The Man of Culture
It’s hard to avoid the roots. Eventually I find a comfortable spot, if wet, and lean my back against the fir tree. It’s not half as bad as when it drizzled at ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Besides, at my age I like a performance to be a little less romantic. This set, for example, is challenging. It appears as though they’ve smashed thousands of bottles into shards and scattered them, perfectly equally, across the lawn. There is a single, tasteful street lamp at centre left stage- I remember the terms from ‘Drama at Durham’. In fact, if I narrow my eyes and shift slightly from side to side, I could bet the light catches five thousand of the glittering edges. Nigel would up me on the figures, no doubt. ‘Seven million’, he’d whisper, ‘Maybe more’, not taking his eyes off the expanse of glistening lawn. He turned his back on me yesterday evening, in the pretense of filling up his kettle. ‘What’s the performance? ‘Dawning’, is it called? Personally, I wouldn’t go to a play with a title like that’. It seems he’s terrified of the cold.
‘Leamington Park, facing Priory Terrace a kilometre in the distance. Third fir tree from the left, before the park bench.’ I’m in the correct seating. Then why are the branches obscuring the view? I increasingly find these directors to be, shall we say, of ‘diminutive stature’. I can imagine him now, a fiery dwarf of a man, clapping his hands at the finished set, his mind too tiny to admit the prospect of a six foot audience member. Actually, in the spring I was forced to telephone ‘Tate Modern Customer Enquiries’ to inform them that the leg room in their showing of ‘Pierre Untied’ was ridiculously minimal. They told me, thank you for your concern, that the seating had been arranged for purposefully claustrophobic effect…. Come to think of it, there is something peculiarly striking about the very tips of these fir branches. It’s almost as if my eyes, staring straight ahead at the lawn, have been marked by dry, black brush strokes. Yes! Of course! The director is making a self-referential comment. It is implied that his painters ran out of ink by the time their brushes could get to the very tips of the fir branches. The creative ingenuity reconciles me, partially, to the dry cleaning bill for my Burberry trousers. If only they had mentioned the possibility of damp on the programme. However, these observations make me, day by day, less attractive to Marianne.
They are, ever so slowly, brightening the lighting. Nigel would know, but I’m sure it can’t be manual, as regular as it is. They must have ordered in a machine. It has been gradually washing a blue colour over the dark warmness that suffused the scene initially. I’m aware of their intention. They’re manufacturing the semblance of an all embracing bruise. Theatre thrives, so I’ve been told, on anticipated conflict. A wind blows from somewhere across the lawn. I’m unable, somehow, to draw my collar closer to my chin. The slightest movement will release the tiny shivers I’ve been feeling, filing up in ranks along my spine. It’s too cold to think clearly. I won’t recommend this play. The lower of the fir branches, to my right, waver just above the ground. I imagine, although I’m not sure if it’s meant, that I’m in an upside down sea. The more I look at the branches, the more they appear like seaweed, swaying just below the surface of the water. I can feel their need for air. What morose characters, pointlessly asking the ground for sunlight. What a perverse, sorrowful performance.
As I watch, sweet sounds begin to adorn the air. The director has made the birdsong unnaturally sharp. It’s been pitched to resonate in different chambers of the head. I feel a blue tit, tickling just behind my left ear. As I listen, a magpie begins to scratch my upper cranium as if with one nail, unhurriedly. I wish I’d brought boiled sweets with me. I’d crunch them as loudly as I could. This music has intolerable precision. Looking around for some sort of distraction I come eye to eye with the white shell of a conker, laying by my right boot. The presumptious dwarf does not, evidently, own a copy of the ‘Collins Guide to British Trees’. I have ceased, long ago, to expect authenticity from modern art. Shining in the dim light, the conker shell seems carved out of the skeleton of a bird. Is it these noises, effecting my natural associations? No, I’m very much reminded of the ongoing display of Teradactyls in the Natural History Museum. I was there with Marianne, slowing my pace ever so slightly. ‘Look’, I had intoned, gesturing towards a delicate skeleton, ‘Eternally fixed, but so effortlessly breakable’. I left her at home, the sky outside just beginning to grow warm with light, sleeping. Sliding my finger into the conker, the object melts. It’s fragile still, but wonderfully soft inside. My finger feels at home. I close my eyes. I’m stroking her neck.
