March 20, 2009

Castle Rising

I could tell you were frightened;
driving home in the summertime
to spread two layers of thick
matt paint across the new wood
where those kids had woken you
at one in the morning
kicking their hole in your fence.

March 05, 2009

Baby & Pop

Baby & Pop

1

HAM:

To be or not to be,

That is the question.

Whether tis better to endure

The slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune

Or bring it to an end, and by ending,

End them. To sink.

But where we go- ay, there’s the rub,

That undiscovered bourn

From whence no traveller returns.

           That’s not the right wording, says Baby, from somewhere beyond the Inner Circle.  You've forgotten it.  Be realistic.

Not helpful, Baby. I continue to trace the words over the cold stone.

           I wouldn’t worry anyway, I add suddenly. Nobody ever remembered how it ended.

           That’s not the right attitude, says Baby.

           Baby is as human as any other baby ever was. When I find Baby’s little fragile body in the darkness, I press moss into his open mouth, and when I twist one of his legs so that the joint itself becomes a gaping plastic arse, dirt spills out over my hand. Baby, I am your father.

           Baby came with me from the open places. There was sky, Baby.

           I remember the sky, says Baby, and his plastic eyelids flicker shut beneath my fingers as he remembers. Pop, there were planes. I flew through the sky once by the seat of a little girl. She may have been my mother. I do know she tried to feed me before my mouth even had an opening. Bread and airline salad, and once her snakelike, curious tongue.

           Do you remember the plane that crashed, Baby?

           I remember you telling me about it, Pop. Tell me again.

A Boeing, a big one, and it plummeted into the water, artless but beautiful, and I thought about the school swimming gala. Gracie Johnson. She was from Singapore, and her body was unformed and sleek and she was wearing a white cap and nose-plugs. Like a fusion of plastic and person when she dived. Shrill whistles blowing. Shrieks and splashes.

           We were watching, me and the others, from the hillside, and it was tragic because it was so magnificent and so helpless. The runways were ruined and it couldn’t land. So it just kept circling and circling. Like a bullfight. And then it plunged.

          

           That’s a great story, Pop.

           Do you need to shit, Baby? I ask. I need to shit.

           I take Baby in one hand and head in the direction of the Smell. When the stone beneath us begins to shift downwards, and the Smell intensifies, we’re heading towards the Shitter’s Corner.

           I squat, feet in their familiar positions. The crevice of Shitter’s Corner, a stained, jagged eye in the stone, has no end. Once, foolishly, I dangled an arm through there, then a shoulder, then found myself trickling downwards. Ever since I’ve only shat into the abyss. It’s an act of retribution.

           When I’m done Baby goes. I’m always terrified I’ll drop him.

***

           Baby, being the adventurous type, is always difficult to find. Sometimes it takes hours, and he’ll sing the old pop songs so I can grope my way towards the sound, in the upper tunnels or simply fallen into a pothole in the Great Circle.

           Feels like some kind of rush. Yeah, yeah. So good. So good.

           But even then I’m often stupid and clumsy and my hands miss him by a hair’s breadth, and I’ll wander on, crying, calling for Baby.

           He’s patient, though, and he always says that soon my eyes will become accustomed to the dark. But it won’t happen, and every time I wake I wake to nothing.

I’ve spent too much time in the light, Baby, I tell him, I’m sorry.

           The only light comes when I lift my knuckles into my eyes and grind them in. Patterns of gold, like fireworks shooting backwards, converging towards a centre.

           You’re going blind, Pop, says Baby.

           I can’t tell.

           Sometimes, when he’s feeling bored or cruel, Baby tells me we can still find the entrance; we can retrace our steps to the place we squeezed into.

           There’s nothing out there, Baby.

           And he tells me outlandish stories of entire nations floating on the ocean, men who’ve grown gills and cities with names like Atloriana and Xthos. The world outside grows seaweed, he says, and subsists on fish rather than on red meat, leading to the end of heart disease.

           I told you, Baby. There’s nothing out there.

          

***

           I trace this on stone with one fingernail, illegibly, shifting backwards along the floor as I write. Sometimes the nail snaps and I have to continue, with difficulty, with my middle finger. The words written with my middle finger don’t seem canon.

           The water drips in odd places. If I incriminate myself, or say something blasphemous, I can splash the stream over the stone where I’ve been tracing and eradicate it.

          

           When I’m feeling a little childish, I imagine I’ve discovered cave paintings on the surface of the stone; those ancestors, thousands of years ago, stumbling out into the light, chose to etch mighty warriors, hurling thin-line-spears at vague, unexplored monsters. And I add to the hunt soldiers with rifles, a chariot, spacemen wielding lightsabers. Or write,

           Pop was here

           a thousand times over, in the dark.

           Sometimes I cry. I don’t deny it. Memories of Before The Cave are difficult to manage. If you let one in, a vague association of the texture of rubbly stone or the wet taste of moss in the mouth, they all come tumbling after. Headlights.  Sweet legs tucked between your legs. Father, chasing me through the garden with a spoonful of yoghurt. Drawing my hand along mossy rock as I passed on a long summer’s hike; a different sensation, a very different sensation to the delight of finding a new strain of soft chewy moss in your grasp. It’s too much.

           Baby, who’s truly selfish, only ever cries when he wants something.

           I know I’ve told you this before. But I’ll tell you it again. When I’m falling asleep I rehearse it in my head and my finger traces the words in the air.

           The Great Circle is the place of safety. At the very centre of the Great Circle lies the Inner Circle, where the stone is smoothest from my body’s pressure. I can only sleep in the Inner Circle. Explorations into the tunnels can only go so far because I need to know I can get back in time if I become exhausted. Nothing could be worse than to fall asleep in the outer tunnels, under threat.

