Monday, January 31, 2005

The Maze Zone

Tomsk actually got more glue inside the hollows of his own nose than on the clown's plastic red conk, as he tried to stick it on.

Tomsk was a clown of long standing. Barroli wondered how anybody could make such a fist of nosing himself up, let alone a full-fledged circus performer such as Tomsk. But, then, of course, Tomsk was getting old, wasn't he? And Barroli hoped to take over from Tomsk as chief clown, a position which meant that he, Barroli, would no longer have to clown about so clownishly clownish. In fact, Tomsk, as chief clown, was eligible to wear a wickedly white staring face and pointy hat - but such an inscrutable image was one that Tomsk unaccountably avoided as far as possible bearing in mind the plonker of a bright red conk he was trying to stick on.

Barroli wouldn't be seen dead in such garish colours when he took over Tomsk's mantle - just a subtle smudge of black rouge (if rouge could be black) on each dusted cheek - plus a plain pierrot's hat or, at best, a harlequin's. Whatever the case, Barroli had his hatching to do, plans to unfold, varicose blueprints to pore over...

Barroli shook his head to clear it of thoughts. Clowns couldn't afford thoughts: too demeaning by half to the thoughts as well as to the clown who thought them. He watched Tomsk finish gumming up his his nose with loud snorts of impatience.

When a clown reached senility, such senility had double the force of ordinary people's or, seen from the diametrically opposite direction, half of it. Tomsk was so senile, nobody noticed: it simply merged with his clowning: an optimum senility, albeit a severe one. But there came a time when each facet ceased to offset the other - at which point slapstick turned into something far more dangerous than simply breaking a few bones when horseplay got out of hand in the circus ring.

Barroli feared that Tomsk was reaching beyond the Golden Mean of a clown's senility. He saw it in Tomsk's eyes, those pinpricks of life which the encircling audience, on curves of exponential delight, were too far away to see properly. Tomsk's eyes already looked as if they were nipples upon the sagging breasts of his facial muscles. But now the whites were blackening whilst the pupils became more an emptiness than a colour. The subtle mascara of Tomsk's seniority merely accentuated such physical quirks rather than alleviating them.

Barroli ceased scrutinising Tomsk so as to look into the mirror at the round blotched canvas of another face: his own.

He, too, had darkened his eye-liner to suit his own advancing years. Yet, unlike Tomsk, the bulbous nose was something that became increasingly unbearable to wear. It did nothing for his self respect. Soon, he would be too old to take over from Tomsk...

There was a rap on the dressing-room door which indicated the imminent call to duty. From the distance, both clowns could hear the ensemble drawing to the brassy finale of the elephant's cake-walk - amid the officious shouts of the ring-master. Tadman was a blighter. He had no finer feelings for clownship. He merely endured their buffoonery, for the sake of the unbearable littl'uns in the front row of the audience.

Tadman thought circuses were all about animal acts and trapeze tricks. Clowns, to him, were not even light relief. As Tomsk once said, in one of his more lucid moments, a clown's rightful purpose was really for dark relief - but, surely, one couldn't expect anyone like ring-master Tadman to appreciate the arcane arts of mockery and mummery.

The rap repeated itself. Same rap, different knuckles...

Although city-minded from cot to crabby middle-age, ring-master Tadman often felt like a disfigured peg in a regular hole. If it weren't for his weak ankles, he'd've hiked from the city centre circus to the countryside, whatever the distance ... through the winding urban back-doubles and bewildering T-junctions and double-deadended ratruns.

He suspected to be taken advantage of - looked up in the telephone directory - tracked to his inner city den - hounded till kingdom come. But someone out there might have transport that they're willing to lend him or, at least, helpful advice as to how Tadman could leave this godawful precinct. A ring-master could not be too careful. Enemies watched from in as well as out the circle...

He could now easily imagine someone thumbing through the directory’s paper-thin pages - F.D. Tadman - F.R.P Tadman Jr. - F.Z. Tadman - which one to plump for, this person with eyes squeezed shut and wielding a pen that waved about above the print like a guided missile having second thoughts. But a circus caravan with a P.O. Box Number was all Tadman had to go on himself for where he lived.

It is important that he did not attract any undesirables. Not even the clowns knew his whereabouts when not in the circus ring. Or especially the clowns. Tadman's optimum choice for someone to help him would be a nice lady with no obvious habits - one who owned a city flat as well as a country cottage and, oh yes, a set of wheels (preferably with a cog-easy motor attached).

The city was a real maze. It never ended. It never began. Office blocks concealed blind bends. Traffic choke-ups barricaded the streets - with jam and blood overflowing even the sidewalks. There had once been a wide river running through the middle of the city. Either the city council had built so many bridges, nobody knew whether the river was there any more - or it was always just around the next hair bend, where the pelican lights flashed the word "CAKE!" instead of "WALK!"? Few citizens actually cared ... as they witnessed yet another accident victim peel itself off the road surface.

Eventually, the clown's dressing-room was empty of any vestige of life, save perhaps the disorder of discarded bandages that Tomsk and Barroli had used as masking-tape - this pile budging imperceptibly in mimic of something that aspired to exist, given a stronger draught to stir it.

The mirror was unpeopled, too, yet, if the mirror could hear, it would've heard the distant laughter and the rhythmic clumping of the drums, as its erstwhile pair of companion reflections made fools of the other lesser clowns with custard-pies and trick doors ... assuming Tadman didn’t intervene.


Men who dress up as women were called Magic Playboys. Tadman tried it once, but no-one offered him a seat on crowded buses or opened doors or laid their coats upon a puddle - so he gave up the habit.

The buses never left the city. Tadman had never found one bold enough to advertise a route beyond the sprawling outskirts. The puffers shunted in and shunted out of the main line station, their headboards suspiciously blank. Tadman got on one such puffer once. He knew it was not going far, since there were no bog-easies on board for a leak. He cut short his trip at the first halt which turned out to be merely round the corner from the circus Big Top - which was convenient, he supposed, but that was hardly the point. Lucky to rediscover his shake-down from that unusual angle of approach, simply armed with a P.O. Box Number as he was.

Tomsk saw Tadman through a mishmash of his own eyes and mind, made double by overlapping. He discerned Tadman's whip snaking through the air, as if the ring-master thought the clowns were no better than animals from the menagerie - or worse. Tomsk's vision was never good but now it was a blurred dream sequence where everything was monstrous, nothing normal. He picked up a yellow slobby thing and launched it towards what he thought was Barroli's rear-end, daring not to throw one at Tadman, too. Nowhere in circus history had a ring-master become involved in clownish antics ... well, never Tadman, in any event. Not unless he'd done it once in disguise.

A little boy in the audience couldn't help laughing. He was meant to laugh, he realised, whilst his eyes cried not with tears of laughter, but with a finer brew of self. He watched the clown with the red nose and pointy hat staggering in a series of straight lines - which made the little boy feel ill at ease in view of the perfect circle in which the performance took place.

Tadman once rented out a room in his caravan to a Magic Playboy. The latter said he wouldn't bother Tadman with the hissing movement of silk frocks. He'd spend most of his time in the nude and would only dress in regalia when Tadman was out.

"But what'll happen when you go out?" Tadman asked.

"I'll dress in the storm porch."

It seemed strange using a caravan’s porch as a vestry, but who was Tadman to question? But that The-Lion-The-Witch-And-The-Wardrobe act every morning did snag Tadman's nerves.

Tadman gave Tomsk the slightest flick with the business end of his whip - more in fun than spite. Barroli made faces at another section of the audience, the members of which made faces back - whilst the little boy watched Tomsk's face become unmade.

Indeed, Tomsk's face erupted upon a basinful of jelly slime as if a head of phlegm had been building up for years behind the red nose - and had at last strained the skull's seams to bursting point with a custardly slug-stew that incubated various curded cultures of green, black and shades of green and black between.

The little boy covered his eyes with his hands, knowing in his heart that the slapstick had not only got out of hand, but out of head, too. The little boy didn't wantanyone to see his tears. A monstrous shape crawled on its stomach along the ring's radius towards the little boy’s position in the audience.

The city was a queer place. The streets were all one, really. No escape. Tadman had seen paintings of the countryside in art galleries. He yearned for its green touch. It must exist - somewhere.

And, of course, not to be forgotten was something everybody had forgotten. But never mind, since Tadman just had to answer the door bell. It wasanother of those Magic Playboys who said he had left his motor running in the next cul-de-sac. Was it convenient for him to look round the room quickly, so he could decide whether to take it. Tadman sensed the Magic Playboy spoke in code.

"I don't let it out any more."

"That's strange. I saw it advertised. This caravan is P.O. Box No. 174, isn't it?"

Tadman told him that it was decidedly not P.O. Box No. 174 and, even if it were, he'd not tell the likes of a Magic Playboy or, if he did tell him, Tadman would disguise it into a bigger better caravan quite out of a Magic Playboy's rental range. Tadman quickly drew the large culottes across the door and returned alone to his inner pad. Tears unaccountably sprung to his loose lashes. He should have asked the Magic Playboy how much mileage his motor had got left and whether it could have taken them both, as well as the caravan, beyond the outskirts of the city.

Tadman's bewildermazed back-run of a mind suddenly knew that his own thoughts were disguised even from himself.

Barroli naturally expected Tomsk to return to the dressing-room, but Tomsk never did. So Barroli gummed himself up in a regalia of black bandages - the resultant mummified mummer waiting patiently for its own humanity to be healed. But, then, the mirror abruptly cracked as near down the middle of the shiny surface as it was geometrically possible to do - and became the only trick door that worked tricks for real.

Tadman lived forever - or, at least, someone with squeeze-eyes masquerading as Tadman did. Ringleader, as well as Ringmaster, he organised drag-racing trips along the city's Ring Roads. Nobody could heal his humanity, sad to say.

Nobody knew what happened to the little boy in the circus audience or whether he managed to escape the Maze Zone.

