Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
Welcome to The Rail's last story of the year! We hope you're not yet tired of reading our thanks to our readers, writers, and supporters over the last two (!!) years because we're not tired of writing it.
Today we have a coming-of-age story that is a thoughtful and sometimes tough read, following a student at a British prep school as he navigates adolescence, masculinity, and grief.
As we careen toward 2022, we hope you are having a safe and rejuvenating winter.
Happy reading, and Happy New Year!
The Derailleur Press Team
Wuss. Wuss. You’re a
Sissy. Wuss. Sissy. Don’t throw a
hissy. Sissy. Wussy.
Gav, stop being such a pussy. Don’t throw a hissy. You’re a wuss, you hear me?
Gav, mate. You’re so fussy.
Guys, it’s Gav the Wuss.
Gav the pussy.
The fussy wussy sissy, throwing a hissy.
Gav enjoys disappearing into his own interiority. Getting lost there. Spending hours, days, weeks digging around finding something he didn’t know he was looking for.
He has to. It’s survivalist. Instinctual. Necessary. Comfortable in here, he can evade the daily looks of contempt en route from the changing room to the football pitch – soccer field, as Americans prefer. The perennial reminder that he doesn’t belong here, dressed up as collective external scorn.
These thoughts come as continuous jets of water hammer the shower floor around him, strategically dodged by the hulking naked body seated beneath and behind the shower head – his, something reminds him.
The shower offers escape. Brief respite from the constant noise of the animals surrounding him seven days a week. The grunting, groaning, kicking of footballs, whipping of towels. Gav can organise his thoughts here, no matter how frequently the presuppositions disintegrate over the course of a single day. He has to. It’s survivalist.
Caretaker Steven Peters installed the shower lock in June 2015, the summer before Gav joined the academy programme. It was a godsend, permitting escape as opposed to, well, hiding. The crack and whip of the towels would otherwise find him, the cinematic jump scare that tells you it’s coming and reliably does. Preparation time never capitalised on, you still shit yourself scared.
Thanks, Steven: you put an end to this. Or stalled it. Temporary alleviation until they figure out how to pick the lock. It’s progress – a term with less value nowadays anyway. Thanks, Steven.
Gratitude aside, the cacophony of shower jets colliding with different patches of floor conceals a new rhythm within today’s iteration of this setup: Gav’s simultaneous sniffles and coughed attempts to cover these up. He’s achieving what only the most elite cinemagoers can. That thing Mums are incomparably great at – when you’re born, when you leave home, all over grade certificates and birthday cakes. He used to be able to switch it on and off like a light switch to manipulate the Mum-Dad team into granting him the day off school. That thing Gav’s gender aren’t supposed to do either in public or private, especially somewhere like Moorland Football Academy: crying.
Gav’s suffering must be worth something – personally, professionally, narratively. If he doesn’t make it pro after the three indisputably worst years of his life, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. At the tail end of these, aged seventeen, identifiable drawbacks in the whole premise continue to outweigh the merits. Gav’s first major opportunity for formative years has been spent on constant personality autopilot, catering to whoever will take him: a door so open he has been left to gather dust, looking on from the substitutes bench while enviably dazzling young lads mould to fit the shape predetermined by an older brother, father, or grandfather, already casting their spell on the world, hair falling naturally as they want it to, beards daring to emerge early enough to justify their categorisation as “men.”
Gav’s tears flow freely more often than the others at Moorland put together. He knows that he’s not allowed to keep talking about this, but the act anchors his daily life to the extent that it’s difficult not to, just not usually staged by the shower experience. He has to tell someone. Phone calls with Dad are devoted entirely to football progress. Email conversations with Mum to the topically inane – photographs indicative of the size of his laundry pile; hyperlinks to recipe alternatives to the provided school meals; inundations of cat pictures, cousin graduation evidence, visual communication of newly installed dressing tables, filing cabinets, television stands. Yes, Mum, you “can’t wait” to “see the new conservatory in person” when you come home for Christmas.