           I’ve found that patch of smoothness. The heart of the Great Circle. Baby has fallen silent. I should sleep. My limbs burn.

           I think I have it right this time.

HAM:

To be or not to be,

That is the question.

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune

Or to take up arms, bring about an end

And in ending them, end the struggle.

But what dreams may come;

Ay, there’s the rub, Death’s undiscovered country

From where no traveller has yet returned.

2

           Wake to darkness. Already hungry, parched, needing to piss, needing to shit. Needing Baby.

           Baby, I hiss. Baby!

           I stretch out my arm and he’s lying there. Close to the boundary of the Inner Circle, where, he knows, he’s not allowed.

           Get needy for me, did you, Baby? I ask him.

           I’m thirsty, he says. I’m hungry.

           I’ll come back and sort you out, I tell him. There’s some moss down by the Pool. I felt it, I didn’t take it all.

           I’m thirsty, he says. I’m hungry.

           I can’t always spend time with Baby.

           There’s something wonderful in being alone. An empty place, and your continued endurance there.

           I slip down the Tunnel Beyond the Shitter’s Corner. You follow it down for one-hundred-and-twelve steps, occasionally more or less, until you come to an impurity in the stone. A vein. You turn away from that vein and the tunnel tightens. I once stood up, struck my head, and lost consciousness here. At one point you have to watch for the sharp rock that can catch dangling genitals and careless limbs. Then the steep fall, the two footfalls, and you can slide down to the Pool.

           Life prepared me for this, Baby. As we all grew further and further apart, we learnt to love to be alone. Perhaps we knew, secretly, what was going to happen to us.

           There are cracks in the stone that moss flourishes in. Moist, springy clumps that taste of the earth. The last time I was down here my hands latched on to the rubber curves of fungus. I won’t expect that joy a second time.

           When I’ve eaten my fill, I slip down the polished surface. Just beyond the familiar egg-like rock my toes dash the waterline. I don’t like to enter the Pool. There are too many memories, and besides, things float upon the surface and touch me. But I feel for the waterline, every time I come down here, just to make sure it’s in the same place as before.

           And I bring a handful of moss back for Baby.

***

           Tell me again, Pop, says Baby. The story of the end.

           So I trace it.

           We began to predict ends, multiple ends. There’d always at least one apocalypse on our minds but now there was a real market for them. We watched them and we began to feel affection for them-

           Not that bit, says Baby. I hate that bit. Tell me about the gangs.

           Well, they were enterprising. When the flood rose, the emergency services were all tied up. So the gangs began to loot, and got bored of that soon enough. What they realised was that most of what they really wanted lay with the celebrity singers, the celebrity actors. All of these people’s homes and whereabouts were laid out in stunning detail in the press. So the gangs found these celebrities, stole from, raped, and murdered them. It became a badge of respect to have killed a particularly attractive celebrity, of either gender. The murderers would wear clothes imprinted with their victims’ images, and some of them became minor celebrities themselves.

           So were they killed too?

           I press moss firmly into the gash that is his mouth. My penis, pressing against the cold stone, is beginning to flicker outwards and upwards.

           They didn’t have time. That’s when it really began to fall apart.

           I like that story, Pop.

           Baby, do you think you’ll be able to trace the words some day? Like your old man?

           I doubt it, says Baby. My fingers were never separated.

           Bad attitude, Baby, I say aloud. We both need to learn to adapt.

          

***

           Baby helps me remember it.

           My Lord is my shepherd

           With him I want nothing

           He lays me down in my green pastures

           His rod and his crook protect me

           I shall worship him on the drums and cymbals

           I shall worship him on the loud cymbals

           In the house of the Lord

           I shall want for nothing

           And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

           For ever.

           Baby, did you know a man called Kafka who lived a long time ago said, ‘There is infinite hope- but not for us?’ And H.G. Wells had one woman ask, “Is there hope?” and her son reply, “Not for us.”

           I sincerely believe there is hope for you, Baby.

           I want to try and think of some rules you can live by when I’ve gone away. You need to live your life well, and to the fullest. Something to bequeath to you.

           Number one. Don’t throw your childhood away.

           Number two. Remember me. I know it’s selfish, but it’ll keep you full of hope. A shrine doesn’t need to be anything more than the Inner Circle. Trace it every day and keep it fresh and I’ll protect you, from wherever I am.

           Number three. Don’t sleep outside the Great Circle. In case of things.

           Number four.

***

           I know I’ve told you this before. But I’ll tell you it again.

           The Great Circle is the place of safety. At the very centre of the Great Circle lies the Inner Circle, where the stone is smoothest from my body’s pressure. I can only sleep in the Inner Circle. Explorations into the tunnels can only go so far because I need to know I can get back in time if I become exhausted. Nothing could be worse than to fall asleep in the outer tunnels, under threat.

           That’s why number three is so important. There are more to come.

***

          

           I draw UFOs, shooting thin-line-lasers at the clouds. Did I ever tell you about my UFO experience, Baby? We were smiling, buttoning and zipping up, her standing. I was fumbling into my jeans while still lying down in the dirt. Silly, I know, but I didn’t want her to see I’d become re-aroused. There was starlight. A flash of blue- Look, she says, pointing- develops a corona of orange, and winks three times before vanishing.

           Do you know what that was? she says. That was a UFO.

           I kept bloody quiet. I’d thought it was an angel, and I’d lost my enthusiasm as a direct result.

I’ve found that patch of smoothness. The heart of the Great Circle. Baby, who thinks my UFO experience is for some reason amusing, has begun to hum the song about the year three-thousand. Neither of us can remember the words.

