"Life is in itself a form of apprenticeship," suggested tunicked Tom to this particular girl-in-every-port, as the tardy afternoon began to try on its evening wear. His words.
He was on shore leave: the Captain's favourite crew-member, simply for his more than just a spark of intelligence compared to the rest of the sailors. He had often been invited to the Officers' table, to spin a yarn or two, to plait a tale, to hold forth on all matters philosophical, spiritual and mundane. The port which the ship was visiting on this occasion was an occidental one, well beyond its beaten track in search of new clients. The arrayed cranes, lifting in angles from the dockside, were huge stick insects: totems to some higher industry quite beyond the comprehension even of someone with an uncommon nous like Tom.
His birth-place was tucked away cosily in the gleaming gulf of the Home Territories - a harder trip east than the ship's occidental clients could ever imagine. Thus, it was not surprising that these new recipients of the ocean spice-trail trade here in the waters of western Europe and the providers of such wares from the eastern Home Territories could never allow their cultures to meet eye to eye.
Tom had discovered the western girl lolling against a large bollard, mooning the time away till she could ply her own trade more properly in the darker suited hours. Not his words.
He was immediately attracted to the uncanny planes of her face, in contrast to his own race's high cheekbones and sunken narrow eyes. Her eyes were wide and innocent-seeming: he read the lines of her features as he would a mandala or natal-chart at home. This dreamboat's voice, too, was deep for one so fair, with a lilt and dialect fit for a fairy-tale princess. He found it difficult to follow her drift, because of the quaintness of the speech rhythms; but he took it with a pinch of salt, as he tracked a deeper index within her. He was confident that her mental tackle would be able to trawl anything with which he chose to sow her feminine tides.
His lobster-pot of a head beamed beardly, as he continued: "And life being an apprenticeship, one should endeavour to learn everything one can before embarking on the voyage of death."
"Eh, wot yer say, guv?" Her words.
Tom winced. This was the first time he had encountered one who answered so readily. It was off-putting to talk along the knife-edge of such a sensitive audience. Her responses were so very much to the point.
Yet he resumed his diatribe: "By logic, there can only be one religious faith, that which represents the belief in the positive aspect of death. A faith without this as its paramount tenet would not be worth the parchment it's written on. Accept that as an incontravertible prerequisite, then all religions become a single faith. God is that faith. Faith is that God. Yet God is not an entity with omnipowers, not an anthropomorphic puppet-master..."
"Gor blimey, mate, has your brain swallowed your tongue?"
By now, the sun had risen elsewhere in the world, probably in the Home Territories, he surmised; the mist gathered apace, linking sea and land with translucent mountains of dream, the coloured decklights of Tom's ship bobbing spasmodically in the uncertain tide. A chill clung to his bones. He decided it was now high time to offer spice as a reward for her kind attention. After all, as well as the provocative esoterica of philosophy, it was also in the nature of tunicked Tom's breed to issue flirtatious cockadilloes to the local totties in new client lands. The spice would no doubt hotten her bland stews. He passed her a free sample packet, with a smile.
"I hope this complimentary gift supplements thy already warm heart..."
"Ey up, guv, is't bleeding hard stuff?"
She snatched the packet and darted off into the skid-marked underclothes of the night. No-one's words.
Another day, another universe, she’d’ve refused the gift and probably stayed to make a match.
But as this particular moonstruck Tom rowed himself back to the ship, the gentle rippling of the oily sea as music to his ears, he determined to retain at least some of the girl's wisdom for the benefit of the Officers' table ... and for later life, when, by then, Old Tom's house in the Home Territories would be crumbling around him...
Old Tom nipped each problem in the bud, either by hiring a handyman or, at the last resort, actually getting his own hands dirty. Yet today, he felt like a little boy with a digit in a dam, as he stood in the garden probing the pointing of some external bricks with a chiselly fingernail. The whole place teetered on the brink of something far worse than collapse. Its wooden stilts were becoming as good as one with the morass whence they grew. And, with unaccountable abruptness, he remembered that European ex-girlfriend from the ancient days of his youth when at sea with the spice trade.
