In The Beginning
Bye bye, blackbird. So they sing, the people in our circle at the day care centre, drawn together in a bubble of shared musical awareness.
But there were no words at the start. The beginning, they now say, was a traumatic moment when the Stillness of Stillness was broken by a Suddenness of Something and what we call the Universe came pouring forth, flowering out from an inconceivable point in the pointless indefinable nowhere. Believe it if you will. There wasn't even alliteration back then. But now we have Irving Berlin.
They tell us that was the start of it all. The clay grew tall. Fatuous sunbeams toiled and now I am here, playing the piano before an audience of the cognitively depleted at an Alzheimer day-care centre in a suburb of Oxford City. Another consequence of that mythical moment.
I play the old songs with my foot firmly wedged on the soft pedal. Gigs like this allow me to concentrate on singing, as the piano takes care of itself - the chord progressions for most of these songs being architecturally sound. My fingers are being directed by deep harmonic algorithms in the subconscious. So I can focus on singing softly in soft focus, not wanting to drown out the frail voices of my audience. Like my chord progressions, the songs emerge from undamaged deeps below the baffled surface of their minds. They seem to know most of the words. These tunes were written to last, and have fared well against the assault of time.
These people retain their peculiar human individuality. A bit of cognition has gone, but they still have a particular way of being in the world. Most of what they have been is still there. And together we form a collective musical hive. We warm ourselves in these golden moments. We came as strangers, now we have friends. Some are openly joyful, their faces lit up, singing with their eyes. Others sit smiling, breaking into song intermittently like a radio on a ship that is slowly moving out of transmitter range. Outside, late spring blossom clings to the apple tree.
Then there is this rather prosaic lady with sheep's wool hair, leaning forward - perhaps trying to hear, or attempting to understand some secret which she thinks I have - as if I were the only boy in the world and my fragile voice possessed some blessed Hope, where of I knew and she was unaware.
No my dear, I cannot disturb the dust on your china bowl of rose leaves. In the beginning you must have been a beautiful baby, but where we are going once this moment has departed, I cannot tell you. As we sing the old songs we form a circle, a feedback loop of awareness, a Daisy, Daisy chain. You are here because they say you have lost your wits - the clay grew tall and then it fell back to this moment, and these songs.
And I have something that they call cognition, but I feel that I have less substance than you. We, the self-aware, are the ghosts of evolution. Full-nerved and conscious we are aware of a terrible separation from the source. Conscious awareness - the endless negotiation with the idea of a Self - is an irritating fly-buzz disturbing the stillness that came before the blossoming out. John Peel never felt such a gulf as he tore across the countryside with his hounds in the morning. And still you look at me with that fixed, puzzled expression, benign yet infinitely questioning.
After the trauma of that beginning, a little bit broke off in brilliance and whizzed outwards through gaseous chaos, sulphurous gestations of galaxies, exploding stars which finally became settled constellations. Silent planets turning in the void. Ages on ages rolled over and then a primordial soup was formed in which the madness of sexual reproduction began. The beginning of all our troubles. And here we are at the Evergreen Day Care Centre, singing the old songs before they ask us to pay the bill.
The dinosaurs came and went. We don't know why they all disappeared so suddenly. It seems that Old Man Evolution, the Master of the Show got bored with their shadows revolving in his sun-illumined magic lantern, bellowing across the swamps of his spinning globe.
Finally, a complex hominid came along with a brain capable of composing miraculous songs. And still we sing them, even though their magic formula has been lost for these last 60 years.
All I can say to you, old lady, is that there is nothing of difference between us. We share a fundamental awareness. As fragile hominids we are born to impermanence and our little lives are rounded with a sleep. But for all your age, you are closer to life than I. My cognition separates me from visceral questions of sex and the mysterious abstractions of death. I am more of a ghost than you. The dinosaurs never had this problem. They just did what came naturally.
Perhaps you are asking me why we suffer in this blossoming flurry of life, though you lack the cognition to encode your question. What I can say to you, old lady, is that we are all enfolded in the wings of death and your treasured china tea set will be gathering dust in a charity shop before long. For you and I are no more real than mid-May's fallen blossoms, less than a single petal stuck to the wet pavement, a passing link in the chain of Old Man Evolution's ongoing experiment. But it was for this that the clay grew tall.
So take this present moment and these songs as a gift as I accept the gift of your presence in the musical hive, this primordial, sceptered moment expressing itself through the crafted songs of a fast-fading fickle age.
And for that moment a blackbird sang close by.
Blackbird, bye bye.
I don’t know what He was thinking. I’ ve lived in that garden for quite a while on my own but He thought it would be a good idea to make another creature similar to me, except I have a willy-ma-jig and “she” has none.
Surprising, because he said to me that I would have free will and all that stuff. I thought He meant I could decide things for myself. Instead he has landed me with a WOA-Man so that most of the things I want to do are made difficult.
For example, I like to do a bit of gardening so I built a nice little shed and put a few things in it like a comfy chair made out of sheeps’wool and a jug made out of a gourd so I could have a little drink on occasions.
