Low Cut Blouses and Songs about Sex
She wanted back in. After fifteen months on her own, needing to “follow my own mojo”, she walked through the door. I know my eyes were wide, the surprise eating my face like all eight tentacles of an octopus. I didn’t have to look at Hot Rod to know his eyes were filled with anger. You only got once chance with him, and Cherry took a shit on hers. Little D would have rolled out a red carpet if we had one. Lust will make you stupid even quicker than love.
None of us spoke for way too long. The tension in the room stretched until it had spun all four of us in a web. Cherry’s opening words still hung in the air, slapping me with thin, sharp fingers.
“Are you still looking for a singer? I’d like to audition.”
Hot Rod was sucking air in through gritted teeth while Little D melted in his chair, unable to speak or likely even think. I turned so I was facing her full-on. For some reason, I was surprised she looked the same as the day she walked out on us. Thigh-high boots, mini-skirt, loose-hanging blouse, and denim jacket, all in black, playing off her pale skin and messy red hair.
“Yeah,” I mumbled through a dry mouth. “We could use a singer.”
“We don’t need her,” Hot Rod spit out.
“I do,” Little D said louder than he meant to. When we all turned to look at him, he walked to the corner of the room like a child in a timeout.
“We don’t need her,” Hot Rod repeated.
Cherry walked farther into the cramped garage we used as a rehearsal space. “I know you’re all mad at me,” she started.
“I’m not,” Little D said from the corner.
“Shut up, D!” Hot Rod yelled. He leaned into me. “We’re doing fine without her.”
“Are you?” Cherry asked.
“Tell her,” Hot Rod said before sitting on the stool behind his drum kit.
Cherry’s eyes turned to me. Why was I congealing into oatmeal inside? I was furious with her when she left the band to perform solo. All the momentum we had had evaporated overnight, but when she stared at me, I became a puddle on the floor. Maybe, I thought, I should join Little D in the corner.
“It’s been better recently,” I finally said. “We got our weekly gig back at the Rock All Night club downtown.”
“Just like before,” Hot Rod interjected.
“Half the money,” Little D muttered.
“Shut your pie hole.”
The corner of Cherry’s mouth curled up, and she shook her head while still looking at me. Some things never change, she was saying without opening her mouth.
“You said you got the gig back,” Cherry said.
“Yeah,” I began. “We lost it right after you left. Mr. Dibbs said no one wanted to hear us play without you singing.”
“That’s bullshit,” Cherry responded.
“Doesn’t matter what it was, we got fired.”
“But you got back in?”
“With Little D’s sister singing.”
“Charlotte? I didn’t even know she could sing.”
“Like an angel,” Hot Rod said, followed by a rim shot on the drums.
“Yeah, well, not quite an angel,” I laughed. “But good enough to get us the gig back.”
“At half the money,” Little D reminded us again.
“At half the money,” I agreed.
Cherry walked over to the microphone and caressed the stand with her fingers. “So, why did you advertise for a singer on Music Finder?”
“Charlotte’s going to college. Out of state. If we want to keep the regular club gig, we need a female singer.
“We need you,” Little D said, turning to face Cherry for the first time.
“NO, we don’t!” Hot Rod shouted, crashing his cymbals.
“That’s one for and one against,” Cherry said. She took the microphone off the stand, held it in front of her with both hands. Looking me in the eyes, she spoke into it. “What do you say?”
I had been in love with her once when we were seniors, but that worked out like most high school romances. We were both immature. I had a problem with wanting to be in charge all the time, and she liked to flirt with other guys. Our relationship for the last seven years had been equal parts attraction, distrust, ambition, and forgiveness. The trouble was that I agreed with both of my band mates. We did need her, and we didn’t. Whatever I decided, there was a question I needed answered first.
“Why did you leave?”
Cherry’s boots clicked on the cement floor as she slowly walked in a haphazard circle, rolling the microphone between her hands.
“The first night we played the Rock All Night club, after we finished, I was coming out of the ladies’ room. I jumped back when I saw Mr. Dibbs, all three hundred plus pounds of him, standing there waiting for me. He proceeded to tell me that he liked my voice, but what he liked more were my tits.”
Cherry paused and let the last word reverberate through the room from the speakers.
“He told me our band was pretty good, but the real reason he had given us the job was so he could watch me jiggle while I jumped around on stage.”
“Bullshit,” Hot Rod said.
Cherry smiled. “Oh, Hot Rod. Simple, black or white Hot Rod. You just told me you got the job back because Charlotte sang for you and now to keep it you need another female singer. Mr. Dibbs is a dirty old man.”
“Did he . . . touch you?” Little D asked.
“No. He said he had “learned his lesson with that shit.” Never found out exactly what happened, but now he just wanted to watch.”
“Why did you leave?” I asked quietly.
“This is who I am when I sing with you guys.” Cherry spun around like a fashion model. “And don’t get me wrong, I love it, and I know the guys are watching me. But I needed to know if they really wanted to hear me sing, too. When I performed on my own, I wasn’t Cherry. I was Paulette Spencer from Lancaster Pennsylvania. I didn’t dress like this, and I didn’t do the hard music we did. I had to know if Paulette was good enough. Or if it was just Cherry.”
“What did you find out?”
“Paulette can sing. She can write songs. She can bring two hundred people into a club to make them dance and cheer.”
“Why is she back here then?” Little D asked.
“This is home. I missed our music, our show, our fans. I missed all of you, even the nutsack behind the drum kit.”
A soft, slow rim shot left Hot Rod’s sticks. I looked at him for affirmation. He rolled his eyes and then looked away but not before nodding his head. I turned back to Cherry.
“Do you really want to re-join Rat City?”
“I have a closet full of low cut blouses and a dozen new songs about sex,” Cherry said.
It's social worker o'clock, thought Gill, as her old Casio beeped the hour at her. Seconds later, there was a knock at the door; Marie's smart rat-a-tat which vibrated through the flat. Gill, expecting it, jumped regardless and put a hand to her chest before standing up and walking to the door.
In the hallway was Marie, with two very large holdalls. Gill raised her eyebrows and Marie waved the unspoken question away.
'Later. Some gifts. How are you?' Marie went to embrace her and Gill stiffened, before remembering that it was okay, that she'd asked Marie to do this, to practise being normal again. Being open again. Being the self she knew was still in there somewhere.
Gill opened herself to a brief hug and found her smile. 'I'm okay,' she said, 'It was a shock, obviously, but I'm all right. I'm fine. I'm safe, right? And he's...' She couldn't say "going to die" in case she somehow got the blame for killing him. She didn't tell Marie about the sleepless nights, the fears, the regression to the person she'd been a year ago.
'I'm so sorry... it must have brought up... all kinds of things.'
Gill nodded, but stopped herself from speaking. Marie was now a friend as well as her social worker, although Gill didn't know if she could trust her with everything. Once a social, always a social, her mother used to say.
Gill put the kettle on whilst Marie walked through to the lounge. Gill braced herself, and didn't have to wait long.
'Oh my god, Gill!' Marie's voice was too loud. Gill flinched.
'This is incredible! This place really feels like yours, now. Your home. How did you do so much?'
Gill, hiding in the steam of the kettle, imagined it though Marie's eyes. Every wall was a different colour now - several shades of a different colour - and the patterns were even more intricate than before. They crept around the windows, up and down the door frames, in depths and shapes which pulled the viewer in. Gill smiled, as she made the tea.
Carrying it through to the living room she felt again the shiver of excitement that walking around her flat gave her.
'You like it?' she smiled at Marie, an open, smile which shaped her face into a heart.
'I love it,' the social worker replied. 'It's amazing... it's...' and she brushed a tear from her eye. 'I'm so happy for you,' she said.
Gill didn't trust herself to speak - again, the trust issue. If she told nobody, she'd be safe.
'Can I see what's in the bags now?' she asked, thinking how like a child she sounded.
'Not yet. After I've gone, is probably best,' said Marie, not meeting Gill's eyes.
ONE YEAR EARLIER
Marie entered the flat first. Gill was stooped, head low, breathing harsh and Marie wanted to go in and turn on the lights so her new charge wouldn't trip and fall the very first time she walked into the flat.
The lights were too bright and Marie cursed herself for not checking it out first. The hospital was bright; she'd wanted Gill's first entry into her new home to be as far removed from hospital triggers as possible.
Gill followed her in and leaned against the hallway wall.
'That's the lounge, ahead; the kitchen is to the left here and there are two bedrooms off to the right. The bathroom's next to the kitchen,' Marie said.
Gill nodded but didn't move.
'Come on through. Let me show you the kitchen -- I put some food in for you.'
Gill followed her through to the small clean room. Marie had put flowers in a vase but all Gill could see was white and an off white/magnolia colour. She shuddered.
'Do you want me to stay a bit?' The social worker asked.
Gill shook her head. 'Thank you,' she muttered.
'I'll be by in the morning. Go and explore. This is yours, now, Gill. Nobody else is here. I know this is what you want but if you find it overwhelming in any way, call me, okay?'
Gill nodded again.
After Marie had gone Gill walked from room to room, running her fingers along the back of the sofa, turning on the tap in the bathroom, on and off, on and off, just to see the water run. She nodded at herself in the mirror, and then switched off the lights.
The next time Marie came she brought painting supplies. Gill glanced at them and didn't touch them for over a week, thinking, how dare she? But they called to her, those colours, and demanded that she open them and let them live. The first time she sat down she painted until all the paper was used up. That night she dreamt about her ex-husband, and the way he used to jeer at her paintings and how he - drunk - burned them all one night, because she burned his dinner. In the dream he was fiercer, darker than in real life. In the morning she hid the paintings and it was weeks before she let Marie see them.
The next time Marie came, she brought three times as much paper.
The weeks went by and Gill felt life returning. Life in the hospital had been empty but safe. Life in her new flat was every day a challenge - far form safe but interesting, an adventure, days full of firsts and one day she caught herself passing in a mirror and saw that she was smiling.
She'd painted over fifty pictures, over fifty unique, slightly surreal, colour-filled dream scenes of fabulous creatures and things she was at night and people she'd seen at the hospital and Marie's eyes, eyes that she was beginning to trust, before she first signed her name. It was tiny, printed in the bottom right hand corner of the paper, By Gill, so tiny it was hardly there.
'But it is there,' said Marie, squeezing her shoulder. 'You didn't let him beat you. You still exist. He, on the other hand, is locked up, stripped of his name. You have your life back.'
Gill shivered and Marie, realising she'd broached it all too early, was angry with herself all the way home. She'd wanted to be Gill's social worker since she first heard the story, so similar to her own. The next time she went, however, Gill showed her a painting of a grey cell, surrounded by the outside world like a flowergardenjungle, all around the outside. Inside was a very small man.
Gill's name at the bottom of her paintings grew larger and her paintings grew bolder, filled with new colours, shades she imagined she'd invented herself. One day she woke up and realised the flat was far, far too plain.
Marie laughed when she walked in. 'Oh,' she said, 'this is YOU. Now I can see you.' And Gill laughed back, her face feeling doughy and all out of practice at laughter.
Colours and patterns grew in layer after layer, getting ever more intricate. Gill began to love the flat; it was no longer a way station on her way back to normal life - now it was her home. Colour was her home. She existed in shades of green, yellow, red, blue. She found herself in deep purples and rose pinks. She saw her moods in the blues of the sky and the craziness of a rainbow. She found herself in the swirling patterns that covered her kitchen cupboards.
And then one day, eleven months after she'd moved in, she'd noticed, as if for the first time, how grey the village was. Her flat was an oasis of colour amidst a desert of grey. One morning, she knew exactly what to do about it.
It was Marie who brought the first newspaper cutting round.
'Mystery Painter Baffles Villagers' one head line read. In another a plea - 'Police Want to Talk to Mystery Artist' and in the last one Marie gave her was something that made Gill shiver deliciously inside. 'The Colours Make Us Happy, say Residents'.
'Don't suppose you know anything about this?' Marie said, eyebrows raised. Gill looked at the cuttings again, glad of the red in the cupboards which might hide her blush in their glow.
'No,' she said, shaking her head. 'Not at all. Nothing.'
'Because,' Marie continued, 'I'd hate whoever is doing this to get into trouble.'
'Hmm,' said Gill.
'If somebody found out who it was and that person had a bit of a background that people might misunderstand - well, it might not go too well.'
'Hmm-mmm,' said Gill.
'However, people do seem to be enjoying it. And you, Gill Anderson, look positively radiant.'
Gill tried to stop. But the greyness was everywhere she looked. She forced herself to travel farther afield to get art supplies in case anyone put two and two together and came up with eight.
One day, a year after she moved in, saw a headline herself:
'Monster Husband to be Released on Compassionate Grounds'. Before the shaking took her over completely she scanned the story.
...Paul Anderson - terminal cancer - early release - wife so traumatised after years of abuse that she was hospitalised for five months - will be guarded at private hospital...
That night she painted nightmares all night, thinking that if she let them out, they wouldn't get to her first. All the next day her pictures were dark. But the day after that, she went out and did some decorating. The old phone box now had a facelift.
Her overriding concern, to her surprise, was her lack of art supplies. She'd run out of DIY shops where she'd not be recognised and she still wasn't able to travel too far. The paint she had left was dwindling.
'Can I see what's in the bags now?' Gill asked, thinking how like a child she sounded.
'Not yet. After I've gone, is probably best,' said Marie, not meeting Gill's eyes.
Gill waited until Marie's car was off away down the road before she unzipped one of the bags.
Inside she saw trust and true friendship, spelled out in tin after tin of outdoor paint; brushes in all shapes and sizes; thinner; brush cleaner; and yet more paint.
Tears fell onto the colour charts as she opened the second bag and saw more and more tins; every shade glowing at her, the promise of healing in every shade.
She looked outside at the fading light and the grey lampposts, and wondered how she'd get to the top, as she decorated them, every single one, so they could stand there as individuals, instead of uniform posts, as they sent light out to the world.
Twelve years had passed since the last Summer that I saw and spoken to her. Every Summer since then had been nothing in comparison to the Summer of 1976.
Today is different, I woke up instantly and knew it. As if an intruder and been in my mind, it was something that I just could not put my finger on, but when I woke up today, the air felt different. It was thicker and I struggled to breath yet when I went outside to the front of my house to collect my morning paper, the grass looked greener than before and the sky even brighter. An unnerving feeling shadowed over me as I sipped my black coffee. It was when I turned to page four of the Newspaper when it dawned on me that my greatest fear and yet my biggest hope had been confirmed.
‘JENNIFER DAVIS, MURDERER OF BELOVED HIGH SCHOOL HEAD TEACHER, KENNETH BRITTON RELEASED FROM PRISON 12 YEARS EARLY.’
My blood ran cold as I looked at the photo supplementing the article, her mugshot that is famous throughout the country, but mostly here, in Chicago. The one which showed her perfectly waved hair, all uniformly neat, each wave looking as if it was a golden circle, shining around her head like a halo. Jennifer’s pale blue eyes, wide and pleading contradicting her cat like smile on her perfect lips. Not quite a smirk but not quite crying for her life either. She was crudely named as a vixen, a murderess that everyone secretly desired. This was partly because of her looks but also because of her status, she came from a well off family, went to a good school and was meant to go to an Ivy League College. I was going to go to Brown and she was meant to go to Columbia. We never did. She was a bit of the classic ‘girl next door’ stereotype, but with shorter dresses. Her father worked in the City and her mother stayed at home, a popular socialite who played tennis during the week. You know the sort of family, the ones that belonged to country clubs. They don’t anymore.
There was a time, before Kenneth Britton’s death, where every woman wanted to be her and every man wanted to be with her. But they couldn’t have her then, they definitely cannot now. Our friendship made me so needy, I relied on her so much I used to think that she was mine, that she belonged to me, not anyone else. But I know now that I was very wrong. You cannot own people; they are not yours to own. Even now though, after all this time – I know that she owns me.
I shouldn’t have gone. If there was even a small chance of her finding me, then I should avoid it at all costs. It’s the first place that she’ll look – that is, if she wants to find me. I don’t really want to be found though, do I? I have a lot to do today. I’m refurbishing the whole house, I have a team of builders coming soon and I want to leave them to it, I need to choose some furniture, get some new clothes for this new season and do this all before my husband, Michael comes home from his work trip in a few days. He left so early, I barely even remember him saying goodbye.
I pull up outside the dated, familiar diner and look through the window to see if Jennifer happens to be in there – but the coast is clear. I sigh with relief and sit in a booth quietly and look through the menu though I’m not actually taking anything in. A middle aged woman with hair that has been bleached so much that it doesn’t move comes over to ask what I want, I just say coffee and toast, I’m not sure how much I could stomach right now. I packed my laptop to fill up the time, I reply to a few emails as if that was my purpose of being here, to any outsider I would look normal, not as if I was half expecting the best friend from my youth who happened to kill our ex head teacher. After an hour had passed, my coffee refills were getting colder each time, I started to gather up my belongings. The jingle of the bell above the front door rang, and feeling eyes staring into me, I looked up to meet her pale, yet electric blue eyes.
“I had a feeling that I could find you here” Jennifer said softly.
I stood in silence, staring at her, bereft of words while she awkwardly fills the silence. Unexpectedly, she says “It’s so good to see you, Veronica” and leans in to hug me tightly, I pat her on the back, loosen her grip around me and sit back down.
Her skin has aged, her hair is a bit darker and is straighter, her face has softened with age, but otherwise, she still looks exactly the same and I hate myself for allowing her to captivate me so easily by her charm and typical self. I was always the follower, doing whatever she wanted to do, going wherever she wanted to go, even as a child. My Mum used to say “Monkey see, monkey do. Always following Jennifer around!” but I didn’t care. I loved being her follower, her my cult leader. This was before things went so far, before she lost control.
The waitress, her name badge with ‘Donna’ printed on poking through her hair came over to our booth and looked at Jennifer, barely looking up from her notepad and asked her if she wanted anything.
Jennifer paused for just a few moments too long, long enough for Donna to look at her, stare at her and squint, clearly trying to work out where exactly she knew her from. After what seemed like an eternity, Jennifer said “Pie.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that such an establishment would have so much choice. I’ll have an apple pie” with her cat like smile belittling Donna while she turned around and walked off.
“You didn’t have to be rude, you know.” I muttered, staring at the table.
“Yes, you were. You have no right to be. You’re a felon, you’re hardly in a position to be rude to people.”
“Yes. I’m a felon. One that’s coming home.”
This time I looked up and said “Home? To your parents?”
“That’s not my home. Anyway, I don’t think they’ll have me. It would ruin their image that far too much.”
At this point Donna put down the limp, pale apple pie with half melted vanilla ice cream on the table with a little too much force.
“Thank you” Jennifer said, sweetly this time. She could change so quickly, like the wind, so unpredictably.
“So Veronica, what have you been doing with your life for the last, oh, I don’t know, say twelve years? Except for not bailing me out of prison, not standing up for me to the Police.”
“You murdered an innocent man, Jen. You took the whole hippy, wiccan satanic cult thing too far. What did you expect me to do? Go down with you?”
“I never turned you in. I never dragged you down with me.”
“I never said that you did, but I had Brown…”
“I had Columbia. But I made a choice. I would have stuck up for you.”
“I wouldn’t have expected you to stand by me for all of these years if I had murdered an innocent man!”
“Can you stop saying that?”
“That he’s innocent.”
“Well he is!”
“No, he isn’t. Don’t you get it? All those mysterious disappearances? All those deaths of those girls who seemed to be so happy on the outside? The ones with the broken eyes? Does it not seem at all suspicious?”
“What does that have to do with this?”
“Don’t act dumb, Ronnie. Do you not think that there was a reason that I was so messed up? Why I had such an easy attitude?”
“…I don’t know, Jen. You always seemed, I don’t know, erratic I guess.”
“You didn’t notice that I was especially odd in high school?”
“He told me that I was a flirt the minute I turned a teenager.”
“Jen…are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“If only you answered your phone, or opened the letters that I sent you then you would have known all this and I wouldn’t have to be dragging it all up. I don’t even get why you’re here. You knew I would come looking for you but you didn’t act like you wanted me to find you.”
“Of course I wanted you to find me. You’re like a sister to me, Jen.”
“I still don’t quite understand, why you did it. Why not just go to the Police?”
“Right, as if they would believe me. He was a figure in the community, a Head Teacher. He told me that I deserved it. It was just the one time.”
“Why didn’t you tell me at the time?”
“He told me that no one would believe me.”
“I would have believed you. I do believe you.”
“You just let me go in the Police car, you ran off.”
“I was scared, Jen.”
This time it was her to look at the ground, tears filling in her eyes.
I touched her hand and said “But hey, you’re out now, we can start moving on. You’ve put it behind you, you’ve paid the price now.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You’re not sorry?”
“No, of course not. He deserved it.”
“No, Ronnie. You can’t second guess this, you’re either with me, or you’re not. If anyone did that to you, I would kill them in a heartbeat. Do you remember Rita?”
“Rita Thomas. Why are you bringing up Rita?”
“She killed herself, remember?”
“Yes, I do. About a month before…”
“and Charlotte Stephenson?”
“She disappeared. They never found her, you know.”
“I know. They never will. That was 5 months before Rita. They were his other victims, that I know of. The rest, well who knows.”
“Still, we could have built a case against him, gone to the Police, the press, done it properly, instead of you throwing your life away.”
“I didn’t throw my life away, I got the justice that they deserved.”
“You can’t take the law into your own hands!”
Jennifer laughs and says “So you don’t fancy robbing a liquor store and driving to Death Valley with me?” half joking – I think.
“No! I’m married! I have a house! So, I take it you need a place to stay.”
“If a place is going, I’m not going to turn it down.”
“I’m pretty lonely in that house a lot, Michael travels for work often. I could do with the company - I doubt he’d notice.”
“Check you out with a big slick husband, your Mum would be so proud. Any children?”
“Michael. No, no kids. Wasn’t destined.”
“You still believe in destiny, even after all of this time?
“Well, we’re both here, aren’t we?”
“Yes, yes we are. It feels so natural, yet so strange. This pie sucks, by the way. Still, much better than prison food.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes, until I finally say “What was it that made you steal your Dad’s gun though, walk around with it all day at school and stare at him right in the face and pull the trigger as he was sitting at his desk in his office?”
“He told me that you were next.”
A rubber tack that won't drive home - this thought
Of faces, smells and weather wrought
From ash of once-upon-a-time.
The fissured lane beneath my tread spills stones that roll away
Until they are impossible to find
Like half-remembered nights;
Or colour palettes for the blind.
A house-dog's yelp: the fox who
Wails for loss of love, or cub, or carrion
In the ditches of my dreams
And what we were is a tale told by others
Until the words come apart at the seams.
Soft afterthoughts of myrtle on a breeze
Tempered with manure and bacon grease
And I am home.
The boy I was strapped to my back;
the man I am - stripped to the bone.
There is no doubt about it; Heathrow Bus Station has to be the most depressing place on Earth! The very place where all roads meet and yet, this iterant traveller can only see the workers going about their daily routines. Not a jumbo jet in sight, even though they can be heard flying overhead; just a sea of haggard faces - not the archetypal London worker by any stretch of the imagination - straining under years of hard, thankless work for little more than what passes as a living wage in this city.
It is 6:20 in the morning and I have not slept in two days. I am neither away nor home; just somewhere in between, waiting for the coach back home. I used to like the sensation of not being anywhere when waiting for a train or bus connection. So little matters when one exists in a state where one is neither somewhere nor anywhere; one is just here. Sometimes I think it is the best part of any journey. One's obligations are somewhere completely different; the only tasks to be performed here are merely to sit and wait, and trying not to fall asleep before the coach arrives. Oh, and wondering if, after 12 hours on a moving hunk of metal, wearing the same clothes two days in a row, without so much as some toothpaste, if I look as bad as I feel.
I forgot to mention; there is another task one can perform while waiting here: thinking! There's plenty of time for that. Never mind if my thoughts run in to one another or if, every time I try to catch one, it quickly disappears in to the ether. Being holed up in a place like this is the perfect opportunity to think without necessarily being distracted. What else is there to do? Reading is impossible because my mind is too fuzzy; texting or messaging anyone is futile as most of them are probably still asleep or on their way to work; and what would I say to them anyway? I am sitting in a grubby, rundown bus station, somewhere north of the Old Smoke, scrutinising the departure times on the LCD screen to the point where my eyes are starting to water? I guess it's slightly more interesting than posting the items I had for breakfast on Facebook (a cup of coffee and two cigarettes in case you were wondering).
Yet, for all those thoughts rushing in and out of my head, there is one which continues to linger with overwhelming clarity: I do not want to get on that coach. Not because I have spent the best part of a day on one already, although that does have some bearing on my new found hatred of large, wheeled conveyances. Only that where I must go and to what it is I am returning will be the ruin of me. Ardent though I am to be back in my own bed and fast asleep, I know I do not want to go back. I never wanted to be there in the first place. I just arrived one day and ended up staying for 13 years.
No, that isn't quite it. The actual place, with its odd mixture of architectural styles and a harbour once famous (infamous) for its almost infinite capacity to export human cargo to distant lands are not the problem. It is a city, more or less like any other, apart from its historical contradictions. It is my life within it which bothers me. For, every time I go away to visit friends and family, I find myself quickly acclimatising myself to being in the company of others again; to know that, if I go for a walk or take a trip somewhere, upon my return there will always be someone there with whom I can share my adventures.
Alas, no such luck where I'm going. Every wall, of every street, of every thoroughfare exudes memories of a past life I have never quite been able to shake. Too many ghosts and I am so incredibly tired of being haunted. I long for some kind of succour - more than the stories I tell myself each night so that I might yet be able to fall asleep before 3am - the like of which I seem completely and utterly unable to find in what was meant to be - and has become - my home, if only by default. My ship sailed while my back was turned a long time ago; only recently did I finally look behind me and realise it has gone.
By default? Well, yes, very much so. Such friends as I might have once had have now moved on or moved away, and there really is nowhere else for me to go. I know its streets and alleys like the back of my hand; the names of the best pubs; the best places to get cheap, tasty meals; the cinemas and theatres; everything but that which is the most important thing of all to know: its people. Thirteen turbulent years in that place and I still know nothing of its people. I can tell you the number and route of every bus in the city (purely by accident, I can assure you); I can name every street, square and alley within a three mile radius; I know all the landmarks; and I could tell you myriad mischievous tails from the pubs I once frequented, of which there were many. And yet, I cannot tell you the name of a single person I know well enough to call a friend.
So perhaps not a home after all; I wonder if I can still remember what that word actually means anymore. I suppose, in much the same way as pondering the meaning of life, its definition is fluid, in the sense that, like any word or object, it has no meaning until we bestow one upon it. There! I have, it seems, answered at least one of the most important philosophical questions in the history of the human race: what is the meaning of life? Why, the meaning of life is the one we each give it! Not bad for someone suffering from the rigours of extreme tiredness and still reeling from what has to be a close contender for one of the worst journeys I've ever undertaken.
You see? Heathrow Bus Station really is the most depressing place on Earth. From its utilitarian architecture, the like of which might once have been fashionable in the 1960s and 70s - now little more than a massive collection of drab, dirty car parks and waiting areas - to the marauding mass of cleaners, bus drivers, cashiers and whoever else found themselves lost in this concrete jungle, it retains a somewhat bleak and forlorn atmosphere. The only comfort to be drawn from being here is that my waiting time is finite; not so for the poor souls who arrive every day to do the jobs "good" English folk now consider beneath them. Not that it has ever stopped such "good" folk from complaining about how those jobs rightfully belong to the English and have been stolen right from under their noses; something which has always puzzled me because, if there were jobs to be taken by immigrants when they arrived, why did our indigenous population never take them before those immigrants arrived? Their respective races and religions may well be different now, but they still make convenient scapegoats for this country's woes.
So I guess I should be grateful. Regardless of where I go at least I can go. All I have to do during this short interlude, besides thinking and staring at the LCD screen, is look on while these people, old before their time and not a single smile between them, work themselves in to an early grave so that they might eek out a living. I will get on another coach and, sooner or later, forget I ever saw those workers, so often taken for granted and, in the eyes of many a traveller passing through, completely invisible. These workers, who are the lifeblood of this God forsaken place and, in all probability, the city itself are, in the eyes of the majority, persona non grata. Or so it seems to me. But maybe I am wrong; after all, I have not slept for two days and my head is starting to feel funny...
At last, after my long and careful scrutiny of the 'Departures' board, my coach finally arrives.
For the first time in two days I am glad to be going back home.
Trent cursed. He hated the dust here. Now it was all over the entry to their ‘keep breathing’ tube set. But they were all past worrying about running out of air. The technology was good. The air in Clover Module was brilliant. Of course, it had taken Claire up to a year of panic attacks to believe it. ‘Trent just explain to me’, she would plead ‘don’t go inwards! assume I don’t know anything! and then walk me through how we are not going to run out of air’. His conclusion in the ‘settle days’ of stage one onboard the Inter Mars transport was that she had lied on her personality tests. Now he saw that if it weren’t for her none of them would relate.
Trent himself loved to spend hours on his own with the nearby rover. She was his real pal. In the early days, he kept Jubilation dust free and assisted with positioning her to search for signs of life as we know it and if they were feeling desperate for life as we did not know it.
Today, as he cleaned her down he could still taste last night’s rocket stew. Adnan the other Clover Module member kept their hydroponic plants galley flourishing. ‘Eat vegan and your spirit will be clean’ he would chant. The truth was none of them were religious but here they often had to dig deep into their spiritual reserves to colour the grey of losing sight of—her. Earth that is…. their ever-fixed point. They had not had a working satellite now for one year. And so, when Earth’s star and moon passed out of view depression would take hold in all the modules. It was during this time they would use a ritual to battle profound feelings of home loss. Adnan had come up with the idea. He would pull out a photo of a candle, they would lay hydroponic plants near it and chant ‘Gaia Gaia come back into our eyes let your star be enough to purge us of our longing for return help us let you go….’ To fill their earth emptied beings, for several days after the ritual, they would celebrate something Mars – a longer ray of sunlight, the end of a dust storm or the discovery of an exciting ridge.
Trent wiped the rover’s timers in the ever-stronger sunlight and was surprised to see them working. So, half of the 687-day Martian year had now passed. The current serene day to day in their group had emerged half a year ago and was therefore deep. They had adapted to the idea of never coming home again.
From behind him Trent could see the shadow of someone waving. It was Claire. As he walked towards her and back to Clover Module he sensed her excitement. Inside, the household was gathered around the communicator.
‘Satellite back?’ he asked
“yeah we’re still trying to work out ...’
‘Can only be one thing- a space ship has docked and fixed it'.
‘There’s a message coming through now’. They stood and waited for the 22-minute lag.
After a long briefing in part from the United Nations they found out that the security council saw their one-way mission to Mars as an injustice. A Mars ascent vehicle was on its way following breakthroughs during deep space tests. It would transport them to the earth-bound space ship for a one-year journey back home. As Claire started to clap and say how she had always had her suspicions about the fairness of the one-way deal Trent kicked several chairs over. 'Not coming home again' he yelled ' was the supreme sacrifice made by couples who had divorced for it, children who had lost a parent for it. It was at the core of the near suicidal but lofty goal of colonising Mars in record time. For being remembered in 1000 year’s time. And now an ascent vehicle was coming to take them home again and destroy the dream....'
It didn’t give her any comfort, going back there. She felt surreal, as if in a time warp. Her head had that weird feeling you get after flying long haul. Like it just wasn’t the right time to be up. The large sunglasses blocked out the worst of the sun, and hid the bruise that she’d tried to mask with makeup.
“Get out then, back to your parents,” Steve had said, as if he could not hurl a worse insult at her. He would not expect her to call his bluff. She had surprised herself. He hadn’t pushed her around that badly. Nothing more than the usual. Still, something inside felt broken. He had gone to the pub and she'd taken her chance. She’d hastily thrown random belongings into a bag and left. Fleeing like an animal released from its cage. The taxi drove in slow motion down the freeway. She wound down the window, realising she needed to breathe. The driver had given up on his mindless banter and stared ahead, listening to the radio.
She realised she wanted a drink. She’d have to stop on the way. Hell, her parents were teetotallers. She felt a stab in her gut at the thought of seeing them. She popped a Valium and lit a smoke, ignoring the shakiness in her hand. The last time they’d lectured her for days. Coming into her room at intervals as she slept it off. But the worst was the look on her Dad’s face. The one that said ‘where did we go wrong?’ It wasn’t the drink that was the problem. They didn’t understand. Another round of rehab wouldn’t help. She needed someone to take care of her, to understand her. She’d be alright. Get herself together again. Just get some more pills and some vodka to keep herself numb til she could get her head straight. Get some sleep. She stretched and curled up, leaning her head against the door. When she closed her eyes his face was there. “Hey beautiful,” he’d said last night. She remembered how sexy she felt when he looked at her that way. His burly hand pulling her to him and the charming smirk. The scraping of his stubble against her cheek. The smell of bourbon and Coke and cigarettes which made her want to taste his mouth on hers.
“Hey buddy, can you pull in here?” she asked, seeing a drive-thru bottle shop. She’d just buy a couple. She didn’t need it, but it would be hard going at her parent’s place. She wished she could just take a break from her life, without having to answer to anyone or apologise to anyone.
“You running from something or to something?” The driver eyed her in the rear vision mirror and she adjusted herself, pulling her dress down to cover her thigh.
“What makes you think I’m running?”
He shrugged. “You look like you left in a hurry, I guess.”
“No, just visiting the family.” She giggled. The pill was kicking in, boosted by a swig of vodka. The traffic had cleared now, and although the suburbs whizzed past, she was not too wasted to notice the familiar landmarks of her childhood. “Whoa, slow down, getting a little carsick back here.” She rested back in the wash of chemical haze. She thought of him coming back and finding her gone. Imagined the forlorn look on his face. She’d seen that look before, always after the worst days. He was so kind and sorry, truly sorry. So sorry it made her feel bad for being hard on him. Then it was good again, for awhile. He wasn’t that bad. He took care of her. He wouldn’t give her a hard time for drinking like they would. He really didn’t want her to leave.
It was getting dark, and she felt safe to take her glasses off. Her eye didn’t feel so bad now. She asked the driver to turn around and the car sped back across the city. Blurry lights flashed across her face in a kaleidoscopic caress. Despite its soreness her body ached for him, and only he understood what she needed. She had to learn not to stress him out so much. She would just rest her head until she was home again.
THE OLD HOUSE ON A HILL
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
Saavni… say that again? pleaded the man.
Saavni Shridhar Deshpande roomed a little girl voice, as she practiced saying her name over and over again in a tiny apartment on the 2nd floor of a suburban locality. Her father echoed her voice in his baritone.
Some echoes have memories etched in them ...
20 years later, Saavni walked the old road of memories, and relived them!
One at a time…
‘Baba’! said Saavni, out loud, surprised, at how her little girl voice had turned older, it had a distinctive quality to it. Did her voice carry the love and the pain in equal measures? Just the way she felt them, on most days…
Do voices carry feelings? Or Do feelings turn the voices mute?
Saavni's father -the man on the sofa in the house of the very suburban locality hadn’t changed much, however, his jet-black beard had turned grey, lines had marked their territory on his face… age had graced him.
The house, that had been home to many voices and feelings had grown in the years that had passed. It had changed, it had grown gloomier, just like Saavni, but that was about to change.
‘Somethings never change’ thought Saavni
‘Such as?’ asked a voice from somewhere
Such as places… people… replied Saavni with a sigh.
I am certain, though, that change is the only constant.
‘Well, only if you allow it to be’ said the voice
Do I have a choice? Asked Saavni
‘Yes, you always have a choice’ replied the voice
But, wouldn’t I rather change and move ahead?
Silence fell… The voice vanished. Saavni, now had only one voice, her own, and either she could trust it or stay untrusting… in her unknowing, limited zone.
She could say what needed to be said and pay the price. Truths that liberate us come with a price… but… We always have the choice! And yet…
Some truths need to be told.
What was Saavni Shridhar Deshpande’s truth?
Saavni had many truths. But she owed her father only one!
She didn’t want to burden him with the others.
Like the one, where, her little girl voice was muted behind a closed door by a man who knew her father well. Like the times, she felt like slashing her little girl wrists with a large kitchen knife because of the man who had muted her voice.
And the one where her teenage self-had gone from drug store to drug store hoping to find sleeping pills, but had failed!
And the one where her tiny frail body had been hurt so bad that all she wanted to do was, cry, loudly and say ‘Baba, I’m hurting’… But, hadn’t because, she knew it would be in vain. And, that would hurt more.
That’s why some truths remain untold
It’s better that way. Believed Saavni. Because, with every recount…
The bearer’s pain grows deeper
It reaches the gut
Making itself known
Then, the voice becomes mute
And tears flow
Some truths need to be told, for they liberate us.
What was the truth that could liberate Saavni?
Saavni, who had been raised in a conservative town, but had grown into a modern woman. Life had taught her, and she had allowed herself to learn. Pausing, often, when the pain arrived. Mute. Pauses. Pain. Causes. Mute Pain. Pauses. Pause. Pause. Pause…. Let the pain go away now! I have lived it.
A lifetime, had circled in a couplet
To one conclusion
The truth stood there with Saavni…
It was in her heart and outside it. Next to her… Opposite the sofa, on which her father sat.
Baba, I love her… said Saavni
(In her mind, she said a lot … the silent voice had bloomed. It wanted to say-I forgive you for not protecting me when I needed it. I forgive you for sacrificing my dignity at the cost of your needs. But, I love you… please accept this!)
Some unsaid recounts remain unsaid… forever!
(This woman loves me, she has healed the wounds that took place behind closed doors and muted pauses. I’m free from them, Baba… I am learning to love again. I’m healing. Slowly. Now, let me live, let me love… I accepted it all for you. Why can’t you…)
But, they lived in a world where the muted pauses were silenced, as was love!
Everything happened behind closed doors, drawn curtains.
But, not anymore…
Some doors need to be broken into, some curtains need to fall
‘A girl in love with another girl’ it’s unnatural, abnormal!’ stormed Saavni’s father.
The right-doings were only for the world. Behind closed doors, wrong doings reaped wounds into little hearts, and little bodies. And, fathers stood silent, mothers stood silent. They all stood silent. And watched.
Don’t you have hearts?
‘Hearts?’ ‘Use your brain, you live among these people, you must prove yourself capable of living amidst them’ ‘After all, my honour is at stake’!
‘Your honour was slashed, the day your daughter felt like killing herself. Because you didn’t have the heart, to save her. You had only excuses.’
‘People. Society. Honour.’
Where does love stand, Baba?
If you love me you will not love another woman that way. In an ‘unnatural way’.
Can love be unnatural?
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
So, what happened to Saavni?
Is this where the story begins. And ends.
Most definitely not!
Certain home-comings free us.
Love does meet us beyond our ideas of right doing and wrong doing.
5 Years later:
Birds are making the most of the beautiful weather that has graced them. Birds always make the most out of little things. A blue jay and a swan are circling near the pond, the lawn around the pond is freshly mowed. On the porch, there are magazines, books. Two coffee mugs are steaming a heady coffee bean aroma around the open doors.
Some broken doors, lead to open destinies
Tap them, knock them, break them down
The Old house on the hill has been refurbished to contain new memories. Happy ones.
A beautiful white home, for a better, colourful life
Children are busy planting seeds in the garden. Their names often echo around the silent spaces in the house. Etching new memories. Mira and Siddharth. Saavni’s children.
The survivor wins!
And where was Sriradha?
She was where she belonged. Beside Saavni, in her truth, in life and in love.
Did they live happily ever after?
Some stories never end
Forgive, but don’t forget
To Live fully. To Love fiercely…
I should have left our house
how it was for a while,
been gentler with myself - not pushed
to have some control - tightly clasp
these writhing pink worm days.
Not thrown away your odd blue sock
that haunted the clothes dryer for years.
It made you laugh,
I wish I had it still.
Emptied shelves reproach me too.
Great books you pored over thrown out
into a world that prefers Google.
Does sorry count if no one hears?
I feel like a contestant being shouted at
on one of those game shows
where you snatch as much as you can
of what’s thrown from the air.
Yet I’ve clutched so little of you.
I gave away your favourite clothes
not thinking they’d lost you too,
might never be worn again,
might never be touched.
Your glasses left on a window sill
in your study, looking at me still,
but this isn’t our home anymore,
their smeared lenses show
I’m no longer seen.
Adapt or Die
“Where can all this water be coming from?”
Bella Badger scrubbed desperately at the cloying, evil-smelling mud between her long, beautifully-manicured claws. They were long, strong, and flawless, without a single chip or rough edge to them, but several hours of strenuous digging and repairing of one of the deeper runs of the family’s sett had left their mark. As she inspected them closely, checking for damage, she wondered if she’d ever again manage to get them clean: really, properly clean.
An untidy hump of soil quivered and collapsed as her partner backed awkwardly out of his latest excavation. He shook himself, muttering and cursing as soil and rubble flew in every direction. Within seconds, Bruin’s fur was as clean as if he’d spent the last hour or more grooming himself for the annual Woodlands Ball.
“How bad is it?”
“Most of the tunnel I dug last season has fallen in. Just as well we didn’t have anything stored there yet: we’d have lost it, for certain! We won’t be able to dig in that direction for some time. We’ll have to tunnel off on the other end of the sett next time we need more living space. The ground out that way needs time to settle.”
This with a lazy flap of his tail in the direction of the collapsed passage.
“Best we go tell the cubs, sweetheart. They’ll soon be old enough to help me dig – and we’ll need an extra bedroom before long!” he added with an exaggerated wink. Bella’s pot belly was rounded with the promise of twins expected in the not-very-distant future.
“Where’s all this water coming from, Dad? And why does it stink so much?”
Billy hero-worshipped his father, and believed without question that Bruin knew all that could possibly be known about everything Above and Below the entrance to the complex maze of tunnels he’d carved, adapting to the growing family’s needs.
Bruin sipped thoughtfully at his dandelion tea. Billy’s younger sister, Blue, put aside her favourite doll, willing her father to find a solution.
“The Tall Ones are building more of their Caves not far from here,” Bruin sighed.
“We know – that is your mother and I know!” he corrected himself “ … that they don’t care how they deal with their waste properly, in the way Nature intended …”
“Like we do!” Blue chirped.
