June 10, 2009

The Huge and Bellowing

Sid, returning home with a milk bottle in one hand and the paper squashed in his armpit, tells me a guided missile hit the shopping centre.
          That’s nonsense, I tell him. Why would they want to blow up the shopping centre?
          He just grunts, sits at the kitchen table, and, opening up the paper, says,
          Indian boy at the newspaper shop said he thought they were going for the police station. Apparently a few of ours have been stationed there.
          But that doesn’t explain why it hit the shopping centre, if it was guided.
          I know, he says, shortly. Have Grace and Richard called?
          They called last night.
          I know they called last night. I’m asking you if they called this morning.
          Not yet, Sid.
          The sound of his own name is a check on his anger.
          I turn the chair, inexpertly, towards the stove, where the kettle’s beginning to boil over.
          I wish this bloody chair was guided, I announce to no-one.
          Later, sitting out in the garden, admiring the first flush of the cooking apples, Sid says, almost wistfully,
          They’ll carpet-bomb next.
          I waste ten minutes regurgitating the words of the newspapers. This is a war of moderation. These people could just drop a nuclear bomb on us if they wanted. But they’re not allowed to. They have to be precise.
          Besides, why would anyone want to carpet-bomb Lillington? What use is it to anyone?
          None, says Sid, adjusting his spectacles. That’s why they’re going to carpet-bomb it.
          Grace and Richard call just after lunch. They’re in a traffic jam on the motorway coming out of London.
          Rats leaving the sinking ship, Sid says loudly, and then makes me repeat it so that they can hear.
          All right, Mummy, Grace says, the man in the car in front of us says he reckons they’ll try and cut off mobile phone signals as soon as they’ve taken control of the government buildings. So we’ll try and call you once we get to Dorset, okay?
          Richard, in the background, murmurs something about four or five hours. He sounds tired.
          Richard says he thinks it’ll take four or five hours, if the traffic clears once we get out into the countryside.
          Sid, who’s using the binoculars again to peer down at the town over the hedge, says,
          Yobs are looting the high street. Nothing to stop them now, I suppose.
          I’ll speak to you soon, Grace, I tell her. Love you.
          Love you.
          Around four o’clock in the afternoon, Sid calls me out into the garden. The uneven paving makes it difficult; the wheelchair skids and judders on the cracks.
          Come on, come on, he snaps. They’ll be gone in a minute.
          He comes and helps me, pushing at the back so that the combined force of his weight and the electric wheels shriek me across the path at unnatural speed.
          When we’re close enough to the hedge, he lowers the binoculars to my eyes.
          What can you see? he asks.
          Houses and fields.
          Not there, not there. To the right. For God’s sake.
          I take control of the binoculars from him and gaze about until I find the out-of-place.
          A little black helicopter is hovering just above the grass in the meadows beyond the Lillington railway line. Uniformed men are hopping the short distance down to the ground.
          There’ll be plenty here willing to help them, Sid says grimly. Where the hell are our lot?
          Well, Sid, I tell him, they’re probably busy in London, and Birmingham, and-
          But they should be here, he snaps, like a child, and goes inside to call 999.
          He returns soon, looking sour.
          They’re engaged, he says, and then, glaring out towards the gathering black marks against the landscape,
          I ought to go out there myself and show ‘em what a real Englishman is made of.

         

          I don’t bother to dissuade him. He keeps himself occupied for the next hour-and-a-half, bringing down his old shotgun from the attic, polishing it, even taking a kitchen knife from the rack and practicing stabbing motions.
          When he puts it down on the table for a moment, I pick it up and begin to use it to cut the carrots for dinner.

         

          As it begins to get dark, Sid, grasping the futility of a night assault on heavily armed troops by a fifty-five year-old with a bad back, goes onto the computer, and sits, leaning forward, typing furiously with one hand.
          Man in Oxfordshire says he’s shot one of them, he announces after ten minutes. Looks like this country is finally fighting back. I’m telling him he has our full support.
          After twenty minutes, the man from Oxfordshire has still not replied.
          A couple of us are saying we should meet up tonight, he says. Night-time resistance. Take a few of them out, make ‘em fear the English.
          Sid, could you get the tomatoes down from the high shelf? I can’t reach in this damned thing.
          Mm, he says, right, and leaves the computer screen with reluctance. He plonks the tomatoes down on the side, hurries back to the chair, and refreshes the website to see if anyone’s written anything new.
          Should think they’ll shut this down soon enough, he mutters, if we give them a chance.
          Maybe they’re already watching the websites, I reply, casually, to see if there are any hotheads who’ll try and start something.
          This makes him hesitate. He leaves a final message, turns the computer off, and starts to lay the table.
          We open the best bottle of wine to go with our casserole, an old crimson thing we bought in the first year of our marriage. I’m not entirely sure, as we sit in silence, masticating loudly, whether we’re commiserating or celebrating.
          But afterwards, as if signalling that nothing has changed, Sid washes up the plates in the sink and passes them down to me, and I dry them with the blue cloth. Once they’re all dried, he puts them away in the cupboards and shelves. Neat and ordered.
          It takes ten minutes, every time, to get me into bed. Sid’s long mastered the art of getting it to that precise length- if he’s slow taking off my blouse, he’ll make up for it by hefting me quickly out of the chair and into the folds of the duvet, even if it hurts his back- but he doesn’t seem to be able to go any faster.
          Afterwards he brushes his teeth and complains, frothily, while I lie in bed with the battered remnants of the newspaper, and read what the government has to say.
          The sound of Sid spitting, repeatedly. Then he begins to swear about a politician who let us all down.
          At about two o’clock, the curtains flare faint orange.
          Cathy?
          Mm.
          That wake you?
          A low, steady, rhythm of booms, as if someone is pounding the world’s most enormous drum.
          Sid goes to the curtains and comes back.
          They’re carpet-bombing, he says, getting into bed, triumphant.

