Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Absence

When Rachel took her Summer break, she decided to visit the East coast rather than the more familiar, warmer ones South and West of London. She couldn't face the continent, this year, in any event.

She was pleased to have escaped the built-up Smoke. Even if her part of London was Hampstead Heath, where she could pretend she were walking deep in the countryside, an abrupt cresting of a hill often brought into view the silhouette of St Paul's Cathedral floating like a square rigger amid opaque chimneystacks. As with people, places were deceptive, too.

She sat in the train, heading for a region she'd never visited. The Essex and Suffolk countryside sped past the window in odd patches of yellow, enabling her to see further than she'd ever seen before in one go. The landscape was disarmingly interminable, with a few poisoned trees to break up the flat minimalism and she wondered if God had ever been able to throw horizons that far again.

She shook her head. One of her characteristics was the way her mind played fast and loose with its thoughts. Day-dreaming for Rachel was almost an out-of-the-body experience rather than one of those rather bitty affairs in which most other people dabbled their mental toes. Which reminded her: even though the weather had not yet caught up with its rightful season, she was rather glad she'd packed her favourite swimming gear. If she hadn't, Sod's Law would have made it too hot to breathe in Brackensea, with nothing of her size in the local shops, no doubt. Not that she was anything more than an average build. Her bosom was large, however, compared to the frame on which it hung.

She laughed - this time with full acceptance of where the thoughts were taking her ... towards a plainness that mirrors in Hampstead, at least, couldn't lie about. Perhaps she'd have a holiday romance, like those stories she read last thing at night on her own in the dark flat. If she stopped laughing, nobody noticed, since nobody had noticed she'd started.

But there were two others who shared the carriage with Rachel. A husband and wife, if their behaviour was anything by which to judge: a non-descript couple who made desultory conversation with each other. They had boarded soon after the train had abandoned known territory as far as Rachel was concerned - beyond Colchester, even Ipswich. Their words were barely understandable beneath the weight of some unruly dialect which must have been uncommon, Rachel guessed, even in these parts, since she'd not heard it before upon any form of electronic media in Hampstead. That fact, if none other, was strange. She'd evidently considered the world to be more cosmopolitan than it actually was. All to the good, really. It gave visiting places that added edge of excitement, even if one were still in the same country. Rome and Florence were over-rated, in any event.

Could it be that the man in the carriage had said something to Rachel? A detail about a tunnel approaching and, once through it, she'd be able to see the sea for the first time. Rachel had seen sea before, she intended to say - but, almost as a matter of course, the tunnel intervened and, with the driver forgetting to switch over to the on-board lights, all she could make out was the red tip of the woman's cigarette. She felt an unaccountably sadness and, yes, fear, because the train's whistle possessed a wild scream as opposed to the more comical hootings of friendlier transport. And the tunnel made it sound worse than it actually was.

The blinding light that eventually halted the pain in her ears revealed a sloping farmer's field where statuesque figures, rather too fat to be scarecrows, haphazardly dotted the crops. They were mummified in red bandages - to keep the straw stuffing inside, no doubt, she thought.

"Scarecrows," said the man, confirming her best fears.

She'd even contemplated train crash survivors. But, indeed, she'd not had sufficient time to see what she thought she'd seen and, soon, the glinting coastline caused a resumption of her natural optimism. She was going to have a damn good time and, if she were lucky, be a heroine in a romance story.

It was only a short stroll from the station to the hotel in Brackensea, the one she'd already booked. A church-tower appeared a little crooked but she put that down to the lie of the land. It was hillier here than the surrounding countryside, even if it wasn't a patch on the contours of Hampstead Heath. Coastal erosion had created peculiar configurations, aligning cliffs with pebbly beaches and, in rarer cases, vice versa. She'd never understood the full implications of conservation and, what was more, Geography had never been her strong point at school.

She knew that the man and woman were walking in her wake - not following Rachel, as such, but certainly proceeding in the same general direction with the grain of the ground. There must have been a short shower recently, since the sloping slates glistened. The buildings that enclosed the Market Square, where the hotel itself was situated, possessed leaning roofs that were half wet, half dry, in a piecemeal patchwork. Rachel's first typical thought was that monsters had been basking up there in the rain and had now gone - perhaps on sensing her own impending arrival. She was not normally romantic, yet here she was peopling roofs with monsters! She shook her head in self-disgust.