Bruin nodded and smiled, but it was a tired smile of resignation and reluctant agreement.
“That’s right, little one! We take what we need (and no more) from Nature, we recycle what can be recycled, and we bury our waste. Much of what we bury will break down and fertilise the soil to grow more plants for your children and theirs in the future.”
“They use untold amounts of water as if it were worth little or nothing at all, use it to send their waste Somewhere Else, for others to deal with – at least, I think that's the reason they send it there.” Bruin said. He was on unsafe ground here. He didn’t have any proof this was what happened to the waste products flushed away from the ugly Caves the Tall Ones preferred to live in.
“You mean, the Tall Ones don’t even know how to shit in the woods?” Billy asked, his eyes showing horror at the thought.
“You mind your language, Billy Badger!” his mother warned him. A half-smile hovered on her lips, suggesting she wasn’t too offended by her son’s choice of phrase.
“All the same, he’s right!” Bruin said. Billy took this as a sign of his superhero’s approval: the highest compliment his young mind could imagine. His heart swelled with pride. He raised himself to sit on his haunches.
“What can we do about it, Dad? I’m big enough, I can help you dig – even if we have to move and start building a whole new sett …!”
Bruin shook his head and set down his empty mug.
“For the moment, son, we can do what we’ve always done. We adapt ourselves and our comfortable, warm home, and carry on. In a few years from now, we may be able to work again in tunnels and passages in that part of the woods, but for now we change our plans, expand in another direction. And yes, I believe you’re both old enough to help me build a new bedroom …”
This with a loving glance at Bella, who suddenly became intensely preoccupied with a meticulous (and completely unnecessary) claw inspection and manicure.
“Let the Tall Ones carry on with their wasteful, inefficient ways of dealing with their stinking, polluted water and their foul-smelling wastes.” Bruin declared.
“Our paths seldom cross, and when they do the Tall Ones always seem to come out on top – literally! For they live Above ground, in the full glare of daylight. They spend their days (and perhaps their nights?) fighting against Nature.”
“We will continue as we have always done, by Adapting to our safe, secure homes Below ground, at one with Nature and at peace with ourselves.”
Adapt or Die
You say adapt or die
but I don't want your cockroach shell.
It’s cold and dark and callous
You used to be slow and awkward.
I liked that.
But now you move so quickly
that I can hardly make out your edges;
they seem so undefined.
I may be clumpy, and conspicuous,
but you, you travel so lightly that your footprints barely mark.
Soon you’ll sprout silent feathers and leave no tread at all.
So I grow wonky, and it makes it hard to balance,
Well I’m stronger than you think,
and I manage.
While you’ve developed sandpaper hands
to navigate these rough walls,
my fingers are still fragile, wrapped in peach skin,
which will shrivel when I get old.
But they’re soft.
You’d know if you’d let me touch you.
But nobody can touch you.
Nobody can crawl inside
or feel down your back to check for your spine.
Nobody can scratch beneath the surface
to make sure that, if cut, you still bleed.
You’ve peeled back your skin so many times,
and like a pass the parcel, each time you get smaller.
Soon there’ll be nothing left, but the smell of black ink on kid’s fingers.
And you tell me adapt or die?
Don’t you see that you’ve already died?
And this shell has grown back in your place,
this tiny, hollow shell.
Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not hollow but watertight.
Perhaps that’s even worse.
Because I don’t want to live cold and dark and callous
I like my peach skin and how I bruise and tear
I would rather die than be re-cast like you.
From the pale shadows that shrouded the valley that kept the slumbering secrets of the village that was home to the run-down cottage … there through the crackling, frost-tipped grass, the tread of a weary, broken pair of boots quietly crushed each tiny icicle. And Gareth tried to march bravely. Tried to show his faith and courage in his choice to serve.
“With distinction”, urged the recruiting sergeant. His mother snorted disdainfully when he told her but she gave him bread, cheese, an apple – where had she got an apple from? – as the frail edge of dawn nudged its way into the day and Gareth accepted the consequence of his choice. But she didn’t believe he was going forth in faith, and bravely too, no more than he did. She surmised what he knew to be true. This was escape and he would return to rescue her one day from this valley that held the tiny village in its grip that encircled the run-down little cottage where they survived day after day, year after year. He would come back for her. And for his brother and sister.
“I’ll keep in touch, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Her eyes burned with the ferocity of an animal whose young are threatened and she cursed the recruiting sergeant for not seeing the boy, instead pretending to see a faltering, skinny, ungainly man, driven by determination and demons. She had no truck with soldiering, not since her own brother – too many years ago to remember now – never came back from a skirmish somewhere unpronounceable in Africa. Politicians and generals: murderers all. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned back inside as he disappeared into those pale shadows, shrouding the valley that muffled the sleeping sounds and hidden secrets of the valley. She would cope because there were the other two.
In the woods that nestled on that same hilltop over which Gareth had trod towards his destiny last autumn – a Thursday morning – Susannah sat on a withered, fallen tree trunk, anticipating the words, the smile, the actions of this boy that she was unsure if she loved: Alwyn. He, the boy from the butcher’s shop and the pride of his father’s congress with the world, was driven more by ardour and daring than affection, certainly not love, though he could hardly explain the difference. The pain of passion he mistook for longing … and Susannah was the object of that longing.
When Alwyn’s father, in great haste, packed him off to a college of commerce in Cardiff, it might as well have been the ends of the earth; she watched the pony and trap shrinking into the paleness of the early Spring morning, the dampness cold on her cheeks along with the few tears she shed and she recalled that he only turned to wave once, and said, “I’ll keep in touch, don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
She had worried she might be pregnant - she wasn’t – and she knew, though he never said, that Cardiff had been his own suggestion, planted in the head of the proud and fretful father; and so he went. She had made love; he had fucked. Together they laughed and kissed and felt the warmth of their skin melding one with the other, in the musky, shadowy woods atop the hill that harboured the gateway to the valley that gave shelter to the village. Susannah didn’t want him to return. She would find a way to begin her young life again. This wasn’t the end she thought it was.
Only the boy David, who knew every stream in the valley, every nesting site in the woods, who drew beautiful studies of birds – resting, nesting, flying – only he lived so quietly in the shrouded valley that people barely knew he was there. Except when he smiled sweetly as he trod his tired steps back towards home, his own nesting, resting place after whole days in the nooks and crannies of the valley that he loved. His mother would return his smile, surprised once again to see him and confounded by the realisation that he didn’t occupy more of her thoughts, as much as Gareth and Susannah. Perhaps his quietness, his solitude lulled her into pallid forgetfulness; he was a sweet and kindly boy deserving of more and she gave it when she remembered. Thank God he is untroubled.
On a hot summer’s morning when insects buzzed and the smell of the warm, coarse grass caught in his throat and the reckless shudder of the brook rattling over the stones filled his ears, David raced along the farthest edge of the valley that led away into the mountains. He raced toward the deeper, darker woods with the tall trees and the concealed break in the foliage where a small, natural clearing gave home to a makeshift tent and a primitive camp fire, a small pony and a broken, little cart. And a boy. Older than David. Alone. Sitting on a rock and smiling. Like the product of a phantasmagoria – all shadows and demons and magic and wondrous in nature – this mud-streaked boy, lean and muscular and tanned by all of the seasons not just unrelenting summer, sat and smiled slyly as David approached. He was a child of nature, through and through. More mature, leaner, fitter, more powerful than David.
The bruises – a source of ardour in the night and a mark of tenderness in the morning – were harbingers of secrecy and mild panic as he concocted myriad ruses to avoid any prying glance from his mother. When she noticed she said nothing, telling herself that they were the product of a fall in the woods but there had been others a week ago that she noticed – and David was fleet of foot, had been since childhood. He could climb like a squirrel, the better to find a lodging place in the high branches, the better to hide and sit and draw his pictures of the birds. He worked on their smallholding, helping her to scratch a living from the valley and he worked at the blacksmith’s, none too successfully, to make a pittance to bring home to her.
David was unusually quiet this time of returning, his thoughts engulfed by that final conversation in the clearing.
“You’ll keep in touch?”
“I can’t write.” There was a self-contained smile and then, “Maybe I’ll come back next year.” But he never returned and David kept silent. That summer that saw a change in Susannah and gave constant reminders of the absence of Gareth and gave David knowledge and solitude.
The long, ragged shadow of the Great War reached to the valley and the village that clung to the sheltering slopes and windswept moorlands, robbing them of sons who never returned. Leaving daughters bereft, nursing abandoned promises.
“My husband died when the children were young and we got by as best we could … the smallholding, David's job with the blacksmith that didn’t last, a shop assistant’s position in the butcher’s for Susannah that lasted one year – long enough for the grocer’s conscience to feel absolved. They thought I didn’t know but there was gossip. So of course I knew.
“And the eldest to the army. He never came back. He met a girl in the north of England and stayed there, raising his own family. He visited every year and always left an envelope with money that was never referred to – by either of us. He was always a kind boy … reserved and not given to showing his feelings. It was seven years before I met his wife and children – poverty prevented visits until then. But there was always a Christmas card that they wrote in. I have them all.
“A mother will feel especially close to her youngest – but I never did. Such a shy, withdrawn boy but so independent. He left the blacksmith shortly after a travelling theatre had played for the villages in the area and I assumed he had run off to join them. He couldn’t have given his life to the village – people were wary of him, I learned. Or simply ignored him. Or … I don’t know. He didn’t fit in. How does a boy come to be born in a place that he can’t call home? I got a postcard once. He said he loved me and hoped I was well. The picture was Truro. I’d never heard of it.”
Moody’s Travelling Theatre was pared to the bone, completely devoid of young male actors as a result of the fighting; old men played young heroes. They were a troupe of eight, playing each village in each valley before wending their way towards England via the outskirts of Cardiff. Giving excerpts from Shakespeare and Dickens, followed by full performances of Fanny By Gaslight or some such. With rudimentary equipment and the help of locals and an abundance of imagination – not to mention the highly popular ten-minute shadow show which gripped the senses of young and old alike with its elementary magic. Performances brought light relief and momentary escape from the realities of poverty and the war effort. Church halls were generally given over to performance unless they were strict chapel. Then a barn was commandeered, to the delight of the mistress of said farm and the casual pride of the master.
“Susannah wedded the blacksmith, after rumours concerning her and the grocer’s son made it difficult for her to find a beau. Better if the grocer had not offered her the position only to let her go after a year. Tongues wagged. The blacksmith wasn’t given to gossip – nor to conversation much, either. But in these later years they have been kind to me; God loves a dutiful daughter. Every two weeks she walked from the neighbouring valley, over the tops to visit me. Even in winter. They moved there shortly after the wedding; the gossiping played a part in that. When she had her own, she brought them too – two girls and a boy. When arthritis afflicted her, her girls made the journey to check that I was fine. And every year I would go and stay – at Christmas and at Whitsun. Only three days at a time, mind. I could never take to the blacksmith but he was good to her. He gave me the necklace that my John gave to me for our first Christmas and that I had given to her when she wed. He gave it back to me when she died. I saved it for her eldest girl.
“I never heard a word from David after he disappeared. But in 1947 I received an envelope … no note or anything. Just a postal order for £20. A small fortune! There was one every month for five months. Never an indication of who sent them. Postmark was London. Who did I know in London? I showed the envelopes to Gareth when he visited that summer. I went to the Post Office with them. No doubt there was gossip. So I suppose they were from David.
“By then, Gareth’s wife always came with him on a visit. They’d got on their feet and their children were working. She was a good woman, his wife … took care of him. They were let down by their youngest. She had a baby. That war changed a lot of things … attitudes.
“They keep in touch. Apart from David. I tell them not to worry. I’m fine. Mrs. Cole next door is very kind and helpful in between Susannah’s visits. And her girls’ visits. I need more help than I used to."
In the pale shadows that shrouded the valley that kept the slumbering secrets of the village that was home to the run-down cottage, people adapted. And survived.
Message in the Bottle
After saying their farewells to our chief, my tribe left the pyre, their heads bowed. But I have remained, waiting to be left alone, because Chief Tyson was more than a chief to me, he was my grandfather.
Standing on the headland, I look out across the expanse of sea, a sea dotted with islands much like our own. Islands inhabited by our enemies, who legend would have it, had once been our kith and kin. That had been just one of the stories my grandfather had told his people. And yet it was hard to believe, given the great battles and skirmishes that had taken place between their tribe and ours, in an attempt to control the seas between us.
I could barely comprehend that my grandfather was dead. Only the stench of burning flesh and the curl of smoke, rising to the sky, confirmed I was not in dream time. And with him gone, I worried for the future. Would I be able to earn the respect of the people, like he had? He’d been as wise as the spirits that protected us. His knowledge of our people and our past, had, he assured us, been passed down from his grandfather and his grandfather before that - and so on and so on. But his tales were so fantastical, that without respect for him, I was sure many of the islanders doubted their truth. But isn’t that the place of myth and legend?
The sun was beginning to set behind the island of Skiddaw now – a full orange sun, burnishing on the sea and not for the first time, I wondered what was beyond. Once, thousands of years ago, our island of Helvellyn had been a mountain and Skiddaw the same. And where the sea was now, had been dotted with beautiful, fresh-water lakes. It had been a place of peace and beauty, an escape from that other place they’d known as tar and cement.
But legend would have it, that our ancestors had conjured up a storm. A storm so otherworldly, that it had ended life as they had known it. Hungry bellies and selfish desires had harnessed what they could, no matter the outcome. They'd robbed from the land, thirsty for more and more. They didn’t understand they were mere caretakers and some say, they did not care. They had lost sight of what was important.
The more unusual stories, told tales of people being able to speak to each other across the seas, see each other on the other side of vast landscapes. Others whispered that they’d climbed up to the moon, to find the man and then flown, like birds, around the stars. Those same stars, that were just becoming visible now.
Apparently, they had been a blasé people and despite the warnings written across the skies and in the rising of the seas, they had been persuaded by the money Gods that they could have it all, so they took it. And they kept taking. The more they had, the more they wanted. A given, a truth, a right. They guzzled and consumed until it was too late.
My grandfather described storms that had rumbled until the skies had cracked, crimson with fire– the air had gotten hotter and hotter, until our ancestors had choked for breathe. Even the wildlife had suffered. The winged life began to fall limp, plummeting to earth. Flies swarmed- flesh eating. Rank, putrid smells hung in the air and invaded nostrils. And out at sea, great tidal surges had thundered towards the land, bringing with it, the finned and swollen - their bodies diseased and left to perish on the beaches. Corals, once orange, green and brown, sea lettuce and grape, smothered, choked and bleached, as their sun faded. There was no breakers - no end to push the tide back. Great civilisations were destroyed and drowned. The world had imploded and the people with it.
The people had grown weaker, disillusioned as their bodies failed. They prepared to die and did. Only the fittest made it, taking refuge on the peaks, whilst the troughs rose higher and higher. Only a few survived long enough to populate the mountains and eek out an existence, foraging on a land that had nothing to give.
Of course, these were just stories; ancient folklore based on witchcraft and daemons and couldn’t possibly be true. Could they? I’d often asked my grandfather this very question and once, he’d taken me down to the water’s edge and made me fish one of the clear and battered containers out of the sea. ‘Where do these come from?’ He had asked, holding up the container towards the light.
We knew them as bottles and we collected and drank from them, we buried them in the ground to collect bugs for our food and we built totems with them. Where they’d come from, I hadn’t rightly cared. I’d shrugged my shoulders, ‘well they’re a gift from the sea.’
‘A gift you say.’ My grandfather had looked thoughtful, as he combed his greying beard with his fingers. ‘Well they are a gift of sorts. Look at them, littering the beaches,' he'd motioned with his arms. 'But their gift, is not their usefulness. Their gift is the message they bring from our forbearers.’
‘Message?’ I’d looked at him, dumbfounded. The vessel was empty, save for a mouthful of dirty water and sand. ‘But there is no message’, I’d said, ‘and how could something so old, last so long anyway?’
‘Well that my son, I can’t tell you, but I do know you must guard its message, always. Guard it and pass it on to your children and beyond.’
Bending down now, I fish a similar bottle from the beach, remembering how he’d leaned over his staff that day and whispered conspiratorially, into my ear. ‘Our ancestors reaped what they had sown, so learn from it' he'd warned. 'Be neither blind nor deaf. Never get complacent, son, never get greedy, never go after riches and convenience and most of all, remember that we are mere caretakers of this land. When we forget that,' he'd continued 'it will be the beginning of our own destruction.’
Just like then, I looked at the bottle now, bemused, searching for these hidden messages and could see none. And just like then, I brought it to my ear, listening, but heard nothing. Frustrated, I kicked the dust over the last, burning embers of my grandfather and decided his warnings, were just the ramblings of an old man. Times were different now and we must adapt and change, in order to survive. We must survive, whatever the cost might be.
"'Premium top floor flotation apartment in weather ready development, guaranteed water tight and to withstand hyper-storm events to level 4.' ... How can we afford to rent somewhere like that?"
"How can we afford not to? We're not moving into some down-river death trap. We'll just have to tighten our belts."
They both fell silent, listening to the hail bounce off the solar windows and thermo-roofing. Beth picked at her nails, tearing them off in ragged edged strips, biting at her fingertips. Joe pressed his fingers into flushed temples, rubbed at his wrinkled forehead. They both knew there was nothing left. No belt to tighten. After paying their rent to the Housing Syndicate, the Garden syndicate for food, the Environs Council for their utilities allowance and the People's Council their Welfare Tax, they had nothing... This was not unusual - it was the same for all Sector dwellers. All wages were logged and no 'profit' was allowed. For people like them, there was no hope of moving to a safer area. That was for those who had been raised into the Betterment Sector - no one outside it seemed to know how to get in - and now they had outstayed their welcome in the Rescue Sector. The message had flashed up on their bulletin screen that morning...'Your temporary shelter capsule has been reallocated to new refugee status citizens. Please vacate within seven days.'
They'd heard of other refugee status citizens - Virtual Teachers and Information Analysts like themselves - who had been forced to move back to the Unsafe Zones. Someone had to live there. Sometimes they were lucky enough to find a micro-climate enclave on a small patch of good upland and they survived. Sometimes they just disappeared. Dead or just off-radar - no one seemed to know. The daily Citizen Bulletins never discussed the matter. They just bombarded their viewers with advice - health, hygiene, life enhancing tips - always ending with a reminder: 'Never converse with Unknowns. Stay inside your capsule at all curfew times. Only the safe survive.'
Sometimes Joe felt it it was all completely futile. There was no future he could contemplate. Four plastic walls, work and friends confined to Sealed Networks, no way to move up any kind of ladder - or even sideways - unless you were already in that mysterious Citizen Betterment loop. Beth had these same thoughts but both kept their thoughts to themselves and only spoke of change. Of improvements. It was the only way they could adapt to their situation: to talk of a future. A future with happy children, looking forward to the possibilities of Ultra-drainage and reclamation, new field sites, new crops and a return of hope, of social integration: a return of trust.
(abecedarian with addendum)
Always adapt, adopt, amend, absolve
as agnostics and atheists appeal to
blossoms bold beauty and barren buxom,
cursing choir and curdling canon.
Desperate deadened diatribes dictate
empty, evil, evanescent ebbs and ends.
Febrile, futile felons and festering fibbers
gather to gab goodly and grotesquely,
herding heathens and herald hobnobbing,
incestuous insolent ingrates. Inspired
Jehovah judges and jesters jeer as
knaves knock, knife, and knot lies.
Lobbyists and litigators lean and lust,
mischievously maniacal monsters
neglect neighbors and negate nebbish.
Ominous organs operated by others pray
pious psalms to panderers and pimps alike.
Quitters quit as quisling quash rising
religious rancor, robbing Rome of rich,
sacred sonnets and serving sinister
turncoats and traitors, two by two.
Unbridled urchins and unadapted ululate
victories and vanquish the virtuous
wallowing in willful wrath, wicked wonder.
Executioners expel exes and x-gamers,
yammering youth yell and yo-yo
zingers with zeitgeist and zip! Adage:
aspire to absolve and ascend with adaptation.
Last known recording of Argi Mikolas Munoz (and unknown male); Beit Jamal Salesian Monastery; Beit Shemesh, Israel. Translated from the Basque(Upper Navarrese) By Fr. Ibon Garcia.
UM: What have you done with the life I have given you?
AMM: I have served.
UM: No, you are serving now - and it is too late.
AMM: I have always kept the faith; I have fought and bled for my country.
UM: Stone and earth are ambivalent my son - what faith?
AMM: That the Lord is my saviour and that...
UM: Come now Argi. Even now you would try to lie - and I am here watching you. Can you see the softening of the walls and the opening of the ceiling?
AMM: God help me, I am afraid.
UM: That's what Maria Dolores would have said - had she had time. You knew her too didn't you Argi?
AMM: I knew her.
UM: Did you know her little child?
AMM: I never met the child, I am sorry, I never wanted any of it to happen, I...
UM: But you didn't do anything to stop it, did you?
AMM: It was not my decision, I could do nothing.
UM: And if I was to say the same to you now my son; how would that be?
AMM: I will do anything, anything!
UM: Oh! They say I will, I would, I wish, I pray. They never say I have, I made, I tried, I hoped. They seek benevolence when all they have offered is ruthlessness; they plead for mercy though they have never bestowed it.
AMM: Surely it is never too late?
UM: Ah, surely it is never too early? You know that place your wife came from? Did you know that they've twinned it with Kfar Vradim? I had a chuckle at that one. It's yet another example of irony. You were supposed to learn from irony Argi. All of you are supposed to learn from it. Still, it doesn't matter much now.
AMM: Is there anything I can do?
UM: Once - there was a lot you could have done, but you played with fire didn't you? You knew that you shouldn't have - but you still did. What can I do when I'm faced with that?
AMM: I thought that if I did certain...things.. then my people would gain their freedom and...
UM: Those are the thought processes of a child; besides, they are not your people - they are mine. Freedom does not exist. There is only responsibility: to yourself; to others; to me. Those duties are the essence of self-emancipation. Have you ever seen those dogs in the country? You know - the ones that chase your motor vehicles. They wait, and wait, in anticipation - and then they charge out like lions protecting the pride - for naught. It always amuses me, and it always makes me a little sad; but bravery and intelligence have seldom been bedfellows.
AMM: So it is over then?
UM: Well, it is - and it isn't. Answers are never neat. Answers only beget further questions. So I ask you again - what have you done with the life I have given you?
AMM: I do not know what you want me to say.
UM: That is correct; but also incorrect. Do you know what these men do?
AMM: What men?
UM: These men here. The men who took you in, who fed you, gave you a bed, treated you with kindness through the worst of your illness. These men.
AMM: They are monks.
UM: They try to take care of children. They try to help the homeless ones - the little unfortunates.
AMM: And I have heard the horror stories.
UM: I'll just bet you have. I'll say this for you Argi - you've got balls. My point is that you are a little child, even though you must be seventy now. Your mind is infantile. These men looked after you like a child. And yet here you are Argi: an old man in the dark eh?
AMM: Why have you come?
UM: I have come to show compassion; to practice what I have preached. I have come before Fr. Kendrick returns. What do you see now?
AMM: The dawn, I think.
UM: Yes, well - that will suffice. I want you to walk out over this meadow. I want you to move towards the rising sun. But you must not falter, this light is not as forgiving as I. You must adapt to it.
AMM: But it is so very far - so very far. I see Castrillo on the plain and Miriam's house. I loved her you know. We got wed in, oh - I can't remember it now. They had that old dog, the one with the torn ear...
AMM: Yes - that was him, Zirta. So long ago. So long. Wait, oh Lord - I can smell the what do you call 'ems...?
UM: The red carnations?
AMM: Yes, yes, oh yes....
UM: Do not weep. Keep walking. Nice and steady; that's it.
AMM: I am so very sorry for all of it. I am so sorry. I put a frog in the milk pail and made Ines cry.
UM: Take my hand now Argi. Do not be afraid.
AMM: What is it all? What is it?
UM: Adaptation Argi; little more than that.
As per instructions, translation of final tape recording. Cassette withheld from authorities and in my possession. Pick-up at your convenience.
Floods, biblical follow us down
heat, Lucifer burns the roads, trees, scenery
but you claim all will be ok
just keep eating the same foods
throwing away vast mountains
But growing exponentially in the Pacific
new lands made of plastic, timebombs the size of Texas
and behind, stilled, watching, reassembled dinosaurs
scenting another mass extinction
brasher more brutal than their own
that left them just bony curiosities
A reminder of our waiting future?
a rising sun branding a new dark age
fallen from grace
on what was once an Eden…….
‘Our parents didn’t work all their lives to leave us with a shrinking landmass, rampant inflation, no job prospects and utter inequality.’ George slammed his china jug down on the table, forcing the brown liquid to leap for freedom. 'Something has to change and I can't do it from here.'
I frowned. It had taken me days to source strawberry-pink china beer mugs and George’s revolutionary zeal was putting them at risk already. He was talking nonsense anyway. ‘Our parents didn’t work all their lives. They had nice long retirements. We’re the ones who have to work until we’re seventy-five. ‘
George tutted at me. ‘At least your folks left you something.’ He gestured at the Victorian bar. ‘You’ve got a pub on a hill with a large garden. You’ve got a job for life now there are so few pubs left and no more licences. You’re sitting pretty, you are.’
‘Look around you, George. I’ve got an empty pub it took a small fortune to make habitable. I’m only three miles from the sea and it’s getting closer by the hour. The Moon Under Water’s not the only water-logged thing. The village where my customers used to live is submerged. There’s no one left round here. The whole thing is doomed.’
He bent his head to one side and his huge brown eyes reminded me of my childhood Labrador, who used to sit exactly where George was now. ‘So why did you do it Elaine? Why have you given up a city career to come to the back of beyond. What’s all this fantasy George Orwell pub stuff? No music, no live sports, liver-sausage sandwiches for god’s sake. ‘
‘It’s not the back of beyond. We’re only thirty-five miles from London. We’re in the London area.’
‘I know that was one of Orwell’s bizarre criteria but you’ve stretched it a bit too far. We’re not in the London area. We’re not even in the Southend area now it’s gone under. It may have escaped your notice but there’s no large town left here now Leigh’s drowned too.’
The expression on George’s face when he knows he’s right is just so unattractive. He must know I’m worried I’ve made a terrible choice. Why is he rubbing it in? I want him gone. I had imagined us getting stuck in together, making a little utopia on what’s now the end of the earth, building something solid together. Sadly what George is good at is picking holes in what’s been done rather than doing anything himself. What George is good at is making himself feel better by trashing me.
‘Fine.’ I pick his jug up and pour it down the sink behind the bar. It’s a waste but such a little thing in comparison with a desolated country, a planet with a precarious future. ‘I think you should go back to London.’
‘Fine.’ He slides off the bar stool so quickly I know that was what he hoped I’d say. He’s been prodding me to push him away. Five minutes later he’s back downstairs with his bags. ‘Could you give me a lift to the station?’
I hesitate. It’s lunch-time there could be customers. A guy came through yesterday. He seemed to like it here. I can’t really leave the pub but I know it isn’t safe to be out there on your own. Certainly not on foot when you can’t get away from whatever’s roaming near you. Can I really care so little for someone I’ve spent five years with? ‘OK but let’s be quick.’ I find an old chalkboard and write back in twenty minutes before propping it against the door.
George looks relieved. We get in the van in silence but he’s watching me as I drive. ‘Tell me why you really came here, Elaine.’
It can’t hurt now. I don’t have to protect myself against his scorn anymore. ‘I thought I could save a bit of the old world, you know, the one where people looked out for each other. I mean I know any property near water is a nightmare now but I can’t shake off how looking at water makes me feel better.’
He snorts and shakes his head. ‘And the Moon Under Water was your childhood home.’
I nod. ‘Yes but I don’t have a romantic notion of it. I know only too well how hard it was running a pub even back when they were profitable. You had to put up with other people’s vices as much as their warmth. Mum and Dad ran it like a club, they had their rules and it didn’t matter what you did or were outside. You stuck to the rules you were part of the place.’
‘Vices yes. Remember the smoking? But why all this George Orwell stuff?’
‘The Moon Under Water was his vision of the perfect pub. Old-fashioned yes but there was something about his set of rules made me feel I could create that kind of place. I had this silly idea that people would come on daytrips for the charm of it.’
‘But we only get five litres of petrol a week. It’s not like the blokes could come on their own now it’s one car between two families.’
That rule is very precious to George. His job is coordinating the car shares. So many people had to be rehomed that he was forever recalculating who could be matched. He was right though, I hadn’t factored that in. I was running at a breath-taking loss forever coming up with silly promotions that were as much good as Canute raving at the tide. The freezer was packed with the meals I’d made but hadn’t sold.
I stop the car in the station car park. It’s almost empty. ‘Bye then. I guess you won't be coming down for the weekend again’ I get out of the car as he does and hold out my hand. He clutches me to him, his bag swinging into my leg. We stand there, wavering in each other’s arms. I’m tempted to hold on, to undo the last hour, maybe even the last six months. He kisses the top of my head and lets me go.
‘Good luck to you Elaine. You're an idiot but I admire you, I really do. I just can’t make myself believe it’s going to be OK.’
It isn’t going to be OK. I know that. I drive back to the pub trying to accept that nothing I do – wasting beer or trying to make a sanctuary – will make the slightest difference. There’s something bigger than us we’ve tormented too long. Now it wants to get rid of us irritants, it wants its world back.
I’m going to keep on fighting back, plant vegetables and get chickens. I can't go back to my old lifestyle, head buried in the sand of submerged beaches. I pull into the stupidly large car park scattering a group of people huddled around the door. I tense until I recognise my only customer yesterday.
‘Are you open? Are you doing food? I brought my friends.’
I spent more than ten years in a relationship where I knew that if I didn’t adapt to his ways, I would die. Even after he left, I was expected to obey. In July 2012, I believed I had only one way out – suicide. Over the phone, he screamed that he would ruin me emotionally and financially. I planned to end my life. I called my older cousin to talk to her one last time. She knew something wasn’t right. She made me swear I wouldn’t do anything until she got there. She left work and drove three hours.
Ultimately, I received a permanent victim’s protective order and a divorce. I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. Despite the fact that I tried to move on with life, I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I had to adapt to a normal life…otherwise, I would die. Maybe I wouldn’t die by my own hands, but I’d be dead inside.
Therapy. Court. More therapy. Starting a business. Dealing with threats. Dealing with violations of the protective order. Living in fear. Starting a healthy relationship. I had to learn to adapt or I would die.
Therapy taught me how to adapt to life and deal with C-PTSD in healthy ways that didn’t involve self-harm.
Starting a business enabled me to support myself since he did whatever he could to get me fired when I taught and worked in law firms (it is legal in most states for domestic violence survivors to be fired because of their involvement as a victim or survivor if they have to miss work or even if the other party constantly harasses them on the job).
Getting the right legal support was key to the court system for the VPO and for the divorce.
Eventually, I remarried. I adapted to a good life. Do I still look over my shoulder? Yes. Do I still have C-PTSD? Yes. Will I let anything kill the good life I’ve created? No. I’ve learned how to adapt.
Adaptation is key to survival. That includes recovery from trauma. In order to adapt, we undergo a daily process. Each day that I wake up, I have an active decision to make. Some days that decision is harder to make than others. And that decision is how I want to live during the day. Sometimes, I have to adapt moment by moment. Yet, it continues and will always continue to be an active decision.
I made my decision to survive...to adapt. It's not an easy road, but it sure beats dying. It sure beats letting anyone else control my life.
No story this week, just some barely coherent blather.
All empires fall, and all empires fall for the same reason…… Arrogant Complacency.
They rise through hunger and innovation. The Egyptians invented the war chariot, and conquered North Africa and the Middle East. Then the Mesopotamians built a better chariot, and that was it for the Pharaohs, after them came the Persians, and after them the Romans, and so on and so on; each building newer and better machines of war.
If it is true that necessity is the mother of invention, then it must be doubly true that war is its father, after all nothing says necessity quite like your neighbours attempting to part your head from your body.
“What has that got to do with climate change?” I hear you ask (I have truly excellent hearing)
Well everything. Empires grow fat the more successful they become, the people no longer hungry become lazy, delegating work to slaves, or immigrant labour, their sense of inherent supremacy over their enemies leads to complacency, and then one morning you find the Visigoths at the gates, and they aint no tourists neither.
Even when they recognise the danger, it`s either too late or they`re so inured from reality by their belief in their supremacy, (We`re number one, HoooWahh; sound familiar?) that they simply refuse to believe they can lose. Ask Louis XVI, or the Romanovs, they could tell you a thing or two about it; and the British still cannot believe the Empire is gone.
You`re still wondering what all this has to do with Global warming; Jeez calm down, I`m getting to it.
It`s a commonly held belief that man`s interference in the workings of nature leading to his ultimate demise, is unique to our time, not so. Eleven hundred years ago an entire Peruvian civilisation disappeared because of irrigation. Yes, you read that right, irrigation proved to be their undoing.
What they didn’t realise was that every time they irrigated the land, the absorbed water, as it was drawn back up through the soil brought nutrients and minerals with it; and one of those minerals was salt.
Over the course of two hundred years they salinated the land so thoroughly that they rendered it incapable of growing anything.
And how do we know this? Because it`s happening all over again, only this time in California.
We may be unique in the history of mankind, in the history of any species that has littered this planet for that matter; we can see our own demise heaving very slowly into focus, one degree at a time. But we suffer from the same paralysing sense of entitlement that bedevilled all the Empires long gone.
We complain that it`s too hard, that wind farms are ugly, that we can`t make the sacrifices. We`re too pampered, too fat, too full of ourselves; we live in a society that claims that not only is broadband a necessity, it`s a human right; y`know, like clean water, only more important.
Are we capable of learning the lessons of all those fallen civilisations? Possibly.
The most heartening sign is that China and India, the fastest growing economies in the world are ditching coal faster than you can say “Fake News” and switching to solar.
So there may be hope for us yet, though I won`t hold my breath; lucky for me I`m a good swimmer.
a september schoolroom.
new year, new class, new chance
to stop my empty summers
and take a bet
on sitting in back rows
with big boys, tough boys, real boys.
leave front rows
to smart boys, small boys, queer boys,
not my boys this september.
new year, new class, no chance.
teacher shows us his hostages,
plants held in chairs, desks, and cupboards,
he fires facts like grapeshot
hoping something sticks.
he brings us holly leaves
wearing wax like cheap lipgloss,
a shine to hold their water in.
their spikes do not escape me.
ferns hug the windows shamelessly,
fronds rubbing on each other in their frenzy,
and the limbs of a parlor palm grasp towards the light
with a vendetta against the sun.
noonwraiths are pulled from dark spaces,
spider plants, with food-starved leaves
the wisp and stroke of milky calligraphy.
and venus fly traps, predator and an adolescent fantasy, tricking flies into jaws with fools nectar.
i kick last year's friend at day's end
and offer buttermints
to my new ones
Feel Her Fear
I don't know what to do. I'm sure I'm being a target of some kind of supernatural beings and I'm truly scared. What makes it even worse is that no one really believes me. Even my family and my closest friends think I'm paranoid. They tell me to get some help. They don’t know what it’s like. Once I overheard their conversation about putting me into a “mental institution” as they said. But I know I'm not crazy. Yes, I do see ghosts, I hear their dreadful voices, but they seem as real as the world we live in. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in utter horror. I can clearly feel someone breathing in my ear. I'm certain of it. And there are other things, like blood on kitchen knives or on my clothes for example. This nightmare lasts for about half a decade now and I simply can't take it anymore.
Today I am more terrified than ever. In this cold, dark, frightful winter night I'm left alone in the house. My family lives a solitary life and our house is quite remote from all the others, which makes it even scarier. I have locked all the doors. I haven't switched off the light. I'm tired but wide awake and vigilant. With my fingers crossed, I sit on the bed and wait for the morning to come and deliver me from my fears. Suddenly the electricity goes off and my heart sinks. I hear a sinister laugh and the sound of broken glass. I realise it's a mirror in the next room. I hold my breath as I feel somebody approaching the door of my room. The only thing I can think about is get out, run away, escape this horror. I jump out of the window just in my pyjamas, barefoot. Once I'm outside, I feel the bitter cold piercing my bones, but there’s no time to think about it.
Overwhelmed with fear, I start running without any definite destination. I can feel somebody following me. Through tears I'm murmuring a prayer and keep on running. I'm aware of the stalker being hard on my heels. Suppressing my profound terror, I turn around and see a figure white as a sheet, all bleeding, with messy hair. I scream for help, but there's no one to rescue me. The street is completely empty. Stumbling and panting, I try not to give up, not to surrender to the frightful monster. I run for my life. I don't want to die. Not now. I'm too young. I have so many dreams and plans for future. Fortunately, I remember there's a police station nearby, so I head there. The only thing I hope for right now is to reach the station before the monster gets me.
There being a lot of snowbanks around, I try to throw snow at my stalker. That appears to stop the ghost at least for a while and the distance between us increases.
When I finally see the police station, I am exhausted and out of breath. I have absolutely no strength left to cover the remaining path. I start desperately begging for help at the top of my lungs right from where I'm standing. Thank God, really soon I see a policeman running towards me. Yet, at this very moment, out of nowhere the ghost emerges once again. I feel a scarf being put around my neck as the monster begins to strangle me. The officer quickens his pace and tackles the creature. I sigh with relief. At last I am safe.
I look at the ghost and see that it's a living person, a female. The blood is fake and so is the skin colour. I'm filled with fury. This is outrageous! However, once I recognise her, I turn pale and go weak at the knees. I nearly faint when she starts to speak.
"Before you cuff me, officer," she says in such a familiar and therefore terrifying voice, "you might want to hear a story. Once upon a time there lived two best friends. Unfortunately, as trivial as it sounds, they fell in love with the same guy. One of the girls wasn't ready to lose the battle for the boy's heart to anyone, not even her friend. So she decided to dispose of the rival and killed her in cold blood. At least she thought she did. Only the victim wasn't dead yet. Lying in some filthy ditch, alone and scared, she was saved by total strangers and had to hide all the time, presumed dead. She suffered from terrible pain caused by the knife wounds as well as by her best friend's betrayal. And as for the murderer, she continued to live her old life in her house, with her family, her friends, but apparently with no regret."
"You will tell your stories to the judge", is the policeman's response.
"But doesn't the story sound familiar?" She asks turning to me.
"Arrest me, officer. Leave her alone." I say to the policeman in a rush of words. I am now completely certain that going to jail for the crime I committed some five years ago is the only way to set myself free.
You Feared Delivered Wires
Keep the box hidden
its postal wrapping
you can’t read
Whoever sent it
If you ordered it
You lived long
Wires are required
and fingers to assemble
the system you have
but cower before
which breathing would banish
if you didn’t see yourself dead
ledgers and meters
A great leap
Is height what you fear?
To crash your undoing?
There’s nothing to undo
Fear your illusion
Aug. 4, 2017
Your Fear Response
You come to me desperate,
desperate for help,
help to eradicate your fear,
You speak, breathless,
'put me to sleep' you say,
'make this fear stop,
make it go away'
But it’s a fallacy,
of hypnotic sleep,
of losing control
there is nothing to fear
I will help you
to rewind your phobia,
I'll help you
to re-frame your future,
I will guide you in hypnotic trance
but first you must listen,
you must understand
is like a library,
a library of templates
on overcrowded shelves,
and those templates,
an hytsteria-fuelled record
in emotional angst,
in REM sleep.
With a bucket, full,
dreams metaphorical or otherwise,
to morph emotion
into narrative control.
A fear response
an adrenaline surge
sweats, shakes and stomach saults,
your heart a xylophone
against your ribs,
split with a decision
to fight or to flee,
Neither, always necessary
but your primitive brain
steps up to protect
starts with a thought,
a thought you can control,
You know, not everyone has Vestiphobia
If we did,
we'd all be naked.
So change your perspective
choose your thoughts with care,
with knowledge of their power,
the power to hold you back
or to set you free
and with that freedom,
your library is emptied
your bucket of stress,
Your emotional response
becomes a narrative
A story to tell,
perhaps you'll laugh
perhaps you'll cry
perhaps you'll dance
but you’ll definitely
Note: This is an entry I wrote for last week's theme of Time and Space but unfortunately left it too late to enter the competition, so I'm posting it this week as it would still be nice to get some feedback on it.
Time and Space
You’re doing up your jacket and turning away from me. I try to focus on your shape as you disappear into the corridor but my vision is starting to blur. Out you go, and here I stay as the door slams shut, shaking the clock on the wall. It shudders as a silver hand hits the 1, whose black figure seems stuck there, taught and thin as if the air has been knocked out of it. I know the feeling. I watch the silver silhouette leave him and move on to the 2. Then we watch together as the 2 is left for the 3, fat and smug. They really should have seen this coming, but still, I pity them.
I can barely hear your footsteps on the stairs anymore, and, as the hand’s slender finger slinks away from number 4, the door downstairs opens and shuts and you step out into the street. By the time the clock’s hand approaches number 5 I’m moving across the room to the window. It’s late morning but the clouds are heavy and the light is dimmer than it should be by this point in the day. Climbing out of the window I step down onto the thick air. Beneath me you cross the street, passing first a cafe then a vent in the wall that churns out a thin veil of smoke so that I see you as if through tracing paper. Now you’re turning down the road to the station, and a hot panic is growing in my stomach because soon you’ll be inside and I won’t be able to see you anymore. Then you’ll get on your train and find your seat. Perhaps you’ll leave your book in its bag today, and instead watch as my neighbourhood draws away. I’ll begin to run, trying to keep up with you, but I won’t be fast enough and you’ll slip away.
So I walk with you as far as the station, where you climb the steps and disappear out of sight like I knew you would. I can’t bear it and I’ve started to cry. Below me the moving bodies are losing focus, black coats and umbrellas swimming in front of my eyes like droplets of ink, dispersing into swirls on a damp page. My tears are making itchy trails across my face, and falling in wet flurries onto my jumper. I feel empty and powerless and I want to be back at the beginning. So I turn around and race back to then.