May 08, 2009

The Deputation

Dusk almost looks like sunrise.

           Diswali, who the new society will come to know as the great intellectual, glances all about before saying,
           We know you’re here, Saaldi.
           The crossroads of yellow stones is silent. The deputation, shamed by the quiet, shuffle their feet a little.
           Nuudi, who will be known as the great marketing entrepreneur for his development of the new currency of minerals, scratches his bloated, fly-speckled belly, and declares,
           Bastard’s probably been eaten by something. Serves him right, as well-
           and takes six hasty steps backwards when Saaldi, silhouetted like a stalking panther, curves across the surface of one of the great rocks, on all fours.
           When he reaches the plateau, he halts, and sits comfortably cross-legged, watching them.

           Nuudi, rejoining the deputation as quickly and inconspicuously as possible, folds his arms akimbo and speaks out,
           Brother Saaldi, we come to you on behalf of our people to request your assistance in a grand project.
           Saaldi, like a child, has found a dry explosion of grass in the rock’s crevices, and is picking at the stems.
           Diswali calls out,
           We want you to help us form the new society.
           Saaldi says,
           So-see-what?
           The heat of the day has died, and the ancient tarmac of the crossroads cools Diswali’s feet, giving him courage. He repeats,
           Society. A gathering of like-blooded people.
           Who’s in it? Saaldi asks, sounding careless.
           Me, says Diswali, Nuudi, Kaeri, gesturing to the younger man, Uguri, and you. We protect one another. We find a cave and, instead of traipsing about in the wilderness, we live like civilised people in that cave. We’ll hardly need to move about at all.
           Darkness is spreading over the rocks, forming weird and living shadows across the deputation’s faces. Saaldi is a solid, haloed figure of black above them.
           We stick together, Diswali persists. I have such plans, you can’t even imagine…our children grow up in safety in that cave, in time we grow- and when somebody has something we want, we won’t need to kill them and take it from them any more! We can swap things- pretty-looking stones, and so on. It’ll be great.
           For a moment Saaldi is quiet. Then,
           We don’t have any women.
           We’ll get some, Diswali says, dismissive. That’s not a problem.
           And we’ll have art, Kaeri chirps up. I’m in charge of art.
           Uguri’s finding God, Diswali says, glaring at Kaeri. He says he’s almost there. That’ll take some of the weight off our shoulders.
           Sounds horrible, Saaldi says.
           The deputation gaze up at the phantom of the rock in confusion, close to horror.
           Nuudi says,
           Eh?
           Count me out, says Saaldi. I don’t like the sound of this at all. It’s a bit sordid, frankly.
           You can’t opt out, Diswali says. That isn’t allowed. Come down off your high rock and we’ll explain it to you. We want you to be in charge of healthcare. You’ve fallen ill three or four times now and you’ve survived every time. Uguri’s survived six times, admittedly, but he already has a position, so…
           He trails off.
           Saaldi is quite still for a moment. Then, like the slipping shadows, he seems to fade earthwards, until only the rock is still standing.

           The deputation stand quite still.
           What now? Nuudi asks.
           Diswali, who the new society will come to know as the great intellectual, stoops to the ground, lifting the ancient slice of metal to the sky, and strides after Saaldi through the crossroad of yellow stones.

May 04, 2009

Musician

Did you have a little trouble getting here? he asks, chuckling, and shifts beneath his blanket. The balcony window is open, in spite of the cold breeze blowing through the apartment.

           Philippa, who seems to have already taken my side in some unforeseen but inevitable conflict between us, says,

           It was my fault really, Dad. I got the directions wrong.

           I have to speak up.

           The streets are so narrow, I tell him. And when it starts to get dark, it’s so tricky to tell them apart...

           I never get lost, he says, with a touch of pride, and taps the wrinkled skin on the curve of his foggy eye. I can always find my way back.

This may be a false boast; Philippa, when I take her for an Irish coffee later in the evening, tells me about the day a gas main erupted in the street below. She came home to find him standing at the balcony, confused, his sense of the dimensions of the room altered by the shouting. He kept asking her how many were hurt; how bad it was.

He reaches out for his cup. His fingers don’t quite make the distance.

           You’re white, he says.

           Philippa rolls her eyes for my benefit and pushes the cup a little way towards him. The scarlet curtains blossom in the wind.

           Getting harder to tell, he says, these days. Lot of black people talk like whites. Lot of white kids trying to talk like blacks. But there’s no mistaking you.

           I consider telling him I’m black (I’m not). It might make Philippa laugh. But it seems unfair to alter his perception of me.

           He gulps at the tea. He’s not practised, as you might expect; he seems to be concentrating hard to avoid spilling any. Philippa is watching him closely, from her hard-backed dining chair.

           The black cylinder is waiting between the tea things. I have to begin.

           Derek Whitman...pioneer in funk, jazz, spoken word, author, poet, musician- is there any end to your talents?

           The question makes him chuckle. It seemed like a well-judged opener, scribbling in my notebook on the Underground. Now it comes across as fawning.

           I don’t know about ‘no end to my talents’, he says. I don’t know about that at all. In fact, most of the people when I was on the circuit considered it an impertinence for a musician to be reciting poetry, and a sell-out for a poet to be playing concerts. So I was the upstart crow, in many respects.

           Let the lull of his voice accustom you to the room. A blown-up rally photograph has been framed across the far wall. A younger, more recognisable face, leaning down from a podium, with microphone in hand. Finger and fist aloft. A number of books have been scattered over the carpet- a row between father and daughter, or just carelessness? The record piles on the dining room table, though stacked, are beginning to tilt.

          

           It’s my turn to speak. But he catches the moment.

           So what do you think, Mr Reporter, he says, his voice curling into a challenge, of your journey into the heart of darkness?

