THE CREEPING CARPET
As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He didn't even comb his night-strewn hair. His face was neither ugly nor handsome. His figure without even a sign of portliness or lean. His clothes were drabber than they were smart; so drab the darkness hid them in further folds of themselves. His voice picked out words from silence, words which meant little more than the creaks of the floorboards. His touch was like touching one of my own hands with the other. I put him down to nothing but a haunting thought. Or, perhaps, at least, the ghostly residue of some man who had been an ancient infant chimney-sweep.
When I reached the top, I looked back to see his back backing off down the stairwell, disappearing into nothingness—if something could disappear that was never there in the first place. I lowered myself into half-a-kneel, half-a-bend, all mixed with a crumpled crouch, and picked up from the tousled stair carpet a loose strand that must have floated there from his head of night-strewn hair. I held it closer to my child-young eyes and watched it scribble like the filmic interference on old celluloid, in words that meant nothing to my childish mind beyond their mere articulation as softest carpet-slipper sounds.
"What you doing dear?" asked my mother, as her tall figure half-filled the slanting yellow shaft of a half-opened bedroom door.
"Following myself up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire," I said as plaintively as possible. After all, I had an image to maintain.
"Don't be a soppy aporth and go to bed. It's high time you were in dream land."
My mother's voice was the only one that could hold sweetness as well as righteous anger.
I dropped the hair that wasn't there. I let out my lungs with breath blacker than the sooty air and sucked in a new draught, one that was tinged with the yellow still left there by my mother's now shut bedroom door.
I was suddenly a child again, one that no longer needed any image to remain perfectly my mother's own.
But upon trying the doorknob of my childhood lair, I found it wasn't there. Only a mop of tousled, tangled air.
CATHY COME HOME - A Collaboration with Anthea Holland
At a point in the distance the trees merged with the horizon, a dark rim on the pan of the world. The bowl of hope was empty, the dish of dreams devoid of anything but the dregs of a nightmare.
The flatness of the landscape reminded him of the desert. Not that the desert had been flat, far from it; the sand scalloped into shapes beyond the imaginings of the finest sculptor. But it had been arid - like that flatness that lay before him in the future. The trees that he could no longer discern were nothing but a hiccup in the digestive system of existence.
He turned and looked over his shoulder whence he had come. Nothing much there, either. A few streams perhaps, but he had passed them without noticing them, so they counted for nothing. Once or twice a flower had bloomed, only to be flattened by his size 10's. The wildlife along the way had scurried into holes and burrows to avoid his deadly gaze.
Even wildlife with roots had scurried! Or so it seemed. There was one particular form of orchid that managed to move from place to place of its own volition. Dragging its roots behind, in hope of a new seedbed to mulch it. A rare plant. A rare disease, too, imagining that such a plant could exist. Yet indeed it was no fever of his brain that told him he was following one such specimen between the now featureless horizons. Duneless and dour.
Of course, a rare orchid would never be able to survive in the dry terrains he now crossed. It was wishful thinking or just sheer bravery on the plant’s part to act as his guide. Only desiccation could be its ultimate fate. Sacrificing its life for his. Still, rare orchids only lasted a blink of an eyelid in the scheme of things, at the best of times. He shrugged. It wasn’t sacrificing that much, was it? Rare beauty was ephemeral to the nth degree.
Like Catherine’s rare beauty. She had not been a lover of exotic blooms. She simply relished the act of pressing ordinary wild flowers into scrapbooks. Wild flowers were all very well in their place - in fact he thought they should be protected and nurtured; nothing was improved by removing it from its natural habitat, he thought, including man. Take him, for example - and he wished somebody would, now that Catherine had relinquished her claim - he was not improved by being in this desiccated landscape. No, he should be in his rightful place; armchair by a log fire, a book in his hands, a glass of beer at his side and preferably with Catherine at his feet. Or, better still, with the same log fire but on the rug in front of it - with Catherine, naturally.
A sound made him look down to catch the tail end of a rat scurrying beneath a rock. A rock that surely hadn't been there a moment before. But then he was used to rocks cropping up unexpectedly in his life - all designed to trip him up, he was sure. It was only the sound the rat had made that had saved him from tripping over this one.
Rats. They kept appearing in his life as well. Always when he least expected it; when he believed his cup of happiness was full to overflowing, some nasty rat would come and drink the contents of his vessel while his back was turned.
