Monday, February 28, 2005

Tears Without Meaning

I was walking around in a part of the world I'd never been before, early for a business meeting as I was: a sunny day, too. A nice estate of houses back of Main Road where you might not have expected houses at all, let alone an estate.

A tiny girl on a tricycle asked: "Are you the postman?"

"No," I answered with conviction and assurance.

"I told you he wasn't," said a little boy nearby.

I walked on confident that, although not particularly sad, I would later find myself crying bitterly about the event.

(published 'Psychopoetica' 1989)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Three Stories Darned Merely By A Thread

I was rather pleased with the socks which Daisy gave me for Christmas. They were grey, yet when I examined the pattern more closely, I discovered it was constituted of ill-defined diamond and lozenge shapes, like the scales of a rather inscrutable, deep-water fish hiding under a rocky outcrop. Browny green tinges were also in the weave and an uncertain blue: slippery to the eye whilst rougher than morling wool to the touch. In actual fact, despite the roughness, the socks were reasonably comfy to wear.

I modelled my feet for my own admiring gaze. Despite the reticent nature of the socks, I felt sure I could strut like a real toff when sporting them down town. The good-time girls would sure to be flocking in my wake.

Yet I was usually the soul of discretion. So, when I removed the socks to lay them neatly in my drawer, I wondered if I had thought about good-time girls at all. That wasn't like me. But my undressed feet did look decidedly sexy. I had never noticed that before.

The next day, I decided to wear Daisy’s presents - presents in the plural because, after all, there were two of them in the single pair. It was to be their first official promenade in the outside world. They laid side by side in the drawer, outdating the rest of my socks which had been my companions for years, some of the older ones like dish cloths or with ladders and holes which I often concealed surreptitiously from view by artfully twisting the hose and heel. In any event, I threaded the new socks upon my already bared feet, in the way Daisy rolled on her stockings ... with a slow sensuality

I rather wished I owned a pair of my father’s sock-suspenders that he used to wear in the good old days. They would have completed the act and tightened up my calves nicely. Suddenly, I heard the babble of good time girls on the landing outside my bedroom door

“I love you,” Daisy said.

“I love you, too,” I replied.

“That's not right,” she said.

“I do love you’,” I maintained.

“No, what I mean is that it’s not a logical reply to my original statement. I said ‘I love you’ and if you wish to follow on with an expression containing the use of the word ‘too’, you should have said ‘I love me too’”

“I don’t agree, since the ‘too’ referred to ‘love’ rather than ‘you’.”

A third voice, a childish one, piped up: “You both love something called you.” Then another childish voice: “Meanings are never clear, especially when mere words are used to thread them.”

There was a deathly hush, during which Daisy stared at my feet. Then I decided to tell her about the dream I had about the good-time girls - with one of whom I had fallen in love.

“I did love someone else, once,” I announced. “It was a girl in a dream. It didn’t seem important at the time because I myself had become the girl I loved in the dream, a good-time girl. I didn’t have the use of a mirror, so couldn’t be certain if she was me. But, looking down, I could see a dancer’s petite feet.” Daisy stared coldly, as I continued to speak. “Anyway, that was not all, because there was a show in the dream. I think it was West Side Story where I had the star part - a huge production with all the singers and dancers being transported around a spherical stage upon a complicated elevator system. The audience were like gods outside the globe of action, up and down and around. I was so well rehearsed (without of course recalling such rehearsals from prior to the dream) that my songs and dance movements were second nature. And the audience loved me. Their applause was deafening at the end of each of my set pieces. The round curtains swept in and swept out, as I was taken on yet another carousel ride. It was as if the universe was one huge proscenium arch. And, in the dream I knew I was both beautiful and brilliant. My steps were wondrously light and in time with some heavenly choreography. I could hear my own voice trill out in glorious tones, without even trying. And my body was ogled by tiers of faces. Not a dry eye in the house ... nor an itchy foot.”