           Philippa, like someone predicting a hurricane, leaps to her feet and goes to slam the balcony windows. A voice, crying below, is silenced.

           More of a pilgrimage, I tell him.

           He goes quiet for a moment. Later in the night, Philippa will complain of his childlike demands; the nights when he wakes up without any sense of who he is. She will sit beside him, no matter how tired the ritual, and whisper his name to him. A flightless bird, I will write in the final transcript of the interview, fed by chicks returning to the nest.

           You like my music? he asks.

           And of course, even now it makes sense for them to send a black interviewer down to interview a black musician who stood up for black rights. I had to fight to make this journey.

           I tell him I even have an old second-hand copy of his novel. This makes him laugh.

           I wrote that over six addled weeks, he says, after a kid in Chicago got shot running from the police. And I was so damn angry I forgot my one rule- you can be angry, but maintain your sense of humour. Otherwise- like these problems you’ve been having- you become a sense of anger and nothing more, your sense of self trickles away behind the anger. So I do apologise for your having to read that shitty, shitty novel.

           A golden bead of tea falls from the tip of his beard. I didn’t even notice him spilling any. It makes Philippa tut in disapproval. I still haven’t touched mine.

           A lot of what was in that novel, he says, was of its age. So I hope none of it was shocking to you.

           Perhaps he doesn’t realise he’s even smiling as he says that. He loves to get a reaction, Philippa will confide to me, hardness creeping into her eyes, in the booth, even when he can’t see it. He just lies back in his dark little world and imagines it.

           My daughter likes to tell me, he says, that I’m behind the times. It’s generally her chosen method of winning arguments. And, let me tell you, I agree with her entirely. When darkness falls, you’re only really left with ‘I’s.

           Playing it back later, I decide that, in context, he must be saying ‘I’s and not ‘eyes’.

           He fumbles for the cup of tea and finds the little black tape recorder instead. For a moment the sound of his voice is obscured by inhuman shrieks as his fingers work over it, determining its shape.

           Back then, he says, with the Bomb, you had this sense...hanging over you...that any day everything might be wiped. You wouldn’t understand it. The papers and the television had the whole Chicken Licken thing going on, but for the rest of us...

           His thought trails off.

           Some nights he’ll decide he’s prepared for death, Philippa will tell me- breaking off momentarily as the waitress brings the bill- and that means he has to have his will altered, because of some acquaintance who’s passed away since the last one, and he’ll want me to play his old albums through. He wants to hear his own voice before he goes. And then other nights he’ll start to cry, because he’s afraid, and because he can feel that oblivion gathering all around him. He’ll talk about seeing Africa before he dies.

           He’s never been?

           Once. I don’t think he liked it much. He loves the sounds- the rhythms, the percussion- because there’s so much there for him to use. But I don’t think the place satisfied him.

           He’s a fascinating man.

           Fascinating to study, perhaps. Addictive personalities and musical genius don’t make for the most relaxing family dynamic. He likes this city, though- not just because of Mum. A few people still recognise him here. He’s a happier person when he comes home and some voice out of the darkness has told him they’re a fan of his.

           I remember one time- one of the most upsetting experiences of my life- was last year, when we were on the Underground together. He doesn’t like it down there anyway; it feels cramped too him, and there are the noises- well, anyway, there were a bunch of kids playing their music loud. It was one of those shitty rap songs, without the slightest bit of wit or intelligence...and they’d used his chorus. They’d paid him for it, of course, and it was a beautiful song- one of the old love songs he used to write for Mum. And the melody played, and he perked up immediately, and then there was only a younger man’s voice, talking over the top of his. They didn’t know who he was, of course. He wanted so much to go over to them- or, better yet, for someone else to tell them it was his song.

           He started to shake, and I realised how he felt; he was used to not being able to see them, but for the first time he was afraid that they couldn’t see him. I got back to the apartment, locked myself in the bathroom and cried. I had to bite down on my knuckles so he couldn’t hear me.

          

           I don’t mind being a relic, he says. There is a requirement to be stoic about these things. Have you read Ben Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs? Of course not, because it’s gone. Time turns us all into traces...turns us into Turin Shrouds. When the world goes, nobody’s going to remember whether it was whites keeping down blacks or the other way around.

The thought makes him laugh again. Philippa rises to pour the tea, gently lifting the cup and saucer out of his grip. I decline the offer of more.

           Do you feel, Mr Reporter, he asks, that you’re free from the ruins of slavery? That you’ve shed it, like a skin?

           No, I suppose I’m not.

           How about you, Philippa?

           He cranes around in the armchair, waiting for an answer. Philippa replies, irritated,

           Of course not, Dad.

           Maybe the Bomb is what we all need, he says. Give us a chance to forget.

          

           As I rise to leave, he tells me he’d like to give me a book to remember him by. When I ask him which one he’d like me to have, he only laughs and replies,

           Take your pick; it doesn’t matter.

           I can’t bring myself to take his gorgeous, embossed edition of Langston Hughes away from him, so I settle for an ill-treated textbook on scansion. He nods, apparently satisfied, when I tell him what I’ve chosen.

           He extends his hand out into the emptiness of this small, cluttered apartment; I take it. His fingers tangle through mine for a moment; a man who’s forgotten how to give a handshake.

           I’m taking Mr Green for a coffee, Dad, Philippa says, buttoning up her jacket. Would you like the radio on before we go?

           I’m fine, thank you, he says. Enjoy yourselves. I look forward to having Philippa read me your article, Mr Green.

           I suddenly realise he’s been waiting for that prompting to remember my name all evening.

           You have to have hope for the future, he tells me, or says into the air. Things are looking bright again nowadays. You children are lucky to be born into this generation.

          

           And he’s so naïve, Philippa will tell me, slumping against the shadow of the booth, oh, God, he’s so hopelessly naïve.

