Skippy Dies: A Novel

Contents

I Hopeland

II Heartland

III Ghostland

IV Afterland

Acknowledgements

Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. It is a Friday in November, and Ed’s is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention. Nor is Ruprecht, at first, overly concerned; rather he is pleased, because it means that he, Ruprecht, has won the race, his sixteenth in a row, bringing him one step closer to the all-time record held by Guido ‘The Gland’ LaManche, Seabrook College class of ’93.

Apart from being a genius, which he is, Ruprecht does not have all that much going for him. A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem, he is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations; that is why he savours his doughnut-eating victories so, and why, even though Skippy has been on the floor for almost a minute now, Ruprecht is still sitting there in his chair, chuckling to himself and saying, exultantly, under his breath, ‘Yes, yes’ – until the table jolts and his Coke goes flying, and he realizes that something is wrong.

On the chequered tiles beneath the table Skippy is writhing in silence. ‘What’s the matter?’ Ruprecht says, but gets no answer. Skippy’s eyes are bulging and a strange, sepulchral wheezing issues from his mouth; Ruprecht loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar, but that doesn’t seem to help, in fact the breathing, the writhing, the pop-eyed stare only get worse, and Ruprecht feels a prickling climb up the back of his neck. ‘What’s wrong?’ he repeats, raising his voice, as if Skippy were on the other side of a busy motorway. Everyone is looking now: the long table of Seabrook fourth-years and their girlfriends, the two St Brigid’s girls, one fat, one thin, both still in their uniforms, the trio of shelf-stackers from the shopping mall up the road – they turn and watch as Skippy gasps and dry-heaves, for all the world as if he’s drowning, though how could he be drowning here, Ruprecht thinks, indoors, with the sea way over on the other side of the park? It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s all happening too quickly, without giving him time to work out what to do –

At that moment a door opens and a young Asian man in an Ed’s shirt and a badge on which is written, in mock-cursive, Hi I’m, and then, in an almost unreadable scrawl, Zhang Xielin, emerges behind the counter, carrying a tray of change. Confronted by the crowd, which has risen to its feet to get a better view, he halts; then he spies the body on the floor, and dropping the tray, vaults over the counter, pushes Ruprecht aside and prises open Skippy’s mouth. He peers in, but it’s too dark to see anything, so hoisting him to his feet, he fastens his arms around Skippy’s midriff and begins to yank at his stomach.

Ruprecht’s brain, meanwhile, has finally sparked into life: he’s scrabbling through the doughnuts on the floor, thinking that if he can find out which doughnut Skippy is choking on, it might provide some sort of a key to the situation. As he casts about, however, he makes a startling discovery. Of the six doughnuts that were in Skippy’s box at the start of the race, six still remain, none with so much as a bite gone. His mind churns. He hadn’t been observing Skippy during the race – Ruprecht when eating competitively tends to enter a sort of a zone in which the rest of the world melts away into nothingness, this in fact is the secret of his record-nearing sixteen victories – but he’d assumed Skippy was eating too; after all, why would you enter a doughnut-eating race and not eat any doughnuts? And, more importantly, if he hasn’t eaten anything, how can he be –

‘Wait!’ he exclaims, jumping up and waving his hands at Zhang. ‘Wait!’ Zhang Xielin looks at him, panting, Skippy lolling over his forearms like a sack of wheat. ‘He hasn’t eaten anything,’ Ruprecht says. ‘He isn’t choking.’ A rustle of intrigue passes through the body of spectators. Zhang Xielin glowers mistrustfully, but allows Ruprecht to extricate Skippy, who is surprisingly heavy, from his arms and lie him back down on the ground.

This entire sequence of events, from Skippy’s initial fall to the present moment, has taken perhaps three minutes, during which time his purple