Monday, August 30, 2004

A Smidgeon Too Short

I prod the numbers slowly with an unaccountable desire that push buttons had not elbowed out circular dials. There would be something indefinably delicious in waiting for the finger-slots to unwind after each number - thus delaying the impossible.

And it is the impossible call I happen to be making.

I have abandoned my family on an impulse of rage and desperation. No real flashpoint - simply years and years of marital give and take leading to the inevitable down-beat crescendo of departure. Having watched the children grow into near adults, I could no longer bear the thought of witnessing the descent of two real adults like me and my wife into the second childishness of acrimonious, if concealed, senility. And, with no exagerration, the word senility rings true, amid the blurred dreams of existence that my mid-life crisis has become. And it is surely wishful thinking to call it mid-life at all - unless such wishful thinking should actually be classified as pessimism. Whatever the case, it all rings true.

The phone is indeed ringing, too: back in the old homestead, where so many joys and sorrows flowed under the bridge of sighs ... memory being a ghostly fluid more like red air than that honest-to-goodness blood which is said to flow thicker than water. My thoughts are only a smidgeon short of senility, I realise, as I listen to the impotent ringing tone in the ear-piece. Nobody at home. But they are always at home at this time on a Saturday, aren't they? But that is when I am there, of course.

The bedsit where I have ensconced myself is in a randomly chosen town up north. The map I used is in the smelly dustbin outside. Nothing like home. There are strange seedy neighbours only the other side of walls little better than cereal boxes. They grunt, without speaking. The toe-capped neighbour above is someone I have not seen because he does shiftwork, although the evidence of his existence which he left in the toilet was only too apparent. The communal kitchen is a greasy, dingy affair with one ill-positioned power point and a gas-stove that may have seen better days, but probablly not. Nobody dares to leave their comestibles in such a kitchen. A far cry from my suburban semi in Surrey.

I may have to cry. I open the window, horn my hands and hollow, thus hoping that West Yorkshire and Surrey are closer than the map. Trusting that the window at home is also open to catch the strains of my pigeon chest. Indeed, I feel as if I have birdbones - a mutant poultry critter who ended up here, because the National Health Service has no room for me in its asylums. Where do they put monsters these days, if they should be born? My own children are beauties of their type. It is strange though - I cannot remember what they look like and, in the sudden passion of leaving, I did not think to pack photos.

It has only been a couple of days. But much can happen in a few minutes. People can go under buses. Have brain haemorrhages. Strokes. Amnesia. Love turn to hate. But, equally, hate can turn to love just as abruptly, even before you are able to say Knife. The phone is picked up at the other end and a familiar voice answers: "734921" - the numbers reeled off in a rhythm that is immutably Marie's.


"Donald! Where are you?"

I can actually hear my son practising his flute in the background, something that brings me right down to Earth from the spectral clouds of senility with which I have mispeopled my Heaven.

Just as the phone was answered down south, one of my plug-ugly neighbours poked a head round my door, evidently in need of a cup of sugar. Why neighbours always want such an item is beyond me. Sugar is the worst thing anyone could consume, short of perfect poison.

"Hold on..." I have said to Marie, absently placing the handset whence it came. I wander over to the heavy-duty sideboard which is positioned under the net-choked window. I hear rain flashing. The huge electric advertisement hoarding outside pulses red. I feel as if I am being uninvented piecemeal - like circular dials on telephones - even as I stand here in two minds.

There was a full bag of sugar already in this bedsit when I arrived, if I remember correctly. I will soon get rid of the intruder, perhaps forever, by giving it all away in one fell swoop.

Meantime, whilst headless chickens can flap on, they cannot use telephones. Nor wing off messages. Nor write, come to think of it - even in pidgeon English. I am evidently a few moments too late to beat senility at its own game - and, listening to my neighbour shambling off with sweet ill-gotten gains, I replace the handset with not a further murmur.

(Published 'Oasis' 1994)

Monday, August 23, 2004

Revenants and Provenants

Madge sung as she spun.

