The following is from Max Porter's Shy. Porter is the author of Lanny, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and The Death of Francis Bacon. He lives in Bath with his family.
They talk a lot. More than any of them ever have before. Sometimes with the teachers, unpacking what they’ve been through, what they’ve done, just chatting in lessons, or in little groups, sudden moments of honesty. Jamie told them about when he got his diagnosis aged thirteen and all his mates stopped talking to him. His best friend started calling him a retard. I won’t ever forgive that, said Jamie. Everyone agreed, that’s unforgivable. Not as long as I live, said Jamie. Benny talked about his dad dying in prison. He almost cried and everyone was silent while he got his shit together because Benny is the toughest and nobody ever sees him cry. Paul talked about what he’d done and his time in borstal and how he’d lost his virginity when he was eleven and they didn’t feel easy making sex jokes around Paul after that, but Paul mostly stays in his room playing his SNES. They tell stories. Some bragging, some regret, some baffled grinning shrugs and ripples of easy laughter. They talk about how wrong school was for them. They try and figure each other out, because there’s fuck-all else to do. They each carry a private inner register of who is genuinely not OK, who is liable to go psycho, who is hard, who is a pussy, who is actually alright, and friendship seeps into the gaps of these false registers in unexpected ways, just as hatred does, just as terrible loneliness does.
His mum has written down: Like a person being devoured / animal that’s in him / skin ? on him / trapping him / Shy’s inside, but the skin is also him, so angry, so true. I’m almost envious. And Jenny says Gosh. This is so interesting. Thank you.
And Jenny says Shy? Anything you want to share? Just a doodle today, is it?
And Jenny says Sorry, I’d hoped this would be a helpful thing.
And Jenny says It’s alright, sometimes you can say nothing.
And Jenny says Shy?
If someone looked out of the window he’d only be a head. Because of the ha-ha.
He waits by the hedge and nibbles his fingers and thumbs for a minute, chewing through burning memories, spitting chunks of skin and nail into the dark.
He sits up from deep sleep into the blood-orange dimness of his childhood room, lit by the landing light outside, and sees a red-dark featureless animal crawling slowly across the bedroom floor towards him, dragging something lifeless and lumpen behind it, sniffing, creaking and snuffling, bringing him a dead thing, coming in, a nightmare-hungry dog or half-man killer, but the room is real and he feels his duvet cover to check, touches his face, scratches his hair, and then with a resigned grinding of mental gears his fear turns to disappointment as his eyes and mind align and help him understand that this nocturnal beast is Iain, it’s Christmas Eve, this is his stocking being very carefully left at the foot of his bed, this is crinkling packaging noise mixed with Iain’s heavy breath and clicking joints and those pointed ears emerging at the foot of his bed are the Batman mask he asked for, poking out from the top of the tightly stuffed giant sock, and of course he has heard the playground rumours and he has had his doubts for a while, but he is wondering why it makes him so sad to have it finally confirmed – he still gets the same presents, after all – but he is surprised Iain is making so much noise, that he is so unsubtle, spoiling the magic of Christmas, so Shy lies crossly back down and waits for Iain to leave, but Iain starts cussing in a posh girly voice so Shy sits up again and dimly perceives that Iain is the girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes, her again, the girl in the knitted jumper, and she’s unpacking his stocking and throwing his presents across the room, taking swigs from a bottle of clear spirits, and the room is huge, his posters are gone and his bed is against a different wall, and he starts to smile because this keeps happening, this one dream un-waking into another dream, he’s ten years older and fucking fast asleep and dreaming in the Last Chance, this is the girl who mutters in the walls between his room and Paul’s, and the girl is furious, unpacking all his toys because she doesn’t want a six-year-old’s rubbish, baffling crap from the future, she’s stamping on cars and action figures, making a hell of a noise, doesn’t want his Skywalker toothbrush, doesn’t want his pack of Asda socks or his Ninja Turtle Pez machine, she is flinging things as hard as she can across the room, she chucks his satsuma on the floor and stamps it splat as the light shocks on and Shy’s mum and stepdad are standing in the doorway asking What the hell, and Shy is blinking, can’t see a thing, can only hear them, What in the ever-loving fuck are you doing, boy, Oh god poppet why would you do this, You bloody spoilt little monster, and Amanda is knocking on the door which is suddenly right by his head, saying Is everything OK in there, Shy? I’m coming in, Shy, I’m coming in on the count of three, ready, one, two, three, and Shy is keeping his eyes closed, waiting, trying desperately to be gone before Iain comes in, yearning to be asleep, because if he wakes up he’s spoilt everything, if he wakes up he’ll have to start answering.
Excerpt from Shy. Copyright © 2023 by Max Porter. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.