For Elliot, ‘Moloxetine helps to keep the beast at bay’. He’s fearful of anything and everyone. Except for Mum, Auntie Shirley and The Doc. He’s tried school just twice – no use. Always, the overwhelming terror of that beast. He tells us he was born scared – at 26 weeks, weighing just under a pound. His twin sister didn’t make it out of intensive care. Except she did. In thirteen year old Elliot’s head, Ellamay has always been there, a calming, more rational and even humorous companion. They talk often, especially at pressured moments, which is just as well since as the book opens, Elliot is facing several hours of acute crisis.
He’s down to his last tablet of Moloxetine. It’s Christmas Eve in his North Yorkshire village, with the snow blowing in off the moors. He and Mum requested the repeat prescription in good time, but the pharmacist packaged up the wrong pills. Now they are desperate to collect the revised prescription before the pharmacy closes for the holidays, but Mum’s car has given up the ghost and Auntie Shirley, who agreed to fetch the pills for them, has gone missing. So Mum sets off through the snow to tramp the 482 metres (Elliot knows such things) to Shirley’s house to find out what’s happened. Mum’s anxious about leaving Elliot, but he should be okay – he has his ‘fear-proof room’, quadruple glazing, blackout blinds and the rest. Maybe the 1,762 books on his shelves account for his articulate self-awareness.
Meanwhile, Kevin Brooks keeps his readers better informed than Elliot and Mum about what’s been going on. Thanks to a tip-off from a talkative employee in the local bank, a couple of small-time crooks know that Shirley’s wimpish son Gordon, the bank’s manager, should soon be home. Since it’s Christmas Eve, the bank’s closed early and the staff are partying at the King’s Head. Every year, Gordon goes for ten dutiful minutes and then he’s off home to Mother. So now the robbers, unwisely disguised in cheap Santa outfits, have bound and gagged Shirley and dealt with Elliot’s Mum likewise when she arrives. When Gordon gets there, the robbers plan to take him straight back to unlock the bank’s vaults – or else his mother gets it. But, Gordon doesn’t come home. His drink’s been spiked with something hallucinogenic and when he does set off, hours later than usual, he’s hurtling about the streets completely off his head, attracting the attention of the police. That’s the situation which plays out through the rest of the book.
Much of the novel stays with Elliot as he ventures into the night towards Shirley’s house when Mum fails to return. He’s unlucky in those he meets: four men and a dog on their way back from the pub, menacing sheep and cows, and a couple of psycho deer hunters in combat jackets, armed with rifle and knife (“You make a sound …. and I’ll cut your throat”).
Kevin Brooks deploys a small cast on a small stage, which makes for a strong focus. The incomprehensible images which crowd Elliot’s mind on his journey give readers a disturbing perspective of our everyday world. Occasionally Brooks tests credibility. Would two policemen really decide to stop Gordon’s Corsa, which they know has been careering all over the countryside, by blocking the street with their patrol car and then sit, seat belts fastened, waiting for him to crash into them? Then again, the bank-robbers are violent enough to use a pistol butt on the faces of the captive women, yet their gormless incompetence could belong to a duo of comic baddies from the village panto.
Even so Brooks has created a memorable character in Elliot and a plot which winds tensely up to its climax. Elliot’s courage during those terrifying 482 metres and his selfless bravery as he confronts the thieves to save his aunt and his mother – long after the effects of his ‘fear pills’ have worn off – are at once moving and unsentimental.