Brackensea was hardly quaint, holding the atmosphere of an industrial conurbation further north in England, whilst maintaining a definite charm of the typically less commercial seaside resort. No silly hats here nor saucy postcards. Just gentle oldsters whiling away a second honeymoon. Yet, the buildings were offputting in a Fifties Utility fashion. She imagined she'd soon catch the sound of a needle hitting the groove of an old juke-box record, about to play Elvis Presley's 'His Latest Flame'.

Discarding her own waywardness, she shivered. She felt drizzle returning to fill the salty air. However, drawing nearer to a steep side-road leading down, between ramshackle guest houses, to the beach, she was amazed to witness many lobster-roasted sun-bathers in briefly cut costumes lying amid some black fishing-shacks. These tall coffin-like industrial beach-huts, as it were, had nets strewn over them, making them seem like huge land-locked kites. Day-dreaming, again! Rachel shrugged. She needed to sign into her accommodation. A quick wash and brush-up and, then, she could really explore the joint.

For no reason whatsoever, she was relieved to discover that the married couple from the train were nowhere to be seen. The woman reminded her of herself a little further on in time. The church tower was now closer and it no longer leaned. The diamond-shaped clockface a third of the way down showed that the time was later than that on her own wristwatch. Almost high time for tea. The street lamps were most peculiar, tall thin poles of plaited green metal topped by squashed globes and, except for a few parked cars, no other sign of life in the Square itself.

She glanced back along the route upon which she had entered the town. The path led up into a clump of trees where the hill slope now hid the station. The architecture of the church showed that the place was not on its first legs. Its flush of youth was well behind it, as also evidenced by the seedy parade of shops, each with its independent roof. Some of the lamp standards, she could now see, had mere stumps without lights: following her, perhaps, to the door of the two star hotel on the other side of the Market Square! She was still on a dirt surface, which several other boots had scuffed up not long before, because, no doubt, the increasing drizzle had drenched some divots but not others.

In the foyer of the hotel, the reception desk was tenantless. Rachel rang the bell vigorously. Two women approached from the lounge area, with the undergrunts of a TV soap behind them. To her drizzle-blurred eyes, they were in identical uniforms, a cross between a chambermaid's and that of a Prisoner-Of-War Camp commandant. One was decidedly winsome with a frivolous humour in the way she had to keep brushing her blonde fringe from in front of her large eyes. The other was older, or less able to convince anyone of her youth. Both were markedly more bodies than minds. Their hem-lines were a trifle too short for comfort.

"Yes?" said the spokesman, the older.

"I've not been here before but I have booked a room for the night."

"Never been good enough before, eh?"

"Not at all ... I've just not visited the area, before."

"Few do ... if they do."

"Shall I sign the Register?"

The younger one took a large ledger from under the reception counter and opened it at the first page. Rachel appeared to be the very first visitor which, surely, should not have been the case.

"Don't you usually get guests to sign it?" she queried.

The younger spoke for the first time, her voice as smooth as wild honey: "You are the first to ask..."

If there was a mystery, Rachel was usually the first to desire league with it, to be an ingredient as it were of its frustrating inscrutability. She even supposed that she might be the mystery whilst Brackensea (with its strange hotel and leaning church) was ordinary and straightforward. She entered the ledger with a signature that she had never used before, ending it with a flourish of lines and curls. She beamed with pride, as she rescrewed the top on her fountain pen.

The stairs were brightly lit by hurricane lamps, but the landing was left dark, so she could not see how far the corridor stretched nor the approximate number of rooms. Her own room, to which she was shown by the older woman with a cinema torch, was adequate. The bed seemed lumpy but sleepable; the bathroom brown at the edges but doused with a cocktail of disinfectants; the ceiling stained with maps of archipelago worlds that Rachel almost believed had a feasible place in real geography; and a trap door no doubt leading to that vast slated roof she had previously surveyed from below in the Market Square: a basking-frame for monsters!

From her window, she could see the sun was at last just managing to peel back the dirty clouds, but too late for the weather's sake, since the huge red rim was dipping behind a clifftop - almost too early for night. The square was still deserted of people, but the parked cars had gone.

She tried the twanging bed and examined her feet inch by inch: a routine that travelling always caused her to do. She plumped them eventually into the wash basin which she'd filled with tepid water. She could see from where she was now positioned that the odd standard lamps in the square were gradually seeping a yellowy glow, as the sun finally gave up its ghost to the moon.

It was quiet. Too quiet. The two women were evidently listening to Rachel. Trying to fathom her mystery. So Rachel daringly spoke to herself to make it worth their while listening:-

"I expect those two women run this joint together, in between the TV programmes ... they can't have much to do ... they seem nice creatures enough ... so affectionate, I imagine, with one another when the customers have been put to bed..."

