by Jack Bootle
On an isolated English beach a man looks back on his school days, recalling the joy and torment of a secret love affair with a boy full of strange ideas, a boy obsessed with the language of the King James Bible. Moments from their relationship return to him: the hidden meetings on the beach, the first attempts at sex, the boredom of a school assembly in summertime, the cruelty of a young English teacher. But most of all he remembers the boy’s words. They’re words that, years later, will haunt him as he tries to come to terms with the person he has become.
“Psalm 77 is the type of story that one wants to read over and over, searching for meanings previously unseen. It is laced with the hidden, the secret, the sacred. From the sand dunes and their private longings in school to the verses, the imagery, and the final paragraphs, there is so much to uncover . . ." (Read full review)
— Amanda Miller from shortsundone.ca
THAT TERM, WEDNESDAY MORNINGS were chapel. The fifth form faced the altar in stiff rows, like soldiers lined up in front of a firing squad; boys on the right side of the aisle, girls on the left, blazers buttoned regardless of the heat. You stood two rows in front of me, the back of your neck sunburnt. Your erection, like mine, was straining against the black polyester of your school trousers, or at least that’s what I hoped. Mr Harris, a decrepit art teacher playing priest, his face sagged and wrinkled like an old leather handbag, loomed before us at the lectern, spluttering through his favourite Bible passages from a battered copy of the King James Authorised. I didn’t listen. All I could think about was your neck, how I would run my fingers down it, tracing lines of white in the redness, later on the beach. I wanted to climb over the heads in front of me and kiss that sunburn.
They were never-ending, those Bible passages. Vast swathes of Genesis one week, great chunks chewed out of the Gospels the next. Then endless Psalms, Proverbs that went on forever, an entire Epistle to the Ephesians. The student body, sweating and twitching in shirts and shoes, knotted ties and regulation tights, groaned under its collective breath like a single massive organism, an exhausted coral reef, every time Mr Harris stepped up to the lectern. One week, after a ten-minute recital from the Book of Job, Claire Simmons fainted on the front row and fell forwards across the sanctuary steps, her skirt riding up so everyone could see her knickers. In a rare moment of excitement, we were dismissed early, and we burst out into the sunshine, breathing great gulps of clean air and squawking; a flock of crows released into the summer sky.
It wasn’t like that for you. You thought those Wednesday mornings were beautiful. You didn’t think about the beach, or my cock, or GCSEs, or even Claire Simmons’s knickers. Instead, you leant forwards, eager to catch every sentence of those verses and psalms, the ancient words running through your body like an electric current. It seemed to you that the words themselves were speaking, not Mr Harris, that they were speaking through Mr Harris even as he spoke them, and they set off a kind of magical reaction in you—one that started deep in your body, your gut and your bones, but reached out through your eyes and skin into the world, transmuting every particle so that it shimmered in gold.
It’s like alchemy, you once said, and I got nervous and looked away and hoped no one could hear, because people thought you were a weird kid and speaking about things like alchemy and the Bible were only going to make you seem weirder.
about the author
JACK BOOTLE lives in London, England, where he writes and works as a TV producer. Over the past few years, he’s devised and produced a reality show about hot teens stranded on a desert island, a wildlife documentary about homeless badgers, a series about adult illiteracy, and a film set inside a maximum security prison in the Philippines (way more fun than it sounds). When he’s not busy writing and making television, he runs a strange quiz night in a basement in the East End. He has four webbed toes.
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