Sunday, October 17, 2004

Joy Rider

I have asked the same question several times. They tell me I am an alien or, at best, a mutant android. Never ever in my wildest dreams to be even a cyborg. But the fact that I can dream makes me question the whole matter. Why cruelly feed me dreams and memories of a human being, if I am inhuman? There is another entity beside me in the pod as I warden the man-made movements through the universe. Most traffic is cargo being transported from galaxy to galaxy in tin pot spaceships and our sole job is to police the lanes to ensure one way routes stay that way. The other one’s name is Joy. She is beautiful, as well as happy, believe me.

Craftman snuggled down under the bedclothes, trying to make the world forget about his existence. There was once a Russian novel in which a character called Oblomov spent chapter after chapter in bed, failing to summon the will power to get up. Once he started down the slippery slope of wallowing in his own mattress, he found it more and more difficult to summon up the friction. But sooner or later, Craftman had to go to the dentist. So he struggled from his pyjamas, dressed and shambled down the road, squinting against the bright sunlight.

Craftman had forgotten the whereabouts of the dentist's but, being a small town, he eventually found it impossible to miss. He was shown into the waiting-room by the lift boy and there he found a circle of faces staring ahead into the middle distance, colour supplement magazines growing stale upon their laps. Despite being the last to arrive, he was immediately called into the surgery by a sweet nurse in a uniform. He perked up a bit at the sight of her. She fitted in with his dreams of one called Joy.

However, the dentist himself was not a sight for sore teeth. He towered by the long recliner, a metal implement poised in his hand as if he were shaping up for a rumble in the beer belt. He motioned Craftman into the seat, where the patient was to be set back with a violent jerk.

"Well, Mr... What is your name? Your card's got a stain on it, where your name should be."


"Well, Mr Craftman, I don't like the look of your teeth at all."

Without further ado, he wrenched Craftman's mouth open with a crack, and started drilling at the first tooth he saw. The grinding of metal on bone spread to the skull itself, as if the whole upper extension of his neck needed filling. Then, the dentist decided that the tooth would have to come out instead. The nurse pushed her thighs against Craftman's side as she yanked his mouth wider to ease entrance by further implements in the dentist's thinly veiled hands. Another tooth was seemingly gripped by a vicious vice, and not even the strength of the tall dentist, nor the crooning noises of encouragement from the nurse, could entice it to budge, as if it were conjoined to the spine itself. However, after several minutes, it crunched sickeningly, enabling the dentist to gouge out the root in bits with a pair of draughtsman's compasses for the next hour or two, taking delight in a job finally well done.

"That's shifted the little bugger."

It felt to Craftman as if the dentist had been chiselling out wedges of jaw bone.

"Have you got it all out?" he managed to ask, whilst spitting on splinters. The dentist took great delight in matching up the red raw chunks upon the white enamel rinsing-bowl, so that Craftman could see that it was all there. He fainted, his head lolling upon the nurse's bosom, which reminded him of Joy's.

"Blimey, he's completely flaked out," she muttered. But how did I know that?

The Pod's called Oblomov. I wonder why they didn't name me. Even Joy has the privilege of a name. And that's because she's probably a real human being, despite the matchless beauty she disports. Having said (or thought) that, I can report that my own teeth feel like long pearls. Hers must be an irregular saw-edge of white miniature tombstones, to prove she really is human. Her eyes look reflective and vulnerable. My eyes are glassed over with lenses or, perhaps, glass all the way down to the optic fuse.

Oblomov skitters momentarily in a rare space gust, thrusting me against Joy's cushioned thigh-bone. I struggle with the control-stick for a few seconds, until it actually seems to take control of my hands. And then we're on an even keel again. Shepherding a recalcitrant star-freighter towards its destination, beyond any of the smugglers' side-channels, is not conducive to day-dreaming.