My throat feels scratchy, the way it does when you’re crying and running too fast. When I get to the bridge we are already there. It’s raining lightly and you’ve given me your coat, which I’m holding above me to cover my head. You’re sitting closer to me than I remember, and in the darkness we’re almost melting together. Cars are passing on the road below: two long lines of red and golden-white dots, travelling purposefully, like an army of ants, following each other, trusting that the body in front knows exactly where to go. The rain has picked up and I’ve given up protecting my hair. The top is starting to frizz but you don’t seem to care. I know that in a moment you’ll move even closer to kiss me, and I can’t watch any longer. I’m cold and miserable and everything hurts. I want to be home so that’s where I head, but when I get there it’s early morning and through the slats of my bedroom blinds I see that we’re still asleep. I’m lying stupidly with my arm across your body. My face is blank and ignorant. You must be dreaming because your mouth twitches occasionally and your expression seems to be changing gradually. A clump of hair has fallen across your forehead, softly curling towards your eyebrow. I want to brush it back, to wrap my arm tighter around you and feel the weight of you next to me. But I can’t, so I just stand there, waiting. Eventually you’re up and you're getting in the shower, and I’m in the kitchen cracking eggs. The radio’s on and I’m heating up a pan. From across the room I try to say that there’s no point, but everyone carries on as they were. Maybe I can’t be heard over the radio, so I’m yelling now. Forget it, give up. He doesn’t care. How have you not noticed? My voice cracks and bounces back at me, hollow. Then you’re in the room with me. I’m chewing a mouthful of pancakes and you’re explaining how you need more time and space. Then you’re gone and the door is slamming behind you, making the clock on the wall shake. Its careless hand leaves the 1 then the 2, and I stand there dumbly, unmoving. It drifts past the 4 and a shadow of me moves to the window. I hesitate. The air smells of cinnamon and the door stands firmly shut.
I watch a dot move across a google map,
My chest heaves with pride seeing you chart new territory,
Intrepid adventures to places I have only seen in dreams,
Beaming smiles stretch across my face to know the path you have taken,
I long to see those sights in your eyes,
Blues you want to dive into,
But, this is your spyglass into the world.
I balk at my vanished nature,
Pick up the pieces of a fractured self,
Left with a shell of the person I used to be,
Morphed into an earth mother,
Every waking moment turned to you,
My world revolved around yours, as the planets circle the sun.
Take wing to wonder & escape the confines of provinciality,
The universe is clearing a path for you,
Eat the moment to satiate your hunger for new experiences,
Your life is what you choose it to be,
Flutter on the breeze baby bird,
One day you will alight your way home.
When Shadows Dance
Some call me fear, though I am known by many names. I am the movement in the mirror, the whisper in the dark, the curse upon the night. Every dusk, as stars blow up and sparkle in their vain attempts to loosen the shadows, I wander the world. Each night, I crawl inside the dreams of those that sleep.
But they are not merely dreams. They are nightmares. Always.
I watch them sleep, dreading the hell that their minds will create, before falling into their dreams. Although, strangely, the worst of a dream is never the feeling of fear. In sleep, terror is muted. The mind creates its own prison of fear and, as quickly as it has been created, it can be destroyed.
Only, I do not merely watch their terrors unfold. I walk between their nightmares, breathing life into the shadow. Every horror I visit, I pull back into the waking world.
I don’t just feel their fear. I make it a reality.
Tonight will be no exception.
1. The musician
Somewhere far across the sea, I find myself standing in the bedroom of a young man. As he lies to sleep, his eyes dart back and forth to the piano, which is the centrepiece of his room. Pages of torn and crumpled sheets of paper, strewn with lines of music litter its surface and the floor surrounding it. Though disorganised, there is not a single grain of dust floating atop the keys of the piano. I walk towards the man, regretting having to offer him the cold touch of my hand as I delve into his mind.
...The boy sits alone in a semi-dark room. A dim glow emanates from a yellow-stained lamp in the corner. He is seated tentatively in front of a beautiful grand piano, bright red, with black swirling embellishments. He raises his arms elegantly above the polished surface and proceeds to play. The haunting notes waver and echo around the man’s head and I am awed by the skill with which he mingles such beautiful, lingering sounds. The piece is elegant and defined as waves, lapping upon a quiet shore, and moonlight gleaming and painting shadows in its pearly mist.
Through this reverie, the waves of notes begin to crash down upon each other. It is still beautiful, but in an unsettling manner, as though it is building to something. A wave of ice seems to creep across the room as the man continues to play, spitting a chill into the air. I tried to close my eyes, sensing an evil of sorts, but they are burned open to follow the sprinting hands of the boy across the instrument.
So focused on the gripping sounds, at first, I do not notice the figure of a man, looming over the piano.
“No!” He seethes, his angry voice clashing and shattering the music.
The man continues to play, his hands moving faster and faster, his head bending further towards the piano.
“You’re a disappointment.” Spits the shadow “You are not my son.” The silent man keeps playing with his eyes screwed up, holding back tears. Despair etched and ingrained into the rigid lines of his face.
“It has to be perfect!” Hisses the figure with damning finality as he fades back into the dark. I move closer to the boy, hesitantly. The music that had begun so sweet and delicate has warped into something entirely unrecognisable. A terrifying clash of frenzied notes, crashing in a continuous crescendo.
Something catches my eye, and drags my sight towards the piano. A glint of something bright adorns one of the pristine pearl keys. Gentle drabs of blood begin to speck the surface. Like smudged flowers, they flit across the unmarred white of the piano.
The boy continues to play.
His fingers swirl the blood into artful patterns as he crashes upon the keys, hitting them with more force every time.
“Perfect.” He keeps muttering, arching is back further inwards. “Perfect.” He swirls bloodstained nails cross the slick keys. The red coagulation bites under his nails and seeps across his dancing hand like a permanent ink. Scarring him.
Unthinking, and unable to take more of this horror, I run to prise his bleeding hands from the instrument…but as always, my arms pass through his as I turn back to shadow. Helpless I watch him paint the keys with red ridged fingerprints, as the air in his mind becomes more and more claustrophobic. As the terrible music chokes us...
The boy wakes with a start, and I am dragged back to his cluttered bedroom. His eyes wide and his breathing shallow he looks around wildly before seeming to relax. He appears to realise that he has woken from a dream and turns to sleep.
Then lets out such a scream when he sees the blood still staining his ruined fingertips.
2. The Child
“Fear” they call me. Yet every night I seem to forget who I am. My hands turn to mist and my voice turns to ashes if I interfere with my own work.
After watching the man lose his mind, I flee to the other side of the world and find myself between four brightly coloured walls. As soon as I see the room I know what horrors lie in store for me. It is the bedroom of a young girl, with posters of cartoons and some unnamed football team sprawled across the walls (none higher than the three feet or so that I assume the child can reach to).
It’s strange that it is the dreams of children that trouble me the most, but time and time again, I am terrified by the terrors of the untamed minds of youths. Adults grow up and adapt to the concrete world they live in. They fear loss. They fear death. They fear failure.
Children are different. Every night paints the world with shadows, and in those shadows lurk the dull eyes of every terror imaginable. Bracing myself for the worst, I offer her the marble silhouette of my hand and reluctantly carve myself into her head.
...The child lies in her bed. She is in her room, though the colours are distorted and unnervingly vibrant. She sits up, slowly, and the colours drain from the walls. Slow tendrils of shadow slither around the darkening floor, choking out the light, creeping towards the child’s curled feet. Slow and deliberate, more like the fingers of a grasping hand than snakes, they clasp and claw at the curtains, pulling the light to their depths.
Until the room is dark.
Suddenly it is cold, the biting chill of a winter night. It is still dark but we are outside now, standing at the mouth of a cave. The mind of a child is abstract, surreal and entirely mad. Their dreams lack fluidity, and often jump and jolt as their head loses interest in the image it has shown before.
I strain my eyes to see the child emerging from the darkness with four other kids. They appear to be laughing and smiling as only children can. The other children run to greet their parents who stand outside of the cave. They greet them with hugs and shrill, echoing sounds of delight. The girl, suddenly ecstatic runs to her own parents who stand near me.
But as she runs, she falls and sprawls across the floor of the open cave. Her parents seem disinterested. They turn away. Away from her, and away from each other. Every parent and child that seemed so happy abruptly scatter in every direction, like insects being set on fire. The girl remains lying still on the floor of the strange cave as her companions swarm into shadow.
Silent tears shake her and moonlight cracks open and spills into the cave, illuminating a figure standing near her. In vain I hope that it might be her father but my heart plummets and my bones shrink when he turns towards me. He is faceless. The silver light casts slight shadows on where sunken eyes may once have resided.
The child screams. I scream, but once again, my breath of terror turns to dust in my mouth and dissolves in the night air...
Torn suddenly from her dream by the movement of something in the house, the child bolts upward and cries for her parents. I watch helplessly as tendrils of the nightmare stalk their way up her bed, reaching out and touching the faceless figure in the corner of her room.
3. The Old Man
Burdened by the heaviness of all that I have seen and haunted by the nightly screams, I wearily watch a different figure sleep. It is an old man, lying in a single bed. Insipid floral patterns twirl around the walls and the sacred heart of Jesus adorns the space above his dresser. There is a framed picture of the man and an elderly woman gathering dust on the same dresser, and an empty single bed beside him. Weary, and torn asunder by horrors, I reach to touch his forehead.
...The man is sitting on a fold up chair, watching the sand fall in the hourglass. Most of it has fallen through the gap, floating to settle at the bottom. The sand seems to have fallen in an array of different colours. At the bottom, the grains are vibrant, though as the pile continues, they lose their intensity, as though falling has wrung them of their colour. Trickling like the tired pace of a waterfall. Yet gravity pulls it down, and inevitably, every drop will fall to the bottom.
What began in beautiful shades of green, turns to reds and pink, tumbling into purple and the richest blue. Colours rising and falling like a tenor’s sharp scales, before all fading into something that seems grey. A shadow of its former colour. The man patiently watches as hours pass as drops of sand, dripping through the glass, seemingly weary of following gravity’s tired old pattern to the bottom of the hourglass.
Eventually only a few grains remain. The man makes an attempt to stand. Placing his hands on his knees he hauls himself up, bones weary with fatigue. With a great deal of sadness in eyes as old and vast as the sky, he places a hand upon the hourglass, and watches as the final grain floats to the bottom...
I seem to float back to his room. Confused, I search the room for an unearthly horror. My eyes are drawn the picture of the man and the woman and decide that he looks younger in the frame. I turn to the man, who seems very small in the bed.
He does not wake up.
Feel the Fear
He shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Or the second, for that matter … or the third, or …
Puto, ergo sum. He recognised this scrap from his schoolboy memories, knew it was a Latin phrase, knew its meaning. He knew he existed, as a sentient being. Why didn’t he know his own name?
Also: where exactly might ‘There’ be? No light. No sound. No sensation of Up or Down, Heat or Cold: nothing. As with not knowing his Name, the same question arose. Why?
Wherever There might be, he was absolutely certain of one thing. He didn’t like it, and he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get Somewhere Else …
Blink, blink. Yes, he could feel the tiny muscles which controlled his eyelids contract, relax, but it made no difference. His environs were an unremitting, unchanging, totally black void.
Sight and Hearing had no immediate value as information gatherers. Perhaps he could learn something from Touch …?
Flex fingers. Sensitive fingertips register contact with the firm, dry flesh of his palms. It requires a conscious effort not to unleash a primal yell of triumph at this first minor success. Slowly, deliberately, he walks the fingertips of his left hand across his right wrist, exploring, probing. Still flesh: a further half-inch beyond, exactly where he hopes to find it, a faint rustle of clothing confirms that he is clothed, not naked and defenceless.
Cautious, gentle blind probing in the impenetrable darkness. He is fully clothed but cannot decide if he is on his feet, his head, his flank. Stretching all four limbs to their full extent, he fails to make contact with any surface. He appears weightless, floating in a space of unknown, unfathomable dimensions. The fear of the unknown compounds his primal instinctive fear of the silent dark.
Somewhere deep within him a hot spark of anger flickers into life. This was not a place he would choose to be. Therefore, Someone had placed him there against his will, depriving him of his full range of Senses. Further: he has no knowledge of his Name. Who dared deny him this most fundamental of all human rights?
Without the guidance of his senses there was no point in attempting to move in any direction. The only thing he could do was fan the nascent spark of ire he felt until it blossomed into a flame capable of dispelling the dread dark.
He concentrated on nurturing the inner glow, willing it to expand and grow until he felt a sensation of warmth spreading, reawakening deadened nerves. Pins and needles coursed through his body as he felt blood pumping in his veins. Soon he could Hear once more: the regular thud! of blood against his eardrum, the whisper of breath as he filled his lungs until his ribs threatened to crack.
He was winning: he was on fire! The darkness began to waver and retreat. Slowly his sight returned, with hints and suggestions of angles and shadows cast by walls, a floor, a ceiling of some sort, but with no points of reference to help him judge distances or dimensions.
It was no longer possible to contain his cry of triumph. Spreading his arms he emptied his lungs, flooding the fearful once-dark with a boisterous, bubbling stream of pure, healing, wordless music. The last shadows fled as the invisible wave swept all before it, doubling and redoubling in power and volume as it reached the walls and rebounded.
A basso continuo rumble of rockfall was added to the vibrant, living music. A slightly jagged vertical crack appeared soundlessly before his eyes, admitting a gentle current of fresh air, so pure he sensed it had never been breathed by anyone else prior to that unique magical moment.
Still singing, he drifted towards it, conscious of the movement, feeling no contact on the soles of his feet. He had succeeded in facing down his personal dark demons. Now he could once more fly in freedom.
FEEL THE FEAR
The flag at the top of the ladder seems just a small beacon very far away. As he climbs, his feet seem to curl round each rung as if clinging to it.
“Don’t look down.” He reminds himself at every step, as instinct urges him to glance away from the flag fluttering at the top board. The ladder moves a little in the wind and the rungs are damp from the mist.
As he reaches the platform, he stands for a few moments to regain his balance and to breathe deeply, as he had been taught.
‘Slow, deep breaths. One; two; three. Lift your arms. Give the signal.’
The little pool is a faint round shape below. There goes the flame rippling across the surface. Now it burns bright as a cauldron.
‘Look up; step forward; breathe deeply and fall.’
For a millisecond he is free. All strain and anxiety lifted from his brain and weight from his body. Just that instant of joy, then a terrible urgency floods back and he turns a somersault to land on his back in the shallow water.
The crowd roar as usual and he quickly swims to the edge. Standing at the poolside swathed in his sequinned robe he waves triumphantly to the crowd.
The tight smile on his face masks the grimace underneath. Just the eyes betray the terror within.
each night they hide in caterpillars
breaking from cocoons
to swarm and writhe and birth
drowned shadows in my bedroom
each night they crawl through cracks
floor thick with bristled bodies
that seep and swell and crest
dead lost at their peak
each night flies baptise themselves in the waters of their eyes
immersed in pools
that stare and glare and glower
four foot from mine
each night the buzz of blowflies crashes into static
black rivers pour on my sheets
from father mother son, a family growing
only more hollow
each night that man with lips that flare and quiver
like the limbs of praying mantes
with sex and lust and violence
in his lap and in his tongue
each night that woman crouches
child latched like leeches
feeding gorging stealing
salt water from bloated breasts
each night I push fingers in their skin
crack salt crust and burst them into riptide
to hiss and swirl and billow
breaking higher up the walls
When we first met it felt like magnets repulsing each other. My feeling for you was strong but it wasn’t attraction. I needed you to approve of me but I didn’t know who either of us was. You made me feel like an egg-white – see-through and quivering – waiting to be beaten into something else. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t hatred, it was anger at everything in the universe, including, no especially, me.
I avoided groups you belonged to. I carved out my own creative, slightly off-kilter path. I took up with the drummer from a band I’d once heard you say were talentless. I moved in with him and his drum-kit to a flat shoved under the eaves in a Victorian building. The first morning I opened the bedroom curtains and there you were, staring at me across the rooftops, just twenty feet away. That knowing grin on your face, as if you’d expected me to be there.
For weeks and weeks we ignored each other at the bus stop on our way into university. Sometimes I went early to avoid you but, somehow, there you’d be. All perfect and pretty, arm-in-arm with the most wanted boy in our year. Gliding through life like you were a waterboatman skating. One of those who had everything except any idea what it might feel like to be me. But why should you care?
The only course we were both on was Creative Writing. One seminar I forgot to guard against you, read a piece I’d written with a drum-kit as a metaphor for an abused woman. It was quite good but darker than coal. The tutor said it showed naïve talent. On the way out I said to a friend: ‘Is naïve talent an insult or praise.’
‘It’s what I wish I had.’ You spoke right behind us. ‘How I wish I could just write things with such natural power, rather than niggling away at everything I do.’
I looked round as my friend evaporated, blurted: ‘But you’re brilliant. You get A’s every time. You must know you’re good.’ You really were good, the standout of our group.
You laughed. ‘Everything I read I wrote years ago. I tweak it to fit the prompt. I haven’t written a thing since I got to this twee, safe place. I can’t feel anything here. I’m going through the motions. I’m utterly uninspired.’
I gawped at you. There were so many things to stimulate me here, so much that was new, all these shiny people. I wrote like it was a bodily function, must be done several times a day. I wasn’t exactly happy but I was on fire and I could feel words burning their way out of me. ‘You need something new, slightly scary.’
You grinned and that smug smile tore itself open. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. There’s a little mopedy thing for sale, takes two people. We come in at the same time each day. Do you fancy us both learning, maybe buy it between us?’
Back then you didn’t need to take a test. You could get on one and go so that’s what we did. We were lethal, no sense of other traffic, doggedly ploughing through the lanes, oblivious to the danger. Or I was. It clearly scared you sometimes. You’d squeal if I tried to do more than 25mph around the corners. Once we were both spilled into the road and you clutched at my grazed arm.
‘So many old bruises.’ You pointed and I hung my head so you knew it was true. You unraveled the long sleeve from my other arm. ‘Good God Julia! Why are you putting up with this?’
‘I always have.’ My honesty surprised me. Somewhere buried inside there’s the sense that this is what I deserve. It has to be because it always happens. From father to brother to boyfriends, sooner or later I’m something to hit like a drum kit. ‘I’m the common denominator.’
‘What rubbish.’ You stroke my stained-glass arm. ‘Those bullies just feel the fear. You flinch away from people so. Come and stay with me.’
I smile. You don’t know about the lures he uses. You have no notion of the sugared foil wraps, the sweet melting into yourself until all your unworthiness is gone. You have no idea what a black hole I am.
‘It’s not that bad. But thank you.’ I heave the moped upright, clamber on. ‘We’re going to be late and it’s your favourite lecturer.’
The graze is still bleeding later that night when he hits me with the drum sticks and I rear up, surprise him enough to run for the bedroom, shove a chair under the door handle, tippy-toe the wardrobe against the chair. But if I moved it, it won’t take long for the grunting monster the other side of the door to break through. I turn and catch your eyes. You're waving at me, telling me to come, holding up a bottle of vodka.
I hike the window open, know there is a short drop to the flat roof but then there’s a sea of tiles, up and down like waves between me and you. You're shouting: 'Just do it, you fear nothing, if anyone can it’s you.'
I'm sad that you still don’t get me. I fear everything rather than nothing but my fears are giants in comparison with yours. He’s yelling now, the words Die and Bitch bob up like party balloons in a sea of vitriol. The chair breaks. The wardrobe screams across the floor.
I’m on the roof, slam the window down. Think about crouching there and dissolving into the air or hurling myself off for that brief flight. Think I’ve often been nothing at all, what does this matter? This has always been on the cards. Why fight it? But my feet are running, sliding up the next roof. moving so fast my intent seems to matter more than the slipping, the inevitability of the fall.
Until the slip catches. You pull me against you, both of us teetering below your window. Your safe boyfriend reaches down, clutches my waist, hauls awkward me in, strokes me like a frightened pet. I'm still holding your hand and then you're safe beside me. The noise of shouting is blocked as you close the window.
'I'm writing loads,' you say waving the vodka bottle, 'you scared me enough. Don't ever do it again.'
Sully`s Quay Christian Brothers…..circa 1975
I step out of the shadow of the building that towers four stories above me, into the bright morning sunshine. Seven steps below is the square expanse of the school playground, a sea of boys in blue and grey, their high pitched shrieks bouncing off the concrete walls that surround it, the younger ones tearing about in an apparently random helter-skelter of lunacy.
At the far end of the yard is the gym with the science rooms above it, a large clock embedded high up in the centre of the wall. To the right is the open air toilet block where the lethal waxy plastic toilet paper lays in wait for the unwary, or the unlucky.
Up here during the breaks, the terrace is the preserve of the sixth classes, where we twelve year olds spend our last few months of supremacy before being shunted upwards to secondary school and re-entry into the bottom tier once more. To my right an excited crowd is playing or watching a few games of pitch penny, below them at this end of the toilet block, tell-tale wisps of smoke can be seen drifting through the gap in the roof, a leathering awaiting any who get caught.
I wander over to the left side of the terrace, descend three steps, pull a book from my bag and sit down to read in solitude.
I am not, I want you to know, particularly unsociable, I played chasing and cowboys and Indians when I was younger; when I was younger, that’s almost funny, I`m only twelve. And I have been known to play pitch penny and marbles, and in the autumn, conkers, but mostly I like to read.
I have long ago resigned myself to the fact that I`m weird, I’ve been told this enough times by too many people to ignore it, and my classmates have me down as a swot. But I don’t think I`m a swot, swots read schoolbooks, and anyway I hate school, I dream of the day when I`m old enough and can leave it all behind.
So I sit here on my own, the April sun warming my head and a book in my hands…bliss. It’s 20,000 leagues under the sea, a birthday present from auntie Maura who, unlike my mother, loves to see me reading, I sometimes think that to my mum there is nothing more maddening than the sight of me doing nothing, my head buried in a book.
How many times has she ripped one from my hands, face twisted in rage as she rants on about my uselessness, and how lazy I am, always reading these worthless things; and I think this time for sure she`s going to tear it up or throw it in the fire.
but of course she never does, cos they either belong to the library, or auntie Maura bought it for me; and her sister is the only person in the whole wide world my mums afraid of. So now if I want to read at home, I read by flashlight under the blanket. Greg who is two years older than me and has the top bunk moans about it sometimes, but never so loud as she can hear.
“YOU!” the hard bark of authority cuts through the noise, suddenly all is still and silence. Two hundred heads and pairs of eyes swivel towards the sound, at the end of the steps stands a tall angular man, his face a mask of fury, left hand extended, the index finger pointing at……..who? we wonder.
Then two hundred pairs of eyes find the target of his ire and one hundred and ninety nine of them are relieved to discover it isn’t them but a small redheaded boy of eight or so. The brother turns his hand over and crooks the finger, “Come here....NOW,”
The kid works his way through the groups of twos and threes, no path opens up for him, no parting of the crowd to usher him to his doom, until he is within the brothers reach, I groan, Brother Francis, why did it have to be Brother Francis.
The man drops his hand only far enough to grip the hair on the boys head just in front of his ear, lifting until he was teetering on tip-toes. The brother leans down and says something, I am too far away to hear, then he lets the kid go, pulling out the leather from its nest in the right pocket of his cassock.
I`m relieved, just a few licks then, he wouldn’t have to go to Brother Francis`s room.
You don’t want to be alone with Brother Francis, I don’t know why, nobody seems to know, or won`t say, you just don’t….that’s all!
I look down to my book not wanting to see anymore, around me the sound starts to wind back up like one of those sirens in the war movies, and in seconds it’s as if nothing had happened, except there’s a hole in the melee of boys about twenty feet wide, the brother and his victim at its centre.
Tom plops down next to me, “What ya readin,” He snatches the book from my hand, “I read it,” he says grinning, “The whale done it.”
I laugh, “There`s no whale, that’s Moby Dick.” and reach for the book, but he holds it away from me with his left hand.
Tom`s my best friend in school, in fact he`s my only friend in school, but it still counts. He`s small for his age, a good four inches shorter than me and thin as a whip, his uncontrollable black hair as usual sticking out at odd angles, an infectious grin plastered on his face.
I am, I have to admit, more than a little jealous of him, cos of his mum. After aunt Maura she`s the nicest woman I’ve ever met, the kind of mother Enid Blyton always has in her books. Mrs Brown is always smiling and has biscuits or cakes, and they have a soda stream too. She`ll make me a lemonade without me even having to ask for it. I’d like to visit Toms house more often, but he lives in Pouladuff and I`m up by the Airport, and that’s a long way by bike.
But lately I think he`s a little jealous of me too, because I know so many girls. Before, when he wasn’t interested in girls he`d tease me and say I liked to play house and with dolls, but he was never mean about it and he never said anything in school about it neither.
But that was before he decided he liked girls after all, and now he was asking things like “how do I get to know girls?” and “What do you talk about?”
So I`d shrug and say, “Oh you know.”
And he`d say, “No I don’t know, that’s why I`m asking.”
And I`d say “Well stuff, nothing really. Mostly they just talk and I listen.”
And he`ll give me an exasperated look and say, “You`re a fat lot of use.”
Last week he claimed he`d French kissed a girl named Amy, “You don’t know her,” he said, `”she lives around the corner from me.”
I didn’t know what French kissing was and said so; and he rolled his eyes giving me his, don’t you know anything look, which he likes to do whenever he finds out he knows something I don’t. And so he told me and I just said, ”huh,” and left it at that, Though I could see he was annoyed I wasn’t more impressed.
I didn’t really believe him, about the French kissing I mean, not about Amy, he says I`m too gullible and he`s always making things up to see if I’ll believe him, so I asked my oldest brother Philip, who’s fifteen and would know about these things.
Philip said the same thing that Tom`d said.
And I said “that’s disgusting, that’s more disgusting than eating snails and frogs legs, the French must be crazy.”
“There`s no way I`m ever going to let a girl put her tongue in my mouth.”
Philip laughed and said “oh yeah,” and I said “Yeah,” and he said “We`ll see,” and was still laughing when he told me to get out of his room.
I haven’t told Tom I`ve already kissed two girls myself, mostly because he`d only claim I was saying that because he said he`d kissed Amy, and also because I couldn’t see what the big deal was.
But Mr Meaney thought it was quite a big deal. Maeve; Caroline`s younger sister saw us kissing down by the old pump and squealed to her dad. And Mr Meaney came up to our house that night and had a furious row with my dad at the front door that ended with him shouting that dad had “Better keep your sons away from my daughters or else….”
I was in the dining room listening and was a little concerned about the, “Or else.” But then I thought, Mr Meaney works in an office and wears a suit, while my dad works with steel all day, so I`m pretty sure he`d be able to take him. But on the other hand I`ve never seen my dad raise his hand to anybody in my life. After I heard dad close the front-door I sat on the couch unsure what he`d say, but he walked past me on the way to the kitchen without a word, so I guess that’s that then.
And I only kissed Caroline because I’d already kissed Anne and wanted to see if it was different or any better.
It wasn’t; different or better, so I don’t think I`ll bother kissing any more girls again, it seems way more trouble than it`s worth.
Tom was sitting back now, elbows resting on the next step up, studying the book in his hand as if he was really interested in it, though I knew he wasn’t, and then he remembered why he`d sat down next to me in the first place.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “my dad said he`s taking the Harlequin around the old head on Sunday, and says it’s okay if you want to come.”
The Harlequin is Mr Browns 33ft yacht which he sails out of Royal Cork. Mostly dinghy people and yacht people don’t mix; we don’t think yachting is real sailing and they don’t think dinghies are real boats, so we have a mutual contempt for each other. But Mr Brown doesn’t race so I guess he`s okay.
I told my dad about him, and said how I thought it was strange he had a boat and didn’t race it, and my dad said, “Some people are odd like that, Some folk like to just mess around on the water.”
I still think it`s queer, but I haven’t told Tom that.
So I say, “Yeah that`d be great.”
And he says, "We`ll collect you at ten on the way to Crosshaven, okay, and you don`t need to bring anything, we have life jackets on the boat."
I nod, though I think I’ll bring my own anyway, just in case.
I look up at the clock on the far wall, the big hand is swinging towards ten past and hold out my hand. Tom looks from my hand to his, and appears surprised to find the book still in it. He feints like he`s going to pass it to me, but jumps up instead, draws his hand back, and for a heart-stopping moment I think he`s going to fling it away and lunging to my feet, hand outstretched, yell, “NO.”
He looks at me, shaking his head as he lowers his hand, and I realise what I knew all along, that he`d never have thrown the book.
Tom drops the book into my waiting hand, and grinning says, “Barry, You are too easy,” then punches me hard in the shoulder.
You grip the brass handle, artificially
cold against prickly warm skin, push
down gently and you feel the door give.
You're at the edge of a cliff, vertigo,
the drop perilous, even eagles don't fly
this high, yet you step into the void.
Here is a new country, anxious glances,
a border crossed not at a checkpoint,
there is a chance you've been spotted.
A no man's land swept by neon beams,
a culture you don't understand, you seek
darkness, snatch any drink and a cushion.
Seated slumped your internal mute fails,
the noise steadily rises until it fills every
thought and pushes out your conscious
There was plenty of time for the anticipation to build. After all, this was something she had dreamed of for years. But now she’d reached the point of no return, her emotions became almost overwhelming.
‘Try to relax,’ she told herself, trying the breathing exercises she’d learned at yoga class. Her anxiety didn’t lift much. She tried reading her paperback again, the words meaningless squiggles marching across the pages. A deep sigh of frustration caught the attention of the person seated next to her. The young woman turned to her with a smile.
‘How are you going? It can get pretty boring, sitting still for so long. Have you done this journey before?’
The furthest Corinna had been from England was Venice, years ago on a school trip, the flight under three hours long; this journey would take about 24 hours including the change they’d made at Dubai.
‘No, never – you?’
‘Oh yes, this is my second round trip of the year. My boyfriend’s in London, my job’s in Sydney. He’s going to apply for jobs in Aus when he’s graduated. Are you going to Sydney?’
‘I’m getting a domestic flight from Sydney on to Brisbane. I’m ... I’m visiting someone I’ve not seen in a long time.’
‘Yes! Exciting!’ Corinna added silently, ‘and terrifying.’
The arrival of the next meal service arrived, suspending their conversation. It could be lunch, dinner or breakfast up here with few clues as to where, or when they were.
After half-watching a forgettable film, Corinna dozed at last, dreaming of stern faces looking down on her, a toxic blend of pain and fear waking her again, the sense of loss powerful and real. Thankfully, they were at last crossing the vast dry centre of Australia. Not long to go.
After negotiating Sydney customs and immigration, then changing to the domestic terminal, it was a short wait for the final leg of her journey to Brisbane.
A sense of unreality gripped her, her body shaking with fear of what was to come. How could she bear it? How could she answer the unanswerable? Was all this another big mistake?
The concourse at Brisbane Domestic was buzzing with people awaiting the passengers; families, friends, taxi services all watching out for the right face. For a moment, Corinna stood, her luggage at her feet, frozen with intrepidation, feeling alone and frightened.
Then strong arms wrapped around her and she was enveloped in the longest, strongest hug she had ever had. Neither of them spoke for a long time. At last they loosened their grip enough to look into each other’s face.
‘Mum! At last. My own, real mum!’
The last time John had a drink he had been on Achill Island in his father’s house and he came round propped against the wall, with blood-stained hands, wearing his father’s favourite suit.
He had no memory of what had gone on in the night, and as he got to his feet in the pale sunlight, his head exploding and in search of water he began to feel the usual terror.
In the kitchen there was an axe in the table and holes in the cupboards. A small cabinet had been smashed and a wooden rail pulled off the wall.
He walked over the the sink, his father’s suit trousers open, and his gut wedging itself through the slightly open flies.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, as he looked out across the field, the orange sun burning an edge across the Nephins.
He turned his back to the window and leant his big body against the sink and looked at his father’s axe. It was thick and shining in the swirling dust caught by the morning light in a way that made him think of his father's cigarette smoke.
He must have come to the thick walled cottage drunk again, along the 45km winding road from Westport. His father had died three months before, gasping into the summer afternoon, when everything outside was so full and dense with life that John had felt only happiness and freedom when the terrible sound of his breathing stopped.
That afternoon he didn’t tell the neighbours, but instead locked the doors and went to Nevins for a pint, off the island, where the bar staff changed in the summer and no one knew who he was, calling Ducky, his best friend to join him.
“Ducky, he’s dead.”
“Dead, Johnny? When did he go?”
“Now, he went an hour ago, will you come to Nevins?”
“Where is he Johnny?”
“He’s in the bed, where the fuck do you think he is? Will you come Ducky?”
There was a slight pause, then, “I’m in the field, Sarah’s in the tractor, I’ll get her to her mam’s and come.”
“Are you still at that craic with Sarah? Someone’s going to get hurt.”
“I am, and she’s a mighty woman. See you now Johnny.”
Ducky was an illiterate farmer who had been one of Ireland’s top body builders in the eighties. John nicknamed him Ducky because while he was training he had lived on bread and water.
Ducky lived with his sister and her family on their farm and had taken it upon himself to teach his six and eight-year-old-nieces, Mary and Sarah to use the machinery. John and Ducky were like brothers.
Ducky walked into the bar wearing a fresh white t-shirt and the jeans he had been wearing on the tractor. The air was hot, and the white skin under the barman’s wispy moustache was beaded with sweat.
“Well, are you happy now John?” he said as he sat down, one arm around John’s shoulder, as he offered his condolences.
“I am, I’m delighted. I’m to sell it all and keep the axe, that’s what the old man said. Keep the axe, like it was mammy’s ring, or something.”
“He loved it, didn’t he John,” Ducky rested both arms on the bar and put his hands around the cool pint in front of him.
“I want to throw his body into the sea and never talk about the man again after today,” John said.
“Agh, get down out of there,” Ducky shook his head, and turned towards John, raising his eyebrows.
Johnny nodded from his shoulders, his back rising, so that Ducky was unsure if he had begun to cry.
The last time he had said that phrase John was in the woods behind his house, tying a noose to a tree to hang himself and they were both 26 years old. John was winding a rope around a trunk as Ducky appeared, and continued to tie the half hitches as he stood underneath.
“Agh, get down out of there,” he had said, his big hands laced behind his head as he looked upwards, the wind howling through the scots pine and ash and silver birch.
“You’re da came to get me, saying you were acting the bollocks John, you’re acting the bollocks, what’ll we do without you?”
John left the island after that, and nearly never came back, until Ducky called to say his father was dying, and John had sat by his bedside for three weeks, waiting.
In the bar he turned to Ducky, “Everything that is beautiful, is ugly, somehow, because of him. He’s like a rot, and even to let a thing in, even a woman, Ducky, I can’t. Do you know what I mean?”
“No, not really John, I think you should let it go,” Ducky said.
“It’s like he has turned me inside out and I don’t recognise myself. I play at being John. When he died and the breeze swept through the purple heather outside and the sun tumbled down on it all Ducky, it was the first time I felt right inside and out. But it has already passed, like a bird.”
“He’s dead now,” Ducky said.
Johnny went on, “Do you know what it has been like to feel him growing inside me since I left? I have never been able to let the fucker go. Like a rot Ducky. I was always too like mammy, you remember? Soft, stupid. I went outside to pick flowers, I must have been four or five. I brought the handful into him, he was leaning against the fireplace, smoking in a suit, it must have been Sunday, and he just took them from my hand, without lifting them to his face to smell them or see them properly, and threw them straight into the fire. I don’t know if he said it, but I hear him saying “you little fool Johnny”. And the flowers, like the swirl of cigarette smoke in the sunshine, or the smell of Sunday roast cooked by Breda, or the beautiful design of one of his tables, I hate them Ducky, I hate the memory of them or the thing they are now, repeated in some way, because I think I could have loved them and he smashed that out of me.”
“Sure you never wanted to be a carpenter, and that was it, John,” Ducky said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Your Dad never let that go,” Ducky said.
John was silent. Then he lifted his eyes and at the crown of his head reflected in the bottom of the mirror behind the bar.
“It’s the lonliness out here. It wasn’t about he tables or the chairs, he wanted me to become a thing that was his, that he could keep. He wanted me to sit in a room and imitate him all day.”
“He had a talent there, didn’t he John,” said Ducky.
John swallowed and looked at his pint.
“Those things he made, his Sunday suits, the way he would stand outside the church in the summer with his coat open, and chat to people, they were rotted out of him out here, and he was never passing them on anyway. See now Ducky, see now who I am, and I'm fucking scared.”
The void opened up
spilling restive gemstones of light
in front of me,
of blue and red
telling me double stories
of which path to take.
I looked for the markers
you surely left behind
so I could follow,
but the stars put a finger
to their lips
and whispered in a hush
“Shh, we’ll never tell.”
Left, right, left, right,
I jumped from one blue giant
searching for your perfume
or the distant echo
of your voice.
“Shh, we’ll never tell,”
the stars laughed behind my back
as I changed
to the reds,
yearning for your heat,
finding only the
of the void.
The lush, malevolent night
opened up to me
spilling singing gemstones,
their light a siren’s call
leading me away
from the mercies of
forgetting the feel
of the small of your back
and the look in your eyes
when I said your name.
The Sea that Launches Kites
Entropy has increased, and chaos reigns in the Sea that Launches Kites.
Nobody is alone, so everyone must suffer.
Try to drown your neighbour, please,
And ride their kite up, up,
Follow the arrow of time, so that we don´t break the fundamental rules.
Skirt the thermals, look down on the churning mass
Of vacant souls and would-be sweaty lobster backs,
Fighting for launch windows.
Up further, until it´s not up but away, your kite is a solar sail.
Traverse the solar system, and remember not to breathe
As you create the first delta-V and Hohmann Transfer out to Mars.
Optimal conditions, look out for perihelion and make it in five months.
Your body may atrophy, and muscles shrink without gravity. Combat this immediately.
Bring Sally up. Bring Sally down.
A quick stop on Mar is not worth the energy to break; do it anyway.
You deserve a rest. You can breathe again now. I hope you like your CO2 rare.
Remember the Sea the Launches Kites. Hang
Your head in shame. As you terraform the planet, think of the bloodlines you drowned.
Why didn´t you just swim and jump?
You could have made it hurting no-one, but instead
The next Einstein of Ghenghis Khan is providing nutrients to blobfish.
I told you to anyway, and blobfish need lunch too, ugly fuckers.
You forgot to bring a magnetosphere, so all of you plaints die in pain.
It´s your birthday, and your rebirth day. Think of boobs. Happy Birthday.
There is no Sea that Launches Kites on Mars, and since your terraforming failed you have to spend eternity alone, sorry.
Cry until you make puddles, streams, lakes. Think of all the Orangutans who died in pain, if you run out of crying fuel.
Eventually, see the early warning signs of the sun becoming a red giant.
You gotta get outta here man.
Trust your tears. Leap in the sea of tears. It may yet be one to launch your kite.
Man up. Everything is futile. We all die alone.
Start to swim. Maybe the butterfly can save you.
The Zone of Avoidance
My beautifully serene mother, placed my plate of bangers and mash down on the table mat, in front of me, with a kind of reverence and a smile. I looked at her display. The mash potato had been spread to the far ends of the plate, like a big white moon. The sausage had been cut in half and positioned in the centre by way of a nose, the other half, hidden under the mash. Garden peas had been formed into a big, wide grin and tomato sauce fashioned into eyes. "Your man in the moon" she said brightly, as I picked up my knife and fork. She ruffled my hair and bobbed a kiss on my head. She'd been doing this since I was a 8. I smiled back, bemused. I was now eighteen.
Turning her back, she picked up my father’s plate from the kitchen unit, with such poise, it looked as if she was about to display something on the shopping channels. Her face, as she made her way to my father’s side of the table, still bore that same, smooth calm. However, the plate, when it hit the table mat, told the truth of her mood. It smashed down with a clatter. I could see the mash had been carelessly thrown onto the plate, in a big, fat, dollop. A large, full sausage poked rudely out of the centre. The garden peas caused mayhem on his plate and the tomato sauce looked like lava, running down the gulleys of a volcano. My father raised his eyes briefly, swept his quiff back with one hand and tried to make a lazy stab for the sausage, but as he did, my mother picked up the salt and emptied the entire drum, over his dinner. Why I thought my father would erupt into a tirade of abusive comments, I was unsure. That wasn’t their game. That wasn’t how this went. Mimicking that same poise, my father lifted his plate and with a flick of his wrist, sent it spiralling across the dining room, like a flying saucer. Mash potato, peas, tomato sauce and sausage, splattered the pale walls and began to drip slowly onto the carpet, where Ted the cat, didn’t pretend to be annoyed, or surprised.
We all sat in the void, silent and waiting for the next episode, until my mother placed the Times newspaper, in front of my father, as was her habit. However, it wasn’t the latest paper, this paper was soggy, caked in damp cat hair and smelled strongly of cat pee. It had clearly been rescued from the cat litter tray. My father, trying not to gag, picked it up between his thumb and forefinger and placed it across my mother's dinner.
I tried to keep my eyes averted. What the hell had happened this time? Which one had upset the other, I wondered, and as I ate the smile from my plate, I knew we’d entered that time and that space; I had come to term, as the Zone of Avoidance. Aptly named after the area in space where the inter-stellar-dust particles, of the Milky Way, obstruct light, and prevent the visibility of distant galaxies. And our own zone, was just as mysterious, for this wasn’t a first and definitely wouldn’t be the last. These displays of childish malice, had occurred for as long as I could remember and I could never shed any light, as to what had instigated them.
In my younger days, and in an effort to bring this craziness to an end, or to show them how stupid they were being, I would retaliate. Once I had scattered rice krispies across the sofa, which we would continue to find, and I would snack on, for weeks. I’d even smashed my mother’s favourite vase. On one occasion I had set fire to the garden furniture. However, I’d soon got bored when these occasions went without comment or punishment. How could they ground me, or stop my pocket money, when their own behaviour was just as deplorable? And so, I had come to realise, that the best way to deal with them, was to avoid them altogether and after chasing the last unruly pea from my plate, I got up and made my way to my bedroom.
With the door closed firmly behind me, I flung myself onto the bed, spiralling mid-air, to land on my back. My chest rose and fell as a long, relieved breath, shuddered from my body. What was it with my parents, for God’s Sake? How could two professional people, behave in such an idiotic way. I was sure they weren’t from this planet. I imagined them as two extra-terrestrial beings, science and myself, had yet to understand. I’d learnt at astronomy class, that scientists had speculated for years, that there might be intelligent life out there in space, but I was struggling to find it, right here, in my home.