Motes of dust were hanging in air’s limbo...thus frozen by the laminar flows of her faultless treadling upon the wheel.

The seasonal storms stung her cottage window with salt, as the oil wick grew gloomier. Madge’s singing, like her spinning, was loomed upon the rote of memory - and even the darkness encroaching her parlour from the sea could not sway her mindless efficiency.

Abruptly, the wheel snagged and halted, as if something had become lodged between the wooden spokes. Her revery disrupted, Madge thought she had just seen the dead - or the dead had just seen her. She shuddered, while the wind whined and pretended to be a thousand Hell’s demons wildly spitting upon the panes.

She idly speculated that either the wick had turned the dimness pink or the very morling wool being spooled upon the floor by the wheel’s extruder had already been dyed by its donor sheep. She began to imagine the coiling strands were shredded threads of various husbands’ remains...those various husbands she had shorn of their manhood over the unreckonable years.

No…a retributive ghost, she finally assumed, had left its disembodied hand in the wheel, during a state of temporary semi-materialism, the blood from its wrist stump dripping upon the spun wool. She smiled at this now more likely explanation - for well she might, the revenant having failed in its vengeance.

Madge threw the barely warm hand into the fire grate as potential kindle and resumed her mindless crooning to the wheel’s relentless hum.

She did not even bother to remember whether she had recognized the familiar feel of its sweaty grip.


She squatted on the stool before the fire dreaming that she no longer existed or, at best, she was a ghost returned to find her stool empty. Perhaps, she had never lived at all and the series of men wedded to her between drowning tragedies had been no more than betrothed to a lick and a promise. She did not question how such words came to her in this state of rarification.

The sea’s Sound was softer tonight outside her cottage. On those earlier occasions of storm when the fishing-boats trailed nets like wings and roller-coasted the waves, she was accustomed to stare through the fucus-spattered panes for a sign of her latest husband’s bobbing torchlit homecoming: no hope of catching the squelch of his thigh boots through the salty puddles. But now, tonight, with the fire having doused its crackling, she may have even heard his breathing at the distance of a speck on the runnelled horizon.

She had surrendered the merry-go-round of marriages after the feather-toed creatures of the sea had failed to return her last one. She had been granted simple mementoes of all previous husbands - a cheek-flap or a nuggetted finger or barnacled toe. Sometimes, the bits were delivered late, half-decades late. Tomorrow, the delivery may be a man’s sea-weathered privities on a silver tray, like an aborted Innsmouth lobster.

She wept. The privities might be those of him six husbands ago: the only one who had serviced her better than she could herself.

The weeping made little noise, like a corpse’s. And as dawn broke, the knocking was fainter than the wings of an angel-fish; quieter even than the many squelching tip-toes that preceded it.


I once witnessed Madge’s standing - in my own crazy way likening her figure to a shrunken, blackened lighthouse with its one failed eye-beam flowing, then flapping down the torso like shadowy wings of a cloak.

She was barely visible against the darkening storm-cloud that fed upon a cross-section of the sea as straight, long and narrow as the distant horizon. It was strange that only a few minutes had passed since the sun first turned into a solitary purple bruise of a cloud.

She was awaiting, I assumed, the return of her husband who usually had to fish the sea until the last daylight was sucked back by the surfacing wreck-fish: no raw deal on better nights than this when the giddiheads of thundercloud were nowhere near. But, today, she must have wondered why he was braving the onset of foul weather. The need for catch was surely not desperate enough for such ruthless measures. True, the salt-wine had scrawny fruit for fins and bones, those days. Nothing but a mouthful of scales for breakfast...

Wait, what was that shape at sea darker even than the storm?

I crawled nearer to Madge’s skirts to catch her low mumbles. I cupped my fan-nerved hand to my ear...

“Ne’er-be-lickit is my belly’s tongue,
Cradle-clothes are stuffed within me,
Winding-sheets swaddle a love unsung,
And a funk-willie’s my man’s chimney...”

