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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:

Hi! i use to be nervous dating until i tried new online dating

link/?sduhfjh13./

very fast and now i marry

check it out!!!

link/?sduhfjh13./


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.