Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Ice Monster

My mother had a proper wind-up gramophone which revolved the dog-and-horn label at breakneck speed. I could hear it spinning from our garden. That year, winter seemed to last all of it. Icebound chinks of daylight between the interminable snowdarks, lasting for weeks on end, until I even lost count of the months. In what hindsight proved to be the very middle of that boundless season, the water butt in the garden was impregnable. The pre-forms of ice had solved their own irreversible jigsaw overnight. Mother was frantic. Cooking in the copper-bottomed pot was simply not on. The boiler was overheating, too. I would have to sick up last night's supper to lubricate the friction of the house's various processes. I'd rather brave the crackling elements outside and take the wood-chopper to the butt, than put up with mother's nagging me to do just that. Meanwhile, thoughts took up less space than time. A relative and I had fallen in love at the funeral - so-called cousins come together for this rare occasion: a funeral for someone or other, whom very few of those attending seemed to have known. Whoever had suddenly died was now a dead body still unsalvaged from a light aeroplane that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Hopefully a quick painless death that sensible people pray for themselves, before too late.

When Charlotte had heard that I was coming to the funeral, she could not help cringing. She'd only once seen me as a snotty-nosed kid wielding a heavy-duty catapult, with a blazing shock of hair and freshly grazed knees; but, when she saw me again across the empty grave, it was tantamount to love at second sight. I had apparently filled out into the dishiest male she'd ever laid eyes on, my finely chiselled face in a setting of sharp man-of-the-world garb, the flash of my smile lighting up the gloomy afternoon like low autumn sunlight glinting between the huddled skeletons of trees. It was a wonder what empathy could manage in my self-confidence stakes. I, too, only had eyes for Charlotte. The last time I'd seen her, she was a prim and proper little madam, in best bib and tucker, with tightly coiled ringlets and Lilian Gish mouth - and a glance that could shrivel as much as it could stiffen. Now, she stood amid the boring, strait-laced, mourning members of her family, a real stunner with the low cleavage of her black dress and the wild, wild eyes rolling to and fro between the sky and my face, like the champion marbles that used to sparkle in my hand when I'd been a short-shinned lad in the back schoolyard.

Her inbuilt sexuality was not in the least tasteless for the current formal occasion of bereavement, but a bequest to life. I realised there must be a God of sorts, a pantheistic being through whom life followed death as surely as death followed life. Momentarily, I forgot the concerns of my business life: I may even have been tempted to give away the fortune I'd made from Commodity Broking to the first destitute who crossed my path - but that financial glitch only lasted a few seconds, whilst the holiness of sexuality would remain with me forever and ever.

Gradually, as the funeral service droned on, the staring eyes of Charlotte became locked with mine like antlers. A sensitive bystander may have witnessed our ghosts - wispy, curvaceous inner forms of ourselves, both with probers and containers - glide from our carnal bodies and then, whilst wrapped in each other's limbs, settle into the grave, as if the grave were the most inviting four-poster bed possible: then pulling the demure wraith-like curtains together with a flourish. The congregation dispersed piecemeal, as the workmen started to fill the empty grave and to stabilise the headstone that everybody had signed, as if it were a greetings card or plaster cast. Best wishes for the future. Get well soon. Many happy returns of the day. Good luck in your new home. Condolences on your bereavement. Chocks away, old boy.

