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“Beethoven’s music always struck me—always. He had this fire, you know? I remember reading this story of him going deaf and pushing himself into self-isolation and that’s where he became himself. And to me that was—wow. Don’t let anything poison your individuality. Be away, break away, and look in not outward.” Rodney Mullen
“You don’t even need to know the reason why / Just shut up and get rad, ‘cause now it’s time to skate or die.” Teenage Bottlerocket
Oscar could always tell when Gary was stealing his disability allowance because it was the only time he’d leave him alone. That and the tiny mirror above the sink in the utility room that reflected back to Oscar, sitting in the living room ostensibly distracted by video games, his older brother’s neatly framed tell-tale face, clenched jaw, and shifting eyes flitting weasel-like between Mom’s old teapot and the door. This was Oscar’s conclusive proof that his brother was a moron; one less sense to deceive and he still couldn’t pull off the simplest of heists.
Just before and after his thievery Gary would offer Oscar the choice of game and an undeclared respite from the physicality he inflicted on his younger brother on an hour-by-hour basis. It wasn’t bullying as such, just a constant pawing, lifting, tugging, pushing, knuckling, needling, and hassling just about within a reasonable definition of fraternal joshing, but with increased frequency and occasionally heightened intensity.
Oscar had never challenged his older sibling over the missing money, but regardless, Gary would feel the need to explain the depleted sums anyway. For the hours afterward he would be the paragon of brotherly love: paternal, companionable, the whole Stand By Me “us against the world” shtick. It’d be government cuts, “The Man,” or their long-gone, deadbeat dad sneaking in through the utility room window and taking the money to cover gambling debts. If he’d started drinking again, it might even be their six-years-dead mother, or his own thieving friends, the same friends he would invite round and present Oscar like a toy or new puppy to be teased and harassed, fingers clicking and hands clapping to the left and right of his head, just outside his peripheries.
“Wow, he really can’t hear that at all?”
In his infant years he might have; muffled thuds and smothered tones at least. But as time went by the infection that went undetected and untreated for his first three years began to rob him of more and more of the world, stealing—like his brother and his benefits—larger chunks of his day-to-day soundscape, nibbling away at the pitches and octaves like the woodworm devouring the grains in his creaking bedroom bookshelf. Words came incomplete and shrouded, that deadening malice thickening and cocooning him inside his own head until his whole life was a private conversation he was no longer invited to.
Disability and dysfunction made school a predictable hell. The gawking, curious chortlings of his peers he could manage. It was the pity he perceived from the adults—specialist teaching assistants, audiologists, social workers, nurses, and the general public—that was more dispiriting. His peers he could ignore, flick off, or fight, but social politics dictated that the cloying condescension of his elders had to be acknowledged. So he would smile or look sad when appropriate, and hug and “share” and read the insistently optimistic leaflets that, to him, made disability look like an exclusive club that he should be proud of being in.
It was on the way back from school one day that the board fell from the skies and into his life. In truth it almost killed him, the tail clipping the back of his head so lightly that Oscar initially assumed it the work of a transgressive seagull, before seeing it clatter into the skip ahead of him.
A bespectacled student in a vest and trenchcoat leaned out of his hall’s window and hollered something. He was too far up to lip read, so Oscar could only stare. The youth stared back for a moment, waiting for some kind of reaction, then shrugged and disappeared back through the window, leaving his lager can perched on the sill.
Oscar stared from the window to the skip and back again.
The original graphics were indecipherable under the scratches, scrapes, stickers, and deep gauges that criss-crossed the underside like the graffiti in the urine-stained pedestrian underpasses Oscar walked through on a daily basis. The tail was worn down to two warped and separating layers of ply. The grip tape no longer did, eroded down to a smooth mat black over bolts speckled amber with rust. Oscar spun a wheel with the flat of his palm, oblivious to the crunching grind of dry and tired bearings.
He lay the board down and stepped on. He wobbled, windmilled, and stepped off. He got back on, steadied himself, and pushed off tentatively with the tips of his toes. Suddenly he was sitting on the pavement with a dull pain in his backside. He laughed, got up, and tried again. He made it five meters before the board skittered away from under him and flung him back down onto the asphalt. He laughed again, picked it up, and ran home.
The frictionless kitchen floor was too fast at first, so he’d confined himself to his room and the thin, but forgiving, carpet. He kept the noise down as best he could, playing with rear wheel 360 spins and static manuals only when he felt the vibrations of his brothers music through the walls. When his brother left the house he’d go down to the kitchen and roll across the sticky linoleum between the work services, quickly stuffing the board in the cupboard under the sink when he thought he felt the door slam or saw the shadows shift in the disturbed light in the hallway.
Endolymph swilled through buckled canals, but he progressed nonetheless. He was thin and nimble, with an instinctive and practiced response to danger borne from ducking and dodging Gary’s clumsy but substantial reach.