           I should sleep. My eyes burn.


February 26, 2009

Call It The Dead

A pork-pie sort of place, says the writer, flicking the card menu between his fingers. See anything you like, baby?

Mmm-mm, the writer’s wife replies, fiddling with one of the buttons on her sleeve.

Actually, I’m looking forward to this, says the writer, leaning forward over the table. A ritualised act of intellectual brutality. Jousting for the respect of the ladyfolk.

He fumbles in his pocket for a red-chequered handkerchief and, flourishing it, pushes it across the table to his wife.

Drape it on my lance, he says, grinning.

His wife, after a moment’s thought, pushes it gently back across the table.

The other writer and the other writer’s wife exchange a little smile.

Ready-set-go, the writer says, quickly. You’re cold and you only seem to get colder. You don’t ever analyse your coldness.

If someone’s conscious enough of their condition, the other writer says, to be able to say that they’re dying on the inside, then they’re not really dying on the inside.

Fish ‘n’ chips, please.

Me too, thank you.

Bangers ‘n’ mash.

Fish ‘n’ chips for me too, please.

They keep their silence as the waiter gathers up their menus. The other writer’s wife’s hand slips beneath the tablecloth and into her husband’s.

You write too little, says the writer, sitting back. And when you do it’s all in code. I think, the richness of the language being what it is and the poverty of the rainforests being what it is, it’s our duty to fill up the page as much as you can.

You’ve got it the wrong way round, says the other writer. The rainforests grow back quicker than words, and we’re using words up more rapidly. What we need now is space.

‘Nonsense’, said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox, quotes the writer, beaming.

I’m serious. Imagine a book filled with blank pages- pages which can never be filled. That’s my talisman; just an empty book to hold your thoughts and your fears.

A man who says too much and a man who says too little go into a restaurant, says the writer’s wife.

And what happens then? asks the writer, smiling appreciatively.

I hadn’t thought of a punchline. Christ, Henry, it was only a joke.

Four glasses arrive. The writer’s is a little smoggy and he asks for a replacement.

Probably spit it clean now, he quips. Serves me right for making a fuss. He tastes the wine and finds it agreeable.

Pour me a bigger glass, says the writer’s wife, if you’re going to keep talking.

I’m still waiting for our friend’s riposte. I was saying, Jack, that you write in code.

I do. So do you. So did the menu.

But it’s an aversion. Everything you do seems to be an aversion. Talk about ‘Life is Elsewhere’; I could honestly believe, right now, that you are elsewhere and I’m talking to a mask.

The other writer’s wife, without him noticing, has let go of his hand.

I’m just preparing, he says, for the day that’s coming.

What day?

The day when nothing that’s said openly can be trusted. No longer writing in code because the message is dangerous, but writing in code because all plain speaking has been corrupted and it’s become white noise to us. And on that day, generations of repression and irony and the English art of not-saying will stand us in good stead.

You’re justifying your personal psychological defect by creating a philosophy based on it, says the writer. Interesting.

Is he always this infuriating? the other writer asks the writer’s wife.

None of that, the writer calls out. You can’t score points by appealing to my wife. Definite yellow card and I feel happy to return the blow. Jessie, my dear, tell him he should see someone about this.

The other writer’s wife laughs openly, her golden earrings chiming.

I wouldn’t like to, she says.

Afraid to let her speak? the writer says, grinning obscenely. I wonder what she might say about you given room to do so.

Henry, honestly! says the writer’s wife.

Seriously, he continues. You should seek out therapy.

This isn’t therapy enough? says the other writer, smiling.

Seriously.

Seriously? Writing’s therapy- at least, that’s the way I see it. Some men were born to scream or to punch one another in the face. I go home and I fiddle with sentences.

Again an aversion. How you worm yourself out of everything!

Will the food never come? the writer’s wife says.

We only just ordered. She sniffs.

Hm. Seems like it’s been longer, though I can’t think why. She adds confidingly to the other writer’s wife, They just talk, don’t they? Neither of them are prepared to speak honestly. It’s all games. Was he like that when you were going out?

The other writer’s wife tells her a funny story about their holiday in the Maldives two years ago and a silent, covert battle with a family who kept leaving washed-up starfish out on the patio to dry out and die.

You don’t care enough about your characters, muses the writer, because you don’t care enough about real people. It’s humiliating, isn’t it, Jack, to be pinned down like this?

The other writer pours himself another glass of wine. A nearby table erupts in laughter and he struggles to make his voice heard above the cacophony.

Stories never say what they mean, he says, and neither do people, and we learn that from birth. What good would it do me to learn to lie a little less and to go around patting myself on the back telling myself that I’m now being clear and open? Every word is pregnant with meaning and at least if I’m writing that code I can avoid as many misunderstandings as possible.

Romantic misunderstandings, says the writer, and laughs. Every shy man’s been there...dear Jack, I want to help you.

That’s very kind of you.

No need to get snappy; such defensiveness!

I’m just wondering, says the other writer, smiling, when the joust turned into your beating me, prone on the floor, to a bloody pulp.

Well, if you want to have a go at me, go ahead- but, see, you won’t. You don’t say enough.

You’ve already said far too much.

Ach, you can’t take criticism. What was it someone said about you...’alluding yourself into nothingness.’

She was afraid my work might go that way. It wasn’t a present criticism.

Quite a while ago now, wasn’t it? Much changed since then? Deteriorated any?

Shut it.

Write your memoirs; confess. Get it all out of your system. Understand what it means to speak and not just to hint at.

The fact that I can’t confess interests me more than confession.

Three fish arrive. The writer sits back, grinning, waiting in cheerful anticipation for the conversation to begin again.

Please, says the other writer’s wife, start without me.