One half was dream. The other was real. A hybrid of waking and sleeping. The free-wheeling orchid and memories of Catherine by the log fire were in the dream. The rats were real. The desert was real. Desert rats. Still, he’d seen rats in his local park back home – and during his seaside holidays in North Essex, too. That had only been too real.
He decided to allow the dream to take sway. It seemed preferable; the dream took place in a desert, a different desert. But Catherine, a different Catherine, not the dream one, was in a deckchair, sun-bathing, or rather, sun-burning. It was like looking at chicken roast. She was quite naked, her voice emerging from above curvier dunes than the desert could ever boast.
“It’s nice here by the sea,” she said. The sea was so far away. The whole universe was global-burning. She pretended to be on a pier in a cool sea breeze. She watched, she said, children playing on the beach. Scurrying around like rats in a panic.
He resumed his walk towards the nearest horizon, intent on a quest, the purpose of which was lost in the dream he wasn’t now dreaming.
The him that was a dream had a spring in his step; the tree-lined horizon now taking shape so that he could see the moving forms beneath them. Catherine was there, he knew - not the sun-scorched version, but the languid on the rug one. His heart-beat quickened as he increased his pace until he was running - and yet the horizon seemed to be no nearer; the forms beneath it no better defined.
The real him was also moving forward, but slower. For him, too, the horizon was becoming clearer and the trees more defined. Beneath them the shapes that moved were less friendly than Catherine - although the solar-cooked version might be there, he supposed. But it wasn't a sight he really wanted to see - except for the small part of him that sought revenge.
Revenge is sweet, they say, and so were the fruit gums that he dug around for in his pocket. He was sure there was a couple left. Eventually he located one trapped in the seam and covered with fluff and other detritus that defied definition. Aware (because his mother had told him) that you had to eat a speck of dirt before you died, he put the whole thing in his mouth, hoping that the speck of dirt might speed him to a death that he had been seeking. It seemed a preferable way to go than facing what lurked beneath the trees - which he seemed to be approaching remarkably quickly considering the slow movements of his feet.
It was a doll. The china cheeks mottled by the browning of history. The rubbery-looking limbs mapped all over with an unfathomable geography, peppered as it was with cack-handed archipelagos. There was a pustule or bubble on the doll’s china neck as if the sun was beginning to frazzle it. The toy gums were caked with gooey colours. The bone china teeth or dentures were browner than the staining on the cheeks. The eyes jaundiced. The face pointed like a rodent’s.
Dead orchids were crumpled in the vicinity and he sniffed the residue of some ritualistic mass suicide on their part. Their tiny roots like centipede legs wilted and flickered in the breezeless air. These had once been the trees that had seemed to merge with the horizon, given the perspective of contourless distance and its misalignment of terrain. Also given his own inchworm proportions. He threaded the eyes. Riddled the dark sands. A rare specimen. A squirming speck of size 10 dirt.
Catherine, having woken, lazed back in a log-chair on a log-pier above a log-fire. The deck swayed. But that was a different dream. And only perspective in dream was a measure for how real waking was. Embarking on a voyage to ancient China or far-off Cathay.
LONDON CHRISTMAS STORY
Are you sitting comfortably--since I am beginning. My name is Felicity and I am the happiest woman in the world. Why? Well, because ... WHAT’S THAT NOISE ? How can I tell you about my happiness when there's so much noise? Is it workmen drilling? Or sirens wailing of another war? Sounds a bit like a fuss about nothing, as usual. Well, come closer, my dear. I am happy because I love you. Why don't you look surprised? Why are your eyes so small? I am sincere. Come closer, since you don't seem to be hearing me. Oooh, my mouth is now so very close to your ear, I can see all the white hair sprouting in and out. The noise is deafening and I'm afraid I shall have to shout. I am suddenly feeling very lonely. Please ignore that person staring through the window. And that other one. Men in church-dome hats. I think we should pretend to ignore them, at least. The noise I hear in the chimney is certainly far too early for Christmas. In fact, almost a whole year to elapse. Ah well, the workmen seem busy hammering at my door. I turn your head. I kiss your cold old lips. What are those noises I sense clip-clopping on the roof-slates; certainly not the dear dear rain. I am indeed so happy. I think YOU are your own best present.
“In the old days, children were delighted by the merest stocking of fruit and coal, and Christmas plum pudding could be sown with any loose shrapnel like threepenny bits or tanners.” Rachel Mildeyes (THE GOOD OLD DAYS vol viii. Storyville)