Don’t Beat Yourself Up, Anton the Destroyer by Andrew Pidoux

Setting out from his home somewhere in the south of England, Anton the Destroyer boards a ferry to France. His face is a mess, due to a fight he was in the previous night. He is already quite ugly, but now he looks like an empty-faced vessel filled with fat on which bruises float like mould. He’s a looker, in other words. Reality, I must warn you, has never really been kind to Anton the Destroyer. Anton the Destroyer has not been especially kind to reality either.

And so he embarks. The white cliffs of Dover disappear in a mist of memory, just as they did for the poets. But Anton the Destroyer doesn’t notice them go, simply because he is looking the other way. It’s so damned cold on the boat that Anton the Destroyer has to rebutton himself several times. His collar is upturned, gilded on its black rim by beads of moisture, which might be the mist embodied or might be spit from between his ugly swollen lips. Why did he have to get into that fight – and with himself, of all people? What did he do to deserve such treatment from himself? He shakes his head despairingly.

Time is getting on aboard the ferry. It is still the present, but tenses are gathering. There is a giant beam of a man extricating himself from the fog as we speak. He is an enormous heave of hands and legs, with a chest like a Volkswagen Beetle. He is not built like a house or a tank, he is built like a planet. His girth is that of a God. His name is Tor and he is entering the story.

“Hello,” says Anton the Destroyer. “Why are you here on deck in this weather? Shouldn’t you be downstairs with the others?”

“What others?” asks the giant man.

It turns out Tor is an actor. He acts in many plays on the stage, he acts in many films on the screen. Tor loves to act and thinks that it is great that he only ever gets to play monsters, the undead, fat aliens, gross sidekicks. He numbers the roles on the fingers of the same hand, as if the fingers themselves were what limited him.

“What do you do for a living?” he asks.

“I don’t,” replies Anton the Destroyer.

“Don’t what? Do or live?” Tor bursts out laughing and slaps Anton the Destroyer between the shoulder blades. Anton the Destroyer feels something he ate for breakfast rise Lazarus-like in his throat. “What is your name?” asks Tor.

“Anton the Destroyer,” replies Anton the Destroyer.

“And where are you going?”

“I am going to France,” says Anton the Destroyer. “I have heard that people are freer in France, and they often make huge sculptures in their gardens out of whatever they want, like bottles. However, I do not intend to stay in France, but pass through on my way to China.

What about you?”

“I too am going to France,” says Tor, “but not because of these sculptures. I am going because I have heard that there are many people there who are looking for sidekicks.”

“You can go with me as far as Marseille if you like,” says Anton the Destroyer.

The fog appears to be lifting at last, and though it is too early to say for sure, France is before them. There are flags flying on the harbour wall, but they are not all that French.

“Have confidence in yourself,” says Tor, extricating himself from the fog. “You are clearly a person of clarity.”

They walk down the gangplank towards the meaninglessness of the flags.

“Flags flutter,” says Anton the Destroyer, “just like birds and petticoats.”

“And cannons” adds Tor, for his imagination is unable to conceive of anything too soft or fluttery.

At last setting down in the watery mirror of France, the flipside of all their schoolboy history lessons, the two Englishmen like what they see and feel glad that they are alive in Calais on this whatever-the-hell day it is.

Anton the Destroyer has an inkling that there might be someplace to get his shoes cleaned around here. He picked them up on a dirty corner in Islington once, and they have never come clean about anything ever since. Even in the depth of the night, they sit there glowering.

“Over there” says Tor, pointing his great windmill arm towards a little stand where a small, delicate Frenchlady is polishing a single shoe.

“I haven’t had any customers all day,” she says, “and now you two show up at once, and you’re both so dirty. I can’t believe it.”

“It is a nice stall,” says Anton the Destroyer.

Tor puts his foot up into the place where you put your foot up into, and the little small Frenchlady begins to free his shoe like a fossil from the layers of primeval mud that have gathered around it. She does this with such love and simple humility that Tor believes himself to have fallen in love with her, and it is so.

“I am a Frenchlady who longs to go to England,” she says, a tear forming like a tiny diamonelle at the corner of her small French eye.

“But the problem is one of psychology. As soon as I board a ferry, I begin to ache in my mind, my legs go weak and I faint to the floor in a swirl of lace. It seems I am fated to look forever, on clear days, to the opposite shore and dream of my English compatriots eating their lovely steak and kidney pies and what have you.”