You’re dead, says the writer, like a greyhound flying from the hustings, and the dead can’t write.

They can scrawl messages on the coffin lid. There are worse ways to define yourself.

But no-one can read them! The metaphor holds up. What were you having, Jessie?

Bangers ‘n’ mash.

I might ask- no, they’re bringing it now. I’m almost suffering from diner’s remorse; it looks pretty tasty.

My cousin appeared on a TV show, says the other writer, standing up, and was encouraged to strip naked to gain confidence. Jessie’s parents used to tell her God would get her if she didn’t do her homework. Do you understand me now?

And you could break me down, fiction upon fiction, to my bare ribcage and I might tell you something deep and distressing but I’m damned if that wouldn’t be an aversion too. Do you understand me now?

Listen to these words, these brash, shrieking words and there’s no more fucking meaning in them than there ought to be. The only hope I have in words is that they might, once in a fucking while, pinpoint the places where words can’t reach. Do you understand me now?

Not eating, Jack? asks the writer, glancing up, smiling.

She finds him in the car park afterwards, shaking like a childrens’ rattle.

He says,

I can’t.


February 21, 2009

The Young

Amy pulls the latch to. The air between the white high turbines is broke with white jet trails. A calm day. The plastic propellers are barely spinning and the thrum is hardly more than a swarm of insects over the hillside.

Freedom, she says aloud, and finds pleasure in the word.

***

She wakes to an empty mattress.

George, she calls, George, put the kettle on! I’m going to be bloody late.

Ten minutes to shower. Another ten minutes to eat. A limp, used condom is eyeing her from the dresser ledge. She flicks it into the wastepaper basket with one raised hand.

She rises, showers, and totters down to the kitchen, flicking the kettle on and cursing George.

Seven minutes later, the bacon spitting beneath the grill, she jogs back upstairs and reads the white note he’s left her on the white pillow.

WOULD HAVE SAID GOODBYE. YOU WEREN’T UP.

The bathroom window is open and George is lying below in a smatter of red tiles.

***

Amy crouches and tries to peer along the soil’s horizon. Nothing is showing.

She walks back around the side of the cottage. She never comes here when she can help it; on the north hillside the rain and wind heave down upon the stone and in the distance she can never ignore the eyesore- the burnt-out, rust-coated barn.

She jogs down there one morning over the fields, out of a kind of curiosity, stepping under the great iron struts into a ruined space. Beer cans and carrier bags litter the shaded thorn-bushed floor and she begins to shiver. Without quite knowing why, she steps briskly back into the sunshine and runs and runs until the barn is no longer in sight.

That night the thrum is louder, almost, she thinks, gazing up at the darkness of the bedroom, deafening.

She dreams of the thorns in the burnt-out barn.

***

In the sudden hush of the dormitory, Alison Leigh says,

Imagine the Lord chose you to come down upon like that. Imagine one of us was chosen. Say one of us has to carry His child.

Stop it, Alison, says Maggie. Mrs Baxter said to go to bed-

Imagine He chooses you, says Alison, extending one painted finger from the warmth of the duvet to pick her out. And He swoops down from the sky and the window shatters and He comes for you.

Amy does not speak up. Something flashes beyond the open curtains.

What was that? Jenny asks.

Just a plane, says Maggie.

It’s the Lord, says Alison Leigh. Amy turns her head but she cannot make out Alison’s expression. He’s chosen one of us. His will be done.

Ali-son, Maggie says.

Amy closes her eyes. Beneath the inadequate duvet her legs are trembling. The possibility of this thing, she thinks, this divine everything, and I’m chosen- this is awful, this is really awful, and if He’s here I don’t want to have to look at Him-

Quiet, says Alison Leigh, and then, at periodic intervals until Amy finally falls asleep,

He’s coming.

***

For a single second, passing the only mirror in the entire cottage, Amy thinks she catches a glimpse of something horrid in her own face.

Monstrous, she thinks, and her hands begin to shake as she fills the watering-can. Leather skin and eyes that screamed. Yellow teeth- it was monstrous.

She avoids looking in the direction of the mirror for the rest of the morning.

That afternoon she drives into town to pick up some fertiliser bags and a few cans of chopped tomatoes. Walking, wild-haired and dirt-stained, among the tourists and the OAPS, she has the pleasant sensation of being a savage walking among civilised people.

***

She wakes the next day to find that the water butt has split. Working to the thrum of the turbines, she cleans up the waterlogged vegetable patch and spends half an hour hunting for a hammer and nails in the old farmer’s toolshed. She slices her thumb open, bloody, nailing up the butt, and mutters to herself,

“Freedom,” and laughs, and laughs.

***

She only checks her mobile once. Her parents, George’s parents, her brother, her parents, have left her messages; understanding, but hopeful that she might come back to London to stay with family for a few months, as a kind of prelude to returning to an independent working life.

Harold never figured out how to use one of those things, says Miss Angie, puffing out her little chin in dislike.

Amy continues to fiddle with the tea-mugs. Miss Angie comes every day now, at four, for tea, her white head doddering like a mess of briar-caught sheep’s wool up the cottage hillpath.

What was your fiancé called again? asks Miss Angie.

George, Angie repeats, fumbling at the biscuit tin. She gets it open.

I’m so sorry, says Miss Angie. Amy arranges two custard creams and a chocolate digestive on a plate and places it before her guest.

The young grow up so fast, Miss Angie says, watching her. Were you hoping to have children?

We’d been planning for it, Amy repeats. A grey hand strokes her hand.

Our little boy was stillborn, Miss Angie says. Try and find comfort in the fact that sometimes these things just aren’t meant to happen.

Amy sits at the table.