          


Proposal

If the Baker Street lights
go out, I will change my plans
and dance in the traffic.
If scaffolding yawns

across the steeple
of St Josephine’s,
I will bloody my nose
on the face of a banker

dreaming of a hot bath
near Marylebone Lane.
If the sky ripens
and the clocks spin backwards

and the news reports
unforgivably fail
to mention any of this,
I will drink juice

and curdle abuses
in my grandfather’s rocking-chair.
But if a frothy serviette
should wipe over the Thames,

tamping the soft ground down,
I will curse
the diamond roads,
forgiving the thunder.

April 20, 2009

The Isle of Dogs

Everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea that this marriage can’t last. I know I am. And Sally herself, on a particularly sunny day, post-orgasm, or even at the end of a really uplifting movie, will start her sentences with a dreamy,

When we’re divorced, Henry...

But it’s always in the abstract, as if we just have to sit back and wait for the tide to sweep one of us away from the other. It doesn’t make a difference; the word itself has taken on new dimensions for our little community. Dr Robeson greets us for our sessions, rising out of his chair, with,

When’re you getting that divorce, Sally? Not still clinging on to the old duffer?

One of our children (we have so many) even told her teacher that her parents had broken up, a long time ago. She was a little confused when we both came to the Parent’s Evening a few weeks afterwards, and said she was sorry to hear about the break-up. We both laughed, a little too hard.

The children will survive this. I spoke to one of them – not the same one, this was an older one, Patrick – who was playing in the garden, letting off the sort of imaginary gunfire that explodes, improbably, as it makes its target. I asked him if he was shooting Nazis or Red Indians. It turned out he was shooting zombies, in the years to come after the world’s ended. I asked him if there was any point shooting zombies if the world’s ended. He said yes. A little more enquiry and it turned out that I, and his mother, had been killed in the first wave of destruction. Then, as if realising that this was a pretty poor deal for me, he added,

Don’t worry, Dad. Everyone else was.

You need a space, to survive these apocalypses. Sally has her ‘studio’, the emasculated garden shed, stacked with bad abstract paintings in the style of thirty years ago. I have my study.

On a typical afternoon, I might start off with a bottle of wine. These are the trickiest part; they have to be smuggled in without Sally or the children appearing to notice. Even a carrier bag does the pleasant job of avoiding the necessity of a confrontation. Once the bottle - with my typical luck, an elderly rosé I’d been saving up for a particularly galling day – dropped through a hole in the bag and onto the kitchen tiles. It rolled. Sally ignored it for as long as she could; when it clunked against the back of her heels, she felt she had to comment.

No words. Just a drawn-out hiss.

Then come the spirits. I like to surf the Internet while I’m drinking, as the activity by itself is such an obvious downer. It passes the time, but before long you begin to realise what a nasty little room it really is; worse than spending an hour flicking through Sally’s paintings in the shed to check if any of them have evolved since the last time you were there. It isn’t the dimensions I’m looking for. So it’s Jack Daniels, Imperial vodka, and, occasionally in the summer, Pimms. You have to drink a lot of it to reach climax point, but it loses some of the guilt of drinking yourself into oblivion. Pimms isn’t an alcoholic’s drink.

Sally and I, I’ve come to realise, react to intrusion into our secret spaces in a similar manner. Our heads jerk up, we snap,

What!

meaninglessly, and I duck my glass beneath the desk and she shifts her canvas around so that it’s no longer visible to me.

Blackouts have that wonderful sense of shifting forward in time. For a couple of brief hours you’ve beaten down your own consciousness; walking, talking, if perhaps not brilliantly in either case, but quite asleep.

The older, better developed children seem to be catching on to the time lapses. They corner me in the mornings and insist I promised them gifts and favours in the night. They won’t believe me when I try to convince them it wasn’t Daddy they were talking to.

Henry, says Sally, can we talk?

Or I do it, a little less professionally, stuttering a little on the

We need to t-talk.

And it’s the unspoken duty of the other to reply, eyes elsewhere,

Later.

As if, at some point, one of our clocks began running slightly ahead or slightly behind, and we’re not sure which is the correct time. We keep renewing Dr Robeson’s sessions. He’s affectionate and frustrated at the sight of us, every Tuesday morning, laughing,

Just break up, you bloody fools! Do you have any clue how long this has been going on?

He tells us we’re childishly dependent upon one another, and then, more seriously, asks us about the question of his bill.

The money’s running out but Sally says we can get some from her parents. Two days later, it becomes clear that her parents’ money is running out as well.

This can’t go on forever, Sally shouts, as I crouch, attempting camouflage, in the toilet. That afternoon, staggering out into the dying sun, halfway to the crucial blackout point, disturbed by a shriek from the garden, I tell her, tearfully,

You’ll have forgotten me in a week.

She continues to prune. The children gaze at us in shock. I ruffle a head and call it by the wrong name.

The children won’t survive this. They’re too accustomed to the whole thing; apocalypse is their affectionate friend, their plaything. They tag each other in the garden and shout,

I’m divorcing you!

and the person who’s been divorced isn’t allowed to play any longer.

Sally says tomorrow will be the day she leaves me. She put the suitcase out on the bed but she hasn’t packed yet. The children, taking up the joke, start to ask her where she’ll live and if they’ll ever see her again. The youngest of all doesn’t get it and runs off to her room, inconsolable.

Stooped over my laptop, with the cracks of light bursting through the doorway, I drink deep and mutter,

Come, you bastard. For God’s sake, for God’s sake, come.


April 14, 2009

The Trial of Jane Austen

The raft, warm in the dying sun, swings to her anchor and lies at rest. I nudge my foot out to calm the shivering picnic basket. The first of our number has brought the gift of tea, the second whisky; with typically poor judgement, I arrived with a sponge-cake, and nobody has touched it but me.

