The Pale albino prince lofted on high his great black sword “This is Stormbringer” he said “and it will suck your soul right out.”
The Princess sighed. “Very well!” she said. “If that is what you need to get the energy you need to fight the Dragon Warriors, then you must kill me and let your broad sword feed on my soul.”
“I do not want to do this” he said to her.
“That’s okay” said the princess and with that she ripped her flimsy gown and beared her chest to him. “That is my heart” she said, pointing with her finger. “and that is where you must plunge.”
He had never got any further than that. That had been the day he had been told he was being moved up a year, and there hadn’t been much point after that. He’d learned not to try and continue stories from one year to another. Now, he was twelve.
It was a pity, though.
The essay title had been Meeting My Favourite Literary Character, and he’d picked Elric. He’d toyed with Corum, or Jerry Cornelius, or even Conan The Barbarian, but Elric of Melnibone won, hands down, just like he always did.
Richard had first read Stormbringer three years ago, at the age of nine. He’d saved up for a copy of The Singing Citadel (something of a cheat, he decided, on finishing: only one Elric story), and then borrowed the money from his father to buy The Sleeping Sorceress, found in a spin-rack while they were on holiday in Scotland last summer. In The Sleeping Sorceress Elric met Erikose and Corum, two other aspects of the Eternal Champion, and they all got together.
Which meant, he realised, when he finished the book, that the Corum books and the Erikose books, and even the Dorian Hawkmoon books were really Elric books too, so he began buying them, and he enjoyed them.
They weren’t as good as Elric, though. Elric was the best.
Sometimes he’d sit and draw Elric, trying to get him right. None of the paintings of Elric on the covers of the books looked like the Elric that lived in his head. He drew the Elrics with a fountain pen in empty school exercise books he had obtained by deceit. On the front cover he’d write his name: Richard Grey, Do not Steal.
Sometimes he thought he ought to go back and finish writing his Elric story. Maybe he could even sell it to a magazine. But then, what if Moorcock found out? What if he got into trouble?
The classroom was large, filled with wooden desks. Each desk was carved and scored and ink-stained by its occupant, an important process. There was a blackboard on the wall, with a chalk-drawing on it: a fairly accurate representation of a male penis, heading towards a Y shape, intended to represent the female genitalia.
The door downstairs banged, and someone ran up the stairs. “Grey, you spazmo, what’re you doing up here? We’re meant to be down on the Lower Acre. You’re playing football today.”
“We are? I am?”
“It was announced at assembly this morning. And the list is up on the games notice board.” J.B.C. MacBride was sandy-haired, bespectacled, only marginally more organised than Richard Grey. There were two J. MacBrides, which was how he ranked a full set of initials.
Grey picked up a book (Tarzan at the Earth’s Core) and headed off after him. The clouds were dark grey, promising rain or snow.
People were forever announcing things he didn’t notice. He would arrive in empty classes, miss organised games, arrive at school on days when everyone else had gone home. Sometimes he felt as if he lived in a different world to everyone else.
He went off to play football, Tarzan at the Earth’s Core shoved down the back of his scratchy blue football shorts.
He hated the showers and the baths. He couldn’t understand why they had to use both, but that was just the way it was.
He was freezing, and no good at games. It was beginning to become a matter of perverse pride with him that in his years at the school so far, he hadn’t scored a goal, or hit a run, or bowled anyone out, or done anything much except be the last person to be picked when choosing sides.
Elric, proud pale prince of the Melniboneans, would never have had to stand around on a football pitch in the middle of winter, wishing the game would be over.
Steam from the shower room, and his inner thighs were chapped and red. The boys stood naked and shivering in a line, waiting to get under the showers, and then to get into the baths.
Mr Murchison, eyes wild and face leathery and wrinkled, old and almost bald, stood in the changing rooms directing naked boys into the shower, then out of the shower and into the baths. “You boy. Silly little boy. Jamieson. Into the shower, Jamieson. Atkinson, you baby, get under it properly. Smiggins, into the bath, Goring, take his place in the shower…”
The showers were too hot. The baths were freezing cold and muddy.
When Mr Murchison wasn’t around boys would flick each other with towels, joke about each others’ penises, about who had pubic hair, who didn’t.
“Don’t be an idiot,” hissed someone near Richard. “What if the Murch comes back. He’ll kill you!” There was some nervous giggling.