It must be hard for you, Miss Angie continues, and her untended nails scratch at the surface of the chocolate digestive. Up here all by yourself.

No, not at all. The city nearly killed me. It killed George. He couldn’t get a job and his family were making fun of him and it was all far, far too much. I’m just trying to be rid of all that.

Can you hear the wind turbines from your house? Amy asks.

Miss Angie sips her tea and makes a face.

Silly things, aren’t they? she says. They only do what they’re supposed to do every so often. And even then it’s not for very long.

***

The potato shoots emerge; limp, wasted things, and when she trowels them up the tubers come out as albino malformities that crumble away in her hands. Amy secretly curses the broken water butt and the tide of ancient, bracken water that must have contaminated the soil.

She strides round to the north side of the cottage. The wind turbines begin to spin backwards.

The shock of the change of motion, the ranks of great haloed ghosts saluting her, in a ripple, makes her flinch.

Fresh rain has filled the water butt; a pond skater flickers on the surface. She refuses to turn her head to acknowledge the rusted-out barn in the fields below.

***

Lock your door at night, says Miss Angie, there’s a man in the fields.

A man? asks Amy. She fingers her new packet of Hobnobs and splits them open onto the little plate.

I saw him lurking out by the windmills.

Windmills- Amy begins, and then understands the old woman’s mistake.

An engineer, she suggests.  For the turbines.

Fog drifts from the iron kettle spout and over the stove.

Up to no good, says Miss Angie. Harold knew how to deal with them. He comes in a white van and he stands in the fields as if he’s looking for something. Lock your door at night.

The next day, constructing a wire mesh for the chicken coop, Amy keeps an eye out, but the fields below remain lifeless. The turbines hum like bees.

***

Unblocking the sink, she finds a neatly folded slip of white paper tucked behind the piping.

SKIN TO SAND

She falls asleep wondering idly considering which household implements a lonelier woman might use to satisfy herself.  She wakes with the vague memory of having seen a curly-haired girl standing at the foot of her bed.

***

This was Harold’s favourite, says Miss Angie. She draws the coin from its casing and slides it across the table. An old silver shilling. I want you to have it.

I really couldn’t, Amy says, without touching the coin, unwilling to let Harold into her cottage.

Harold loved coins, says Miss Angie. You can buy ‘em and sell ‘em, just let me line ‘em up and arrange ‘em into rows and I’ll be happy. That’s what he used to say.

When Miss Angie leaves she leaves the coin behind her, and the next day Amy finds the second note floating merrily in the water butt, the corners tucked upwards like an origami sail.

BONE TO BREAK

***

She passes in front of the mirror that afternoon and for a second she believes that her arm is splitting from its foundations, like a hunk of rotten flesh that is no longer hers to control.

***

You know, Alison Leigh says, when the Lord chooses you, you can’t even move. You have to stay quite still, trapped inside, and your body does whatever He wants it to.

You can still think but He controls what thoughts you’re allowed to have. That’s how Mary didn’t remember getting pregnant. So if He wants to, you’ll think less and less and eventually there’ll be nothing there at all and you won’t belong to you any more.

***

The young grow up so fast, Miss Angie says. I mean, you must be, what, dear, if you don’t mind me asking? Forty?

Thirty-eight, says Amy. I’m thirty-eight.

The third piece of paper has been left in full view on the dresser, trembling to the thrum of the turbines.

SHAME TO SPREAD

In the middle of the night she wets herself, and has to dash the sheets from the bed and into the kitchen in waking revulsion. The damp is deep, and rather than spoil another sheet she sleeps on the far side of the bare mattress like someone lying beside a lover.

***

The fourth note has been placed on the toilet seat.

She unearths the fifth from the vegetable patch, caught in the prongs of her trowel.

The sixth note is waiting for her on the passenger seat of her car.

Miss Angie grins at her, and beyond that pudgy, jowled face stands pickled skin; unseeing eyes. As she yawns black teeth rippled outward.

Amy gets up and goes to the toilet without explaining herself.

***

The young grow up so fast, says Miss Angie, smacking her lips, then,

What was your fiancé’s name again?

George, Amy repeats, you old witch, his name was George, George, George, and she swings the iron kettle against the old woman’s head, and screams at her.

You old witch, just die, you old witch, just die-

She lifts Miss Angie, as light as a newborn child, and carries her through the open front door and out onto the hillside.

She steps through the vegetable patch, over the rotten potatoes and over the bare soil where she’s planted leeks and carrots and cabbages.

The turbines and Miss Angie are groaning.

Amy drops Miss Angie into the still water butt and presses her palm against that woollen hair as it thrashes in the water.

***

She walks back to the south-facing hillside and sits on the grass. The fields are unspoilt and the wind turbines stop.


February 13, 2009

Don't Look Now, Donnie Darko, and unconscious symbolism

Symbolism may have the potential to be ultimately more affecting onscreen than in written literature, because visualised it draws closer to the real unconscious. If I write “Emma Bovary walked past a shelf stacked with paint, arsenic, and toothbrushes”, you can be damn sure you know what I’m doing. But if we watch such a detail, even though the filmmaker assuredly knows what he or she is doing, there’s always the element of doubt. Did I see that right? Am I interpreting that correctly?

Don’t Look Now is, as far as I know, alone among films as one which both uses this doubt and possibility of an unconscious thread, and toys with Jungian association.  John Baxter does not really believe that he is chasing his red mac-wearing, drowned daughter through the streets of Venice; he’s chasing the symbol of the mac, and everything it represents to him. He believes, quite instinctively, that he can save his daughter through her image- and one of the many terrifying aspects about the film’s climax is the realisation that most of us would react in the same way.

