All entries for April 2009

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.


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  • This is really good Jon. Nice understatement that subtly builds to an excellent final sentence. by on this entry
  • I like this a lot, you have a fast flowing style, I tend to get bogged down in describing everything… by Costa Del on this entry
  • this is excellent. by on this entry
  • Good work! I dont think I quite understand Sally, but I guess thats partly because it's all through … by on this entry
  • That Twain is such a tyrant… by Claire Trevien on this entry

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