Hugo Barnes made quite the entrance into our lives on that tempestuous autumn evening in 1991. I was participating in a school play- a rendering of the Postman Pat story. Outside, a gale howled, lamenting the fall of the rain as it came in torrents, gathering in puddles deep and wide as oceans.
Midway through the second act, the fire escape burst open and two half-human creatures slimed into the room. They stood still and sinister, dripping there in the gloom. The actors broke character and stared aghast at these apparitions. After an infinite silence, two teachers sprang to life, flapped over to the eldritch swamp beasts and towelled them down. They were presented with hot drinks and guided to a seat.
The young actors resumed their play. I, however, could not stop staring at these strange beings sat to the left of the stage. I had no lines to distract me- I played Jess the cat- and so instead I gawped. As the rainwater dissipated from their clothes and skin, they began to look like people. They became an old lady, her skin weathered by years of turmoil and toil, and a young boy, her homunculus, who bore her face beneath a tangled web of ashen hair.
The following morning, my class were introduced to the strange boy. His name was Hugo Barnes, and he was to be our new classmate. By the end of the day, a spate of bizarre rumours began to circulate about this alien boy; rumours so bafflingly obscure they must be true. Surely no seven year old could’ve dreamed them up.
Hugo was a strange kid. He wanted to belong, but had no social skills or aptitude. When standing up, he grunted in the manner of an old man. He did not run, or join in the games of the other children, preferring instead to shout from the sidelines. He jostled for position amongst the alpha boys, fighting bitterly when he felt he was excluded from their games. Those alpha boys absorbed him into their group, but kept him on the periphery. He was a figure of fun to them, a whipping boy, someone to mock, and yet he clung to them. In his mind, he was one of them.
Eventually, the strange rumours surrounding Hugo like a fog took on a life of their own. The Hugo Barnes legend swept across the town. Big kids from the neighbouring secondary school started coming to our playground to see the boy who could crush a basketball with his bare hands. They came to see the boy who once farted so hard he levitated off the ground. They came to see the boy they had heard about. Some jeered him when he refused to perform for them. Others sought to enhance their reputations by beating up the boy who won a fight with an alligator.
Throughout our town, the name Hugo Barnes became synonymous with incredible feats. Parents whispered about him at the school gates and in the pubs, pointing out old Ms Barnes, Hugo’s grandmother. She was as ostracised and as mythologised as her fabled grandson. Stories went around that she had been a world famous supermodel in her youth, and had dated a host of celebrities from Errol Flynn to Burt Lancaster. They said she had poisoned her husband after an argument about figs. They said she was a secret billionaire shareholder in a tech start-up.
Hugo stayed with me through my schooling for the next five years, until one day he disappeared as startlingly as he had arrived.
A few weeks ago, Hugo Barnes got in touch. He tells me he is hugely successful now. A millionaire with a beard and a chain of hamster cafes in hipster market towns so obscure you haven’t even heard of them yet. He seemed very keen to address the rumours that circulated about him throughout our time together in school. He made most of them up himself, or so it seems. He explained to me that it was his attempt to make himself seem more interesting. He wanted to belong so badly that he concocted an entire life to impress the alpha males of the class.
I find myself wondering about his motivations. I knew even then that he craved acceptance with an unhealthy desire. His behaviour made that clear. However, I can’t help but feel that his motives were slightly different. I wonder if the boy Hugo used these rumours, these lies, to cover up his real life story. I wonder if he felt some deep sense of shame at his past, and so concealed whatever it was with myths.
If that was the case, it worked. Nobody speculated on his absent parents, or talked about how he lived with his nan. Nobody asked him about his years shunted from one foster home to the next. Instead, people knew him as ‘the boy who could crush a basketball with his hands’, or, ‘the boy who once yawned for over an hour’. When I meet up with old classmates now, they remember only the mythic Hugo Barnes, and not the tragic one.
In his last message, he asked if we could meet up sometime, for beers or coffee. I am unsure. If I meet with the man now, after all these years, I put the boy in peril. It will wipe away the dreamlike Hugo Barnes I remember from the stories, and replace him with a concrete human being. I prefer the myth.