“Well, don’t worry about it,” says Tor. “All this talk of steak and kidney pies is making me hungry indeed. Is there anywhere we could manage a bite to eat around here, little miss?”

The three of them immediately set off for a small French café that the Frenchlady knows. They are all three ravenously disposed and, as soon as they reach the café, their eyes all fall on a cabinet of brown buns that are gathering French flies in the hot afternoon light.

“Don’t worry about those little beauties,” says the waitress, emerging from behind the cabinet, “in France it is illegal for flies to land on anything nasty or shitty.”

And so they ask for some of the buns and walk off to find a table, which they sit down at without any ado. When the buns arrive at the table, carried over one at a time by a whole host of straining, buzzing French flies, the small Frenchlady goes into the following monologue concerning her early life:

“I was born to the south of France in a place with no hills, but we made our own hills when we dug out much of the earth we were standing on. We had the idea that gems of the most spectacular appearance were enfolded in it, and this proved to be the case. We extracted the gems by a secret means known only to a few sagelike people who lived in the forest. It soon became a lovely setup. We grew rich off our own greed. We gorged ourselves silly.”

Here she pauses and looks thoughtfully at Tor, who is shovelling buns down his throat at speed.

“After a while,” she continues, “a tin mine opened in the town next to us, and all the apparatus of longing was installed therein to extract the tin. We thought it strange that they would choose to mine tin, when the ground was so studded with spectacular alternatives. At this point I started to learn ballet. Then the week ended, and a rivalry was set up between the two chiefs of the villages. They began to hit each other with their fists and then progressed to implements made respectively of gems and tin. They went on hitting each other for three years. After it had ended I decided to come north and be a ballet dancer, due to my small size. But I was only able to be one in my dreams.”

“Why did you wait till the hitting had ended before you became a ballet dancer in your dreams?” says the waitress over her shoulder.

“Because the hitting stopped me from having dreams,” says the small Frenchlady. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I just saw hitting.”

At this moment she turns with such a loving look to Anton the Destroyer that he almost disappears. Anton the Destroyer would normally have blushed, but the bruises on his face make blushing pointless.

“Then I came north because of the way things were,” says the Frenchlady. “I am a nice person who is of a small size.”

“What is your name, by the way?” says Anton the Destroyer.

“Yes, what is your name?” echo Tor and the waitress together.

“It is Something” she says.

“Something the ballet dancer,” says Anton the Destroyer. “That has a nice ring to it. Nicer than Nothing, and a lot nicer than Anything, because that is just too general.”

“Yeah, that’s too general,” echoes Tor.

Something’s face lightens like a tangerine lit from inside, but not because of the compliment she has been given. It is because she is imagining a simple ballet in which she stars as a princess in pink shoes that go down to a point of infinite smallness.

Declining to pay for the buns, the three friends say farewell to the waitress and walk out under the glorious sunset, which is made of stained glass. By and by, they come to a house owned by an old curiosity named Henri, who is sitting in his somewhat abstract garden, reading a totally blank newspaper.

“Ahoy there” says Tor, leaning over Henri’s hedge, his torso sprouting from it like that of some vast muscular Punch. The old man ruffles his newspaper, as if Something has landed in its folds, but she is out of sight behind the hedgerow and anyway cannot fly.

“We are three travellers lost in France,” says Tor. “If you have any wisdom to impart, let us have it, because we collect that sort of thing.”

Though they aren’t exactly invited, all three of them take the liberty of simultaneously opening the metal gate of Henri’s garden and piling in. The garden is a lovely shabby arrangement, and the butterflies that it attracts are of the largest, ripest, most solitary kind in the world. They lope around on fleshy wings and soak up the colours of the sunset, which grows paler as the butterflies’ colours intensify.

“Perhaps he’s deaf,” says Anton the Destroyer, as they tentatively make their way across the trim lawn towards Henri.

“Perhaps he is a ghost,” says Something.

“Come in, whydontcha?” says Henri suddenly and much too late. “I crafted some croissants this morning, and they are really nice. You can eat one and I can tell you my life story, in the form of a puppet play.”

“Don’t mind if we do,” says Anton the Destroyer, moseying up to the old man.