Ten minutes past Eight:
The play stares at me with a mute, accusing gaze. How long have I been dozing? A line of mist stretches across the lawn, like the mould that grows on peaches. The street light has dimmed to a faded glowing ring on the backdrop, like an accidental tea stain. I would give anything for a mug of Earl Grey. I’m too exposed for comfort. It feels as if the play is applying its powder, preparing itself for another showing. I can imagine what it will be like: more tight lipped, certainly, but with the same un-ending tension. I have no desire to see it. A sound of glass bottles being tumbled together and smashed affirms my guess that the performances are circular. It comes from across the lawn from Priory Terrace and strikes me as insultingly unprofessional. Jumping up from the ground I brush my trousers down and stride across the dew. The reviews flit through my mind. ‘Trapped in loquacious inertia, bleakly humorous’. I disagree, at times, with Nicholas de Jongh’s verdicts but Paul Taylor from ‘The Independent’ praised it as ‘An accomplished, largely persuasive revival’. I’m sure that was the phrase. Looking back, the fir tree has regained its spatial awareness. It is no longer in danger of cascading downwards into pools of ink. Everything seems to have dried, shrunk and lost significance. The blur of the traffic occupies the air. I here the smashing of glass again. Nothing can be done about the damp patch on my trousers. I stride over the road towards the sound.
The man is manoevering a green dustbin into the glinting vice of a truck.
He doesn’t turn his head, or shift his eyes.
‘Sorry. Could you tell me what’s in that dustbin?’
It clunks into the mechanism and he faces me, wiping hands on jeans.
‘Glass, I should hope’.
He starts off for the other bin on the pavement- a black one this time.
‘Although you can’t tell. People put in all kinds.’
I breath in, preparing to speak deliberately.
‘Starting a bit early, don’t you think?’
Over the shoulder, he shoots me a prize winning grimace.
‘Old biddies always complaining about the noise I make. You want to write to the boss, feel free’.
I follow his flippant gesture to the side of the truck, aware that he meant some kind of slur to me, and copy down ‘R.P.T. Cpt. 11 Cork Road, Hambleton, Surrey, England’ into my personal organiser.
‘Could you direct me to the nearest post office, please.’
‘Take the left down here, when it comes to a junction. It’s about half an hour, mate.’
I come to a village post office with a yellow door. My watch tells eight forty. It may be serving already. I push the door and it swings open, ringing an unpleasantly bird-like bell. A woman in her late forties appears from a back door.
‘Hello.’ I think my wallet has change. Let’s see.
‘Could I buy a first class stamp please, and an envelope.’
‘Certainly sir. I’ll just open up the till. You’re the first customer.’
She slides up the glass barrier.
‘First class, you say’.
The envelope is pushed through. A stamp is torn from the sheet and her fingers push it underneath the barrier. It rests in the hollow, blue face downwards.
I take it and pay the woman. Sliding my wallet into my trouser pocket with my back towards her, I lick the stamp and press it on the paper. Printed on the face of the stamp is the blue, bare ass of a baboon.
THE MAN OF CULTURE’S EARTHLY KNOWLEDGE:
The Man of Culture trains himself to spend his leisure time valuing his body parts. The corresponding values depend on how many people refer to each body part in each day. Cheeks usually come high in the charts because the Man of Culture often blushes. His knees, for example, are hardly ever mentioned.
NOTE OF CONSIDERATION TO THE VERDICT:
During the trial, Ammut swallows the Man of Culture’s knees.
THE CONTENT’S OF THE SCALES:
The Man of Culture’s blushing cheeks.