"Listen With Mother" was Craftman's favourite wireless programme when he was a toddler. He used to settle down on the floor under a blanket with one who called herself Nanna. He often said he loved her more than all the money in the world (plus sixpence). After listening to what was incomprehensible to one so young, a soap opera called "Mrs Dale's Diary", in which, after the harp strains, someone with a motherly tone of voice was always worried about her Jim, the comforting sounds of something far more understandable (despite being full of nonsense nursery rhymes) was broadcast, so damn interesting and calming,

Craftman often fell into a nap which seemed to overtake both him and Nanna for the rest of the short afternoon ... until high tea and the roaring of the coal fire - a fire which someone-called-Father stirred with violent up-draughts created by a single double-sheet of newspaper stretched across the yet barely flickering hills of cobbled black that had sat in the grate since the century began, only to end up providing shuddering orange silhouette-shows against the queer news stories which filled those far-off days stretching pitifully into an uncertain future.

Everything was endlessly contorted make-believe - until Craftman grew up, listening to Del Shannon records and other black singles which slotted down one after the other on his spinning Dansette auto-changer. His mind was on the brink of acting without its own volition. He could hear every scratching note. But when deafness finally settled upon his head like large padded ear-phones, all he could make out were the sounds of Hell's underground seas. He could no longer listen with mother. The fires had died in the hearth, and nobody had life in them to fight wars, let alone die in them. Father was one of the few who vanished towards the rumour of a war and nearly died of disappointment when nobody would pay him anything for the useless hand to hand mauling that had transpired. They would not even let him have a demob suit to hide the fact he was now shankless and fell out.

Nanna, despite everything, could not listen either, because she was inside the very sound-box of Craftman's plugged-up head, screaming to escape from a tangled tapestry of memories which would never end. And when the nonsense rhymes started up again, Craftman found he could actually understand, as well as hear, them.

Joy places her hand in mine, thus interrupting my revery. We have a juke-box in the pod's cockpit and I key in an appropriate number to get my favourite Del Shannon record, "Runaway", on to the turntable...

There was a tall narrow shed on the edge of those backwaters where Craftman played when still young enough to recall feeling fresh-buttocked from the nappy-changing. A boy slightly older but dim-witted and gangling enticed Craftman into the shed. The boy said he had a secret to share. He proceeded to show a thing which he said was bigger than Craftman's. Craftman ran from the shed, before he could have the enticing opportunity to flaunt his own.

Next day or next decade, Craftman wandered the dank streets of the dock area in a large city. He knew no home nor comfort and had surrendered hope even for one called Nanna. The yellow fog was lower tonight than he could ever remember. It even came close to easing down the drains and then along with the gutter slurry. Dark figures passed by on either side wrapped in night clothes in spite of the lateness of sunset. They ignored Craftman, for they were intent on arriving home in time for high tea. If he had been able to catch their eyes in his like he used to catch sticklebacks in jam-jars, he may have enticed one of them into conversation.

He reached the edge of the wharf where a henge of crates was stacked against the hull of a loose-planked river freighter which dipped up and down in the sluggish oil the river had long since become. And the rubbing, the creaking of the crates made him think of the old days when his childhood bed had seemed like a vessel afloat on dreams. He had often imagined Nanna and Father, together with his several best friends and even a stranger of two thrown in for good measure clambering on board his bed with him ... to drift amid nothingness for an interminable period of survival and camaraderie. Yes, they needed to load cans of food and the other imperishables of life along by the bed's foot-board, in the hope that such provisions would last till the journey ended or the company broke up by hitting the maturity-line, when dreams could safely fade.

All the dangers of the disaster dream-movie would be neutralised merely by the communion of togetherness. But the bed being loaded to the seams, it had creaked, despite the nothingness through which they floated. He set the company tests on arithmetic, general knowledge, capital cities, spelling. That passed the time. Nanna enjoyed that, but didn't like the unfairness of his marking, and threatened to alight.

Now, Craftman inspected the crates on the dockside. More like coffins than cargo. The lids screeched on rusty hinges. In one was a friend from early childhood, but he couldn't remember the name. Whoever the friend was, he had grown older, so Craftman could hardly recognise him, and the body was too big to fit, hunched up and foetus-like in its last resting-place. In another crate was Father, a sheet of newspaper stretched across his face. Nanna slept sedately in another, staring icily into Craftman's eyes, as if he had let her down in one way or another.