Daisy looked down at her legs: sausage-loaves of purple wickerwork corseted by an intricate suspender-belt contraption, each ending in a dull pad. She waggled the pads like freshly landed fish. She sensed hooks tugging at the sole flesh of her under-insteps: a pain that shot along her legs like acute inversions of sciatica or a spinal trapped nerve. She hoped that they would fly off at the ankles to relieve her of such excruciating agony. Yet a harness of flesh and gristle guyed them to the shins with a pain which became literally unbearable, the pinions of sinew noisily ripping.

But was it her? Or was she no longer there, merely her feet upon a different person’s legs? Even she would fail to recognise her own empty face, a face that was swiftly becoming mapped all over with crimson ligaments, ligaments that laddered into the cheeks and jowls from the feet upwards.

I faded behind a blur of tears, as if I didn’t exist, which I suppose I didn’t. But, I am confident Daisy knows that - somewhere - there’s a place for me. A place for us. Somewhere, a time for us.

The trouble is: the pain’s mine.

Angels, as well as cowboys, were part of the childhood culture where I lived. You can still feel their games pulsing under the very cobbles. Indeed, I could easily recall the uniformly terraced streets which played fast-and-loose with ley-lines as well as with strict geometry. And around each bend was a game of hide-and-seek simply waiting to be played. There were tags and tassels, too, where good-time girls kicked thin legs out of short tented run-ups or floral hand-me-downs. Boys had socks down to their ankles...

Hopscotch and leapfrog - Red Indians disguised as tomahawk-wielding tearaway urchins - no end of laughter, no end of tears - no end of pretend make-believe - no end of criss-crossing cul de sacs and blind alleys - yes, Angels, Cowboys and Tomboys, too. I had fond memories of a particular tomboy, but I couldn’t fix a name to her face. She was the only girl with whom I ever made best friends, in the same way as you could be best friends with another boy. The two of us played pistol-packing when even the empty street corners returned fire.

There was some common ground close by - West Side Park, if I remember correctly - where indeed bushes were hiding-places. Long hissing clicks could be uttered with tongue, teeth and grimacing smiles in the shape of gun-sound and I, in later years, would re-enact such mockeries of snake-shot, pointing my barrelled fingers (thumb as handgrip) at the television - but no firing-device, other than an all-purpose trick of a trigger that only memory could pull. The remote control of the past. The particular event of which I, now in my dotage, want to summon to a contemporary version of reality was when I and that tomboy girl played a gunfight to end all gunfights.

There are, of course, several imaginary friends scattered around West Side Park, that day, all firing silently on dead cylinders. The girl slowly swings on one of the tall slide’s under-struts, showing that her legs are getting longer, her socks shorter, She spurns the idea of yet another game of Cowboys and Indians, preferring the slide instead. Although a stickler for her sex’s right always to play out-of-kilter with dolls’ tea-parties, today she is also in the mood to be feminine ... for once.

“Come on. Daisy. You promised.”

I accentuate the two syllables of ‘promised’ with a sluggish conviction, whilst pronouncing ‘Daisy’ with a short slur. In those days, of course, I have no difficulty; in recalling her name.

“No. I don’t feel like it,” replies Daisy, “Go and have a shoot-out on your own.”

She purses her lips as she clambers higher on the slide, eschewing the more normal route by the steps provided for reaching to the top. “And you didn’t play-hide-and-seek with me yesterday, either,” she shouts.

“Didn’t I?”

“No, and I don’t see why I should play Cowboys and Indians with you today.”

“Let’s play hide-and-seek, instead, then,” I suggest, with very little enthusiasm in my voice. But we didn’t play hide-and-seek. Having abandoned West Side Park to our imaginary playmates, Daisy and I careered along the terribly similar streets in a game involving gangsters - escaping with pretend stolen property - making mock flights from shop doorways - each of us taking it in turns to be police and thief.

Yet all pretence came to an abrupt end, when we witnessed a real robbery ... a gutter gunfight. The throbbing of tommy-guns, the rattle of snakeshot. Sometimes the memory sounded like the Earth slowly doffing its coat, by rhythmically ripping the buttons off one by one.

Years later, feeling older than if I were dead, I struggle up in my chair to peer through the net-curtained window. I have lived in the same house - the same street - even the same town … child, chap and chairbound.