She knew nothing about them. She simply surmised. She smiled, as she heard shuffling from above her in the bedroom ceiling.

"When I get home to London, I will tell people of the two women ... that it's nice to be looked after by such a couple, instead of by one of those plug ugly man-woman creatures which usually snoop around such hotels in the guise of managers. Two women's bodies are so nice as they lodge upon one another, with nothing poking in between them in the manner of a broken bed-spring..."

It was tantamount to reciting a speech that someone else had learned by heart on her behalf. The drizzle had irritated her, but now she was safe and basking in the autonomous day-dreams which she conjured for herself and for her two auditors. Then the trap door in the ceiling below the hotel's giant roof began to gape open inwards ... but which direction was inward, which outward?

Rachel had hiked from Brackensea, which meant all of the morning since breakfast had been spent clambering along woodland tracks which tirelessly followed the contours of the countryside away from the sea. She crossed the last brow and looked down at the village of Driffidge, glistening in the aftermath of one of those sudden summer showers that had dogged her holiday so far. Repositioning the shoulderstrap of her lunchbox, kindly prepared by the two women at the Brackensea hotel, she pumped her legs against the downward slope.

Nobody about. She made a private joke about siestas in this little patch of Old England, even though the watery sun was more an ingredient of an oil painting than a heat source. She looked down at her skirt - ripped at the seams. Her face was smudged, but she was unaware of this. She sat upon the dedicated bench in the graveyard and, just as the church clock reached 12.44 pm, she caught the sound of a train: this must be part of its route towards its destination in Brackensea.

Her jaws met through bread and fish paste. She was quite oblivious of the flavour, since she gazed at the church-tower which, as indicated by the local history books, did lean more than just a little - unlike the one in Brackensea which only sometimes looked as if it did. Brushing down her blouse, she noticed the sweat had soaked the armpits; its waft of unwelcome memories of human beings deriving from animals followed her up the church path. Sometimes, she thought men were worse than animals. An animal's need for sex was at least predictable - urged upon it by its own season of heat. A man's season was something else.

The heavy door croaked on its hinges, breaking a silence that had ensued without Rachel noticing the lack of sounds. Only the stained glass windows were visible like luminous oil paintings; yet they shed no glint nor shimmer upon pew and icon. The church's interior had its own impermeable darkness.

She allowed the large door to close behind her, its short sharp sound of falling latch being in mock of Judgement Day. There was no thunderous echo. Simply an uncanny click. She was confident, however, that she could merely turn on her heels and open it again. But what was stranger - she felt as if God had been locked outside in the open. There was no sign of Him otherwise. Just the sense of His absence. She wondered if she should return to pottering around the gravestones in the churchyard, seeking a sign of a forgotten memorial.

The windows were so bright, why couldn't she make out the altar without the assistance of a light-switch? She caught the sound of something flapping in the area of the rafters. She was aware of the church's architectural features without having seen them in the flesh, since she always took holidays very seriously and carried out painstaking research before determining a week's itinerary. The flapping must be a trapped bird of some kind. Or perhaps a bat. Even now, Rachel was not concerned at the situation, despite the confusion. The noise was growing louder as the motive force swooped through the darkness - casting no shadow as it began to hover downwards.

Suddenly, with a lightning shaft of sun, the church door opened. A vision of a man stood framed, as if pinioned in gold by a pre-Raphaelite painter - each part of him woven in primary colours, stitched with darkest purple. Arms outstretched like wings, he was simultaneously a poacher's gutting and a handsome shepherd honoured with sainthood...

Kneeling on one of the hassocks and prayeing that he'd go away, Rachel failed to realise that true horror was an absence - not a presence.

Forgetting she'd left the hotel's lunch-container in one of the box-pews, she sought a name engraved upon the stonework of a hidden grave. The sun lit the stone tongues. She seemed oblivious of some fish-headed gargoyles that ungrappled from the much taller architectural stonework above - healing out into animality within winding-sheet kites of textured blood. Or if she did see them, she didn't believe her eyes. Scare-crows flocked around the tower like black seagulls.

It seemed like several hours later but, on looking casually at her watch, she saw it had been barely five minutes. The afternoon light was already fading behind its veil of drizzle. She rediscovered the path back, but she was convinced it moved under her tired feet, rather than vice versa. Driffidge was still empty, but an almost imperceptible flick of curtains showed that she was being watched out of the place, as she must have been watched in.