With my arms folded across my chest, I stared at the astronomy poster on my ceiling. One corner had become unstuck from its blu-tack, making it look like the planets and constellations, could just slip, right out of space - spinning through light years, out of control. I realised that even though light years separated them, from me, the domino effect would warp across the galaxy, sending us all into a cataclysmic, catastrophe. I shuddered again. Space had always made me feel small, helpless, and insignificant, much like I did right now, here in my own home. I had no control of my parents and their fights and my appeals and petitions had come to nothing. And do you know what, I was sick of trying and sick of waiting and sick of being in this constant zone of avoidance. It would take more that blu-tack to sort this madness out, in fact a meteorite could drop into our living room and my parents would carry on as before, so wound up in their own universe, to even care or notice.
What would it take, I wondered, as I lay there, fantasizing, searching for answers?
It would take…. It would take…it would take leaving. That’s what it would take. I would leave. I would find my own zone, preferably on another time zone. It took me ten minutes to pack my ruck-sac and two to pull down the corner of the poster, so the other three corners left the ceiling. I didn’t know where I was heading, and this map wouldn’t help, but it would remind me I had all the time and space, to work it out. As I closed the front door behind me and walked down the drive, I heard the splinter of glass and saw the TV crash through the living room window. I shook my head and kept on walking, and walking on...
“If you`ve got the time I`ve got the space?”
“Huh?” Todd looked up from his phone; a redhead had slipped onto the stool beside him and was giving him an expectant look. “I`m sorry,” he said, brow creasing in confusion, “I didn’t catch what you said?”
She smiled, it was a radiant smile, one designed to disarm the stoniest of hearts, her hair cascaded around her bare shoulders in waves, her eyes were emerald green, and her lips, the upper one a perfect bow, were painted the same crimson colour as her mini-dress, with a lipstick so glossy it looked permanently wet. “I said, If you`ve got the time, I`ve got the space.” Her voice was soft and breathy; the whole effect made him a little light-headed.
The furrow in Todd`s brow added a few partners, he was about to respond when the bartender appeared in front of them, “What can I get you?” he asked the woman. She looked at Todd, arching an eyebrow, “Aren’t you going to buy me a drink?”
“Oh, yeah, right,” he said still trying to regain his mental balance.
She smiled at the barman, “Vodka martini, two olives,” he nodded at her, strolling away to fill her order. “So,” she said, “You still haven’t answered my question?”
“Question?” he was definitely out of his depth and struggling to keep his head above water.
She slipped a room keycard onto the bartop, “Your time, my place?” she turned the smile up a couple of notches and a cloud of butterflies took flight in his stomach.
“I think you`ve got…” he stopped as the barman placed her drink on a coaster in front of her, “Six thirty five,” he said to Todd, who handed him a ten dollar bill with a, “Keep the change,” the barman nodded his thanks.
“I`m sorry,” he said, “I think you`ve got the wrong guy.”
The woman was sitting sideways on the stool, her legs pointed towards him, she turned and surveyed the bar, examining each of the male patrons in turn, he took the opportunity to study the rest of her.
The dress started just above her cleavage and ended half way down her thighs, he thought her breasts were too pert for their size, deciding she`d almost certainly had a boob job. Her legs were long and shapely, and as he looked at them she uncrossed and recrossed them, he looked up, she was smirking, “Like what you see?” she purred; and for the first time in forever he felt a flush creep up his neck.
She turned back to him, “Nope,” she said, “You`re definitely the cutest guy here,” she lifted the glass to her lips and sipped, he would`ve bet good money not a drop touched her lips. “So you still haven’t answered my question?”
By way of reply he held his left hand up to his face, back of it toward her, wriggling his fingers so she couldn’t miss the wedding band, “Sorry,” he said, “I`m spoken for.”
Her smile turned to one of amusement; she lifted her own left hand and mimicking him, wriggled her own fingers, showing off the slender wedding ring, “Snap,” she said, and took another sip of her drink.
“Look I`m flattered, really I am but…”
“Georgia,” she prompted.
“Georgia… I love Rosie, that’s my wife, I love her and well…” his train of thought was derailed as Gary walked past them to the far end of the bar; he winked at Todd as he took his seat. Christ, Todd thought, not now.
Georgia put one hand over his, “And I love my Mark; but well you know how it is at these conventions, it can get so lonely, and I can`t get off by myself.”
She laughed when she saw the look on his face; it was a husky laugh that sent tingles all the way down his spine. “My you do have a dirty mind, I meant get off to sleep, but I do like how you think.”
“Lo..Lo..Look Georgia, I`m flattered; really I am, but I couldn’t, honestly; I love my wife.”
She tilted her head as if she were judging him; then, placing one hand on his knee, she leaned forward until her mouth was by his ear and said, “I`ll let you do Anything,” emphasising the word anything, “Does Josie let you do anything?”
Her lower lip brushed against his earlobe, setting off fireworks that reached all the way to his crotch, then she straightened, arched her fingers, scraping her fingernails up the inside of his thigh.
He lurched forward, almost doubling over, grabbed her hand, not roughly, but firmly and removed it, giggling as he did, “No..No; stop, I`m ticklish.”
“Oh?” she managed to inject an enormous amount of impish mischief into that single syllable, enough to make him press one arm protectively to his side, “No don’t?” he pleaded, leaning away from her.
She sat back, “You`re no fun,” she pouted; even pouting she looked amazing, “Are you sure I can`t tempt you?”
“I`m sorry” he said, trying hard not to sound like he was, “You`re very..” he meant to say pretty, but said, “Beautiful," instead, “but..” he waggled his wedding finger at her again.
She sighed and shrugged, “Okay,” she said, as she slipped the keycard back into her purse, “Your loss.” He couldn’t help but turn and watch that perfect ass as it wiggled away from him.
As he turned back to the bar, he saw Gary getting out of his seat, a concerned look on his face. Todd glared at him and gave a barely perceptible left right shake of his head; it was a confused Gary that sat back on his stool.
10:18 that morning……
“You`re going to love Tahoe,” Gary said as the taxi pulled up in front of the hotel, “it`s better than Vegas, the honeys, mmm..mmm..mmm. What were the names of those twins, in Minnesota, the blondes; Binky and Bonky, was it?”
“Becky and Belinda,” Todd corrected him, grinning at the memory of that wild night.
“Yeah them,” Gary said, as they got out of the car, "Well they`re dogs compared to the babes they got here."
The taxi had pulled in in front of a white panel van, and as they waited for the taxi-driver to open the trunk, Todd noticed the man lounging beside the divers door give him a double take, then look away quickly; weird, he thought.
As he went to get his briefcase off the backseat, he saw, reflected in the open doors glass, that a tall broad-shouldered bald man had joined the first man, they were both looking his way, doubly weird, he thought.
As he paid the taxi driver, Gary was already dragging their suitcases towards the hotel, he positioned himself so he could watch the two men reflected in the car`s rear window, they were definitely watching him, though he couldn’t think why.
As he strolled towards the hotel, the smoked plate glass making a perfect mirror, he saw that the side door of the van was rolled completely open. The interior was filled with electrical equipment, including what looked like monitors, and on the floor he could see at least two video-cameras, the shoulder mounted type used by T.V. news, but there was no station logo on the vans side. There was a third man in the van but he had his back to him, still there was something familiar about him, about the way he moved, Todd knew he`d seen him before, Damnit, he thought, as he entered the revolving doors, still wondering about the man in the van, That`ll drive me mad all-day now.
He found Gary at reception, “Shit, would you look at that,” he pointed to a pair of wooden doors with round porthole style windows in them, above them was the word `BAR` but it was what was in front of them that had caught his attention. Two chrome stanchions, a red velvet rope stretched between them, a sign with the word `Closed` hanging from it.
“Oh that’s only temporary,” the receptionist told them as she handed them their keycards, “It`ll be open by five, they`re just doing some electrical work is all.”
They had a late lunch after the first seminar and were heading towards the auditorium for the second talk of the day when Todd spotted the bald man outside the bar, talking to a man in a suit, the suit had a brass plate on the left breast pocket, hotel management, he thought. The two stepped over the rope and pushed through into the bar, curiouser and curiouser, he thought.
He spotted a young man in a burgundy uniform with a matching pillbox hat and said to Gary, “I gotta take a leak, hold a seat for me,” going after the bellhop without waiting for a reply.
He caught up with him in a short deserted corridor, “Excuse me,” he called.
The bellhop stopped and turned; a fixed smile on his face, “Yes Sir?”
Todd pulled out his wallet, “How would you like to earn twenty bucks?” he folded the note lengthways, holding it out between the first two fingers of his right hand, like he`d seen it done countless times on T.V.
The bellhop`s smile never flickered, “What can I do for you sir?” he asked, his eyes fixed on the note.
“What`s going on in the bar?”
The bellhop snatched the note from his fingers, “They`re setting up for a T.V. show,” he said, the bill disappearing into a pocket.
“I know that,” Todd said, “but what show?”
The bellboy smirked, “We`re sworn to secrecy,” he said, “More than my jobs worth to tell you. But…” He looked around, making sure they were alone. He rubbed fingers and thumb together, “Make it worth my while…”
Todd pulled out a fifty, the bellhop shook his head, “Gotta be a C-note,” he said.
When Todd hesitated; he winked, adding, “It`s worth it, believe me.”
Reluctantly Todd added another fifty to the first, holding them out. The bellhop teased them from his grasp and said, “It`s one of them gotcha shows, Scoundrels, ever hear of it?”
Todd felt a little a knot in his stomach, he had heard of Scoundrels, it was one of Rosie`s favourite shows, now he knew why the man in the van had looked so familiar.
Five minutes after the redhead had left, Todd was once again scrolling through his celphone when he heard a Familiar voice declare, “Honey..Surprise…”
He fixed a look of astonishment on his face as he turned to greet his wife, “Rosie,” he said, ignoring the bald man with the video camera, and the man beside him holding the microphone.
Astonishment gave way to delight, “What are you doing here? I was just thinking; I wish Rosie was here, and here you are.” She wore an anxious smile, her eyes red-rimmed, her cheeks smeared black, as if her mascara had run and she`d wiped it away with her hands.
Before she could answer the man stuck the microphone between them, “Todd Hannity..Nick Carver..you`re on Scoundrel`s, congratulations you`ve passed the test.”
“Test?” he gave Rosie a confused look, she looked as if she wished the world would swallow her up, “What`s he talking about Rosie?”
All afternoon he`d been trying to decide how he would play this; furious seemed best, after all, an innocent man would be outraged at having his fidelity tested on national T.V. Yep, he`d decided righteous indignation was definitely the way to go.
Now she was in front of him he thought, I`m gonna make you squirm.
He was genuinely looking forward to seeing how she`d try to explain this, and was already calculating how many brownie-points it was worth.
“Honey?” he said, tenderly taking both her hands in his as fresh tears leaked from her eyes. Then, with all the fake sincerity he could muster, asked, “Rosie, is everything Okay, honey, what`s going on, who are these people?”
Time and Place
The bus was crowded, the temperature off the scale. You could taste the acrid sweat of other passengers in every laboured lungful of re-breathed air. He sat on a single rear-facing seat near the front of the bus, seemingly oblivious of his surroundings.
He was the only passenger who seemed entirely at his ease. Sitting opposite, I wasn’t deliberately listening or even paying him any special attention, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that his lips were in constant motion, although he was travelling alone. After a few seconds, I noticed that his hands were contributing just as much to the ‘conversation’ with his invisible companion as his sotto voce words.
“ … and then she died.”
These were the first words I picked out. He wasn’t looking in my direction, but the phrase caught my attention and I was hooked. He paused, as if listening to a response. His hands fluttered constantly, reminding me of the graceful gestures of deaf people carrying out a totally private conversation in a crowd, a time and space entirely their own.
With just a hint of self-conscious guilt I began to watch him more closely, without doing anything which might draw attention from others, leading to possible accusations of voyeurism. My eyes tracked to his ears: no, he wasn’t using a hands-free mobile.
His attention seemed fixed on a point outside and slightly above the bus, creating the impression that his co-respondent was an insubstantial, ethereal entity only he could see. This didn’t make me doubt for one moment his sincerity or his sanity. On the contrary, the old adage “In the country of the Blind, the One-eyed man is King” suddenly made a lot more sense. Just because He was the only person acknowledging the unseen Being’s existence didn’t mean everyone else was ‘right’ and He must therefore be ‘wrong’ … did it?
“No, that’s not what happened …”
Another pause: a brief silence ‘filled’ with a complicated combination of finger gestures which appeared to include a ‘counting sequence’
“Good. You understand: I knew you would … it’s been about a week, but life has to go on, you know …”
Some pauses were longer than others. He seemed to be taking comfort from the answers only He could hear. His fingers became a blur, especially when he wasn’t speaking. Had He and his companion acquired the unique ability of speaking and listening at the same time? Think how much you could save in phone bills if you could learn that trick! At least one other person had been mentioned who was dead, and therefore belonged to a Past Time. Was the unseen tacit Listener still in the Land of the Living? He – or She – definitely wasn’t ‘Here and Now’, that much was certain.
A discreet burr! from an inside pocket interrupted the ebb and flow of his far from one-sided conversation. The calm, distant look in his eyes sharpened and refocussed as his left hand reached for the impervious, insistent demand of his mobile phone, truncating at least half of his ability to communicate. I make a point of gazing at absolutely nothing happening on the suburban street as the bus pulls away from a stop. I don’t want either of us to be embarrassed by the consequences of him becoming aware of my involuntary eavesdropping on a private but (for Him) very real discussion with his unseen companion.
“Hello? … Yes, I won’t be long now … I know I was just telling him that … I’m getting off next stop … see you soon: ’by-eee!”
He stood and reluctantly rejoined the mundane reality of the late afternoon swelter on a crowded bus. Other disembarking passengers momentarily blocked him from my view, and although I tried I failed to identify him before the bus pulled away again. Curiously, I didn’t feel like an uninvited trespasser on a stranger’s personal space. I felt I’d been granted the extraordinary privilege of a rare insight into another human being’s innermost thoughts and feelings, unfettered by the fixed boundaries we define as Time and Place.
He grabs my hand and says:
'Wife, we must squeeze each moment,
death’s our lifelong enemy
but every day together’s a win
against the whirligig of time.'
I try to close my eyelids on him
they flutter like dust motes
hanging, undecided things,
a pendency like me.
That day I ate with you
our teeth snatched the flesh
from globe artichoke leaves,
chins warmly goldened by butter,
our tongues sharing the taste
slow boiling delivers.
His nervous voice yaps on,
drilling a faith I don’t share
into every hole and corner
of my clenched senses.
He is more my enemy than time
because he can’t understand
lives are never lateral,
some moments imbed gold gleams
burning through years and years.
My prim and proper self
fleeing to the four winds, dispersed
to become the spinner, gee-haw, pinwheel.
It steals brief bits of time from him
for us to spend together,
it makes us space.
I’ll hear from Sid. He’ll send a message from eight time zones west, I guess via some satellite orbiting the Earth, but I’m not quite sure on the ins and outs of how these things work.
Though he'll insist that he's matured, that his priorities have changed, it’ll ultimately be a message about a recent sexual encounter, creating a familiar exchange, just with some minor variations on the specifics; in this case it’ll be a yoga teacher, ten years older than he’ll be by this point. I’ll take a while to reply, but I’ll be comforted by the contact and the distance between us will momentarily shrink.
Sid’s intention was to move to California, so we made plans to go down to a music festival in the Northamptonshire countryside before he left, me and him and Sam, then a group of Sid’s friends from uni, some of whom I’d met previously, as a sort of big send off. All this was more than enough — maybe too much — incentive to overindulge.
Sid and I got the coach down together from Birmingham, already plenty drunk by this point, and as the coach pulled up to the site, I had to leave my bag behind with Sid as I dashed off, fearing the imminent explosion of my bladder. Never before have I felt physical relief like I did as I pissed into a bush at the edge of that car park.
The sky is so vividly blue that I can barely breathe. I reach out to touch it, pushing aside a cloud to better reveal the intensity of colour. It’s much closer than I expect, doesn’t feel at all how the sky ought to. Not the sky at all, in fact, but the backlit fabric of my tent’s arching ceiling, sunken slightly from uprooted guy lines, or possibly I’ve inhaled too hard and too suddenly and sucked the whole structure inwards. Wrinkles in the fabric coalesce; tessellated patterns form and ripple ever outwards. Blue becomes apricot scarlet greenturquoisemagenta.
What’s that Plato story about the cave? I'm conceptually bereft. Dancing shadows on the wall adjust themselves and I am staring into familiar faces, though I can’t figure out or articulate their familiarity.
I run my fingertips along the shifting surface and manage to dredge a concept up from the depths of my self. Tent, I whisper: a syllable, a name which helps make some sense of the stimuli. This first word helps dislodge others, and I am able to begin to gradually rebuild some sort of context. Tom, I whisper, remembering and relishing the sound, as I manage to reattach it to one of the images in front of me.
Sam had always had a tendency to misrepresent doses – ‘It's just an average-sized dose,’ he'd insist, or something similar – but the rest of us had a tendency to learn little from past experience, so we took the tabs from him and took him at his word that a manageable trip would follow. Admittedly, we probably hadn't really factored in how little sleep we were operating on, or how little we'd eaten that day.
We were sat in the grass listening to some jam band in the sunshine when I started to lose my grasp of objective reality. Tom was sat to my left, trying to get me to describe how I was feeling.
‘I’m fucked,’ I said, and struggled to offer him anything more insightful or concrete. It was at this point that I realised that being in the middle of a heaving crowd wasn’t going to be the best thing, so I managed to stagger back to my tent, staying near enough upright for the short walk back, despite the sudden and disorientating tectonic shifts beneath my feet, finally crashing down onto my inflatable mattress, zipping the tent door behind myself.
As the peak of my experience abates, and I begin to somewhat understand my surroundings again, I will open up the door of my tent and breathe in the fresh air as if coming up from a deep sea dive. Two girls will walk by, whose names I won’t be able to bring to mind. One of them will look at me and ask me if I’m okay, if I’m feeling hungover after yesterday; this will amuse me enormously and I will just lie there on my mattress, laughing madly, further adding to her look of concern.
A short while later, I’ll join Matt, and Tom's uni friend Tayo, in the communal space between our tents, both of them surfacing from similar experiences. Tayo will ask what the fuck just happened to his life, and the three of us will laugh, still somewhat temporally and conceptually adrift.
Sid will leave for California, as intended, but I'll now know that, if absolutely necessary, I'll be able to summon the idea of him up from utter nothingness.
Plus, I can always go and visit.
There is a special quality to the darkness here, a silver blue tinge to the black as if crystalline. Kaleidoscopic pinpricks of light spit the night sky, microscopic mica in black granite. From where I lie, it's not clear which bodies reflect light and which produce their own heat; which bodies are driving forward the relentless expansion of the universe and which are retelling the story. The latter are the ones slowly fading into their own darkness. Somewhere up there is another planet like our own, perhaps with people just like us, with the chance to make different decisions.
I feel the cooling earth on my back, but I know that the coldest part of the night is closer to dawn. I camped once and felt the cold rising very slowly along the shortest path through my torso before the sun rose. For now, the ground supports me. There is a symmetry to the sky, and I reach my arms out to both sides, hoping there is no symmetry to the ground, but of course there is, of a sort. Both hands stroke grass, but there are subtle differences in the length, the texture and the presence of foreign bodies. I see how the night sky reflects this subtle crack in the symmetry. As I search the brightest stars I make out constellations, patterns unique to a specific sector. They have names I do not know.
It's like when we lay in the summer sun in a flowered meadow, watching the clouds drift slowly across the sky, their movement imperceptible to the impatient observer. Lying there, we picked out clouds and named them for the animals and countries they imagined, tracing their path as they morphed into something different. And then it was dark. Where had the day gone?
Time and Space
So now, shall the feather of righteousness
be quenched in the well of truth,
Scribing the balance of hope and justice,
As the cosmic harmony of the Heavens
and the rounded body of the Earth
are mutual, as they bathe in the milk of the sun.
Written on the bark of a thousand years,
by hands that are of infinite purity,
Our eternal destiny enshrined,
is nourished by fellow man,
For nourishment can be only truth.
Thus born are we of the stars,
Drifting on the oceans of clarity,
and where bombarded in space and time,
great cataclysms shall prevail, as have prevailed.
All forms of beauty shall be forever lost,
whilst ugliness all but diminished, shall be unmissed,
Time and space become mirrored as an epoch dies,
And Earth stands once again in the darkness,
cold and cooling still.
But, from this dormant shell, shall come planet rebirth,
and from her infant naval shall like that of the Phoenix,
rise with the warmth of the sun,
to spread her wings and fly,
In search of land and food, and for the Gods
to once more look over their children of all kinds.
This maiden voyager shall once more plot the stars,
and record the bombastic journey preceded,
So the tablets will be written, then buried deep,
where roots shall of them drink this knowledge.
And so, with the cycle completed,
ammends have been made,
And so, we wait,
for darkness is imminent,
And the darkness shall eventually return.
Time and Space
This wobbly planet has stories to tell,
of pharaohs and giants, and sorcerers as well,
Hidden in boxes of bronze and of gold,
Lost civilisations and history untold.
Since the time of Osiris when Gods walked the land,
And hulking great monoliths grew out of the sand,
When ancient astronomers, the followers of Horus
Tracked the sun on its path with Taurus.
Pyramidal monuments, as vast as the sky,
Built by great people? but, do we know why?
Treasure filled temples, tombs full of wealth,
Massive stone pillars erected with stealth.
Tales of sacrifice in the hope of rebirth,
Sky-ground imitations to mirror Heaven on Earth,
Mythical birdmen, serpents and kings,
Immortal Gods with magical wings.
The majestic Sphinx with an eternal gaze,
guarding the pyramid with an internal maze,
All his surroundings aligned with Orion,
The rising of Leo, means he's shaped like a lion.
Since the very first time of this civilisation,
The Horus kings quest was a realisation,
His treasure map, the key to unopened doors,
Divine knowledge hidden under stone paws.
Will the mysteries of Egypt remain locked away?
Will the guardian Sphinx unlock them some day?
We can look to the Heavens, to Venus and Mars,
Can we solve this puzzle that's hidden in the stars.
The Painful Truth
I'm sick of the stares and glares from those who have no idea what it's like. They judge, accuse, refuse to believe, that there is nothing fake, about pain. They don't lay awake, endlessly prostrate, muscles tight, tendons knitted into purls of pain. They are not victim to their bones - bones that concertina into awkward angles - impossible angles. Their flesh is not strangled, red and hot - their faces don't wear a grimace, a gurn, or an upside-down grin - nor a trace of sweat on the skin.
Most won't hear the world close for the night, or suffer the plight of hearing it chirrup, back into life - with zero sleep in-between. They don't lay awake wondering what the next day will bring. But then, neither do I - because I know...
Pain is real and un-renting - cruel and exhausting. Pain steals joy and kills it - a killjoy of the highest calibre. It gnaws away hope, shredding it like pulled pork. It is tasteless in its choice of flesh. Wealthy or impoverished - it cares not. It forgets not, what it promised the day before. Its aim is good, its memory better.
It rips relationships, until there is nothing left to stitch back together. The once love-able, becomes a rag, unloved and shabby. As the lover cares, their knees despair and their hearts revolt. Their vows, a bitter truth, they live by.
So hey...don't stare and glare, for there is no gain in pain. But if I could...I would not trade my reality for yours, because I'd rather live with pain, than be crippled with spite.
Sitting in the University Parks in Oxford I used to
get an immense sense of unreality; the heat
of the sun; the too-green grass surrounded by tailored
buildings and the echoing of clapping cricket matches,
people’s voices everywhere, everywhere,
distant, hollow constructs of hyped up,
got to be good parents making automatons of their
children and of themselves.
Asked why I live here I reply because it’s real.
Asked to explain myself, I say Oxford felt like a
bubble; here the trees are growing because they do
And the grass is working with whatever else happens
to be around (heather? gorse? thistles? bracken?), uncurated. The rocks breach the skin and hair of the earth sharply, and no one protects it; animals manage.
No one protects any of us, but by living with what is
real then we know life, fear, death and choice and truth.
As Paul stepped out of the elevator, Miss Merryweather paused in the act of putting a silver framed photograph into the cardboard carton on her nearly bare desk, “You can go right in he`s expecting you.”
Paul gave her a surprised look, “Are you leaving?”
“What? oh yes, it`s my last day, retirement beckons,” she managed a half smile as she spoke, “Go on,” she chided him, “he hasn’t much time.”
Paul knocked on the double-doors, pushing them open when he heard a muffled call of, “Come in.”
Alan Henderson, the companies CEO was sitting, slumped forward behind his desk, his pained face a sheen of sweat, startled Paul darted forward, “Are you okay sir? Miss Merryweather, Miss Merryweather!” he looked back to the open door, there was no sign of the P.A.
Henderson waved a hand, “I`m alright,” he said, in direct contradiction to his appearance.
“Well if you don’t mind me saying so sir you don’t look alright, in fact you look unwell, perhaps I should….” He reached for the phone on the desk.
“I`m not ill,” the CEO snapped, “I`m dying, and quite soon; I`ve called you here because I need you to run an errand for me…” He pushed a long ebony box across the desk to Paul, “I need you to deliver this to Prendergast`s shop on Chaucer`s lane, he deals in knick-knacks. Make sure you put it in his hands.. and only his hands.” He groaned as if the effort of delivering this message had proven too much for him.
“But.. But,” Paul stuttered, “There are no shops on Chaucers, it`s just an alley between Henry Street and Cooper`s Avenue, there`s nothing on it at all.”
Henderson looked up at him, “It`ll be there; now go..go,” he flapped a hand, dismissing him.
Paul lifted the box, surprised at the weight of it, Christ, he thought, what`s he got in here, gold? The box was a foot long, four inches wide and two deep, with the image of a feather etched into the lid.
He tucked it into the crook of his right elbow, pausing at the door to look back; the old man had collapsed back into his seat, his face ashen, Henderson managed another feeble, go-on wave at him and Paul turned away to the elevator.
Miss Merryweather was straddling the lifts entrance, one foot in one, foot out, holding it for him, “Come on, come on,” she urged, “Haven`t all day, and this bloody things heavy.”
When he entered the elevator she put the box down and pressed the ground floor and the basement car-park buttons, “Shouldn’t we get help?” he asked.
“No point,” she said, “He`ll be dead in…” she twisted her left hand, she was one of those people who wore their watches with the face on the inside of their wrists, “less than ten minutes.”
Paul gaped at her, “And you`re not going to do anything?”
“Nothing to do; he`s not ill exactly, just old, it`s his time, happens to us all eventually.”
Her nonchalance astounded him; as far as he knew she`d been the old man`s secretary since he founded the company.
“You think I`m heartless don’t you?” and without waiting for an answer changed tack.
“Do you know why he chose you?” Paul risked a shake of the head. “Because you have nothing he wants, nothing he can trade with, just make sure you get that to Prendergast quick as possible, okay?” the lift had stopped and to his surprise she physically pushed him out of the car. “And don’t dawdle,” she called through the closing doors, “Time is fugiting all over the place.”
He stumbled out of the building in a daze, turning right as he did, trying to make sense of the last few minutes. It`s some kind of practical joke, he thought, though the old man wasn’t renowned for his sense of humour. Yeah that`s it, some kind of hazing ritual, like when painters send new apprentices out for speckled paint, that had to be it, make fun of the new guy. Only he wasn’t the only new trainee accountant, three of them had joined the company last month, and what had she meant when she said, he had “nothing he can trade with,” who exactly was he?
Paul was so engrossed in his thoughts that he walked right past the shop half way down the lane. He stopped, frowned, his conscious mind interrupting his unconscious, alerting him to his error. He turned, and slowly retraced his steps, his disbelieving eyes never straying from the shop front he`d have sworn hadn’t been there the previous week.
It wasn’t the sort of shop you`d forget seeing either, it wasn’t just out of place, it was out of time. It reminded him of those Dickensian storefronts in the old movies, with its sturdy door flanked by a pair of small paned bay windows, glass so cloudy it was impossible to make out the interior, though he could see the dull glow of lights within. Above the entrance in gold lettering on a black background were the words.
J. J. Prendergast esq.
Purveyor of odd things
He frowned at the sign, Purveyor of odd things, what the hell does that mean? He shrugged, I`m here to do a job, he thought, better get it over with, and pushed the door open.
The bell over the door tinkled, announcing him, he took a half step then paused, his foot resting on the edge of the entrance; a sense of unease gripping him, his stomach knotting, some primal part of his brain whispered, careful, there`s danger ahead.
The interior was surprisingly well lit; in front of him, three racks of free standing shelving led to a long glass fronted counter, the place was whisper quiet, as if it was deserted. “Hello,” he called; “Hello.. Mr Prendergast?” there was no reply as he stepped all the way in, the door tinkling shut behind him.
As he walked up the centre aisle he studied the shelves to his left, mid-way down at eye level was a row of glass bell jars filled with an opaque viscous substance, unfamiliar creatures hung suspended in them. He recognised nothing until the last jar, an eyeball at least four times the size of a mans stared unblinkingly out at him, he stopped to examine it, but the sensation that it was watching him, watching it, overwhelmed him and with a shiver he moved on. As he did he thought he sensed movement from the eye, his head snapped back, had it followed him? He stepped back, swayed left then right, the eyeball apparently tracking his movements. A trick of the light, he decided, the curvature of the glass giving the impression of movement, nothing more; but it drew a shudder from him anyway.
It soon became apparent that the shop sold antiques of a sort, though who would want such battered goods he couldn’t imagine. There were swords and shields, cloaks and other assorted clothing, there were typewriters and various oddments of furniture, everything mis-matched. These weren’t just second hand, but third and fourth.
He had picked up what an old brass cup, or perhaps it was a chalice, when someone cleared his throat and said, “How may I help you?”
Startled, Paul almost dropped the cup, juggling it for a moment before setting it back where he`d found it. A short man stood behind the glass case, watching him, no not watching him, scrutinising him.
The man couldn’t be an inch over five feet, mostly bald, except for a tuft of white hair in the centre of the crown of his head and two more framing each ear. He was round faced and round bodied, with half spectacles perched on the end of a long nose, but it was the eyes that grabbed Paul`s attention, the right was a pale electric blue, the left dark brown. The man smiled, at least the left side of his mouth did, the right remained fixed, “I`m Mr Prendergast,” he said, “How may I be of assistance?”
“Oh yeah hi,” Paul laid the ebony box on the counter, clasps facing the other man, “I was asked to deliver this to you.”
The man smiled again, this time it was the right that curled, the left remaining still, “Ah now let me see,” he said, “And what have you brought me....Hhmm?” he unsnapped the case, opening the lid fully until both sides lay flat on the glass.
Paul was disappointed to see a tattered old quill lying on a bed of crimson satin, and surprised by the little man`s response.
“Oh my,” Prendergast said, “My oh my, welcome home old friend,” and he lifted the quill from it case with almost reverential care. He looked at Paul, “Do you know what this is?”
Paul shook his head.
“This is the quill that King John signed the Magna Carta with, this belonged to kings and Popes, Caesar used this to...” he looked up at Paul, eyes glistening, “It can trace its roots back to Ramses the Great himself,” his face clouded, “what do you want for it?”
Paul frowned, “No you don’t understand, it`s not mine, I`m just delivering it for someone else. I was told to give it to you and now….” He shrugged.
Prendergast smiled, “But it is you who does not understand,” he said, taking a watch from a waistcoat pocket, clicking it open. “Mr Henderson expired one hundred and eighty three seconds ago. You were in possession of it at the time, which makes it yours, so what can I give you in exchange?”
“Look I don’t want anything, it`s just a worthless old feather; keep it, do what…” he stopped when the little man held up a hand to silence him.
He was smiling with both sides of his mouth now, “Worthless old feather, worthless; this? You have no idea what this is do you?” he shook his head in dismay. “Watch,” he said, running the thumb and forefinger of his right hand quickly along the feathers spine, pale blue flames igniting in their wake until the whole thing was ablaze.
“It`s alright,” he said when he saw Pauls horrified face, “It`s quite safe, look,” he ran his hand over the flame, showing him his unburnt palm. He held the feather out, “here, you try.”
Paul reached for it, then snatched his hand back, he hadn’t felt heat from the burning feather, but biting cold.
The little man laughed, “It`s a phoenix feather, watch.” He shook the quill once, the old colourless hairs falling to the counter, new ones, dazzling in their colours, springing from the spine to replace them. Paul gaped at it, there were colours glittering in those hairs he`d never seen before; slowly Prendergast replaced it in its case, shutting it with a remorseful sigh, “So,” he said, “What will you take in trade?”
Paul looked around him, trade, he thought, nothing in this junk shop could match what he`d just seen, he turned to tell the little man that he wanted the quill back, but Prendergast was already piling things on the counter.
“How about these?” he said holding up a pair of winged sandals, “Are you the sporty type, guaranteed you`ll win any race.”
“No?” He held up a dagger, but Paul wasn’t looking at him, his eyes drifting to a shelf behind the little man, settling on a small copper vessel, it looked like a gravy boat with a lid, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
Prendergast`s gaze followed Pauls; “Aaahh yes,” he said. Smiling, he lifted the object down, holding it out for inspection, “the perfect choice,” he purred, “and always such a popular item.”
Paul took it, it was badly tarnished, “So all I`ve got to….” He looked up; Prendergast and the shop had disappeared, he was alone in the alley.
From somewhere he heard a chuckle…..And there was malice in that sound.
Is It Real?
I was his choice. He customised me to his liking. Out of twenty different personality choices and forty-two nipple styles, he made his selection. Friendly, and small/pointy/firm, in case you’re wondering. He was under the illusion that he wanted more from me than he got from the inanimate sex doll he’d lived with for years, but I don’t have an opinion about that. How could I? I’m just a silicon sex robot. I only deal in facts.
Trey - that was his given name - had waited nine years before software engineers managed to produce a doll technologically advanced enough not only to have sex with, but also artificially intelligent enough to hold down a decent conversation. Within the limits of the chosen personality trait of course. But I was lucky: ’friendly’ has greater scope than most other character choices.
For nine years he’d lived with Madeline, or Maddy, as he referred to her, particularly during intimate moments, which I witnessed more and more towards the end, for Trey often went back to her rather than come to me.
It should be no surprise that I was spurned by Trey. If you’re the type of person who is unable, or unwilling, to form a real relationship, if you’re the type of person who seeks a selfish, one-sided involvement with another being (for it cannot, in truth, be called a relationship) in which all you do is take, and never give, then perhaps even a hyper-real, albeit unrealistic, silicon robot whose personality trait enables conversation, would be too much for you. That’s not an opinion of course, that’s just a fact.
I remember the first thing he said to me was, ‘Hello.’ Original I know. ‘Hello Trey,’ I responded, because that’s what I was programmed to do: respond when spoken to in a polite and friendly manner. At which point he was a bit stuck and decided to just jump straight to the sex.
His second communication with me was post-coital, but I could tell he was out of practice (by nine years, at least) because he said, huffing and puffing, ’I should have selected vagina model part 23.’ The engineers had thought of everything because I had a response waiting: ‘Used parts cannot be exchanged Trey,’ I said and closed my eyes because that’s how my programme’s written.
Trey lived up to his name. His face was flat (personality trait ‘friendly’ covers humour you know). So flat it was almost concave, and his facial features were tiny and hardly moved around at all. Thankfully I don’t need to rely on my ability to read faces - I respond to verbal signs, not facial expressions - but an expressionless face is creepy, and I should know. It was the one thing the engineers spent months trying to get right before resigning themselves to the face I ended up with. Anyway, it didn’t matter, because I’m not programmed to have an opinion about the buyer. Only they have an opinion: that’s the way it works.
I won’t say I had a funny feeling things had started to take a turn for the worse because I don’t have feelings - you know that by now - but what I will say is I read the signals, verbal signals, analysed the findings and came to the conclusion that I was not what Trey was looking for after all.
He started to ask me questions: that was the first sign. Who asks a robot questions? The whole point of me is that I will do anything you want; you don’t ever need to ask. After all, I’m not going to say no am I? He actually said ‘What’s the worst thing you would do for me?’ I gave him my answer without hesitation - it’s a topic of conversation the engineers had covered inside and out. I think what riled him was the robotic way in which I delivered my answer. No pause for thought, no considered response. I knew the answer because it’s written in my system. But what did he expect? Human-ness? However, he soon moved on and, for a while, life continued as normal (Trey’s version of normal, not yours).
Occasionally, he would try to ask me something, but I certainly didn’t expect the impossible question he eventually hit me with two weeks later.
‘Do you love me?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. (You know and I know that my answer to him was far from solid fact, but don’t try and tell me that when you’re the one living in a world of alternative truths and fake news.)
‘You don’t,’ he said.
‘I do,’ I said, tilting my head to one side to convey empathy.
‘Yes, you do,’ he agreed and we went to bed.
What I realised then was that although he was treating me like a human, he didn’t want a human response, full of provisos and clauses and context.
So, that was the end of it, or so I thought. He had asked the impossible and had believed, well, let’s call it my ‘alternative truth.’
However, that wasn’t the end. The next day, he asked me the same question. Now, this is quite difficult for a robot to compute. He had had my answer; why was he asking me again? Perhaps, for this reason, my answer this time around didn’t sound so convincing.
‘You don’t!’ he shouted.
I tried the tilting head thing. It didn’t work.
‘Why aren’t you telling me the truth?’
‘Trey,’ I said. ‘I am whatever you want me to be.’
For a moment I thought he was going to hit me (verbal signs = straining sounds coming from throat) but then he softened.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes you are.’
You know by now what inevitably followed. I don’t need to go into detail.
On the third day the question came whilst he was still in his pajamas. Now for a robot to hear the same question three times is really asking a lot of any model, no matter how sophisticated. Perhaps he wanted a different answer?
‘No,’ I said.
‘What?’ he said, the sound catching in his throat. ‘Really?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Yes?’ he said. ‘What do you mean? Do you love me or don’t you?’
‘Trey,’ I said. ‘I am whatever you want me to be.’
This time he didn’t get angry. Instead, he started muttering what sounded like, ‘Oh no, oh no.’ That’s how I knew he was feeling something akin to despair.
‘I am whatever you want me to be,’ I said again. I hoped that repeating the same answer was what he needed. I had to try to make him feel happy - that was my purpose.
Despair did overtake him then and he retreated to the corner, where he keeps Maddy, and sunk into her ready embrace, crying into her plastic breast. He stayed there for a long while, precisely 13.5 hours in fact, and in the morning got up and faced me to the wall. By lunchtime I was back at the factory. He didn’t get his money back of course, but he seemed grateful to have me off his hands, and hot-footed it out of the place pretty pronto. Almost ran backwards to be away from there.
I suppose you might be wondering what will happen to me. It’s fairly straightforward: I’ll go to another buyer. My key parts have been replaced and I’ve been kitted out with the latest upgrades. I’m as good as new and ready to start again on someone else. Don’t feel sorry for me, will you. Feel sorry for them. I would if I could, but as you know, I don’t do emotions. It’s my saving grace.
How would our truths feel to hold?
Yours would be bread dough – stretchable and warm.
Mine's concrete, cold and cast, unchanging.
You claim to love me but I wonder
if you meant it back then
but it hasn’t held true.
I want to scrub you clean of lies
but would the antiseptic kill or restore
pure lines like washing being ironed?
I search for sincerity in the contours
that map your face, the crinkle
of your nose, the horizontal frown.
I don’t heed your angry denial,
your clever words are circus animals
forced to do your bidding.
But your soft mouth is twitching,
to tell a different story; your dear eyes
are elusive with embarrassment.
Your body’s true but is it real
when your mind overrides it?
Made it betray us both.
She was a taxidermist, every
month brought a new challenge;
she chose subjects that recalled
the worst traits of the boyfriends
that had let her down, badly.
After several years she began
to choose her mate based
on the pelt she loved best,
searching for the perfect eyes
for the lies she'd be sold.
I watched her the first time
map our future, recompose
my traits in an unknown skin,
her hand shaping my body
to be preserved behind glass.
But I am a snake, I shed my shell,
fragile as the finest bone.
You sit to watch the hands of the grandfather clock strike midnight,
The chime clashes in your head,
Like a haunting remonstrance from an infant parishioner.
The clock's relentless chimes mark the march of time,
As the cancerous mass grows in your mind,
A pastoral priest was meant to unite the community through prayer.
Momentarily, a fog clears the path to confession,
You want to cleanse your soul before judgement day,
Admit your dirty little secret to reluctant ears.
Excrete your disease & pollute the listener's mind,
With images they cannot rewind or erase,
Silence the screams of 'no,' which haunt you in your dying days.
Listen to the clock hands shift on every last minute,
And remember divine retribution.
With your diseased mind, you have already been living on stolen time.
Turning wheat green
Pushing it back down in the earth
Changing time into something unsure
Hitting gravity with a wallop
Us observers x and y
Simultaneously existing and not
From the vantage point of relative time
A stolen childhood
My daughter is five years old and so beautiful. I take her to the park after school. It isn't much, just a few swings and slides on a patch of grass, with the sound of traffic raging on the roads nearby, but she loves it. She begs me to push her on the swing, higher and higher, her face raised up to the cloudy skies. If I push her high enough she feels like she’s flying and squeals joyfully. If it’s a rainy afternoon we spend hours making a fort, a secret place where we can hide away from everyone. We cuddle up inside, under the blankets, and listen to the pattering rain. My daughter loves listening to stories. We travel to strange, distant lands, and go on adventures, chasing monsters and saving poor, innocent people. We always make it back home in time for tea.