It’s an entirely inward brand of crying. A far cry from the performativity of Cinema Sobbing, whose politics demand a process of externalising and thus diluting the anguish. A far cry from the communality of funereal custom, where waterless cheeks garner accusatory looks as systematically as the condolence card transaction invites perfunctory shoulder pats.
Snap out of it
as Dad would say.
as your two brothers would chorus.
Hurry up and finish: there are footsteps on the other side of the shower cubicle.
C, I, O, and B lead the pack as they file out from the changing room like cadavers being wheeled out on their autopsy tables. It’s easy to be stoic when you have something to offer the world.
QUESTION FROM A VIEWER AT HOME: Do the letters represent the boys’ first names, speak for a Saussurean breakdown in sign/signifier/signified/, denote anonymity, all of the above, or none of the above?
Growing up, Gav was instructed to avoid juice from concentrate even though he never paused to learn the source of the iniquity. It was one of Dad’s many empty instructions, he who was caught by eight-year-old Gav telling a Gav-less room occupied by Mum that he “didn’t ask for another son.” He who clashed with Mum so frequently that Gav at every age would tactically cover up argument worthy mistakes such as leaving beard trimmings all over the sink after shaving despite Mum’s regular reminders to wash away this evidence. Like a thief in the night, Gav would slip in before Mum could discover the lapse and turn up her volume dial to confrontation.
C is similarly disputatious. Gav avoids him like the plague.
I is privilege, personified. Even if Gav could find an identification entry point, he wouldn’t want to. I knows his price and is worth no worse a place than Moorland, a venue reeking of corresponding experiential ease. We cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot be truly followed; but I fits this bill in all but title.
O is often tricked into thinking that I values him. He traipses around the academy grounds following I’s shadow, a comparable swagger defining his headspace. O is lost and will never be found; his parts, title, and perfect soul manifest him rightly.
B is the closest thing to a friend Gav has managed to find in three years. He contains the exact social versatility Gav prays for. When B doesn’t disappear into the masculine unit, he will discretely interact with Gav, digging out a creased paperback novel from the box brought by his university professor father on his first visit to Moorland to watch his son play, for their shared consumption. Or sending Gav a fart soundbite over WhatsApp from the opposite end of the dormitory corridor when the pair should be in bed. Privately, B craves actual, reciprocal attention but doesn’t quite know what to do with it when he gets it, as is the nature of social interaction amongst the academy boys. The defect is equally influenced by his father’s “think by day, drink by night” operandi and entire absence during his son’s upbringing: over a decade of being in the multiplex toilets while the film is starting. Its knock-on effect is B delaying his first sip of alcohol for as long as possible while contemporaries open those floodgates around him, while he wears the branded t-shirt of a beer he deems believable to be enjoyed at seventeen for post-match pool, darts, and other downtime activities. B feels guilty of precisely the fact that he has nothing to feel guilty about in his situation.
Gav is just grateful that he has B, someone with three dimensions.
Academy matches are not like professional football. There are small crowds, usually made up of Moorland staff and a handful of representatives for the visiting opposition. There is no televisual audience, no sense that the game is happening somewhere in Deep Space outside the fragile reach of current awareness, in some transrational warp belonging to a different time frame.
These spectators watch as the teams collide, listening to the thud of interchangeable bodies, speculating the outcomes of small wars commencing here and there, losing breath from the exaltation of each pair of destructive masses coming into contact. Football as warfare. A necessary substitute in place of the real thing. The sport of benign illusion: the illusion that order is possible. Spectator as author, whose permanent duty is to unbox the lexicon for all eyes to see.
C strafes the Manchester back four as his teammates gallop forwards in support. C’s steely glare frightens the northerners more than his footwork ever could. A clumsy step-over is followed by a glance across his own midfield line.