Richard turned and looked. An older boy had an erection, was rubbing his hand up and down it, slowly, under the shower, displaying it proudly to the room.
Richard turned away.
Forgery was too easy.
Richard could do a passable imitation of the Murch’s signature, for example, and an excellent version of his housemaster’s handwriting and signature. His housemaster was a tall, bald, dry man, named Trellis. They had disliked each other for years.
Richard used the signatures to get blank exercise books from the stationary office, which dispensed paper, pencils, pens, and rulers on the production of a note signed by a teacher.
Richard wrote stories and poems and drew pictures in the exercise books.
After the bath Richard towelled himself off, and dressed hurriedly; he had a book to get back to, a lost world to return to.
He walked out of the building slowly, tie askew, shirt-tail flapping, reading about Lord Greystoke, wondering whether there really was a world inside the world where dinosaurs flew and it was never night.
The daylight was beginning to go, but there were still a number of boys outside the school, playing with tennis balls: a couple played conkers by the bench. Richard leaned against the red-brick wall and read, the outside world closed off, the indignities of changing rooms forgotten.
“You’re a disgrace, Grey.”
“Look at you. Your tie’s all crooked. You’re a disgrace to the school. That’s what you are.”
The boy’s name was Lindfield, two school years above him, but already as big as an adult. “Look at your tie. I mean, look at it.” Lindfield pulled at Richard’s green tie, pulled it tight, into a hard little knot. “Pathetic.”
Lindfield and his friends wandered off.
Elric of Melnibone was standing by the red-brick walls of the school building, staring at him. Richard pulled at the knot in his tie, trying to loosen it. It was cutting into his throat.
His hands fumbled around his neck.
He couldn’t breathe; but he was not concerned about breathing. He was worried about standing. Richard had suddenly forgotten how to stand. It was a relief to discover how soft the brick path he was standing on had become, as it slowly came up to embrace him.
They were standing together under a night sky hung with a thousand huge stars, by the ruins of what might once have been an ancient temple.
Elric’s ruby eyes stared down at him. They looked, Richard thought, like the eyes of a particularly vicious white rabbit that Richard had once had, before it gnawed through the wire of the cage, and fled into the Sussex countryside to terrify innocent foxes. His skin was perfectly white; his armour, ornate and elegant, traced with intricate patterns, perfectly black. His fine white hair blew about his shoulders, as if in a breeze, but the air was still.
—So you want to be a companion to heroes? he asked. His voice was gentler than Richard had imagined it would be.
Elric put one long finger beneath Richard’s chin, lifted his face up. Blood-eyes, thought Richard. Blood-eyes.
—You’re no companion, boy, he said, in the High Speech of Melnibone.
Richard had always known he would understand the High Speech when he heard it, even if his Latin and French had always been weak.
—Well, what am I, then? he asked. Please tell me. Please?
Elric made no response. He walked away from Richard, into the ruined temple.
Richard ran after him.
Inside the temple, Richard found a life waiting for him, all ready to be worn and lived, and inside that life, another. Each life he tried on, he slipped into, and it pulled him further in, further away from the world he came from; one by one, existence following existence, rivers of dreams and fields of stars, a hawk with a sparrow clutched in its talons flies low above the grass, and here are tiny intricate people waiting for him to fill their heads with life, and thousands of years pass and he is engaged in strange work of great importance and sharp beauty, and he is loved, and he is honoured, and then a pull, a sharp tug and it’s…
…it was like coming up from the bottom of the deep end of a swimming pool. Stars appeared above him and dropped away and dissolved into blues and greens, and it was with a deep sense of disappointment that he became Richard Grey, and came to himself once more, filled with an unfamiliar emotion. The emotion was a specific one, so specific that he was surprised, later, to realise that it did not have its own name: a feeling of disgust and regret at having to return to something he had thought long since done with and abandoned and forgotten and dead.
Richard was lying on the ground, and Lindfield was pulling at the tiny knot of his tie. There were other boys around, faces staring down at him, worried, concerned, scared.
Lindfield pulled the tie loose. Richard struggled to pull air, he gulped it, clawed it into his lungs.
“We thought you were faking. You just went over.” Someone said that.
“Shut up,” said Lindfield. “Are you all right? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Christ. I’m sorry.”
For one moment, Richard thought he was apologising for having called him back from the world beyond the Temple.