Oh No! WOA-Man said “What do we need a shed for? We
need a shelter when it rains and a store room for food”
forgetting that we have acres of fruit trees and dozens of
farm animals roaming around, so we can get what we want
with a snap of the fingers.
And another thing, who does she think she is, bringing that
snake into my shed?
I had a word with HIM about that. I said:
“What is that slippery thing doing here in the first place?
He gave me that patronising smile and said “The Lord
knows best and I have made the earth and all things in it,
and it is good”
Does He realize that she encourages it to sit with her under
the big tree outside my shed?
I caught them whispering the other day and when I asked
what about, the reptile just slipped away without a word.
She said it was just a joke but I felt they were plotting
something to upset me.
Then that night she snuggled up to me and asked me what I
wanted most? I said “you know what I want but you’re
never in the mood” She simpered and cuddled up to me so I
couldn’t resist could I? But when it was over, she told me
that I was too timid and I could get a lot more out of Him if I
showed a bit of spirit.
“I like a man with a bit of spirit”she said in a meaningful
way. I wondered what man she was talking about because
I was the only man about in these parts as far as I could tell.
Two days later that damned snake was round again coiling
about her neck and whispering in her ear.
Worst of all, he had picked one of the apples off the big tree.
It was a beauty, large as a pomegranate and red as a ruby.
The serpent rubbed its surface with his silky skin and it
took on a shine like a mirror.
“Now you’ve done it “I said “You know it’s off limits to eat
“No it’s not” He simpered “He said we should not eat the
fruit on the tree so I’ve picked one and that’s ok”
“Of course it is “chimed in WO-Man ”Anyone can see that”
That did stop me in my tracks. I recall His warning that we
should not eat the fruit, but was it “ON” the tree or “Of” the
I didn’t want to ask Him again in case He got stroppy but I
saw the two of them nibbling so I thought the harm was
done and might as well take a bite. It was juicy and sweet
and the best thing I had ever tasted. I’ve had mango and
pineapples and strawberries and all sorts but nothing
compared to this.
Her slimy friend gave a sinister grin “I told you so” he said
“Let’s have another”
Before he could slink up and grab another--- Whoosh!
Himself was down on us like a ton of compost.
“Gotcha”He bellowed “You won’t be told. Now you’ve done
“Just let me explain” I said “we weren’t sure if…”
but He cut me off mid-stream
He was in a right strop and went on shouting “I am fed up
with you and that hideous snake. I wish I’d never made
you. This free will business has got out of hand.”
He waved his arms about and pushed us towards a big gate
I hadn’t noticed before. He slammed it shut after us and
we found ourselves here.
“This place is a bit bleak but hell… we’ll survive.”
A conversation about psychiatric care, on which you have no informed opinion and have not yet drunk enough to form one at random. He’s maybe 35, handsome now, but you can see the hair, unchanging in cut for40 years, greying and coarsening, the same hard-wearing red coat fading, still striding, walking, hobbling into this bar with its varied clientele who become more reluctant to listen to his monologues as the things he’s seen at work that he certainly can’t say in this conversation with a stranger embed more and more deeply into his eyes. He’ll look, frankly, weird. But for now he’s normal and interesting and sad, unaware that even now you’re more patient than most
A general sense of goodwill towards humanity in the semi-drunk psychiatric nurse who walks home along the river that he imagines has faded to customary bitterness but has in fact left an unconscious sense of responsibility that he hasn’t yet discharged
An unacknowledged and misguided search for an opportunity to discharge it and continue with his previous personal life, as selfish as possible in order to keep his kindness for work. So when a shy woman, the type who fantasises about having been underestimated, asks him to go for a drink, he ends up in a chain restaurant the following Wednesday
A bar crawl
A process, post-meiosis, of cell development and mitosis, specialisation leading to a backbone, an ear for a tune, a smile. A child who may never know to use his inky hair to emulate down to his jawline or rebel with an electric shaver. A child with an unusual capacity for empathy and patience, but who chooses to direct it towards authors and writers, and there are limited options in this
A teaching career filled with empathy directed towards, stumbling at, hard-eyed, well-armoured teenagers. Unambitious, very ambitious in that he believes that with his tutelage, the 15-18 year olds can possibly still like the books they grate down to sawdust within the classroom. Believes that learning Shakespeare at school can teach them to love it. Refuses to force it. Says not a word to the lad at the back of the classroom with his chemistry book open, because you can’t force it. So the young lad gets his homework finished, gives up English for A-Level, wins his place at Cambridge and comes off his motorbike on the A14 aged 25
A fuss and furore around the posthumous PhD thesis until even arts students know that it was about protein folding. So when, 5 years later, a 40 year old who is studying degenerative illness from genetic mutation has not had a vital thought, he remembers that a 23 year old did, in fact, have that vital thought long before. That he can use that vital thought, which he would never so much as glimpsed at under normal conditions
You should be proud of yourself for walking into that bar.