Beetleboy—winner of the 2019 VS Pritchett Short Story Prize
Each year, Prospect partners with the Royal Society of Literature to award a fiction writer working in short stories. This year's winner Ursula Brunetti weaves a tale about an unlikely friendship
His name was Ben but I called him Beetleboy. It suited. He had that way about him, scurrying and armoured. Even his clothes would buzz when he walked, nylon sports jacket scratching as though he had a pair of sheathed wings folded away behind his back, sewn up in those sharp shoulder blades. He was thin, uncomfortably so—you could see the rope of his spine through his shirt. He said he wasn’t a big eater, that people lived longer the less they ate. He was always making excuses for other people’s unkindnesses—the ones that showed up on his skin.
He used to talk about things like that—the limits people could endure. The number of days you could live without light, the maximum minutes you could go without air. Sometimes we tried them out. Held our breath in our lungs. Tested our nerves, locking each other in cupboards until the air felt dim.
He had this obsession with carnivorous plants. He talked about snap-traps, bladder-traps and corkscrews. Burred stems with silky mouths, or spiny pads that would close like praying hands. Plants that could digest hard-bodied spiders, crushing them tighter the more they struggled. I liked hearing about them. It was part of his appeal. I should say, we were kids—we liked the idea of death as much as superheroes. It was exciting, this strange concealed power everyone had to suddenly stop.
I didn’t pay attention to his home life. I know his mother struggled, working cash in hand jobs. She had lines on her face in places most people didn’t. Smoke always steaming through her lips. I felt uneasy around her, but sorry too. She had the same dustproof eyes as Beetleboy. The same crouching posture, used to being trodden on.
I thought Beetleboy was cool. He had freedoms that I didn’t. He was allowed to draw on his bedroom walls. Cover them in stickers. His house was small with an outside toilet, loops of dust in the corners, thick as vines. It was out of town, next to a disused train line, set back on a dirt road. I liked going there. It felt like he was living in another era. I tried to tell him that.
“It’s like the olden days,” I said, “the outhouse, the cold. Keeping our coats on inside.” I didn’t know what I was talking about, like I said, I was a child. I had my astronaut bedding, our mighty Amiga with its creamy keys and convex screen sitting proudly in the hallway. We had The Internet too, with all its chirps and whistles. Plus I had a ton of toys. Supersoakers. Gremlins. Terminators. Trolls. But I got bored playing on my own, fighting with my sister or having to edge the storms of my parents. Sometimes our house became so fragile, it didn’t feel safe to walk across rooms. I went to Beetleboy’s as much as I could, riding my bicycle out of the suburbs.
He was always pleased to see me. He hated staying in, so we would head to the woods, run around like we were being chased by bears or Storm troopers– anything that threatened death—running with real fear. Our legs would pump until our chests burned. We’d stop at the field and it’d feel like we’d outsmarted whatever it was that hadn’t been chasing us. That we’d made it out alive, had gotten free.
My backpack was always stuffed with supplies. I had a compass, a penknife and some Boy Scout shit, but it was the food that was important. My mum must have known. There was always too much. We’d sit out in the field, eating tuna sandwiches and crunching apples. These were the times Beetleboy would talk about insects or plants I’d never heard of, or tell me strange facts. I remember him saying if he were reincarnated, he’d want to be the Hercules Beetle because it could carry eight-hundred and fifty times its own weight.
“Nothing could hurt you,” he’d said, “you’d be too strong.”
I don’t know how he found out this stuff. He went to a different school. We had different lives, except for the bus, which we both got twice a day.
We must have been eleven or twelve the summer we holidayed on the Isle of Wight. Mum and dad had split by then. Mum felt guilty I think, because her boyfriend Ray was coming. My sister asked if she could bring a friend and mum said we both could, so I asked Beetleboy. It meant my mother, with her careful smell of talc and hairspray had to talk with his mum; a fog of smoke between them while we played Insect Top Trumps in the living room.