What was that girl’s name all those years ago? Daisy West, wasn’t it? I shrug. Who cares? She was probably one of my imaginary friends, in any event - so not worth the thought-pattern she was printed on. So. who cares? Certainly not me.

However, I am able to go back in time, even if it means resorting to a form of mock deja-vu. Each heartbeat was a resonant harmonic of heaven’s gate opening and shutting...

We cower behind the sharpest corner in town, occasionally peering round it, as the shots began beating out. We see two shapes in tall black overcoats, faces stitched over with what look like grey socks backing out of a newsagent shop.

It was a pity we never saw each other after that day - otherwise, we would’ve come to some mutual agreement to keep our stories straight or at least in tune with the same beat... leading to a much needed, yet never accomplished, catharsis of the soul.

“We hid behind the corner of the street but the blokes with guns soon saw the sides of our heads, I reckon. We ran and ran and ran till we could run no faster... but we kept ending up at West Side Park again...”

“You then both kept running back to where you started from? Did he lead you? Or you him?”

Leading or following, who cared, thought Daisy, but she answered:

“Me him ... I think.”

“So you think you led him.”

“I led him or I followed him. One of the two. But it was me who did it.”

“Why, Daisy?”

“‘Cause he’s more stupid...”


“I always did things, not him.”

“Was someone chasing you?”

The policewoman sidled a glance across at her male colleague seated in the corner of the interview-room, as if she knew he hoped they would be on the same beat tonight. Their eyes locked and unlocked.

“Come on, Daisy,” the policewoman resumed, “who was chasing?”

“Chasing? No, not chasing us, ‘cause the blokes in black coats were looking for us.”

“Looking for you?”

“Yes - sort of.”

“Why, Daisy?”

“Because we were hiding, I suppose. If people hide, other people have to seek them. Stands to reason, don’t it?”

“I did it.”

“Did what son?”

“I killed Daisy.”

“How did you do it?”

“With a gun. I shot straight into her head.”

“Where’s the gun now?”

“I dropped it in a dustbin.”

“Where? Which dustbin?”

“Can’t remember. Maybe in West Side Park.”

The policeman shrugged at the policewoman. They would soon be off duty. In any event, there was no park called West Side in the town where they’d found him wandering. No child reported missing, either. Best just to send the kids home with red ears.

“Why did you shoot - what was her name - Daisy?”

“I shot her because I had no reason to shoot her. I wanted to see if I was mad enough to kill someone, when I didn’t need - didn’t want - to kill someone. It was a sort of test. So, I now know I must be mad. And you can put me away where no one can find me again. And I’d’ve beaten it.”

“Beaten it? Beaten what?”

“Beaten the game.”

“What game, son?”

“The game of doing something without wanting to do it.”

“So you saw a robbery?”

“Yes, two blokes in black coats - I’ve already told you.”

“Which shop had they robbed?”

“The one near West Side Park.”

“But there is no such park,” said the policewoman’s voice. She bit her lip and remained silent.

The old man bit his lip and remained silent. He was so old, he felt he had never been a boy. Imaginary playmates were full of life. Or was he becoming confused? Life was full of imaginary playmates. Tomboys and Indians. He felt himself all over as if seeking his manhood. He pulled up his dish-cloth socks. GOTCHA! he screeched with the residue of his voice. He pointed his barrelled fingers (thumb as handgrip) at the corner of his head - and he put tongue to teeth, combining a croak with a whistle. He looked out of the window. Two shapes in tall black coats were always hanging around in the street. Sizing him up, no doubt.

The twigs on the bushes in West Side Park click sluggishly with the sudden arrival of a hissing wind. A red pool becomes a rabbit-eared shadow upon the concrete at the side of the slide, a playground slide where Daisy once perched on its struts. Like a stage...

Perched so very precariously...

A pair of Angels in police overcoats saunter past.