She faltered in her tuneless Crooning, since the shape had by now become obvious to her, too, If I had known the end of her song of childlessness, I would have continued it. Instead, I made it up as I took up the strain...

“Hog’s lard, fear-babe and pricker-roach,
Sea-shade, blub-bring and earth-fly,
I must boil the sea, let them poach,
‘Cos gulpswollen is my birth-eye.”

The sea soon regurgitated its prey before the storm broke. I helped Madge drag it back through the sand-puddles to the cottage where we put it to bed together, like parents tucking in their only child.

Her tears were dry. I wondered if she even noticed me helping at all.

Clambering to the window sill, I could see the storm had nurtured the tallest, most imposing lighthouse ever, sweeping the sky with a god’s flashbulb eyes. I sang, wordlessly this time, in the hope it would lull Madge into a dreamless sleep. Eventually I nuzzled up to her, to ease a bout of the shyfryngs. Seeing, my solitary birth-eye in the darkness, I assumed she knew I was the baby she never had.

(Published ‘Gypsy Blood Review’ 1993)

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Island

Don Quickshot had assumed control of everything, including the main port. The previous owner then went missing as soon as the deal was signed, causing his senile wife, beautiful daughter Maria and half-witted son to be thrown into near ruin: with only the guarded respect of the other islanders bolstering their waning spirits. Maria often found herself, thereafter, standing signal watch upon her father's erstwhile private wharf. Even in the endemic coastal fogs.

The new man whom Quickshot placed in charge of the Island was called Felix. A handsome man. A cunning man. One who kept his boy friend under nightly house arrest - rather than allowing him, some said, to be adversely affected by the Island moon. There were, of course, the various islanders who gradually went missing, yet nothing could be laid at Felix's door. He had emasculated the police force, in any case, and their investigative duties were conducted with a diffidence that made Maria's idiot brother appear suitable for high political office on the mainland.

Maria knew her way about the emotions of others with a fine-tooth comb. One in particular loved her, nay, adored her. That was Clement, the butcher. He was young enough to be of some use to Maria - and that was not merely his supply of cheap briskets and spare ribs. In fact, he wanted her to live at the butcher shop where he could lard her all over on cold winter evenings, when the cruel cut of the moon scythed the night sky with its rhythmic whishing sound. But, no, Maria needed to return to the old homestead where her ancient mother and mind-bottled brother awaited the comfort of her company. "Bring them, here, Maria - there's room enough." He pointed to the ceiling, as if beyond its yellow stipple lay the palace of her dreams.

"No, Clement. Felix and his arse-stoker would take over the homestead soon enough - and what would my father say if he returned?"

Maria's voice was deceptively gentle, yet underlaid with a stroppier edge than the Island moon could possibly wield. Clement gazed at the inscrutable face. What could he say in response to such unquestionable beauty? Nevertheless, with the sound of cracking meat-bones in the cellar outdoing that of the sharp icicles crepitating outside the window, he said with a faltering tone: "Your father will never return: he can now be little more than the beefen sides down under this shop: you know that: I know that: and, above all, Felix knows that."

Maria could not weep although she found her eyes doing so.


The lad struggled with the lid of the water butt. His mother had said she wanted its ice breaking. Why she needed the ice breaking he had not thought to ask. Ice breaking was tantamount to cracking open the hardest veener of reality itself. How he was to do it with his scrawny arms presented a further mystery. He might need to await Maria's help. And, yes, why did he need to do it now, of all things, when the ice would be at its sturdiest and thickest, with the moon itself little more than a shard of frozen sky, albeit with the shine come off its newness. He saw it still retained white daylight in its horn, even if well past the shadow-tide.