A cruise-ship horn bellows, in the distance and the three of us, as if by unconscious agreement, stir ourselves up to observe the prisoner. She gazes back at us, without concern. Classy even now.  There was a fourth of our company, who was willing to supply us with the boat, but refused to get involved any further. Perhaps he would have balked at the sight of her.

Twain is the first to speak. Clenching his pipe between his teeth, he reaches across to the neat pile of paperbacks stacked in the dead centre of the raft.

Sense and Sensibility, he says, bobbing it in his hand. He twists, without getting to his feet.

It skims once across the muddy waves, pages trailing, and sinks.

Pride and Prejudice.

He hurls it high in the air. It plummets and drowns.

Mansfield Park.

A doomy splash. Brontë winces and perhaps Twain is not as tough as he imagined, because, a little paler with every throw, he tosses the final three out into the ocean in muttered succession.

Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Done.

There is a general sense of relief, as if an unpleasant but entirely necessary ritual has been dealt with. I cut myself another slice of cake, but feel too awkward to begin eating it.

Milady, Twain begins, moustache twitching in irritation, you stand trial on a number of very serious charges. He glances at me. I clear my throat and begin, nervously,

The charge of being over-loved and over-appreciated.

The charge of excessive lightness and excessive petty perfection.

The charge of Mills & Boon.

The charge of misleading women into the lie that self-absorbed, dislikeable men are romantically desirable. We have, in the vaults of history, a number of divorce proceedings and almost certainly one murder to place as evidence against you.

Brontë, who, I suspect, would like to do nothing so much to Fitzwilliam Darcy as chop off three of his fingers, gouge out his eyes, and set Pemberley on fire, shifts a little on the surface of the raft. Twain, puffing at his pipe, is gazing absent-mindedly out across the sea.

The charge of a nasal sense of humour.

How does the defendant plead? Twain asks. He nods his head in greeting to a seagull trailing overhead.

Not guilty.

Brontë helps herself to some more tea.  Then she relents.

Would you like some? she asks the prisoner, civilly.

As she’s pouring, Twain reaches across and adds a three-finger measure of Jack Daniels to the mixture. He glances up to see if the prisoner reacts. She doesn’t. She takes the cup but does not drink from it.

I clear my throat.

Perhaps, I begin, hesitant, we should start with the witnesses for the prosecution?

           Twain, I know, would rather get on to the sentencing. An antique revolver lies, hidden, beneath the napkins in the picnic basket. He thinks I haven’t seen it. He raises himself to a crouch, and pours the whisky into each of our cups in turn.

           More tea, he growls. Do the honours, boy.

           I do as he says.

           We drink. Austen has to be told twice- Drink! Drink!- by Twain, who’s no longer joking as he was when we first stepped off the pier and onto the raft, whispering into the sackcloth over her head,

           The stick up my ass and the stone in my heart are going to break the bone in your head.

           Night is coming over us, fast.

           You know, says Twain, slurping at his enhanced tea, it’s your kind of writing- your classically formed, darkless, dangerless stories, pretty and perfect but so damn petty- that’s the worst kind of writing there is.

           He adds,

           Except metafiction. That’s the worst of all.

           We can all agree on that, at least.

          

           I don’t think I’d hate you nearly so much, Brontë says, with a kind of sadness in her voice, if so many idiots didn’t think we were so much the same kind of thing.

           They are watching me, I know, waiting for my accusation, though their eyes are no longer clearly visible in the shadows of the oncoming night.

Come on, boy, Twain says, impatient.

I just want…I begin, and hesitate.

I can only tell by the twitch of her lace-capped head in my direction that she’s listening to me.

I just want to see you dream of a monster, I tell her. Everyone else has a monster in their work, in some sense. I don’t know where yours is.

For a moment that makes me shudder, and I imagine that something huge and dark is drifting beneath the raft.

Austen doesn’t reply.

Enough, says Twain. He’s turning, almost unconsciously, the weight of his body towards the picnic basket. Enough. Where are the witnesses for the defence?

We’re in the middle of the ocean, Brontë replies, a Victorian silhouette. She sounds irritated, perhaps a little upset.

If she can’t produce witnesses, Twain snaps back, then we’ll pass straight to sentence.

His body is beginning to shake in the darkness. That movement is all I can make out of him any longer.

She might want to have something to say for herself, I tell him. Perhaps she wants to give a final speech.

A helicopter is chundering somewhere overhead. A blue light flashes in the distant sky, and disappears. An ugly snort. It takes me a moment to realize it comes from Twain.

They won’t find you, you know! His voice comes out of nowhere. They won’t find you! So you just give your final speech, missy! You just give it!

Blackness. The only dimension is the surface of the raft below us, lit up by the gentle pattering of the waves passing below. And then, a low, tortured scraping. Twain is drawing the picnic basket across to him with his foot.

Well? he snaps again. What do you have to say for yourself?

She doesn’t reply. I think she’s laughing at us.


April 12, 2009

Crocodile

We are afraid
Of the bearded men
And the black youths
Whose music can be heard
Thumping to the beat
Of the carriage.
Our points of safety
On this line
Are the dumpy,
Unsmiling policeman
Scanning the Paddington
Surge, and ahead,
The Assyrian angels
Standing guard
At the British Museum.
The train pelts eastward,
Teasing the darkness.

April 07, 2009

The Stop

           We park the car on the meadow by the old McDonalds and Barry takes the children inside to show them how it functioned.

           -See, this was the fat fryer.

           -See, these were the menus. You can still read this bit here, Charlie-

lifting the boy up to shoulder height to the one remaining patch of colour on the wall. A rat scrambles away across the floor and the children shriek in delight.

           Grandpa has pulled out his length of string, blackened with overuse, and is checking the fuel level at the side of the vehicle. He shakes his head, as he does every time we stop, and says,

           -We’ll be pushing it before long.