(published ‘Strix’ 1997)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Map Of Memories

Joseph Collins’ latest obssession was the litter that peppered the paths and roads of our city, so much so, he eventually wanted the outside to be even cleaner than his own lounge carpet. The littlest tab from a beer-can wedged between the pavement slabs was enough to knock him off his rocker in the neatest rage. He did not actually give himself the task of removing the detritus, but, possessing a pocket-sized narrow-feint notebook - one that was purchased for 37½p from his favourite emporium with the ancient aroma of childhood treats - he was able to enscribe an aide mémoire - almost a map - of where the different throwaway items lay or lodged. He then gave this notebook to long-suffering Annie, expecting her to venture out late at night with dustpan and handbroom - but, of course, not before she had done the housework at home.

Fortunately for Annie, his obsession only raged for a week, during which time she managed to pull the wool over his eyes by taking herself off to the makeshift shed at the bottom of the garden. She spent the small hours there when she was meant to be scouring the streets. Furthermore, this being a very windy period - trade winds gusting fitfully upon the gulf stream - the assorted flotsam and jetsam were naturally made into fresh meaningful patterns by break of light. Joseph was then able to draw up revised maps of what he considered to be a quite different crop of litter.

Upon this obsession eventually becoming merely a memory, Annie still escaped to the shed, come bedtime. She really liked the comfy deckchair she had set up there and, being an unusually mild winter, it was preferable to sleeping with Joseph’s snoring log of a body next to her. And who could have blamed her? He had told her that his new preoccupation was to count her body hair and, with tweezers, pluck out sufficient to bring the grand total remaining to exactly one thousand. Annie threatened to fetch her mother home, since her mother would have lots of old woman’s long curly sort of hairs that he could pluck. But Joseph was on to a new plane of obsession: imitating the state of death, like a ventriloquising corpse. He should have gone on the stage (and he did after Annie finally left him) and on the stage there was plenty of mileage in such acts, since the stand-up comedians had lost their voices in face of the competition from television.

When the applause sounded out, Joseph tried to count each individual clap - including those of the two one-armed chaps sitting next to each other in the front stalls. The more popular Joseph became - advertised as the only comic who could die every night - the more difficult it became to differentiate the various constituents of the audience’s ovations. However, when his popularity eventually waned, the audience threw ill-separated mushy leftovers from their shopping-bags upon the voiceless dummy which he had left as scapegoat and decoy on the stage - whilst Joseph himself crouched in the prompting-booth desperately trying to itemise the muck that spilled over from the stage. The two ladies, who looked uncannily similar to his memory of Annie and her mother, did not throw anything at the stage, but only because they had nothing to hand except, of course, their wigs.

Many years before, more than even Joseph could count, he courted Annie, with a vengeance. She need weaning from her own beliefs...

“Can you be more specific?” asked the priest.

“I don’t know how I can, because God is the most unspecific thing to talk about,” the woman’s voice replied.

“Just try, my dear, and I’ll be listening.”

“Promise you’ll be listening then, Father Arthur, even if I close my eyes and think there’s nothing in existence except myself.”

“I promise - don’t worry your little head about whether I am here or not - I’ll be listening come what may.”

“How long can you give me, Father?”

“Till you finish, Annie.”

“How can anyone actually finish talking about God?”

The Confessional grille separated the two voices. The fitful silence of the church was overbearing. The trappings seemed to move of their own volition as the rippling light stained the flags.

Joseph, hearing the voices in the distance, knelt upon a hassock amid the pews, making pretence of prayer. But he knew he had brought Annie here and was waiting for her interview with the Pope’s puppet to finish. Joseph was scathing of anything religious except God Himself. Joseph wondered if Father Arthur could sleep at night. Annie’s words from behind the purple drapes were not undergrunted but sharp-keyed and precise enough to reveal a relentless self-unwrapping which she punctuated with the clicking together of her stilletoes. Joseph’s own tongue clicked to himself in unison. His own ears burned in Hellfire.

“God is in everything,” continued Annie. “I often feel Him inside me, larger than life. In the clouds, too. Are you still listening? I hope so. So if God is in everything, each one of us is in turn a part of God. Even the greatest sinner owns a little bit of God.”

There was nothing in response from Father Arthur. Annie’s voice itself was strangely squeaky, almost unreal in the heady incense-laden air. Joseph progressed on all fours down the aisle towards the Confessional, knowing he would need to figure in her words sooner or later. After all, he was her sin, so surely he had the right to be party to its absolution.

Joseph recalled the horn-rimmed glasses he had tenderly removed from her face, rather than risk breaking them. Her eyes had spoken of a nudity far more significant than that of a whole body’s bareness: even greater than death’s final disvestment. Joseph had licked the tears away. She must have then realised that the virginity she had painstakingly preserved for God Himself was in mortal danger. He had ridiculed the spuds in her ankle socks, when he removed her spinsterly shoes. She was remarkably open-hearted with the goodnight kiss she had granted him. Tomorrow, she would confess this failure towards God - then she and Joseph would be free to marry and have children. He had helped burn her nun’s weeds in the back garden, making the sky accept the smoke like a blessing. He shook his head in an attempt to eliminate this memory.

Without premeditation, Joseph tugged aside one half of the purple drapes. He wanted to put his side of the story. The thus revealed Father Arthur turned with the abruptness of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

“What do you think you’re doing, Joseph?”

“I belong in this confession. I need to clear up the litter of its loose ends.”

“Another’s sins are for God’s ears alone.”

Joseph winced. So, the Priest was the wearer of God’s ears, was he?

“But her sins are me.”

“You have no right...”

“Do you mean I have neither a right to be her sin nor to be party to its absolution?” Joseph’s ironic tone was lost on Father Arthur.

“Joseph, let go! You’re so compulsive!” chimed in Annie from behind her side of the drapes. “Leave us, your turn will come later. I need to understand God to the very bottom before I surrender Him for you. You will own the rest of my life, so let me have these last few precious moments with God my once intended.”

“God is always with you, whatever you may offer Him, be it the whole of your being or just part of it,” said Father Arthur, turning back to the grille with the crack of brittle bones. “You are not surrendering God, merely postponing Him.”

With a lump in his throat, Joseph closed the drapes, to conceal Father Arthur who, if his face bore any emotion at all, was riven with mindless fright. The words belied the priest’s ashen demeanour. God could no longer ensure that the lips synchronised - nor the sin absolved. As a feminine grunt of sorrow sounded, Joseph opened the other side of the drapes to remind him that there was nobody there, or nobody as a whole - only a squirming pile of maggoty meat glistening in the light which slanted like translucent girders from the stained gass windows. Joseph went home to tidy up the rest of Annie.

Uncountable years beyond, Joseph drove along Brown Street, hoping to find it led into the road he wanted. The map said it did. So, hope was a bit unnecessary. He wore a mackintosh whatever the weather, mainly because it had huge pockets. His mission on this drizzly day was one of ghost-spotting. This was his latest obsession, ever since Annie returned to him as a memory - a memory he had failed to recognise until it had donned its wig. But then it disappeared.

So, yes, he believed in ghosts. Black ones. White ones. Smoky grey ones. He had heard told of a whole clutch of sickly ones in a cul de sac which led off from Brown Street. Whether they actually laid about on the cobbles coughing or had a roof over their heads in the two-up-two-downs was uncertain.

He was unexpectedly forced from Brown Street into one called Lloyd Street Gardens which did not seem to be on his map at all. It seemed to be the only way he could drive following the one-way arrows - not a proper cul de sac, because he could see an escape route where two back-alleys joined forces, further down. Albeit narrow, he could see it was possible to take the width of a car.

He pulled up outside some well-kept terraced housing, with bowls of flowers in their bay windows. The exteriors had been spruced up with front doors which would have been far more suitable for posher joints. Some sported storm-porches that Joseph was convinced were bigger than some of the rooms inside - or, in one incredible example, roomier than the whole house itself. A broad-shouldered lady stared at him from her postage stamp of a front garden. Joseph stared back. But why stare so hard?

He gained confidence from his high-collared, knee-length mackintosh. There was nothing she could have on him. In fact, he probably knew more about her than she did him, because he had seen where she lived. That gave him even more confidence.

He strolled over, stretching out the map: “It says Tipping Street down here...”

She continued with her gardening, which consisted of prodding the soil with a dibbler and dropping a large seed into each hole. The biggest seed Joseph had ever seen. He started humming a song called Four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire in mock lilt. He could see she had not been at it long, nor had she much more to do.

“It says Lloyd Street Gardens up on the side of that house,” he said, as if it were her fault.

“Tipping Street’s just round the corner,” she said as she stood up again, hands placed on the small of her back.

Wisps of wig had fallen over her eyes which she did not bother to brush aside. Joseph scratched his head as he pored over the map. It was admittedly a little out of date, but all these streets looked pre-first world war in any event, and they probably didn’t have televisions in the parlours - despite the wire spokes decking the chimneystacks.

“You’ve got to go down there.” She pointed with her own wiry finger along a side road that he had not previously noticed. “Turn left at Bold Street, follow along Byrom for its full length, and the road forking both ways is Tipping.” She hesitated. “The car will do you no good, though.” She took one of the fat seeds from her apron pocket, placed it under her tongue and, in an irritating fashion, as some people do, sucked noisily upon it like a boiled sweet. Joseph returned to his car, not bothering to say anything further to the likes of such a creature. He cursed, upon spotting a traffic warden who was now peering at his windscreen. The double yellow lines had been painted under the tyres of his car’s nearside wheels since he had parked it.

“I won’t be troubling you,” he said, “I’m just off.”

“Hey, wait a mo-mo, I’ve a good mind to lay a ticket on you, mate.” She too jabbed with her sharpened spoke of a fingernail. Joseph thought: give them a uniform and they think you’re desperate for a dose of good old humiliation!

“I”ve only been here thirty seconds,” he remonstrated.