Lindfield was terrified, solicitous, desperately worried. He had obviously never almost killed anyone before. As he walked Richard up the stone steps to the Matron’s office, Lindfield explained that he had returned from the school tuck-shop, found Richard unconscious on the path, surrounded by curious boys, and had realised what was wrong. Richard rested for a little in the matron’s office, where he was given a bitter soluble aspirin, from a huge jar, in a plastic tumbler of water, then was shown in to the Headmaster’s study.
“God! but you look scruffy, Grey,” said the Headmaster, puffing irritably on his pipe. “I don’t blame young Lindfield at all. Anyway, he saved your life. I don’t want to hear another word about it.”
“I’m sorry,” said Grey.
“That will be all,” said the Headmaster, in his cloud of scented smoke.
“Have you picked a religion, yet?” asked the school chaplain, Mr Aliquid.
Richard shook his head. “I’ve got quite a few to choose from,” he admitted.
The school chaplain was also Richard’s biology teacher. He had once taken Richard’s biology class, fifteen thirteen-year-old boys and Richard, just twelve, across the road, to his little house opposite the school. In the garden Mr Aliquid had killed, skinned and dismembered a rabbit, with a small, sharp knife. Then he’d taken a footpump and blown up the rabbit’s bladder like a balloon, until it had popped, spattering the boys with blood. Richard threw up, but he was the only one who did.
“Hm,” said the chaplain.
The chaplain’s study was lined with books. It was one of the few masters’ studies that was in any way comfortable.
“What about masturbation. Are you masturbating excessively?” Mr Aliquid’s eyes gleamed.
“Oh. More than three or four times a day, I suppose.”
“No,” said Richard. “Not excessively.”
He was a year younger than anyone else in his class; people forgot about that sometimes.
Every weekend he travelled to North London to stay with his cousins, for barmitzvah lessons taught by a thin, ascetic cantor, frummer than frum, a cabbalist and keeper of hidden mysteries onto which he could be diverted with a well-placed question. Richard was an expert at well-placed questions.
Frum was orthodox, hardline Jewish. No milk with meat, and two washing machines for the two sets of plates and cutlery.
Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.
Richard’s cousins in North London were frum, although the boys would secretly buy cheeseburgers after school and brag about it to each other.
Richard suspected his body was hopelessly polluted already. He drew the line at eating rabbit, though. He had eaten rabbit, and disliked it, for years before he figured out what it was. Every Thursday there was what he believed to be a rather unpleasant chicken stew for school lunch. One Thursday he found a rabbit’s paw floating in his stew, and the penny dropped. After that on Thursdays he filled up on bread and butter.
On the underground train to North London he’d scan the faces of the other passengers, wondering if any of them were Michael Moorcock.
If he met Moorcock he’d ask him how to get back to the ruined temple.
If he met Moorcock he’d be too embarrassed to speak.
Some nights, when his parents were out, he’d try to phone Michael Moorcock.
He’d phone directory enquiries, and ask for Moorcock’s number.
“Can’t give it to you, love. It’s ex-directory.”
He’d wheedle and cajole, and always fail, to his relief. He didn’t know what he would say to Moorcock if he succeeded.
He put ticks in the front of his Moorcock novels, on the By The Same Author page, for the books he read.
That year there seemed to be a new Moorcock book every week. He’d pick them up at Victoria station, on the way to barmitzvah lessons.
There were a few he simply couldn’t find — Stealer of Souls, Breakfast in the Ruins, — and eventually, nervously, he ordered them from the address in the back of the books. He got his father to write him a cheque.
When the books arrived they contained a bill for 25 pence: the prices of the books were higher than originally listed. But still, he now had a copy of Stealer of Souls, and a copy of Breakfast in the Ruins.
At the back of Breakfast in the Ruins was a biography of Moorcock that said he’d died of lung cancer the year before.
Richard was upset for weeks. That meant there wouldn’t be any more books, ever.
“That fucking biography. Shortly after it came out I was at a Hawkwind gig, stoned out of my brain, and these people kept coming up to me, and I thought I was dead. They kept saying ‘You’re dead, you’re dead.’ Later I realised that they were saying, ‘But we thought you were dead’.”
Michael Moorcock, in conversation. Notting Hill, 1976
There was the Eternal Champion, and then there was the Companion to Champions. Moonglum was Elric’s companion, always cheerful, the perfect foil to the pale prince, who was prey to moods and depressions.
