Submarine, page 1
‘Effortlessly cool and very funny’ Metro
‘Funny, smart. Rings bitingly true’ Harper’s Bazaar
‘Oliver is surely the most charming adolescent borderline sociopath since Martin Amis lit up The Rachel Papers with Charles Highway … Heartbreakingly sweet’ Spectator
‘Oliver is the finest teenage narrator since Adrian Mole’ The Times
‘A funny, endearing debut’ Elle
‘Adrian Mole for adults, with a much more complicated protagonist, truer to life and infinitely funnier’ Big Issue
‘Supremely funny’ Esquire
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Dunthorne was born and brought up in Swansea. His debut novel, Submarine, won the Curtis Brown prize and has been translated into ten languages. His debut poetry pamphlet is published by Faber and Faber and his stories, poems and journalism have been published in the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, Vice and Poetry Review. He lives in London.
ABOUT THE FILM
Producers Warp Films (This is England, Four Lions) and director Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) present a comedy which follows a fifteen-year-old boy with two objectives: to lose his virginity to the girl of his dreams before his next birthday, and to stop his mother (Sally Hawkins) from leaving his father and hooking up with a new-age mystic (Paddy Considine). Featuring original songs by Alex Turner and executive produced by Ben Stiller.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Hamish Hamilton 2008
Published in Penguin Books 2008
This film tie-in edition published 2011
Copyright © Joe Dunthorne, 2008
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Excerpts from GHETTO by Joshua Sobol, in a version by David Lan, are reprinted by permission of the publishers, Nick Hern Books (www.nickhernbooks.co.uk). Copyright © Joshua Sobol and David Lan, 1989.
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
For my mum and dad
It is Sunday morning. I hear our dial-up modem playing bad jazz as my mother connects to the internet. I am in the bathroom.
I recently discovered that my mother has been typing the names of as-yet-uninvented mental conditions into Yahoo’s search engine: ‘delusion syndrome teenage’, ‘over-active imagination problem’, ‘holistic behavioural stabilizers’.
When you type ‘delusion syndrome teenage’ into Yahoo, the first page it offers you is to do with Cotard’s Syndrome. Cotard’s Syndrome is a branch of autism where people believe they are dead. The website features some choice quotes from victims of the disease. For a while I was slipping these phrases into lulls in conversation at dinnertime or when my mother asked about my day at school.
‘My body has been replaced by a shell.’
‘My internal organs are made of stone.’
‘I have been dead for years.’
I have stopped saying these things. The more I pretended to be a corpse, the less open she became about issues of mental health.
I used to write questionnaires for my parents. I wanted to get to know them better. I asked things like:
What hereditary illnesses am I likely to inherit?
What money and land am I likely to inherit?
If your child was adopted, at what age would you choose to tell him about his real mother?
I am nearly fifteen.
They looked over the questionnaires but they never answered them.
Since then, I have been using covert analysis to discover my parents’ secrets.
One of the things I have discovered is that, although my father’s beard looks ginger from a distance, when you get up close it is in fact a subtle blend of black, blond and strawberry.
I have also learnt that my parents have not had sex in two months. I monitor their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they have been at it because the next morning the dial will still be set to halfway.
I also discovered that my father suffers from bouts of depression: I found an empty bottle of tricyclic antidepressants that were in the wicker bin under his bedside table. I still have the bottle among my old Transformers. Depression comes in bouts. Like boxing. Dad is in the blue corner.
It takes all of my intuition to find out when a bout of my father’s depression has started. Here are two signals: one, I can hear him emptying the dishwasher from my attic room. Two, he presses so hard when he handwrites that it is possible, in a certain light, to see two or three days’ worth of notes indented in the surface of our plastic easy-clean tablecloth.
Gone to yoga,
lamb in fridge,
Gone to Sainsbury’s,
Please record Channel 4, 9pm,
My father does not watch TV, he just records things.
There are ways of detecting that a bout of depression has finished: if dad makes an elaborate play on words or does an impression of a gay or oriental person. These are good signs.
In order to plan ahead, it’s in my interest to know about my parents’ mental proble
I have not established the correct word for my mother’s condition. She is lucky because her mental health problems can be mistaken for character traits: neighbourliness, charm and placidity.