Over the coming weeks he graduated from the kitchen to the pavement in front of the house; then the street, ungainly wobbling up and down the asphalt bouncing off cars and wheelie bins; then the block; and then the play park, where he learned to turn, slaloming between the rampaging spawn of the young moms who sat on benches chain smoking with an occasional eye on their offspring.
The skate park, meanwhile, stood ever present—a relic of the town’s degeneration and the changing priorities of its youth. Throughout Oscar’s childhood it had been a known drug haunt, the epicenter of an endemic so prevalent and considered so serious by the school board that the memo informing every pupil that the skate park was strictly out of bounds even filtered through to the specialist teaching assistants. It was a complicated message to communicate to Oscar and his single fellow deaf schoolmate Roger, both still in the early stages of their sign language training. Gary barely practiced with Oscar like he was supposed to, only bothering when he was making his grovelling, guilt-inspired fraternal connections—and Roger, with far less severe hearing loss than Oscar and thus less motive—would lose interest quickly, until Sarah the signer resorted to merely bellowing the information in Rogers ear, Oscar’s needs all but forgotten.
But he knew where the park was and the tricks on the YouTube skate videos were performed with such apparent and alluring ease. It’d been a week since he’d mastered rolling ollies; surely, with just a couple of hours of practice, he could nail at least a Benihana.
But reality crushes hubristic dreams with such cold nonchalance. Peering over the coping of the lesser of two quarter pipes he felt immediately breakable, foolish—depressingly three-dimensional and vivid compared to his wildly ambitious daydream imaginings. The transition resembled a curved and scaled down model of a First World War battlefield. A network of cracks two fingers wide criss-crossed a gnarled and pockmarked transition. Like everywhere else in the park, nature had begun her reclamation in quiet earnest; weeds, two feet tall in places, poked through fissures and caught the breeze, waving in ironic and goading encouragement to Oscar.
There were to be no Benihanas that day. There wouldn’t have even been a drop-in if it weren’t for the gang of older lads Oscar hadn’t noticed lurking like a mongrel pack behind that larger quarter pipe, smoking and spitting and leering. The first bottle shattered several yards behind him. Oblivious, he assumed the tiny shard that stung his left calf to be an insect, until a sixth sense instinct compelled him to turn and he saw the four boys, mouths agape in muted hollers, bearing down on him. There was only one way out and that was to commit. He leaned forward and saw every crack, bump, and crater pass under him in slow motion, his arms swinging, his heart in his mouth and the smallest measure of euphoria drenched under leagues of terror. He rode out the speed wobble and pushed off the concrete twice, before jumping off his board and scooping it up in one movement.
He didn’t dare look over his shoulder for fear of losing pace, plunging on, vaulting over the haggard chain link fence and through the first layer of foliage of the wood that bordered the park.
Without hearing he had only assumption, and it was safer to assume the worst, that they were mere feet behind him, that the leaves and limbs of the surrounding trees that whipped and clawed at his neck were in fact the clawing hands of his pursuers, reaching and stretching ever closer to his shirt collar.
And then he was falling, tumbling over and over, his board twisting his wrist awkwardly and freeing itself from his grasp.
Finally he stopped and saw, inches from his eyes, the contorted and ghastly grin of a naked, posing woman, a shiny white smile under tell-tale dead eyes. The face and body were a sickly yellow; lined and cracked like the bottom of his board and as his brain uncoiled and his sight adjusted, he realized he was staring at the bleached and torn remains of a pornographic magazine. He ripped it away from his face in shame and embarrassment and stood up.
An old, empty, disused swimming pool it seemed, but serving what property or family or community he couldn’t deduce. There was no sign of a path or poolside patio. The toes of the surrounding trees reached right up to the pool’s edge and arched over it like protective parents sheltering their brood. The streaks of light that broke through this canopy cast dappled patches of buttery yellow amid the cool-shadowed gray of the pool’s bottom. And it was, Oscar knew, just by the feel of the air and the carefree drift of the dust traversing those lines of light, absolutely silent.
There was, as far as Oscar could tell, a deep end and a shallow end, but between them were undulating contours that defied the logic of Oscar’s perceptions. Indeed, no matter how long he peered, Oscar couldn’t establish any sense of distance or depth outside of the two or three feet immediately around him. There was a heady, refreshing coolness to the space, simultaneously peaceful and kinetic.
Oscar stepped onto his board, lying right-ways up as if prepared by an unseen stage hand, and pushed off towards the curved side.
