the handlebars and started wheeling it back towards the hospital. I had a feeling I should not turn round in case the spell was broken.

The meerkats continued singing ‘Stop the Cavalry’ in a three-part harmony and walked respectfully behind us until we were on the path into the hospital. I smiled as I heard the dying notes of the song echoing around the empty roofless rooms of Byron’s house and felt certain he would approve. I turned around to say farewell to the meerkats but there was no sign of them, they had disappeared.