The deepest domestic well in England was situated in a domestic garden- but few knew it was there and even fewer knew how deep. Of course, nobody knew what was at the bottom of that well - unless, of course, one counted Bern Stine: the oldest person most people would ever come across, given the chance to meet him in the first place. He had many anecdotes to tell of the time before he became factotum to various houses in the area and of when he served in the war, as he called it, of the world’s beyond. His favourite tale, which Daisy and I, having played all evening blotting up the late sun, pleaded for him to recount, was one about beetles. Quietly breaking wind - a habit to which we had grown accustomed without giggling - Bern lowered his voice to match their rapt attention...

"The nights were hot, me dears, hotter than any in England. The noise was full of separate darknesses - insects as big as your fists, fluking about like inky birds, swarming in to make the sounds of the sounds one already heard. You know what I mean?”

“No, Bern,” lisped Daisy, “tell me again.”

“Well, there have to be things to make things. Say, there was no shadows, there’d be nothing there to cast them. Same as there’d be nobody, if there was no noise to sound that nobody out.”

Daisy nodded, condescending to understand.

“But, Bern,” I piped up, “would there be no Earth if there were no holes in it like our well?”

“Of course not, boy. Like old socks, things without holes in it is nothing in the first place. Even stones have pores, you see.” Bern pointed beyond the orchard where the well was sunk. “On those hot, hot nights you felt the nearest you could get to the world’s core without scorching.”

“Oh, Bern,” said Daisy, forgetting that she had just comprehended, “are there always beetles wherever you don’t look to see them?”

Yes - thousands upon thousands clucking and climbing on top of each other, like tiny yellow crabs - but you must realise, they’re always barely beyond the eye’s corner and, if you look directly at them, they flit to the other corner between blinks.”

“But if they cluck, why can’t we hear they’re there and follow them around ... with our eyes following our ears?”

“Come on, children, how many times do I need to tell you? They’re always where you don’t hear ... and smell ... and touch - ever just ahead of your head.”

“Children!” It was Daisy’s mother calling us in for high tea; she didn’t like us staying in the garden after dark, especially on long evenings like this one: in fact, she preferred us not to be outside of the house’s jurisdiction at any time of the day. We did not usually require much persuasion, because tea was our favourite meal. Toasted cheese golden-eyed by a poached egg - washed down with a piping hot tea infused from dock leaves and fresh well water.

Bern’s parting words sped us on our way: “The yellow beetles come here at the turn of each century... and seek out dank berths, like culverts, disused drains, broken sewers and, yes, wells.”

We bustled into the house, not hearing the end of Bern’s customary words - as if we had ripped off a love-letter’s cruel valedictory because we knew it would spoil the rest of it when we came to read its earlier endearments.

Nobody grown-up admitted to believing in the existence of Bern Stine when someone called Bern Stine was spoken about. In fact, we even found it difficult to encourage most people’s belief in the existence of the house’s various maidservants, chambermaids, kitchen staff - let alone Bern the factotum.

“There’s a letter for you today which the postman left on second post,” said Daisy’s Mother, looking at nobody in particular. She was often absent-minded, especially when eating - as if mastication was all she could deal with.

Daisy and I glanced at each other in a bemused fashion whilst her father nodded slowly, saying: “The tea tastes as if it’s boiled from tap water”, a statement which showed that he joined in with the silent in-joke about there being well water available, a joke which never subsisted beyond the snigger from Daisy’s grandfather - who sat in his chimney-corner rocker. The grandfather took his tea at a different time of day - on his own, or as on-his-own as talking to himself allowed.

With the two children having departed for their high tea, Bern stepped across to the twilit well, where its over-frame dangled a knotted rope ... and he stared into the hidden depths, believing his own tale about its bottomlessness as a skulking-place for pre-migrating insects. He had seen no grown-up venturing into the orchard garden for decades, so Bern thought everybody except the children must be dead.

Indeed, Bern and Daisy’s grandfather used to be old cronies, drinking pals at the Star, a pub which was situated too close to the house for clear-minded comfort. Indeed, friendships were frequently too short-lived, as far as Bern was concerned.

Bern was willing to offer a friendship forever, whilst others only, at most, for life.

He shrugged as he cranked the handle of the well, hearing the wooden pail clanking against the tubular brickwork below. He knew there was no water slopping out. What he had earlier lowered down there was a letter - and now there would be a reply to fetch up.