           I leave him outside with the dogs and go to use the bathroom. I still don’t like to use the bushes. The children tease me for it, and Barry, half-good-humoured, will join in, or, occasionally, win an argument with a glib comment about fussy piddlers. That makes Charlie and Scott giggle.

           -Ronald McDonald, Scott keeps shouting, from behind the door. Ronald McDonald. He remembers, just. He keeps trying to explain television to his younger brother.

           Why the hell did we build such an ugly thing to outlast human lives? I think. I almost reach down to rinse my hands in the sink, out of habit. How many more years will this be standing?

           -Ronald McDonald, Charlie yells, picking up on it. Ronald McDonald.

          

           When we come back outside, there’s a strange man standing in the parking lot and the dogs are quiet, at attention. They sit patiently, letting him run his hand over their necks.

           Grandpa gives me an apologetic look.

           -Dogs didn’t go for him, he says. I trust their judgement.

           -Alan Wrick, the man says.  His hair is neatly trimmed, and his red face is sweat-stained from running. We saw your car from the hillside.

           -I’m Barry, says Barry. He’s wary of using last names. This is my wife, Tessa, my children, Charlie and Scott-

           -I was telling him, Grandpa says. Christ, boy, do you think I’m an idiot?

           -Sorry, Dad.

           Alan strokes Timber, as if thinking something over.

           -Me and my girlfriend have a little girl ourselves, he says. We could maybe...?

           -Of course, says Barry. Bring them down and let’s see what you’ve got.

           The children are happy to play with the new arrival, a shy, podgy girl in a pink dress, in the parking lot. I put the dogs in the back of the car. They know to shout out if anyone comes.

           I go back into the McDonalds. Barry, Alan, and Alan’s girlfriend are chatting. Barry’s broken out the bread we bartered from a family forty miles uproad. The new couple have supplied a half-sausage of dried meat. Salami, possibly.

           -The A43 is fine, Alan says. There’s a lovely old chap passing through there-

           -Jim Nulton, says Alan’s girlfriend.

           -Thanks, darling. Jim Nulton. A little stiff but tell him you’ve seen us and he might be able to find you some petrol. He has a motorbike- Yamaha, I think? Anyway, decent man.

           -And further south? I ask, slipping into one of the seats. Alan glances at me.

           -Stay clear of the bridge over Junction 11, he says. We’ve heard there’s a couple of men up there who try and charge you for crossing it. They shot at Jim. So spread the word. Don’t go there, don’t barter with them.

           -Bastards can starve, Barry mutters.

           Alan’s girlfriend gives me a confidential smile.

           -Are you trying to get to anywhere in particular? she asks.

           Richmond, Barry says. We go every year- there’s a family we barter with there.

           -Barter...? says Alan. He’s licking his lips.

           Barry glances at me in half-apology.

           -Gas canisters, he says. For stoves.

           Alan’s girlfriend seems to be appealing to me. She says, as if in surprise, in my direction,

           -Oh! Well, we could certainly do with a few more hot meals.

           -We don’t have much, Alan says, leaning over the plastic table, but we have a few things we’d be willing to barter.

           And he begins to list his worthless inventory of items. Batteries. A CD player, which Alan spends so long talking up that it must surely be broken or useless to them. A school textbook for his daughter.

           -I dropped out, Alan’s girlfriend laughs, again towards me, as if I’m as young as she is and much of the same mind. Everyone did. No point when disaster’s just around the corner. But now things are picking up again- well, they need to know these things.

           Barry and I both know what our answer will be. It’s only a question of who will say it. To my surprise, he says, almost immediately,

           -I’m sorry, but I don’t think we need any of yours.

           Alan looks down at the table. His girlfriend maintains her cheerful smile, as if she has not understood the response.

           Then all four of us get to our feet, without speaking.

           I go to find Grandpa. He’s standing by the other end of the building, the petrol station, squeezing the pumps methodically.

           -Grandpa, I call. It’s time to go.

           He puts one pump back in its slot, removes another one with trembling hands, and presses the trigger. Stale air spurts.

           -Diesel anyway, he says, replacing it, but it would have been better than nothing, wouldn’t it?

           -Charlie says he’s going to marry the Wricks’ little girl, I tell him, folding my arms.

           -Oh?

           -He says they’ll wait until they’re sixteen. He wants his children to be able to hunt deer.

           -Well, might happen. Never know who you’ll bump into, years from now.

           -I doubt they’ll be glad to see us.

           -Go sour?

           -We couldn’t afford to be charitable. Not that much.

           Grandpa gazes out over the empty lanes of the motorway.

           -H.G. Wells, he says. I always hope they’ll have a copy and nobody ever does.

           I wait for him to move. He remains quite still.

           -I was always so glad, he says, to read about how something terrible was going to happen, that everything was going to come crashing down any day now. It didn’t matter what kind. The sillier the better. Always fun to read how the world was going to end because that wasn’t so bad, was it? If everything goes. Do you remember, at Christmas, we watched that disaster film with Scott and he was so thrilled? And he had that little model aircraft.

           The chunder of the car starting up. Barry must be getting bored.

           -Grandpa, I repeat. He kicks at the tarmac.

           -Whenever I open my eyes, he says, I think it’s going to happen. When it came- when the disaster did come- I thought, this must surely be it. So saturated by it all that it came as a relief. Perhaps if it had all been wiped out, Charlie could have made a fresh start. If there weren’t any more...ruined fast food restaurants and motorways for him to think about.

-There’s too much here, still, of the old world.

-H.G. Wells, Grandpa says, I will always remember, that bit, that wonderful bit, where the mother and son watch the world explode. And the mother asks, ‘Is there hope?’, and the son says, ‘Not for us.’

Violent shrieking. My sons are calling for us to hurry up. Get in the car before Dad leaves you behind.

-Come on, Grandpa.