Charlotte and I were not seen at the wake - an unsurprising fact because everybody thought we had been tragically killed in a childhood accident in the ice. One guest - if he had been recognised, which he wasn't - would have reminded the gathering that some deaths are salvageable. Meanwhile, meanwhiles mounted. Mother continued to encourage me from behind the frosted window which had been stuck on its sashes since I could remember. She waved and gesticulated in blurred outline. I could not catch her voice, although it was evidently shouting at the top of itself, from the evidence of her head's shape. But I did hear, in a muffled staccato fashion, the sound of the record as well as its spinning: a modern version of a ditty whose title I'd forgotten - sung by a young choirboy who was now dead, but whose voice was frozen forever on a plate of black grooves, until the day someone accidentally broke it. For some reason, I considered it natural that I could hear the record but not my mother's catcalls. Earlier in my life, I met a certain Sarah. I was, as ever, trailing a personality in my wake, like an advertising plane. I was the sort who, whilst in somebody's company, seemed perfectly natural, convincing and generally a good egg, but, in hindsight, striking others as boastful and a bit of a wide boy. Empathy rampant, again, no doubt. Indeed, I knew that it became easy to think ill of me behind my back, to such an extent I was soon subject to every form of recrimination. Then, once seen again, others would be all over me, drinking in my every word, forgetting that the aftertaste that emerged from the heady wine of my conversation would later turn rancid in their mouths. In any event, Sarah fell head over heels in love with me or in love with the up front image she had of me. She particularly enjoyed the way I'd arrive in rhyming couplets:

Hiya, it's Peter Peter Poet Eater,
Come to see his little Rita.

She never understood my badinage, but it seemed to fit the mood - or created the right mood for itself.

We've gotta to go real steady,
Until our love is ripe and ready.

The verses were not even any good. Sarah thought she could have done much better. Yet the day always appeared to brighten up around me like an cosmic halo.

My off-the-peg kisses were more spontaneous than those made-to-measure tonguing affairs Sarah's previous boy friends always assumed she enjoyed. It was often a peck on the cheek, merely that, but it seemed to her worth all the kisses in the world for that one moment of halted time. Then, my hand fitted around hers like a perfect glove and, swinging this clenched fleshy parcel up and down, we fulfilled the promise of the day. But, then, we had to say goodbye until the next time. Our eyes met in parting, exchanging tear for tear and, finally, pushing up her coat collar above the ears, she'd skid her way home through the icy autumn leaves. Then, gradually, my image slipped and she felt emerge a shadow which was never otherwise evident. She made home, she knew not how, for the streets were blurred by the driving drizzle. But, once home, without even bothering to make a cup of Horlicks, she snuggled deep under the ribbed electrically-heated bedding, her consciousness easily fulfilling the duties of sleep. Her nightmares grew gross with a reality that they could not possibly have had but, nonetheless, she did live through those horrible visions. The monsters were obviously theatrical, terrifying in their fancy-dress skins, false teeth and heavily pitted make-up. It was the very theatricality that made her feel they were real, not phantasms of the night as they should have been - that, and the fact all were modelled on different versions of me. When she later told her friends that she could hear me speak in her dreams through her ears, they nodded understandingly, for they too had met me, past whom they could put nothing.

Here I am, Peter Peter Poet Eater,
Come to see his little Rita.

It didn't seem to matter that they were not our real names.

We've gotta go real steady
Until our love is ripe and reddy.

I then peeled her, easing off the skin with a long fingernail, starting with the frayed edges in her nether region, since I probably resented her implied criticism of my verses.