In other crates, there were people he did not even begin to recognise, since he had not known them, except perhaps in a forgotten dream: a middle-aged woman with glasses and two dead babies of either sex pressed against her dry breasts in one, and a frilly-dressed gentleman in another who had a date stamped on his forehead. These last ones were the strangers, no doubt, who were the makeweight crew.

One long crate, resting on two others like the top of an ancient gateway, had a gangling lop-sided body in it that was almost alive, grinning imbecilically, with a protruding tongue that was engorging.

There was a single empty crate. Better load the others on the freighter first, though. He'll be in dire need of rest, then.

Such memories echo off the close-formed walls of floating darkness, as if they only have ears to suck them back, like unshared secrets. By now, Oblomov is stationary in night cover. Both Joy and myself have long given up being mutually affectionate. It was all show. How can she ever love something like me?

Craftman's only significant dread was that his eyeballs would one day swivel round in their sockets one hundred and eighty degrees and they (or was it he?) would only be able to see the frightening blackness of his head's cavernous innards. He did not allow this reasonless phobia to mar the day to day conduct of his life, of course. That way would lie madness. However, he did have certain preoccupations concerning these his windows-of-the-soul. He always wore shades, so that the eventual fulfilment of his dread would be less marked, by comparison. Also, he would never allow girls to look winsomely into his eyes, as many other couples allow each other to do, while they waft off on wings of true love. Whether this was purely a selfless act, even Craftman was uncertain. Not that girls ever wanted to cann9odle in this way with him, anyway.

Even as a boy, in one of those archetypal school playgrounds - where the cracking of conkers were often louder than that of boys' skulls in boisterous play hitting the arcanely white-lined concrete - Craftman would never dare enter an "out-staring" game with his friends in case the final Big Blink was not quite as fail-safe as one would normally expect. Opticians, to Craftman, were far more a gross-out than the worst conceivable dentist.

One day, in the local pub, Craftman picked up a loose-limbed lovely whom he christened Joy in honour of his dreams. As usual, all the signs were there. He found himself staring at the blonde down on her legs, travelling up the curves with his eyes, mentally unravelling the knitted dress as he (or they) went.

"What you giving me the eyeful for, mister?" Her voice was as coarse as her body was beautiful. But Craftman was literally trapped by her gorgeously unclouded bowls of sight, mooning out towards him, weltering in cosmetics. "Well, feel my knee!" she crooned loudly, as he shuffled nearer on the legs of his bar stool, knowing instinctively that this was exactly what he wanted to start doing. At least, she couldn't possibly be a qualified optician, with a voice like that. But, when he bent her arm up behind her back in some apparently motiveless nostalgia for the good old boy's school playground (or perhaps he thought she was a fruit machine), he saw the writing on the wall. She kicked him hard in the crutch ... and he found himself teetering above a bottomless pit of black slime seething and burping between the stalags of his own gigantic brain.

Joy is awake, even if I'm not. She has startled me with a jump-start from unconsciousness. Indeed, we require a watch-out, like carnivores need back teeth. The freighters find it easier to give us the slip at night, even though the degree of darkness is unchanged. It's something to do with moods, or with half-chances, because the art of surreptitiousness needs only a tiny twiddle on the tuner for the programme to change. The juke-box whirrs in the background, its needle only a fraction of space and time between hitting the scrawling tracker-groove of "Hats Off To Larry" by Del Shannon and hovering there forever like Pod Oblomov itself.

Even awake, it's difficult to land thoughts.

The voice was clear and bright, like freshly hammered bell steel. Craftman could not believe what his ears told him, for he was ensconced alone in a sound-proof booth, acting as a guinea pig for an experiment in solitary confinement. For days now (it could have been weeks for all he knew or grown to care), he had rested on his back, connected up with relatively silent in-and-out drip feeds which penetrated the sides of the coffinish booth through light-tight valves. Only the sound of an odd muffled bubble had infrequently broken his dreams.