He did have ample warning; symbols are constantly lifted from the unconscious waters recalling the dead Christine. A murdered girl, pale and in virginal underwear, is lifted from the canal. A naked doll is lying on the dockside; when John lifts it, water streams from its pores and its eyes blink in imitation of life. What John fails to realise, because of, not in spite of, an unconscious belief in the congruity of these symbols, is that none of these images are echoes or reflections of Christine; they are mockeries of her, and pre-echoes of the final, monstrous mockery of the ‘child’ symbol.

The brilliance of the ending lies in the intense primality behind these symbols. (To underlie, also, why Don’t Look Now only suffers from being described as a ‘horror film’: I once asked someone what she thought of the ending; she replied, ‘Well, I knew it was going to be a scary face, so...’). We expect to see a child’s face. Instead...

Tears turn out to have been mocking laughter, and at the centre of his labyrinth John does not transubstantiate; instead, he meets a monster. When the villain shakes her head, we witness perhaps the most horrific moment in film history, because she is not simply, mutely, saying ‘No’ to John, but also to us.

It’s fascinating that audiences of Don’t Look Now have often ended up taking a Freudian reading of the film, suggesting (with the shaky logic that the spirit of Christine is not crying out to warn ‘John’, as she clearly is, but accusing him from beyond the grave) that John had abused his daughter before her death, and that the villain is a physical manifestation of Christine’s revenge. Never mind the fact that Christine, through the medium, screams, “Let him not go!” as John is about to set off on his final, fateful journey. This interpretation is almost a primal need for justice on two counts. Firstly, in a narrative sense, it makes the cruellest ending of almost any film seem fair and satisfying. Secondly, it turns the unfair universe of the film into the universe of John’s own unconscious association: Christine and the red mac figure were connected! There was a greater power at work here! All untrue, unfortunately, and while Christian metaphors abound (Christine, most obviously, the repair of an old church, the CoE psychic) they are all proven to be just another struggling force in the labyrinth. Christine is able to warn her father of danger but unable to prevent the ascendance of the god of this universe, whose name is Cruelty.

It must have been bizarre for the first audiences who watched Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man back to back as a double-bill. Both involve a man moving towards his own fatal, ironic destiny, but we’re always a little removed from Sergeant Neil Howie, a little amused by the pranks the pagan islanders play on him; and the burning wicker man is just the last, climactic prank in a series. But here the trickster is human; in Don’t Look Now, we see the trickster as Fate itself, not anthropomorphised in a cheap Loki-ish kind of way, but faceless, horrifying, and unstoppable.

Compare this to Donnie Darko, a film which clearly follows in Don’t Look Now’s footsteps. In the later film, however, the pattern is reversed into a more conventional effort. The symbols leading Donnie into his own labyrinth are not devils clad in angels’ raiments, but saintly future-beings disguised (for dubious reasons) as monsters. Like G.K. Chesterton’s Sunday, who, seen from behind is an animal, and from in front, a god, Frank the demonic rabbit is just a human being in a Hallowe’en costume, and in dying, Donnie seems to reach the divine. This is a film that believes in a Jungian centre.

In both cases, a shock climax is broken by shots of minor characters waking in horror from bad dreams. (I suspect Richard Kelly’s is a homage to Roeg’s). In the Roegian universe, a bishop wakes in terror, having had a glimpse of the malevolent superstructure John has seen full-face, and glances, as if for comfort’s sake, to a small red candle glowing by his bedside. In the Kellyian universe, the characters are horrified by echoes of their behaviour in the forgotten time strand. “When the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the Tangent Universe, they are often haunted by the experience in their dreams. Many of them will not remember. Those who do remember the Journey are often overcome with profound remorse for the regretful actions buried within their Dreams”, as the Director’s Cut puts it. In other words, Donnie’s journey into the heart of the labyrinth has not simply saved him, but also the world around him.

Donnie Darko features, explicitly, the deus ex machina; Don’t Look Now a devil from the firmament. Both break down layers of visual symbolism until all that remains is the final great image of cinema: the eye- or, in the case of poor Frank, the eye socket. The play is on a question of visual symbolism and a terrifying existential doubt- what if we do witness these signs but we cannot interpret them correctly?

(Interestingly, both films, each totally inappropriate for the medium, have been made into plays. Donnie Darko is odd mainly for its reliance on CGI and cinematic setpieces- tracking shot, anyone?- and Don’t Look Now for its understanding of the unique relationship between the camera and the crowded space of Venice, a world in which nothing can be seen but a narrow box of space.)


January 30, 2009

We all need to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

http://www.chroniclebooks.com/index/main,book-info/store ,books/products_id,7847/title,Pride-and-Prejudice-and-Zo mbies

The Guardian article on the subject seems to have got the idea that this is somehow a bad thing, close to sacrilegous.  Personally, I think it's brilliant.  This concept isn't some sort of attempt at "fusion cuisine"; it's a parody of Jane Austen and her tamest world of all possible tame worlds being thrown into the fantastic absurdity that is the zombie apocalypse.  It IS funny that the repressed romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy be mixed with something like this.

"How low can you go?" cries Alison Flood.  Actually, it's about time someone poked a bit of fun at the religiously revered Austen.  Mark Twain (http://www.twainquotes.com/Austen_Jane.html) must be roaring with laughter in his grave.


Latin American sci–fi part 1?

               dogman             

1

It takes three weeks, at most, for the body to putrefy. Then my nails will drop out, my organs will swell and burst and my face will bloat until it’s completely unrecognisable.

           Jesus.

           Anita draws the balcony doors apart. The room seems to cool.

           ‘You can’t stay here,’ she says after a few moments. I continue to lie there, quite still, half-covered in the duvet.