First thing's first. His wife had left him, but on second thoughts that was probably the best of it. Or, on first thoughts, was his wife yet to meet him? No, what really bugged Tom was the speed with which he seemed to be heading towards that selfsame death about which a younger Tom had been so coolly detached and philosophical. The house was simply symbolic of such personal ruin. The house was also instrumental. Entropy had a lot to answer for. Not that Tom understood such strange English words.
He removed his finger from the bare brickwork and sighed. The roof lifted up slightly where the gutter divided pantiles from stucco, revealing the grabbing paws of an oriental teddy-bear: a giant version of the friendly old creature that had once shared Tom's playpen. It beckoned some Pandora to put her fingers in the toybox that Tom's house had suddenly become. Not that Tom was Pandora, nor tall enough to reach that far up. He realised that the loft was full of his old playthings. The rocking-horse. The easel and paintbox. Whip and multicoloured top. Wooden hoop. Meccano set. Pick-a-stix. Jack-in-the-box. Spice-rack.
He took one last look at the stilts, literally daring them to topple and ran towards the French windows. But he was refused entry by a large tin soldier who creaked rustily as it aimed its bayonet at Tom, saying:
"This is private property."
The soldier's grimace was painted on and his voice was more a thought process than that audible irritation of the air which speech tended to be.
"Yes, you are quite right," announced Tom, "it's mine!"
"This house belongs to the gods of dilapidation and decay. You no longer have any jurisdiction over it."
This last statement was not the soldier's but a more bouncy voice emanating from a closed box behind him. The soldier was equally startled by the intervention from such an apparently unviable source. How could boxes talk? Unless ... unless ... it was a Jack-in-one. And, no sooner contemplated, the lid flicked up and a rubicund clown-on-a-spring laughed up and down like a boomerang yoyo.
Tom was at least certain about one thing. He was not dreaming. He did not need to draw blood from a pinched arm to prove that point. The whole episode was, in truth, nothing more than symbolic. And symbols were dreams made flesh. Metaphors had real meat. Similes actually were what they were like. Nothing could be simpler - nor more complex. Even entropy took a back seat. Words taken as read.
Tom smiled as he proceeded with what he felt to be stilts down the garden path. Indeed, his face was on a swing-leg easel: a walking portrait that lived forever, since the acid in the air was merely for things that breathed and for people who believed only in paintings that wore and tore. And as he reached crazy-paving's end, where fence divided real fairy-tales from false accounting, he turned round to admire his house. The girl on the roof was playing cat's cradle with the television aerial: a girl he would recognise, if his old age was not now even older than the person it aged. His smile became the sob it was. He failed to realise that Pandora was the girl he'd once loved before he was her husband and she his wife, neither becoming the person they were meant to be - because metaphors kicked the bucket when they no longer meant anything whilst similes simply compared truth and non-truth, without coming off the fence. But the sentence was too long. A life sentence.
The teddy-bear tried to regain the slit-eyed rag-doll that he had once loved. Tom screamed from the island of his playpen for yet more toys. Playpens were worlds unto themselves. Doll's houses, too. And the properties of life and death were private properties - both in law and physical insularity. Occident met orient, in the same way as death met life, cancelling each other out. Not that Tom could now understand anything, let alone such symbols. He put anything complicated, and hence meaningful, as far from his mind as possible. He forgot, too, that, when he had looked again, he had witnessed the girl thrashing about as she was skewered on the TV aerial, her melted blood trickling into the gutters and down the soggy stilts. Her space was spice.
A voice pitifully gurgled: "Blimey, mate, help me down!"
Tom shrugged. The girl was evidently in renewed birth throes. Left on the roof by a giant stork.
In his universe, opposites, once met, were male-merged and filed - and an Ex-Lover was always the Next-Lover...
“Pretty good, at his age, eh, sweetie?”
Jackinthebox words, not Pandora’s.
(first published The Ex Files Quartet Books 1998)