The Periscope

Up close the motorway services are disappointing. From a distance they look like mysterious future worlds with bridges of glass and tall hexagonal control towers. He imagines aliens with vast ovoid heads gliding along the corridors and ruling the universe from the side of the motorway. As they pull into the car park all he sees is peeling paint and coach parties of old ladies in pastel cardigans. He smells the reheated fat from Wimpy.

His mother speaks without turning around in her seat. ‘Go and buy yourself a comic or something for the holiday.’

He peels himself off the plastic seat and fumbles with the door handle. Once out, he waits on the hot tarmac for his mother or father to join him. They stay where they are, looking ahead at the grass verge and the caged sapling trees.  He tries to hop all the way to the entrance.

He takes his time in the shop. He looks at the sweets trying to work out what it is that’s odd about them. He realises that everything is the wrong size or shape. He sees sweets in bags that should come in tubes and sweets in boxes that should be in bags. He looks at the crisps and feels as if he has shrunk. He sees many circular tins of boiled sweets. They are expensive and boring,  the opposite of what he thinks sweets should be. He imagines the ladies in lilac cardigans buying them for their coach journey. He stares for a long time at an outsize bag of Opal Fruits thinking only how much he hates them and how many there must be in a bag.

He moves onto the comics. He considers the summer specials, swollen with added word searches and spot the difference and funny jokes. He turns to his favourite strip: Mustafa Million – the rich Arab boy who has everything he wants. He looks at Mustafa’s polished marble floors and his miniature car and he swoons. The comic comes with a free toy: an elastic band gun. He looks at it skeptically. He thinks it might fail to live up to its promise. He thinks it might break within minutes. He’s fallen for the free toy before. He puts the comic back on the shelf.

Beyond the comics is a stand of I-Spy books. He spins it round and round spotting the ones he has and the ones he wants. He is a member of the club and receives occasional communications in the post from its leader Big Chief I-Spy. The link between the high ranking native American warrior and the small, neat catalogues of everyday life is mysterious to him.  He guesses that Big Chief is the person who decides the weighting of the points. He imagines him sitting in a teepee being respectfully shown pictures of  telephone boxes, or bird tables or signs reading ‘Urban Clearway’ and solemnly holding up fingers to indicate the number of points for spotting each one.

Only now does he see the wall mounted display of Remus playkits, and knows that his decision had been made. Remus make all kinds of things: craft kits, games, puzzles, toys. The only thing that links them all is the red packaging and the mysterious, bald smiling figure of ‘Uncle Remus’.  Unlike Big Chief I-Spy, he isn’t sure that Uncle Remus exists, but he likes his playkits very much.

His attention is caught by one of the larger boxes. It’s the first time he has ever seen the word ‘Periscope’. He has no idea what it means. He reads the description on the box several times and it seems miraculous – a magical device that enables you to see around corners, over hedges, under tables. The fact that such a thing exists is amazing, but the fact that here in front of him is a kit to make one, and in his pocket enough money to buy it makes his heart beat hard and his head itch.

He runs back to the car and his dad drives. They are going to somewhere called Bournemouth. He knows it is a long way and he knows he shouldn’t ask exactly how long. He knows they don’t like that. They are going on holiday, just the three of them. He has three brothers and two sisters but none of them have come. He was born ten years after them and relatives smile and rub his hair and call him the accident. His aunt sometimes says that it’s a shame he wasn’t a girl as at least that would have evened things out. His mom and dad say nothing. He often looks at photos of old family holidays. Sprawling picnic groups, blurred games on beaches, his mother smiling at the camera, his father before his heart attack. He doesn’t recognise them.

He starts to make the periscope as soon as he is in the car. His mother says: ‘Don’t try and do it now, it’ll make you car sick.’ He pretends not to hear. Fifteen minutes later his father pulls over so he can be sick on the hard shoulder. His mother takes the kit off him and he sits looking out at pylons and swallowing bile in the back seat for the rest of the journey.

The guest house in Bournemouth is modern and streamlined and clean. It looks like the kind of houses he sees on American television programmes with orange carpets and teak veneer siding. He thinks it is a posh place to say. They have a family room. A double bed by the door and a single bed by the window. He tries to make the periscope on his bed, but it’s too difficult. The cardboard has to be folded in complicated ways and the mirrors lodged in the angles created. He asks his father for help and then has to wait for it to be a good time for him to do it: after he’s moved the car, after he’s hung up his jacket, after he’s rested his eyes for five minutes, after a cup of tea. He asks him again and his father tells him to be patient. He tries but he must ask again because  his mother suddenly shouts at his father:
‘In the name of God just make the bloody thing for him will you’. He looks out of the window and tries to concentrate on the clouds passing by.

Eventually he holds the periscope in his hands. It’s a long thin cardboard box facing one way, inside a slightly larger cardboard box facing the other. From a distance it looks like a box of Matchmakers. You can slide the thinner box further out to extend the periscope. By looking in the mirror at one end, you see the reflection of the mirror at the other. His mother sits in the only chair in the room reading a book, and his father, after making the periscope lies down on the double bed and sleeps. He opens the window, puts the periscope out and watches the traffic pass by at the top of the road. After an hour he changes position. He lies on the floor with the door of the room just open enough for the periscope to pass through and he keeps close watch on the corridor. He sees no one.

That evening his parents get changed and go down to the hotel bar. His mother drinks whiskey without water, his father drinks beer and he has blackcurrant cordial with smoky bacon crisps. His dad tells him that they use periscopes on submarines. He says ‘Don’t they get wet?’ and his mother looks at him and says slowly: ‘They’re not made of cardboard’.

He wanders off to explore. He walks out of the bar and then kneels down behind the door and uses his periscope to watch his parents from the lobby. His father gets up and chats to the barman and his mother reads her book. A while later his father sits back at the table with his mother and drinks the froth from his beer. His mother puts her book down but they don’t speak. His father lights a cigarette and taps his foot to the music that plays. His mother looks at the bottles above the bar.

That night, in bed he is woken up by the sounds of his parents snoring. They create a dense counterpoint, his father’s thunderous bellow, intercut with the high whinnying of his mother. He lies in bed and the sounds grow stranger to him. They become disconnected from his parents and fill the room. He pulls back the curtain and a shaft of light falls across the room.  When he feels brave enough he gets up and walks over to their bed. He stands and watches them without the periscope. He watches them lying side by side and feels as if he has never seen these people before. He thinks perhaps the noises they make are a conversation. All the unspoken words of the long journey and the silent evening in the bar are now tumbling out. He wonders what they are saying to each other.  He reaches across and gently holds his mother’s hand, he lifts it carefully and places it on top of his father’s. It rests there for just a moment, before sliding off and the snoring stops.

First published in Wasafiri, 2009