He remains quite still.


March 31, 2009

backlog

Files, and more files. He recognises very few of the documents more than two years old.

           And this is what he wrote, on a brand new laptop, aged fourteen. Not so very long ago, in the greater scheme of things.

           What begins to frighten him doesn’t come from the lapses into obvious plagiarism- frequent sentences carry Chesterton’s exact rhythms- or the tendency towards explicit thematics, to the point of lecturing, repeating in piece after piece ideas like ‘We live in a world of illusion’, as if covering fresh ground.

           Sentences unravel and burst. There’s no control, and the character of an ‘other’ begins to recur, a demonic alter ego who tempts the Christian, hormonal hero into sexual desire, religious doubt, murder, and manipulation. Every story ends with a falling into unconsciousness, into water, into forest. Maddened, adolescent writing. He’s been reading a neurologist’s casebook, and begins to wonder- have I once been insane?

           He is aware, but does not yet fully admit, that his latest story depicts, as if from the outside, a lunatic who transfers one half of an internal dialogue onto a puppet, and who later attempts to gain ‘independence’ from his own psychological creation by diving repeatedly into a murky pool of water.

           What’s the phrase? Against these fragments I shore my ruins…

           A lie. I am the thought of the lichen coating the stone which once thought. Something has passed over. But I’m not the same man today I was before.

           He will not write for the rest of the day; his mind is wide, and he feels like a child.


March 21, 2009

Taken from 'Have Your Say'

NVN18:

looks like you've strayed off-topic once again, boys and girls

ashburyrules:

NVN! Good to have you back among the fold, brother. Been far too long with only the moaners and trolls for company (you know who I'm talking about)

JasonStone:

Good to have you back, NVN. Welcome.

NVN18:

thanks, everyone. it's good to be home. looking forward to some good banter.

Destinyschild:

RIP Dan Brix

AmyJ:

hi there this seems like an interesting debate. i used to enjoy debating until i became worried my iq wasnt high enough. good job i went to IQTEST and sorted it out! link/?ffhdjanmahnj/dj my IQ is 158. whats yours??

ashburyrules:

Who's Dan Brix?

kattykat4:

link/danbrix/obituary

ashburyrules:

Never heard of him. Must be a young person's thing. I'm 44 and I work in a warehouse so I don't have much time for pop music.

kattykat4:

like the internet, you mean? ;p

Destinyschild:

RIP Dan Brix you r in heavn now my frend.i no well meet ther sum day KEEP THE DREAM ALIVE!!!

docmartens:

destinyschild there is no such thing as heaven or 'heavn' as you seem to spell it. you seem to be young so i will warn you now, dont waste your life on religion which can only lead to war and conflict between nations, look up the crusades in your history book.

ashburyrules:

Sorry, kattykat4, did you mean me with the internet thing?

kattykat4:

I think docmartens had better watch out talking like that, he's going to bring the dragon out of her cave!

ashburyrules:

Hahaha she means WANDASSAVED

NVN18:

oh christ is that bitch still around?

kattykat4:

NVN18 you are very quick to call Wanda a b****. I think it's very easy to call people rude names in this situation but I think if you were face to face with her you'd find it very hard to call her a b****.

JasonStone:

Best not to swear mate, they're still moderating here.

NVN18:

nobody's moderated here for weeks, we're totally alone. and if i met her face to face i'd happily call her a bitch. if she wants to meet me (if she is a she and not some middle-aged paedo hunting online for young boys) i'll meet her and call her a bitch to her face.

ashburyrules:

Careful NVN, you don't want to get raped.

SallyJenkins:

hi there this seems like an interesting debate. i used to enjoy debating until i became worried my iq wasnt high enough. good job i went to IQTEST and sorted it out! link/?ffhdjanmahnj/dj my IQ is 158. whats yours??

ilovemygrandchildren:

Hello there Sally, I tried your link and it took me somewhere else and i keep getting things popping up now which is very annoying. do you have the right link? I thought it best that you check.

docmartens:

HAHA at old lady

kattykat4:

ilovemygrandchildren- SallyJenkins isn't a real person, she's an advert. you probably want to check your computer for viruses.

NVN18:

if you're out there WANDASSAVED, i live in cheltenham. happy to meet with you any time, any time at all.

P.S. there is no god and you're a fucking bitch.

ashburyrules:

Stop baiting her lol.

ilovemygrandchildren:

I must say that seems very rude.

JasonStone:

As NVN was saying earlier, now might be a good time to return to the topic.

NVN18:

did the old lady just call me rude? Mind your own fucking business.

kattykat4:

She was talking about the advert NVN, not you. >:(

ilovemygrandchildren:

I was talking about SallyJenkins or whoever she is, but I think you'r being very rude as well. And I'm not old, I'm 65. I had been told this was a friendly place. I must have been misinformed. I think I shall go elsewhere.

WANDASSAVED:

Dear Noodlehead NVN,

Isn't it quite clear that people don't want your foulmouthed language here?? YIKES! And the God you you blaspheme watches everything you say and everything you do and when He comes to judge you you had better have a good reason for what you do because His Son predicted the place, you know the place, you probably read about it in your retarded childresn' books, you will end up in! I'M MELTING, DOROTHY, I'M MELTING!

Maybe stop swearing and sinning and start reading these.

Leviticus 10.2

Luke 22.54

All of Isaiah 66- "The worms that eat them will never die, and the fires that burn them will never stop, and everyone will hate to see those bodies."

Wanda

ashburyrules:

Oh God, she's back. I may go elsewhere for a while...

ilovemygrandchildren:

I must say for a 'community' this seems like everyone simply shouts at one another. it's like a prison for the blind. when did we stop being able to listen to one another?

ashburyrules:

I thought you said you were going elsewhere.