I catches C’s eye from his right; O squeaks something indecipherable from his left. C’s eyes dart furiously around for any sign of R. Probably still sulking in Moorland’s penalty area when he should be next to C in centre midfield for this counter-attack.
B turns to Gav from the comfort of the subs bench:
‘We’ve got to score from this.’
‘But you know what C’s decision making is like in that final third.’
The hypothetical additional goal puts the score at 3-0. Surely the game would be out of sight for Manchester International Football Academy. MIFA, for short.
‘Play it. PLAY it. RELEASE it!’
‘He won’t. You know what he’s like,’ B wisecracks back to the sorry forty-eight-year-old responsible for the Moorland lot on days like this.
‘Didn’t ask for your input, son,’ John snaps back. John Wilson, the most deplorable man at the academy.
John’s unpleasantness isn’t even consistent. There’s no discernible rhythm to his negotiations between passive aggression, explosive outrage, disparaging aside, or manipulative nicety. The only certainty? John is always out to get you.
Gav snatches a glance at the man after the container of these four possibilities has rotated 45° on its stiff, apologetic neck. Gav imagines the ability to unhook and relocate the wires in there, control the words coming out of the connected mouth, tell himself that, yes, it is time to strip down and jog along the touchline a few times in preparation of coming on.
Gav doesn’t even want to come on. He’s content in his customary position inside the rusty dugout, next to B. But he dreads the song and dance with Dad when he reads the academy newsletter and sees that Gav was left on the bench for the fifth game in a row. Gav’s experience at Moorland – like so many of the chapters of adolescence – is an entirely economic affair. As Dad sees it, he has to get what he’s paying for: results.
‘YESSSSSSS. GET IN.’
John thumps the dugout’s vulnerable plastic sheeting for emphasis.
‘You know what? That should be the win. Get stripped down, lads. You’re coming on.’
The dugout is so small that only three people at a time can sit in it. John can only be referring to Gav and B. The other lads on the subs bench are spread across the boggy grass further along the touchline. They would rather contend with the squelch and stain of the earth than sit in such close confines with Gav and B.
Like every time he is about to set foot on this 4500m-square patch of grass, Gav climbs out of his grave and holds his head high. The mask of optimism.
He double high fives O as they greet one another at the side of the pitch. B and D do similarly. D thumps the dugout, with an altogether different agenda.
‘The fuck you take me off for?’
‘Shut up and sit down. Not everything’s personal,’ John spits back.
‘O banish me, my lord, but kid me not,’ D returns, audibly huffing and puffing as he plants himself on top of the arse-shaped sweat mark left by B.
‘Man up,’ John returns.
‘What does that even mean?’
John is the academy bully. He steals desserts from the boys’ lunch trays when they aren’t looking, and when they’re looking. Now, he stares at D as if he’s on fire. John’s silence is deafening.
D switches from normal tone to narrative tone: ‘It’s getting past my expiration date. I’m about done with this place.’
John gesticulates towards the door. The door inside, to the home team’s changing room. Moorland Football Academy AKA Hall of Mirrors.
Gav, meanwhile, breathes heavily and feels himself progressively reddening in the face. He frantically tries to keep up with the Manchester player he’s supposed to be marking. Gav’s lost and probably dreaming, his mind anywhere but on that pitch. The ball goes out of play and B sprints over and taps the back of his head. He wakes up and the cogs begin to whir, their collective rotational movement blowing away the tangle of dust and filth.
Like the first bite of an apple, breathing in the first supply of your own air is the highlight of walking into your bedroom and closing the door. The sonic reverberations of the door closing and the feeling of diving face first into your pillow are a close second and third in the rankings.
Outside, the testosterone filled match day squad mercilessly boots footballs along the dormitory corridor, pulling off wall plaster and inducing their own headaches in the process. The atmosphere is galvanic. Moorland not only held onto their three-goal advantage; they increased the deficit to six.