Once over the brow of the hill, she began her trek back to Brackensea, yet reluctantly returning a gaze upon the the village: now doll's houses and toy models. The church-tower was slowly, very very slowly, lowering itself to the ground, although she knew that could not be true. The hands on the clock, she vaguely discerned, were also moving so very slowly, but far too fast if she could actually see them move. She trudged on into the wood, rather worried about the attitude of the two women in the hotel when they got to learn that Rachel had abandoned the lunchbox that they had provided.

But she need not have worried.

(published 'The Third Alternative' 1994)

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Billy Belly

It was during that afternoon of October 31st in the Year of our Lord when evenings drew in with a particular vengeance.

"Let's play hopscotch."

"No, hide-and-seek's will be better, especially today."

If Sam allowed them to do so, Idle White and Pauline would argue for the rest of the afternoon into the evening, ending up with them not playing any games whatsoever. So, it was usually up to Sam to mediate.

Today was a case in point.

But first Sam needed to write a letter:

Dear Auntie Beryl,
I'm writing a thank you letter to thank you very much for the Hallo Ween mask. I really injoy playing with it. I keep it in the toy cubbird at night. Hope you are well. Love, Sam xxx

Sam's mother had checked the spelling.

"How about playing Dares, eh? That’ll be better, won’t it? I dare either of you to make faces at big fat Billy Belly." This was Sam's suggestion, today.

"You're always saying that and I'm fed up with Dares." The little boy who responded to Sam's suggestion was indeed Idle White who wore a duffle coat despite the unseasonable balm. Idle White knew their Mums wouldn't call them in until after dusk had started the process of blackening the sky.

The city wasteground was lit by one tall light - and by a couple of not-too-distant Belisha beacons whose orange pulses disguised the children's blushes during a rude game which they often played last thing ... just before they sensed the onset of their respective Mums' cooing roundelay of Come Home. Hide-and-Seek had taught them such tricks of the trade, what to hide, and what to seek, and what to find, and where to do it.

"I'm fed up with Dares, too," announced the piping tones of Pauline in a yellow pinafore dress. "And, Sam, I'm really more fed up with you inventing big fat Billy Belly - he never comes - and so why ever do we do Dares, if there's no-one to be scared of?"

Sam winced: he hated having his Billy Belly bluff called.

“He’ll bound to come today!” Sam said with some false earnestness.

Eventually, however, hopscotch was decided upon. Sam agreed to chalk out the grid, for the other two. He couldn't actually play since he had to have an early tea, because his Auntie Beryl was coming to visit. But first Sam needed a pee. He disappeared into one of those dark spots on the wasteground which served so well amid bouts of Hide-and-Seek - and during his own soporific gushing, he heard underlaid the lonely droning of a distant aeroplane circling the city before landing at the new aerodrome across the other side of the city. Billy Belly. Billy Belly. I like jam and jelly. He hummed absentmindedly. He often concocted such rhymes that made far more sense than those nonsensical nursery ones his mother used to tell him on her knee, before the blazing log fire amid the sacrosanct evenings of his infancy. Billy Belly had become mixed up with Jack Horner and Jack Sprat and Lucy Locket - and Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of...

A pail of what?

The voice was silent, yet it didn't require actual saying to show it was being said rather than imagined. Ghosts spoke like that, since they didn't exist. And English only existed as long as those using it also existed. Ghosts could not exist. But, of course, monsters did. Especially today. And Monsters were topped up and down with blood, bones, bellies, balls...

Sam chose to ignore his fears and clambered from the oily oubliette, half done, still buttoning his flies. He could not endure things bluffing him.

By the time he returned, Idle White and Pauline had already started chalking the grid on a large oblong piece of concrete that once must have been a runway when this area was an aerodrome. The widening of the sun upon its dying dip was rhythmically accentuated by the belisha beacons - making their orange faces like monsters in real life rather than like those black and white ones they saw in the local Picture House.

Idle White and Pauline blared looks at Sam, flushed with a substance not dissimilar to the results of Sam's recent kidney tap. It was as if the pair of them accused Sam of treachery. Almost as if they'd already seen Billy Belly and he wasn't at all frightening.

A little later, when dusk was almost over and the hopscotch grid still incomplete, Sam drifted off behind the derelict shape of the Control Tower. The wind forked his hair, since nights were often stormy. He found the mask that he had hidden under a nettle bush for safe-keeping. He gathered stings like other children did stamps. He sucked the fleshy part between his finger and thumb, preparing to mount it with a sticky hinge.