“Thirty seconds is a long time to someone who is dying,” said the seed lady who had left her garden to join them. “Yes, mister, you might think it boring to wash a potato in the kitchen sink, under the rattling cold tap. But you should cherish every moment, every eye and nodule of its substance. You should savour every second of life for what it is and relish, as I say, even the scrubbing of an earthy spud, for such chores are tantamount to Heaven on Earth.”

She screeched at a small girl she called Annie who was smearing her face with dirt at this very moment halfway down the otherwise empty street.

“I simply wanted to get to Tipping Street and my map says it’s here.” Joseph held out his map - which he suddenly remembered was home-made.

“You must have it upside down.”

Joseph raised his head to stare back at the perpetrator of that last statement. He still had the security of his mackintosh. There was a fibrous green shoot starting to protrude from one of the women’s left nostrils. Joseph had had enough. The women had really got his goat. They were lucky he wasn’t a mackintosh flasher. And as he drove down Brown Street out of that part of town, missing little Annie by the skin of her nose, and having left both the parking ticket and the map in the outlandishly deep gutter, he thought he saw coils of black smoke wreathing along the terraced roof-ridges, meeting flourishes of white smoke from other chimneys. Newly lit fires. Ancient fires. Clean-as-a-whistle chimneys. Ill-swept chimneys. Foul flues. Sweet-as-a-nut flues. Whatever the case, they all produced their variety of smokes and so forth. Joseph determined he’d write a serious history of television aerials. Or hair styles. Or the romantic avenues of déjà vu. It was amazing how things changed shape from time to time. Even beyond recognition. And he winked left, suddenly knowing who the seed lady was. Or, even, who he was. So exhausted, he couldn’t think properly. Yet he retained enough hope for his car to reach beyond Lloyd Street Gardens towards his home. Choke still full out.

But true stories concern more than just one. Joseph never knew Hugger, but their fates intertwined remorselessly.

The bouncer died at his doorpost. The crowd of joysters remained oblivious of his predicament, if predicament’s not too lightweight a word for being trampled underfoot into an ugly early decease as a stand-in for a corpse. The dance band played on, in dire need of at least a single brain to share. The wild-eyed drummer, for one, witnessed the accident in its raw state - yet he maintained a relentless tattoo upon the tomtoms, as if he wanted to stir the voodoo-man who he supposed crouched within all such barrels of beat. The skin-pounder was probably “on” something - and that wasn’t simply a drum-stool.

Then, an older yet unwiser Joseph made his flourish of arrival in the ballroom - the one who came every month: the heart and soul of the party, and that didn’t count the rest of him: the man whom everybody feared as they pretended to like him. And he saw straightaway that the bouncer, amid the jungle of legs, was deader than his doornail.

“Ey, Jo, ows fings?” asked Hugger, a sucker whose nose had come off from too much snorting. A village idiot with no village to call his own.

“Looks as if old Father Arthur’s sitting out this dance?” Joseph pointed at the extrapolated body-bag which would have been crying out for absolution, given the chance to postpone reincarnation elsewhere.

“Blymee, Jo, dya fink ees ... ded?” The questioner never worried about having the nickname Hugger, for obvious reasons. His speech, too, was bereft of nasal resonance, making the meaning something he’d lost from the tip of his tongue before thinking it, let alone saying it.

“Yep, Father Arthur’s dead, OK, Hugger - and he gives Last Rites here as well as being a bouncer, doesn’t he?” Joseph, never at a loss for words, very rarely asked questions, unless they were rhetorical ones. Didn’t fit with his new found unmackintoshed image, otherwise.

“Cor ... eck ... corz e duz ... oos goin bleedin elp im up to find God, then, Jo?” asked Hugger.

Joseph shrugged, before taking his place on the floor, where people of whatever persuasion could watch him swaggering through a jitterbug as if he were his own dancing-partner, his own self being someone whom he really fancied beyond even the wildest masturbatory dreams of celebratory celibacy. Meanwhile, Hugger, who was kinder than he looked, if thicker than he sounded, crouched down to listen to the bouncer’s mouth. Eventually, Hugger cradled the ex-priest’s head in his arms. The cringing at the smell of incipient body-rot was, of course, a case of reflex rigor mortis rather than anything else. Which could have well been the end of everything, except Joseph, as ever, had to have the last word. Or was it the last dance? Whatever the case, Hugger, for once in his life, wasn’t a gooseberry during the smoochy number that the dark shapes of fused couples performed amid the slow-flickering revolutions of shattered light.

You see, the dead bouncer, propped up as Hugger’s dancing partner, even won the spot prize - a great big green patch having spread ever wider from the corpse’s belly-button which a virulent case of heavy-snogging had inadvertently revealed from below his vestal dungarees.

Joseph’s newest obsession of acting out personalities that didn’t suit him was fast fading and he snatched the corpse from Hugger and French-kissed it. The voodoo drums were quietly drumming still, even at the deadest dead of night with all punters gone puff. It went without saying, too, that pied pipers and piebald pounders always returned to their raw state - until another month, another dance, another set of loose-limbed lovelies and, hopefully, a bouncier bouncer at the doorpost.

Hugger was not exactly a “village idiot”, more a slouching shadowy shape that threaded the blind alleys of the city - both by day and night. Friendly, too. Too friendly, by half. Hence perhaps the nickname. Women in particular avoided him like the plague. He was cared for by an Aunt in Lloyd Street Gardens. An ex-Traffic Warden. She’d simply discovered the tousle-headed urchin in their dustbin where he had crawled for shelter during a particularly smoggy night.

No memories. No hopes. Hugger simply existed without trying: it was difficult to die without trying. But the Aunt was decidedly pleased with the foundling who had readily wrapped his arms around her neck - as if a strangely affectionate angel had dropped from Heaven.

“More a demon that’s slithered from Hell!” said a gossiping neighbour. But, thankfully, nobody was within earshot when this neighbour made this unwarranted statement - except Hugger himself squatting in the coal bunker nearby and he could not follow the spoken word. But even if he failed to differentiate such sounds, nobody had guessed Hugger could actually read the same words in print, especially with the Aunt being mostly illiterate - thus keeping overtly written tracts from his reach in the confines of the backstreet hovel, other than the possible exception of an odd soup packet which none bothered to read.

There was indeed no story about Hugger’s life: not even an eerie one around a campfire. His life began. It subsisted. It ended. Supposedly.

Nobody kept a record of Hugger’s doings, because nobody in the vicinity could write. Except Joseph. And he only wrote statistics and exhaustive studies of chance. Joseph, now living under the motorways, as an obsessive dosser, had evidence for only one further glimpse of Hugger - the rest of Hugger being mere surmise. Failing all else, surmise is surprisingly dependable. Joseph’s new subway home was where pedestrians used to undercut from one side of the city to the other - assumed to be the longest walk-through subway ever built. The mazy motorways above it barely intersected without sprawling further than their own hard shoulders and the glittering array of white and red jewels darting up and down them went as far as any eye could see. Hence the need for a foot-tunnel. The Council, however, had, of course, forgotten about it, thus allowing a gathering of the underclass and the undead to incubate there amid their own self-perpetuating litter - a close community stringing along in a series of Chinese whispers. Real foot-passengers no longer used the underpass, taking their chances with the hoovering hordes of traffic above. People in the smoky cars should have their bumpers felt: because it was far safer down there.

Joseph and his cronies would never have harmed head or tail of any drifter coming into their enamel burrow, but simply helped him or her along by means of rumour-mongering and ground-swelling. In subsequent years, Joseph and the other subwayfarers, becoming accustomed to their privacy, cherished their near oblivion by resting quiet. Fulfilled simply by not needing to be fulfilled. Sublimely content. And one day Hugger stumbled down there. He happened to crouch by Joseph’s particular clutch of cronies, with his eyes still bright from being outside in the sun. Hugger had started making friends by cuddling each one in turn.

Wanting him to be under no llusion as to the conditions, Joseph pointed to the make-shift corner of the tunnel that had grown even darker than the rest of the place. A glistening black lobster-like thing pulsed there and clucked. Only one piece of yet uncounted muck among several.

Hugger could not see as well as subway stock could, because his pupils had not yet sufficiently swollen. Yet, Hugger seemed to think he knew what the pulsing piece of muck was, and Joseph corroborated by describing its evolution: once a little girl, with soft cheeks, who caught a common cold. And Joseph told Hugger that incurable illnesses, even mild ones like the common cold, could, through its very incurability, eventually turn the whole sufferer into the illness itself: not much more than a stewed knot of snot maggots. Hugger nodded, knowingly, as if he had actually understood Joseph’s logic, and left. Hugger was not to be one of the underclass, after all.

Joseph was confident Hugger did not leave so as to reveal subway secrets but to make them even more secret. A secret couldn’t exist, after all, without somebody to keep it.

The Aunt welcomed her Hugger back. She had taken advantage of his absence to have the attic decorated for his own bedroom, using a wallpaper with a rock-pool design - where he lived happily ever after, despite giving him pens to suck but, thankfully, no paper. She yearned for a daughter to keep him company, but the Aunt had a hysterectomy episode instead.

Hugger became to be called the winder man - “cos I cleen winders” was his stock answer to everything. Mrs Collins was, of course, rather more select than the way her winder man happened to speak. She was a widow, not a rich one, because, unlike other husbands, her own husband had failed to make it big in waste management during the Thatcher years. She had unfond memories of those days, and the eventual loss of her husband had made her feel happier with even less.

One day, she sat and sewed in her Tipping Street parlour - without really thinking. Most widows didn’t dare think any more because, if they did think, their thoughts would be unwelcome. She might have thought of that pestering priest who often came round to gold-dig in her muckheaps. Looking for the green shoots of recovery, he had maintained.