“I used to work in the toll booth over there, collecting money from people who wanted to go to England,” says Henri, pointing at an old kiosk with a broken window, “but the authorities found out about it and I had to stop. Ever since then I have been working on a sculpture called What Became of the Spaghetti. If you like it you can see it.”

And they do like it, and they do see it.

The spaghetti has been arranged into a great tower about ninety feet high. It curls and collapses upwards like a rigid waterfall.

“The authorities tried to come and take it down,” said Henri. “But they didn’t like it enough to do that, so they declared it a national monument instead.”

“I think I understand,” says Tor, scratching his belly, “but I don’t really know.”

“It is a marvellous apparition of the utmost kind,” proclaims Anton the Destroyer.

“I agree,” whispers Something, “and the butterflies that adorn it remind me of the past.”

Then Henri takes them inside his house, which is infinitely cosy. In the paintings of the house, people are doing divergent things. They are walking along a river. They are flying around in balloons. They are making fools of themselves gaily and giddily.

“Come this way for the puppets,” says Henri.

As they move through the house, Something notices that Henri has fat legs, and that they lead him with a certain Churchillian patter past plates that he has collected and stored in big cabinets. One of the butterflies has got into the house and makes a lovely place for them to rest their eyes while they are watching the onset of the puppets.

The first puppet comes on stage tentatively, afraid to disturb the verisimilitude. It is meant to represent the young Henri, and it is meant – soon meant – to be at school, among a series of desks inlaid with little pots of ink. The pen unravels in the puppet’s hand, sprawling out a series of French words that it doesn’t get. Then a teacher puppet comes in. She passes the young Henri a note that says, For your Mama. Cut to the home of Henri (the school curtailed by a curtain). His mother is opening the letter. She throws her arms around her son’s wooden shoulders. Henri has been chosen to go up in a balloon, because he is good.

Then the puppet stage becomes a kind of origami cradle, of the sort children’s hands once divined in playgrounds. Above it flies the wan balloon. It flies and flies over certain mountains. It flies like there is no tomorrow. The young puppet is in the basket, his face painted with wonder. Then comes the cloud palace, with all its blooming ramparts. The balloon is sucked in through the portcullis, above which the word CHINA is deeply scratched, just as the curtain touches down softly on the boards of the Earth.

Anton the Destroyer, Tor and Something all cheer wildly, having been utterly mesmerized by the young puppet’s journey.

“So that’s how come you are like you are,” says Something.

“So that’s China,” says Anton the Destroyer.

“Please,” says Henri, “eat more of these croissants for they are getting stale in the atmosphere of the past that prevails in my home.” He gets up in his stiff but consequential way. “Now, let’s see if we can see about your face,” he says, gesturing towards the many poor bruises on Anton the Destroyer’s features. “How did you come to get beat up so bad, young man?”

“It happened last night,” says Anton the Destroyer.

The old man leads them through into a plethora, where he keeps a box, a light switch and a whirlwind. The latter is thankfully curled asleep in the corner.

“Don’t worry about him,” says Henri, “I fed him this morning with some scraps of leaves and sweet wrappers.”

The clock on the wall is asleep too. Inside the box there are a number of bottles and bandages. Henri opens one of the bottles with his little fat fingers, and a sensual smell of wild time floats out into the room. The clock on the wall immediately perks up. Henri then pats some of the clear liquid onto the nose, eyelids and cheeks of Anton the Destroyer. He takes a bandage and wraps it around Anton’s the Destroyer’s arm, for the hell of it.

“I think I feel much better already,” says Anton the Destroyer.

“Thank you so very much indeed, Monsieur,” says Henri.

Later that same profound evening, Henri shows the three friends to the duty-free shop on the corner, and they spend a wistful hour among the products, hardly believing the cheapness they were witnessing. Anton the Destroyer buys a big carton of Camel cigarettes, on which the camel has finally reached the pyramid but at the expense of its sanity, for it is now wearing the most incongruous of petticoats. Tor gets himself a king-size bottle of Tequila wherein the worm is still alive and has set up a tiny factory to make his own tequila and thereby profit from his situation. Happily laden, the two friends wave Something and Henri goodbye, board their boat and sail back out into the fog.

Andrew Pidoux‘s stories have appeared recently in magazines such as the Delinquent, Friction, Orbis, Penniless Press and Stand. He is a winner of an Eric Gregory Award and Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize, and his book of poems, Year of the Lion, was published last year by Salt. He lives in Harlesden in west London.

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