There was a multiverse out there, glittering and magic. There were the agents of balance, the Gods of Chaos, and the Lords of Order. There were the older races, tall, pale and elfin, and the young kingdoms, filled with people like him. Stupid, boring, normal people.
Sometimes he hoped that Elric could find peace, away from the black sword. But it didn’t work that way. There had to be the both of them — the white prince and the black sword.
Once the sword was unsheathed it lusted for blood, needed to be plunged into quivering flesh. Then it would drain the soul from the victim, feed his or her energy into Elric’s feeble frame.
Richard was becoming obsessed with sex; he had even had a dream in which he was having sex with a girl. Just before waking he dreamed what it must be like to have an orgasm — it was an intense and magical feeling of love, centred on your heart; that was what it was, in his dream.
A feeling of deep, transcendent, spiritual bliss.
Nothing he experienced ever matched up to that dream.
Nothing even came close.
The Karl Glogauer in Behold the Man was not the Karl Glogauer of Breakfast in the Ruins, Richard decided; still, it gave him an odd, blasphemous pride to read Breakfast in the Ruins in the school chapel, in the choir stalls. As long as he was discreet no-one seemed to care.
He was the boy with the book. Always and forever.
His head swam with religions: the weekend was now given to the intricate patterns and language of Judaism; each week-day morning to the wood-scented, stained-glass solemnities of the Church of England; and the nights belonged to his own religion, the one he made up for himself, a strange, multicoloured pantheon in which the Lords of Chaos (Arioch, Xiombarg and the rest) rubbed shoulders with the Phantom Stranger from the DC Comics and Sam the trickster-Buddha from Zelazny’s Lord of Light, and vampires and talking cats and ogres, and all the things from the Lang coloured Fairy books: in which all mythologies existed simultaneously, in a magnificent anarchy of belief.
Richard had, however, finally given up (with, it must be admitted, a little regret), his belief in Narnia. From the age of six — for half his life — he had believed devoutly in all things Narnian; until, last year, rereading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for perhaps the hundredth time, it had occurred to him that the transformation of the unpleasant Eustace Scrub into a dragon, and his subsequent conversion to belief in Aslan the lion, was terribly similar to the conversion of St. Paul, on the road to Damascus; if his blindness were a dragon…
This having occurred to him, Richard found correspondences everywhere, too many to be simple coincidence.
Richard put away the Narnia books, convinced, sadly, that they were allegory; that an author (whom he had trusted) had been attempting to slip something past him. He had had the same disgust with the Professor Challenger stories, when the bull-necked old professor became a convert to Spiritualism; it was not that Richard had any problems with believing in ghosts — Richard believed, with no problems or contradictions, in everything — but Conan Doyle was preaching, and it showed through the words. Richard was young, and innocent in his fashion, and believed that authors should be trusted, and that there should be nothing hidden beneath the surface of a story.
At least the Elric stories were honest. There was nothing going on beneath the surface there: Elric was the etiolated prince of a dead race, burning with self-pity, clutching Stormbringer, his dark-bladed broadsword — a blade which sang for lives, which ate human souls and which gave their strength to the doomed and weakened albino.
Richard read and re-read the Elric stories, and he felt pleasure each time Stormbringer plunged into an enemy’s chest, somehow felt a sympathetic satisfaction as Elric drew his strength from the soul-sword, like a heroin addict in a paperback thriller with a fresh supply of smack.
Richard was convinced that one day the people from Mayflower Books would come after him for their 25 pence. He never dared buy any more books through the mail.
J.B.C. MacBride had a secret.
“You mustn’t tell anyone.”
Richard had no problem with the idea of keeping secrets. In later years he realised that he was a walking repository of old secrets, secrets that his original confidantes had probably long forgotten.
They were walking, with their arms over each other’s shoulders, up to the woods at the back of the school.
Richard had, unasked, been gifted with another secret in these woods: it is here that three of Richard’s schoolfriends have meetings with girls from the village, and where, he has been told, they display to each other their genitalia.
“I can’t tell you who told me any of this.”
“Okay,” said Richard.
“I mean, it’s true. And it’s a deadly secret.”
MacBride had been spending a lot of time recently with Mr Aliquid, the school chaplain.
