My uncle and other animals

Steve Aylett lives with his mother in Kent and writes, as the New Law Journal says, 'like a surreal Damon Runyon on LSD'. By day 28- year-old Aylett is a production editor at the journal, by night the author of savagely funny fiction. This extract is fro...
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My uncle and other animals

ven in the slaughterhouse of boyhood I was dimly aware that I should have some jolly, wink-eyed uncle or gramp with whom to share private jokes and hatch terrorist outrages against the state. But all I recall is Uncle Snapper, who liked to go shooting in the woods and had a theory about squirrels. "They always run around the other side of the tree from where I am," he declared one evening, at which I in my innocence said I wasn't surprised seeing as he went into the woods for the exclusive purpose of killing anything larger than his brain.

At this Uncle Snapper stood in a shuddering, grill-mouthed rage.

"Dad!" I shouted down the hallway. "Uncle Snap's changing colour!"

"Right you are," called Father from his study, but did not emerge to look.

"Dad" I should down the hallway. "It's a seizure - grand mal or I'm a rat!"

"Offer him water," called Father, preoccupied. He was by nature so calm he once sketched an oncoming bullet train before stepping unhurriedly aside. This despite his supposed descent from an Irish berserker famous for having beaten off the rigid head of a goat. It was Snap who seemed determined to inherit the legend's ancient umbrage and who wasted no time in breaking a bull's nose with his left fist. But it was a cause for the odd explosive guffaw that this had been the outer and extreme extent of his effect upon the animal kingdom.

Snapper bellowed suddenly, grabbed my neck and shook me like a bladder on a stick. Apparently the blur of my mouth and eyes resembled the slot and gauge of a parking meter. "You'll help me kill those woodland rascals, laughing boy," he snarled, jowls quivering, "or so help me, I'll -"

The following day, Uncle Snapper stood in the leaf-blown forest with a sawn-off 20-bore and a pair of strange, inflatable dungarees. I stood by cheerlessly as he outlined the stalking plan in a guarded, barely articulate whisper. "An animal," he stated, "can only be in one place at a time."

"One area," said I, thinking of the very long tail of the Portuguese man-of-war. Those beauties are only filled with gas, but by god they can sting a man.

Snapper was furious, pounding me on the chops in time with his heartrate. He explained that if he and I stood on opposite sides of the tree, a trunkbound squirrel would have nowhere to hide. This is the sort of shite I had to listen to when I was a boy.

We set about executing Snapper's plan - of course the chosen squirrel couldn't care less and clung flat to my side of the trunk, regarding me with a beady eye. "What's it doing?" shouted Snapper.

"Hanging there, Uncle. And staring at me as if awaiting some grand finale."

"I'll give it a finale," Snapper choked, and told me to scare it into his sights. The most scary thing I could think of was the fact that unstable statesmen are only deemed insane retrospectively. As Eisenhower said, "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before" - if those aren't the words of a florid psychopath I'm all ears. Anyway I discussed migraine humour and other things which interested me at the time. But the squirrel just looked me in the face with all the self-possessed assurance of an elderly barber.

Initially I couldn't assess how Snapper was reacting due to the interposing tree - then there was an almighty blast and a scatter of lead which almost brought my life of abysmal horseplay to an end. He thundered into view, his bonce as red as a brick. "By god you've done it now!" he roared, and I was already running as fast as my arms and legs could take me.

"Dad!" I yelled, crashing into the study. "Uncle Snap's having a funny turn - from failing to shoot even one mammal!"

"Another fruitless siege," said Father in his deep voice, and looked pensively through the window at the largest tree. He turned from his drawing board, on which was set a convoluted architectural plan, and lay a hand on my head. "Your uncle," he remarked, "is a man for whom thought is an hourly ceremony."

A stranger to joy, I had eked out my only endorphin by feeding it through a mangle. Yet such a callow boy was I that I sought to dissolve Snapper's woe by nailing a multitude of soft, polychrome effigies to the forestation. Some of these did not even represent squirrels but toads, and every one was made of brushed corduroy and wool. However, as I hammered them up in the dark I felt they could pass as anything. And best of all, not only were there dozens of the brutes but they'd never move a muscle. "No running round the other side for this lot," said I proudly, driving the final nail.

But in the stark light of dawn Snapper stared in baffled indignation at a forest hung with boggle-eyed, multicoloured perversions of nature, as out of place as balloons in a hearse. No true animal was this densely packed with dried beans. Positioned near the tree-base, they were clearly the work of a small and immoral child.