Made easier by Aunt Beryl’s gift, this procedure was part and parcel of a transmutation that Sam himself failed to understand, stemming, no doubt, from an erstwhile game of Dares that had gone horribly wrong in the 1940’s before Idle White and Pauline had been old enough to play out so late. That was when Sam played with other kids. With other boys walking on earth-shadowed shins. With other girls of white-thighed abandon. And with some of indeterminate sex who could never stop playing the last game first.

Tonight, though, Idle White sighed with relief on completion of the hopscotch grid. Numbered 1 to 10, box, double-box, box, double-box, box, double-box, box. The belisha beacons lit the litter-strewn arena with shifting desolation and despair, in-built emotions that children rarely noticed. They failed to imagine the thriving concourse, as it had once been. Ever since the new aerodrome had been built, this previous one had been allowed to go to rack and ruin.

Pauline laughed hollowly, as Idle White threw the puck towards the head of the grid. She prepared to hop. Dangled her left leg as if it didn't belong to her...

Then came the cooing of their mothers.

Time had caught up with the children, and they had not even begun the hopscotch, let alone the more dubious games. It was strange, however: home was in the opposite direction to the cooing. How could that be? Pauline shrugged. Where was Sam? The city became a weird place once the sun had set. Especially tonight.

It was as if the world were wheeling faster - or slower. Or, at least, differently, disorientatedly. Such words were not in her vocabulary, but the thoughts were in her mind, nevertheless. She felt Idle White take her hand as they left the hopscotch grid behind.

Meanwhile, there was a single coffin behind the disused tower. Nailed down. A double-coffin, next to it, gaping open. Two shapes of darkness got out together. Despite their age, they maintained a vestige of their erstwhile marriage. A pair of ancient schoolkid sweethearts (precursors of children such as Sam, Pauline and Idle White) ever sought at least a smidgen of their first explorations and the first uncoverings of the means of love.

Special Hallowe’en monsters, too, waddled free. Despite having stayed hidden for the rest of the year, they retained forbidden memories of interlocking crosses, some like metal aircraft floating in the sky, others embedded in limechalk. Yes, they waddled free...

But Sam, Idle White and Pauline eventually reached their respective homes and their mothers used speech with which to converse...

"Why home so early, Sam - did you have a quarrel?" asked Sam's mother, upon his arrival.

"No, it was cold when the wind came."

Sam smiled at his mother, then at Aunt Beryl. He'd really wanted a scarier mask. Perhaps he'd ask for a chain-saw next Hallowe’en, instead. Better than pumpkin pie. Aunt Beryl smiled back obliviously. "Oh, thank you for your nice letter, Sam," she said, "I've put it in my tresshore cubbid for when I'm old."

"You're nice and early," said Pauline's mother in another house.

"Yes, the wind got up," said Pauline, meaningfully.

"Well, as tea's not ready yet, why don't you go and play upstairs?"

"Yes, I'll tidy up my album." Pauline felt something turn over in her stomach as she rushed for the lavatory.

"Goodness, you're back soon," said Mrs White to the idol of her eyes, in yet another house.

"Billy Belly came."

"Idle! Didn't I tell you you're not to have such fanciful notions - it's bad for you. There's nobody called Billy Belly. Sam made him up. That Sam's a queer boy, at the best of times. He puts these silly ideas in your head. I don't think you should be playing with someone so much older than you."

He nodded, without answering, other than in thought.

But, Mama, your rong, Billy Belly duss live.
Billy Belly. Billy Belly. I love jam and jelly.
Belly Billy. Belly Billy. I love Jack and Jilly.

Billy could've gulped a whole pail of blood for tea, given half the chance. A lonely plane droned far-off, as the idol of Mrs White’s eyes later climbed the little wooden hills to Bedfordshire. He vowed to punish that Sam for failing to scare Pauline - but what could you expect with Sam merely wearing nothing more frightening than a silly trick ‘n treat mask, sticky-plastered hands and a stuffed anorak?

Yep, I cun't wate t' go get that dammed Sam - soon's his backs bent chorking new hotchpotch lines for me and sweet Porleen.

But that would have to wait till next Hallowe’en. Not so big and fat, Billy Belly held out his arms-within-arms and made roaring noises as he continued to fly up the stairs tread by tread towards his glove-puppet’s truckle bed. Tomorrow, Idle White would be back on his own strings. And in his own bed.

(published ‘Bats & Red Velvet’ 1995

This was a prequel to Ertz