“Well, everybody has two angels. God gives them one and Satan gives them one. So when you get hypnotised, Satan’s angel takes control. And that’s how Ouija boards work. It’s Satan’s angel. And you can implore your God’s angel to talk through you. But real enlightenment only occurs when you can talk to your angel. He tells you secrets.”
This was the first time that it had occurred to Grey that the Church of England might have its own esoterica, its own hidden caballah.
The other boy blinked owlishly. “You mustn’t tell anyone that. I’d get into trouble if they knew I’d told you.”
There was a pause.
“Have you ever wanked off a grown up?” asked MacBride.
“No.” Richard’s own secret was that he had not yet begun to masturbate. All of his friends masturbated, continually, alone and in pairs or groups. He was a year younger than them, and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about; the whole idea made him uncomfortable.
“Spunk everywhere. It’s thick and oozy. They try to get you to put their cocks in your mouth when they shoot off.”
“It’s not that bad.” There was a pause. “You know, Mr Aliquid thinks you’re very clever. If you wanted to join his private religious discussion group, he might say yes.”
The private discussion group met at Mr Aliquid’s small bachelor house, across the road from the school, in the evenings, twice a week after prep.
“I’m not Christian.”
“So? You still come top of the class in Divinity, jewboy.”
“No thanks. Hey, I got a new Moorcock. One you haven’t read. It’s an Elric book.”
“You haven’t. There isn’t a new one.”
“Is. It’s called The Jade Man’s Eyes. It’s printed in green ink. I found it in a bookshop in Brighton.”
“Can I borrow it after you?”
It was getting chilly, and they walked back, arm in arm. Like Elric and Moonglum, thought Richard to himself, and it made as much sense as MacBride’s angels.
Richard had daydreams in which he would kidnap Michael Moorcock, and make him tell Richard the secret.
If pushed, Richard would be unable to tell you what kind of thing the secret was. It was something to do with writing; something to do with gods.
Richard wondered where Moorcock got his ideas from.
Probably from the ruined temple, he decided, in the end, although he could no longer remember what the temple looked like. He remembered a shadow, and stars, and the feeling of pain at returning to something he thought long finished.
He wondered if that was where all authors got their ideas from, or just Michael Moorcock.
If you had told him that they just made it all up, out of their heads, he would never have believed you. There had to be a place the magic came from.
“This bloke phoned me up from America the other night, he said ‘Listen man, I have to talk to you about your religion’. I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t got any fucking religion.’”
Michael Moorcock, in conversation, Notting Hill, 1976.
It was six months later. Richard had been barmitzvahed, and would be changing schools soon. He and J.B.C. MacBride were sitting on the grass outside the school, in the early evening, reading books. Richard’s parents were late picking him up from school.
Richard was reading The English Assassin. MacBride was engrossed in The Devil Rides Out.
Richard found himself squinting at the page. It wasn’t properly dark yet, but he couldn’t read any more. Everything was turning into greys.
“Mac? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The evening was warm, and the grass was dry and comfortable.
“I don’t know. A writer, maybe. Like Michael Moorcock. Or T.H. White. How about you?”
Richard sat and thought. The sky was a violet-grey, and a ghost-moon hung high in it, like a sliver of a dream. He pulled up a blade of grass, and slowly shredded it between his fingers, bit by bit. He couldn’t say ‘a writer’ as well, now. It would seem like he was copying. And he didn’t want to be a writer. Not really. There were other things to be.
“When I grow up,” he said, pensively, eventually, “I want to be a wolf.”
“It’ll never happen,” said MacBride.
“Maybe not,” said Richard. “We’ll see.”
The lights went on in the school windows, one by one, making the violet sky seem darker than it was before, and the summer evening was gentle and quiet. At that time of year the day lasts forever, and the night never really comes.
“I’d like to be a wolf. Not all the time. Just sometimes. In the dark. I would run through the forests as a wolf, at night,” said Richard, mostly to himself. “I’d never hurt anyone. Not that kind of wolf. I’d just run and run forever in the moonlight, through the trees, and never get tired or out of breath, and never have to stop. That’s what I want to be when I grow up…”
He pulled up another long stalk of grass, expertly stripped the blades from it, and, slowly, began to chew the stem.
And the two children sat alone in the grey twilight, side by side, and waited for the future to start.
Neil Gaiman – January 1994