She woke screaming, as my jawful of teeth met within her. My tongue flickered where the fluttering of her heart should have been felt instead. And each time on waking in a cold sweat, she determined never to make the next date. She guessed she needed a boy friend, like most, who'd be nasty to her face, all mouth and trousers up front, someone whose memory would not later corrode on the back of her tongue. That was what a woman deserved, a man with no illusions nor false echoes. But it was never to be. When Sarah saw me again, she'd fall for my overt charms and walk hand in hand through the shopping malls once more, ignoring those obviously jealous looks of her gossipping friends. And, in my company, she was not scared of the shadowy creatures who often wolf-whistled under their breath from the dark shop doorways just after the ordinary late night spendthrifts had gone home - because she knew in her heart that I was one of them, the only one to come out into the open, so far. And her heart would flicker with mixed excitement. Nevertheless, today, mother's water butt was threatening. Not in any sense of movement, but merely horrific with its aura of steadfastness. As if a prehistoric monster had slept alive for countless centuries, only about to be awoken by the kiss of the chopper-blade. I lifted the butt's slatted lid, being careful not to dislodge the precarious gutter pipe feeding it. The ice was in several ridged layers, as I imagined the world to have once been millenia ago. There was only sufficient light from the brown duffle-coated sky to discover that I could not see to the butt's bottom. I was sure, however, that the curdled cloudiness moved sluggishly as if in some fortune-teller's crystal ball. But, in my mind, I was clambering the hills near an earlier home. One that pre-dated Sarah, if not Charlotte. In fact, when I looked round, in the early stages of my excursion, I could see the industrial market community nestling against its central factory complex, the terraced streets fanning out, not in the strictly geometrical grid as I had been taught in the local school, but more in a convoluted maze of back-alleys and double dead-ended culdesacs. The tall chimney rising steeply from the very centre of the Factory was spouting black-clogging smoke into the icy sky and, then, across the surrounding hills, only for it to separate out into deserter armies marching across the sunless blue sky.

I tried to shake free of both poetry and preconception. Even doggerel. I had actually forgotten my own name for a few seconds as I surveyed the imposing scenery. I was now old enough to leave home. My mother was off, at that time, in the Big Smoke acting out a second wild honey-moon, having departed by the steam railway which was the only real route out of the town. From even where I stood on the last brink, before entering the more unexplorable hill regions, I could see the train adding its own billowing smoke to the steely air. It wound between the less forbidding escarpments on an endless fishbone track of which our old wives would gossip in hushed huddles. They hinted that the trains did not turn up at Station in the distant Smoke, having lost themselves somewhere between here and there, just like these thoughts I was undergoing amid the back-doubles of my brain.

However hard I tried I could not pretend to lack pretensions. I had to sit down to recuperate. My ambition was to beat kids navy blue. I wanted to be a teacher, since I had always thought schools were too soft. I hoped the desks would shrink, with the kids still in them, tightening down upon their bones, the metal stanchions being rivetted extensions of young spines and the ink-scored desklids, with a life of their own, munching away at the kids' shorn heads as they bent in silent prayer. I had always thought there were creatures lurking within the impenetrable darkness of the school blackboard that, on Judgement Day - when all the ticks and crosses were added up - were to jump out en masse and take over the souls of the poor little darling pupils. I enjoyed scaring the likes of the girls with such thoughts.

