Sunday, February 18, 2007

When Dawn Met Dusk

The blue blanket, in its role of makeshift curtain, clung to the surface condensation of the window. It bore an archipelago of stains, imaginary worlds where the non-sleeper was able to cruise ... during those endless hours at dawn and dusk, when his thoughts woul otherwise have slipped back into the viler self-made geography of his mind.

Only yesterday, he had met the one person who would ever mean anything to him, if indeed people CAN have a meaning. He still heard her voice in this very room: “It’s time to say bye bye, Tom.”

There was no reply he could summon.

He had found her in the small supermarket down the road, where the few cans left over from the last rush looked lost amid the empty spaces among the shelves. He was after tomatoes which, in cans, were so different from those of a fresh variety ... in their blood soup looking for all the world like bodily innards. He told her that he was making lunch for himself and that he already had more than enough to go round two mouths.

As they left, the checkout man said, “It’s a rum old do, innit? Nobody can eat nothing, these days, with all the scares.”

Tom smiled knowingly. “People’d rather starve than risk an unknown disease that can eat away at their bodies...” he suggested, after an enbarrassing silence.

“Yes, I’ve had to put Government stickers on everything ... It cuts into the profits so.”

They left together, hand in hand ... for what had people in common but companionship in such times? They carried on a fitful conversation until they reached his flat. Realising that the key had been left unintentionally inside, he forced entry, at the same time trying to conceal the ease with which he did this. He did not want her to know that his occupation was tantameunt to squatting. These days, nobody did anything to to earn a living, for even money could not buy what one really needed in life.

Lunch was to be from a casserole he’d had simmerring for months. She turned up her nose as he revealed the churning brown gruel with unrecognisable lunps floating. He took the ladle fran the wall, stirred it noisily and then returned it to the oven.

Even sex was out of the question, because she’d watched the news, the same as everybody. Nothing was safe, he agreed. They did take a few nibbles at each other in the kitchen, which was almost erotic.

“Dad’s told me that Mum died from him you know?” she said, as she walked over to inspect the blanket. Towards the bottom, it was fraying, each teased-out fibre ending in a slowly forming bubble of dew.

“Have a go, if you want. I don’t need any till tonight,” he suggested gratuitously. The water authorities had long since been privatised and it was said in some quarters that they had pumped undiluted acid rain to the taps, in the hope that nobody would end up noticing.

Tom then understood that falling in love was not a lost art. How could he have offered her a suck of the blanket, otherwise?

“Come in...” He lifted aside the grubby lip of sheet, demnonstrating how dark and warm it nust be within. “We don’t need to do anything dangerous, just cuddle and comfort...”

“No, it’s too late. How do I know I can trust myself?” Her voice shook with emotion. She recalled the exploratory nibbles in the kitchen, still sucking on the bit of spare ear-lobe which she pressed against her bare cheek-lining with the tongue.

As Tom picked his teeth with a fingernail he’d only cleaned out fully that very morning, he could hear the distant wail of sirens. Ambulances steered clear of starvation cases, because the drivers wanted to avoid both the temptation and danger inherent in near-dead bodies. Thus, irrhythmically, they could be heard on their endless course on the ring-road ... their fuel caps open to the streaming air ... for when the pandemic chemical stews filtered back through the ragged rainless clouds of black smoke, everything but everything buzzed and honked.

The terrible tragedy was that she kissed Tom goodbye, tongue to tongue. Tragic in more ways than one, since he then couldn’t say how much he loved her before they separated.

He slept soundly for once and dreamt of man-made disasters, himself on the point of becoming unmade man ... only to be woken by the blanket flopping to the floor, too heavy for its hooks.

And the light flooded back.

Published 'Peeping Tom' 1995

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Creeping Carpet/ Cathy Come Home / London Christmas Story


As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He didn't even comb his night-strewn hair. His face was neither ugly nor handsome. His figure without even a sign of portliness or lean. His clothes were drabber than they were smart; so drab the darkness hid them in further folds of themselves. His voice picked out words from silence, words which meant little more than the creaks of the floorboards. His touch was like touching one of my own hands with the other. I put him down to nothing but a haunting thought. Or, perhaps, at least, the ghostly residue of some man who had been an ancient infant chimney-sweep.
When I reached the top, I looked back to see his back backing off down the stairwell, disappearing into nothingness—if something could disappear that was never there in the first place. I lowered myself into half-a-kneel, half-a-bend, all mixed with a crumpled crouch, and picked up from the tousled stair carpet a loose strand that must have floated there from his head of night-strewn hair. I held it closer to my child-young eyes and watched it scribble like the filmic interference on old celluloid, in words that meant nothing to my childish mind beyond their mere articulation as softest carpet-slipper sounds.
"What you doing dear?" asked my mother, as her tall figure half-filled the slanting yellow shaft of a half-opened bedroom door.
"Following myself up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire," I said as plaintively as possible. After all, I had an image to maintain.
"Don't be a soppy aporth and go to bed. It's high time you were in dream land."
My mother's voice was the only one that could hold sweetness as well as righteous anger.
I dropped the hair that wasn't there. I let out my lungs with breath blacker than the sooty air and sucked in a new draught, one that was tinged with the yellow still left there by my mother's now shut bedroom door.
I was suddenly a child again, one that no longer needed any image to remain perfectly my mother's own.
But upon trying the doorknob of my childhood lair, I found it wasn't there. Only a mop of tousled, tangled air.