If you don't like our 'community' there's plenty of others to choose from.

docmartens:

there is no god, GET OVER IT

docmartens:

there is no god, GET OVER IT

NVN18:

"the God you you blaspheme watches everything you say and everything you do"

really? does he have a keyboard?

ilovemygrandchildren:

so did you, so don't snipe. it'd be nice to see some of us agreeing for a change.

ashburyrules:

Now it's 'us'? I have to say, some of the people that hang on expecting people to pay attention to their worthless opinions are really very pathetic.

kattykat4:

I know WANDASSAVED is crazy but really the way some of you have a go at her, I think maybe you all just need somebody to hate? :C

ashburyrules:

Don't understand the face you've made love.

onlygayinthevillage:

She's made love? LOL

docmartens:

Lame

JasonStone:

It's kind of funny how many people here keep going on about God existing and not existing as if they have all the answers. I'm guessing docmartens and Wanda are leading theologians?

DEATHOFMYLONELYSPIRIT:

BLACKENED LAND AND DUSKY SKY

HERE ON A BED OF NAILS I LIE

WRACKED AND ROLLED BY SEA AND SAND

FEELING THESE WOUNDS THROUGH MY HANDS

petraluvhappy:

hi my name is petra i'm a seventeen year old schoolgirl and i just want to say you have a really important debate going on here so i think i will be sticking around. personally just to give my two cence i believe there is a god how else to you explain all the good there is in the world and the love that i feel every day as a direct result of JESUS in my life.

onlygayinthevillage:

probably all those pills youre taking.

kattykat4:

Nice to have you here petra, be good to have a fresh perspective on things. welcome to the community.

ashburyrules:

Hi, Petra good to have you onboard.x

docmartens:

i may not be a theologian JasonStone actually im still in secondary school but one thing i know for sure is there is no god he was invented by religions to enslave us and keep us from enjoying sex. if you could understand that you'd know that there is no god.

JasonStone:

I call that a bit of a circular argument...

NVN18:

jesus christ is everyone else here a kid or something?

onlygayinthevillage:

Yeah perv. :P

NVN18:

great, ill bring you all round to my house and fuck you.

kattykat4:

Moderators!!!

NVN18:

For God's sake, there's nobody moderating us.

petraluvhappy:

i wouldnt call myself a kid, im seventeen and ive already done some work modelling so im very much a woman and able to decide what i believe in for myself. docmartens how do you know there is no god? you just have to feel the love He brings us every day that's all I need to understand.

ashburyrules:

Petra! Great to see you back here again. xx

JasonStone:

Sometimes we just seem to end up with the same arguments, going round and round, never getting anywhere.

ashburyrules:

THEN GO SOMEWHERE ELSE. OR GET A JOB.

Why do people complain? It's not as if we have to be here.

WANDASSAVED:

Petra Prostitute,

Maybe instead of modelling you should be READING your BIBLE. God is NOT the happy-clappy, everything-goes gayloving hippie your negligent parents have decided to make him. that is the FALSE IDOL. YIKES! God is wrathful and He is a jealous God and when he comes a'calling you'd better make sure you have your reasons for getting him wrong in line my dear.

Wanda

JasonStone:

Who's she talking about now?

ashburyrules:

something Petra said about a week ago. WANDASSAVED, get over yourself.

God:

Wanda,

That isn't what I had in mind.

ashburyrules:

Hahahahaha!

petraluvhappy:

dear wanda, i am sorry you have got my ideas so mixed up. perhaps i do not read the bible enough as i should but i believe in god as i have seen him.   i own a 2003 youth bible, what is yours?

kattykat4:

Best not to reply to her Petra, you can't talk to people like her.

docmartens:

read dawkins petra. helluva lot more truth than in the bible.

JasonStone:

Why do we never get any people from other religions here?

ashburyrules:

Don't apologise to her, Petra, you're not in the wrong.

How are you anyway? xx

docmartens:

jews are too busy counting.

muslims are too busy exploding.

buddhists are fast asleep.

onlygayinthevillage:

...Sikhs?

ashburyrules:

Sweet Jesus, that's racist.

What happened to NVN18 anyway?

JasonStone:

Gone again.

NVN18:

Hi,

This is Chris' brother. I'm afraid he's going to have an operation next week so he wanted me to tell you he probably won't be around for a while.

DEATHOFMYLONELYSPIRIT:

NOBODY HEARS MY BROKEN WORDS

DEATH OF ANGELS, LIKE A HARP

WORLD OF SHIT AND PLAYING CARDS

CANNOT STILL MY BURNING HEART.

IF NOBODY STOPS ME I'M GOING TO JUMP OFF MY ROOF

ashburyrules:

'Chris' brother'. Yeah, right. It's probably just NVN pissing around, trying to fool us. F****ing joker.

ashburyrules:

Sweet Jesus, DEATHOFMYLONELYSPIRIT

kattykat4:

DEATHOFMYLONELYSPIRIT, i know life can seem hard but there's really a lot of great things going on, family friends. it's important if you're going through a rough time to talk to someone, make sure you don't let the little things get you down. We've all been there, I know I have. Talk to me privately if you like.

onlygayinthevillage:

emo.

ashburyrules:

Best not to pay attention to him kattykat, i know his sort before, they're just looking for people to take notice of them. He won't do anything.

kattykat4:

How do you know that? I've known people who've suffered from depression. how would you feel if he jumped off a roof and you didn't do anything?

ashburyrules:

Well, i don't know him and i don't know where he lives, so i'd never know. so that'd never come up.

kattykat4:

Christ. You really are sickening.

onlygayinthevillage:

OOH-OOOOH.

onlygayinthevillage:

bitchfight.

ashburyrules:

what happened to Petra?

onlygayinthevillage:

you scared her off lol.

onlygayinthevillage:

JOKING lol.

onlygayinthevillage:

Gone quiet.

onlygayinthevillage:

lol.

CathyB:

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