I’ve learnt more about human nature from watching ITV’s weekday morning chat shows than she has in her whole life. I tell her: ‘You are unwilling to address the vacuum in your interpersonal experiences,’ but she does not listen.
There is some evidence that my mother’s job is to blame for her state of mental health. She works for the council’s legal and democratic services department. She has many colleagues. One of the rules in her office is that, if it is your birthday, you are held responsible for bringing your own cake to work.
All of which brings me back to the medicine cabinet.
I slide the mirrored door aside; my face cross-fades, replaced by black and white boxes for prescription creams, pills in blister packs and brown bottles plugged with cotton wool. There’s Imodium, Canesten, Piriton, Benylin, Robitussin, plus a few suspicious-looking holistic treatments: arnica, echinacea, St John’s Wort and some dried-out leaves of aloe vera.
They believe that I have some emotional problems. I think that is why they do not want to burden me with their own. What they don’t seem to understand is that their problems are already my problems. I may inherit my mother’s weak tear ducts. If she walks into a breeze, the tears come out of the far corners of her eyes and run down towards her earlobes.
I have decided that the best way to get my parents to open up is to give them the impression that I am emotionally stable. I will tell them I am going to see a therapist and that he or she says that I am mostly fine except that I feel cut off from my parents, and that they ought to be more generous with their anecdotes.
There’s a clinic not far from my house that contains numerous types of therapist: physio-, psycho-, occupational. I weigh up which of the therapists will provide the least trouble. My body is pretty much perfect, so I plump for Dr Andrew Goddard B.Sc. M.Sc., a physiotherapist.
When I phone, a male secretary answers. I tell him that I need an early appointment with Andrew because I have to go to school. He says I can get an appointment for Thursday morning. He asks me if I’ve been to the clinic before. I say no. He asks me if I know where it is and I say yes, it is close to the swings.
I am amazed to discover that there are detective agencies in the Yellow Pages. Real detective agencies. One of them has this slogan: ‘You can run but you can’t hide’. I fold the corner of the page for easy reference.
Thursday morning. I usually let my Mum wake me up but today I have set my alarm for seven. Even from under my duvet, I can hear it bleating on the other side of my room. I hid it inside my plastic crate for faulty joysticks so that I would have to get out of bed, walk across the room, yank it out of the box by its lead and, only then, jab the snooze button. This was a tactical manoeuvre by my previous self. He can be very cruel.
As I listen to it, the alarm reminds me of the car alarm that goes off whenever heavy-goods vehicles drive past. It wails like a robotic baby.
The car is owned by the man at number sixteen on the street below us, Grovelands Terrace. He is a pansexual. Pansexuals are sexually attracted to everything. Animate or inanimate, it makes no odds: gloves, garlic, the Bible. He has two cars: a Volkswagon Polo for everyday and a yellow Lotus Elise for best. He parks the VW in front of his house and the Lotus out the back, on my road. The Lotus is the only yellow car on my street. It is very sensitive.
I have watched him many times as he jogs up through his back garden, swings open the gate and points his keys at the road. The wailing stops. If it happens late at night, he looks up to see how many lights have come on in the windows of the houses on my street. He checks the car for scratches, tenderly sliding a large hand over the bonnet and roof.
One night, it cried intermittently between the hours of midnight and four in the morning. I had one of Mrs Griffiths’s maths tests the next day and I wanted to let him know that, in our community, this behaviour is not acceptable. So I came home at lunchtime – having performed poorly in the test – went into the street and made myself sick on the bonnet of his Lotus. It was mostly blueberry Pop-Tart. The rain that afternoon was fierce and by teatime the lesson had been washed away.
When I make it down to breakfast, my dad asks me why I am up so early. ‘I’m going to see a therapist at eight thirty – Dr Goddard B.Sc. Hons.’ I say this as if it is no big deal, this new-found responsibility-taking.
He stops dead in the middle of slicing a banana on to his muesli. The open banana skin sits in his palm to protect him from the downward slash of his spoon. This is a man who knows about maturity.
‘Oh right. Good for you, Oliver,’ he says, nodding.
Dad admires preparation; he leaves his muesli in the fridge overnight so that it can fully absorb the semi-skimmed milk.
‘Yeah, it’s no biggie. I just thought I’d like to have a chat about a few things,’ I say, all casual.
‘That’s good, Oliver. Do you want some money?’