He took the axe which he had dragged from the shed and brought it down with a splintering crunch - causing the surface of the butt's ice to craze over with a map of unknown lands. No sign of the Island's shape in the patterns, he mused, upon examining the convoluted geography which far outstripped the fantastical archipelago of thoughts in his mind. During this lull, he thought he could hear footpads beyond the susurrus of the homestead's trees - no doubt Maria returning from her dalliance with Clement. The lad smiled. Clement was always kind to him - unlike that sallow, high-boned individual Felix sent round to collect the tithes. Yet when a lengthening howl ricocheted from earth to heaven and back again, he knew one thing for certain: it was not his sister Maria.


Felix sat honing his fingernails by his picture window. He had billeted this building near the wharf as the Island often received night deliveries here by junk. He stared out, uncertain where sky ended and sea began. Not one single pinprick of light. Yet there was a sheen that covered the whole vista which, he knew, was thrown by the unseen moon behind him. He guessed nevertheless that it was a new moon.

He shivered. He really must turf out that family from the homestead. The father had so long abandoned them, he was not likely now to return to seek retribution on Felix, should Felix park his bivouac there. The daughter Maria would be a hard wench to benchmark, he thought. Best to let them moulder away. At least he knew where they were. He lifted up the cross hanging at his throat and kissed the macho Christ figure carved upon it. He felt it squirm, as if icons had learned to fear the monsters they were intended to protect against.

"Yes." Felix heard knocking, even before it actually sounded out.

"Can I come in and see you?" The voice was of several throat noises rather than the fluid ones tongues could make: like wickerwork talking.

"Yes." The same word, but a second meaning.

In walked a creature it would be most people's misfortune to meet. Felix saw that the Christ shape had blunted back into the very knots of the crossgrain. The creature's tumescent cod-piece was larger that his whole buttock area: face hidden by a harlequin-mask, yet eyes piercing enough to bore to the back of Felix's skull, charring the retina en route.

"Yes." A third meaning.

"The moon is brand new, Felix, not engorged," weaved the wicker words.

"Yes." A fourth.

"Well, as that is so, there is no harm in me stretching my legs in the fresh air, is there?" The creature left before hearing the reply.

"Yes." The second again. Or possibly a fifth.


Maria was being escorted home by Clement. Not that she thought she needed protection. It was more the ritual of the last night kiss: like fresh sweethearts: ignoring, for one delicious moment, the frenetic shafting Clement had already given her above the slabs of textured blood that hung in his cellar. Almost a game of role-playing, stirring the dry loins into one last gasp of come. Tonight was the coldest night of the year: thus, the most clear-sounded. They could even hear her brother's flailing axe as he grappled with the ice monster: a common sound these days in fulfilment of their mother's latest peccadillo.

She leaned up Clement's body for the peck. He lowered his face to where his mouth needed to be and sucked at Maria's cheek. A little known fact that some people had two cheeks on either side, one under the other, with a gossamer-thin air pocket between. The lower one was a clandestine cheek, a cheeky little cheek, and he laughed on thinking of it in this way.

"What are you laughing at?" Her voice was a more overt blade of sound, as if further honed by the geomantic moonrib above.

"Your under-cheek - I wish I had one." Clement prodded his tongue into his own and swabbed around for remnants of loose meat.

"Under-cheeks are nothing but trouble, Clement - things collect between and I'm forever using the douche." There was an added squeak to each word, as if she demonstrated her cheeks' valve-like quality.

The scream they heard was blood-curdling. An unrehearsed scream. One that came from a freight of frights rather than a single self-indulgent fright. From the direction of Maria's homestead. Clement ran on ahead, being fleeter of foot. She hustled in his wake as best she could, fearing her brother had gouged his foot accidentally with one foul axe-swing. But they lost their way in some coastal fog.


The old woman sat at the motionless spinning-wheel, tired of thinking. Being senile did not mean she had lost all common sense, however. Her two children were dim enough to outdo any of her own foibles. Maria was always with Clement above his meat-cellar: and love made a young mind even crazier than the thoughts it contained. She peered through the salt-streaked window and saw her son in combat with an imaginary ice monster - yet again. But Clement and Maria would be coming to the rescue, both ready to adminster a blow-job with the hottened breath they'd kept stifled up in their mouths from erstwhile empassioned kisses.