           ‘Hey, dogman, didn’t you hear me? You can’t stay here. I don’t want any more trouble.’

           ‘Why did you bring me back?’ I ask.

           ‘Not grateful?’

           ‘Curious.’

           She leans back, enjoying the wind’s caress on her long black hair.

           ‘You were never bad company, dogman,’ she says. ‘Besides...the way they did it, in the back of the head, no sporting chance...you deserved a sporting chance.’

           Anyone can bring you back from death, if they have enough ready cash and don’t mind a visit down to the knock-shops in the lower side of Santa Colcha. I once heard of an old dogman who kept a leg alive for fourteen years after its owner died. No heart, no respiratory system. Just a leg that went around the store, sweeping up with its heel, and occasionally walloping drunken customers who wanted to speak to the Devil. Until one day he found it in a corner, kicking at the wall, refusing to stop.

           I stand, stretch, and observe myself in the mirror. Pale. A thin line of red running from my throat down to my naked stomach.

           ‘Did I have a name?’ I ask Anita. ‘Something you called me?’

           ‘Don’t you remember?’

           ‘I’m not sure.’

           ‘You were just another dogman,’ she says, shrugging. The skyscrapers gleam in the dawn light behind her. For a few more minutes the harbour will be lit in deceptive gold. My feet draw him out onto the balcony; the breath of the city is waiting.

           Anita joins me there.

           ‘Enjoy it while it lasts,’ she says. ‘The knocking-man said you’d start to go off in four or five days. It’s only downhill from there.’

           ‘And you can’t tell me anything else about this?’

           She flinches in the wind.

           ‘The child said it was a tall man. Not a dogman- he was pretty sure about that. He didn’t change even to run away. A, you know, a military type.’

           ‘Do you know where the child is?’

           ‘Hell, I don’t know. It was just-’

           ‘-Just another dogchild. Yeah, yeah, I get it.’

           We lean on the iron rail and watch the city wake. Santa Colcha embraces the sunrise and robes it in smog. I might never have seen another dawn, I think, as the air whistles through the hole in my head.

***

           I’m wrapped in an overcoat stained with my own blood, shivering in the morning sun. It’ll get hot soon. Human kids are running back and forth on the beach, screaming and chattering, throwing a red ball from hand to hand.

           Men in white T-shirts, worn tight to show their muscle, stand at the very edge of the boulevard to stop any strays from touching their feet on the scorching sand. A brown dog limps across the waterline towards the children and one of the men jogs towards it and swings a leg out. The dog yelps, skids back to the public sand, and changes. The naked dogman sniffs at an imaginary bruise and scurries back through the sunbathers and out of sight.

           ‘Go back to the barrios!’ the security officer shouts.

           Someone collides with me. A young man in sunglasses and a leather jacket. He snaps,

           ‘Hey, man, watch where you’re going-’

           My eyes must be bloodshot. He stares at me for a moment, and then walks slowly on. I can feel him watching me from all the way back down the boulevard.

           Nobody speaks of these things in this part of the city. There was a scandal a couple of years ago when two rich girls wandered into the barrios to get wasted on deliriant tea and ran into an Orb in one of the alleys. Sometimes children die in the slums, alone and crying out for love, and when they do, what’s left of them can get hot- agonising to the touch. If you’re alone in the barrios and you hear,

           ‘I’m so lonely...love, I’m so lonely!’ then you’re going to have to run.

But the rich girls didn’t know any of this. Nobody wants to hear about Orbs, so the media blamed the charred bodies on a slum fire. One of their father’s, a politician, made a speech complaining that the packed barrios were a serious health hazard and should be cleared. Someone had to quietly whisper in his ear that bulldozers that go into the barrios are rarely seen again. The slums have their own way of dealing with invaders.

           I buy a plastic cup of tea and drink it by the Presidential Bathing Pools. Models splash from the three-storey diving board. The palm trees shift, almost embarrassed, as one gorgeous body after another emerges.

I have to find one dogchild in a city of three hundred thousand kids and half a million stray dogs. He’ll be scared, and he’ll be a child of the barrio, and I have three weeks at most to find him before I begin to rot. This is going to be tricky. But I do have my Other.

I only know her through the signs she leaves me when I wake. Muddy pawprints on the floor, strings of meat between my teeth. Once I opened my eyes to find a half-eaten, unplucked chicken on the mattress beside me; a token gesture of love between two creatures that share the same stomach. Anita tells me she’s good-looking, for a slum dog. She tenses behind my skin.

Can you remember how he smelt? I think.

And, unless I’m kidding myself, she replies,

Yes.


January 27, 2009

The Nuclear Holocaust and the Little Girl

I wish I could draw captions for these.  Kid's story...

The roads are wide. The lampposts shiver. A girl called Angie wakes up.

The houses and the trees are gone. The birds and the cars have vanished.

“Does anyone know where my Mum and Dad are?” Angie calls.

“Over here,” says the desert. “Over here,” says the concrete road.

Angie sits on the concrete road and imagines a country.

It’s called Anginia: there’s a giant ferris wheel above the town hall and the people are all so happy and nobody goes to work because they don’t need to.

There’s no crime in Anginia because nobody needs to commit any crimes and there’s no sickness because the hospitals are all so good.

One day Angie is walking down Angie Avenue when she sees a girl crying, and of course she picks her up and carries her home and takes good care of her.

Soon she has a whole house full of children, all from different countries and parts of Anginia and they all play together.

In the summer Anginia falls sick. No-one can figure out why. Angie sets out on an adventure to find the Only Cure, because she was chosen for this purpose at birth by a good witch.

She sets out into the forest for forty days and forty nights, and on the forty-first day, the people receive a single drop of golden liquid, carried on an oakleaf in the wind.