Thus, I was leaving home, not before time, to go to Teachers' Training College, and I was walking, rather than trusting to the train. It was not long before the ancient view of the town was left several crossed brows behind and, as I crested yet another untrodden sky-line, I saw the sharp icicle-like pinnacle of a spire, poking from what was no doubt the midst of a forgotten village. Nobody had warned me that I might have to dodge around such communities, on the way to the Big Smoke. I suspected that in-breeding in such places would have a lot for which to answer. I was intrigued. I persuaded myself nearer, against my better nature. I peered over into the gully where a few tied cottages surrounded a massive cathedral-like edifice more akin to the size and nature of Notre Dame or St. Paul's than a typical country church. Seemingly as a result of my glance, thousands of blackened birds (if they were birds) scattered off its gothic towers and domes into the blue sky. I could vaguely hear the hymns of the villagers from within the mighty building, a Dies Irae fit to scare God Himself, and a blasting organ which scattered several more packs of wings to shuttle into the fast curdling air. A chorus boy's shrill cooing soon ensued, however, with notes made from audible ice. By then, empathy had unveiled that my mother had reached the Big Smoke, despite the train losing a wheel at Leighton Buzzard. However, she became lost on the Underground system somewhere between Euston and Piccadilly Circus. It can only be hoped by means of a weakening empathy that the consolation of her love for me kept her body and soul together, as she continued to scan the deviously geometrical grid of the famous Underground map for some clue as to her release from the darkness and from the even darker people with dire glowing eyes like whom she herself may soon become. Her greatest consolation, however, was the faith that I, her son, would soon make the world a brighter place. She had a miraculous vision, between Liverpool Street and Shadwell, of me being shriven by the One Great Teacher of them all, before a massive blackboard altar (which, thankfully, she did not realise was the business end of a tunnel leading to the worst form of imaginable Hell). But, if the truth were told, pointy-winged schoolkids flocked from the sky and proceeded to tear most of my body into tiny little bits. Tossing these around between them like bullies' prize-takings, they effectively taunted and teased me with my own body-parts. Then they scuttled off, yipping and crowing, into the tunnel towards the Dark Playground. I looked towards this same mother who had eventually escaped the sucking tunnels that were the horizontal chimneys of an even bigger smoke than Hell. Today, she pointed a distorted finger at the ice-chopper which dangled between my feet and hips. The record was evidently stuck, for the voice piped up plaintively in repeated unison with the gusts of snow. I wielded the chopper and, closing my eyes tight, brought it down headfirst into the bound ice. Whether the braying was in my head, I could not tell. But I felt shock troops move up my arm towards the brain in shuddering stages from the heel of the palm where the handle bit. A shower of sparkle-edged splinters flew into my face. The ice was only at first slightly dented, where the blade had entered, despite the force of my stroke. One last salvageable thought, however, reared its head higher than any monster could. I was to be married late in life, following a whirlwind romance with one of the girls of my dreams.

I'd ceased to have much truck with women, having found them overbearing and, in the main, quite unbeautiful. So, when I met Janiseed, with her sweet smile, I felt that the rest of my life would be as nothing without her and much of my past would begin to make sense, too. She even blotted out memories of Sarah and premonitions of Charlotte. Indeed, Janiseed was at the afternoon tea dance in a floral frock, dragged there, apparently, by Miss Hutton, who had previously spent most of her waking hours (to the point of desperation) concerned with how to trap me in her increasingly threadbare web of feminine wiles. Imagine her disappointment, bordering on despair, when I took up with Janiseed - the protege she'd spent hours of otherwise valuable coffee mornings persuading to get out more, spruce herself up and dance a jig or two to the Palm Trio, even if it were arm in arm with Mrs Hutton herself. As I had often noticed, tea dances seemed to be exclusively feminine, even when I was there to break the pattern. I never understood why women wanted to dance with each other. Perhaps they felt safer. Then, that fateful Wednesday afternoon, I took Janiseed right from under Mrs Hutton's nose and launched her upon the gleaming dance floor as if virginity was only skin deep. Mrs Hutton, who had been a widow as long as she could remember, watched us glide to the lilting music, jealous of both Janiseed and myself at the same time. Mrs Hutton's emotions were so mixed, she turned redder and redder, until, by the end of that tea dance, she might have been recognised for a boiled beetroot at an identity parade. The Palm Trio had by now packed their instruments into battered cases and prepared, mumblingly, for their departure to a night spot where they were due to play tunes on behalf of ex-models, painted to the nines, in a salacious quarter of the town.

Mrs Hutton agreed to be Matron of Honour at the wedding, but not before she took us apart to say: "You know what you are doing?"

"It's about time I settled down," I said, examining Janiseed's tiny hand that I still managed to retain, following the end of a dance.

"But after only a dance or two!"

"I know, Mrs Hutton, it's quick, but when you know it's right, what's it matter how long it took?"

