A Good Leader

Entry by: Nicholas Gill

27th August 2015
Hour of Writes story August 2015 - A Good Leader

A Guided Surreal Tour of Oxford

The snuff of early autumn is in the air and my old college friend Edwin is visiting me in Oxford. We have joined a guided tour led by someone calling himself the Mercurial Hatter, a chap well qualified to lead us round the ancient cloisters and clusters of the city oyster beds. In exchange for a bent sovereign (or “Charlie”), he offers an hour-long tour of all the dark corners, forgotten libraries and wine-cellars of what he jocularly calls the “City of Scheming Liars”. He is a tambourine man of the old school and we must follow his jangling chimes through the ancient city streets.

And here we are at Christ Church Cathedral, where the beamish boys of today sit in their
pews descanting their heavenly psalms in yesterday's echoing chambers. We walk down the aisle (a decade for each pew we pass) to where the blazered boys of the 1920s are sat in their punts in heavenly warble, boaters doffed.

I nudge my friend connivingly in a Private Walker whisper. ”Pssssst! 'Ere, look Edwin, we could grab ourselves some real jazz-age minstrels. Get them into Jonesy's van and whisk them off to the village hall dance next Saturday and charge the Regulars a nicker a time on the door.”

“My poor friend,” says Edwin laying a consoling hand on my smoulder of ambition. “If we took them away from their temporal pew they would age horribly. Your hot jazz barbershop choir would be a pile of dusty bones upon the stage, poor fools who have already fretted their hour and are now mere headstones in the municipal graveyards, their chiselled names mossy and blurred by rainfall relentless.”

“You mean...dead?”

His face assumed a grim aspect. How he could be so sure of the grimness of the aspect I will never know.

“I couldn't mean deader!”

So we followed the antique chimes of our guide to the nearby meadow where the old men fly their gliders in the first lightness of youth.

“I say, this is wizard!” I chortled as I launched a balsa wood pigeon into the Vista above. It crashed immediately. But just as I was considering an upgrade, the sound of a few hundred bees was heard from above and a private helicopter descended on my train of thought, perched precariously as one might expect.

“I'm sorry for having to economise on bees,” said the elderly female part of my subconscious discourse emerging unpretentiously from the glass and metal bubble. “They are in short supply. If they disappear completely we'll all be dead in a few months and then what a lot of silly asses we will appear to be. Let me show you my latest snaps.”

I squint at the sequence that flickers slowly through parchment fingers. Broken old wash-tubs. Careful studies of wallpaper peeling from roofless walls awaiting demolition. Ivy sprawling across rusty cars. Derelict barns abandoned during the emotional famines of the last century. Bleached ram skulls staring up from boggy turf. Why do my women always present me with such pictures? I point to a mouldering drystone wall sinking by willows under willow herb and grasses.

“I'm sure I took that one. I remember taking that one long ago.”

“No, that was not you. That was never you,” she replies, curling like an aged cat on her accommodating Ottoman while settling a silken pillow by her headstone.

“Come,” says Old Headgear. “Your hour is fast running out and the sky is beginning to bruise. We have not yet completed your tour.”

“Where are you taking us, Spirit?” I ask weakly.

A bony finger points to another dismal scene. A two-up-two-down in the good old days of affordable housing.

“My first house, Edwin! I bought it for a snip in the eighties! We all had the snip back then and so our rooms became empty and sterile and we died out. You know the story.”

He nodded sagely. “The curse of the Bohemian. Too many twinkles in the eye, but not enough happening upstairs. Why, you could have filled this whole terrace with chimney sweeps from up north.” He waved his arm dramatically around the sparsely furnished living room, noting the brittle wings of last summer's butterflies in the un-blacked grate.

I can hear voices of children from the houses next door. Our guide smiles maliciously. “Let's take a look from upstairs, shall we?”

We ascend. Suddenly the house seems smaller, as though we are characters in a Doll's Council House Terrace. I hit my head on the door frame. A lump comes to my throat.

In the gardens on either side, far below, is a scene of post-industrial pastoral content, where small figures bask in a Thatcherite Idyll. Half naked children dandle on their pregnant mother's laps. Oily trousered legs of men sprawl from vehicles like witches downed by rogue cabins from the sky. Staffordshire terriers playfully maul couriers, postmen and pizza delivery boys who laugh stoically as they try to disengage their bloodied limbs.

“It seems all is well with the neighbours,” says Edwin.

“But who is that sad foetal youth crouched in the bathroom reading “La Nausée” by Sartre?” says the Head-case who has led me to this forgotten place.

The lump ascends to my head.

“That is no youth...” I say slowly. “That is a pig!”

A rather cute pig has made its home in the bath. Waking up, it grunts something to itself (too soft for me to make out) and toddles off down the stairs, which I realise now are punctuated with pig-poop and other unwelcome characters and key-strokes.

“So it was all a load of shit?” I say, surveying the Maslowian chaos below, and gazing fearfully up at the rotted wood of the precarious winding staircase petering out against a winter sky above.

“I rather think so,” mutters Edwin. “I think your hour is up.”