Snap, who took a poor view of the fact that I had ever been born, entered my room in a broth of anger. I looked up from a join-the-dot picture of Trotsky's abrupt demise. Where Snap's mouth should have been was merely a blinding explosion of profanity. "Beanbag toads, is it?" he added, and began belting me with a violence over which I will draw a discreet veil.

That afternoon, I chanced upon a dead ladybird by the hot-house, and hurried to the drawing room. "Here's something you can kill, Snapper," I said, swanning up with a matchbox. Pushing out the tray, I showed him the contents while tilting the box imperceptibly from side to side, so that the dead ladybird rolled apparently of its own accord.

Uncle Snapper strove visibly to contain his impulses and gestured at the bug. "What d'you think this microscopic trophy would look like on a wallmount?"

"A zit," I replied.

"Oh Snapper," said Adrienne, my girlfriend and sister, as the family and lodgers sat identifying the evening meal. I was by now festooned with bandages. "You must make a sincere effort to keep your more demented opinions to yourself."

"I beg your pardon?"

Adrienne repeated her statement, staring at him levelly. But Uncle Snapper believed he could release his prejudices only by expressing them, and would believe this until he was buried in worms and clay.

In a final attempt to relieve his torment, I tempted a squirrel to the woodside shed and patiently taught it to play dead at the sound of a gunshot. But hearing shots and my cry of "Die", passing villagers feared the worst and twenty-seven of them alerted the authorities. I had to relate my elaborate plans to the local constabulary who, despite the stark simplicity of my account, demanded a demonstration. I was fast learning that official bodies communicate by synchronised backwardness. Snapper shot Camille - as I had come to know the animal - stone dead. Snap's delighted surprise was as nothing to my shock on finding that Camille wasn't play-acting and that I was being detained for mayhem and for weaving a windtorn web of lies to the law.

"Dad!" I shouted.

Back at the Hall, Father explained his plans to Snapper - a large, groaning treehouse rigged into the tallest garden oak. It was understood that Snapper would not only live there but become a figure of fear and superstition to the village children. This could easily be arranged - it had happened to Nanny Jack without any arrangements being necessary.

"But that child attempted every trick in the book," Snapper complained, sobbing like a bullring clown, "to stop me killing one of them bushy vermin."

"Silence, brother. Did I, too, not make every effort when we were the boy's age? Don't you need ammo and medication from the village?" Father fixed him with a stern look. "And wasn't he the one made it possible for you to shoot something at long last?"

As we buried Camille, Adrienne sang mournfully and dark-eyed in the rain. The darkness was eating at her like a vacuum at a matchflame. The rain fell like Hiroshima dust. She kissed a rose and lay it on the burial mound. I wanted to remove her skulltop and slather my tongue through her brainfolds. Even in grief there is diversity.

hairman Mao said "My enemy's enemy is my friend." The friends he made this way were inevitably lost by the corresponding principle that "My friend's friend is my enemy." The fractal shifts generated by the two principles kept Mao's relationships in a swirl- state of constant and luridly violent flux. I could draw parallels between this and the environment of my youth which would make your nostrils flare.

The Hall was a fertile chaos of bellowing sociopaths, arc-welding nuns and sudden combat. Rarely was anything done without a scream. My earliest memory is of Snap throwing a lobster into a bonfire and cursing as the creature exploded. I'm the first to admit the violence lacked texture but it was leavened with a quality of ferocious disregard. Ask to use the phone and you'd be met with a dead stare. We once detained a postman for eight months by locking him in the cellar and telling him he knew why. I live in amazement that I did not mature to stagger bearded in the streets, baying evangelically at strangers. Childhood was a losing battle to remain ignorant in the face of pulse-browed maniacs, shrieking chimps, arrogant liars, knife-fights, angry swans, a grandmother you'd swerve to hit and a spaniel whom everyone mysteriously asserted was "more than a mere dog".

I had always been troubled that my ancestors did not go back in sequence - a family tree hung in the boiler room seemed to represent the ricochet path of a bullet. I took this to Professor Leap, who was bashing a guppy against a drystone wall. "You're at the top," he said. "It's simply drawn upside down." But Adrienne, who was only four years my senior, was near the middle, Father was at the base, Nan was near the top and Professor Leap himself - a lodger unrelated to the family - appeared to be the mother of them all.