Gav had no part in any of the three goals. In fact he didn’t even touch the ball for the twenty-three minutes he was on. The fact frustrated him, because he did everything he’d been told to by John and Dad: hug the left-hand side of the pitch, run the channels and get back to help his full-back, open up his body and adopt body language that asks for the ball to his feet rather than hit long or over the top. Gav became invisible for those minutes, as happens as often on the pitch as it does off.
The sound of Gav’s phone vibrating cuts through the silence. His head shoots upright from its position in the pillow.
NEW EMAIL FROM mum:
Hi honey. Sorry for the radio silence at my end. Been a rough week. Grandma has died and we’re all a bit shaken X
The pain of being helpless to prevent the death of a loved one is indescribable. Acquiring the understanding that you would want to after the fact only compounds the suffering. You agonise over the inability to have done anything then, to do anything now, all while the walls of geography restrict you to a different end of the country that may as well occupy the space of a separate planet. Removed. Withdrawn. Disconnected.
Gav’s Mum had preferred using email since the mid-noughties, despite its usurpation by the mobile phone as the primary mode of electronic communication at around that time. Gav couldn’t source the stubbornness. Archaism? Contrarianism? The maternal impulse to insist on one’s own way of doing things and needing to double down on the commitment so your grown children cannot call your bluff for no longer doing the thing that symbolises a personal history of feet being put down and argumentative stances being sustained? The rare acknowledgement that those chameleonic, constantly evolving bricks of metal are doing far more harm to us than good?
The logical next step in the situation is to pick up the phone and do what his family have always had such a big problem doing. Dad’s Dad was bad at staying in touch, not that this is an excuse. Mum’s Mum set the tone for problematic intergenerational family dynamics by doing everything in her power to get rid of the baby she didn’t want at nineteen. As instructed by her parents, she routinely jumped off tables and drank her way through the pregnancy, all to no avail.
The preventive obstacle was courage. Gav had never been able to get the thing. Its multivalent forms of evidence had just never appeared, from the material (size of gut) to the metaphoric (size of genitals). He’d never understood these male codes of living in the twenty-first century. He’d only ever seen the rulebook’s limitations, its restrictions, its shortcomings.
Once upon a time, Mum was the only person he would talk to. And he was the only person she would make an effort with. “Gav, honey, what do you think of this dress?” “Gavvybear, do these earrings look better in gold or silver?” “Gav, dear, let’s go shopping on Saturday.”
As per dream logic, you take a second look at something and it resembles something totally different. Closing the gap of seven childhood years, this is what happened with Mum. Gav just didn’t recognise her anymore. Hadn’t for some time. He got his head stuck between the stairway banister spindles and was left wondering how it got through in the first place, while no-one came to help him out of the predicament, for weeks, months, years.
Gav’s heart used to bleed for Mum, the only person on earth who really noticed him, appreciated that he was different without being scared off by the fact. She fulfilled the biological need for one other out there who makes it easy for you, conversationally. Someone who gets it. Someone who cares.
Something changed after word of Dad’s affair got out all those years ago. A meteor spinning wildly out of control as it zeroed in on and then decimated a singular domestic four walls and nothing else.
Gav defers by nature, as if constantly picking himself last in training match team selections. He leaves everything to the last minute, only ever deciding to act at eleventh hours. In the face of tragedy, the situation is no different. Gav breathes his gut out heroically, instructs the little man in his skull to “grow a pair”, walks over to the window to let some air in, pulls out his phone, selects “HOME” from his contacts list, hears the first ring as he straps himself in for an inevitably uncomfortable ride.
Neither Mum nor Dad picked up in five consecutive attempts, so Gav goes for a soak in the hope of clearing his head. Favouring the environment designed to encourage sitting down instead of showering incongruously like he usually does, Gav puts his head under the growing pool of water held in by the plug as it rockets out of the hot tap.
His phone starts buzzing from its position on top of the closed toilet seat.