The ice creature had chomping jaws slavering in the bonelight. Her son, despite his sluggish reactions, had managed to break off an ice stake and thrust it into the monster, towards the heart, from behind its plumped-up sausage of sex. The erupting jam dyed the snow a startling black, and steamed. The monster twitched and, once dead, twitched again. Then, the old woman saw an arm forcing its way from beneath a patch of newly poached snow...

The earth is the best meat-cellar of them all, she thought. Shrugging, she returned her attention to the spinning. "Am I the sanest castaway of them all?" she asked aloud. She examined the palms of her hands. "Yes," she replied, with a sixth sense.

(Published 'Night Dreams' 1995)

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)

Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Lostling

Birds filled the air with one song. The picnic-table was erected in the forest-clearing and the members of the family gathered to share the foodstuffs that one among them had given such love to prepare. The leaves on the trees were gummed together, as if a painter had smeared them rather than having picked each one out with his brush.

The family had travelled to the remote spot in their reliable motor and, later, upon their own legs - led by the father along paths only he, it seemed, could plumb. The mother dropped choice words of feminine intuition and recrimination. The two children laughed and whined, according to the pendulum of their moods, the boy with gruff asides, the girl with reflex giggles. Only yesterday had they planned this outing - from the very initial concept to such details as picking picnicky menus and requisite items of weather-gear. There had not been much argument - yet one of them at least had severe doubts as to the eventual repercussions. The premonition of tragedy was not to be budged - although there was no logical reason, and hence, eventually, no action taken, except a simple statement about the uncertainty of the otherwise reliable motor that would bear the brunt of the trip, bar unexpected failure of tyre, windscreen or engine-part. With such thoughts on her mind, the mother had tugged the hamper from beneath the bed, vowing not to appear negative. The hamper had been put away so long in the past, she had, of course, forgotten what was already stored in it - something that needed to be removed before stacking it up with Marmite sandwiches, Corona bottles, cardboard plates and plastic cutlery.

The mother was able to keep secrets, yet, somehow, they were often squeezed out by some force other than her own. Members of the family often read secrets in her face or inferred secrets from the various ways she tried to hide such secrets or, even, sensed secrets via a spiritual medium which none of them could explain, assuming they were aware of it in the first place. On the day of the picnic, the two children simply knew that she had discovered something secret in the hamper - something indefinable, perhaps, yet substantial to her. The father was so hung up negotiating the motor, which kept missing, he failed to realise that his wife was trying to withhold a secret. Looking in the rearview mirror to see what was following did not help him to unravel any mystery at all - it merely created a new mystery, since a rare make of vehicle had been on their tail from the very outset of the trip. All emotions remained gridlocked, ‘til they parked the motor in a lay-by. The other vehicle did not stop but continued towards the next town along.

The family, like most families, was constituted of rare breeds of individuals. Father was Derek, the only Derek in the world - since any person thinks of him-or-herself to be unique. Mother Brenda. Son Evan. Daughter Claudette. Derek thought the world centered on Derek. Brenda on Brenda. Evan Evan. Claudette Claudette. And with the world thus centered, the family unit became a secondary, if important, preoccupation. The walk through the forest was a mutual affair which, despite the backbiting that besets families of that ilk, evoked, in turn, their best points. Derek handed Brenda over deadfalls - watched out for unexpected puddly areas - strengthened the children’s spirits with a badinage fit only, in truth, for a stood-down comedian. Brenda, meanwhile, dabbed Claudette’s too-pretty-to-be-true face with an aromatic kleen-wipe - smiled almost too often for comfort - diverted the children’s attention from anything behind the trees which might have been following the family. Evan whistled, more carefree than his mother could give him credit for - while Claudette typically had her mind elsewhere. Like most children, they were ahead of themselves, always round the next corner of the forest, anticipation being preferable to the actual enjoyment of each passing moment.