She suddenly looked up and spotted Hugger smearing his chamois leather across the parlour winder - and smiling. He smiled, not at the window’s widow sitting and sewing, but at the frostily reflected image of his own face in the glass. Yet, she assumed the smile was for her. The Autumn day had started as clear and sparkling as a new polished mirror, but fog, like smog used to be, returned for a second bite of the stagnant air, closing in at the loose end of the grief-littered afternoon. The houses opposite were blurred, resembling the ready-mades which an impressionist could cut out to patch up his painting. The trees became abstract splodges of brown and green, the sky a backdrop for an old silent movie. She returned Hugger’s smile. She considered Hugger hers because the whole world was hers - well, at least the world that she saw at any one moment through her eyes. Indeed, the world, through her eyes, was quite different from the world Hugger saw through his. She turned a blind eye towards her long-lost little Annie Junior. The girl had played in the cold streets, because there was no television to keep her at home (like other girls). Nothing to prevent her from going missing, possibly abducted...

Hugger had left, not without dropping his invoice through the letter-box, on the assumption there was nobody in the house. The widow sighed with a combination of relief and regret. A breeze on the brink of a wind fast dispersed the bad breath of old fog, which had infiltrated even as far down her chimney as the parlour itself. Smoking her out.

She coughed behind her handkerchief. The houses opposite would have been much more clearly defined if it were not for the young darkness swirling between the various versions of vision that addressed their roof-topped shapes.

The young man returning from college, clutching the same satchel he had as a child, saw everything one way. The late-delivery newspaper-boy saw everything differently. Hugger’s Aunt, with choke full out, sniffed snootily and saw nothing but her sooty prey. Hugger himself, on his ladder, rubbing at the oblong eyes, was indeed seen by many bystanders as a shifting shadow that had absorbed most of the darkness into itself rather than wait for night to hide it, the shadow thus failing to realise that such a method increased its premature prominence as a silhouette.

Through her own newly buffed window, the widow perceived the shape of the winder man on his ladder, scraping the muck off the roofs opposite - the same stock of accumulations that had made fortunes during the Christianity era. Then, there was bright coition of such yet untidied muck and a chimney’s sudden suck-out of sparks: and the TV aerials bent and wilted like stick-insects melting - or like ghosts with wire spokes for bones. Her wispy hair, like ghosts of maggots (or seeds), tried to tug free one by one: to escape a body that now counted for nothing. An empty skull called Annie Collins.

Applause fluttered and flittered with a million almost visible wings.

(published ‘Palace Corbie’ 1999)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A Tale About Thomas

Mount Catanak was a mostly extinct volcano, poking a nose-cone above the plateau that verged on the outer homesteads of Parsimony township. A pendulum swung from generation to generation, thereabouts and, today, the kids were told to straighten their backs and put their index fingers upon their busy inky-black lips as a little reminder of the sanctity of silence. Until then, it was hubbub amid the plasticene; but, the age of the class being around eleven, it only took a little pressure on the tiller of discipline for sweet silence to reign supreme. It was deep summer, and the renewed quiet revealed the richly varied throstling of the resplendent bird-life outside. Mr Brown, the one-eyed gardener, was just to be seen through the window, licking his teeth as he tended to the blossomy tendrils coiling in and out of the school railings.

The teacher, Mr Asquew by name and nature, was in a tidy sweat, since he had just needed to rummage behind the blackboard for a box of rubbers, which were about to be handed round the staring pupils, in a mistaken attempt to prevent errors rather than cure them. All different pastel shades the rubbers were, and he knew that the kids, if left to their own devices, would fight over having the pinkish ones - in the same manner as they did over blackcurrant flavours in a tube of Spangles.

Tales about Mount Catanak did abound in Mr Asquew's schoolroom, tales which really should have been part of the history lesson but had, over countless years, evolved into Religious Education. In the front double desk - and they were there because they were within smacking distance - sat two nose-crudded boys by the names of Murky and Thomas. Both lived in the outskirts of the township nearest to that part of the plateau where timber trees marched along the banks of the Mercy ... towards a thicker forestation that concealed the river's further whereabouts. They were first cousins but none the friendlier for that.

"You may remove your fingers, children, but fold your arms upon your desks ... neatly now."

Sloping Mr Asquew had often considered doing something about the desk-slopes themselves, for they were scored with ink runnels, curlicue engravings, tags and pieces, depicting the childhood dreams from centuries ago. He'd see to them before Christmas, he vowed. He'd require some pretty stiff scrubbing brushes, plenty of toxic bleach, a carpenter's plane, rutted files of various torques and mounds of heavy-duty sandpaper.

For a moment, Mr Asquew's mind returned to the class and he wondered why that kid Edalpo in a double-desk on his own seemed to be shadow-boxing. The scallywag had been removed to the back of the classroom by the window, since rapping Edalpo's knuckles with the yardstick was like beating steak to tenderise it. No response.

But today's today, no time for slipshod thoughts. The hand-bell would soon be shaken by the Headmistress in the corridor to mark the end of the current period. Mr Asquew had a soft spot for her, but he could not endure her in the role of schoolmarm. She pretended not to acknowledge Asquew as the man who attended to her on some evenings after the kids had gone home. Daytime saw her storming through the school building, with wide unpleated skirts, twill twin-sets and booming voice.

Mr Asquew allowed his desultory gaze to wander out the window, where Mr Brown was now looking up into the sky, scratching his head as if expecting rain. Mr Brown hated sunshine. It played havoc with his met-tab-bol-ism, Brown claimed to Asquew when they met in the playground. But surely there'd be no rain on a glorious summer's day like this. Ah, well, the end of the lesson - enormous clattering like dumb-bells being rattled in an oil-drum. The kids (Murky and Thomas included) immediately collapsed into a body profile more comfortable to their in-built stoops. Their many bones clicked upon release from the strict, hour-long régime imposed by Mr Asquew. They lifted their desk-lids, placed their heads within the dark horizontal cupboard spaces to seek out their lunch-boxes and, on flat feet and with wild chatter, filed out unrulily from the formroom.

Lunch was indeed more than a ritual. They dragged out the thick bristly exercise mats from the bicycle-sheds, rashered them out haphazardly over the playground and forthwith prepared to picnic in the hot summer air. But the real ritual was in the eating. The Headmistress clumped a large soup-ladle along the school railings to permit the lifting of lunch-box lids and the gentle ensuing of the nibbles. The mats chafed the kids' flesh, since the girls' gym-slips and the boys' flannel shorts did nothing to protect their knees, calves - nor, even, thighs. The food, packed that very morning by their loving parents, were fillingless sandwiches rounded off by a single crab-apple.

The munchers simply took on a melted mutter of fitful undertones, which assumed second place to the chomping teeth. But, today, one little bright spark scared the girls silly by hinting that in the desk ink-wells lurked creepy-crawly-coily things, each with a single eye only for the fair sex.

Eventually, renewed clattering along the railings announced Grace, which the Headmistress proudly intoned:- "It’d’been for what we have moved our teeth through may the One True God find us genuinely thankful for His small mercies." The kids' response, in practised unison, was: "It’d’been for our bellies to stay full till they are ready to empty in His good time." Then, with a sharp blast on a hard-pea whistle, the kids rose from their mats which they packed away and, in twos and surreptitious threes, crocodiled back into the school buildings. Mr Brown watched them go. He was now up on the roof oiling the weathervane. He scratched his head and dug a fingernail into his protrusion of teeth to reclaim some red gristle from his erstwhile breakfast. The day being so calm, he caught the under-hum of the honey-bees in his flower-beds. Folk of his ilk had sensitive hearing.

Murky collected his own smackaroos like notches on a whip and was jealous of each and every one that his cousin Thomas received, especially if they were harder than his. And he literally seethed with jealous anger if Mr Asquew should draw Thomas's blood. Whilst Thomas fiercely loathed these cruel smarts upon himself, he smiled for he knew, in this way, they would hurt Murky more.

But one day, with his ear almost hanging off, Thomas let forth a screech fit to strangle a chicken. The class was in uproar. Murky and Thomas banged their desk-lids in unison. Some other boys barged up and down the aisle like warriors with their bloodlust in overdrive. Murky merely stared ahead. Mr Asquew had at last given up the ghost and was seen to be cowering under his desk, gnawing the chalk duster. Edalpo, as usual, was nowhere to be seen.

The summer went on all year, it seemed.

One day, all the boys, enemies and friends alike, huddled in tree-dens along the banks of the Mercy River. They could faintly see Mount Catanak through an early dawn mist. Murky suddenly slipped and fell headlong into the untamed river. As he was swept along further into the plateau land, one could hear his dying snorts for help. But he did not die. Asquew will tell you that. For Asquew had jumped in, half an hour before.

The River Mercy never let anyone die, you see.

The afternoon timetable, thereafter, invariably included Scripture, where Mr Asquew had to scale a step-ladder and hand down the hefty Bibles from the top of the huge Nature Study cupboard. Each kid then toted the tome to his desk, opened its stiff gold-tooled covers with a mighty creak, pored over the close print and learned each verse parrot-fashion for blind recital the next day. Later in the afternoon, Mr Asquew remembered that Health Education, as the Authorities stipulated, should be included within a Scripture lesson, to give the required context. He had only broached the subject once before, when that Edalpo kid brought something out in class, saying he thought it was to be a Practical. So Mr Asquew was a trifle nervous this time. "Health" could cover a multitude of sins ... such as "cleaving", as he called it, whilst drawing esoteric symbols on the blackboard, one of which reminded some of the girls of the way they imagined the ink-well creature to look like - a fact which confirmed the boys' fears about their own prospective manhood.

And the afternoon wore on, the heat of the day shimmering forth wet puddles across the playground. Mr Brown sat with his back to the wall, munching on some bodily, if not culinary, leavings he'd found stuck to the exercise mats. The drone of Mr Asquew’s voice filtered through to him from an open window, talking it seemed of a box of rubbers, and which particular colours the boys preferred. The sun was making everybody rather strange. Mr Asquew later shambled off to the Headmistress' office, hoping against hope that she'd give him a tantalising glimpse of her navy-blue knickers. Or, heaven, oh heaven, their contents. It had indeed been peculiarly hot today. And it was equally hot for many days to come.