CATHY COME HOME - A Collaboration with Anthea Holland

At a point in the distance the trees merged with the horizon, a dark rim on the pan of the world. The bowl of hope was empty, the dish of dreams devoid of anything but the dregs of a nightmare.

The flatness of the landscape reminded him of the desert. Not that the desert had been flat, far from it; the sand scalloped into shapes beyond the imaginings of the finest sculptor. But it had been arid - like that flatness that lay before him in the future. The trees that he could no longer discern were nothing but a hiccup in the digestive system of existence.

He turned and looked over his shoulder whence he had come. Nothing much there, either. A few streams perhaps, but he had passed them without noticing them, so they counted for nothing. Once or twice a flower had bloomed, only to be flattened by his size 10's. The wildlife along the way had scurried into holes and burrows to avoid his deadly gaze.

Even wildlife with roots had scurried! Or so it seemed. There was one particular form of orchid that managed to move from place to place of its own volition. Dragging its roots behind, in hope of a new seedbed to mulch it. A rare plant. A rare disease, too, imagining that such a plant could exist. Yet indeed it was no fever of his brain that told him he was following one such specimen between the now featureless horizons. Duneless and dour.

Of course, a rare orchid would never be able to survive in the dry terrains he now crossed. It was wishful thinking or just sheer bravery on the plant’s part to act as his guide. Only desiccation could be its ultimate fate. Sacrificing its life for his. Still, rare orchids only lasted a blink of an eyelid in the scheme of things, at the best of times. He shrugged. It wasn’t sacrificing that much, was it? Rare beauty was ephemeral to the nth degree.

Like Catherine’s rare beauty. She had not been a lover of exotic blooms. She simply relished the act of pressing ordinary wild flowers into scrapbooks. Wild flowers were all very well in their place - in fact he thought they should be protected and nurtured; nothing was improved by removing it from its natural habitat, he thought, including man. Take him, for example - and he wished somebody would, now that Catherine had relinquished her claim - he was not improved by being in this desiccated landscape. No, he should be in his rightful place; armchair by a log fire, a book in his hands, a glass of beer at his side and preferably with Catherine at his feet. Or, better still, with the same log fire but on the rug in front of it - with Catherine, naturally.

A sound made him look down to catch the tail end of a rat scurrying beneath a rock. A rock that surely hadn't been there a moment before. But then he was used to rocks cropping up unexpectedly in his life - all designed to trip him up, he was sure. It was only the sound the rat had made that had saved him from tripping over this one.

Rats. They kept appearing in his life as well. Always when he least expected it; when he believed his cup of happiness was full to overflowing, some nasty rat would come and drink the contents of his vessel while his back was turned.

One half was dream. The other was real. A hybrid of waking and sleeping. The free-wheeling orchid and memories of Catherine by the log fire were in the dream. The rats were real. The desert was real. Desert rats. Still, he’d seen rats in his local park back home – and during his seaside holidays in North Essex, too. That had only been too real.

He decided to allow the dream to take sway. It seemed preferable; the dream took place in a desert, a different desert. But Catherine, a different Catherine, not the dream one, was in a deckchair, sun-bathing, or rather, sun-burning. It was like looking at chicken roast. She was quite naked, her voice emerging from above curvier dunes than the desert could ever boast.

“It’s nice here by the sea,” she said. The sea was so far away. The whole universe was global-burning. She pretended to be on a pier in a cool sea breeze. She watched, she said, children playing on the beach. Scurrying around like rats in a panic.

He resumed his walk towards the nearest horizon, intent on a quest, the purpose of which was lost in the dream he wasn’t now dreaming.

The him that was a dream had a spring in his step; the tree-lined horizon now taking shape so that he could see the moving forms beneath them. Catherine was there, he knew - not the sun-scorched version, but the languid on the rug one. His heart-beat quickened as he increased his pace until he was running - and yet the horizon seemed to be no nearer; the forms beneath it no better defined.