Leaning out of the comfort of the steaming water and ending this tooth-fairy period, Gav dries his arm before reaching for the phone, now vibrating as if threatening to grow legs and hop off the toilet seat and scurry out of the bathroom.
‘Mum, hi, sorry, I’ll just put you on speaker phone. I’m in the bath.’
‘Okay Gavvybear,’ she sighs, plucking the old nickname out of thin air for the first time in years.
Gav is irrationally terrified of his own naked body, even when the mirage of privacy only begins to crumble slightly, as it is now. The insecurity isn’t a response to the sight of his own nudity as much as it is to the feeling of vulnerability glued to this appearance. Gav’s entire life is a shirts vs. skins dichotomy, and his desperation to be assigned to the former may as well be tattooed in capital letters on his forehead.
‘Well she just – she – we went to bed on Tuesday night with everything as normal.’
Mum quickly loses composure. Gav wouldn’t even know where to start looking for it.
‘A – a – and then we got a call over breakfast the next day to say the postman found her collapsed on the living room floor. He – he saw her through the window. Was trying to see if anyone was in after no answer. He tried knocking and ringing the doorbell. He – he had a parcel that was too big to fit through the letterbox.’
Mum goes off stage to cry into a shoulder. Her muffled sobs are soon interrupted by a new voice.
‘Sorry Gav mate. I don’t know what to tell you. Your mother and I are very upset. It’s gonna be a rough few weeks arranging the funeral.’
‘Dad, put Mum back on.’
‘S – sorry Gavvy. There was nothing we could do. By the time we got to the hospital, she’d already gone. I – I just feel so helpless. So. Fucking. Useless. I – we didn’t even get to say goodbye. My own Mum. Dying alone in the back of an ambulance with her family spread out all over the country.’
Gav waits a lifetime before answering. Visits each emotional state on the whole damn erratic spectrum. Entertains every possibility. Plays out all the possible versions of the imminent conversational turn in his head before selecting one at random.
‘I’m trying to work out what the best thing to say right now is. I’m struggling for answers, Mum, but I do have a question.’
‘Why wait so long to tell me? It’s Saturday.’
‘Oh, I – um – I –’
‘– I knew it would come to something like this.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? Gavvy – Gavvy, please don’t hang up. Please.’
By the second “Gavvy”, Gavvy was long gone and back beneath the bath water, now precariously close to overflowing. The boy turns off the tap and begins to sob, ecstatically, brokenheartedly, losing tears like a bucketful of rain pouring into an ocean, collapsing all notions of temporality and any potential for a cinematic-poetic epiphany directed by Ridley Scott whatsoever.
‘Man up, Gav. She was old. It was always gonna happen,’ Jim chuckles down the phone line, his decibels crackling through the poor reception and piercing Gav’s ear drums, to the dismay of this recipient.
‘I’m not laughing, Jim. When was the last time you spoke to her?’
‘Um, I dunno. Two Christmases ago, I guess. Damn, yeah, it’s been a while.’
‘Well, what can you do?’
‘I knew we should’ve worked on Mum. Gone to Grandma’s for Christmas if she couldn’t make it to us.’
‘You know what, Gav?’
‘That Christmas was the last time I saw you. It’s been a while.’
The platitude is starting to irritate Gav. He swipes at his older brother with this anger, knowing he’s not to blame for what’s happening but feeling better for releasing the emotion regardless:
‘Why are you talking about us?! This isn’t about us. This is your problem, Jim. Everything has to in some way point back to you. Your benefit. Your perspective. Your gain from the situation.’
‘You okay, Gav? I just phoned to see how you’re holding up.’
‘Sorry, Jim. I know you did. It’s just –’
‘– Just what? We need to get in touch more, bro. I feel like I know you a little bit less each time we have a conversation.’
‘Mum only just told me. Three days late. It’s just so typical of her.’