The object of my intentions merely blushed a delicate pink. Mrs Hutton's complexion had long since resumed its greyish tincture - she was being plain practical, since the two jealousies she felt for Janiseed and myself had by now cancelled each other out. She became Godmother in fact of our first offspring. Meanwhile, Janiseed had her own mountain of meanwhiles. Her dreams she believed to be her own. She never told anybody about them, least of all me. I had soon discovered that she had no character to speak of - not that Mrs Hutton hadn't warned me. But neither I nor Mrs Hutton realised that her life was mainly spent elsewhere, in those dreams, unadmitted even to herself. The night she dreamed of giving birth to Charlotte, she was semi-conscious for most of the labour, willing the bundle of flesh to get a move on into the open but, equally, seeing into the future of all her children. Charlotte would grow up a lovely girl, much in her mother's mould, despite still being a foetus with no obvious signs of beauty or otherwise. Mrs Hutton would do her duty, both toddling along to church, whilst I stayed at home making a fuss of my china doll wife. If I'd known then that Janiseed's own mother was the same Sarah of my past, I may have taken a different course with the mapping out of memories. But then, other children would arrive, a brood of little me's, each so little different from the others, Mrs Hutton would believe they were all twins, despite the gaps between.

"You will have to stop!" she announced to me, one day.

"How can I, Mrs Hutton, when she wants me so much?"

"There's family planning. Sometimes I think you two have got a pair of thick skulls fit for each other. How often have I told you - every time you do it, does not have to end up in another pink parcel!"

"I know, but she says that we cannot kill our young even before they're conceived."

"That's balderdash, and you know it!"

But Janiseed saw her children grown up. The dream was so realistic, she felt she knew each and every one of them, all their foibles, their pains, pleasures and hopes. As a mother, she was behind each set of their eyes, urging them towards a goal even she had not yet quite formulated. But, a dream, given half the chance, turns to nightmare, expunging all attempts to shake off its autonomous relentlessness. The children's heads were skinned to the very bone, so that there were deep neatly sliced shelves of red gristly flesh around the middle of the neck where the bodies proper ended. They spoke and laughed as if the skulls were real faces. The syncromesh of bones attempted to mimic expressions while emotions, in turn, travelled to the front, via the visibly pulsing brains. There was not enough of Janiseed to divide up between them, with all so eagerly seeking her love. Mrs Hutton organised the funeral. I was there, of course, but I was so distraught, I could not even face mourning. The seventeen baby-sized coffins slid behind the crematorium curtain, even before the Palm Trio had managed to tune up its specially rehearsed dirge. But the wake was a civilised affair, small beetroot sandwiches and even smaller talk. There was very little dancing, but plenty of tea. And, today, the snow cascaded so that I could hardly see if mother's shape was still framed in the window. Perhaps she'd gone to take the pick-up off the record. I shrugged to indicate the pointlessness of attempting to prove anything. The butt's barrel would rive asunder - there was no fluid down below anyway. It was packed solid throughout like a perefectly-fitting coffin. We might as well melt kind snow than something as brutal as this ice was turning out to be. If she saw me shrug, she gave no sign of it. The weather was by now becoming even more inclement and I fully expected to do a quick change act with a block of standing ice, the conjuror's climax instead of a cabinet with a body inside it. The butt's chocks came away. And even my thoughts became skewed, just like the ice wrenching and groaning out of shape. There were several icicles like spiked fingers erupting from the slit I'd started in the iron-grey surface. Meanwhile, there was no meanwhile for me. Yet someone returned to the house and discovered the whole place was a shambles and a half. The boiler had finally gone up, leaving mother no more than a shell of her former self, spun by the explosion like a juggler's plate: its tethered centrifugal force ignoring all possible frictions. Someone needed relentlessly to wield the diamond-sharp edge of the chopper, gouging further black grooves in her, in a no doubt fruitless attempt to quench the onset of her high-pitched whining. But that was before there arrived a sense of the shuttle of pointy wings settling in around a shivering corpse, with icy flakes of unused memory continuimg to splinter off a non-stick brain. How did I kill the ice monster? By blowing gently on it with my warm breath? Telling it stories about things in my life? Boring it soft? Or did it kill me with its spiralling icy touch? Perhaps even the dead have doses of empathy.

(Published 'Night Dreams' 1996)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But does a dead marriage have any empathy?