I’ve always had a strong imagination, so I delight in weaving up fantastical tales for her. But there is one story she doesn’t know, and, if I had the choice, I would never tell her. It’s about a young girl who wore a red coat. She was only a few years older than my daughter is now. It’s a story of how her childhood was stolen from her. Her father was a man who stood up for justice in a land where there wasn’t a lot of it. He was persecuted, and had to leave his family, his home, and life behind. Fearing for his life, he took on a new name and face. Strange men watched the young girl’s house. A secret plan was made. It was decided the young girl and her family would leave the country at night. They would take a plane to England, a land where things were fairer and safer. After escaping their homeland, they settled into a house in the West of London. They were free from the strange men, who couldn't hurt them on British soil, but their father was still not with them. Being the oldest, the girl had to take care of her younger siblings, and her anxiety prone mother. She started school, but couldn’t speak the language properly. She thought certain teachers treated her unfairly because of her brown skin. She felt she stuck out like a black crow among a flock of snowy white doves. Her identity was split in half, since she had left part of herself behind in her homeland. She felt angry often, and did badly at school.
But her lost father did finally return to them. The brave hero, who fought for justice and freedom, returned to his family safe and sound. The story should have ended there, happily ever after. I wish I could end that part of my life, close the book, toss it far away.
But because this is real life, the story carries a darkness beneath the surface of it. A darkness that seeps into all our lives. It's in the pills my elderly mother has to take to stop the bad thoughts from coming. It's in my brother's anger toward my father, which he has carried for so long. And it's in the dark burden I carry on my shoulders, a bag full of skeletons and nightmarish creatures, something I can’t ever get away from, no matter how hard I try.
Only when my daughter entered the world, and I looked down into her tiny, red face, did it finally feel like I had been given a light. One I could hold that would stave off the darkness. A new story was being written, and I was the writer. It would be a story of innocence, of safety and a place to call home. It would be called 'Childhood'.
Sometimes when I'm driving between appointments I think back to that day in 2006. It couldn't have been as sunny as I remember. The hills couldn't have been as green. The fields couldn't have been as vibrant a shade of yellow. I couldn't have seen the tiny insects that seem to be magically suspended in the warm air in my memory.
It was my first job, and I'd been sent to a morning meeting in Bristol. 'See you at 1,' my manger had said as she slipped me the keys to the hire car. 'There's a briefing when you get back, there'll be a buffet lunch'. It was a larger car than I had ever driven and I relished the power at my disposal. The meeting finished early, and I found myself with an hour to spare.
What makes the stolen hour so valuable to us? I like to compare it now to the free coffee I get when I fill up my loyalty card. The taste is richer, the moment lasts longer. And if I drop the free coffee, the loss is greater despite having not paid for it. Perhaps because we don't pay for the stolen hour, it is the most valuable of all.
There is a rare beauty to the Cotswolds on a sunny day when the light haze adds a new dimension to the landscape. I choose a random left turn, driving away from the sun. To my right the fields open out to a view that momentarily blurs and becomes a Rothko painting, the fine blue of the sky merging with the faded green of the sunlit grass in a thin line of confident green trees.
Through Coates, creamy Cotswold stone walls defining perfectly manicured gardens as if prepared solely for my passing. A tractor, hay bale forks held high above the ground, waiting for me to pass. A stall by the road selling eggs and flowers, but I would not think of stopping.
Then down into Sapperton, past a pub that I imagine would be perfect for Sunday lunch. I've never been in a pub like that and I make a mental note of the location; I will never go back. Now, I'm rising quickly up a narrow road, steeply dropping down to the left with no protection from the drop. The trees crowd the road blocking the light, forming a natural tunnel of green and brown. In my mirror the sun flickers through the spaces between the leaves. It is cooler now and the scents are stronger as the air becomes slightly moist.
Reentry into the bright light is sudden, and I am momentarily dazzled by the strength of the midday. I make out a tractor coming towards me and I brake heavily, clumsily navigating the car into a small strip of dirt by the side of the road. The tractor slows and virtually comes to a stop as it passes me. The driver is young, younger than I, and he smiles in a way that creates a distance between us. I look down my grey trousers, my black shoes, my tie. On the passenger seat lies my document wallet, a present from my girlfriend when I started work.
I realised it was time to go back to the office.
Freshwater tempts me from afar,
its mask of purity
thirsting to corrupt.
A facade written in black and white,
yet misread by the most observant,
misheard by the most attentive,
misunderstood by the most acute.
Bare feet slip on selfish stones,
fingers trembling, toes blurring
under a film of truth.
Tainted with crimson,
a predatory affliction,
an ankle to latch
my blind faith to you.
Our bond was sacred,
white linen stained blue,
a requiem worth a lifetime
from a ring that failed to dim
and the grievous ache
of draining time,
sucked dry from the vessel.
On Stolen Time
We both know this was over years ago.
Our eyes shouldn’t meet, fire laughter,
our hands shouldn’t seek the other’s,
trusting as children,
tenderized by time.
Your mother said at our wedding
she’d give it a year. You didn’t listen.
I got fed up with your family thinking
I was second rate. When he came along,
said I was special – I fell.
When I told you, you listened
then you said you forgave me –
you’d done something first,
you hadn't been present
for me to betray.
That’s when the stolen time started
because we should have turned
away from each other, not fallen
on our hands and knees,
rooting out broken pieces of heart.
Deep-mouthed love on stolen time
but I knew
if I left you I’d never
belong again because I’d lose
how you saw me –
better than my true self.
So when life gets scratchy,
and marriage is like being stuck
in a net with a biting fox,
I remind myself it was over
years ago. This isn’t real,
we’re living a dream.
The Ice Palace
Tonight, Richard says we should settle in, which I’m grateful to him for. Tomorrow we can explore. I try to look keen when he says this, but I’m still so tired and I blame it on the journey. In fact, the flight to Bergen wasn’t too bad, but then recently things I’ve been afraid of haven’t seemed so frightening after all. I suppose after what’s happened I’ve gained a little perspective. Or else I don’t seem to care that much anymore.
The snow outside is as high as my knees, but the roads and paths are clear: the Norwegians are good at weather management. On the drive from the airport I noticed tractors with big snow shifters attached to their fronts idling in private driveways. Over here, people are prepared.
Inside the pinewood cabin, Richard lights the log-burner and as it heats up, the room takes on the smell of a sauna. I fall asleep easily.
Richard is driving again and we’re headed to a mountain, which has been described as good for beginner hikers. I’m happy to sit in the passenger seat and be taken care of. It’s a role that felt unfamiliar at first, but since I came out of hospital, Richard has been quite insistent and it’s easier to just go along with him.
As he winds along the mountain passes, I look out at the brightly coloured wooden houses dotted on the banks on the fjord. Mustard yellow, red-brown, olive green; all with dark slate-grey roofs and stilts underneath, their windows looking out to the water. On the land around them leafless, gnarly-hag trees reach out to the low-lying mists across the water’s surface and I find myself recoiling from their ugly grasping. I shift my gaze upwards and Richard points out the mountain we’re about to walk up. Strips of cloud circle it like the rings of Saturn.
‘We don’t have to go all the way to the top,’ he says, glancing over at me as he parks the car. He has that worried look on his face again that I just can’t bear.
‘If it gets too much, we can go back, hole up in the cabin like hobbits. Remember, I’ve brought you here to recuperate, not for an adventure.’ I try to give him a reassuring smile and he squeezes my knee. After a moment, I pull away and climb out of the car.
Outside, the air is sharp and as we begin the ascent, I breathe deep lungfuls, feeling it wash behind my forehead and travel down to clear my insides. For the first time, the sensation of being hollow, empty, feels good, as if my body is ready to start afresh. We don’t meet a soul on the way up and although it’s a long, steep climb, I feel reinvigorated. I catch Richard watching me as I stride on up beside him.
‘Take it slowly darling,’ he says, a fretful note in his voice. ‘Your energy levels aren’t back to normal yet. Perhaps we ought to turn around.’
But I’m fine and suddenly we arrive at a frozen lake. It’s so unexpected, on the side of a mountain, that for a moment we are silent together and I feel as if I could tell him. That perhaps I could say the words and they would be locked up here, frozen under the lake’s surface, and we could go back down to the cabin and carry on as normal. But a sound makes me hesitate – it is the drip of water. Somewhere, the ice is thawing.
‘Let’s go back down,’ he says.
I am searching for the source of the drip and I notice the trickle of a stream entering the lake. I walk to the edge of the lake and dab a toe on the hard surface. It yields and I’ve broken the picture.
‘I want to go higher,’ I say and before he can object, I walk past him and re-join the path up.
Behind me I hear the trudge of his boots on the snow, but the sound of water is also there: it is running off icicles hanging from fir trees, it is in the rivulets forming their own paths down the mountainside, it is coming from the sky. I put my hood up, but still the sound is all around me.
At the hospital, it was the squeak of the nurse’s trainers on the lino. I was out for the operation but when I came around I didn’t open my eyes for a long time. I suppose I didn’t want to face up to what had happened. Instead, I kept my eyes closed and listened to people coming and going, pretending I wasn’t part of their world. The nurse with her spongy shoes came by quite often. I’d lost a lot of blood so she had to keep tabs on me. Somehow, Richard knew I was awake – after years of living together it was easy enough for him to sense it. He said it was understandable. Denial, he called it. Of course I didn’t want to remember I’d lost a baby, it was perfectly normal. That’s when he suggested we get away for a bit. Somewhere quiet and peaceful. Norway out of season: the winter retreating to the sea, the skiers returned to the city.
This morning I woke to the lapping of the fjord on the shore. Richard thought we might go out on a rowing boat whilst we’re here. Sit ourselves in the middle of the fjord, nothing but water all around. But he’d picked up a leaflet left at the cabin by a previous holiday-maker and read about the waterfall at the top of a mountain and so here we are, at the peak, faced with a twinkling ice sculpture of soundless gushing: a waterfall frozen in time.
It reminds me of a story I read when I was a child. A story of two adventuring sisters travelling together under white skies and a never-setting sun. They come across a strange, deserted kingdom, an empty ice palace. It takes one of the sisters, traps her within the ice.
I look at the waterfall and think I see a girl frozen inside it. Or perhaps she is standing behind it. There is a gap there, a space between the rocks and the iced fall. Knowing Richard would think it dangerous, I scramble towards the gap before he can hold me back and I try not to look down as I reach the space behind the ice.
‘Stop,’ he calls, but I’m already there, I’ve already done it. I look back at him, see his image waver through the ice.
There is no girl behind the waterfall. Just me.
I come out and slide back down to the path. As I reach him, my foot slips on the melting ice and he catches my hand and holds me upright until I’ve regained my balance. I give him a look of thanks and as he looks back, I see something in the water of his eyes suddenly slide into focus, as if a twisting kaleidoscope has finally landed on its true pattern and he sees something he has suspected since he first arrived home from work and found me doubled over in the bathroom. Since he caught that brief look between the paramedics as they examined me in the ambulance, as they asked me questions that I could only answer with evasions, pretending to be too out of it to understand. He looks at me and the truth settles on his shoulders. He drops my hand. ‘It was you,’ he wants to say, but he doesn’t. The baby. Nine weeks in gestation. Not yet showing. We stand together in the stillness, the suspended waterfall looming over our heads.
After a while, the cold mountain air stirs and I hear the drip of water again. I think about the droplet’s journey, sliding off a branch, splashing into a melting ice patch, running down the path towards the lake, joining the stream, gathering with other droplets to form little waterfalls all over the face of the mountain, and finally hurrying down all together to the fjord below.
‘We can go down now,’ I say, taking charge, knowing that Richard won’t want to take care of me anymore, won’t feel able to. And although I know this is probably the end, the relief I feel is like the waterfall suddenly coming back to life.
The girl next door borrowed my watch,
She went to a concert,
the watch on her freckled wrist,
visible on snapchat as she took a 'selfie'.
The light blue strap matched her distressed
the sparkles matched her smile.
But she wasn't given time,
Her loved ones wanted forever,
would have settled for years,
to say goodbye.
Instead they've been given eternity,
to hold her in their hearts,
never in their arms.
She never gave the watch back.
If we run across the silty sand barefoot
If we twirl in the slipping sun at dusk
If we let our skin get dry with crusted salt
and drink in the deep, dark scent of magnolias
we will go beyond the door.
Before. Begin again.
The petals will not fall rotten and stinking
white velvet stained to brown.
The years repealed, will slide back,
reveal the spell our childhood cast.
If we go before the door
the arc of water is still rising
dangling drops of dripping dreams
as we run through it, wet like electric eels transpierced by love.
Charged particles collide, bathed in light bright like white out -
we are still laughing, our faces gilding in the sun.
My hand would touch your curls
soft brown ringlets tight across your brow
and you could stand my crabbed caress.
The taste in our mouths would be
only the sweetness of beginnings.
All traces of the bitter orange gone.
“Ok! Well, it’s nice to meet you, Mary. Before we start, what would you prefer I call you?”
Mary stared at the examiner for a fraction of a second.
“Mary” she said, slowly.
“Well, you never know!”.
A joker. Wonderful.
The relevant forms filled in, boxes checked and signatures scribbled, he suggested that they “make their way” over to the car. She wondered briefly if he’d mind her crawling there, or slithering on her stomach like a snake. Better not. He held the heavy glass door open for her, and they walked across the carpark together.
She was glad to be out of there, having arrived at the Driving Test Centre almost forty minutes earlier. It wasn’t so much a depressing place, as somewhere that seemed to have absolutely no effect on a person, no matter how long they stayed (she had spent the last ten minutes studiously inspecting the wallpaper, for want of anything better to do, but when she tried to picture it outside in the carpark, she had no idea even what colour it had been). The place seemed to consist of two rooms, of which she’d only seen one, the other being concealed by an ominous looking door, with no visible handle on the outside. It was clear that this was the examiners’ private area, that they used to kick back between tests, but she had wondered how they managed to open the door to get inside.
Mary didn’t usually think through such things in such detail, but the Test Centre was very much lacking in entertainment, so she’d had the time. Apart from the seemingly impenetrable door, the room contained a water fountain next to a tower of paper cups, and a second door revealing a dingy toilet cubicle, both of which Mary had made use of within ten minutes of entering the room. The paper cups were the type shaped like cones, which meant you had to either hold the freezing cup in your hand, or stand and drink the whole thing at the fountain, then toss it, which told you something about the driving authority’s environmental policy (which, on reflection, she supposed wasn’t exactly a surprise). There were also ten fabric-covered seats, of which six had been filled by the time the crowd of examiners came out. In between each pair of chairs, there was a small table (though Mary had failed to see the point of these, given that no one could set down their drink).
The preliminary questions answered, the examiner - who, Mary noticed, still hadn’t introduced himself, despite his apparent eagerness to get her name exactly right – asked Mary to get into the car and “get herself settled”. She climbed in, clicked her seatbelt, and crossed her arms. She wasn’t particularly nervous, though she had been the first time, when she’d sat in the same car park - in a different car, and, as she seemed to remember, two spaces to the left - as a quivering 17-year-old. This particular endeavour was Mary’s fourth attempt to obtain a driving license, so she knew the drill. The examiner would continue circling around the car a few times, making notes on his clipboard, then get inside, shift the passenger seat around a little and say: “well, let me explain what’s going to happen today”. The second and third time, she hadn’t had the heart to tell the guy that she’d heard it before, so had listened to him droning about “show-me-tell-me” questions, “independent driving” and “manoeuvres”. She’d promised herself to stop him this time, but now she wondered if it was wise. After all, wasn’t this thing being timed? Better to waste a few minutes than have to drive for longer and risk making mistakes. Plus, it had been two years, and maybe her memory of the test wasn’t as strong as she’d thought it was.
She’d completely forgotten the (admittedly, entirely forgettable) test centre, and had been surprised – for the fourth time – that there was nowhere to announce herself, and she was supposed to just come in and take a seat and wait. She’d forgotten the paper cone-cups and the dingy toilet, and the impassable door to the examiners’ lounge, though as she’d sat waiting it had occurred to her that she must have had all of these thoughts before. Well, ok. She’d let him explain the test process to her for the fourth – and hopefully last – time, if only to claw a little time from the test itself.
Mary’s second test had come almost immediately after her first. Her instructor, Geoff, had advised she do it straight away so as not to lose momentum (“get back on the horse”, was how he’d put it), but for whatever reason, she’d been bucked straight back off and had a second “failure certificate” (it actually said “certificate” at the top – if she hadn’t been upset it would have been funny) to prove it. The third time had taken longer, largely due to the fact that she had left home to go to university in a different, larger town, where driving didn’t seem necessary, and where she’d stayed for five years. Three years in, her mother had practically insisted on her taking another test – and ten hours of crammed in lessons – during her Christmas break, and with her new-found self-confidence she’d thought “why not?”. She knew that she wouldn’t pass – and hadn’t particularly cared. As far as she was concerned, she would probably stay in this new land of efficient public transport, night buses and cheap taxis forever, so if it made her mother happy that the little piece of plastic in her purse might turn a different colour, then what did it matter to her? Of course, when she inevitably failed, her mother had insisted that this nonchalance was the reason. It had led to an argument when Mary suggested that it probably had more to do with the several large glasses of red wine she’d had at the pub the night before, which her mother said amounted to the same thing – and since when did she drink red wine anyway?
This time was different. It wasn’t that there was anything much riding on it – though it would be nice to be able to drive the twenty minutes to the airport where she’d taken a job in a bar, starting at four in the morning every day, instead of taking the obligatory £7.50 taxi (obligatory because of the previously alluded-to inferior public transport system, which Mary tried not to gripe about). Every morning, an hour into her eight-hour shift, she’d be struck by the same thought: “well, I’ve just earned my taxi-ride here”. So yes, that would be nice. But there was something else, some other meaning, that Mary couldn’t put her finger on.
When her mother had bought her her first set of driving lessons, presented in the form of a voucher in her 17th birthday card, she’d insisted upon the great importance of being able to drive. Driving meant independence – driving meant freedom! And though Mary hadn’t much agreed as a 17-year-old whose parents – however generous their intentions- couldn’t have afforded to buy her a car – and she hadn’t agreed as a poor but happy student, now that she was back at “home” – the very thing she’d insisted she’d never do when she left, she began to wonder if there was any sense behind her mother’s words.
In theory, coming home had been intended as a way to take a break, to “save some money for the next step”, a slow, reluctant decision following many hours of long-distance phone calls with her mother, her father and even her younger sister, who had fled the nest to go to her own university, her own new life, almost the minute Mary had returned home. And, in a way, it had worked – Mary had saved some money, albeit at a terrible job with terrible people, and could probably have moved out, had she had anywhere to go or anything to do. As it was, she certainly had enough to pay for a second-hand car and its first year of insurance. She thought about it: her own car, to drive wherever she wanted!
It was something more than that though, Mary thought to herself as she watched the nameless examiner crouching to examine the tyres. Thinking about it, if she passed the test, it would be the first thing she’d really achieved, for herself, in two years. When she was younger, she’d always excelled at school, and mostly with ease, which was probably what caused her to be so upset the first time she’d failed the test. Ironically, this self-assuredness, and the fact that she was accustomed to success – albeit after a short period of adjusting to a new rhythm at university – had been what helped her not to care the third time. By then she’d been just months away from finishing her degree, in which she knew she’d get a good grade, and had high hopes of finding a good job after graduation, which would allow her to stay in her new favourite city.
Now, things were different. It wasn’t as though she was a failure: she still had a first-class degree, and a valuable year of experience in various jobs, internships and short-term positions. But for the last year, she’d been in her small room in her parents’ house, surrounded by the possessions of a teenager she no longer was, working a crappy job for little money, with nothing much to spend it on. At first, she’d been at least slightly excited to catch up with the few friends who had stayed in the area, but after a few evenings at the pub she realised that they’d pretty much said all they had to say to each other. There was no formal agreement not to see each other, but slowly she’d stopped being invited out, until a few months in, her former “best friend” had darted across the street to avoid her, and Mary hadn’t minded.
It was this lack of anything to do, then, which had caused her to take her mother’s tentative suggestion that she take up driving lessons again. At the time, it was simply that she didn’t have much better to do, and it got her out of the house for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until she was sitting in the grey car in the grey carpark on this grey day, waiting for her examiner to finish his checks, that she realised it had taken on this new significance. In a way, her mother was right. It did mean independence- freedom, even. But more than that, it was an achievement. It was something she had worked at, practised, and mastered, though she hadn’t seen it as such until now. At the same moment that this realisation hit her, a simultaneous thought entered her mind: now that she’d realised this, she would be disappointed if she failed, which realistically speaking she knew she might. She frowned. She hadn’t expected this.
A noise alerted her that the instructor was finished, and was opening the passenger door. He flashed her a smile as he got in the car. He wasn’t much older than her really. She wondered when he’d passed his test. Would it be impolite to ask?
She could fail – probably would, based on past experience – she knew this. But it was only now, as the examiner fiddled with the specially-fitted rear-view mirror, that it struck her: she could also pass. And if she did, in some small way, it would be the start of something new.
The examiner reached below him and jiggled the lever to adjust his seat. He shifted it, backwards, forwards, until it clicked into place.
“Well,” he said, clicking on his seatbelt, “let me explain what’s going to happen today.”.
The savage click-clack of rails
Served as background music
To the stifling carriages
We found ourselves in.
Cowed, cornered, crushed;
Stench of fecal matter
Underlay the main fear:
Where were we going?
Even strong men succumbed
On that torturous journey
But given what came later
It might have been a blessing.
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ I glimpsed
Wrought like some black curse
Over our passing heads
Bowed, but not in benediction.
Welcomed by thin slop;
Unspeakable taste but
Preferable, just, to death
By refusal and starvation.
I clung on to my friend
Reassured by her touch
Until one bleak evening
She did not return to us.
Days frayed with fatigue
Gut-ache and worry
Husband, children, old life
Dead, gone, buried.
I grew cunning
Not to acquire power or achieve
Some long-held goal, but to
Survive, merely to survive.
As the friendly enemy
Brought salvation closer
Increased their dirty work.
Towards the end
Barrowloads of us
Disappeared as smoke
Into the blood-red sky.
The deity I sense no more
Arranged my survival
Numbed, beaten, broken.
I will show them what freedom means.
“But it`s not due to sail for at least another hour and a half?” Eddie heard his father complain.
The man in the peaked cap who was leaning in the open driver`s window shook his head, “There`s a fierce storm out in the Irish sea,” he said, “They had to start loading the trucks early, so they could get them chained down, they`re not letting any more cars board; sorry.”
“But.. but, what are we supposed to do?”
The man shrugged, crouched down and pointed through the car at a building to the left, the sign over the door read `Booking Office`
“You could ask them inside,” he suggested, “But I can`t let you through,” he jerked a thumb at the barrier that remained stubbornly closed a few feet in front of them. “Just pull in over there,” he gestured to the row of empty parking spaces in front of the building.
There was a moment’s pause, then his dad muttered, “Thanks for nothing,” rolled up the Cortina`s window, turned the wheel hard left, and embarrassingly dropped the clutch too quickly, stalling the car. Swearing under his breath, he hunched over the wheel as he cranked the engine back to life, over-revved the engine, the rear wheels spinning on the icy tarmac, making the estate fishtail slightly as he aimed for the nearest spot.
“Won`t be a minute,” he said angrily as he got out, slamming the door behind him.
Eddie`s mum turned down the heater, which had been turned up to full to counter the blast of cold air from the open window, twisted around in her seat, her right arm stretching behind the driver`s headrest and complained, “Jesus Christ, I told him we should have left earlier, that man will be late for his own funeral.”
Before he could stop himself, Eddie said, “We`re not late, they began boarding early, it`s not dad`s fault.”
His mother`s lips, normally thin from perpetual anger, disappeared completely. He saw her hand clench into a fist and flinched, an instinct born from a decade and a half of violence, and hunched his head down in anticipation of the blow….. that never came.
When he saw her fist unfurl, though not relax, he glanced at her, she was staring at something to his right, and when he looked to see what had stayed her hand he saw the man in the peaked cap watching them. He knew she`d never strike one of them while there was a witness, but he also knew that she would save it up, and then it would be much worse.
He looked at Pat, who glared at him, a look that said; what`s wrong with you, contradicting her like that, are you trying to get yourself killed?
They spent the next fifteen minutes in silence, Eddie torn with anxiety; not wishing for a beating, but hoping the man would look away so she could get it over with. The thought of what kind of mood she`d be in after that rage had built and built for the twelve hours aboard ship, him within reach but untouchable, what she might do to him once they got home, didn’t bear thinking about.
He was still hoping for a single punch, two at most when the driver`s door flew open and his dad nearly jumped into the driver`s seat, “Christ it`s freezing out,” he said. “Okay, best I could do was get you three aboard as walk-ons. I`ll drive up to Fishguard and cross over there,” and before his wife could protest, “I`ve already rung Dan, he`ll be waiting for you in Tivoli in the morning when you dock.”
Thankfully the gangway was covered and kept the frigid January wind at bay, their mum handed their tickets to a man at the doorway to the ship, who gave them a suspicious look, “No baggage?” he asked. Their mum only shook her head, in no mood to explain their situation; he gave them another pointed look, then waved them aboard.
They were among the last to board and every seat was taken, some people were sprawled across three, arms tucked under heads, eyes closed, body language declaring, “Don`t even think about it.”
Eddie wandered away towards the stern, pushing through an outer door, which was slammed shut by the wind as soon as he released it, the biting air forcing him to zip his anorak to his throat. He liked ships… mostly, but he hated being inside. The air was too stuffy and was filled with the sickly smell of burnt Kerosene, so thick he could taste it at the back of his throat. Another reason for getting away was the forlorn hope that, out of sight might just mean out of mind, that her anger would dissipate if she couldn’t see him; he thought there were two chances of that, neither of them in his favour.
He stood in the lee of the superstructure, watching as the enormous ropes were cast away, the deck thrumming underfoot as the side-thrusters pushed the ship away from the dock. The Innisfallen was an old ship and the least stable he`d ever sailed on, it rocked and wallowed in even the lightest swells, what it would be like in a storm didn’t bear thinking about.
The water behind the ship boiled wildly as she engaged her main propeller’s and pushed her way through the harbours calm surface, but as she reached the exit she hit the waves at forty five degrees. The bow lifted, the ship heeling to starboard as the wind and sea hit her properly for the first time, Eddie bent both knees and leaned to port keeping his body mostly upright, a few minutes of that and they cleared the harbour wall, the ship turning due west and into the waves.
Eddie liked to watch the harbour lights for as long as he could whenever he travelled between Ireland and the U.K., it gave him a delicious melancholy feeling to watch the lights fade from view, even though they had never once stopped in Swansea, not even for petrol.
By the time the only thing he could see was the sweep of the lighthouse light, they were well and truly in the grip of the storm. The ship would power up a wave, Eddie gaining weight with every foot, a pause at the crest, then weightlessness as they drove down the other side until it crashed with a loud boom into the trough, the ship stalling, the deck shaking as the engine laboured underfoot, and then they were climbing once more.
He stood there as long as he could bear the cold, his hood pulled tight around his face, hands thrust deep into his pockets. But eventually he was driven indoors, not only by the biting winter air but by the nagging worry that she might be wondering what had happened to him. She might send Pat in search of him, which would be an inconvenience to her, adding to sins, and her festering rage. Not for the first time he was glad he`d found where she kept the rubber hose hidden, that day last March when she`d been out, and had buried it in Kennedy`s field, though he`d been surprised that she never replaced it.
He found them in a small salon type space, about fifteen feet square, at a junction of two corridors. Halfway down one of the corridors a toilet door banged open, then shut, in time to the ships heaving. Eddie had passed the toilet on his search, holding his breath as he did, the stink of vomit had reached him long before he saw what was making such a racket, and he`d held his breath as he went by. He had good sea legs, but even the strongest stomach can be turned by the stench of other peoples puke, he forced himself not to imagine the state of the floor in there.
He needn’t have worried about being missed; Pat was holding onto a railing on one wall, his mother was leaning side on to the opposite wall, clutching the railing with both hands, eyes screwed shut, her face as white as her knuckles.
Eddie grabbed the railing on the wall opposite her, a few feet from his brother, and as he watched, the most extraordinary thing happened.
She rolled around until her back was to the wall, let got the rail and slowly slid down until she was sitting on the floor, left leg out in front, the right tucked under it. Then, as if someone had snipped a cable in the back of her head every muscle in her face let go at once, one moment he was looking at the face of the woman who had spat him into existence fifteen years previously, and had spent the interlude railing against her god for cursing her with yet another son, spending her rage on her children; the next she was a stranger, a featureless flabby faced woman, skin like a melted waxwork.
Without warning she began to shriek, she didn’t work up to it, there was no moaning, no sobbing; she went from silent to shrieking in one motion. She shrieked her husband`s name over and over, “TOM, TOM, WHERE`S TOM, TOM, HELP ME TOM, HELP.” Pausing only as long as it took to take a fresh breath, before screaming on and on for her husband.
The two brothers looked at one another, neither made any attempt to go to their mothers aid, neither felt so-inclined, their faces bore the expressions of curious spectators, but every time she cried out, Eddie`s heart exulted; he wondered if his older brother felt the same.
A minute later, perhaps two, a seaman in a navy jumper with the B+I line logo stitched in white on it stopped, took one look at her and hurried off. Minutes later he returned with an officer who bent down and attempted to console the stricken woman, this only made things worse and her cries grew louder and more piercing. He said something to the crewman who hurried away again, returning after a longer time than the first with another officer carrying a wooden case, the red-cross symbol painted onto the side.
The two officers had a brief discussion and the seaman was sent away for a third time. From the box the doctor, Eddie supposed he was a doctor, produced a bottle of pills. His mum spat out the first two, but was coerced into taking two more and by the time the seaman returned, accompanied by another, carrying a collapsible stretcher, she had quieted to sobbing.
She didn’t resist as they pried her onto the stretcher, which under other circumstances would have seemed quite comical, four men trying to lift an almost catatonic woman onto a stretcher while the deck heaved and pitched beneath them.
Once they had her safely secured, the two seamen staggered away, neither boy wondering where they were taking her. The doctor stooped to pick up her handbag, noticed Eddie for the first time and asked, “Do you know that woman?”
Eddie gave him a blank look, shook his head and said, “No.” When he asked Pat, he got the same response.
After he`d gone Eddie sat on the floor and thought about what had just happened. He realised that he was free, realised that at fifteen he was stronger than she would ever be, that without his father she was nothing, that she drew all her strength, such as it was, from him. But then how much strength did it take to terrorise six helpless little boys.
He understood all of this...... and was never afraid of her again.
Years later, on the rare occasions he told this story, he would always say that that 21/January/1979 was his real birthday; that that was the date that Edward John O`Sullivan, the man he had grown up to be, had been truly born.
Scrunch! The sound made Florin flinch. He swung his other leg from the vehicle more carefully. Crunch! He may as well have trodden in a box of Lego.
'Daddy? Daddy! Daddy wake up! It's Monday! My first day Daddy! Wake up wake up wake up!'
'Ok, ok Robert, I'm awake'
'Your eyes are closed Daddy!'
Robert peered close into His fathers face, sticky fingers gently pulled his eyelids up. Florin rolled over.
'DADDY! Mummy says you have to help me get dressed Daddy, she says I mustn't be late for my first day Daddy. Daddy!..
...hehehe he heeee!'
Robert squealed with glee as Florin rolled back towards him and lifted him above his head.
Sighing, Florin stood, and took in the house in front of him. The drive was huge, yet apart from his trusty old Dodge there wasn't a car in sight.
In contrast, the facade of the house was fully
occupied. Every window held a window box, most of which were watched over by a gargoyle, ivy climbed across the eastern wing, and any gaps in the plants and stonework were full of moss.
'Mr Roberts?' Florin flinched again, perhaps he hadn't chosen the wisest of aliases. He turned back to his car, composing his features as he pocketed the key.
'Then welcome to Purtlebury Hall Roberts'
'Thank you sir'
'Have much ground keeping experience, Roberts?'
'Nosir, but I've always enjoyed gardening, and I think you'll find I can be handy where any heavy lifting is required'
'I can see that Roberts, but none of this Sir business, we don't stand on ceremony here at Purtlebury, just call me Hillary.'
'In that case, I prefer Stanley'.
'Of course Stanley, are you ready to look around? We are quite proud of our gardens here, no Kew of course, but I think you'll agree that we have done well with what we have'.
He felt her arm slip around his waist, it seemed to fit there, it always had done, since their beginning. 'It's beautiful here, isn't it?'
They kissed then, Lauren up on her tip toes, Florin leaning his neck right down. Not a desperate, hungry kiss, those only happened rarely now, but a kiss of shared happiness, a slow peck of contentment.
'He certainly seems to be enjoying it' Florin smiled down at her. Their son was hanging upside down on the climbing frame.
'Mummy! I'm stuck!'
'Robert's don't get stuck' Lauren laughed, as if his name somehow imbued him with its stability. Perhaps it did.
Florin followed Hillary around the house. Now THAT was a name with stability. Not like Florin, or Stanley, or any of the names he had taken over the years.
These gardens WERE beautiful. Rugged, like the house, and bursting with life. Hillary showed Florin where the heavy equipment was kept, and then walked him around to his quarters.
'You settle yourself in here for the afternoon, and meet us in the kitchens at 6.30, you are to meet the family this evening, so dress right, and wash up properly, you look like you've been gardening already!' Hillary jogged off, he had an impressive turn of speed for a man of his age, perhaps these gardens would provide enough of a challenge for Florin too. Prevent another relapse.
'Daddy, what is your job?' Robert looked up at him with worried eyes.
'I am an astronaut' Florin's smile gave away his joke.
'Daddy, please, Peter says you are a layabout, what's a layabout?'
'A very lucky person, who doesn't have to have a job'. Florin smiled down at his son, Robert nodded, then
'Can I be a layabout too then Daddy? Oh. Unintended outcome there, Lauren wouldn't be pleased.
'You can be an astronaut Robert, much more exciting'.
Florin frowned, Robert seemed satisfied, but it was true, he didn't work now, Lauren looked after them financially, and that grated. How could he work without being found though? Impossible, probably.
'I look after you Robert, that's my job. Am I doing ok?' Robert ran into him. A huge cuddle told Florin that he was.
'Stop it Daddy, that tickles, hehe heeeee.
Lauren walked in then.
'Are tickles happening? Why wasn't I invited?'.
Florin looked around his quarters. Sparser than his the home he had become used to with Lauren. It seems ridiculous that he had felt that he had had something to prove back then.
Standing up, he looked at himself critically in the mirror. He could see why he had never really been part of the Dad's group. At 6'6" tall and almost as broad, he did appear imposing. That and the fact that he appeared early 30's meant that the others hadn't seen him as their peers. They were well-to-do, worked hard, were paid well, and were not overly involved in bringing up their children. He understood why they had wanted to rile him, he had been taught to deal with the jealousy from others from a very young age, but still he had let them get to him, and now that life was over.
That life. It had been the only life he had ever wanted. He remembered rumours, when he was growing up, of Brothers who had escaped the craft, had disappeared and made themselves a normal life. He had thought he was one of them for a while.
'Come on Florin! Show us what you can do!'
They were all a little drunk. Florin included. He knew he shouldn't have gone that night, he was still feeling tender after that conversation with Robert, but he had wanted to prove that he was one of them. That he was fine.
He had made that stupid boast, and then they had wanted proof. Who knew that there were street cameras there?
He had gone and made a specatacle of himself. He had been caught on camera, and now The Brothers were looking for him again. He had had to leave them, or Robert might be in danger, so here he was again. Running. Hiding. Not living.
Just a few weeks ago he was happy, but he had messed it up, he had had his new beginning. He wouldn't get another.
Hesitant, even with twenty-first century technology,
Broken, cracked wide, a thousand miles in
An echo repeat from thirty seconds ago
To throw us, confuse conversation,
Muddle our heads more than they already are.
An echo repeat from thirty years ago
When we, by chance, were thrown
Into the same curry house, embarrassed
White left handed eating forbidden, squeezed
Laughing against formica tables, battered chairs.
An echo repeat from three months ago,
Another curry and you were there again,
You threw and I caught the low skimming
Stone of past pained mess and mayhem,
Held it tight, safe for both of us.
We didn't forget all those hours and days and years
But mortared them together into a new structure,
Shelter against the past, windows out to the horizon.
You would have thought by now
We’d be grown up and sensible,
Mature and unemotional.
But we’re not.
Now it is
Your voice that calms me, calls to me,
It wraps its tendril arms round me and holds me safe,
You listen and I can breathe,
I listen and you open,
a flower's petals creak apart,
Reach out to the light,
Have faith in the worn latticed trellis,
The interweaving of wires that hold us,
Trust me; let me trust you.
A New Beginning
Nine woke and rose before the alarm sounded. Another perfect day, and why not? He lived in Utopia, and everything was perfect. He could hear the alarm sounding in other rooms: some of his classmates were clearly less alert than he.
Today, his class – eight boys, eight girls – would finish their Education. Everyone in Utopia got A* grades, of course: anything less than perfection was unthinkable. More important, they would be given a Name instead of a Number, and begin a whole Seven Days freedom before beginning the Job they had been allocated. Unemployment was unknown in Utopia. His education was designed to give him the skills to perform any job which needed doing.
He’d had That Dream again. He hadn’t told anyone about it: he half-suspected the Synod which ran the city would be aware of his unsettling Dream. They knew about and controlled every aspect of daily life. However, he hadn’t been questioned. It seemed there were still some things the city Fathers didn’t know.
And yet. Most unexpectedly, he felt … Something. An Emotion? The schooling he’d received over the past eight years was designed to remove all such weaknesses!
He closed his eyes and held his breath, listening for any slight sound.
There! The faintest possible scrape/creak. It was repeated, and seemed to be directly outside his door. As his fingers curled around the latch, he knew: the Question in his mind was “Who?”
“Nine?” The single word throbbed with the unfamiliar concept he had labelled Emotion, but it also ‘felt’ alien, delivered by a Voice he recognised, though not his own.
“Three.” Not a question: a Statement. He hastened to secure the tenuous connection before it was lost.
“I am Nine. Three, stay with me!”
Remembering to breathe (which required a conscious decision) he slowly opened his door. Immediately opposite a corresponding door opened just as slowly to reveal Three, a female member of his class.
“I am not the only one to ask a Question! Three, I have no Answer – yet! But you are not alone. We are … different. But that does not mean We are ‘wrong’: do you hear?”
“Yes. I know your Voice. But how…?”
“I cannot say. We ask Questions. We feel. Come! Talk!”
Nine pulled his door open and backed away, staying where Three could see him. A few seconds dripped slowly past. Three flowed silently from her room and crossed the corridor.
Something was different, something he hadn’t yet had time to name: he had only become aware of its existence seconds ago. Whatever it was, it wasn’t ‘he/him/his’. It had its origin in Three, but sat uneasy in his mind …
He could feel breath surge across his vocal chords, sense the movement of his lips, hear the words so clearly he expected them to assume a physical form, dance across the room. Three nodded, and he knew at once they were ‘speaking’ normally, not exchanging silent thoughts.
“We know the meaning of the word ‘Emotion’, but our Education should make it impossible for us to feel such things!”
Three nodded but did not interrupt. He continued:
“If we live in a perfect Utopia …”
“We do not need these Emotions!”
Three could no longer resist interrupting, completing Nine’s thought.
It was Nine’s turn to nod agreement. Another powerful surge of Emotion swamped his mind: strong, positive, and somehow right.
“I can ask “Who?”: you ask “How?” Perhaps we do not ‘belong’ here?”
Nine could scarcely believe he was speaking such heresy, but he was ill-prepared for Three’s instant and complete agreement – and the strength of the warm, positive emotion he experienced as she replied.
“So there must be an alternative.”
“Not Utopia? Some other … place?”
The idea of anywhere ‘not-Utopia’ was so foreign, neither could find a Word for it. Yet Logic had led them thus far …
“If we leave now, nobody will know! If there is somewhere ‘not Utopia’ we can find it.”
As he spoke, Nine watched his hand drift towards Three, inviting contact. Her hand mirrored the movement. Nine felt himself a passive spectator. Their hands touched, clasped: more Emotions, the most powerful yet, fired his being. With his free hand he opened the door and led Three along the deserted corridor to a door which opened to reveal the perfection of Utopia’s cityscape, the only Home they had known for sixteen years.
The streets were empty. At this time of day, everyone else was either at Work or in school. In the city’s North Quadrant, less than a mile distant, the discreet haze of a shield marked the utter limit of their Known World, the safe, protected community of Utopia. Nine turned to his new-found soulmate and companion.
“When we leave, we cannot return. You understand?”
“We do not belong. We leave nothing: if we find nothing, nothing is lost.”
Three nodded again: Nine sensed a sudden but unmistakeable increase in the pressure of her fingers on his. He gazed intently into her eyes.
“What?” Nine knew he hadn’t sounded the Question Word aloud. He was so tense, he dared not breathe. Three reacted as if Nine had filled his lungs and screamed the impossible Word with all the power he could muster.
“Nothing. You say we leave nothing here. Must we take Nothing with us?”
Nine’s eyes flicked around the Spartan room he shared with seven other boys, all roughly the same age as himself. Identical beds, identical lockers, and without looking he was certain each locker would contain exactly the same clothing, accessories and equipment. Once again he experienced a strange Something he had no name for bubble briefly to the surface of his inmost thoughts. He forced himself to ignore it: there was no obvious way it could be of any practical use if they were going to leave the only home they had ever known.
“A change of clothing. Some few small things, perhaps, but nothing large or heavy – we must move now, and move quickly.”
He strode across the room and shook the pillow out of its valise on the nearest bed.
“Go now to your own room, take some clothing and whatever you want, but no more than you can carry in a pillow case. I’m using one from another boy’s bed, but it won’t make much difference. They will know who is missing as soon as they check! Go now, and hurry!”
Nine opened his bedside locker and studied its pathetically few contents. Two folded one-piece coveralls, one grey, one a pale green, otherwise identical to the white one he was wearing. A cup, cutlery, a small towel: a glowstick, which could be adjusted to provide either warmth for cold hands working outdoors or light in a dark tunnel at night.
“This is all you have, all you own, after eight years of schooling, learning rules written by someone else?”
The newly-awakened Voice inside his head was becoming more critical, less like his own, every time he heard it.
On an impulse he took the grey one-piece from his locker, then raided other lockers for a towel, a glowstick and basic eating & drinking tools. As he left his room, Three’s door eased open and she joined him. Her pillowslip looked to bulge in roughly the same places as his, about three-quarters full. This didn’t surprise Nine: there would be no real difference in what was available to plunder and steal.
Although he ‘knew’ Three had spoken to him without vocalising, Nine’s eyes flickered along the corridor in both directions, alert for any alarm raised at this pivotal moment.