Unknown to us, Daisy’s grandfather believed in the existence of Bern Stine and, what was more, believed in the other servants. Indeed, he cast more than a single daily glance towards the twinkling backs-of-knees as maids scooted from room to room on endless light chores. He inwardly scorned the middle generation for their lack of time, for their seeing only what they saw, for their thinking only what they thought. The middle generation, as represented by Daisy’s parents, actually failed to acknowledge his presence itself, despite the tea-time nibbling noise coming from his chimney-corner.

They were not letters as such that Bern tugged up and down in the well bucket. Darkness now engulfed the nettles which he had to negotiate in order to reach the well head.

Shadows upon shadows, he thought, were the best way to describe the onward onset of twilight.

No, not a letter. Never letters to and fro. The transaction via the well tunnel was concerned with provisions. Food being passed to someone (or to something) down there who wouldn’t otherwise he able to eat - as Pip had once smuggled food for Magwitch. A supply chain. Sooty and sweep.

Chimney-corners were little better than attics or cellars or lofts or oubliettes, thought Daisy’s Grandfather, as he kept a beady eye on the rest of the family attacking their Welsh Rarebits with relish. He was simply given smelly leftovers, given to him by the most cursory arm movement of a buxom maidservant, who only happened to be passing. Her mouth was gashed into a false smile, as if she knew it would cut him to the quick. He suspected that her cleavage hid a tantalising titbit for which a hungry pet might beg.

The well may have been deep but domestic it wasn’t. The house had originally been built with the steel socks of plumbing already threading its man-made cavities - so why the necessity of Bern lugging a slop-bucket back and forth from a winding-hole in the garden? Such were the thoughts of somebody that nobody could substantiate.

Daisy’s Grandfather rose slowly from his rocker, hobbled round the nearside elbow of the wall which formed his inglenook and stared pleadingly up the chimney-flue - and, seeing the empty light at the end of the vertical tunnel’s tower. He prayed for something to bring down a rare edible snack to keep him going.

Daisy and I tripped out into the Springlight for new games amid elisions of mind - only to discover that Bern Stine had vanished, as he had always vanished even before having a state that actually was capable of vanishing. But what was that group of antlered shadows amid the orchard trees? Pippin scrumpers? Fruit-stoners? Tinkers? Pedlars? Beggars?

We shouted to scare them off. We belonged here, so we had the right, if not the strength, to scare off intruders.

Yet when we saw the dark overcoat wrapped around the stuck body, we wondered whose body it was. The shadows scuttled away to realms where things could cast them.

“An angel policeman?” I suggested.

"Who knows?” answered Daisy.

We realised, eventually, that it was not a coat that was dark. It was the body’s flesh with bruises risen to the surface in maps of black blood. Archipelago lands where undead creatures had ended up residing, thought a thought. An antipodes of antibodies, thought another.

“It’s time for tea, children.”

No answer.

“Fetch some water from the well when you come, children!”

No answer.

“Hell and High Water! I’ll have to fetch it myself. You must think I’ve got more than one pair of hands!”

No answer.

I was the only child left. And I was older than most. I struggled into the garden from a house-far-too-big-for-me, the chimneys of which were far-too-high-even-for-the-longest-flues. For show, I toted a broken pail through the nettles towards the well. I hoped my socks would last out the rest of my ever-shortening life. I hoped, nay, prayed that my own stumpy arms were less stumpy than the grey vein-knitted arms that would stretch from the well upwards to my own seeking fingers...

The house knew something about it, but there was no sight of a smile upon its wall. Never been on the mains, even in its heyday, by the look of it. More of a potting shed than a proper place to live. Or a bereft beach hut. Probably infested with the touch of fingermice and knuckly yellow beetles. The sound of applause ... and the smell of leftover cheesy feet.

Various children, some with the same names, slid restlessly between the cylindrical sheets, put to bed too early on a long summer evening and they wondered if their waking dreams could ever get mixed up.

“Tales may barely tally, whilst Death be the only proof that Life beyond Dream exists.”
Rachel Mildeyes from STOLEN ARCHETYPE vol vii The Good Time Girls

(published ‘Strix’ 1998)