Christopher Yates’ debut novel Black Chalk (Random House) is a twisting mindfuck full of poetry, dangerous games, college students turned violent and drinking. Set in Oxford, England and New York’s Lower East Side, Black Chalk follows a hermetic, paranoid narrator as he tries to piece together his troubled past and the mistakes which resulted in his current madness. We’re pleased to present an exclusive excerpt from Black Chalk.
1. He phones early. England greets the world five hours ahead of us and I answer before my day has gained its groove.
Before long I have agreed to everything he says.
Don’t worry, he says. I promise you, it’ll be fun.
It’ll be fun. Pause. Click.
Yes, that’s what we said about the Game all those years ago. It’ll be so much fun!
I hold the phone to my chest for some time after the call has ended. And then, crossing the room, I open my curtains for the first time in three years. Because now he has found me, tracked me down, and there remains no good reason to stay hidden any longer. For three cloistral years the quantity of time I have spent inside this apartment has averaged twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes each day. I am a hermit, as pale as my bones, as hairy as sackcloth. But now I intend to grow stronger. I must ready myself for the impending visit of the ancient friend.
Because the timing of the call was of course no coincidence. In five weeks’ time, fourteen years to the day since last we saw each other, this hermit turns thirty-four. And let me state from the outset that, whether I win or lose, I hope this story will serve as my warning to the world. A cautionary tale. My confession.
I stand by my window staring out at the city. Everything is storm-light, the bruised palette of the sky. Manhattan, mid-April. Down below on Seventh wheels rush and slosh water to the sides of the road.
I push my forehead to the glass. If I am going to win, then before he arrives I must undergo a transformation. I will embark upon the journey of the recovering warrior, just like in the boxing movies. Months of hard work before the comeback fight, the washout trying manfully to resurrect his career. And from the hermit’s chrysalis there will emerge a proud fighter. Except the strength I will need for the coming battle is all mental. I begin to wonder what might be the psychological training equivalent to sprinting up museum steps, pounding sides of beef with bare fists, quaffing raw eggs. I begin to hum inspirational music, I wave my fists feebly in the air.
Perhaps I could start out with a gentle stroll.
Yes, I’m going to do it, the hermit is going to go outside. And he may be some time.
2. Something someone once said all those years ago has stuck in my mind. Although I can’t actually remember who said it.
Someone else had come out with that old line about winning not being everything. Probably Emilia, that’s exactly the sort of thing she liked to believe. And then one of us replied . . . perhaps even me, I’m not sure . . . one of us said, Of course winning is everything. Why else do you think we call ourselves the human race?
3. But tell me, what did we do that was so wrong?
We played a game. That’s all. A game. Isn’t this how we teach children the ways of the world? Are we not all supposed to learn early in life how to cope with defeat?
But then there were the consequences, the price paid for losing.
Ah, the consequences.
Yes. We went too far.
Well of course we went too far. Why else would I be living in this dark hole, hands shaking as I dare to let in the sunlight for the first time in three years? Obviously we went too far. But no one was supposed to get hurt.
When a boxer dies in the ring, whatever our views on the sport, don’t we accept that the boxer knew the risks? We don’t blame his opponent. In law there exists a doctrine that covers this. Volenti non fit injuria. To the consenting person, no injury is done.
Yes, volenti non fit injuria. That should serve as my defence. But, instead, I stare at the blood on my hands every day and allow the guilt to suffocate me once more.
We went too far.
I went too far.
But it was never supposed to be that sort of game.
Image: Amanda Segur