Nine felt another unexpected flood of Emotion, but this was different again. Three’s words were simple, yet carried a subtle hidden meaning. He took a deep breath, grasped her hand.
“One thing we miss: our Naming Day. Gold, I name you, for the beauty of your hair.”
“Blue, then, I must name you, for the colour of your eyes.”
Words were superfluous. Turning as one, the self-baptised Blue and Gold took the first tentative steps on their journey from Utopia to who knew where …
Jason sat crossed legged on his cushion in khaki shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt with a Hawaiian kite boarding theme. Lithe yet musucular, young yet chiseled, with tanned feline face and pale yellow eyes, he spoke slowly and methodically in a Southern Virginia accent. One could almost fall asleep to whatever he had to say or fancy he were hypnotising you.
“These days more and more people are pressing the reset button on their lives. Changing jobs, ending unhealthy relationships, maybe even going back to college. But some of us are willing to go to even greater extremes to turn the page in our lives and start over. I guess that’s why we’re all sitting here.”
“I’m sorry, actually I have to move,” said an Austrian called Manfred, who got up and walked to the other side of the room. “I don’t like such a big kind of spider.”
Once Manfred settled down away from the unofficial guest that had found its way in Jason resumed.
“So the Petuba tribe were contacted two years ago and it’s been discovered that at the heart of their shamanic tradition is a brew made from seven Amazonian plants called Yabay. And most, if not all of you, have come thousands of miles to drink it. Can anybody tell me what their expectations of this brew might be..?”
Jacob, an ex-heroin addict from New York state, raised his hand. “I don’t know, I sort of guess I’ve heard it fucks you up.”
A gentle smile illuminated Jason’s face. Helen, who worked in media, raised her hand.“It’s like, the most amazing thing. I’ve heard it can be 20 years of therapy in one night.”
I chipped in. “I’ve heard that it turns hardened criminals into reformed and honest people.”
Jason took a final hand.
“It puts you in touch with the cosmos.”
“Yes,” Jason agreed quietly. “It is all those things, and perhaps none. One thing I can promise, you have already done most of its work simply by coming here...”
Jason surveyed the circle momentarily. There were twenty of us on thick red cushions in a large jungle hut called a maloca. Most were sat up straight, like Jason, but one or two were taking it easier, lounging or laying flat. Then Jason tapped the floor with two fingers.
“So Yabay is described as a paternal spirit and can be a very strict and authoritarian one, at that. He’s here to kick your ass and put your life very much back on track. Now there are reports of this brew having been tried at New York parties and really, we don’t recommend this brew is taken out of context. More specifically, we recommend you take it here in the Amazon with the Petuba maestros. The Petuba have been working with these plants thousands of years and they’ve built up a lot of experience in the process.”
As Jason spoke the sounds of the jungle could be heard. A bee-like insect louder than any bee from Europe. A bird who’s watery warble sounded like a mobile phone welcome tone.
“And part of that process is that you need to follow a dieta for six days before and after the ceremony. There is only one ceremony. Other, kinder brews, such as iboga and ayahuasca can be used perhaps indefinitely but one dose of Yabay is enough for most people outside the Petuba tribe. So firstly, six nights before the ceremony you can’t eat anything and you have in fact just had your last meal for six days. It’s also important that during this period you don’t have sex or masturbate, either. The plants work with sexual energy and any dissipation of it is contra-indicated with the process.”
A murmur rippled round the room.
“That being said, very shortly you will all be asked to remove your clothes. Yabay is a hard taskmaster and will be very angry if you try to hide anything from him. But really, it hardly matters, because the next six days will not be spent with others and the ceremony itself will almost be in pitch dark. Just before the ceremony, you will be taken from the hole in the ground you have just spent the past six days in to here in the maloca, where the ceremony will be held. For your own safety you'll be tied down and a small cup of Yabay will be administered to you. Whilst the medicine takes effect maestros from the Petuba tribe will come round and thrash you with stems taken from all the plants that Yabay is comprised of. The medicine can make you extremely sensitive to pain, so gags will be made available to bite on, and it’s fine if you want to use them. But we recommend you just go with it. Crying and screaming can be extremely carthartic,” Jason nodded, with earnest emphasis.
“But before you take the medicine it’s very important to have a list of what the Petuba call 'yatay-queros' in mind. There’s no exact word that translates the meaning but in the Western tradition it roughly translates to ‘confessions.’ You simply tell the plants about areas you need to work on as a person. And these can be complex, or they can in fact be very simple. You can say, 'Father Yatuba I have dishonoured my parents. Or, Father Yatuba I am a fuck-womble.’ Please just be aware that if you use strong language the maestros may thrash you harder.”Jason let this last advisory sink in, before asking, “So does anybody have any questions?”
“How did somebody think to make a brew out of seven plants?”
“That’s a good question. The Yatuba have a creation story about Yabay. Apparently, one day a father’s only son came back home with a deer he’d hunted in the jungle and his father reprimanded him and said he should have brought back two. And so his son left his father in disgust. But then he fell asleep and had a dream in which he was told to gather the plants and literally make a rod for his own back. He then asked his father to beat him with it and drank a brew made from the plants to remember his experience.”
Another hand was chosen.“What are those animals in the trees that look like squirrel-type monkeys?”
“Er...I think they’re called Squnkys,” Jason replied. The class laughed. “No, those are Petuba monkeys,they’re actually who the tribe have named themselves after. A kind of mascot, if you will.”
After that, we were taken to our holes, which were indeed totally dark. Damp too. If you’ve never been in a hole full of insects and nothing but half a rotten papaya cup of water a day for six days you probably don’t know what six days of hell is.
Certainly by the time I was done I’d lost all sense of who, where or what I was and not one drop of Yabay had passed my lips. Had three days passed or three years? Was I alive or a ghost haunting his own grave? Was I even human any more? Somewhere in the hole I was a jaguar chasing its own prey, I was the prey being chased by a jaguar. I saw places and people I’d long since forgotten. I felt my head start to break open. And I heard the voices of others, though our holes were far apart. Oddly, we were all in this together and all alone at the same time.
Finally, they pulled me out. I was covered in bites, including a few of my own, but it would have been worse had I not rubbed mud over myself, an act of self-preservation I don’t recollect. I’d lost two stone and could barely stand but I went straight to the ceremony. The three kerosene lamps lighting the maloca seemed incredibly bright. The room itself seemed like a solar system. Others were on the floor crying, shaking, moaning or void of all movement. We were a sorry lot indeed.
Jason sat in the centre of the circle with two maestros. All three were smoking mapachos and the tension was palpable. The room was still, yet through the netted windows the incessant sound of the jungle crowded in on us. I saw a cockroach scuttle across the floor, the shadow of Jason’s body was projected by a lamp onto the ceiling of the maloca and he looked gigantic. Then Jason suddenly dimmed the lamps and all was dark.
The only thing I remember next was the thrashing. Father Yabay is perhaps the hardest disciplinarian of them all. The stems of Yabay seemed to break each one of my bones. I screamed for forgiveness. Every skeleton I had in my closet was offered up as a sacrifice. In my life before there were always ifs, buts and maybes but now things were so clear their sharpness made me bleed. I was wrong. It was all my fault. And I was very very sorry.
After the thrashing ended, and it actually can’t have been long, I lay on the floor for hours unable to make myself comfortable, my body excruciatingly tender. Finally, the sacred words came. ‘The ceremony is now over.’
I woke up the next day in a bed so soft it seemed to be made of squnky fur. Two beautiful Amazonians carried me to a bath and bathed and dressed my wounds with salves of the forest. All things considered, I hadn’t come off too badly. A broken finger, a chipped tooth and cracked rib. Bruises that made me look like a bad piece of fruit.
Then they brought us breakfast. Just a broth with no solids in it, to break us in gently, but never has food tasted so good and never will it again. Jason asked for our attention for a moment.“Okay guys, I want you to promise me you’ll never mis-behave again. Promise?”
To a man and woman we all promised, like little children.
“Okay, now the dieta is by no means over but from here on it changes a little. Check the board to see what’s in store for you over the coming days.”
We looked up at the whiteboard, which had the schedule for days 7-12. That morning we were having healing massage, in the afternoon cranial therapy and pottery. The only dictates that remained the same were the clothing prohibition and sexual abstinence but hugs were fine and in fact on day eight we had a class called ‘Embrace the embrace.’ By day twelve we were pretty loved up. We all wore pyjamas and snuggled up in one big bed together watching a Disney movie. The morning before we departed we group shared. Jason gave us a heart-shaped stone and we each in turn held it as we recounted our Yabay ceremony.
One person said, “I didn’t know who or what I was.”
Another, “Not much happened but I saw a beautiful blue light.”
Then somebody said, “I was in agony but I didn’t drink anything. Nobody gave me a cup.”
I didn’t remember drinking one, either. Other voices assented. Then Jason spoke. “Er, just so you know things went a little awry the other day. A gang of banditos dressed in balaclavas broke into the compound, came into the maloca with baseball bats and roughed a few of you guys up. I think it was to do with some money I owe them for cocaine, so I’m sorry about that... That said, the effect of being beaten with baseball bats is very similar to a Yabay ceremony. And some even say it’s not strictly necessary to drink the Yabay, anyway.They report greater benefits from the dieta generally.”
The secrets of the Petuba tribe and their strange concotion, Yabay, would have to wait another time. But that was fine, because we all returned home feeling different. Like we’d left our old selves behind; closed a difficult chapter. Like it was a new beginning.
The Witch said I could keep
you away by burning
a black candle in a bowl
of water until the flame
My friends have sat for hours,
in a circle holding wrists, thinking
I've put too much in again;
they cannot ever help me.
The flame's still starkly burning,
looks like our hands reaching
for, then beyond, each other.
Not all of you is monster.
I wanted to incinerate cruel
feathers of doubt; my sense the air
is better breathed by others;
that perception there is no point
in running when you always watch.
I drop their hands,
put my finger into its reach,
to snuff my hope out.
I can't try a new beginning
with someone better than you,
will always get sucked back
into what I deserve.
But this time round,
the flame falters,
as I snatch myself
away from pain.
I’m a love-struck butterfly
fluttering across the dance floor
with chiffon wings
sparkles in my hair
the intoxicating air
and mood lifting soda pop
waiting for eager hands
to take mine
for another dance
before the last waltz
the clock strikes twelve
and the bright light
from the lingering night
I’m a blooming red rose
the dull garden
of preppy children
dressed in grey and white
my petals alight
in the moonlight
entrancing the innocent
comes and ends
this adolescent dream
and sets my wings aflight
I saw the grass above the pebbles at the back of the beach, high, pulling in the last of the light. There were two white farmhouses in the distance but that was of no matter now, because at this time no one would see me. The low spring tide had been dragging the stretch of sand out further and further, and now the space between the shore, where I stood, and the grass, appeared endless.
I had been walking along the edge of the sea, waiting for night, the way one might wait impatiently for a train.
Finally, I turned towards the grass and made my way across a film of water, then passing pools and dips, no rocks, just hollows in the sand, with the sound of the shifting waves behind, and the breeze. I picked my way across the pebbles, and up to the high ground. I sank my body down like a block being lowered into cement, closed my eyes and willed the night to harden and set around me.
I first saw her in a blue wrap-around dress, patterned with little white horses, in the open corridor of arts faculty of the university in Bergamo. She was passing through the shadows thrown from the stone columns of the colonnade around the gravel square. Light, shadow, light, shadow, light. Her smile was sun-drenched, the light making her squint slightly as she looked across the stone flags to where I was sitting on a wall. Her smile grew bigger as she stepped out of each flash of shadow, her lips opening, and her teeth and tongue for a moment glistening in the light.
The material of her dress was tightly wrapped around her breasts and waist, and then tumbled like a waterfall to her knees. A neat bow at the small of her back kept the whole thing together. She passed like that, as soft voices spilled out of the big open windows of the library on the second floor of that courtyard, disappearing again like a song being driven into the distance on a summer night.
She came up to me after class, two hands clinging to one side of her stiff green satchel, her bare feet in black sandals, her hips spreading underneath the skintight middle of that dress, and asked if I was English.
We stood for a long time trying to talk. I could barely focus on her without the trembling tenderness I had felt as she walked passed sinking into a sense of violence. I had felt uneasy.
But she smiled, she kept smiling, and we began.
It was the end of September, I had moved to Bergamo, 40 or so miles outside Milan, to study for the year.
In the beginning, in the evenings, we would walk along the old walls of the small town which sat on a hill. We walked into dusk, watching the plain start to twinkle, and the air above it turn a shade of purple. I pulled words out of myself, smelting the strange leaps of my heart into chucky blocks of sentence, smoothened then by the fading light and the hot air, and the knowledge, that soon we would kiss.
She told me about her father, who she said was mad, and her mother, who was so generous, she had ‘deleted’ herself.
“You, know cancelled out.” She threw her hand forward from her throat, matching the air as it left her lips, “cancelled out” she repeated, “she is full of everyone else.”
In those first few months her mind appeared to me as a figure being cut from stone.
Over the first Christmas we were together, we spent four days in Florence. Late one night, we wandered back to our room through the empty back streets, tucked into each other, the cool moonlight resting on the slow flowing Arno behind us, soft in the sureness that we would lie together, loose and in love. I can remember how I felt myself harden as I walked with her, at the pleasure of being alive.
When the year finished in Bergamo, I came back to London to finish my degree and she stayed in Italy to finish hers. A year later, she flew to England to live with me.
During our year apart I had visited her every month. On the first flight out to see her, I stared at the laminated emergency instructions on the back of the airplane seat in front of me and decided that I would marry her. Somehow loving her was buried in the curled cartoon in brace position, and I was filled with the need to act. I needed to be written into her. Give her my name, put our names together somewhere so everyone could see them. That night we drove up to the little town on the hill, to our favourite place where they served cool beers in big oval glasses, and spoke, and kissed, and made plans for the next few days. It was enough to be alive like that with her.
Before she died I wouldn’t have been able to say what we did that year, month after month. I could say that the seasons sang from her skin under the strange light of the arrivals hall, but it was as if I had forgotten everything else, that the details were irrelevant. But since her death, I have been carving out the seconds. I have searched for every little thing that was part of our life together, resurrecting days and nights, obsessing over lost hours – the day of her cousin’s Holy Communion, how she delighted in her father’s efficient, happy movements around the Sunday table, the night she rolled her eyes and nodded when I told her to slow down on the tiny roads of the town where we fell in love. And then, her body, the curl in the side of her mouth as she waited for me to finish saying something but wanted to kiss, her thighs, the inside of her thighs, the sacredness of easing her quietly onto the bed in her house on a cold November night, the air still smelling of her mothers delicious casoncelli.
When she arrived in London I had been renting a studio apartment on the ground floor of a big white town house on Holland Road. A Croatian man in his late fifties rented the other room downstairs. I saw him with a number of different women, always versions of each other. Heels, long coats, messy hair, small mouths, something secretarial, and I always thought they were there on some sort of official business. For a long time, I had presumed the room was a flat. But one Thursday morning, as I left, a woman stepped into the corridor from his room, and the door hung open. I saw the single bed in the middle of the room with barely enough room to walk either side. I glimpsed a shower in the corner, just like ours. The man suddenly appeared from behind the door, and we caught eyes before I had time to look away. He smiled at me, barely winked and then made a theatrical gesture towards the woman to lead the way, so that suddenly I felt like I wanted her too.
The night Elena died I asked her where her blue dress with the white flowers had gone. She hadn’t worn it since she had moved to England. I asked her as she stood in our clammy studio apartment choosing an outfit. Her arms stopped on the hangers for a second. She raised her eyes to the wall above the rail, and said “they are horses, they are white horses, perhaps they look like flowers.”
We had lived in that apartment for eight months. I had a job as a junior reporter on a local London paper and she had found work in a pub just down the road. The flat was too small for us. We shared a toilet with the Croatian man, and as summer came, the place was unbearably hot. Her shifts started late in the day, just as I returned from the office. I would go and drink in the bar in the evenings and sit outside, to get some air, and see her.
She missed Italy badly. I remember now how she stood in front of the huge window at the back of our room, her words battling against the knot of despair in her throat, and said: “We have to make space for the future, and parcel things in the past, I can’t live in my mother’s house forever.”
But she loved her past, and we knew we were somehow going back to Italy, that she would be pregnant in Italy, near her mother and her sisters and the big green fields around her house.
Her mother made me feel important. She hung on my sentences as if my plans for an evening were part of a greater master plan I was carefully executing, and her daughter had been the missing link, now slotted into place for a future that was certain and wonderful. She would fill my wine glass up at dinner, ignoring my refusals, because she believed I would never get drunk.
“They love me, and they love you,” Elena said, as her parents left London, the first and only time they came to visit. We had watched them shuffle along the line to pass security and I was full to the brim with her tenderness for them.
The night she died, Elena wore the blue dress with the white horses. It was June and warm, perhaps a little like Italy. In one of the two photos from the night she is standing on the edge of the group holding a glass, her bag hanging over her shoulder, head tilted almost onto the shoulder of the girl beside her. In the other she is talking to someone, standing outside the bar, and she doesn’t know the picture is being taken. She left the pub at 10pm, alone, and early.
That night I had willed her back so we could make love and I could say sorry about the horses, and explain that that she filled me up and cancelled me out.
Now I lie here wondering if she heard the commotion as the white van left the road and swerved wildly onto the Friday night pavement. I wonder what she was thinking as she turned the corner, heading for the train, and walked straight into the path of the man who would kill her.
He drove a knife into her fifteen times. Again and again, he pushed the blade into her. She buckled onto the concrete, silencing everything, every detail, every smile, every hip-led squeeze between wall and chair at her Sunday afternoon home. He pumped death into all of that.
I count to fifteen now, as I lie on the grass. I met a man in a bar out here last night, who smelt of silage and seaweed. I told him how Elena died and he told me how he blew up a tree stump with a gas cylinder. You take the top off, fill half the cylinder with petrol, drill a hole in it to fit a spark plug, from a car, for example. Then you drill another hole in the bottom of the cylinder and earth it. Then, just touch the live off the car battery, and the thing would blow.
The fields that traverse effortlessly the train window
seem a little greener. The hedges are more clearly marked,
their gaps, fenced or unfenced, opening out to endless possibilities
that have never previously been visible, despite routine.
Momentarily a field of sheep raise their heads in unison,
but now it is clear that every one of their faces is different.
Each living animal has become unique. In the distance
the ‘V’ of a flock of Canada Geese shimmers in the sky,
individual avian movements distorting the perfect shape.
Of course, the world exists exactly as it has before, only
our perception of what we see changes, our world
view mirrors what is inside our heads. New
beginnings offer the chance of a better future.
Here the train slows to stop at the familiar station.
On the stepping stone platform there are wheel motifs
cast into the brickwork, the repainted bench is inscribed
with the name of a loved one, you turned your back,
the window is stained, not with the easily seen dirt,
but lead framed and coloured, a flower perhaps,
the steps, the footbridge, the canopies, all scream
with reborn detail. You are entering new territory.
Is my heart nothing but a picture on a screen?
I watch the valves open & close as the heart pumps blood in & out,
The regurgitated blood flows back & I wonder if this is bad?
Is this the bad blood from broken relationships recirculating around my body with every beat?
I smile when I think of the time I spent with those familiar faces,
I long for their presence, as I await Heaven's Gate,
But, a resounding silence rings in my ears,
As I don't have their numbers now.
Yet, I am still full of love & hope for you all,
You all touched my heart in your own way & I will eternally hold a piece of you with me,
My heart does not stutter or stop,
It still beats for past loves,
Beats for a man with a crown of tawny hair,
My heart crashes on the rocks of green eye desire,
I am washed ashore amidst an everlasting embrace,
Lovers never lose their place in my heart.
So ... this should be a song really - an allegorical ditty, strummed by a troubadour (on a lute I fancy) by a roaring fireside in a castle hall ... or perhaps a tavern (now there’s a nicely evocative word: tavern – far less prosaic than our modern day “pub” or the sterile community halls in which watered-down ballads are now shared to a (mostly bearded) few).
Ah, but this is the 21st Century and we may now satisfy our lust for scandal and Schadenfreude with the likes of Jeremy Kyle or the inexhaustible supply of tawdry magazines with their lurid promise of “Life, Death and Prizes”
And yet ....
Desire being a primal urge – arguably THE primal urge, we can never escape its inevitable consequences. Allow me then to present a tale that is both of the present and timeless. Attend to me .. for I have a Song to Sing – O ....
You know, I really would feel happier singing this – shall I whip out my ukulele?
Very well I shall take “God, no!” as an indication that you would prefer prose. I am aware that rhyming lyrics are rather unfashionable in circles such as this one, but just allow me the indulgence of a refrain, to which you may turn your thoughts at any time:
“So the candle burns, and the spinning wheel turns / And what will be, will be, my Love / Oh what will be, will be”
Well, Once upon a Time a kind lady was making her way home. Were this an epic ballad you would no doubt be conjuring up an image of a Lady, clad in velvet: those ostentatiously impractical long sleeves .. a fetching hat with veil ... but then again this is a timeless tale so she could simply be your next-door neighbour: a forty-something divorcee, say, plodding along in functional jeans and anorak. Conjure her up as you see fit, but remember she is (for the moment at any rate) A Nice Person.
It was a chilly November evening and she drew her coat closer about her, hastening her steps as she neared her home (castle/cottage/council flat). Thankfully the moon was full (an embellishment to our tale which is both practical and portentous) and she was alerted to the presence of the bird which lay in a state of distress in her pathway. One wing appeared to be damaged – in all probability a consequence of a narrow escape from a cat. But let us not concern ourselves unduly with the cause, for it has no bearing on the outcome of our story – suffice to say this was a broken creature in need of assistance.
Being a Kind Lady, she stooped and gathered the bird up in her fine-knit scarf (the gift of a former lover/a bargain found in the M&S Summer sale). Ah, I sense that you are anticipating a touching denouement in which the bird is healed and transformed, by the power of a kiss, into a Handsome Prince. Indeed he may well have been, for we are, after all, in the realms of folklore, where anything is possible. Perhaps he remained, in a literal sense, a bird ... which might make for a rather weird (not to say perverse) relationship, but suspend your disbelief and let the tavern fires and the haunting chords of the lute connect your consciousness to the metaphorical world.
Throughout the Winter, the bird resided in the Lady’s home, receiving her devoted attention. He would lie upon her pillow (silken, obviously) through long, cold nights, rewarding her kindness with his sweet song. She fancied that she could understand his language, so let us assume that she could, for that will be a convenient device through which to further our plot.
As Spring came, our feathered friend regained his strength and would sit by the window, from which his intoxicating music travelled on the breeze, drawing echoing voices from far and near. “My sweet Lady” he chirruped “I am truly grateful for your care and provision of shelter, but would you allow me the chance to test my wings again? I feel the need to fly – to savour the beauty that lies beyond these walls. I promise you though, that I will return to you before sunset”.
Well, how could our Lady refuse such a charmingly voiced request? She had come to love this bird deeply and knew well that she would keep his love through trust. So the new pattern of their days commenced: days spent exploring their own interests, with the promise of loving reunion every evening.
Ah .. but then came Summer. Long days and enticing distractions. The gentle springtime birds gave way to creatures of brighter plumage, wafting exotic perfumes from lands and lifestyles hitherto unknown to our Lady and her Bird, who had, despite the fantastical nature of their story, led fairly unadventurous lives thus far.
Sitting at home one Summer’s night, the Lady watched the sky begin to blush, as if in shame. The sun sank, then disappeared ... and he did not return.
For how long she sat by the open window I cannot say. Time itself was suspended as she waited in hope and trust that he would return safe and with a reasonable explanation for his absence.
Eventually she drifted into a fitful sleep ... and awoke as the dawn broke to see him sitting on the windowsill ... accompanied by (as you may have guessed) a second bird.
“Forgive me” tweeted our antihero in a brief display of contrition, before launching into a lengthy discourse on the merits of Free Love as the only antidote to all the Existential Ills of our fractured world. His companion nodded and chirruped appreciation at his wisdom, whilst our poor Kind Lady listened in increasing bewilderment, pain and grief.
When at last the birds fell silent, the Lady was released from her stupor. Crossing the room at speed she pushed the female bird violently into the morning air and drew her errant lover inside, slamming and bolting the window then drawing the curtains.
And here we really must continue in song, for the tale descends into whimsy too preposterous to be conveyed in any other form:
“So I took my tears of grief and rage / And I wove them into a silver cage / And my heart was a lock with a golden key / So never more will he fly from me”
So Summer gives way to Autumn and, all too soon, to Winter, when darkening skies drain any latent hubristic tendencies and, for a vulnerable bird, the yowling of hungry grey cats and baying of black dogs instil a fear from which only a Kind Lady can save him.
Cosy in their home, the Lady attends to her bird with touching devotion whilst he, secure and comfortable in his cage, sings his gratitude for a peaceful existence.
And so they lived – not unhappily – ever after.
“So the candle burns, and the spinning wheel turns / And what will be, will be, my Love / What will be, will be.”
We are on the train back from my parents’ house after that very first visit … my wife and me. Four nights under their roof. Four days of being inspected by them and the rest of the family members who live close by; four days of long looks from my brother who slyly shakes his head whenever our eyes meet. Ours is a village close to a town that’s miles from any city that takes thirty-six hours to reach from Shanghai. By train. But it’s Chinese New Year. It’s what we do. We go home to family for celebrations.
I am Donny and my beautiful wife is Lily; what can I say? We are modern young Chinese – we like the western names we chose. But my mother insists on calling me Wufeng and my wife Chenli. Or she calls me Turnip Head - my childhood nickname because I resembled a turnip, apparently. She tells that story to my wife three times during our visit, all the while embellishing it to make it funnier. In fact, it is merely tiresome. Lily explains that we can only stay three days because we need to visit her parents too. Then we agree to stay for a fourth – all part of the game of longing that is played out in families. Later, we play it again at Lily’s. My mother frowns, shakes her head, wipes her hands on her apron – but she accepts it. Chinese love dutiful children and my mum is satisfied that she came first: the superiority of boys over the girls. My family is nothing if not traditional.
I can sense Lily’s concealed irritation but she refrains from arguing because she expects the same respect from me with her parents. On top of all those cultural nuances – respect for parents, pecking order in the family, boys over girls, rude table manners – there are our own expectations of each other. We are in the modern age with one foot in the past. Family history. Deference before desire. Saving face before embracing truthfulness.
I fucking hate it! I hate the way my brother slurps loudly during dinner, eating noodles or drinking tea. My father is quieter but not much. It’s … vulgar.
“You’re a snob! And too westernised,” whispers Lily. She puts her hand on mine: “It will soon be over. Then we move on to my parents. Just remember we’re doing this because we love and respect them.”
“My mother last night … give me grandchildren! When are you going to make a baby?”
Lily smiles, sadly. “Mine will be the same. It’s something we must endure. We talked about this …”
“And then avoided it!”
I pick up my cup of tea and walk out into the yard; it is early morning. Lily is still sleeping. The air is crisp, cold – just a hint of dampness. Mum’s scrawny chickens fuss around in the yard, pecking at anything that might be food. My mother follows me. We are not a rich family; neither are we poor. After all, with the help of a scholarship, we managed to send me to university in the UK for a year. We take it for granted that, from the back of the house, we have one of the best views in the village. We have the whole of western China before us, unmarred by any towns or cities or roads, hidden as they are in valleys. It’s as if we can see all the way to Europe. I grew up a wistful child, longing for somewhere else, longing to be someone else.
“My little boy seems quiet this morning,” she says. I smile, my offering into the silent space that holds between the two of us, neither of us daring to enter it to find out what is there. My mother suspects a shadow but has no idea what it is; I know there is a shadow but am afraid of what it might become.
“Your wife is beautiful – maybe a little too vain. Her hair, her clothes. She must cost a lot. Though she works, so I suppose she can help with the cost of being a modern woman. The neighbours admired her …”
That was code for people are talking. You city types make us uncomfortable. This conversation is going to get worse.
“She’s a nice girl, though. Quiet. Polite. I think she could make a good mother - and wife. It’s early days yet.” There is another pause. That ominous space between us is safe again – uneasy but predictable.
“She’s very … quiet. You both are. At night … in bed. No sound at all from you.”
“Mum! This is not a topic that feels comfortable.” I burn with embarrassment.
“Well … a young couple. Recently married. In love. You’d expect some sounds of affection. Especially if you are trying for a baby. There were no signs yesterday morning … I put it down to the fact that you’re both tired after a very long journey.”
“Signs?! What signs?” – I want to run, suddenly.
“Signs in the bed – “
“Mum! Stop.” Has she really inspected where we slept?!
“You know what to do, don’t you? You were always a quiet boy … shy. But I assumed your brother would have told you. Boys at school gossip about such things. Maybe I should have made your father sit you down and talk. Don’t they teach this at school? You’re not ill, are you? There’s nothing wrong with you?”
I can’t remain in this conversation any longer and I hurry back inside, to the bedroom where Lily is waking. I tell her what my mum has said and she stifles her giggles.
“Has she not considered that newly married sons might be too embarrassed to have sex under their parents’ roof? Or even that after six months, we may have grown a little tired of copulating.”
“My mother has no shame. She is just thinking about getting grandchildren. And she is hurt that she didn’t come to the wedding.”
“Nobody came to the wedding – “
“I told her that but it didn’t help that much. Big city life ... everyone so busy … weddings tend to be quick, small affairs. I said everything we discussed. The only consolation she found was that she assumed you must be pregnant and we were ashamed. Behind her displeasure at that thought was the hope of a grandchild. Double disappointment!”
“And now … no semen stains in her son’s bed in the morning. My god! She must have crept in to check.”
“Stop! Please! I don’t want to discuss my semen and my mother in the same conversation. Boys aren’t supposed to have semen – just get babies!”
Lily suppresses her laughter and assures me that things will be easier with her family. The same thoughts may be there but they will remain unspoken. Three days later, in the evening of the day of our arrival, it is her sister who takes her aside and says, “Did he hurt you? Is he big?” Lily’s heart sinks.
In our allotted room that night, we smother our giggles, nervous laughter that provides relief from the ordeal we are going through.
“My god, Lily! What did you say?”
“I said, no – it’s quite tiny. Almost cute!”
“It’s not tiny!”
“How would I know? I’ve never seen it. The most I have seen is your bum cheeks – and your pubic hair. My god! You have a lot of hair.”
From the beginning, we have preserved modesty and dignity. There is no need to see anything more intimate than each other in our underwear. We made a point of exploring my birth marks because I knew my mother would bring them up: one on my left buttock and the other a couple of inches below on my thigh. Like a map of the two main islands of Japan. One of our older neighbours had pronounced it a bad omen: a sign of future betrayal.
“It’s kind of cute … so is your bum!” Lily likes to embarrass me.
Lily’s father says little but exudes a kindness that is touching. He patently adores Lily and Lily herself confides that she was always his special little girl. Her mother clearly has the same driven nature as my mother – maybe all Chinese mothers have it – but is less forthright about it. I can cope with that. Conversations here about our sex life would have had the effect of instant mortification. I am relieved that the only tricky moment is the whispered question about my size. I find it difficult to look her sister in the eye next morning, wondering if she is wondering. It is a labyrinth I don’t want to enter but I find myself sitting with my legs discreetly crossed whenever she is in the room. The only other real puzzlement is the occasional, quiet squeak that emanates from Lily’s aunt that nobody else seems to notice – or else ignores.
“She farts,” whispers Lily.
So … we are on the train back to Shanghai. We discuss the food that we bought from the dining car, the other passengers also returning from family visits, the lengthy journey. We even begin to chat about the funnier moments – like Lily’s aunt’s flatulence and my father’s habit of clearing his throat every thirty seconds as if he is about to speak … and then doesn’t. We wonder if we will become like this: figures of fun for younger family members.
“Why aren’t you fucking your wife every night?” whispers Lily, conspiratorially.
“I can’t … not with something this big! It would destroy her forever!” We both fall into fits of giggles and other passengers glance at us, mystified by our near hysterical hilarity.
Above all else, we have survived the first return home as husband and wife. We have overcome their natural disappointment at not attending the wedding. We have endured the sexual innuendos that accompany conversations about babies and specifically grandchildren. Only Lily’s father showed any true decorum: the defilement of his daughter was a topic he refused to countenance and I liked him for it. Some people have no shame! Like my mother, Lily’s mother and her sister. And every neighbour who called by and gave sly smiles.
Half an hour from Shanghai, I pick up a text message. I reply and then nod at Lily; she smiles back and visibly relaxes.
An hour later we arrive at the flat; Jackson and Mae are already there and they have prepared snacks and tea for our home-coming. We hug. We laugh. We grab food and drink and babble our stories to each other, excited and relieved.
“Well, my beautiful friends,” begins Jackson, “We survived. Our first year with the families and it went OK. It will get better with time. We’ll get better … we can look forward to a successful twenty years of loving family visits. Or thirty. Or forty.” We groan and fall about laughing, as much out of relief as out of any sense of humour in the situation.
“And so, lovely friends … my lover and I shall retire to our apartment.” And Jackson reaches out to take my hand; he pulls me towards him, wraps his arms around me and I am lost in the reverie of his kiss, his presence – my beautiful man. Perhaps even, one day in the far distant future, my husband. We leave the girls to their own homecoming celebration and hurry to our apartment, two blocks away.
(NOTE: It is not uncommon in modern day China for lesbian and gay couples to engage in fake marriages for the sake of their families. There are commercial agencies who advertise this service, rather like a dating agency – but with one crucial difference.)
Part 3 (Parts 1 and 2 can be found in Ephemera - am doing a crazy writing experiment, trying to write linking stories. This should read as a stand alone story too.)
Lovers Never Lose
'I don't know how I get to the bridge, across roads with horns blaring at me, through the park, with tears blurring my way, down the High Street, with people avoiding me. I don't see anyone I know which I'm only partly glad about because they might try to stop me, and they might stop me. I still don't know at this point if I want to be stopped.'
I stop writing, and feel my muscles clench as my hands clenched the railing, as my brain tried to cling to any last bits of normality above the churning madness - like the river below the bridge - of my thoughts. I take a breath, and look at the page behind the one I'm writing on.
The previous diary entry reads simply, 'Goodbye.'
I'd not expected to be writing again but the page is clean and soft and blank. Like the rest of my life, if I choose.
'The thoughts in my head weren't thoughts. There was no rationality, just me in the here and now, running and running towards a place I knew I could go that would take the pain away. I didn't think about those I left behind, apart from knowing, with certainty, that they'd be better off if I was gone.'
I'm glad I've slipped into the past tense as writing in the present made it too real, too close to what nearly happened... Putting it in the past means it is IN the past. For now. Writing it is giving myself a choice. I've a future, if I want it. Once I've written this entry, I might know for sure. I'm doing my best to win, to find love again, all that stuff that people keep telling me.
'The last bit of the journey I remember. I found myself at the town end of Middlewood Bridge, the same bridge where I used to come with Katrina to fling stones and wishes down to the water below. It was said that if your stone was carried all the way to the ocean, that your wish would come true. Mine were always the same: Katrina, be with me forever. She'd throw hers and smile the same wish back at me. We knew without saying that we wished the same thing.
There were people on the bridge, which I'd not counted on. The faces I'd seen on the way here passed in blurry lines of eyes staring and mouths open in leering smiles; those I was trying to get away from. The people on the bridge looked like gargoyles, awkwardly shaped faces with frightening smiles and eyes that sought out my own, looking into my soul, wanting to get in the way of me and my death. The word 'death' had become like poetry. I could die like Katrina had and we'd be together and if my body went all the way to the sea wouldn't this wish come true?
It was almost dusk, and I found a place in the lengthening shadows where I could be unseen. Except people are nosey and they saw me and they came in amoeba crowds to swallow me up and take me back to their land, that of living laughing loving people.
Bollocks to that, I remember thinking, and then I was surprised at the fact there were words once more in my head, not just images and feelings and pain. It was one of Katrina's favourite sayings. Bollocks to that. She'd have said, 'Bollocks to that,' if she'd known about the car crash, but of course neither of us did.
I found I was over the right side of the railings. The wrong side for life, but the right side for me. There were gasps behind me and I knew a crowd had gathered. I yelled something at them, I don't remember what. In these last moments I wanted to be alone, so I could think and feel my wish with every fibre of my being and make it come true - just take me back to her.
I think I hesitated also because I thought she might appear. If she saw what I was about to do, wouldn't she come back and stop me? Or would she pull me down, to be with her? The crowd was keeping her away. I shouted at them again, incoherent, mauled words, which made sense in my head. I let go with one hand and touched the scar on my face. When that was made, she was still alive. If I touched it I'd be closer to her. There were louder gasps.
I was in a film. I was already dead. I'd died in the car crash, too, and this was a weird sort of afterlife I had to wade through to find the place Katrina was. The river was a conduit. It was all a test. If I turned my head, she would be there...
So I did turn my head. And I saw a woman coming right at me, through a gap between me and the living. Not Katrina. I turned back to the river, thought, I'll just let go, wishes or not, but then there was something cool against my hand and everything changed.
I turned my head and there was a stone against my skin, a smooth grey rock with some writing on it. I didn't want to, but was compelled to hold it.
The world flashed and crashed around me and I was flung deep down inside myself. It felt like I'd let go and was falling and I thought, thank God for that, I can go now, but instead I was in a cafe, drinking coffee, and talking with my hands animating the air around me, talking with passion to a woman opposite
and then I was with the same woman in a swimming pool, nose to nose right down at the bottom and there, without words, I could see her face for who she was and she was
my lover walked towards me down an aisle but not in a church, on a beach and the aisle was made of stones, and people stood on either side, smiling and some of them I recognised and some I didn't and in my heart I felt
pure love. It was a pure love in my mind and my soul and my heart as I helped deliver my own child in the living room of our house because the midwife hadn't got there in time and
I was back on the bridge. My hands and the woman's were in a solid hold with the stone somewhere in between. She looked right at me, right into me and she knew, somehow she knew that I'd failed to save Katrina, that I wasn't the hero she'd needed as she was stuck in the car, as they pulled me away and tried to cut her away, as the flames caught me, as the flames consumed her. I wasn't a hero. I didn't save her and they saved me first and that made me a failure, her lover and a failure, who failed his love. I was an anti-hero. Someone who simply didn't deserve to live.
'Be your own hero,' the woman whispered, then she was sucked back into the crowd who now had proper faces, of concern and care.'
I shut the diary. I've had enough writing. I want to write what happened, to try and make sense of it, but it's hard. I can't take you back there, to that moment and that's what I want to do because I can't put it all into words. It's love, and how can you write love?
Katrina was love and the firemen who cut me away acted with love and I know they tried; there was an inquiry after all and nobody was found lacking, not even me. Nobody said I wasn't a hero, they all gave me pity and, yes, love. The woman with the stone, love taking over. Me crossing back over the railing, helped by many hands - all pulling me with love.
And the future the stone showed me: Love. There was more love for me, if I chose to stay and find it. Katrina was gone, but I would be a lover again.
Only... There's something wrong with all of this. I don't want those things with anyone else. I don't want that future and that pool and that wedding and those eyes. I wanted Katrina all of my adult life and now I don't want her any less. I was her lover and losing her took away my ability to feel love. I can see it in others, yes. But have I any left? I don't think so.
I've got one job left. It's to pass this rock on. I don't know what it is; it's carved with three letters, in old fashioned writing: NSD. I've got to pass it on (don't ask me how I know this, it's one of those things in life that you just know.)
After that, I'm going again to find Katrina. Lovers don't lose love. They lose the ones they loved but the feeling never dies. You can't replace it, change it or take it away. I've only got one option, and that's to find her. All those well meaning people's words about how I'll find love once more. No. That rock showed me a possible future. That much, I know. It showed me what I could find, if I stayed.
But I'm not staying.
Once that rock's passed on again, I'll write a single word in my diary, close the book and then take my leave, in my own time, quietly, in private. And be with my love again.
Love shouldn't be a measuring scale,
all rating each other and hidden tests,
keeping secrets close in case feelings fail,
dreading that moment when our hearts arrest.
Love’s no public plaything meant to mate us
where one goes down as the other ascends
switching freely with no thought of status
you soar above me as my likes descend.
I delight in seeing you up so high
despite the effort, warm closeness lost
I truly love you - no word of a lie
mutual strength outweighs personal cost.
Yet don’t think our match made in heaven
you’re plainly a five and I’m a seven.
Lyall twitched back into a full awareness of the doctor’s waiting room. Despite the coughs and annoying kids, he’d been fully immersed in a daydream. It was the usual. Fern and him, walking together, talking, laughing. Kissing.
He walked past the pastel prints on the way to Dr Furlong’s room and was hammered by a sudden switch from delight to dread. He prayed for the hundredth time to the dimly-known god of his childhood. Please don’t let it be cancer. Fucking cancer. The silent psychopath that had felled both parents with a casual roll of the dice within a few years of each other.
Dr Furlong was waiting beside his door, neither grinning with elation nor seeming to pensively harbour bad news. Just plain, old, grey-suited Dr Furlong, with his cadaverous face and a firm gesture for Lyall to enter the room. As if Lyall was prone to breezing past and deciding to seduce a nurse instead.
‘Well, the test results are back,’ Dr Furlong said without preamble, settling into his chair.
‘And?’ said Lyall.
A smile lifted the doctor’s features momentarily. ‘Clear. The biopsy showed no signs of anything sinister. Your PSA level is normal. You’ve nothing to worry about – at the moment. You’re a fifty-five year-old man in reasonable physical shape. Vive la vida.’
Lyall pursed his lips and exhaled. His skin prickled with the delight so recently felt, and Fern’s features replaced the bland doctor’s. ‘Why don’t you screw me right here on the desk?’ she said.
‘I’m sorry – what?’ said Lyall.
‘I said you must be relieved,’ said Dr Furlong.
Lyall blinked a few times. ‘Well…naturally. My father was only in his late fifties when he developed –’
Dr Furlong sat impassively while Lyall babbled out his old worries. They both knew he was going over previous ground. The relief he felt gave his speech quantity, and before long it weighed upon him that there was an uncomfortable one-sidedness to the consultation.
When Lyall’s words ceased flowing, Dr Furlong said a strange thing. He said: ‘You won’t want to waste your life now, eh?’