Cousin Murky was the one that made the difference on the day of the near drowning. With a lungful of river weed, he dragged himself and Mr Asquew from the squally river right at the foot of the rearing Catanak volcano. They both raised their eyes in awe, for none from Parsimony had ventured this far out before. Murky decided to stop playing dumb and, for the first time in his life, he made sense out of the words he spoke: "It's about to go up! The ground's moving, ain't it? We're dead monkeys for sure!"

Mr Asquew, who was now sitting at the river's edge, wringing out his black gown, looked up with shillings in his eyes. Meanwhile, Murky saw a man walking down in great strides from the topmost cone of Catanak. And this man was laden with an oar as big as himself. As he grew nearer, the man's upper black lip turned to a hair-curling snarl and, staring with flame-shot eyes, he began to wheel the oar around him like an ocean liner's giant propellers threshing those bottomless seas towards which Mercy surged. And Murky smiled as each cataclysmic oar-thwack bit harder into his own spineworks.

Mr Asquew had already run back towards where he thought the township lay.

Cousin Murky returned to school the next day, much to everybody's amazement. In fact it was even more amazing that anybody was there at all, since it was still the summer holidays. He told the other boys in his gang that he'd had a heart-to-heart with Uncle Hairlip and that he was going to be good in class from that day on. What was more, he'd had his fill of smackaroos, enough to last a lifetime and a half.

Thomas squirmed in his desk. He had secretly hoped that his cousin had been drowned, meaning more money for him when the inheritances came round in due course. Instead, just a drool of cuckoo-spit could be seen at the corner of Thomas's mouth, as he sat and stared at nothing in particular.

Some hands were held under the double desks. Their owners feared the words that Murky (with Mr Asquew's help) had scrawled across the surface of the dark blackboard in crude indelible chalk: UNCLE HAIRLIP LIVES IN HERE.

Mr Asquew had no further discipline problems, despite his sitting in the nature study cupboard sucking on dissected rats. All he had to do was intermittently point at the blackboard and the legend upon it.

Edalpo, that boy who was only half-noticed and then only half the time, had a half-twin, a concept which was beyond most people's comprehension but, indeed, this half-twin existed by means of some paranormal quirk of miscegenation. Nobody, including Mr Asquew, had seen both of them simultaneously and, what was more, each boy himself did not believe one hundred per cent in the existence of the other. Nevertheless, their existence was an ageless curse, since they never really grew up, despite History passing through their tousled mops like wind. Mr Brown, the odd job man, seemed to know more about their true condition than met more normal eyes. But he didn't let on. He had different geese to cook.

Quite a nightmare to Mr Asquew, because each boy was so different mentally, if not physically. Edalpo represented a quieter, more polite version of his half-twin; but, even so, Edalpo possessed the knack of making his own bones crack loudly during prayers; and his inch-wide tie with frays teased out like a Chinaman's goatee, together with the crud-encaked nostrils and tongue of wicked wicked innocence were enough to make Mr Asquew bring out the veins of Edalpo's calves with the willowy cane. Boys those days had trousers especially shortened to allow such disciplinary behaviour and Edalpo's knuckles were likened to pork-cuts at the butchers, from the rapping they had received.

But, Edalpo's half-twin, he was a different ball-game altogether. He indeed attended school less often, God be thanked, but when he did arrive, with every clear-thinking adult assuming that it was still Edalpo, the shock became thus more acute. He smiled more sweetly than Edalpo, in fact, and that should have been warning enough. And after the smile, an onlooker would soon spot that the crudded nose twitched, as if alive by its own volition with the hardening mucus bearing a soul of its own: squeaking in restful rhythm with the boy's heart. His eyeballs were nut brown conkers revolving on their axes, dizzying anybody he looked upon. His insides not only began noisily to crack like Edalpo's, but also whine, grind, judder and splinter in the manner of a godawful bonemill. But the smell was the worst. At first, it was merely the typical redolence of 'Boy': the brown skidmarks decorating his underclothes, the ripe heady sweat, the careless lettings - emitting their almost pleasant cocktail of scents. Then, he began to mouth off words of sufficient mind-numbing filth that the breath that accompanied them filled the classroom with such utter foulness and fœtor, it was easier to suffocate than to carry on inhaling it - as if all the stinks of Hell's unflushed latrines were emptied in one go, after an eternity of use, at the back entrance of Heaven.

But Edalpo and his half-twin are not our concern. Far from it. Not even Thomas figures all that much in our moiderings. Our story is of Murky. And during one particular summer, the days were still endless, the laughter unbridled and the adventures usually wild and hair-raising. Murky wanted to be an artist when he eventually grew up. But, in those dog days, like his schoolmates, he had nostrils that hung below his mouth and threatened to dangle lava upon his T-shirt from a volcano back somewhere in his head. His ma and pa had a Christmas tree going all year. Its fairy lights flashed slowly on and off, so slowly in fact that the darknesses in between were reckoned to be "as long as death itself..."

Thomas may have suffered from non sequiturs. Thomas may have answered each question with another. But who cared? Thomas wasn't important. Not even important to himself.

"What you mooning about, Thomas?" Murky asked as they followed each other across the frozen seas of hills around Parsimony township.

Silence. Nothing but the birds on high riding a low rumble of thunder or the surging of an underground torrent reaching blindly towards a heel-off with the Mercy River.

Eventually, Thomas answered. What did he say? Nobody ever remembered. Often, Edalpo wandered with them, older than both Thomas and Murky put together, by the look of him. His bones cracked as he walked, but Murky and Thomas put it all down to the deadfall trees that Edalpo trampled through in preference to the relatively open paths. There were a lot of upended trees about that year, following a particularly violent wind-storm that nobody had seen coming from over the hills beyond Catanak. Some even said Catanak had erupted for the first time since the Crusades and had added its power to the Twister which later flattened most of the poorer districts of Parsimony.

One day, during that endless year of their lives when all stood still except themselves, the three actually walked closer to the foot of Mount Catanak than they had ever been before. Arriving beyond the more customary haunts, one or two trees seemed to have their roots where the branches used to be.

"Phew! That must have been a mighteee storm!" shouted Murky.

The trees' fallen husks were stranded around. Edalpo did not remark on this strange phenomenon. He just ran to where some of the fir-cones had pyramided against each other.

Murky was still yapping on: "The storm's turned the whole wide world upside down." And he felt his head to see if it was at the right end of his body. "Thomas, let's play that game. You know. I'll be Uncle Hairlip and you can be the naughty boy. And when we've done it that way round, you will be Uncle Hairlip and me the boy."

Then, silence. Only Edalpo cracking nuts between his knees.

"Will you let me beat you with the biggest piece of wood I can find, when you act the boy? Will you, will you, Murky?" hooted Thomas

"Only if I can use it, too ... on you, 'tother way about.

"Come here!" suddenly shouted Edalpo. "Here's the biggest piece of wood in the world!"

They ran instinctively to where Edalpo was pointing into a cave-like structure formed by several deadfalls. Murky had to hold a large handkerchief to his nose for the smell of ripeness gone wrong pervaded the woven culvert Edalpo had discovered. Thomas stood right behind Murky, but boys being boys, physical contact between them was never acknowledged. Murky's body being in constant motion from point to point did not retain for long the impress of Thomas's along his spine and buttocks, for he had surged into the opening. There, within the makeshift darkness of the cave, was a fresh fir tree fit for a thousand more Christmases. His ma and pa would be chuffed to be able to get rid of the scruffy version from which they had dangled coloured lights for as long as he could remember. This one had crimped-up foliage, sprung branches and a sturdy trunk, reaching a pinnacle as high as the Star of Bethlehem itself ... if it could only be dragged from its den.

"Thomas, will you help me tote it home?"

Meanwhile, Edalpo had decided he was not interested in Stars of Bethlehem or anything else like that or anything at all really what seemed so important to Murky. Edalpo had taken it upon himself to play at Uncle Hairlip and was pulling Thomas along towards the now towering Catanak.

All endless days do in fact end.

Murky found himself alone in a twilight with which the forestland fed its intrinsic birdsong soul. He crouched inside the dark, dripping oubliette that was still forming naturally around him in the shadow of the spluttering Catanak. Alone, that is, except for the Star of Bethlehem Christmas tree, lighting up intermittently with the new-found rhythms of Catanak.

But the darknesses lasted longer and longer. And during the leading edge of one darkness, where some light was still lingering as the memory of a dream, Murky caught the glimpse of a boy's face with streaming hair from its chin, a mouth in the top of its skull whence cracks came and a long up-rearing tongue which had been ill-taught to speak let alone lick. It evidently had a message but, too late, for the head's contents shot out like an exploding fountain towards the heavens, and splattered Murky's dungarees with what looked to him like the produce of a wet dream.

He closed his eyes, hoping it would take itself away. And, on opening them, in a short space of light, he had time to see the familiar, non-committal face of Thomas staring at him from outside the den. Thomas had evidently found himself suddenly alone outside.

"Yes, Murky, can I help you tote it home?"

Mr Asquew felt despair on any day when Edalpo's half-twin replaced Edalpo himself in the distant desk at the back of the classroom, at the back where, despite the nearness of the window, it appeared even darker than where the shadowy blackboard stood. Mr Asquew often wondered about the desks, the lids of which unaccountably sloped the wrong way. Mr Brown himself often shrugged and scratched his head over the matter. He ever seemed to be around doing more odd jobs in the classroom, when the half-twin was in session. And 'odd' was the operative word, Mr Asquew thought, when the job entailed, say, repositioning the blackboard for no obvious reason other than the seasonal adjustment of the sun's direction.

It is true to say that Murky and Thomas could never remember Edalpo. For there had never been more than themselves in their gang of two.

For a time, the Headmistress had a job soothing the other kids back to school, for they had started to believe in a Thing called Uncle Hairlip lurking inside the blackboard. Whatever it was, it would crackle through their dreams ... even into maturity ... into old age ... and beyond.

Christmas was no longer celebrated in Parsimony. Nobody being able to afford it was the reason given ... the only reason that could be believed. However, one family kept a rather splendid fir tree, in the outside toilet, in case the festival was reinstated one day.

