Being Badgered by the Wild Child
I was sitting at one of the open tables of Browns pavement café in St. Sampson’s Square surrounded by Plane trees with their nuts ripening in the pale spring sunshine. Twenty people on the kerb were demonstrating about sixty years of ethnic cleansing in Israel. They had banners and Palestinian flags and their protest was silent. They had no chant. They were, for the most part, British middle-class protesters. Middle-aged intellectuals. Consumers with shopping bags ran rings round them.
The five characters approached me, a little diffidently to be sure but also with a certain purpose. The wild child, naked, seated himself at my table, the chair opposite, while the others kicked their heels a little way off, one or two looking our way, the others taking in the protesters and pretending not to be interested in me at all.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked the wild child. ‘I don’t want to be bothered with it just now.’
‘You may not, but I need to have this out with you.’
‘You can’t speak,’ I told him. ‘You don’t have language.’ He’d been adopted by a set of badgers when he was a baby and raised on a dell near Scotch Corner, a couple of miles from the A1. He was ten years old, thereabouts, maybe as much as twelve, but to all intents and purposes still a child. Large hands and a short neck and fully developed genitalia were his allotted features. Had we been in Tehrān or Kabul he would have been arrested and stoned or whipped for his nakedness. But we were in York, England, an outpost of liberty and sexual enlightenment and it was more likely that it would be me who was arrested for my association with a ten year old naked child in the centre of the city.
‘Language?’ he said. ‘This is one of the problems. I’m not happy with the way I’m being drawn. None of us are. The colonel’s wife wants to be more than a sex object.’
‘Your happiness is not part of the equation.’
‘That is obvious.’
‘And why should it be? I need you to illustrate something in other, major characters. You are a cipher.’
‘With no potential?’
‘You arrogant bastard.’
‘Listen. I’m in charge. It’s my novel. I draw characters how I like. I think about what is needed and I add a character here or there, whenever needed. It’s up to me. I’m concerned with a developing narrative, if every character had a say the thing would spiral out of control. It’d be like real life.’
‘I’m not every character and in any case I’m undervalued more than many of the others. A wild child, indeed. I don’t even have a proper name.’
‘I’ll give you a name. But please go away now. I want to enjoy my coffee.’
‘I’m not going away. I just got here. I want answers.’
I tried to ignore him but he was not about to give up.
‘I’m not leaving.’
‘I’ll answer three questions,’ I said. ‘Then we’re finished.’ I liked that, giving him three questions. Three times more than he expected. Deep within me the tide turned.
‘OK. I’m feral, afraid of everyone, but I respond to cuddles. What is that supposed to say?’
‘It says exactly what it says. You have only known the wild. Your instinct to flee is highly developed. It’s a survival mechanism. That you respond to cuddles when you can’t avoid them is also a survival mechanism. The cuddler is given what he or she wants when you respond, so he/she is less liable to harm you. You either outrun them or outwit them. Those are your possibilities.’
‘Why don’t I have a past? I want to be like other boys.’
‘You have a past. You were raised by badgers. You were loved, in a way.’
‘No, not like that. I want a human past. I must have a mother somewhere. A father. I’d feel better about myself if I knew who they were.’
‘That’s not important in the book.’
‘Maybe not, but it might be interesting for some of your readers as well as me. The colonel’s wife could do some research, look for babies that went missing ten, twelve years ago; it would be easy enough to give some indication where I came from.’
‘I’ll think about it. No promises.’
‘And I fight and spit and bite the colonel’s wife when she bathes me; but later I’m tender towards her.’
‘That’s because you’ve learned. The less opposition you put up against these people the more they take care of you. You learn to give them a little so that you gain a lot.’
‘Where did you find me?’
‘That’s the last question.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘You were in my consciousness. I didn’t know you were there. I stumbled over you in a dream.’
‘Can we talk again, another time?’
‘That was your last question.’
‘You’re mean, you know that?’ He thought for a moment. ‘I don’t like the idea that I’m interested in anal scent glands.’ He scrambled down from the chair and returned to the other characters. They all looked my way. It was obvious they had problems.
Celia Gallagher, tall and leggy with a heart-shaped face, took a step in my direction and one of the others gave her a push. She took another two steps towards me and glanced back at the others.
I guzzled the dregs of my coffee and moved away from the table, dodging between the banners and flags of the protesters and striding across the road towards home.