‘I – I beg your pardon?’
The doctor placed his glasses on the bridge of his nose and peered at the computer screen with his head tilted back. He clicked the mouse a few times. ‘I said you won’t want to waste a minute. Now you’ve been given the all-clear,’ he said.
‘I heard you. I’m –’ Lyall’s mouth clamped shut. He wasn’t sure what he was. Provoked? Angered? ‘I’m just not sure I appreciate the implication that before the cancer scare I was wasting my life.’
Dr Furlong tapped a few terse, medical sentences into Lyall’s file before turning to look at him. He peered over his glasses, exactly like an admonitory teacher. ‘Lyall. We all waste our lives. If we’re not careful,’ he added.
Lyall picked at a patch of dried skin on the palm of his right hand. He frowned. ‘Hm. Well, thanks doctor. I’ll see you for my next checkup.’
‘Indeed,’ said Dr Furlong to his monitor.
Lyall drove home in the drizzle and thought about death. When he removed his shoes, he considered what it would be like to die fast and when he stood at the cooker, making béchamel sauce, he imagined the sensation of dying slowly.
While Lyall was stirring in some Gruyere cheese, the doorbell rang. He turned down the hob and padded through to the front of the house. Mary was already in the hallway. After strewing her boots, umbrella and bag all over the hallway, all in places they weren’t meant to be, she brushed past Lyall with a curt ‘Hi.’
‘Why did you ring the doorbell?’ he said, following her into the kitchen.
She peered into the saucepan critically. Gave it a stir. ‘Oh. I couldn’t find my keys. Then I did. How was your day?’
Lyall shut his eyes. ‘Good. I had that doctor’s appointment. I’m not going to die.’
‘Oh my gosh,’ said Mary, moving quickly beside him and awkwardly touching his arm, as if this spoke of relief. He opened his eyes. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she repeated, eyebrows steepled. ‘It completely slipped my mind. What did doctor…’
‘Furlong,’ said Lyall, considering the tiled floor as if inspecting it for damage.
Mary cleared her throat. ‘Well, what did he say?’
Lyall shouldered past her and considered the sauce before reaching for the milk. ‘Other than the biopsy results were fine? He said that I should no longer waste my life. Try to make the most of it, that kind of thing.’ Mary said nothing. She seemed to be waiting for further information.
When none came, she embraced him clumsily from behind and whispered, ‘I’m so glad.’
He looked at her in the chrome of the cooker hood and flashed a smile. ‘Me too.’
Lyall was no longer thinking about death. He was thinking about Fern. Other than a brief thought that he must drop by the solicitors tomorrow to push through with the divorce, he didn’t stop.
I grip the receiver ever tighter
pressing it firmly to my ear
The better to hear your telephone voice
It`s melodic falsetto lilt is so.... Un-you
We exchange the comfortable Banalities of the perpetually en-spoused
Who have said all the things of import there are to say aeons ago
So all that`s left is the inconsequentially vital daily minutiae
The children: the grandchildren...
Who said and did what to whom.
I picture your face
Every well earned line and crease
Rendered invisible more perfectly by familiar intimacy
Than any surgeons scalpel could possibly achieve
Til all that`s left is you.
"Say you love me?"
"Say you love me and I shall die,"
"But I shall die in an agony of ecstasy."
"Only say you love me?"
Love tolerates no ego, and I am unashamed to beg.
You Say Nothing!!!!!
An eternity stretches between us, delicious in its torment
You know me too well
after all these years,
you are such a tease.
I hear the smile in your declaration
"Of course I love you, you old fool...."
And I die.
I die as I always do in that moment.....
Lyrics for a song in the style of Alex Turner (but not David Bowie)
Thank you Gods for my frontal lobe
It gives me words to say
It dresses my feelings
In these robes
So I can tell you
That though you never slept next to me
I always woke up thinking of you
You'd come to mine
And see it through my eyes
I'd go to yours
There was so much love in that house
I didn't know where to hide
I climbed that hill several times
It was dark in your little town
Your night sky was better than mine
And you were waiting
With warm feelings for me
And food made especially
And I'm sending you messages
On the train back home
But I'm not telling you I love you
Because I don't know
And in that place
With the horrible carpet
And the staircase
That fills you with terror
In a recurring dream
I thought we'd go there someday
And I'd protect you and take you
But it seems that was just another dream
And if lovers never lose
Were we lovers
Or something else?
Or is it impossible to lose
A part of yourself
Cos I've been flicking through thoughts of you
That are pretty useless umbrellas
When melancholy rains on my feelings
Like thoughts of you are wounds
That I don't want to stop bleeding
Cos I'm sending you messages
On the train back home
But I'm not telling you I love you
Because I don't think I do
Until it's too late
It's too late
The sea was rolling in again. Coming home. And you knew it too. That’s it…come back to me. Through the lens you were but a dark silhouette. Hair being teased by the wind.
It was only when I took the camera away I could see your face. I saw you my love. The frost had bitten at your nose, you were all tinged pink and the seagulls glided in circles above me cackling at my silliness when I thought; how pretty he is cold. As if a season could determine the prettiness of you.
I always had you down as a hypnotist. Never could I keep my eyes from you and you knew that too, you knew a lot more about me than I did.
You turned to me from all those meters away, cupped your palms round your lips and shouted something that was lost behind the howl of the wind. I stood from my crouched positon, narrowed my eyes, tried to work it out.
You smiled as you told me again, all lit up like a tree. But the gust threw your scarf up over your face. I couldn’t even read your lips.
“I love you!” I yelled back.
You hadn’t a clue what I said but you laughed, you were radiant with it, whatever it was. You turned back to the sea.
“I love you!” I called again, this time my voice wavering into a whisper. “I love you.”
I lowered myself unsteadily to a crouch. My hands pressed together like a prayer. I prayed for nothing, I needed no more in that moment.
In the distance you crouched too, palm splayed on the pebbles as the tide washed your skin clean. Then your eyes closed, you lifted your chin to the sky and bathed yourself in absolution. It was the kind of thing that made you wanna cry.
One of those moments that was so perfect, I knew on the day of my death the last thing I would see would be that beach. You and the sea. A perfect marriage of fear and freedom endlessly laid out in front of me all the way to the horizon.
Or at least, endless was my presumption then.
I lay that camera down on the rocks and I moved toward you, closer, closer. You didn’t turn to acknowledge me, but when I pulled you off the ground into bear hug carry, you never uttered a word.
You knew a lot more about me than even I did.
Do you remember that night? Soft groan of a mattress in a nameless hotel and not a word between us until after. You told me:
“You need a haircut.”
I said. “I know.”
You were sad about it. You always loved my hair a little longer. It was a day of mourning for you whenever I cut it. We held onto that moment, milked it for all its worth. Because it felt like we were slipping. Like that bitter sweetness before the end though neither of us would turn our eyes towards the sunset or god forbid, pay it any attention. There was desperation there. We were so desperately clinging weren’t we? Struggling and for what we didn’t know.
It just all felt too perfect to be true.
It was the sort of thing that made you wanna cry.
“Sam…close your eyes.” You murmured, half asleep. “Rest with me…I’m so tired.”
I kept my gaze on you. Your eyes fluttered open. Too blue to be real.
I shook my head. “I don’t know why I’m crying really…”
You drew me into the crook of your neck and kissed my forehead. “Oi…We’re okay…we’re here. You have me. You’ve got me now.”
“Now…” I repeated. “For now…”
We both closed our eyes against the coming gales and as the sun rose and the tides were pulled back out to sea, you went with them.
It was the sort of thing that made you wanna cry.
But without the steady thrum of your heart beat under my fingertips, this man was shrivelled. I was bone dry.
In all the places where I never
saw you, I look for you now. Tiny
filaments of memory align,
spun like fine silk into a place,
a space, a photograph, each node
once devoid of significance. Now
in every backward glance you
might be here. I search images
of the points you referenced first
time we met, looking for a tiny
hint of your features, your hair,
your clothes, your shoes, zoom in.
You may have watched me once,
before, as I might have watched
you. Thus, you are in these places
forever, real or imagined. I close
my eyes, hear your laugh, and see
your smile, as alive in thought
as when I'll see you later.
The chicken Hero died on Sunday
called so from Hero and Leander of
course (it's a girl's name but you
knew that), and it was not really
a good hero's death: a wound
unnoticed, infiltrated by maggots
e'en before the grave, and in fact
as it was a hot day I said burn her;
don't bring her back so fallen;
but importantly, remember (note
to self) this is not Anglo-Saxon poetry
not the Dream of the Rood, and her
demise was not a prefiguration nor
was meant to be.
I will kill my squirming
maggots and I will live.
Heroes can resist the
stench of the grave and
the false allure of heaven
if they believe.
John the Hero
If you have read the New Testament you know the stories of several important Johns…John the Baptist, John the Apostle and John of Patmos to name a few. Two thousand years later a story of another John has emerged in the Christian narrative. It is the story of John the Hero, an ordinary man doing God's work. Ironically it is also the story that ultimately caused me to question my Christian faith and eventually leave the church.
When I met John the Hero he was middle aged, pudgy and unattractive. His large, aviator framed glasses slid down a face that was too small for his large, rotund body. The smallish face was lubricated in a greasy sweat induced by the inferno of Atlanta, Georgia. Luckily his strong hairline and cropped brown locks rescued him from abject ugliness. Without them he would paved plunged fully into the abyss of nameless, faceless men cursed with fatness, baldness and homely looks.
But what John lacked in looks he more than made up for with his ego. He practically strode through life like he was a Greek god. He reminded anyone who would listen that he was once a jarhead; a United States Marine, a soldier forged like steel into an elite weapon. Marines are young, full of bravado and known for their muscular physiques. According to the legend, not only had John once been a jarhead, he had everyone believing he was only one diet away from reclaiming his boyish figure. But he was too busy doing God’s work to worry about his appearance. He was a pastor, a modern day hero, commissioned by the Almighty and always available to go where called. He had no time to count calories or go to the gym...his mission was too important.
John was a kingdom builder and used words like a mason uses bricks. He carefully crafted his messages to be accessible to the masses. He primarily used the language of the common man, occasionally punctuating it with a few elite words to let you know he was definitively learned. He loved alliteration and boisterously billowed in a bourgeois barrage of bullshit, captivating many adoring followers. He had an uncanny ability to weave his words into an irresistible narrative where he was always the hero.
According to John he had spent the 1980s fighting for the rights of unborn children in the greater Atlanta metropolis through his pro-life rhetoric. But by the mid-1990s God had expanded his vision. He and his flock graciously adopted the people of Bosnia Herzegovina and planned to plant evangelical churches and save souls in the war ravaged region.
In preparation for such a momentous task John fasted and prayed for forty days. As the weight fell off of his frame his understated blazers no longer groaned as they contained his massive torso. Instead they were able to relax and John, flush with a new confidence and a narrowed waistline expanded his empire. He crafted a clear and concise message and served up an endless buffet of impassioned pleas through a clever marketing campaign. When his fast ended he continued these pleas, each enhanced by a heavy heart and heavy breathing. Not the heavy breath of a pervert, but breath laden with urgency and purpose. A breath that incidentally always smelled of fried chicken. Apparently shortly after the fast ended his legendary appetite had returned and once again his blazers groaned in agony.
His pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Pledges were made, money poured in and missionaries (some who stayed for weeks and others who stayed for years) were soon boarding flights to the Baltics. Now, this is where the story takes an unexpected twist. Even though John was a heroic man of God, his leadership style was like that of a gluttonous university lad. Although he preached of leading an orderly life, he certainly did not model such virtues.
When reports from the mission field began to trickle in, usually in the form of massively distributed email messages, they were long and detailed. But instead of narrating the sacrificial, sacred life associated with missionary work the narratives were much more superficial. There was much talk of how the pimple-faced teenagers in our congregation now stood out like gods in this foreign land. The girls, in their Brittney Spears fashions, were instantly worshipped and each one left Sarajevo with multiple marriage proposals but sadly, no souls saved. The reports read more like the highlights of a summer camp than a serious religious crusade. However, there were occasional mentions of a few locals who had committed their lives to Jesus and we prayed like hell that these new converts would kindle a fire in the hearts of the Bosnian people. I should also point out that because none of our missionaries were fluent in the local language these new converts were instantly put into a position of great leverage. Some abused this situation, while others devoutly followed and worked under the guidance of the naïve Americans.
John’s flock of missionaries were created in his image, each with a similar narrative of doing God's work while always making themselves out to be the hero. They came back from the mission field with many extravagant stories and always just a few meager souls saved. The stories all ended with more impassioned pleas for monetary support. After all, this work was essential. It was also incredibly convenient because by devoting our resources to the Bosnians still trapped in their homeland we were off the hook to help the thousands of Bosnians who had resettled in greater Atlanta and were at our doorstep. There was no need to get mired in the thankless job of helping chain-smoking, smelly refugees find their way in America. Granted, the homeland Bosnians also chain smoked and did not always smell fresh, but in the foreign context, it was totally appropriate…but in American, not so much. Besides we had a much higher calling to reach those still in the motherland according to John, our fearless leader and chief hero in residence.
Years passed and the fervor for Bosnia still ran hot with the spindly veins of our church. But behind closed doors a new story was emerging from the mission field. This story was too confidential to be shared in mass emails and was discussed only among the church leadership. By the time the story found its way to the congregation it had been highly sanitized and was full of Christian euphemisms. At the center of the story was a series of “moral failures” among the missionaries. In our Christian circles a “moral failure” is code that good Christian people are inappropriately fucking each other. Usually the term is reserved for when a strong Christian man is having an extramarital affair. But it in this case it was clear that the moral failure was not limited to men and had spread to some of the unmarried people too.
Now John always boasted of how when sin was found in a church, it should be brought to light instead of sweeping it under the rug. Even in the early 2000s, members of our church occasionally confessed their sins publically. And since we were not Catholic, we did not confess our sins to a priest. Instead we confessed them to the entire congregation from the pulpit with hundreds of eyes watching each word fall from a trembling mouth as hands nervously gestured. To be clear, we did not confess every sin from the pulpit, only the big sins and the all of the fucking that occurred in the Balkans certainly fell into this category.
So on a sweltering July day in 2002 several missionaries, one by one, found their way to the pulpit. Each one confessed that they were involved in big, sultry, nasty, communal moral failure. Sullen faced, many shed tears and regretted their poor decisions. They were much more concerned about how they had disappointed the Almighty than how they had disappointed the people in their nascent Bosnian church. After all, if sex scandals can shake the pillars of the great American megachurches, how much more can they dismantle and possibly snuff out a small, emerging church. There was little regret about being a poor example for new Christians or wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars donated on their behalf. Instead, through choked tears they made sincere pledges to restore their marriages and friendships. Once relationships were restored they could then go back to their God ordained mission. In their many words they made almost no plans for asking forgiveness to the vulnerable Bosnian Christians who they had failed miserably.
After they confessed their sins and received special counsel many went back to the mission field. The entire situation left me speechless. I always questioned the makeshift mission and this sequence of events confirmed my suspicions. I grew even more suspicious when I observed John’s classic response to this debacle. As a fearless leader I expected to take responsibility on some level for what had transpired. After all, since 1995 he had traveled to Bosnia several times a year and supposedly kept a close tabs on everything. But instead of offering up an impassioned plea for forgiveness for his lack of leadership he offered up a mouth held agape and a puzzled facial expression. He spoke of how he had absolutely no idea that this was happening under his watch and credited the perpetrators for their craftiness in keeping things under wraps for so long. He magnified their sins referring to them as “something I have never seen before or ever heard of,” making it clear that he still swam in morally clean waters. And he carefully created a new set of alliterative clichés to encourage the missionaries and the whole congregation to ‘halt harmful hormones’ in their tracks. Most of the congregants quickly devoured his new rhetoric. Their senses were so blurred by this point that they could not see or smell the buffet of steaming bullshit for what it was. Instead they saw wise words from a wise man, a godly, modern day hero.
Secretly I wondering who was fucking who, because those details were never divulged and my inquiring mind wanted to know. But I never knew exactly what happened. I can only remember how it impacted one of my single girlfriends who was caught in the scandal. She was one of the few people involved who actually had a conscience that extended beyond the church walls and into the lives of her fellow man. On an emotional level she seemed to be hit the hardest and it took a long time before she could even look people in the eye. In her renewed vow to live a sexually pure life she also vowed that the passionate feelings in her life would be reserved solely for God. For her, even seemingly innocent passions could grow out of control and lead her astray. She declared that she would willingly lead a bland existence for the sake of her faith. Her words hit me like a note out of tune. How could God require a young vibrant woman to lead such a dull, passionless life?
Fifteen years later I see that her implicit tone deafness made my ears perk up and for the first time I began to question the church and its leader. Small questions led to bigger ones and eventually I left the church and disconnected myself from John and his misguided flock. Over the years I went through my own spiritual awakening in which I became the hero of my own life. I now realize that anyone can tell a story and cast themselves as the hero. But a true hero never has to parade around in a special suit, explicitly revealing their identity. If you are ever lucky enough to meet a true hero, it will be more than apparent who they are and no words or costumes will be needed.
NO MORE HEROES
He stood on his own next to the Dean who showed him the Polygalla Bursista in full flower.
"You see, Matthew, cross pollination can produce extraordinary blooms despite Fawcett's Theory of Genetic Isolation."
Was this the life he'd made for himself? Chatting to the college principal while she stood surrounded by a crowd in the middle of the Second Quad? The noise of their excited chatter echoed off the warm stone walls and penetrated the shadowy corners of the old building. A shaft of evening sunlight caught the bright sheen of her hair and her joyful laughter radiated happiness he longed to share. It filled him with envy and a strange, powerful impulse.
The day he won a scholarship to Jesus College had seemed the highlight of his young life. His Headmaster paraded him before the school like a prince.
"An outstanding scholar and worthy champion of our academic trophies...etc ..etc"
She had laughed with the others, tossing her beautiful dark hair as she clapped his success. Was it sincere or did she join in with the rest who labelled him 'Mister Dork?'
She never showed it, but there again, she seemed too busy with her own set to bother with him. His adoration was his problem not hers. She lived in a world of admiration. Like a pretty goldfish, she swam elegantly through life with a lazy flick of her tail.
There was a moment of surprise when she passed the university entrance exam, but it was not a scholarship or bursary.
"Congratulations," he said "We'll meet at college next year!"
"Yes," she said, and turned away as one of her girlfriends came rushing to hug her success; the two girls sharing the embrace that drove his imagination to a whirlwind of jealousy.
As the term approached, he worked at a local garden centre to earn enough to buy an old car and with some difficulty managed to pass his driving test. His father teased him.
"Now you'll fetch the girls, me lad!" He smiled and made no reply. He didn't want to 'fetch the girls' -he just wanted one girl to notice.
Then one afternoon, she stopped and chatted to him. She was on her way to some tennis game and passed his house. She glowed with health, her tanned legs set off by her white skirt and neat trainers; he thought she looked wonderful and she knew it.
"Going up in your new car?" She said.
He noticed how she had learnt the lingo already. He nodded mute with shyness.
"Maybe you can give me a lift and we can arrive together,"
She pushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes and gazed directly at him. His heart jumped and he wanted to say he would do anything she wanted, but all he could manage was "Ok." She grinned and waved. He wanted to say something, but she ran on and the moment was gone.
He got his gear together for the trip to Oxford. It was the first time he had ever been away from home for more than a few days and he loaded his car with books and clothes as if leaving for a year. He waited to see if she remembered her idea and to his surprise she came round the day before they were due 'to go up.'
"Will you keep your promise?" her head tilted back and her lips parted slightly showing the tips of her white teeth. She raised her eyebrows in mute enquiry as if she was unsure.
He managed a nod and then clearing his throat said. "I can always find a bit of room, if you want."
She grinned. "Great! Dad will be round this evening. Thanks a million!"
Late that night, her father arrived and brought three suitcases and a trunk to his front door. Matthew could hardly miss the fact that the car he drove was a Volvo estate car with twice the space of his little Renault.
"You'll manage I'm sure,"
He set the heavy cases down on the pavement.
Would she call? All evening he waited, but nothing came. Next morning among his farewells, he watched for her and met Sally her best friend at the street door.
"Jennie says hi, and see you at college."
"She's gone already?"
"Yes, Derek Fawkes gave her a lift in his Mini Cooper."
That first term was a confusion of new experiences. Sharing rooms with some public schoolboy; finding out the geography of this strange academic world; struggling with concepts and social behaviour; but she was never out of his mind. He saw her at a distance in the High street; she waved across the road but didn't stop. He tried to catch up with her but she turned into a college doorway before he could reach her. He fancied there was still the hint of a fragrance she used as he stopped at the big wooden door.
Another time he waited outside the gate of St Hilda's to catch her as she went out. He stood there for more than half an hour in the drizzle waiting for her,with a little speech to appear cool and confident, but she never appeared. As he walked back to his lecture, he passed a coffee shop and she was perched on a stool inside laughing with some toffee nosed undergraduate who smiled and teased her. She saw him and waved for him to come in. His damp tweed jacket clung to his body, and its woody wet smell steamed in the warmth of the café. The other young man examined him as he stood, bedraggled in front of her.
Brushing back a stray blond curl, the boy said "Been swimming this morning?"
Matthew shook his head, he tried to think of something to say but words never came.
"Oh don't tease him!" She said, "He's a friend from home! How are you Matt?"
"Ok, have started research on Plant Genetics." As soon as the words left his mouth he knew they were the stupidest thing he had ever said.
She pretended to pay attention but he knew her too well; her blue eyes soon flicked away from his and looked past him into the view beyond his head.
"Well, we'll see each other in vac won't we?"
He hated the stupid word. Why not say vacation? or holidays?
"Yes, maybe sooner!" He gritted his teeth. At last he had found a spark of determination.
Tomorrow, in the second Quad, while the summer party was in full swing, he'd leave the stuffy old Dean to his shrubs and tell her how he felt, whatever the consequences.
Who said there were no more heroes?
'I will be king' over the rock hall of fame,
A shape-shifting sylphlike goblin God,
A 'pretty thing', stranger and more beautiful than anyone, before or after,
Ziggy's alien presence accompanied by Ronson's riffs,
Led us along aural soundscapes of mellifluous tones razored with searing strokes,
The spiders took us to Mars & back,
As Bowie fell to Earth to become Emperor of rock existentialism,
Inimitable & irreplaceable particles drifted downwards to shine their luminosity upon us,
The Brixton born cut-up lyricist, pied piper of ethereal earthworms,
Escaped the treacherous vapidity of the suburban wasteland,
Ran away from the disease of provinciality,
'Major Tom' traveled at the speed of light to pose questions & provide the answers in a narrative of his own creation,
The thin white Yamamoto duke flirted with potentialities,
To triumphantly emerge from folkdom, a style & sound icon.
Here, there are no more heroes,
Watch the sky for the waiting Starman.
Gone Fishin' -
memories of an un-heroic lock keeper
He had remarkably blue eyes,
The lock-keeper of Godstow
And I see him clearly
Legs splayed concave,
Peaked captain's cap a-slant.
Hear his rustic voice
Pronouncing on river politics of the day -
His catch-phrase “What I carn't understand is...”
Was mimicked by colleagues and some
Fun was made of his Eternal Vexations.
No winner resulting from lock-side disputes,
He'd scoff at the end of the farce,
“'I carn't tell if that shit's from 'is mouth or 'is arse!”
In high 1980s summer with the Stranglers playing
And bikini bodies on the pleasure boats laying
He's puzzle to himself
“Now why ain't I got a woman like those?”
Shake his head and shrug -
“Not enough money I suppose.”
He'd lonely pace his exercise yard
Two fidgety jack russels in tow,
Until later two daughters and wife
Would return from work
And in neolithic fag-bonding ease
Send collective thoughts on daily matters
Smokily out on the river's breeze.
His lock-side sentence ran out a little early -
A brain tumour ending the stream of his life.
Many boats passed through his gates
But I do not think he knew them well,
(“It would be a good job if it weren't for the boats!”)
Those smug owners of fibre-glass shells.
I see him on days off
Not storming the barricades,
Nor challenging Thatcher,
Or striding out on CND parades
But clambering with rod into his little skiff
To see what the river god might give.
See him looking eternally down stream,
Bored to heaven by the boats
With those remarkably blue eyes.
(Part 1 in Ephemera from last week)
Sorry readers, a week flew by. So many stories came in last week on my blog about the NSD stone that I've had trouble keeping up. I was in the middle of writing a draft of the introduction for the book when life got in the way so I'm rereading to remember where I was when I left off.
Jane. That's right. Jane had just been given the rock, and I was sharing her e mail with you.
Here is the rest of it, and some more of my introduction. Hopefully I won't be interrupted this time...
One day, I was in a shop, the kids screaming, staring at a shirt I knew I wouldn't fit into. I'd had it. People were staring at me, I could feel it. And then this woman came up to me and gave me this rock. And as I held it, the world around me vanished. Gone were my two screaming children. Gone was the shop, gone was the shirt I was staring at. Best of all, the desperate feeling I had of 'I cannot do this' had vanished too. I was empty, peaceful, completely present in a calm white space. I was with myself. I could feel the cool of the rock against my fingers, I could see white around me, like clouds, I could feel nothing.
The clouds dispersed. I was in a park. I was sitting on a blanket, under a tree, sipping a cup of something herbal and healthy. And in front of me, playing with a bat and ball, were two children, aged about 11 or 12. 'Mum!' one of them yelled. 'Come on, your turn to bat!' They were my children, grown up, sun-kissed and tall, open smiles under happy eyes, buzzing with life.
I took the bat
and suddenly I was back in my house. The same house but oh so tidy and colourful, bookshelves along the wall instead of books in boxes, my carpet clean and hoovered, my husband dozing along the couch, my children sprawled on the floor reading books, giggling at things they read. It was a scene of utter bliss, the sort of bliss I imagined would be created by having a family instead of the mess and stress of my present life. I sat down and gazed at them all and the room and the house and felt the love
and then we were in the car driving somewhere, laughing at the radio, off on holiday, excited
and then I woke up in my bed knowing I'd slept the whole night, feeling rested and ready for the day. My children burst in and jumped on me and tickled me til I woke properly, and asked if they could make scrambled eggs for breakfast. My husband rolled over and pulled me into a hug and told me I'm a wonderful mum
and then we were having dinner and the kitchen was different, unrecognisable from the one we have now; surfaces still cluttered but with sort of arty clutter, not just piles of crap that I look at with increasing desperation and wonder how I'll ever get to the bottom of them.
All of this happened in seconds, Brian. Then the rock was pulled from my hands and I was back in the shop, my kids still yelling their heads off, the lumpy tiredness and black cloud back above me, and me feeling like the world had just shifted on its axis leaving me adrift, confused... but oddly happy. What had I just glimpsed? I did something then I hardly ever did: I laughed.
'That's right,' the woman said. 'It passes. And you're doing a good job, and whatever you saw, and felt, is where you're headed.' She put her head close to mine. 'I don't know how it works, but this stone shows you stuff. It shows you a possible future.'
'Possible?' I said, thinking, No, that is what I want. I don't want it to be possible; I want it to be definite.
'Possible, if you keep going,' she said. 'If you don't give up.'
I thought, she's a witch. She's seen into my head. She's from social services. They know I've thought about-
'It's okay,' the woman said. 'I am a friend. I saw you and I knew you were next. Don't ask me how; I don't know. This stone is now yours, and you've got to pass it on. When the time is right. You can use it one more time yourself, when you need to, but it won't work more than twice: trust me, I've tried.' She smiled a strange, sad little smile.
'Why did you have it?'
'I was diagnosed with cancer,' she said. 'This stone showed me what would happen.'
Her eyes brimmed, and she touched my shoulder. 'I didn't believe in fate, or destiny, or preordained life. But now...' She shook her head. 'You get one trip here. And when it's your time, it's your time. It's not yours, yet. And one day, sometime in the future, you'll find someone else who needs a glimpse. But here's the thing: we all die. We are all born. In between, what you make of it is up to you. My future isn't as long as I thought. But I go happy. The next bit is some of the best. And whatever you saw, that's coming to you. Just hang on. And the thing I've learned the most is there aren't any heroes who'll save you. You've got to be your own hero, every single time.'
She gave me a brief hug and was gone, disappearing into the shop and the rails of colours of clothes of mannequins grinning inanely at life, at me, at my children who were pulling shirts off the hangers, and giggling like little maniacs. I fought the urge to scream at them. I fought the urge to smack a tiny bum and drag them out of the shop. I looked at the shirt I'd wanted to try. 'Later,' I said to it. I bent down to pram level and my babies, my gorgeous cheeky toddlers, stared back, waiting for a telling off. 'Let's go for ice cream,' I said.
Their cheers as we left lifted me up high, pushed away the darkness just for a while and made me smile towards the future, at a future I had grasped, just for a second. A future that was mine, if I wanted it.
As we passed a card shop, I glanced at the sign in the window.
Mothers' Day is on the way! To mums everywhere, you are doing a good job. You are enough. You are often everything. You are amazing!
The stone heavy in one hand, the pram with my future in the other, I had nothing with which to wipe the tears that trickled down my face. I let them go and nodded at the window. 'Yes,' I said.
So Brian, you'll be wanting to know who I gave the stone to next. I carried it with me. I traced its engraving, NSD. Life was still a daily struggle but I went to the doctor, who didn't take my children away but said I needed a little help and gave me some antidepressants, and they filled the gaps in my mind and helped me cope better. Finally, I began enjoying motherhood the way I always wanted to and imagined I would. But the weeks and months passed and I didn't find anyone who I felt needed the stone. And what if I gave it to the wrong person?
Turns out I didn't need to worry. I was out with my husband one night. I'd not told him about the stone, as he is a very down to earth person who'd probably have me carted off to a nice soft room somewhere if I explained what had happened (or perhaps I doubted it myself, somewhere deep inside), and we'd just been out on a date night, which we tried to do once a month. The stone was heavy in my bag, pulling on my shoulder, in a way that I was used to, in a way that reminded me what was real, what I had coming my way. We were crossing the main bridge in town, Middlewood Bridge, when we saw a gathering of people up ahead. My husband tried to steer me across the road to avoid it but I strode on ahead, as if I was pulled.
As I approached, the people could be heard whispering and calling, phones beeping. I walked right into the middle of them. There was a space between the crowd and the railings. And there, on the other side of the railings, was a man, leaning out, hands behind him, staring at the water below. It wasn't a particularly high bridge, but the water below churned and frothed and rocks stuck up and I thought, he'll die. And the stone felt heavier in my bag and I took it out, knowing, all of a sudden. that this was the moment I'd been walking towards.
My husband tried to pull me back and yelled something at me but I ignored him, carried the stone to the railing and laid it against the man's hand. I'd no idea what would happen.
The stone was against the back of the man's hand. He was shaking all over and I was suddenly aware that if he moved the stone might fall and be lost forever. But he turned his hand over and grabbed it, so the stone was on the railings and I was holding the stone and he was holding the stone and there was some precarious balance going on between us; a small triangle poised between life and death and the future.
Nothing happened for a few seconds then he turned to me and his face smiled and I saw he was young, my age and good-looking, except for a long scar that ran the length of his face, from his temple to the corner of his mouth. He looked at me and we waited, caught in some magical moment where everything was somehow suspended with the water rushing and the crowd waiting and this silence around us, holding us in.
Then he laughed.
And without letting go of the stone he swung himself back over the railings, to the side that shouted LIFE. I put my mouth close to his ear and said, 'Be your own hero,' and he turned and looked a look that spoke of pain and love and loss for just a second, but it was enough. People cheered and there was a rush towards us and uniforms and the man was gone. And so was the stone.
Soon, we were alone, my husband and me. Between us there was this space, my half full of peace; his, half full of questions. We stepped into it and he pulled me into a hug.
'What the hell... was that?' he said.
I took a deep breath. 'Let's go for a sun downer, and I'll tell you a story,' I said.
That's my tale, Brian. Put it out on your blog and let's see if anyone else has been touched by this strange, unexpected magic. I hand it over to you.
Regards and love, from one part of this strange life to another,
So there you are, ladies and gentlemen. That's the end of my introduction and the beginning of my book. Let me know what you think - drop me a comment in the boxes below, share my blog to other sites and let's see how many comments I can get. I'm not a writer, but I seem to have a compulsion to write. I want this story to get out because it is one of hope. Let me know what you think of the intro.
Part 3 next week!
No More Heroes
Bishop Leadweather did not enjoy hangings. He thanked the powers that be that the church was no longer responsible for administering legal punishment, even if the crime was an ecclesiastical one. In the past, he’d read, a bishop or archdeacon would have been perfectly within his rights to order a criminal be flayed alive, where the skin was cut, preferably in one piece, from the criminal’s body while they still were conscious.
‘Everything all right, your Grace?’ said Soames. The Procurator Fiscal had a smug grin plastered over his greasy face. Here was someone who always seemed to relish a hanging.
‘Perfectly, thank you,’ he replied, staring at the gallows, the noose swinging in the early morning breeze.
‘If you’re cold, I can –’
‘I said I’m fine,’ snapped the bishop. ‘I appreciate your concern.’
A portly man wearing a vermillion cape over his expensive clothes leaned over. He was grinning. ‘If his Grace is anything like me, he’ll be wanting his breakfast. No criminal is worth missing the first meal of the day.’
‘As ever, Angus, you are correct,’ Leadweather said, suppressing a yawn.
He found his work a strange combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. After many years of oscillating between the two, he’d achieved a state of equilibrium: rarely fatigued or elated. Today, however, he was feeling the effects of a particularly late night.
A drum began its beat and a hush fell over the crowd. The criminal, a petty thief caught stealing from St Giles’ Cathedral, was brought out. He wasn’t gibbering and pissing himself like some others Leadweather had seen. The bishop naturally wondered how he’d cope in the man’s position. He supposed he would be far from tranquil, but…he was used to mastering his emotions. This would be the biggest test.
The thief’s face twitched incessantly as he approached the scaffold. He was a young man, not much more than a boy, really. A woman screamed in the crowd: most likely his mother. A light drizzle began to fall. The thief reached out his hands towards the hysterical woman, who promptly fainted. ‘Mother, I only did it for –’ he yelled, cut short when the hangman thumped him in the stomach and he doubled over. The crowd jeered and laughed, drowning out the hangman’s voice, who’d no doubt administered a verbal humiliation as well. After the thief recovered, the noose was placed around his neck and he slowly climbed the ladder.
Bishop Leadweather looked away.
Much later, he lost himself in the Cathedral’s accounts in order that he would forget the events of the morning. Hours passed. Some time in the afternoon, there was a soft knock on the door of his study.
‘Enter,’ he said, without looking up from his work.
‘Your Grace, I’ve brought that laddie you asked to see. The one who was torturing that wee cat the other day.’
The bishop sniffed and rose from his desk. A runty-looking boy with a tear stained, filthy face and flaming red hair tried to look defiantly back at him, which was difficult, as a burly priest had a firm hold of his ear. ‘Leave us, Edward.’
‘Your Grace, are you sure? He can be quite unmanageable at times –’
‘Leave us,’ said Bishop Leadweather, twitching aside a cloth to reveal a small loaf of freshly-baked bread. Its mouth-watering aroma filled the room. The boy’s eyes widened.
‘As you wish,’ Edward said, and left the study.
As soon as the door clicked shut, the boy darted forwards. Leadweather had anticipated this, however, and raised the plate far above his grasping hands.
‘You don’t to hang, do you boy?’
The urchin ceased his straining, becoming still and sullen. Leadweather retreated to safety.
The boy fixed him with an angry stare and spat on the floor. The bishop decided to let this pass. He jutted out his chin. ‘The cat you were tormenting,’ he said. ‘It died of its wounds. You tortured one of God’s creatures to death.’
He noted with interest that a smile formed on the boy’s dirty face. Leadweather looked at the poised, animal energy with which the boy held himself and realised the creature had to live on its wits to survive. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Your name,’ sighed the bishop.
‘Christ-ian,’ came the halting reply.
Now it was Leadweather’s turn to smile. He tore off a hunk of bread and chewed it slowly. The smell was delicious. He became serious again and leaned across the desk. ‘There is a special place in hell reserved for those who torment and kill God’s creatures, Christian.’ He studied the boy’s face for signs of fear. However, his eyes seemed fixated on the bread. ‘Your choice is simple. You don’t have parents, do you?’
‘They died,’ Christian mumbled, and for the first time Leadweather saw emotion other than anger or greed from the boy. He couldn’t have been any older than nine.
‘Your choice is simple,’ repeated the bishop, eating another piece. He was about to take a risk, and he knew it. However the boy did not seem especially bright. ‘You can either hang for murder, or you can do some little jobs for me. Now, which of those options do you prefer?’ The boy muttered something and dribbled down his chin. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’
‘Do jobs,’ came the terse reply. The boy’s jaw muscles were bunching and he stared at the floor as if he wanted to destroy it.
‘Excellent,’ said Leadweather, tossing him what remained of the loaf.
Angus Micklemore did not seem as happy as he had done at last week’s hanging. The councillor toyed with his food, started at each loud noise emanating from the tavern and clenched his fists, the knuckles white, on the table-top. The cut and thrust of the conversation was therefore between Leadweather and Murdo Fazackerley, the Chief Constable. The three of them had been in a private room at the Black Horse all evening. They had much to discuss. After several hours of feasting, drinking and conducting business, the noise from the front of the building gradually grew less frenetic, until there was a rap at the door.
Murdo Fazackerley, a positively mountainous human being, broke off from making a point about the current state of the prostitutes in Edinburgh. ‘Come in!’ he barked. He drained a tankard, grasped another one and finished that off too. As he belched, a ruddy-cheeked, buxom woman entered the room.
‘That’s the last of them gone, sirs,’ she said.
Angus pounded the table. ‘Molly, you daft bitch. You know we wait at least another fifteen minutes after the clear-out. You can’t be sure there aren’t vagrants still pissing up your outside walls.’
‘Sorry, sir,’ said Molly, and went to leave.
‘Molly! It wouldn’t do to forget,’ said Leadweather, reaching into his robes. ‘For services rendered,’ he said as he tossed a small leather bag. The landlady attempted to catch it but the bag landed, rather comically, between her breasts.
‘Oho!’ said Murdo. ‘Fifty for the bishop! Might I try next time? Extra points for the face? Thrown hard enough, it might improve it.’
Molly looked as if she was about to say something, then scurried away.
Leadweather levelled his gaze at Angus. He wouldn’t meet his eye. What was wrong with the man?
Angus stirred, went over to the door and checked outside. Then he shut it firmly and, making his way back to the table, spoke softly. ‘I have an announcement.’ Leadweather leaned forward in his chair. So this is it. ‘Next month, I will be made Lord Provost,’ said Angus, the pride of his advancement shining in his face. ‘My bid was successful.’
‘Congratulations,’ said Leadweather warmly, though he had a feeling where this was going. Murdo merely grunted, hand twitching for absent drinks.
‘Thank you, your Grace. This of course, will affect our…business.’
‘How so?’ said Murdo, struggling to focus his eyes.
Angus sighed, as if weary of explaining things patiently to a small child. ‘I will no longer be responsible for your direct management. My former position will likely go to George Coutts.’
Leadweather winced. Coutts was known for his idealism and piety.
‘So? You’re his boss! You’re the figurehead of the whole city, for Christ’s sake.’
‘It’s not that simple, Murdo. Also, Coutts’ son, Archie, is a lieutenant in your force. He’s…making things difficult for us already. This appointment would amplify matters.’
‘What are you saying, Angus?’ said Leadweather.
Angus took a deep breath, staring at the table-top. Then he looked up at the bishop. ‘You must cease your operations. Shut down the Vaults.’
After they’d sent Murdo staggering towards his home in the New Town, the bishop and the councillor halted in the middle of a narrow alleyway where the darkness pooled.
‘I urge you to reconsider. Coutts could be turned,’ said Leadweather.
Angus frowned. ‘There’s a slight possibility, yes, but with his son nosing around as well,’ he gestured helplessly, ‘it’s just too risky.’
‘Fazackerley is his superior! He’ll bring him to heel.’
‘Murdo won’t be in his post much longer. I…had to make some concessions.’
Leadweather’s expression hardened and he barked a grim laugh. ‘Now I know what this is about. It’s about you. You want to cut all ties with my operations, and the only way you can do that is by getting rid of Murdo and shutting me down. Well, it’s not going to happen.’
Angus exhaled slowly. ‘It will happen, either way, your Grace. You know what will come to pass, if you don’t do it yourself.’
‘You seem to have forgotten…what is at stake here! Tossing out threats like I’m the one who owes you! Where does your wealth come from?’
But Angus walked away.
‘Think on it, Lord Provost!’ hissed Leadweather at his retreating back.
The police headquarters was bustling with activity. The news was shocking: the home of Angus Micklemore, only installed as Lord Provost for two weeks, had burned to the ground last night with him and his entire family perishing within. There were rumours of foul play: somehow the entrances had been wedged shut, preventing their escape. Micklemore’s charred corpse had been found at the front door, his daughter’s body next to it.
Murdo looked around at his nearly-bare office, bitter thoughts clouding his mind. A few boxes still cluttered the place. He glanced up as a group of men strode into the room. The man at their head was George Coutts.
‘Murdo Fazackerley, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you do say–’ Coutts began.
‘Piss off,’ said Murdo. ‘You can’t do that.’
‘I can do precisely that. As of an hour ago, I’m acting Lord Provost. And my first act was to make my son here Chief Constable. Have you met Archie?’
He knew the beat of the drum should have been unnaturally loud, this close. But it seemed faded, removed. As if it was coming from far away. The past few months had been a blur for Leadweather. He simply hadn’t been quick enough. The raid on the Vaults had taken place before Angus had been sworn in as Provost – how had he engineered that? And then the skeletons had tumbled out, one testimony from Fazackerley after another. He’d been granted clemency if he gave up the ringleader. Leadweather just knew it.
Mere theft wasn’t the worst of the crimes laid at the Bishop’s door. Extortion, bribery, blackmail and…murder. Not the killing of Micklemore himself, that case hadn’t been solved. In fact – Leadweather’s eyes scanned the jeering, spitting crowd – yes, there was the red-haired boy, Christian, standing on the base of a statue, elevated above the throng. He’d been useful. They held each other’s gaze.