Murky did grow up to be an artist (a writer), but he rarely returned to those areas that huddled in the shadow of a volcano that remained ever extinct - from the Crusades onwards. Whatever the case, at the end of the particular heat wave in question, Mr Brown wandered the playground squinting out the whereabouts of long lost property. The sky began to blacken on this otherwise cloudless day. Soon after, years passed through each other, often not touching the people themselves and leaving them stranded between archipelago inkblots of recorded time. Only the desklids leave a record with their etchings. Mr Asquew died from a broken spirit, still bewildered by matters that should have appeared sensible enough. And in fact the half-twin finally killed off Edalpo and sat in the empty classroom waiting for the last teacher to arrive in clouds of chalkdust. The Authorities needed to keep at least the rudiments of a school going, even if there was only one pupil left to make a teacher's life a misery. The late afternoon slipped into its evening clothes - but bars of weak daylight still rippled through the curdling fumes of the air and splattered the parquet with puddles of yellowy green pus. Suddenly, the Headmistress herself strode in, her wings flapping like an academic gown, her skull sufficiently flattened out by a bonemill to look like a mortar board. "Where's the usual teacher?" asked the boy, his high-pitched words punctuating the caul of snorting snot that now covered his whole face. They stared at each other, listening to the frightened silence. High Noon at Dusk.

The Headmistress lifted one wing to reveal a long bony cane - but the boy had faded into the foreground, only to fall backwards with a whoop of delight into the deep sucking darknesses of the blackboard. The Headmistress smiled as she administered corporal punishment to her own backside, causing parts of her intestinal tract to erupt from the easiest orifice like live lolloping eels. And then she placed her eager mouth to a particular desk's ink-well...

An older Thomas, one who had sloughed off a hopefully fictitious boyhood, swept his eyes across the plateau: this was his land and nobody was going to take it from him. He pulled the rucksack higher on to his shoulders and adjusted the strap around his waist to balance out the weight more regularly and to prevent the sharp end of one of its contents from digging into him. Having walked miles from the farmhouse, including a night's fitful snooze at Wanderer's Point, he could hardly believe that the land upon which he now gazed was still his. He had bought the farmhouse with money left to him by his late God-mother. He knew that the land attaching to it, although worthless for crop, grazing or development was, nevertheless, "mighty big" (as his Cousin Murky, in his cups, had described it to Thomas, perhaps with a tinge of jealousy clouding his eyes).

That particular Wake had turned into an all night shindig. Mix the ingredients of a family accustomed to stiff drinking, a corpse nobody had cared about except for the money it had owned, a large rambling house in the more salubrious purlieus of Parsimony and a Cousin Murky with an entrée into wine cellars ... then a thin sorrow easily turns into something far more dangerous.

Thomas, as he stood surveying the outer margins of his new property, felt his cheek tentatively: still badly bruised, which the last few days' weathering had done little to disguise. His own fingers were sore from the whupping he had given in fair exchange. He could have killed Murky - and, for all he knew, he might have done irreparable damage to his cousin's face, if that were possible. He smiled. If only they could see him now: their "poor old Thomas", the kid with the loose ear, whose beard was only just starting to show through the skin like desert ants.

The treeless plateau stretched before him. It had been a long climb from the lightly forested banks of the Mercy which had wound, in a small way at first by the farmhouse, to this point where it had become a surging, back-breaking beast of a torrent. The river had been Thomas's guide and would, at the end of this first (and perhaps last) foray into the lands he was so proud to own, guide him back again.

He did not know the exact machinations of riparian law, but he was convinced that he actually owned the river itself. But, at the back of his mind, he was unaccountably irritated by those parts of the river which did not happen to flow through his lands.

He sweated with a memory of ancient knickers. The sun was at the high point. Releasing his rucksack, he pulled out the biggest kerchief, almost a child's bed-wetter sheet, and mopped up his face. The foliage across the plateau appeared as if it had been there years and years, never growing, never dying, only yellowed and scruffed out by the changeless winds. In the distance, Thomas could see the faint nose-cone of Catanak. Although still extinct, it granted the horizon a spark of character: a relief to the otherwise unbrokenness stretching around him like an empty washing-line.

His eyes followed the river beyond the boundaries of his land. And, to his consternation, he found himself looking at a boat ploughing a course towards him. At first, it seemed as if there was nobody in it but, soon, he just made out that what he had previously taken to be a sail was in fact a woman in white, the wind billowing her drapes.

Still too far for more exact scrutiny, he sat down upon a tussock and sucked mindlessly on a hollow stalk he had snapped from a dried out clump of weed-choke nearby. He spat it out again as he felt something small walk down his throat.

The party had gone on and on. All had received bequests from the late-demented, but none had done so well as Thomas. Nobody could understand it and they were all irritated by the half-smile that hovered around his mouth the night long. Cousin Murky in particular wanted to sort something out.

The fights had erupted without warning - but, whatever the reason, the back-biting so commonly prevalent on such occasions became deeper ... and home-truths coiled like worms in shells too small for their bodies. And the thin veneer of civilisation shattered like a thousand lying mirrors.

Cousin Murky, acting out a character in one of the books he yet planned to write, took the opportunity to hustle Thomas: "I hate your face and I aim to skin it good and proper. I'm going to stick my fingers up yer nostrils and yank it off!"

Thomas lightly touched his nose with one hand and with the other reached for his huge kerchief which hung from his chin. Snorting into it, he quickly wrapped whatever had emerged into its ample folds. Murky suggested that Thomas's brain had just erupted.

Thomas had rarely participated in fisticuffs but he put up a good show. They both ended up whining on the floor.

Earlier, it’d been a day hotter than ever. Yearning for a bit of shade, Mr Brown peered into the classroom and saw an ink-smutted darkness emerging from the blackboard. He remembered a teacher with some affection from his own school days, who used to speak like a new nib's scratching and with skin like blotting-paper. He taught Biology when it was called Biology. He was Swiss and enjoyed skiing. Mr Brown peered again into the classroom and, sighing with unaccountable relief, fell to the ground in a black hairy heap. There was not even the sound of birdsong to break the regathered silence of the empty wind. The heap that had been Brown rose and snickered, licking its teeth's protrusions. The heap had seen, through the window, that there was the suspicion of boy-meat, one tasty glance of which was surely not enough. Glimpses or gulps, the heap thought, were merely degrees of sensory perception - and it followed its urgings towards the classroom. What else could folk of the heap’s ilk follow other than its own urgings? The ultimate lesson, when worlds collapsed.

But that was then and this is now. Head bent, almost weeping, for hours, Thomas did not see the arrival of the lady. She toted an oar all the way up to the plateau, but now she dropped it to the ground. And, as Mount Catanak gave off a faint belch, she crouched by his side, clearing his brow of wayward hairs. Thomas looked up and found himself the nearest he had ever been to a beautiful female. He could even see her navy-blue underwear which the woman did little to conceal as she sat side saddle upon the world’s snickering steed of a bucking planet.

But she had sailed on his river.

She smiled and, despite the now cooling wind, she unshouldered the white satin, shook her body like the river whence she had come and seemed to incite him to join with her in the teasing out of her nipples.

He did not need to see the dagger hidden behind her back. He knew it wasn't there. But he quietly unfastened his rucksack, pulled out his shotgun and created a neat hole in her forehead like unto an oriental beauty mark.

He never forgave himself. But, it was surely still his river, wasn't it, to wherever it rolled?

Nowadays, Thomas can only cry himself to sleep. Yet his sleep at first flows mercifully free of murky dreams, a premature burial quite as blank as an unused school blackboard - except, eventually, for a half weathervane’s swirling bonecrack spark, followed by twin lights shining within a wrinkled heap of translucent skin, hairy lips hooting black words ... whilst Catanak sported twin peaks (rather than the single cone which history books claimed).

There remained separate eyes in the Nature cupboard: two Stars of Bethlehem, not one. Murky? He didn't concoct this; he only wrote fiction.

"Were I writing merely for American readers, I should not, of course, have introduced Mr Brown's name." Edgar Allan Poe (from essay on Thomas Dunn Brown)

(Published ‘Psychotrope’ 1999)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Dark Serendipity

Glock, the unsung hero, felt duped and unable to reconcile the various events. He had long since abandoned thinking about his life as a whole, the missed chances and the wrong turnings. He had realised that he needed a wholesome woman to take the edge off his selfishness - rather than the more opportunistic sex he once wreaked from the city streets. Idealism went out the parlour window with the rest of his ambitions. Today, his thoughts remained centred on the mundane: a day in the life, today, a single particle in the onward tackiness of reality, a victimised private in the forced march of Fate, simply today, merely that, or especially that.

"If Handel came back to life now, he wouldn't recognise his own music," said Clive.

"What do you mean? Music can never change, can it?" responded Rachel.

"Well, today's orchestra's different than it used to be, and the training of a singer's voice, too. The tone of modernity alters anything old. You see, even modern people themselves, and sexual morality, civilisation, everything in fact, would be seen through ancient filters we cannot even begin to imagine..."

The two speakers, a middle-aged couple, were skirting questions of art rather than discussing something far more personal to them. They sat in an untidy huddle, close enough to be unheard by anybody but themselves. They were in a concert hall: or what used to be a concert hall before the auditorium seats were ripped out and the platform replaced with a smattering of cafe tables - tables which, in turn, had been abandoned to the ravages of recession.

Events had come throughout the day in a seemingly random pattern, but when Glock reviewed them during the evening, whilst boiling milk in a saucepan, they created a meaning beyond their separate significances. Even the heaving milk formed frantic faces with the new-risen bubbles of its ambition to be a drink's drink.

Clive suddenly stood up, kicking over his chair in the process. The echoes clattered, causing Rachel to jump in her seat. She turned her neck, without moving her legs, a painful stance that proved time was taking its toll. She indicated that she had been startled by something else altogether - or thought she had. However, she belatedly tried to conceal her reaction to the effect of the invisible cause. She smiled through her own confusion, and said:

"Where are you going?"

