There’s an old saying, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s one of those things that seems to make sense on the surface, until you look at it a little closer. For example, you can regularly sneak into a vicious country town with a bone-deep hatred of journalists and a marrow deep hatred of journalists named Boone Shepard and assume that, statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that said town will manage to catch and try to hang you every single time. After all, a town with such a particular and nonsensical prejudice probably, it stands to reason, isn’t populated with the brightest sorts.
But at a certain point you’re just making excuses without confronting the issue at hand, the issue at hand being that I, once again, was locked up in the cells of the Greenville Police Station waiting to be hanged at dawn, having once again snuck into the town in pursuit of a story and been caught because of an unexpected amorous midnight rendezvous between little old Mrs McCurdles and John the friendly butcher, who had chased me into the police station with his friendly battle axe.
It was also highly possible that the issue at hand was my own insanity, but that one would keep for dealing with at a later date. The same luxury was not offered by a meeting between my neck and a noose.
Leaning against the cold wall of the cell, I sighed. There weren’t many escape options being presented to me at that stage, which meant I would have to rely on my wit and charm when the morning came. That, given Greenville, was bound to be yet another case of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, although to be fair I might well end up vindicated this time – Greenville had never successfully hanged me before. That counted as a different result, right?
I looked around the cell for roughly the hundredth time, but to my surprise I was met with a different result. A face behind the bars was staring back at me, a face that did not belong to the policeman or the Mayor, who had a habit of turning up at all hours of the night to gloat. No, this face was far too young to be either. He was about ten, wearing plain overalls with glasses and a mess of thick brown hair.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ he replied. ‘You’re Boone Shepard.’
‘Guilty as charged.’
'Is being Boone Shepard what they charged you with?’
‘Might as well have been,’ I grinned. ‘Prying, this time. Which is a change from the standard meddling, but both are pretty synonymous with being Boone Shepard.’
‘Do you think big words make you seem smart?’ he asked.
‘If I wanted to seem smart I wouldn’t be back in Greenville, would I?’
‘So why are you in Greenville?’
I shrugged. ‘There was a story. I heard Mrs McCurdles was running a jewel thieving operation by night. Turns out she was really just running a kissing-the-butcher operation, which doesn’t quite have the same front page potential.’
‘I dunno,’ the boy said. ‘Front pages last a day. That gossip will fuel Greenville for weeks.’
‘More than my finally being hanged?’
‘People care more about gossip than justice.’
I laughed despite myself. ‘That’s… that’s a cynical thing to think at your age.’
‘That’s a condescending thing to think at your age,’ he replied.
I nodded. ‘Fair enough. I’m sorry. People always underestimated me because of how old I was too. I should know better.’
‘But you don’t,’ the boy said. ‘You’re an adult. Adults are supposed to know best.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘In your experience, has that ever been true?’
The boy grinned. ‘Guess not.’
‘I reckon it’s better to be proud of being an idiot than deluded about being smart,’ I said. ‘I can’t tell you why I don’t know better. I just don’t. Too curious. Too stupid. Too…’ There were other words for what I was too much of. That didn’t mean I wanted to say them. ‘What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘Never seen you up close,’ the boy said. ‘Only ever heard all the outraged stories. Thought I’d see if they were true.’
‘My Father says that you’re bad news because you dig up things that should stay buried,’ he said. ‘Truths that make dinner parties uncomfortable.’
‘Is your father an exception to the rule about adults knowing nothing?’
The boy shook his head. ‘I think he’s half the reason the rule exists. Do you think you’ll get out?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Probably. I usually do, right?’
‘But you don’t have a plan.’
‘Then how will you escape?’
‘Something always turns up.’
‘What if it doesn’t?’
‘If it doesn’t…’ I tried to think of a witty answer. But there wasn’t one. I thought of the noose. I thought of the faces of the town baying for my blood.
And then I thought about what I would see in that moment. About the bent gum trees and dry brown grass of my childhood. About the foggy streets of London now and then, about the rolling fields of England, about blood in the snow and pain and the subsequent endless pursuit of something even I didn’t quite understand.
‘If it doesn’t,’ I said, and tried to keep the tremor out of my voice, ‘then at least I know I’ve had a life.’
‘Everyone’s had a life,’ he said. ‘Some people even have long ones. Or good ones.’
‘Maybe you need the bad to see the good,’ I said. ‘Maybe the kind of life we should want is one that’s full, not one that’s good. Have a few stories to tell at the end of it.’
‘Well considering you might be at the end,’ the boy said, ‘what’s the best story you have?’
I looked at the roof. Closed my eyes. And smiled. ‘Once upon a time there was a boy. Not much was special about him. But he wanted more than what he had. So he did whatever he could to get it, until he learned that he’d been so focussed on one thing that there were a lot of other things he’d missed. And then he started to see those things and then…’ I opened my eyes. I looked at the boy. ‘And then life was full of colour. And the boy knew that as long as he kept seeing those colours, seeing colours even though other people told him they weren’t there, he would be okay.’
For a moment, there was silence.
‘Seeing things other people don’t is a sign of insanity,’ he said.
I winked. ‘There you go.’
For a moment, the boy just watched me. ‘I don’t know if I like that story.’
‘It’s the best one I’ve got.’
‘It’ll have to do I guess.’
He reached out a hand and dropped a key through the bars.
I stared at it, unsure if this was real. I looked back at the boy. He was smiling.
‘Something always turns up,’ he said. Then he was gone, vanished in the dark beyond the bars.
For a long moment I just sat there. Then I reached out and picked up the key. It was heavy and cool in my hand.
I unlocked the cell door and quietly slid it open. I moved through the still, silent and dark station before stepping out on to the cobblestoned main street of Greenville; just quiet, murky shadows at the point where night starts to become morning.
I found my bike around the back of the station and wheeled it down the main street, careful not to make a noise. But nobody else was awake. They slept their boring sleeps, waiting for the morning when they could watch a man hang. A morning that, for Greenville, might as well be a Christmas during which Santa had finally paid some actual attention to who was on the naughty list.
I arrived at the outskirts of Greenville just as the first fringes of sunrise lit the horizon. I stopped for a moment and watched. The distant waves of dark hills were slowly becoming green as fire grew in the sky above, seeping through the purple until it became a lighter blue. Another day, and I was still alive. I took a long, deep breath. The air was cool and bracing. I felt alive. I felt ready. For what, I didn’t know yet.
I looked over my shoulder. Greenville remained partly in shadow. But maybe, standing on the main street I had left the town via, I could see a shape. Maybe it was the figure of a young boy, watching. Maybe it was nothing.
But just in case, I waved.
I started my bike. The thrum of the engine filled the air. I revved it, once. It was like a roar. I laughed, and clambered on. My eyes moved to the road ahead, to the morning and the rolling fields beyond. I didn’t know where I was going to go. But I’d figure that out as I went. Something always came up. Always.
Whistling, I accelerated into the morning light.
See you around, Boone.
Writing words about writing words.