He fell and fell and fell. The transition was quick and unforgiving and demanded a combination of contortions at a speed that was foreign to Oscar. Time passed undetected and unobserved. Despite the shade, he sweated through his T-shirt and for once, behind the privacy of the wood, felt no compunction peeling it off his aching, bruised torso, and tossing it aside. Finally, as suddenly as a key springing a lock, he had it, casting a wide backside sweep halfway up the pool’s side, then immediately, on the opposite wall, he cut another curve, and then another, and then let himself drift for a moment, enjoying the feeling of those unexplained contours and hillocks, feeling the flex of the board and the pneumatics in his knees.
He saw her hovering on the edges of his blind spot, a vivid patch of electric blue cotton against the earthy backdrop. He twisted to look over his right shoulder and the board followed underneath him, sending him careering towards the shallow end’s wall. He windmilled, panicked, and instinctively leapt off the board, stumbling and tripping over his feet, coming to a stop only when his left shoulder slammed into the hard concrete.
She sat with her legs dangling over the pool’s edge, seemingly distracted by a noise in the upper limbs of a tree, head cocked sideways and slightly upwards—a picture of serenity compared to his ungainly tumbles. Suddenly he remembered his naked torso and wrapped his arms around himself, looking this way and that for his shirt, spotting it, picking it up, and then hurriedly kicking away the page of the pornographic magazine hiding like an ugly sprite underneath it. But still there was no reaction from the girl to this pantomime, just that curious and searching twitch of her head.
He saw her mouth, barely visible behind thick auburn curls, form a word, and he raised his hand in greeting. A wasted wave from Oscar and a hopeless hello from Rosie were the first and last conventional gestures of communication they’d ever exchange.
A few tentative steps forward and he saw for the first time the tell-tale signs of their own differing commonality. Her eyes didn’t seem to settle; wandering without seeing, unfocused, looking in the window of his sonic influence but locking on to nothing, like a key fumbling failingly around the lock.
But there was something disarming about this girl, with her scraggly chestnut hair and blue dress, that compelled Oscar to abandon years of near absolute muteness and attempt to form words. And it wasn’t embarrassment that rose up in him at her look of confusion, but frustration; for the first time since Oscar could remember he felt a desperate need to communicate with another human person.
Crouched down at her side he began, idiotically, to write in the dust where the dirt met the pool tiles. He suddenly realised his elementary mistake and slapping his forehead in annoyance. She laughed, and spoke, he tried to read her lips but he was unpractised and there was an accented shape to her words he couldn’t decipher. She rolled her eyes at her own mistake and grabbed his hand. Tipping it palm up she traced shapes into the concave. The electricity of her touch—traveling up through his hand and arm and settling with a static tingle in his heart and throat and cheeks—overwhelmed his neurons, and he felt but didn’t understand. She tried again. This time he concentrated and though he missed the first, he got the O and then the snaking S and the simple I and—practiced now—the twisted lines of the E. Excitedly, he took Rosie’s own hand and placed a calloused digit in her palm. She shivered and twitched with a tickled giggle as he traced his own letters into her skin, resting her unseeing sight on the area somewhere between his collar bone and his chest.
And then they sat and did nothing for a while, the heels of her maroon high-top Chucks bumping against the wall of the pool, occasionally brushing his desiccated, off-white tennis shoes.
She tapped his knee and made a V with her fingers, pointing them down and twisting her wrist in figures of eight; a miniature, armless skateboarder. He jumped into the pool, retrieved his board and pushed off, cutting ribbons from the currents of tropical air so thick and full of drifting matter they might almost have been tangible.
With her in audience he carved higher and wider, cutting large petal-shaped turns out of the baked concrete. Occasionally he stole glances her way. She leaned back on her hands, face turned upwards, listening to the undulating swish and soft rumble, the shifting volumes and frequencies of speed and the squawk of urethane skidding on concrete.
Oscar only noticed the darkness when he finally stopped, only just making her out in the failing summer light, standing now and unfolding a white cane. He climbed out and stood by her side, breathing heavily, wiping the dust from where it clung to the sweat in his eye sockets. Gently, he took the stick from her hand, folded it up, and took her hand in his. He had no idea how far he’d run earlier—it seemed a distant memory from a harder world—but when they emerged from the woods to the fence that ringed the skate park, it was almost pitch dark.
On the pavement by the main road, they gallantly attempted to make a date for the next day, as if it wasn’t already inevitable, with small touches, fingers, phones, and words mouthed slowly and deliberately, neither much wiser to the details but confident in an indefinable mutuality neither could have explained even with a full set of sensory faculties.
Not that Oscar wouldn’t try, stealing time on Gary’s laptop while his brother dozed in front of the television, searching for how exactly a profoundly deaf adolescent boy and a blind girl were supposed to communicate. But the more forums, message boards, and medical pages he scrolled through, the more confused he became, muddling sight and sound, hearing and seeing. Their plight became a sick riddle, where even his most feasible solutions seemed laborious and feeble compromises unworthy or unadaptable for whatever Oscar needed to say, whatever, indeed, that might have been—even if he could speak the required words, would he even know where to find them?