“We can’t afford it,” his mum said. My mum said something like, “it’d be our pleasure, there’s plenty of space in the caravan.” Beetleboy and I pretended we weren’t listening. He placed his card down—a katydid—and read its camouflage score, ten. My card was a crane fly, and it only had a five.
When we picked him up his dad was in the kitchen. It was the first time I’d seen him and he wouldn’t make eye contact. His mum gave Beetleboy a kiss and I remember thinking that was nice. She wasn’t the affectionate type in general, too used to sucking her feelings down to stubs.
In the car and even on the ferry he hardly said a word, even though it was his first time seeing the sea, or being on a boat. He didn’t want to play cards or talk and I was thinking it was a mistake to bring him. I had other friends I could’ve picked. I even got angry that he couldn’t see it was special that I’d chosen him. Eventually he started pointing things out through the window as we approached the campsite. The light was coarse and there were black shapes sweeping over the fields. ‘Bats,’ he said, ‘and owls. They’re crepuscular animals – they only come out at dusk or dawn.’ He was never afraid of sharing the things he knew and I liked that about him.
Mum and Ray were happy. It was strange hearing her laugh so much. They passed glances and leant across the tiny fold-up table in the caravan to whisper jokes. It felt like I had a different mum. I was glad those weeks of sobbing had stopped but I still didn’t want to be around her. I suppose she had the same idea and we were left to do what we liked. My sister sunbathed by the pool with her friend, their bikinis padded, their legs like pale bananas. They read magazines about popstars while Beetleboy and I spent our time at the beach, digging holes or playing football. That whole summer I felt I’d been granted a new kind of liberty—that my childhood was something I was starting to grow out of, like a winter coat that no longer fit.
The second morning Beetleboy and I went to the shower block, going into opposite cubicles. When he hung up his towel I saw a pattern of burns on his back, red circles across his shoulders. The yellow gold of an old bruise. I had an urge to hug him, but I couldn’t touch Beetleboy, afraid the slightest force would crush him. “What are those scars?” I asked. I was shocked but also jealous that my body was plain and told no stories, except for my knees, but even those scars were banal. Bike-related misadventures. “Acne,” he said, although we were still far from puberty. Skin matte, voices high and light.
The campsite was a mass of fields with a wooded dell behind them. Everyday we went exploring in there, climbing trees, and making ourselves a base. At the time there was a local story about a rare butterfly being found on the island, the Continental Swallowtail. I’d read about it in the ferry magazine, so I told Beetleboy and he became determined to catch one. I bought a butterfly trap in one of the local gift shops—Beetleboy had liked it. He never said anything but I knew he would’ve bought it himself, if he’d had five pounds. Sometimes he’d retreat into a deep quiet and I’d feel sweaty having to decipher the wordlessness. Thinking about it, it was whenever we were dealing with money. I bought it and we set it up near our base, hanging it on a branch like a dark lantern.
“What should do if we catch one?” I asked. He was scratching his shoulders, thin fingers disappearing into his t-shirt. I was thinking about pinning it down, spreading its wings apart, examining the furred body. I wasn’t thinking about killing it, I just wanted a closer look. “Take a picture?” he said, “Set it free?”
On the last day, we all took separate corners of the caravan for breakfast, sitting on the sofas that became mine and Beetleboy’s beds at night. By that point the caravan was airless. Grimy with toast crumbs and butter smears. There was an atmosphere too. The kind of ambience mum excelled at—silence where there should have been words. Lurching anger at the smallest things. In this case, the toast. Beetleboy had taken the last slice, leaving nothing for me. “What’s Callum going to eat for breakfast? How can you be so selfish?” Mum was upset, but I wasn’t hungry, not with all the bile in the room.
My sister didn’t want to sit next to Beetleboy. She said he was “a creep.” I told her to leave it. Mum wouldn’t look at him either because of what happened in the night. Mum explained she was sleeping when she heard the door creak, that’s why she’d screamed—because he’d scared her. All the lights turned on at one a.m. But Beetleboy told me he’d heard noises, like someone getting hurt. He’d wanted to check that she was ok.