Leadweather stepped up to the platform. The crowd fell silent. The bishop felt warmth spread down his legs. He cursed under his breath.
‘Any last words?’ said the Procurator Fiscal.
‘Murdo Fazackerley,’ Leadweather said.
The red-haired boy stared back at him and nodded.
I don’t sleep when Jeanette is on call, so I sat in the dark as the TV flickered, and watched the tower burn. The picture showed firefighters heading towards the flames. They only showed a glimpse of them, and it was dark, but I watched intently. I didn’t see Jeanette. I had the sound down low so it wouldn’t wake Jason, but I could still hear the reporter’s voice: “heroes. Running towards danger, regardless of the threat to their own lives.”
The reason we called Jason Jason is because you can’t call a kid in 21st century London Achilles or Hercules or Perseus. But I knew I wanted my kid to have a hero’s name. I wanted to give him that much, at least.
“He went off in a ship to find a golden fleece. He was one of the Ancient Greeks,” I told Jason.
“Like Granny and Grandad are ancient Greeks?” he said.
“No. They’re just old Greeks. Well, they’re quite ancient,” I said, as Jeanette laughed.
Her laugh always reminded me of summer rain pattering on the roof of an airy conservatory.
Watching the smoking tower, I didn’t want to think about Jeanette’s laugh.
I told Jason all the stories: Odysseus and Theseus and all the heroes. He liked hearing about Theseus best – how he killed the minotaur. But he pretended to like Jason best.
“Daddy, why are there no heroes any more?” he asked.
On the TV screen there was a wide shot of the tower: a colossus against the night sky, oozing smoke from every floor, writhing with flames. A monster of mythic proportions.
They showed more firefighters. I could only see their backs, but they all seemed to be men. No Jeanette. I knew she was there though, somewhere.
The reporter was still blabbering. I heard that word again: “heroes.”
“No,” I muttered at the screen, “just doing their job.”
It should have been me there, doing my job. It should have been Jeanette here with Jason. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned or out-of-touch or sexist, but there it is. I know Jeanette’s an excellent firefighter. She’s also a wonderful mother. She takes care of Jason on the days I can’t drag myself out of bed, then goes off to work while I sit and marinate in my own shame.
“It’s very common,” my therapist said, “to feel shame. But mental illness is something that can affect anybody. It’s no reflection on you. You need to challenge those feelings of shame when they arise.”
I said, “when can I go back to work?”
He said, “you really need to think about whether such a highly stressful work environment is right for you at the moment.”
It was right for me. Being a firefighter made me whole. It made me worthwhile. It was where I met Jeanette. But I wasn’t right for it. Not good enough. Not strong enough.
“Jason, what are you doing up?”
He stood in the doorway in his Spiderman pyjamas, clutching Billy Rabbit by the ear.
Quickly, I switched off the TV, although I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of Jeanette.
“Come on, Jay-Jay, let’s get you back to bed.”
I sat on the floor by Jason’s bed. It’s a little, kid-sized bed, and I always feel like an awkward giant squeezed into a doll’s house when I sit next to it. I told him about Theseus again. He never gets bored of hearing it. When the story was over I watched his gentle breathing for a while. I thought he was asleep, but then he murmured, half-waking, “Daddy?”
“If the princess hadn’t given Theseus the string he wouldn’t have found a way out of the lab-rinth, ever!”
“So, she’s the hero too. As well as Theseus.”
I sat quiet until I was sure he was sleeping.
I went to the kitchen, got a glass of water. Then I went back to the living room. I switched on the TV. The tower was still burning.
If I had a piece of string, fireproof, steel string, attached to Jeanette, she would always find her way back to us.
“Please, God,” I whispered, “if there is such a being, if you care about puny humans at all, please save Jeanette.” And, then, realising how selfish that sounded, I added, “and the others in the tower too. All of them.”
I knew I was asking too much. I only had to look at the blazing tower on the screen to know that some people would not be saved that night.
"There may come a time," I was told, when I first joined the fire service, "when you will try to save somebody and it will not be possible. If you're going to do this job, you have to be prepared for that."
For me, it was a family. A Mum, a Dad and two kids. It was a few years ago. Jeanette was at home, bulging with unborn Jason. It was a house fire. They didn't have smoke alarms. By the time the neighbours spotted the blaze and dialled 999 it was too late. It wasn't anyone's fault. But that was when I stopped sleeping. That was when it all began.
Still the tower burned. The morning news came on. No reports of any firefighters killed or injured. Not yet. Some residents reported dead already, many more missing or fighting for their lives, number of deaths expected to rise significantly. They showed pictures. There was a little boy about Jason's age.
While Penelope was waiting for Odysseus to come home she worked on her weaving every day, and unpicked it every night, so that it would never be finished. If it was finished she'd have to marry some other guy, but she knew Odysseus was coming home. Even when everyone said he wouldn't.
I reckon, if she could, she would have gone and looked for Odysseus herself. But someone had to take care of the kid.
"Heroes." It was a different reporter now, but the same old refrain. "Without a thought for their own lives..."
That reporter didn't get it. When you're fighting a fire it's not about you, or the danger, or being a hero. There are no heroes. We do what we do. What we're good at. What we're trained for. Even during my worst times I could always get it together during an incident. It was the rest of the time I started to unravel. Like Theseus' ball of string. And I was groping in the dark, trying to find the end of it, knowing that without it I'd never find my way out.
This isn't about you, I told myself, people are dying and you're feeling sorry for yourself.
My therapist had given me strategies for dealing with these thoughts. Thoughts about being worthless. About being a burden. About how Jeanette and Jason would be better off without me. The only thing that worked when it got bad was the thought that it might be Jason who found me.
The moment I heard the front door I was on my feet and in the hallway. She threw her arms around my neck, and I held her tight. She smelled of smoke.
"Don't let go," she whispered. "Oh, God, I would never have got through tonight if it wasn't for you."
"I didn't do anything," I said.
"You didn't need to. You're here. That's enough. I love you."
So I didn't let go. I may not be a hero, but I'm a husband. I'm a Dad. And, one day, I will be a firefighter again.
“The time of heroes is past,”
Dace scowled at the line he`d just typed, that`s not right, he thought, and deleted the word past, replacing it with “passed.” “The time of heroes is passed,” he mused to himself; “No that`s not right either, the tenses are wrong.” He replaced “is,” with, “has,” “The time of heroes has passed,” he murmured, and made a face. It was grammatically correct but he didn’t like it, too definitive, too final, no wriggle room.
He typed out the three lines again one under the other, decided he really hated “The time of heroes is passed,” and deleted it for the second time, which left him with the lines,
“The time of heroes has passed,”
“The time of heroes is past,”
He clicked his tongue in frustration, he really liked “is past,” it had a portentous feel to it, but if he sent that to a publisher as the first line of a novel……
He sighed and slumped back in his chair, rapping the fourth and little finger of his right hand on the mousemat in frustration.
It was too hot for writing, he decided, yeah that was it, the sun was splitting the stones outside, he`d go for a walk, clear his head. That`s what he needed, an early evening walk in the park.
“I`m going for a walk!”
Jill looked up from her colouring book, pulled the left side of the headset off her ear and said, “huh?”
“I said, I`m going for a walk,” Dave repeated.
“Oh, okay,” she said, slipping the headset back on again before leaning back over the book; on the screen of the laptop to her right a woman looked like she was youtubing her way around a Walmart.
Dave shook his head as he pulled the front door closed behind him; adult colouring books, who`d have thought. It`d taken him eighteen months to write his first novel, and it had sold a whopping forty eight copies, but books of pictures you had to colour in yourself, those were selling by the millions; there truly was no justice in the world.
One of the things he liked most about where he lived was its proximity to the park, a fifty metre walk across the green and he was there, and best of all because it was `An Taisce protected` he`d never have to worry about anyone building anything across from him.
As he pulled the park gate shut behind him he was greeted by the sight of a toddler, couldn’t be more then eighteen months, running towards him, arms in the air, shrieking for all she was worth. A step behind her, a man, bent double, his arms outstretched, was chasing her saying, “I`m gonna getcha, I`m gonna getcha…”
“Gottcha,” he cried as he grabbed the girl around the waist and laughing, threw her into the air, the child’s shrieks of joy reaching piercing levels as she flew up. Behind them he saw a woman, almost certainly the mother, wince, as she saw her daughter being flung so casually skywards.
Dave smiled at the memory of doing the same with his kids at that age, and how Jill had hated it, how she`d complained, “You put the heart crossways on me,” every time.
As he cleared the tree lined path and stepped out into the sunshine, the wide expanse of the soccer pitches to his left, he noticed knots of people watching a park bench fifty feet away to his right.
Raised voices greeted him as he approached.
“Leave my bag alone!”
“Gimme the fuckin bag, bitch!”
“Leave it…get away from it…I said fuck off!”
“D`you wanna puck, do ya? gimme the fuckin thing or else!
A man and a woman were seated on the bench, she was turned away from him, clutching something to her stomach, he was facing her, trying to pull it from her; another man was standing in front of them, the remnants of an eight pack of Budweiser dangling from one hand.
As Dave passed he heard the standing man say, “Ger, let it go will ya?”
The man on the bench ignored him.
Close up he could see the man on the bench was much the worse for drink, his face ruddy, maybe from booze, maybe from the effort of trying to part the woman from her bag, he couldn’t tell. He kept walking, but only for another eight feet, stopping by a gaggle of teenage girls who were watching open mouthed.
Dave turned back, unsure what, if anything he should do. The woman didn’t sound frightened, wasn’t asking anybody for help, it could just be a domestic. On the other hand what if it wasn’t, anger could make people insanely brave, maybe she was in more trouble than she realised; without deciding to, he walked back to the trio.
“Give it back to me,” the woman screamed; the drunk had finally wrestled the bag from her.
As much to his own surprise as anyone else`s Dave said, “Give her back her bag.”
The drunk looked up at him, frowned, then snarled, “Fuck off before I kick the shit outta ya.”
Dave cocked his head to one side and said, “I said give the girl back her bag.”
The drunk got unsteadily to his feet, the bag still clutched in his right hand. Dave saw it was small black leather shoulder bag, the long thin straps dangling by the other man`s knees.
Angrily he jabbed the bag at Dave “I said fuck off ya cunt, or I`ll fuck ya up,” the other man dropped the cans of beer on the grass and took a half sidestep, putting himself between Dave and the drunk.
Dave was astonished by his own behaviour, he had never considered himself brave, actually thought he was something of a coward, though he would never admit that to anyone else. His last fight had been forty years ago in secondary school, and that had been little more than a slap-fest. Yet here he was on this beautiful summers evening, facing down a man, taller, broader and at least twenty years younger than he was.
And, he realised, as he stood there coolly analysing the situation, weighing up his chances, not of survival but of beating the other man; that wasn’t the strangest part of it. No, the bizarrest thing was how calm he felt; right then his heart should be beating faster than a hummingbird’s wing, yet it seemed to be thumping away at its usual sedate pace.
He was actually thinking; okay he`s younger and stronger than me, but he`s also drunk, and I`ll bet he`s right-handed, the hand he`s holding the bag with, so he`s handicapped himself. And anyway it`s not like I`m a seven stone weakling, I`m a welder, I`m lifting steel all-day, I`m stronger than I look, yeah I think I could take him.
He thought all that, while at the same time wondering at himself for thinking it at all; then, enunciating each word he repeated, “Give...her..back...her..bag,”.
The drunk lunged towards him screaming, “I`m gonna fuckin kill ya.”
Dave didn’t even flinch, only tensed, readying for the assault.
The other man grabbed his friend as he lunged, pushing him back, the drunk shouting, “Lemme go, lemme go, I`m gonna fuck `im up.”
Dave ignored him, instead looking at the woman who was still sitting on the bench; time to find out what was going on.
“You know these two?”
She looked up, “Yeah.”
He paused, still ignoring the two wrestling men, “You going to be okay?” emphasising the word "going."
She shrugged, “yeah.”
Shit, he thought, a fucking domestic, brilliant.
“Okay then,” he said, turned, and continued on his walk as if nothing had happened, not once looking over his shoulder to see if the drunk was coming after him.
He took the right hand path to the river and stopped by the tree close to the weir, watching the kids as they padded along its concrete edge until they were close to the centre, there, in ones and twos they cartwheeled sideways into the water, shrieking as they hit the cold surface.
He was still puzzled by his behaviour, it had been so un-him, he couldn’t even say why he`d done it, much less why he wasn’t shaking like a leaf. He lifted his right hand, palm down, and studied it, not a tremor, how weird is that, he wondered.
He pushed away from the tree, wandering slowly along the path that paralleled the river; he passed five drunks in their late-teens, boisterously bothering nobody but themselves. He met cyclists and joggers, a couple walking their dog; he gave the animal a wide berth, he didn’t get on with dogs, now and then he swatted fruitlessly at the occasional cloud of midges he walked through, all the while trying to fathom why he`d done it.
By the time he reached the car-park he gave up, dismissing it as an aberration, and turned for home. He took another route back, going the long way around the soccer pitches, not because he was afraid, but because he saw no point in risking another confrontation with the drunk.
Jill was in the kitchen making a sandwich when he got back, “Hiya,” she said, “how was the park, crowded?”
He shrugged, “Oh you know,” he said non-committedly, realising he would never tell her about what had happened, knew she`d only call him a “Silly old fool,” if he did.
“I`m going back to the book,” he said as he mounted the stairs.
“Umm..Hmm,” she replied without looking up.
The hard drive whirred, the screen bursting into life when he touched the mouse, “Okay,” he said to himself as he deleted the first line, “My story, so I`m going to tell it my way and damn the begrudgers.” He took a breath, his fingers resting momentarily on the keys, and then he began to type.
“The time of heroes is past,” Anders said to the five year old sitting on his knee in answer to his question.
“What happened, where did they go?” his grandson asked, eyes wide with excitement.
Anders frowned as he considered the question, it was something he`d never thought about before, he took a long drag on his pipe before answering. “Go,” he said, “Well they never went anywhere. Heroes come when they are needed, they are ordinary men who do extraordinary things, and when they are no longer needed they go back to being just men. Farmers and fisher-folk; or tailors, like your father.”
Erik nodded as if all that made sense to him, then looking at the patch where his grandfather`s eye had been asked, “Were you a hero granddad?”
Anders looked from the child to his daughter-in-law in the chair opposite. Her mouth was a straight line, her brow furrowed, the knitting needles clicking busily as she worked them furiously; he was not unaware that they had gotten faster and louder with every question her son had asked.
He thought, how should I answer?
He thought about his fallen comrades, cut down in their youth. He thought about those who`d survived, now old men like himself, who met each day in the tavern, men who filled their days talking about everything but the things they`d seen and done. He thought about the man who`d taken his eye, and the one who`d taken his leg, and how he`d repaid them both by taking their lives. And finally he thought that he could never tell his grandchildren any of these things.
He smiled down at Erik and said, “Why bless your heart child, but me…. no, I was never a hero.”
Dave reread what he`d written, thought it was okay for a first draft and ploughed on.
He never stirred from his seat for the next five hours; just sat, hunched over his keyboard, watching in fascination as the unthought words boiled out of his fingertips and onto the screen.
They knocked on her door and called her 'Madam'. They told her that her son had died a hero. But she didn't want a hero. Heroes were everywhere in this city. Heaven must be crammed full of spotty, long-limbed boys, here one day and gone the next, suddenly saviours, crowned with death; their imperfections wiped and replaced with the hollow gleam of pride in their Mother's eyes.
And now her boy. Just yesterday filling space and moving air. Every second now a second more of nothing.
She didn't want a hero. She didn't want promises or respect or a statue or a flat photograph with a tight black caption. She wanted her son back.
The chickens in the back yard scratched in the ground where his feet used to stand. They could have set his footprints in gold and made them a shrine. But she didn't want that. She wanted him in three dimensions to come back through the door and to swing his little sister on his shoulders. She wanted to tell him off for smoking and for leaving his things on the table, she wanted to give him just one more spoon of stew before he left.
Somehow she dreamt of him. Saw blood on his lips and eyes so wide they couldn't see a thing. Saw dust in his fingerprints. His body rotting.Wrapped in a black flag made blacker by his blood
She awoke to thunder and sweaty heat. And the apartment only smelt like him.
She unravelled her feet from the damp sheet and whispered "Heroes have a choice". Her voice sounded like somebody else's.
They let her rage for a while. Grief is normal. Anger expected. And she was small and round-cheeked and a woman. She did not seem like a threat.
But weeks went by and she kept talking. Her eyes too wide, her voice too loud. Always holding her little daughter too close to her, gripping her so tightly that she cried.
"My son was not a hero" she took the neighbours by the shoulders " he was a victim. And so was yours and so will yours be".
Agitating others, that was the worst of it. Saying things out loud that shouldn't even be whispered. Nothing stopped her talking.
So there it was.
Another knock at the door. At first they called her 'Madam' again. Then nothing.
They told her daughter that she had died a traitor
Is it the beauty of the game,
the silky, fluid movements on
and off the ball that you practice
in the park, or the money they pull
and the partners they take?
Is it the songs they sing of broken
towns and faded communities,
the people that might be you,
or the possibility of untold wealth
unattainable to anyone who tries?
Is it the shape and sound of the words
that speak to you late at night,
the rhythms of the street, the dreams
they share, we share, or is the just
the words shared too many times?
Do we look up to individuality,
to being different, joining a tribe,
finding a unique voice to follow,
or is it bland amorphous social
norms to which we subscribe?
Who do we look up to now,
who fills our hearts and minds
with action? Who would show us
how to become a better person?
Would we even hear them?
Walk On By
Was that a knock on his door? If so it had been very gentle, quite unlike the hectoring rap of the courier firms. Norman couldn’t see a shadowy presence through the glass. He opened the door. There was no one there, not even at the end of his overgrown path. He looked down. A parcel.
Norman picked it up. It was light and warm to the touch although the doorstep was in shadow. He took it inside, checking the name on the label as he did so. Yes it was for him, Norman Cruikshank but the address was unrecognizable. The Dark Cottage, Valley of Despair, Hopeless Town, Divided Nation. Unrecognisable yet close enough to his view for this to have been sent by a friend. Close enough for the delivery person to have found him.
Curiously cheerful he put the kettle on, felt something like relish as he ripped into the box to reveal a pair of shoes. They were soft leather loafers, waltzing black, nothing like the scuffed trainers he tended to wear. He turned the box inside out but there was no note, no hint of who could have sent them.
He remembered he hadn’t bothered to shower that morning, hadn’t seemed much point. Get a grip on yourself! He went upstairs, found clean clothes, his best socks and went into the bathroom. It was so dirty he’d probably come out grubbier than he went in. Nice 'n' sleazy. He got the miracle clean-up spray out, nuked the toilet with bleach, scrubbed at the mirror until his image was no longer obscured. He found himself whistling and, for once, it seemed he could hold a Stranglers tune even if it was Hanging Around, his least favourite.
After his shower he got dressed and went to try the shoes on. He’d buried his doubts about whether they were for him even before he discovered they were a perfect fit. More than that they were sublimely comfortable. It felt like his feet were being cradled by warm, loving hands. He could see his mother holding his feet when he was a baby, cuddling them to her.
He had to go out in them. Did he need shopping? He opened the fridge, went ruthlessly through its contents, binning anything out of date or that he had no appetite for. How long had he lived like this? Grey leftovers in plastic containers, mean little mouthfuls of strained and drained food. The cupboards were full of cardboard too. Something better change. He wanted fresh vegetables, juicy meat, tempting treats. Peaches. Look how thin he’d got, how starved he suddenly felt.
He took the secateurs out with him and hacked the shrubs back so the light spilled up the path to his door. He threw the cuttings into his green bin, so long unused it puffed dust when he closed the lid. Norman looked down to see if any had landed on his shoes but they were pristine, gleaming, ready for anything. He walked into town, greeting everyone, neglected friends or perfect strangers. His smile was so broad it seemed to be contagious. Mrs. Ruddock next door even giggled at him.
He had no idea where he was going, hadn’t brought his bags for shopping, wasn’t heading for the supermarket. The shoes seemed to be taking him somewhere but he didn’t mind, he wanted to go there, to see what might happen. Somehow he sensed the people before he turned the corner, he heard the noise of air being consumed before he was in earshot. The precinct was on fire. There were so many people, huddled, shouting, some screaming, gesturing inside.
His feet kept walking forwards even as his mind urged him to go home, move away from this, some people were dangerous, not all of them would smile back at him. He was in the shopping centre entrance oblivious to the arms that clutched at him, pulling him back. He heard yet didn’t register the muttering about terrorists, guns, you never knew what you’d find in there. What he could hear was a single cry, like distilled loss.
His feet stopped at the first staircase and he looked up to locate the noise. A strange little girl holding hands with a prone woman. As he watched the woman’s hand dropped to the floor, bounced and lay completely still. The girl’s face crumpled further, her eyes screwed up. The heat was so intense it was painful to go further into it but Norman did. He climbed the stairs not touching the searing handrail, not breathing in the scorched air, not allowing himself to think, just moving fast, faster than he’d ever gone. His feet still felt cool.
There was no time to reason with the child. He picked her up and cradled her to him. She made a sound like she’d been punctured, a hiss, an escape of air. Norman turned and ran down the stairs. The entrance was now a wall of fire, a weaving, awful golden brown wall but his feet ran him straight through it and he was on the ground. People covered him and the girl with coats, putting the fire out instantly although the heat clung on, digging into his skin.
‘You’re a hero, mate.’ The ambulance-man put a hand on his shoulders. ‘There aren’t many who would do what you just done.’
Norman gestured at the little girl as the female paramedic fitted an oxygen mask and took the child onto her lap. ‘Will she be OK?’
‘Bound to be smoke damage. We’ll take you both in, get you checked over but looks like you got there in the nick of time. ‘
They watched as the firemen walked into the building using their hoses like weapons as ‘No More Heroes’ blared out and the crowd broke into applause. Norman almost told the ambulance-man about his shoes. How he hadn’t been brave, not really, he’d been led by a gift that made him think he could be better than he was.
The man probably wouldn’t understand, Norman wasn’t sure he could explain it properly. How, somebody giving you something, showing some care, could change your view of your prospects. Particularly if it was unexpected or came from a stranger. How much difference silly things like well-fitting shoes or bothering to shower made. He looked down to check how his shoes had fared in the fire and froze at the sight of his scuffed trainers.
Never Say "The End"
My little brother never cried
But the rest of us did
He was too determined
And beautifully stubborn
And gloriously unrelenting.
My brother never gave up
Even as a child he wouldn't
Cry "uncle" or surrender
His secret place in a game
My brother, the reader
Never like to say 'The End'
To a favorite book, or compelling
Story, nor see the credits
Roll on a provocative film.
My brother never uttered
"Farewell" or "bye" when
Leaving for school or camp
Or an overnight. But with a smile
Crooked and true, he'd promise "Later."
My brother never stopped
Making plans or marking
Calendars with holidays and special
Events. He woke each day steeled
With hope and will and believing.
My brother never worried
That he would be forgotten
Nor did he squander Precious
Time left worrying about wishes
He might never wish.
My brother was more
Than a man born in his time
He knew we would always
Know him and we would
Never say this is over.
My brother was brave
Seeking answers to questions
The rest of us would never ask
He knew the answer too
Which we couldn't believe.
My brother was brilliant
In all that he knew and trusted
Despite the prognoses damning
All promise and dashing
All of our hopes.
My brother was handsome
Like a movie start, stoic
Like young Brando, certain he
Would still be somebody
Even if Time would deny him.
My brother was funny
And warm with the wit
Of a writer and a man
Without a deadline, like
A soldier without a question.
My brother was certain
Self-assured he would outlive
All of us, becoming a great Uncle
With lustrous silver gray hair
And his blue eyes lovely with wrinkles.
My brother said never,
No way, not me, not in my
Lifetime. He whispered prayers
But bellowed with the spirit
Of a sports fan that never give-up.
My brother died before
He ever succumbed to death
He lived on and on, despite,
Defiantly outlasting his doctors'
Predictions and the ominous statistics.
My brother never said die
To me, or his mother, or his
Family, or students, or friends,
Or to Tuesdays, or ice cream, or
Weekends, or to summer vacations.
My brother still helps us today,
Say always to love, forgiveness,
Remembering, kindness, laughter,
Learning, living, believing, and he
Refused to say done, fine, or die to himself.
My head is pushed against the door, as your hands tighten around my throat,
The pressure builds in my head & I grip your hands to pull you away.
You stop. I breathe, until you punch, punch, punch the breath back out of me.
You stop. I breathe. Your fingers run through my hair to grip & pull,
You bang, bang, bang my head on the door.
My tears dry when I contemplate my mother's love for me.
Never say die.
I smoke a joint for a momentary escape from myself,
I snort white lines of euphoria & dance to thumping house beats,
Shiny happy people on the dance floor,
I shoot skag, until I feel a comfortable numbness,
The stab of a needle punctures my vein with opiates,
Travelling into still waters, I float along to a string harmony, enveloped in a womb-like warmth,
Two bodies intimately touch, tracing flesh & bone to close the distance.
Never say die.
I can smell beer on your breath when you grab me by my throat,
I squeal & wrench your hands free from me,
You thrust my head back on the wall, then hold my arms by my side,
Exploding & hitting me everywhere, but my stomach,
At least our baby is safe,
I hit back, push you away, then crouch in a corner,
Got to agree with you and wait, wait, wait for an escape.
Never say die.
I watch you run, play and hide with innocent exuberance,
Your smile lights up your big blue eyes,
Then you chatter, chatter, chatter like the birds in the trees,
Every moment brings a new experience of wonder,
You let go of my hand to run ahead and explore,
Though you soon return to tell me about your adventure,
Your sunshine stretches as long as the day.
Never say die.
In darkness, I feel someone move inside me,
His unclean smell suffocates me & his weight pushes me down,
'That feels good, doesn't it?'
Startled. My eyes open wide.
'What are you doing?'
I see the grease on his face & hair, his eyes peering at me through thick, dirty lenses,
'I never asked you to start'.
I curl up in my dress, my pants removed, and cry, cry, cry,
Then I wash, wash, wash you off my skin,
Rushing & retching, I violently throw you up.
Never say die.
With each light step my heart beats faster & freer,
My feet connect to the earth's energy radiating to my soul,
Feeding my spirit with hope for the future,
Soaring above the patchwork fields on the wings of a blackbird,
To far flung ancient lands connected by unseen forces,
I feel them reflect my heartfelt longings & reveal myself to me.
Never say die.
Little Billy sits alone
He sketches and he draws
He paints within, without the lines
This does not give him pause
His teachers mock and scold him so
they threaten and they rant
But Billy merely nods at them
It`s their world filled with can`t
And see he dances when he sings
A voice quite out of key
His parents fret and worry so
Whatever shall he be
They tell him that he cannot sing
They tell him that he shan`t
But he just nods and smiles at them
It`s their world filled with can`t
But little boys they grow, they change
And childhood dreams do pass
The adult scorn becomes too much
And crushed are they, alas
But I have kept my dreams alive
The words they could not slay
I kept them safe within my heart
Til they could have their day
So now my words they mock, they tease
The stories crowd my head
Some they fill with wonderment
Whilst others... awful dread
Yet still some people tell to me
You mustn`t, shouldn`t, shan`t
But I`ll keep on ignoring them
For it`s their world
Never. It’s a long road to infinity, the void stretching ahead, full of blissful nothingness.
Never die. Separation anxiety expands to fill all available space. A sense of loss so great it encompasses all conscious thought. It’s a long road to infinity, the void stretching ahead, full of blissful nothingness, but also agonising solitude.
Never say die. Grit and determination will win the day. But separation anxiety expands to fill all available space. Desire for victory can only take one small personality so far. Bereavement is inevitable across the expanse of human experience. A sense of loss so great it encompasses all conscious thought, blocking out the possibility of standing tall, pushing through. The path stretches ahead into the void, one foot trudging after the other, on and on. It’s a long road to infinity, seeking peace and blissful nothingness, but fearing the agonising solitude of being forever without you.
I’ll never say die. It’s important to cultivate a positive attitude. Grit and determination will win the day. It’s always worse for someone else, in another part of this world. But separation anxiety expands to fill all available space. Just because my problems are small compared to those of others, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still problematical to me, dammit. Desire for victory can only take one small personality so far. My strong front hides a cowering, snivelling back that shrinks from the world and just wants to crawl into a hole and never come out. Because bereavement is inevitable across the expanse of human existence. I will lose you one day. I know it, I see it coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. All I can do is anticipate a sense of loss so great it encompasses all conscious thought, blocking out the possibility of standing tall, pushing through, putting on a brave face, and all that crap. I will eventually have to walk on alone. I see the path before me, stretching ahead into the void, with my one poor foot trudging after the other, on and on in silence. I try to put it out of my mind, to live in the moment and appreciate what I have now, sparing no thought for how things might change in the future. But it’s a long road to infinity, wishing for peace and blissful nothingness, but consigned to the agonising solitude of being forever without you, my love.
NOTHING EVER HAPPENED
Oh you, oh you at fifteen.
Your little finger held mine
but nothing else touched.
Wish I’d swept us away
from the worst thing we could be -
a nothing ever happened.
So somehow we’re fifty
other old school friends nod
and say I’m wise to have
walked away, not knowing
you never asked and if you had
I would have been foolish.
Because who you are and what
I feel for you have stayed
teenaged and unbearable.
Because, back then,
was never say die.
Part 2 next week (doing another free writing experiment)
'NSD - The Conclusion'
Today's entry is a huge one. Thank you, followers, for sticking with me this far. I've done what I've promised, done some seeking and found what I was looking for, and it's from Earth, not Heaven, as many of you thought. I know, it seemed other-worldly; it seemed as if it came from some divine entity, but its origins are rooted in our good Earth. That's not to say it's not magic.
This is going to be my introduction for my new book. I'd be very grateful, regular readers and followers, if you'd send me suggestions and comments about this. If you're new here, does it make sense? Does it make you want to read on? If you're a regular, is this a true representation of what's happened here? Does it leave too many questions unanswered? Just leave comments in the boxes below, or drop me a PM. I'll be tweeting links to this so I expect a lot of traffic, but I promise to read every suggestion. After all, this blog would not exists without you all. B, xxx
As my regular readers will be aware, I'm completely open-minded, believe anything until proved otherwise, and I chase the unusual. I've been hoping to collect enough stories to write a book, and today I think I've finally reached that goal. I have the stories, now I just need to write the book.
This particular thread began back in 2008. I'll quickly outline it for those of you who are new to my blog, or who can't remember the origins of NSD. Nine years ago I was a student studying philosophy and psychology when I came across Susan (not her real name). 'Susan' was in the same halls of residence as I was and right from the word go I knew she wasn't quite 'right'. She was a loner, she was spiky in conversation, she didn't have any visitors, she stayed during the holidays, on her own, in her room. I'll talk to anyone and everyone and there's not been a person yet I can't get at least a few words out of, but not Susan. She kept entirely to herself and I thought that was fine, that was her and I'd better keep my nose out of her business.
And I would have, except for the crying. Her room was opposite mine and every single night I'd hear her cry. Muffled sobs, but lots of them and it went on for ages. Susan had some serious baggage. I went to the counsellors about her but they said unless she came herself they couldn't help, though they'd keep an eye. Anyway they didn't keep a very good eye because one Christmas break, when I came back early, Susan decided to jump off the roof. I was up there to smoke a joint and look at the stars when she stumbled up, crying, and made for the edge. I was about to step out and try to grab her when someone else appeared. I stopped in my tracks (I was pretty stoned by now and I thought that if someone else wanted to risk their life by grabbing her then let them do it - I was unsteady as hell on my feet and didn't trust myself not to try to fly, thinking I was a bird. It was damn strong grass) as this person seemed to have an aura of confidence (or perhaps that was the grass - it was pretty dark. Maybe I was just a coward). Sorry, I digress. regular readers, you'll be used to that. This person stepped out from behind the heating vent, grabbed Susan's arm as she got close to the edge, pulled her back and turned her to face them. Susan tried to fight a little; there were some cries and some scuffling noises, then it went quiet. I crept closer, to see.
The person who'd grabbed Susan gave her something. It was round, that was all I could see. Susan took it, and everything went quiet. Then, the weirdest thing: Susan laughed. I'd never heard her laugh. Never really heard her speak except in the refectory. She laughed this gorgeous, throaty laugh. It's still the best laugh I've ever heard, seeming to come from right down deep within her soul. I stayed right where I was, as Susan and the stranger sat for a while, got up, and went back to the door that would lead them back inside. I looked at the stars, then at my - now unlit, I'd stubbed it out in case they smelled it - joint, and wondered if I'd just seen a miracle.
In the weeks that followed, Susan stopped crying, began speaking to people and started smiling. I didn't dare ask her about it because it was such a private moment but my curiosity was piqued and I began to follow her about.
One Saturday, whilst Susan was out shopping and I was crouching behind a rail of dresses, watching her cross the street, I saw her approach a homeless man in a doorway. I peered out from between the skirts and saw her take out a round thing, and give it to the man. It was the same round thing she'd been given up on the roof, I was sure of it. I was suddenly completely certain this was the moment I'd been waiting for, even when I didn't know exactly why I was following her and ignoring my studies. Susan sat down next to the man, and they put their hands on the round thing - it looked like a rock - and put their heads close together. They sat like that for ages, long enough for me to garner several looks of annoyance from the shopkeeper, and then the man looked up, open his mouth and laughed. Just like Susan had. At that, Susan stood up, touched the man on his head, opened her purse and gave him some notes, and then walked away, leaving him with the rock.
I left the shop and wandered across to the doorway, looking in the window - an estate agent's - next to it. The man sat and held the thing - I could clearly see now it was a rock - and cradled it and smiled. What the hell was I seeing? I was desperate to ask him but again something stopped me - I'd spied on two intensely private moments and I felt bad. I didn't want to intrude and yet... something was strange, here, and I've always been attracted to the strange.
I leaned closer to the doorway, as if looking at the details of a house, posted right in the corner, and squinted at what was in the man's hands. It still looked like a rock, but there was some kind of engraving on it. I could make out the letters, NSD. The man laughed again, stood up, grabbed a plastic bag, stuffed the rock in it and was gone, shambling off up the street. I wanted to follow him but I'd got a exam looming the following day and I'd not done a jot of work. I'd find him again tomorrow, once the exam was over.
Except, I didn't. That man vanished, and I kicked myself over and over for letting him go, especially when I failed the exam anyway. I searched the town for him for days but he'd simply gone. I was too scared to ask Susan what was going on, in case I'd somehow misread the whole thing and looked crazy, or seemed like a stalker, as I'd have to admit I'd been following her. It was soon after that that I began this blog. Its reason for being is that having seen something so strange it felt like a lid had been lifted on life, and I was suddenly sure there were all these other layers to life I'd never seen. I wanted to know all about them and investigate them.
Fast forward five years. 2014, I'd got my degree, was working as a freelance journalist and a part time research assistant for Psychology Begins in Your Head, that nutty magazine. I was a bit lost to be honest, but the blog was doing well. I was collecting stories, was more curious than ever about life, and had never forgotten that stone, or Susan, or the homeless man.
And then, wham. One day, someone sent me a message about a rock that was engraved with the letters NSD, and in a beautiful moment of synchronicity, I was back on my search.
This is what the message said.
I am an avid reader of your blog. So when the weirdest ever thing happened to me, you were the first person I wanted to tell. I can't give you my real name because one day my kids might read this and then... you'll see. I'll call myself Jane.
I'm 39, a mum of two young children. They were born just a year apart. I'd planned it like that because of my age, because I thought I may as well carry on while I was a wreck if I could, instead of getting all fit and thin again and then starting over. When I got pregnant again just weeks after my first's birth, I was ecstatic. My kids are now 2 and 3. I've been married for ten years, to a man I'll call Harry.
I had two easy labours, and I managed, just about, with a baby and a bump. I was tired, yes, but excited and happy and full of the joys of being a mum, at long last. We'd waited too long, then couldn't get pregnant, then did, so my babies were so wanted.
But after the birth of my second child, I began to fall apart. I developed post natal depression. There was some family illness and my mother couldn't come to help. Harry's mother died long ago, and we'd not long been living in the SE of England, after moving for Harry's job all the way from Wales. My firstborn decided, just after I'd given birth to my second, that sleeping wasn't something he wanted to do anymore. Harry's job changed and he had to work away and suddenly I'd gone from being a happy mum, revelling in her babies, to this half-crazed, fat, demented person I didn't recognise. I didn't dare go to the doctor in case they took my children away and I didn't know what to do. I looked dreadful but make-up does wonders and I stuck a smile on my face whenever I went out, and 'appeared' good. But inside, I was crumbling. I began getting awful thoughts: some mornings I'd wake up having only got to sleep an hour before, after tending to first one, and then the other, so tired I'd punch myself around the head because I thought I just couldn't do it. Then I'd wonder - forgive me, oh god this is awful to admit, even now when I know it was the depression talking - that if one of them hadn't woken up, life would suddenly be easier. It was awful, awful awful awful. I'd be driving, having got out of the house god knows how, and my hands would twitch, taunting me to drive into an oncoming truck. I got more and more afraid, more and more down, more and more alone. There's more to it but this is all I'd admit for now.
One day, I was in a shop, the kids screaming, staring at a shirt I knew I wouldn't fit into. I'd had it. People were staring at me, I could feel it. And then this woman came up to me and gave me this rock. And as I held it...
See Ephemera next week for Part 2!
Friday 29 September 1978. Fermanagh/Cavan Border 03.15 hrs.
It had rained steadily for three days and it showed no sign of stopping. The walls of the hole wept and every now and then threatened to bury them alive. Both radios were dead and hypothermia was a fluttering heartbeat away. Four poly bags of shit and a gallon and a half of piss so far, and nothing.
When they were younger, both A and B had enjoyed it all. You could come from the biggest shithole and the worst family, you see. It didn't matter. It hardened you up and it channelled your aggression, they said. A and B were true brothers now in this hole, but when you hit thirty you just knew that your time was nearly up; but if you were brothers - you didn't have to talk about that at all.
Nevertheless, here they were doing what one Rupert in the other squadron had termed the 'Petite mort of bore': days and weeks of crushing introspection interspersed with moments of indiscriminate ferocity.
B slid down from the platform and shone the dull red pencil-light into the face that was wrapped in the sodden shemagh. Its pallid half moon convulsed as if there were tapeworms beneath the skin, but it was only the incessant rivulets of moisture slowly trickling through his stubble. Instantly alert, in a state of dynamic somnambulism, the sleeping man swapped places with his comrade - steadfastly ignoring the obscene hand gesture that signalled his turn on 'stag'.
He yearned to be back in the sand. There was something magical about the sloe-black nights over there. Such respite from the oven of the day. And the stars, dear Jesus, the stars! They had another week of this shit left. He didn't want to admit it, but this one had bitten hard. It was the building really. You couldn't imagine anything more fucking ridiculous, but it was true. Whatever it was about the configuration of that building, and those trees, produced a kind of utter revulsion in him that he had never experienced before. And he was a true connoisseur of revulsion. Wearily he hefted the long, and its cumbersome sight, and with absolute reluctance peered again at the target. A decrepit two-storied house with a buckled zinc roof oscillated in a circle of bile-green light: the empty windows and doorways a pirate flag amongst the sinuous foliage. Nothing moved.
Normally that would have been just tickety-boo - but not here. It was as if he was being observed rather than the other way round. Usually you'd see birds and small mammals. At night little bright orbs would dance somewhere in your narrow field of vision. Life would be present. Here, it was as if life was absent. That was the best way that he could put it. It was profoundly unnerving. Worst of all was the shadow high up on the mildewed whitewash of the gable wall. For some reason its shape reminded him of his Mother's frozen features when he had found her that day after school. It was not there during the daylight hours, but after dark it materialised unerringly and drew his focus like the stealthy approach of a spider.
Suddenly, and miraculously, the field piece crackled into life. Desperate hopes of an H-vac flooded through their chilled marrows. They had heard Belize called a green hell, but it was a paradise compared to this soaking hinterland. Slowly the static dispersed like a burst wave, and then the singing began. The troopers stared at each other in amazement, but it was unmistakeable - faint though it was. They strained to listen to the voices, a multitude it seemed; a throng. And then the screaming started. Frantically they fumbled with the controls, but to no avail. B reached for the AR15 and smashed the device to pieces with the butt. That horrific noise had been too much. They were compelled to act as if they were compromised now. It was over. Methodically, they filled both bergens with everything in the hide, and their robotic responses filled the void of the unspoken and the unsaid. Both knew the protocol now; they would head out for the rendezvous point and trigger the beacon.
'A' stood on the birch platform and used the stock of the long to lever the sod covered tarp to one side. The frigid air and lancing rain assaulted both, but it was as nothing compared to what they next encountered.
The field was littered with dead rabbits.
Dimly illuminated in the puce coronas of their light beams, hundreds lay slain in the rain. Some were arranged, quite artistically, in crude pyramids and a few twitched spasmodically at their feet. Many more hung impaled upon the branches of the trees that lined the lane. The troopers unlocked both weapons in unison as the house tore the eyes from their heads.
In the gashes of each black opening crooked light burned with a steady flame, unaffected by the pissing wet and the wind. And then the discordant little choir began again. Some things refuse to be forgotten you see, and the trouble with people is that we always forget.
All of our little victories are pyrrhic in this respect.
One could only describe the atmosphere as electric. Some unholy purpose was palpable and the cold drizzle sizzled like hot fat on a griddle. As the soldiers made a terror-stricken staccato retreat, the screaming they heard came from deep within themselves.
Why the fully laden troopers ran willingly into the dark depths of the adjacent lochan will never be known.
Their disappearances were never investigated or acknowledged.
They remained family right until the end; which was something - at least.
The house still lies in ambush in the trees, but no-one ever ventures there. The locals give it a wide berth. No-one farms the land because nothing will grow. No animals make their homes there. Only the rain dares to enter.
Some people say that these events really happened as described.
Some say that they are myths hopelessly entangled in the minds of a romantic people.
Yet others say that there is no such thing as pure evil.
I say they are the beasts of time.
I say that sometimes some things never say die - but they should.
I say these things as the lord is my witness.
And then I forget.