How he had been landed with this job began as a long story. Suffice it to say, he was stony broke, loveless and careless. Hence, the job would give him warmth, sustenance and physical comfort for as long as it would take to use up several dole cheques. So, until the novelty wore off, Craftman was in clover. He had yearned for such an opportunity when not needing to get up nor exert himself either physically or mentally: a perfect memory in the making.

Then (and how!) the darkness grew darker in his eyes, the silence a dead weight, body and non-body alike a mass of aches and mental prickles. They'd told him (and he'd forgotten who "they" exactly were) the various drugs contained in the food streams should prevent any bodily discomfort. But, he began to suppose, that's what the experiment was designed to discover: the efficacy (or not) of such medication and, indeed, the adaptability (or otherwise) of the human condition.

It was strange how he became philosophical under the increasing strain. At one time an "ordinary, relatively normal" member of the human race - listening to the football results come a Saturday afternoon, getting his end away (or leg over), coping with the wear and tear of entropy (though he called it balls-aching old age) and negotiating the trivial, transient matters of which most lives are constituted - he was now speculating on the Existence of God (and why God was so goddamn important to warrant speculating on His (god)forsaken existence), the undependability of the senses (speculating even on the uncertainty of Craftman's own existence), the mind-body dilemma until the thoughts tailed off as if they couldn't be bothered any longer to stop disowning Craftman as the thinker thinking them.

But, then, as the symptons of discomfort infiltrated from each and every angle and as Craftman actually discovered that his body was jacking against the pinions which shackled it, his haywire mind would slip out of gear and become entrammelled in the labyrinthine syncromesh of premature senility. So before such an onset, I should introduce myself as the one running the Oblomov Experiment, with one beautiful assistant, true, but she's currently off sick with glandular fever. So, it's predominantly me with a notepad on my knee that posterity will have to depend on. Sleepless nights galore, all for the sake of science. One dead of night, I will hear the bell-clear voice ringing out at the same time as Oblomov's moving graph pen indicates that the man screams from inside the sound-proof booth. But I fear that the screaming will come from my own mouth, penetrating places where even the Richter Scale fears to tread. Then I'll be dead, or entombed, I don't know which, but not before I have a chance to finish a real dream.

Dear Pod, You feel good in my hands, as I thread you through the channels of space. It just needs the slightest touch on your controls which, by means of the craftily positioned pulleys and gears, shifts your majestic rudder in wide sweeps ... thus drawing as much friction as is possible from the vacuum that space surely is, without the need of fiction.

And you're like a person to me, Pod. That's why I'm addressing you personally. We've been together, it seems, since eternity itself began all those years ago, man and boy. Or is it man and something else? Whatever the case, we took off when I was but a mere stripling and, as you know, I hadn't experienced love. Thinking about it, they (whoever "they" were) were rather cruel sending the likes of me on an endless task like this ... but all's well that ends well (if at all). I've at least known your love, dear Pod, and that I cherish more than anything in the whole world (plus sixpence). The world? What is this thing called World? Only a mind can hope to know, if only via its own filter of reality.

I often speculate on the channels of space through which we thread, dear Pod. I've always liked that "we", makes me feel cosy, but, one day, perhaps, I'll call us me, then we'll never be separated, I'll never be us again, or some such words, if you get my drift, dear Pod, ramble though I'm prone to do. Yet I have nagging doubts. I often wonder if these are but channels in my dreams and if the freight be cargo-cults of memory ... that you don't exist at all ... utter benighted solitude ... just me, in an imaginary impersonal coffin-cask, shifted from pillar to post amid the mere quirkish stalactites and stalagmites of my own brain ... that's a thoughtless doom to face. Not surprising that I'm fed up to my back teeth with consciousness. So, must sign off. Time for sleepy-byes. I can rest long and easy because you'll keep me safe, won't you, dearest Pod. And, surely, you love and care for only me. You see, automatic pilots, by definition, are mindless as well as shankless and old Craftman is no exception. In comparison, I'm a real I-ful, am I not? A real loose-limbed lovely handful. The ultimate lovecraft.

Control is so very very sweet. With that last thought, I sign off, dear Pod. Yours adoringly, Joy Stick.

(published 'Monomyth' 1998)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And the journey ends where it began: Atari 2600.