He pulls out his wallet and hands me a twenty and a ten. I know when I am spending Dad’s money because he folds the top of his twenties back on themselves, like a bed sheet, so that they fit inconspicuously into his wallet. Blind people also fold their banknotes.
‘Eight thirty,’ he says, looking at his watch. ‘I’ll drive you there.’
‘It’s only on Walter’s Road. I’ll walk.’
‘It’s okay,’ he says. ‘I want to.’
In the car, my dad treats me gently.
‘I’m very impressed’ – he checks his wing mirror, signals right and turns on to Walter’s Road – ‘that you’re doing this, Oliver.’
‘But you know, if you want to talk about anything then me and your mum have been through quite a lot, we might be able to help.’
‘What sort of thing?’ I ask.
‘You know – we’re not as innocent as you think,’ he says, with a little sideways glance that can only mean sex parties.
‘I would like to have a chat sometime, Dad.’
‘Oh, that’d be great.’
I smile because I want him to believe we have a chummy rapport. He smiles because he thinks he is a good father.
Dad stops outside the clinic and watches me walk across the forecourt. I wave at him. His face is tensed in a mixture of pride and sorrow.
The practice looks nothing like a hospital. It reminds me of Gran’s house: all banisters and carpet. On the wall is a poster of a spine rearing up like an adder, about to shoot venom. I follow the signs to the waiting room.
No one is at reception. I thumb a doorbell that has been nailed to the desk. It has the words ‘Press for Assistance’ written next to it.
I keep ringing the bell until I hear footsteps from upstairs.
I pick up the Independent from the newspaper rack and sit down on the seat next to an Edensprings watercooler. Although I’m not thirsty, I pour myself a drink just to watch the translucent jellyfish gurgle to the surface.
The seats are shaped to improve posture. I straighten my back. I pretend to read the paper. I am commuting.
A voice says that I must be Mr Tate. I look up and he is standing in front of me holding a clipboard. He has large hands. I recognize him.
‘If you wouldn’t mind filling out this form then we can get started,’ he says, handing me the clipboard. ‘You live at number fifteen, don’t you? You’re Jill’s boy?’ he asks.
I realize that he’s the pansexual who lives on Grovelands Terrace. I’m surprised that pansexuals are allowed to work as receptionists.
I reject the impulse to write a false address.
‘Okay, that’s great. If you’d like to follow me.’
We enter a room with a stretcher-type bed in it and a skeleton, standing in the corner. There is no one in the room but us. The pansexual sits down in the doctor’s
‘Sorry, I don’t know if I’ve introduced myself. I’m Dr Goddard’ – he holds out his hand – ‘but please call me Andrew.’
His hands are even bigger up close. Not true – merely a matter of scale.
‘So then,’ he glances at my form, ‘Oliver. What’s the news?’
I tell him it’s my back. That it hurts.
‘Right, if you wouldn’t mind taking off your gear – everything but your pants – then we can have a look at you.’ By ‘we’ he means ‘I’.
I tell myself not to feel sexually threatened. I am of no special interest; he could just as easily be angling for the printer.
I take off my shoes, then my jeans, but I leave my socks on. Then I take off my jumper and T-shirt in one, saving time.
‘A bad back is often partly to do with lifestyle.’ He taps some keys on his keyboard. ‘Do you spend a lot of time sitting down?’
‘I sit down at school,’ I say. ‘And I sit at my desk in my bedroom in the attic.’
He nods and turns to his computer screen.
‘I can see into all the back gardens on your street,’ I tell him.
He’s reading something, squinting.
‘Uh huh,’ he says.
He keeps tapping the down-arrow key.
I let the information catch up with him. He stops and turns to me. He nods, blinks, then he points at my legs. ‘Oliver, you are tall for your age and you have long femurs. This means that most chairs won’t fit you.’
I rest my hands on my thighs.
‘You’ll find yourself slouching or leaning back too much.’
I straighten up in my chair.
‘If you could just hop on the bed for me then we’ll see what we can do.’
By hop he means sit. I sit on the bed with my legs dangling over the side.
‘Do you know about pansexuals?’ I ask, on my guard.
He stops. ‘No, I don’t think I do.’ He moves round the bed so that he is behind me. ‘Someone who has a thing for pots and pans?’
This is a joke.
He spiders his fingers up and down my back while talking. ‘Why do you ask that?’