"Only for a breather - before we talk about ... you know what."

She did know what but wasn't prepared to admit it. She could have denied her susceptibility to any implications he was trying to make. His words were traps, each with jaws sprung back for pouncing. Yet, as he would not leave, until she'd responded, she waved her hand which he took as think-nothing-of-it whilst she had really meant nothing-at-all.

That very morning, Glock had left for work and was accosted by a frantic woman saying she would soon commit suicide. He merely nodded and walked on. In the city, there were too many crackpots and he did not want to be mixed up in anything that disrupted the equilibrium of his day. On the bus, there were several middle-aged women who were apparently going somewhere together. One smiled unaccountably towards Glock: not a cursory glance, but a full turn of the head positively seeking him out. He had not dared return the smile, not because he feared used smiles could create more animosity than amiability but rather since he was entirely convinced that she mistook him for someone else. However, on departing with her companions, amid the gossipping gabble of rising speech-bubbles, she freshly looked at him as if sad at Glock's lack of reciprocation. In hindsight, she had indeed reminded him of someone he'd once seen either a short while before or many years in the past.

When Clive had departed, Rachel found herself listening to every sound that seemed to constitute silence. Here, in this hall, during her younger days, she had performed the toughest soprano roles - soaring to pinnacles of voice which other singers could only have reached if released from their own bodyweight.

As she day-dreamed, the sense of headphones and, even, eyepieces, closed in claustrophobically upon her narrow skull - and she believed that a version of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, in which the players of the orchestra continued to scrape and blow, as they walked, one by one, from the concert hall, was about to be performed. Or, rather, Haydn's Return Symphony which, to her knowledge, had never been composed.

Instead, Muriel flew in, as only women of her sleekness could fly.

At work, it being Monday, there were lots of temps newly arrived. Glock was sure that one of them was the cousin with whom he had once played, when they were both small. She had been a pretty little girl with a sweet smile. He had not seen her for years, since time often took its toll on those unvalued relationships of childhood.

He smiled at the temp in question, but she did not smile in return. Somehow, even her name had remained in the past. And, what was more, his cousin would be much older now than any of the temps.

During the lunch-break, which he often passed at the pub, there was a man with a clipboard who was measuring the tables and sizing up the decor. He even scrutinised Glock himself as Glock sat, minding his own business, eating an individual pork pie and slowly supping a tepid beer. Glock half-recognised the man, but with only half his mind.

"Rachel, where's Clive?" were Muriel's immediately instinctive words. Muriel was dressed as if she were about to perform in a Wagner opera, which she probably was, bearing in mind that she was long past the first blush of youth. She had indeed rushed here from a dress rehearsal, because she remembered something she had forgotten to do - or that was certainly the impression she gave Rachel. Her blonde hair was as rigid as a helmet - yet there was a softness in her eyes, an echo of other times which Rachel failed to remember.

"He's slipped out for a moment - to catch his breath." Rachel smiled, although a smile was the furthest thing from her mind.

"Have you decided anything?"

"No, of course not. You know him. Always dithering. He even got the strong characters he sung to look feeble, in his time. No wonder he's always been a has-been."

"Don't, Rachel," interrupted Muriel, "give credit where it's due. Clive did make a sort of living from singing, which thousands of others would've given their eye-teeth for. After all, it was you who encouraged him to get his voice trained. Before then, it had the power, but the charm, of a power drill!"

"Yes, Clive became a passable bass, Muriel, but that was no good (was it?) when he could only use his body like a countertenor's - or a castrato's!"

Rachel laughed at her own joke. She was intrigued by those eighteenth century singers who'd sacrificed their finer parts for what they thought were finer parts on the stage. Or had they been press-ganged into it by deep-browed, hinge-nosed surgeons who received the pay dirt of the era's musical patrons? Whatever the case, there was a grain of truth in what Rachel said about Clive. That deep booming voice was housed in a man that minced about the stage, instead of strutting. He could have stuck to wind-up or wireless performances, but his voice, although good, was, unfortunately, just one groove short of a record.

"Rachel, love is a fragile thing to keep unwieldy people together." Muriel grinned at her own turn of phrase. "You and Clive can surely sort something out and put the glue back in the supergun. And what about your children, Rachel? They'll end up in no man's land."

Muriel bit her tongue after saying that, but wasn't sure what, if anything, she should or should not have said. Furthermore, she was now confused, rather than pleased, by her own expressions. She glided from the seedy stage, nose high.

The last event of the day occurred on Glock's return journey from work on the 190 bus. The woman who looked like an older version of his long-lost cousin evidently used the same route home, not unlike the woman who had threatened suicide earlier in the day. At that precise moment, Glock really should have recognised the pattern in events. Coincidences could never be quite that coincidental. Synchronicity with a soul as well as buses.

Yes, Rachel's children. What about them? Rachel had been a child herself once and nobody had ever bothered to give her the time of day. There had been no tug-of-love where she had been concerned, when her parents had suffered what seemed to her small mind to be a global fissure. And neither her Mum nor her Dad wanted to look after Rachel, nor even have intermittent access to her. But why should they have done? To be born was never as certain as to die. What else did they owe her, beyond the tawdry gift of existence? No, her own children were side-issues. If they'd been birds, they'd've flown the semi-detached nest ages ago. This matter was purely between her and Clive. Even a bosom pal like Muriel was a loose cannon on the shifting storm-tossed deck of the good ship Marriage to which Muriel had never been party. But perhaps there was more to Muriel than met the eye. The missing link? Muriel and Clive. Tristan and Isolde? No, Muriel was Rachel's crutch. Hence Muriel's well-intentioned visit to this empty hall, this walled camera, this husk of hushes and ancient echoes, this deep throat...

Now, Glock kept watch on the saucepan, as the seething milk climbed its sides. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and raucously gave voice to a song he had heard on the pub's juke-box that day. Yes, Glock himself had to be the missing link in the day's dark serendipity, he thought. He recalled another occasion, about a month before, which felt more like a premonition than a memory. An ordinary evening, other than perhaps spotting Concorde skimming just below the high clouds, its characteristic deep roar changing operatic tone, as it turned over on its side and disappeared, like a shark of the goose variety, across towards the Inner City. Glock knew its flight-path often traversed these particular skies, but this was the first time he had actually witnessed it. This brought to his mind a recurring dream where there were all manner of sky-craft cluttering the airways above the suburbs in which he resided. Some were modern affairs with inexplicable appendages fresh from some space extravaganza, lurching with a cacophony of engine tones ... in mind-boggling proximity to each other. Equally, some were similar to the old-fashioned war-time bombers and dog-fighters, with single- or double-decker wings and multiple propellers churning the clouds into milky curds: these, too, almost touching span to span, as they fish-boned the sky, emerging from the past into the present like angels upon splints. A couple did in fact clip wing-tips and they cartwheeled off to land with tympanic thuds in distant parts of the city.

Rachel did not believe that Clive had simply gone for a breather. Nor had he. He took a short stroll which grew longer, by default, the further he went without turning back. He did not realise that Muriel had awaited her cue to enter sinister stage left, as soon as he had walked from the once communal stamping-ground: that erstwhile echo-chamber that all three had once used as a sounding-board or, as it seemed at the time, a Tower of Babel. Clive missed the heady days of youth that he was beginning to replace with false memories, many of which excluded Muriel. Thoughts abseilled through his untethered mind, while he unintentionally reached a familiar suburban road - where he had lived with Rachel in their high-pitched hey-day - before their children were even twinkles in the Third Eye - when Muriel was simply just another best friend of Rachel's, instead of the catalyst she had since become in hindsight. Clive wondered who owned the streams of consciousness in his mind, because, at times, he was convinced he was tripswitching through the background hiss of Rachel's ether. It was a strange world when one didn't have the nous to own up to thoughts. Even these secondary thoughts of doubt were not necessarily Clive's own.

Glock questioned why normal individuals such as himself should be able to have dreams quite beyond their waking power of imagination. On that occasion a month ago, he had looked down at the pavement as he continued his evening walk towards the bus stop. It was covered at this spot by indelible coloured markings: arrows, numbers, mathematical designs, which he put down to workmen preparing the ground for the eventual skull-splitting surgery of their power-drills. He would not have noticed these, let alone remembered them, if it had not been for the fact that he was beset with some sense of strangeness.

Clive wanted to peer through the net curtains of the semi-detached house and see who lived there now. The exterior was remarkably in line with his recollection. He almost heard the same music as Rachel had liked to play in that very front parlour to which he was surreptitiously approaching in the orange dusk - stooping and staggering across the garden like a burglar who had never burgled before.

Squatting under the window-sill, he stole deep gulps of air, but not so fresh as the breather he'd hoped to take when first excusing himself from Rachel's presence in that erstwhile screech-hole, that hell-hall where guts were once scraped and inner throats rasped to cylindrical rashers of burnt bacon. Stagnancy enclosed the city, sticking to the roof-tops and plumbing the nursery chimneys for tenderer lungs to coat.

That month-old bus journey had been, however, uneventful, Glock recalled as he stirred the milk to force it back to the bottom of the pan. When he had arrived at the pub on that occasion, it contained a group of respectable evening-dressed people, some of the men in kilts, most of the women showing off the top of their boobs in dresses that seemed fresh from the Fifties, cut at the bodice like half-eight ravens, stiffened in the wings. These women, whom, in the hindsight of premonition or the foreshadowing of subconscious deja-vu, he should have recognised for their potentiality for coincidence, had coloratura voices in shrill counterpoint. They kept tugging up the front parts of their dresses, to retain some semblance of seemliness as far as their bosoms were concerned. Despite this, Glock could not imagine why such people should be congregating in a down-market pub. And kilts would never seem normal in Glock's neck of the woods, at the best of times. Such people must take courage in numbers, he supposed. To cap it all, after this group had asconded to the restaurant clutching wooden menus too big for them, a couple of real toffs in trouser-suits entered, so sharp-dressed Glock wondered why they had dreamt of coming here at all. The one who had a red handkerchief artfully peering from his top pocket carefully opened a bottle of champagne whilst it was still embedded in the crunkling ice tureen. It turned out to have more fizz than was good for it. They deliberately ignored the spray cascading in all directions, as if nothing had happened. It would've been undignified to make a song and dance about it. They offered each other a studied "cheers" and continued to share a ritual conversation which was created from inscrutable bubbly patterns of pub chat, small talk and business gossip. Glock had listened to them with a smile.