‘Shit. She phoned me on Thursday morning. You know what she’s like with things. Has to deal with them her way.’
‘It’s not good enough. She’s my Grandma. Was. Our. And now she’s gone and there’s nothing we can do about it.’
Gav detects a necessary gear change, to something arbitrary. Something minor, to steer the exchange back on track and see him actually come out of the experience with something, for a change.
‘Well, you know. It’s work.’
Gav is hardly shouting fire in a crowded theatre. A better analogy? Farting and pretending he can’t smell it. But they both hear it.
‘ That the best you’ve got?’ Jim chuckles warmly, smiling at the image of Gav reddening in the face as he did so often growing up. Jim and Harry would have relished the taunting opportunity in those days.
‘Heard from Harry recently?’
‘Not for months. You?’
‘Same. Wonder what he’s up to.’
‘He left that accountancy job, I think.’
‘Yeah, Mum told me.’
‘Dad told me. Slipped it in during a sixty-minute tirade on why I need to start being as two-footed as I can. All the best can play with both, apparently. Like I don’t know these things.’
‘That sounds like Dad,’ Jim chuckles.
The interaction is going better than it has in months and months. He and Jim had always had this. Had something, in there deep, buried under some debris. Some of Gav’s happiest moments in a largely difficult childhood were of Jim becoming the Mum surrogate, fulfilling the biological need for one other out there who made it easy for him. Someone who got it. Someone who cared.
‘There’s one thing I don’t get in all of this. One thing that I can’t put my finger on.’
‘Yeah?’ Jim urges.
‘Where was Grandma’s God to swoop in and save her. No, not even that: why didn’t He let us have one last day with her. Just one. Why didn’t He let Mum?’
‘That’s a little deep for a Saturday night, Gavvy. He had better things to do, I guess. Was too busy dropping bombs, winding up tornadoes, unleashing disease. The usual.’
Gav can’t help laughing at just how out of character this is. The habitually agnostic, impulsively reserved, theologically timid Jim of old wouldn’t have let these sounds come out of this mouth. Death changes people, Gav supposes to himself, before launching into the inevitable laugh. This becomes a howl. Then a guffaw.
Soon, his older brother joins in. He doesn’t really know why, though neither does Gav. The turn of events quickly goes on for so long that they both forget what they were laughing at in the first place – forget what the joke was, whether there was any set-up, whether to anticipate a punch line.
Gav’s 6 ft frame shakes uncontrollably from the action. He is grief and sadness walking – talking – and this counterfeit of his brother is helping him escape the knowledge. This photograph of his sibling. This telecommunicated map of the person rather than the real thing. This version of Jim who is helping Gav sit on the pain for a while. The version opening the drawer for him to file it away in, to be left for whatever measurement of time is required before Gav is able to stomach re-opening the drawer to dig it out and confront it.
It’s the dream in which the person you just shot asks you why you did that. Not the one where you are hiding from the man with the gun, or any other iteration of the premise. Somewhere, someone presses play and the “Wuss. Sissy. Hissy. Wussy” conveyor belt becomes a wheel in motion, an interminable tape loop. The verbal projectiles are thrown at Gav by a hand he can’t quite see through the blinding concoction of slurs and insults.
As in all good nursery rhymes, the bullies lose and Gav rides off into the sunset on horseback, to a silent soundtrack. So he smiles. And laughs. And laughs some more until tears form at the corners of his eyes. And holds onto the experience, because he knows how much he’ll need this raft to cling onto as he navigates the tempest of struggle that lies ahead of him.
George (he/him) is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at King's College London, as well as a short fiction and culture writer. He is also Assistant Editor at Coastal Shelf. George's recent publications include The First Line, Lotus-eater, Luma Quarterly, Overland, and Sweet Tree Review. He was also shortlisted for Ouen Press' 2019 Short Story Competition and his work appears in their print collection Zawadi & Other Short Stories (2020, ed. P. Comley).