Billy Verlag, a barrel-like boy from the village, said the chart was an origami sheet with fold-guides, and twisted it into the shape of a piece of trash. He looked up at me with a ruddy face, a nose which contained his brain and a smile which contained my fist.

"An astronomical starmap, perhaps?" stated Father, raising his eyebrows.

"What kind of simple-minded lout of an astronomer would name a star Leap for god's sake, or Jack?"

"Your great-grandfather was just such a man - the telescope in your sister's sanctuary belonged to him." And he pointed at the wall. "There is a daguerrotype of that venerable gentleman strangling what I can only describe as a hen." The wall was, in fact, bare.

I showed Adrienne the document. "Text and line," she said. "Quite clearly it's a work of conceptual art."

"What does that mean?"

"That you can throw it away."

"Take a butcher's at this, Verger," I said to the Verger, who was busy walloping a village dog about the muzzle.

"What is it, boy?" he roared, straightening up. "By god you've arrogance to burn!" Viewing it, his eyes opened wide, then seemed to seal over with disdain. He regarded me through a visor of disapproval. "Oh what a tangled web we weave," he rumbled.

"But you say that even if I'm just mowing the lawn," I complained. "What does it represent, Verger?"

"What does it represent he says. Without a doubt and despite all I have tried to teach you, this here is a chart of who owes who money."

"Money?" I said, frowning. "So I can afford a caulking hammer at long bloody last."

"The debt proceeds downward. You are at the top." He fixed me with a baleful eye. "And always will be."

Poor Mr Cannon the lodger regarded the paper with a lively interest. "This is a floorplan, laughing boy, showing the relative positioning of our dungeons in the scorching deeps of hell. You and I will be able to yell abominations at each other across the skull-littered hallway, our faces tear-rashed and demented. One thing at least to look forward to," he grinned.

I was getting desperate. In two rare moments of lucidity Uncle Burst stared at the paper and whispered the word "hex" and then, late the following day, "evil spirits".

Nanny Jack was propped like a dummy in the kitchen. "What do you make of this, old woman?" I said, slapping the sheet onto the table before her.

Nanny Jack was unresponsive.

"The paper, Nan!" I shouted, stabbing a finger at the chart. "What does it say to you?" Nan's disquieting immobility continued unabated. "For god's sake, Nan, give me some good news!" I bellowed into her ear.

It was during one of the household's attempts to bury Nan - a tradition in which Uncle Snapper played a leading role while I was considered too young to participate - that I sat poring over the chart again. By now the document had taken on the enigmatic monumentalism of ancient scripture. It occurred to me that the only name missing was Snapper's, and with time to spare before his return, I climbed into the creaking treehouse. Adjusting to the rocking of the floor and the ebb and flow of clattering furniture, I plucked a little book from a passing table. It was Snapper's diary, a marker at the latest entry:

Today, laughing boy taunts me. But I do not give up! There I am in the living room when in he comes, parping on a bugle. Strutting like a feudal lord and talking about vertebrae as if they were the main event. Is this the behaviour of a respectful child? Or that of a glad and devious boy? You could lay track on his insolence. But the day will come when everyone will know me as I am. They'll be stamping my features onto coins the size of manhole covers. God grant me the strength to do what's necessary.

With ballooning apprehension, I surveyed the poster of the Desiderata which Snap used for target practice. A corner was bent over showing the flap of something underneath. I yanked out a pin and the Desiderata scrolled upward like a rollerblind, revealing a giant version of the famous name chart. A hit-list, and a thorough one. Next to my name were the words "gun, bomb or poison". The others, too, had been assigned a method: "Leap - knife; Burst - ligature; Jack - axe; the Verger - harpoon bolt" and so on. My world turned inside-out like an umbrella. Where would I be safe? I had run away to the circus once but was deemed "too rough with the lions".

As I clambered down the rope-ladder the crew were arriving back at the Hall. Sad faces all round - the funeral had not succeeded. "Run for cover you morons," I yelled, "Snapper's a homicidal maniac. We're headed full- tilt for a bloodbath!" Everyone stopped, staring at me as though at a mildly irritating street performer. "Look out," I said, "he'll murder the bloody lot of you - and me most of all! Mercy, Snapper - the devil is boring and I'm scared to die! Could you harm a little boy?"

It was an entire month of sniggers and gibes before I tore the Christmas wrapping from a gun, a bomb and a bottle of arsenic. "Couldn't decide," said Snapper, "so I got all three."

"Thanks for the knife, Snapper," said Professor Leap, flushed as punch