“How much further?” Evan’s voice piped in exasperation. For his age, he had done more than his fair share of grappling with the hamper-handles. Whilst Derek lugged the folding-table on his back, as an artist would his easel, and concurrently hefted one side of the hamper, there was always a task for one of the other three in balancing the opposite side horizontally. Brenda carried, in her arms, like babies, the picnic’s extraneous items. Claudette, being a smallish girl, had few duties, but she did show concern for the balloons, already half-inflated, which would eventually be attached to each corner of the collapsible table - mainly for decoration, yet with a smidgen of something more important, an aspect intrinsic to their family tradition. Derek’s own father had instigated such a routine, when Derek was a child. But that was too long ago for any reconciliation of such rigmarole with practicality.

“I’m fed up,” announced Claudette, voice cracked with dry tears. It was currently her turn to lever the hamper - and the contents slopped in her direction.

“Nearly, there,” replied her mother, without worrying whether she told an untruth or not. Fibs or white lies were preferable to arguments - surely a pragmatic law of any family. She hardly expected punishment for these manoeuvres here on Earth, but alone, later, perhaps, in Heaven above. Although her mind was bereft of guilt, she felt a guilt of guiltlessness, a guilt that often gnaws away at such good souls. Yet why should she be the perfect mother - which of course she wasn’t (having married Derek).

“No, we’re not nearly there,” maintained Evan. His face was smudged with a cross between green and dirt.

“Here we are,” claimed Derek, who at least had the evidence working solidly on his behalf, for at that very moment, they had emerged into the clearing. Game, set and match.

Evan’s face had been smeared clean by yet another aromatic kleen-wipe. Brenda smiled - a frozen smile, yet truly meant. Her greatest pleasure in life was witnessing the smiles of others - and the other three were indeed smiling. And so, also, smiled the tiny figure behind the trees - except its smile was judgmental: a smile that reached deeper than the lips. The fuzzy-haired legs had toddled in close pursuit. It knew, somewhere deeper even than the smile, that it was not a human: simply a creature more faun-like than infantile: yet one that wanted some share in the people’s homely hamper.

The trees released the sun-sight’s shafting beams - through the imaginary stained glass windows of an even more imaginary cathedral. No member of the family blew the secret to the other three, although most of them were aware of it. Indeed, the child-sized creature now balanced precariously on the picnic-table, its shaggy legs bowed backwards, with an ugly beauty more in touch with soft-heartedness than the logic of beholding eyes.

Derek smiled in the direction of the creature on the table, as did the other three. Brenda’s frail voice showed she was really only talking to herself: “There’s not enough food. I’m afraid.” Yet, she had packed enough. The hamper should have been more than ample for a family of four.

The creature’s own parents were shadowed by trunks, like a courting couple caught in an embarrassing cuddle. They were more indistinguishable than their young one and, if this were an imaginary painting, they would have remained entirely unnoticed by a careless visitor to the even more imaginary Gallery.

Evan had the inadvertent misfortune to be the first to bite into the creature - its calf muscle, as it happened. Evan’s mouth was full of a furry substance - and he could not spit out the tufts. He gagged and Claudette sucked her cheeks. Brenda’s smile melted.

On the journey home, Derek recalled the secret of the creature. Its smile was the last remnant of its existence - until Claudette’s own teethful of mouth stumbled upon it. The motor had failed at the first stir of the ignition, but eventually coughed into a stubborn kangaroo-like motion. There was nothing in the rearview mirror the whole way home. Derek, Brenda, and Evan (and the balloons) had been needed together to tote the hamper back to the motor and, later, upstairs to its stowage under the bed. Foundlings played hide-and-seek with changelings for the rest of eternity, but never finding humanity in its glory-hole. And Evan did not, of course, possess enough tears for eyes to pipe when the secret, about his sister Claudette never having existed, was finally blown. Unadopted birds filled the air with one song.

(Published 'Rare Constellations' 1993)