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PART OF THE Inner Space ISSUE

‘Thou shalt not skip the line’

Willard, his mother and his girlfriend Nyla have spent their entire lives in an endless procession, where daily survival is dictated by the ultimate imperative: obey the rules, or lose your place in line. When Willard’s mother dies, he finds a book hidden among her things that changes everything.

Extract taken from Line
By Niall Bourke
Published by Tramp Press


MR HUMMEL

Willard smokes as he returns, and the Line comes awake.

All his life he has Lined Up one place in front of the Addison family and he hears them going through their morning ritual, the two children sitting by their billy-fire and squabbling like egrets as Mrs Addison assembles breakfast.

All his life he has Lined Up one place behind Mr Hummel, who now has his tarp stripped and folded and is lying supine on his mat chanting out his matins. Every morning Willard has watched Mr Hummel pray, and every evening too. Mr Hummel always lies in the same position, flat on his back, legs bent a little and both hands pulsing up his thighs then easing back down. All the while he sings out in a rhythmic wail, incantations now echoing back on him as if the very rocks of the valley are giving reply.

But Mr Hummel doesn’t always finish his prayers in the same way.

On the days when the Line fails to move, which is most days, Mr Hummel stands up without a word and folds away his hessian prayer mat before pouring out a capful of water from his battered canister as a libation. And all the while something blows the corners of his mouth up into a smile, some wind of certainty that the failure of the medicines of his faith lies only in the dosage.

But rarely, oh so rarely, the Line does move – and then Mr Hummel’s closing routine is different. On those days he still folds his prayer mat without a word but, before opening his water bottle to make an offering, he turns to Willard and Mother and he speaks.

– See? he says, shaking a finger above his head. See? The Emperors answer if we but learn to ask. We must but learn to ask. Maybe tomorrow you will join me in asking?

– Tomorrow, Willard replies, understanding his part in the pantomime. Tomorrow, Mr Hummel, I will pray with you tomorrow.

Then Mr Hummel smiles and disappears, leaving Mother sucking in air through the cadavers of her teeth.

– Why must you vex him? she says. He has Lined Up in front of us since before you were born. He has watched over you when I have been ill and has helped changed your shit-cloths. You used to think it an honour when you were picked to help carry his belongings ahead of the other boys. You owe him some respect.

– I will pray when you do.

– I pray. Do you not hear the psalms my fingers sing every morning when rousing you from your sleep-sack?

– And what do they sing for?

– For you, Willard, for you. That you will live to see the end. They sing always for you.

*

SCHOOL

Willard still remembers the mornings spent in Mr Hummel’s hedge-school.

He would cram beside the other children, on a bench made from a rough plank balanced across two stones, hands wedged between his knees and breath clumping as he intoned the morning address. The Line has existed longer than anyone knows, they would chant from memory as Mr Hummel would circle them, left hand held behind his back and his right punctuating their drawls with the curt flicking of a birch switch. He would continue to orbit as they chanted, examining the disjointed monotone of their words.

Our parents before us, and our parents’ parents before them, have sacrificed everything so that we may be where we are today. We owe it to them all to get to the end. Or at least to get closer; then may it be our children who continue our journey.

After this, Mr Hummel would plant his sun-stick into the earth. The children would be called up, one by one, to demonstrate how they might mark the dirt around it to chop the day down into hours – and then they would all recite the rules:

  1. No one hast ever left the Line, nor shalt thou. To do so wouldst dishonour the sacrifices of all those gone before.
  2. No one hast ever left the Line, nor shalt thou. To do so wouldst mean thy family must pay your penance.
  3. And, anyway, there is nothing out there but rock-bears.
  4. And thou wouldst most certainly be eaten by rock-bears.
  5. Thou mayst wander until dawn and thy things shall not be stolen. (But thou shouldst probably pay someone to watch them, just in case. The Emperors are bountiful and the Emperors are fair, but let us not make their jobs more difficult.)
  6. Thou mayst wander until dawn – but shouldst thou not be back come sun-up then thy place shall be the forfeit.
  7. Thou mayst leave thy place in the Line but only once – when thou dost marry. But thou can only move down the Line, never up. For that is how thou will know it is true love.
  8. And because moving up would be skipping.
  9. And that is the most important rule of all.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Skip The Line.
  11. Thou Shalt Not Skip The Line.

Line by Niall Bourke is published by Tramp Press, priced £11.99

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