And they know then that Angie has found the Only Cure, and will soon be with them once more. They prepare a great feast in her honour.

The roads are wide. The lampposts shiver.


January 17, 2009

Alien story

The University, in response to complaints from some of the professors and general staff, produced an official statement which spoke of cosmic brotherhood, shared knowledge between the galaxies, and the necessity of good diplomacy in order to avoid the possibility of interstellar conflict. The professors and general staff read this statement, and muttered to one another that it was definitely a question of the money and publicity the University would accrue with such exotic students.

          The aliens said nothing; only repeated that they had come here to learn.

          The next problem was the question of precisely what the aliens should be taught. The Department of Biochemistry made some enemies by suggesting that they take on the newcomers. Had Professor McGarrick considered, yelled the Deputy Head of Engineering, exactly what these creatures might do with a basic understanding of earth biochemistry? Supposing they used it to create a poisonous vapour which spread across the world and enslaved our species? (Professor McGarrick, slumping back in his chair, was heard to mutter something rather nasty about the Deputy Head of Engineering's basic understanding of anything.)

          The deputation returned to the spaceship, a towering heap of lunacy perched on top of the student’s union, and asked if the aliens could be a little more specific.

          The aliens said that they had come here to learn, and eventually the professors were able to draw up a detailed term schedule, comprised of all the major faculities- except for some which might have been considered too dangerous, complicated or treasonous.

          Meanwhile, the student population was becoming restless. Someone was heard to mutter in the Varsity bar,

          I wouldn’t mind them, you know, if they only fucking integrated.

          One student reported, pale and shivery, that she’d wandered into their room unexpectedly and disturbed them making love, the inch-high male thrusting his curious head in and out of the stooping female’s ear. Others grumbled that the enormous female would be too tall to fit into the lecture theatres, ‘and it’s too much of a squash in those chairs as it is’. A malicious email circulated, to the effect that a great war was now raging on the aliens’ homeworld, and that the two exchange students who’d been sent there would almost certainly never be seen again.

          The aliens, meanwhile, formed a student society, called BrellaSoc, where fans of umbrella-making or anyone interested in learning more about the process of umbrella-making could congregate and make umbrellas. Nobody attended, but the aliens sat in the Chaplaincy for an hour every Tuesday anyway.  The female, her enormous arms trembling, snapped the metal rods together while the male danced back and forth across her shoulders, sewing up the waterproof skin with tiny dextrous fingers.

          It was something of a relief for everyone concerned, four minutes into the first lecture (on the importance of Brecht as a means to understanding the cane toad) when the aliens stood up, gave a loud, decisive cry, and pitched over dead.

          The lecturer made a quip about having never realised his lectures were that bad. He got a laugh.

          The bodies were burnt, of course, and the spaceship (since nobody could figure out how to work it) was quietly integrated into the design of the new student’s union as a bold and exciting work of art.


Appearance of a monster…

Weird fiction task:

Sally’s still a bit jittery, so I make her a cup of camomile and chat with her for a few minutes before stepping back out into the darkened street. No kiss at the door though. Nothing at all. Her nerves have ruined the entire evening. A lone pair of lights dip down the road and past me. I watch them go. You can never be too certain about people out at this time of night.

           My phone’s vibrating. It’s Sally.

           -I just wanted to apologise, she says, about...

           -About the cat?

           -Yes, she says. The cat, of course. I just got the jitters.

           I’m beginning to feel more sympathetic towards Sally.  It’s almost endearing, in a way.

           -I had fun, she says. Thank you for making sure I got home okay.

           I stop walking.

           -I’m going to have to call you back, I tell her, and hang up.

           Someone was watching her after all.

Yes- it moves again. Something is drifting in the darkness beyond the theatre, beneath the overdrooping elm.

           My hand tightens on my keys, the pincers jabbing into the flesh of my palm.

           -Oi! I shout. Oi! Stop!

           The corner to the alley is lit by a single street lamp. My feet are carrying me across the pavement. I crack my neck, letting the tendons strain. I hope he saw that. I’m past the theatre now. I turn the corner.

           Strange. A little boy, no more than four or five, is crouching in the alley. He keeps whimpering, eyes on the pavement,

           Didn’t mean to do it mister- he told me to do it- he told me to do it-

           For one moment the damp yellow light is all I can make out. Then...

           ...oh, Jesus Christ, those eyes...

           Something is treading high on stilt-like legs. For a second it shifts. When it shifts I can no longer see the stars.

           All I can think is: it’s been waiting for me. Grey shapeless eyes.

           I begin to back away, fast. It moves forward with me, scattering cans with those teeter-tottering legs. The lamp-glow flutters upon it for a moment. Its torso hangs wide open, as if torn by a gash across its middle, but instead of hearts and livers and organs there’s only a star-filled place. Scabbed ears toss in the wind. Those eyes.

The little boy is crying.

           Didn’t mean to do it- he told me, he told me-

           I must have tripped. The pavement lies cold beneath me. I can hear it breathe. Don’t open your eyes. Someone will come. I can hear it breathe. The little boy has stopped whimpering.

           Something is slipping across my ankle, something wet and caressing. Like a tube, or a snout. It lingers upon my leg for a moment, and then moves on. It’s drifting beneath my shirt, across my naked belly.

           It’s trying to find what makes me work, I think. It’s trying to figure out how to turn me off. The breathing seems to be getting more intense.

           Too horrible. The tube is slinking over my throat. Keep your eyes and your mouth shut. Don’t let it into your head.

           It’s found my nostrils. Jagged prongs are inching into the flesh of my nose. My phone is vibrating, useless, in the pocket of my jeans.


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