And yet the more time they spent together beneath that emerald canopy, within that concrete foxhole, so these limitations felt less and less significant, until spoken and written communication, words at all in any form, seemed a superfluous luxury so distant and unobtainable as to barely warrant contemplation, like the happenings in the outer reaches of a far-off galaxy. He skated, she listened. They sat. She gently prodded and pawed his contours, creating a mental image of Oscar; from his shoulder length dirty blonde hair, his sunken eyes, his ears, chest, neck—some days he got no skating done at all.
As days morphed into weeks, he added new sounds to his orchestral soundscapes—the percussive chink of metal trucks on the top layer of the pool’s tiling, and finally, one day, single beat rests as he cleared those top tiles completely. As his confidence grew, he made turns so close to Rosie he could reach out and touch her, brushing hips, thighs and knees. Occasionally they’d swap, him sitting and taking in that heady, intoxicating air, Rosie tentatively listening her way around the bowl, straining for the changing tone and vibrations of the wheels as they rushed or slowed under her, until eventually she could do whole circuits of the bowl, pushing with her foot occasionally, using mostly the momentum from the pool’s lower walls to propel her round.
On the final morning, they needed neither sight nor sound to know that it was over. They each could feel the rumble of the trucks from several streets away. By the time they reached the entrance to the skate park, much of it had already been reduced to piles of shattered concrete and mangled metal. Rosie and Oscar, too diminutive to be noticed by the rough, dust-covered men efficiently dismantling the park like an army of ants, wandered into the center of the ordered chaos unnoticed. Noise overwhelmed Rosie. Oscar felt his bones would shatter with the violence of the tremors and quakes as heavy machinery rumbled around them.
A large billboard, the only piece of unsoiled modernity amid the scene of destruction, shone with an image of sanitized high rise domestic bliss, shiny white teeth and photoshopped faces of the approved of the species. Oscar gazed up at the image of some other couple’s possible future, an intruder squatting in the footprint of the luxury apartments he would never see the inside of.
Beyond the billboard, the remains of that flimsy excuse for a partition separating the park from the woods, the fence he’d vaulted over that first afternoon, had been dismantled and rolled into rows of rough, metallic tumbleweed. The earth and tentacular weeds that framed the secluded entrance had been flattened, trampled, and violated, the entrance widened to several times its size by undiscriminating heavy earth movers.
A burly man in heavy boots and luminous jacket carrying a reel of yellow and black tape trudged past them into the foliage. Oscar followed, pulling Rosie by the hand. The tire tracks had left deep gouges in the earth and the two of them stumbled several times each on their way to the spot, Oscar helping Rosie over some of the deeper trenches, and she in turn twice pulling Oscar out of the path of workers approaching from behind, who passed them with all the care and heed as a landslide to a sapling, swearing and laughing and joking as if this was nothing more than just another day at work and nothing meant anything at all.
The trees surrounding the pools had already been reduced to stumps and the diggers had made short work of the concrete. The men, inhuman in their heavy boots, padded, baggy trousers, and caked in masks of sweat, dirt, and dust, went to work with jackhammers at the remaining jagged blocks. Without the cover of the trees the sun spilled in like house lights at curfew time, real life’s callous bailiff—evicting, reclaiming, exercising its ownership over one more renegade space.
Suddenly Oscar rushed forward, picking up a shard, a piece of those blue top tiles still showing their names scratched into the paint by Oscar in a previous week. Taking Rosie’s finger in his own hand he traced her tips over the lettering. He went to pocket it, but Rosie snatched it from him, turned and tossed the shard into the remaining undergrowth.
He stared after it, bemused, barely noticing when Rosie felt out his wrist, and then his board, snatching it out of his hand and striding as purposefully as a blind girl could over rough, gnarled ground, went back down the path, across the wreckage of the park and onto the road.
Oscar followed two strides behind, watching her footing carefully, ready to catch her should she fall. When she reached the road she placed the board down and stepped on. She looked left then right, up and down the street, and then put out both hands, palms up, expectantly.
He never could work out which was the nose and which was the tail, which way was her forward and which way back—goofy, regular, fakie, switch. He took her right in his left and pulled her down the pavement, away from the park, the pool, and the tremors of the machinery, and towards town, into the larger, meaner, inevitable world, to carry on whatever exactly it was they’d created.
John Miskelly is twenty-nine and at the time of writing lives in Bristol, England. His one way flight to Valencia, Spain, leaves on October 3rd. He’s probably there right now—come and hang out. Literary immortality aside, his overarching life goal since adolescence is to finally master powerslides and rolling ollies. He’s getting closer—just one more hour.
Other stories by John are available to view on this website.