Clive shook his head, to free it from the unwelcome thoughts. Rachel could radiate herself even at great distances of synchronicity. Or was it Muriel? He could never be sure which woman was the culprit, which had the hot-line to the autonomous muse that some called God, others merely the breath of inspiration. He shook his head again. His attempts at mind withdrawal were even more ridiculous than the way the thoughts were reworded as new thoughts. In the same way as a sculptor's task was to release the ready-made sculpture from within the rock, composers needed to pluck the strung strings of vibrancy in the air, prise open the sprung jaws of cadency that many breathed without knowing it: to make songs and souls as one.

Clive caught the barely perceptible sound of music emerging from the front parlour: the sound of two people casting their voices to the the magic of an Elfin horn, reaching him from over the hills of dream. He raised his sound-box of fragile sculptured bone with its gristly appendages, just at the same time as the net curtains were snatched aside to reveal a face with folded nose surveying him from behind the smeared glass.

Glock had supped his beer, expecting there would be no other surprises left on this particular evening - after the champagne charlies had departed. Surely, eevents must eventually revert to norm. Life was not that strange. And he was right. Except, of course, on the way home, waiting for him at the bus stop was a vast hovering smooth-shafted jet-liner with huge round turbines at its rear. Without demur, he boarded it and was presented with the whole lighted panoply of the city and its environs, where he simply knew he must live, somewhere, sleeping, dreaming dreams, singing silent songs, perhaps stirring a saucepan of milk.

It was a delight to touch wing-tips with others. In the distance, he saw Concorde again, twirling to the sounds of Tchaikovsky like a young ballerina on her first stage. But as the vast giraffed fan of a beast glided fearfully close, he saw faces at the portholes, raising tapering cut-glassfuls of, not champagne, but what appeared to be milk. And then he spotted the target: an area of the city where the streets wound in on themselves, circles within circles, with the red-light district at its very bull. His sky-craft wheeled gracefully, aimed itself and fired off its turbines in pent hover.

Rachel, still in deepest solitary empathy, knew that a young couple sat in the parlour, a parlour where older people had once spent their time peering through a flickering square screen of monochrome with drooping eyelids. Instead, this pair of gentle people, who still lived out their tender years, absorbed each other's tiniest features of both face and dress. They held hands, as far as that was possible from their respective vantage-points. A black record fell upon the revolving pad and started spinning. They heard the sapphire stylus of an old-fashioned auto-change settle into a groove with the initial scratching, surging sound, leading into a width of sound that pre-stereo days rarely managed. It felt as if the identical ancient Plain Chant was inside each of their cathedrals of skullbone. Sounding as if it were being sung for the first time. Steeped in actuality.

One smiled knowingly, or simply the smile itself knew what to know. The other returned the smile, knowing that moods were simple echoes, without knowing how much each smile simply knew. This was love: stretching from beyond memory into a diffusion of memory that only the future recognised: a love that caused each party to forget their names. They leaned forward in unison - and kissed a kiss only two creatures of the female sex knew how to kiss, a new kiss which, if mediaeval lovers kissed, they would have recognised as a kiss they knew to be among kisses they knew.

Back home in the certainty of the present moment where dreams and memories were correctly pigeon-holed, Glock forgot the milk in the saucepan, while he retrieved the tape-measure from his top pocket and went to take the size of his empty bed. He then fetched the clipboard from his office brief-case with arcane figures and devices upon it, to see if he had really been minding his own business in the pub that day or whether he had indeed captured the significance of finding another version of himself outside the realms of a mirror. A man too mean to be me, he thought.

The young female couple were startled by a background hiss on the record. A hiss which hid the hiss of breath - from just outside the parlour window.

Rachel switched off her fabrications of empathy and emerged from the unpeopled past into an equally unpeopled future, trusting that the present could fend for itself. Old age was younger now than it had been in her youth, she thought. In her heart, she knew that the ancient concert hall tonight had been and was to remain empty - except for a solitary figure sprawled in an erstwhile cafe seat: a figure bearing one of her two stage names. She refused to cry. Truth was relative to belief. Only ordinary people were stars. She smiled and sung Dido's Lament quietly to herself. Then Handel's Largo.

Glock eventually decided, from all the evidence, that there was no option but for him to withdraw gracefully from the world.

As he filled the bed with a shape of self, he heard the gentle sizzling of the saucepan and then the even gentler hiss of naked gas, with the gentle angel-flames of blue having been doused by the seething-over of milk. Reality had received its offering, its sacrificial victim, its scapegoat, its wild card, its bribe ... so that it could continue on its straight and narrow flight-path towards its determination. But not exactly a bribe, more a reckoning without Glock. Sometimes, Fate faltered - but was never duped more than once. It may have all turned out differently if he had actually swept that distant cousin with the sweet smile off her feet and thus allowed both of them to live happily ever after. Something he'd nearly done all those years ago when they were both still young. Rachel was her name, he remembered at last. Into Amateur Dramatics or something like that. Tried to drag him along to rehearsals, with that awful female friend of hers.

Glock heard the skull-splitting roar of power-drills drawing near - to the tune of a song he couldn't sing - even in the falsetto of unmeasured man. Life was so fucking avant garde.

(published ‘The Zone’ 1995)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Kept Behind

"An apple for your thoughts," announced Miss Western in a moment of remorse amid those interminable kept-behind hours of dusk which come to all schoolchildren who strayed.

She watched the child in the front desk lean its head on the exercise book. It straightened its back into a yardstick, its eyes unblinking.

"Can I go home now?" its small voice asked.

"Well, I don't know - you're meant to be here finishing off the sums which you didn't do at the right time."

The child resumed its desultory scribbling. It was not the only one whom Miss Western had kept behind this afternoon. The Gostridge kids, Paul, Susanna and Josey, had been sitting at the back of the formroom only a few minutes before, complete with smug we-don't-mind-if-you-keep-us-in-till-Kingdom-come expressions. She eventually sent them home because their mother would complain at them being victimised yet again. They certainly did deserve it. They used to be gypsies. But that was not the reason.

The nameless child was now re-doubling its efforts to encourage monsters to doodle self-portraits in the arithmetic book. There was a certain peculiarity in that she'd completely forgotten the child's name. She would need to check it in the attendance records but the lines of black circles and red ticks told her nothing except perhaps that there were underlying patterns to existence in the small town she'd decided to work as a schoolteacher. The Gostridges had more black circles than most, but that was only to be expected.

Miss Western was suddenly aware that a stranger was sitting in one of the tiny desks - at the back of the classroom, where the depleting afternoon light could not now reach.

"Yes? Can I help you?" Her voice sounded distant ... even to her own ears. The moment of fright had been exceeded by annoyance at the intrusion.

"No, but I feel I can help you instead." Whilst his voice was louder than hers, it was like the undercurrent of a conversation in a house next door.

Miss Western turned back to the child to see if it had noticed the exchange, but its head was back on the desk-slope, eyes still wide open, whirls and coils of its exercise book doodles appearing to flow directly from its brow.

The stranger - taller than the confines of the desk would have seemed to allow - left the back of the room and slowly advanced down the aisle, passing via varying degrees of shadow. If it had not been for this intrusion, Miss Western would have by now lit the lamps, for it had quickly turned too dark too early to see very clearly.

"I've got some homework to give you, before you can go, Miss Western ... about visions of meadows, endless childhood summers and the meaning of fruit-stones and flowers."

The voice had become more like an old 78 rpm record with a dog and horn on its label ... hissing and cracking in rhythm to the accompanying steps.

"Who are you?" Miss Western asked, with fear now gradually dawning on her.

"I'm the one who can teach you of none-so-pretties, soft hobmadonnas and cuddle-me-to-you's, and pick them from under sun and hedgerow - and, later, with all learning done, we can play frog-hop, scotch-skip and dibstones for an everlasting gossamer twilight..."

The spoken subject-matter belied the speaker's attitude.

"Who are you, please?" the teacher cried, sitting as straight as a wooden set-square, protracting the hushed pause while the stranger manicured its claws and continued:

"I know the fairies who play in the pippin orchards. I spin tales at night from beneath the bed-clothes, where further down I dare not reach my toes for fear of hurting the coily things by the footboard. I'm a version of thee, I'm a version of others yet to come ... and soon I will join the procession between the night daisies, joining songs of such sad beauty..."

Inexplicably, the words gave to Miss Western thoughts of tiny faces each with one finger placed on their pursed lips and of tenantless see-saws at sunset pivotting amid the twirling translucent girders of the golden hill-beams.


He replied as quietly as he could. So quiet., it was easy to forget one had heard it in the first place. Miss Western's eyes weltered with tears at the fading memory of his answer. There were now only shadows moving in the early evening breeze which entered from the window. She looked at the nearest desk scored with the anciently inked runnels, the incomprehensibly scored languages and graffitic tales of unlikely love. The pages of an arithmetic book fluttered over, full of nothing but interlocking black circles in meaningless patterns half-concealed by careless blots.

The following day, with the weather turning back towards winter, Miss Western shivers. One of the Gostridges has just asked if she believes in ghosts. There was meaning in the questioner's eyes. But at least even the Gostridges cannot summon sufficient courage to ask about curses and ancient gods and arcane rituals and such matters. The other tiny children giggle as they place their palms together like pink fleshy moths closing their dusted wings, this being morning prayer. Miss Western prays, too, that she will truly forget the tall stranger's response to her frantic WHO-ARE-YOU last night. He had merely pointed at the empty desk with the scribbled-in arithmetic book fluttering upon it.

(Published ‘Agog’ 1988)