Ray was amused and mum didn’t like that. “At least it wasn’t Callum,” I heard him say, “that would have been worse—for everyone.” I knew then, what Beetleboy had seen. Mum was convinced he’d been standing there in the dark, watching through the crack in the door. Beetleboy couldn’t even talk; his eyes liquid, chin curling with the effort of holding his mouth shut.
After breakfast, we walked through the dell to check the trap. “I’m sorry,” he said, “they’ve got it wrong.” “Let’s forget about it,” I said. But I was angry, knowing he’d seen my mum—heard her—yowling in the dark.
I walked further ahead. Thrashing branches with a stick, splitting leaves, sending birds to the sky. Annoyed with the creeping way he walked, the silences in our conversations. The way he saw and knew things that I didn’t. Things I didn’t even want to know. When I got to our base I waited for him, snapping twigs with frustration. I could hear the wind trouble the leaves and the sound of clay pigeon shooting from a few fields over.
For a while I didn’t realise Beetleboy had been watching me. He was so slight and low, sat quietly on a log, his clothes matching the dell’s dappled colours of earth and bark. When I finally noticed him it bothered me he could make himself invisible. “How long have you been there?” I asked. “Not long,” he said, “no butterflies in the trap but look, I found something under this stone, check it out.”
In his hands he was holding a beetle, its edges painted violet, its surface flickering with neon colours like the ones in the lava lamp I had at home. Its antennae were patting his palms with small reassuring strokes. “It’s a violet ground beetle. Flightless,” he said, “They eat slugs.” I remembered seeing one in my pack of cards. I scooped it into my empty lunchbox. We sat and watched it tap the transparent edges, feeling for a way out. “Let’s keep it,” I said. Beetleboy wasn’t sure, but I ignored him.
“I wish it wasn’t the last day,” he said, but I was happy to go.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make this base our home?”
“It’d be okay for a couple of days,” I said.
“Actually,” he said, “I think I’d be happy staying in the woods forever.”
He put his arm around my shoulders for a moment. I shrugged it off.
By the time we drove home, mum had come round, offering him a bag of food we hadn’t managed to eat. I’d decided I was going to see less of him by then, that we were too different. In the car I held onto the beetle, pressing the box against the window. I liked how the colours shifted across its shell.
“You should set it free,” Beetleboy said, but again I pretended I hadn’t heard.
The house barely looked bigger than the caravan when mum dropped us at the top of his road. “I’ll walk back,” I said and mum said, “fine.” I felt like I’d grown a lot that week—that the world was getting smaller, losing its mystique. He slipped out of the car, wincing as his backpack dug into his shoulders. I walked him inside where his mum was waiting in the living room, an iridescent bruise on her cheek. There were suitcases by the door and the house already had an abandoned feel to it. She was trying to hide her injury, turning her head, but it had a hold of her face like a mask.
“Say thanks to Callum,” she said. Eyes wild-shining. Beetleboy’s skin seemed to darken, the light shifting with the gathering dusk. He nodded when I said “see you soon,” but I think he knew I was lying. When I left, I heard his mother’s voice sharpen,
“Grab your stuff! We’ve got to leave—right now—while your dad is gone!”
I walked up the road, heart pounding, trying to make sense of his mum’s stricken face while looking for a place to release the beetle. I’d changed my mind about keeping it and to be honest I felt bad seeing it slip around in the box. I opened the lid, waiting for it to fly away. When I heard the front door open, I sank into the hedgerow.
By then, the light was fast-fading, turning Beetleboy and his mother into shadows, but I felt I could see everything clearly for the first time. I watched them hurry to the shield of their car, its metalwork glowing with the sky’s twilight colours, and listened to the wheels fast-crawling on the ground.
When their car had disappeared the beetle was still scaling the sides and I remembered it couldn’t fly. I tipped it gently out, feeling suddenly lonely as it vanished into the gloom.
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