The real him was also moving forward, but slower. For him, too, the horizon was becoming clearer and the trees more defined. Beneath them the shapes that moved were less friendly than Catherine - although the solar-cooked version might be there, he supposed. But it wasn't a sight he really wanted to see - except for the small part of him that sought revenge.

Revenge is sweet, they say, and so were the fruit gums that he dug around for in his pocket. He was sure there was a couple left. Eventually he located one trapped in the seam and covered with fluff and other detritus that defied definition. Aware (because his mother had told him) that you had to eat a speck of dirt before you died, he put the whole thing in his mouth, hoping that the speck of dirt might speed him to a death that he had been seeking. It seemed a preferable way to go than facing what lurked beneath the trees - which he seemed to be approaching remarkably quickly considering the slow movements of his feet.

It was a doll. The china cheeks mottled by the browning of history. The rubbery-looking limbs mapped all over with an unfathomable geography, peppered as it was with cack-handed archipelagos. There was a pustule or bubble on the doll’s china neck as if the sun was beginning to frazzle it. The toy gums were caked with gooey colours. The bone china teeth or dentures were browner than the staining on the cheeks. The eyes jaundiced. The face pointed like a rodent’s.

Dead orchids were crumpled in the vicinity and he sniffed the residue of some ritualistic mass suicide on their part. Their tiny roots like centipede legs wilted and flickered in the breezeless air. These had once been the trees that had seemed to merge with the horizon, given the perspective of contourless distance and its misalignment of terrain. Also given his own inchworm proportions. He threaded the eyes. Riddled the dark sands. A rare specimen. A squirming speck of size 10 dirt.

Catherine, having woken, lazed back in a log-chair on a log-pier above a log-fire. The deck swayed. But that was a different dream. And only perspective in dream was a measure for how real waking was. Embarking on a voyage to ancient China or far-off Cathay.



Are you sitting comfortably--since I am beginning. My name is Felicity and I am the happiest woman in the world. Why? Well, because ... WHAT’S THAT NOISE ? How can I tell you about my happiness when there's so much noise? Is it workmen drilling? Or sirens wailing of another war? Sounds a bit like a fuss about nothing, as usual. Well, come closer, my dear. I am happy because I love you. Why don't you look surprised? Why are your eyes so small? I am sincere. Come closer, since you don't seem to be hearing me. Oooh, my mouth is now so very close to your ear, I can see all the white hair sprouting in and out. The noise is deafening and I'm afraid I shall have to shout. I am suddenly feeling very lonely. Please ignore that person staring through the window. And that other one. Men in church-dome hats. I think we should pretend to ignore them, at least. The noise I hear in the chimney is certainly far too early for Christmas. In fact, almost a whole year to elapse. Ah well, the workmen seem busy hammering at my door. I turn your head. I kiss your cold old lips. What are those noises I sense clip-clopping on the roof-slates; certainly not the dear dear rain. I am indeed so happy. I think YOU are your own best present.

“In the old days, children were delighted by the merest stocking of fruit and coal, and Christmas plum pudding could be sown with any loose shrapnel like threepenny bits or tanners.” Rachel Mildeyes (THE GOOD OLD DAYS vol viii. Storyville)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Merriment of Souls

Nobody knew whence Cheriso came but they were convinced of his destination. The planet next door.

There was a loose lease in force despite that planet's inaccessibility. Few, indeed, had travelled there in the last century, mainly because of the belief - whether grounded in fact or fever - that the hot star had grown hotter or the planets had moved a little closer into the invisible corona. Indeed, the planet next door was, of course, that much closer to the sun.

In any event, Cheriso was the one they hoped to break the duck. His rocket, although amateurishly constructed, at least looked fitter and leaner than any of its predecessors.

Cheriso had Christened the planet next door Mirth.

He thought it should have a name. Apparently, in another solar system, dark years away, every single planet - even the uninhabited and the uninhabitable ones - had, he maintained, a name. Here, however, he was surprised to see that even the planet on which the people lived was called, well, it was called simply the planet next door to the planet next door.

"You won't get far in that..." said the Uncle, pointing at Cheriso's lop-sided craft.

"Far is too far," replied the inscrutable Cheriso.

The Uncle was older that the last attempt to reach the planet next door as Mirth had then been called. A beautiful girl gazed at Cheriso with wide eyes, oblivious of her own thinly disguised charms.

She had always called the hot star Fun.

Suddenly, Cheriso, interrupting such backward thoughts, said to the Uncle: "Well, I got here in that!" He strode towards his leaning rocket, adjusted a chock and strapped himself into the harness as if he were about to take part in a rodeo.

"Hey! Cheriso, there is a difference between a ringmaster and a ringleader," shouted the Uncle with a grin; and he walked off with the girl in tow. Only one of them gave a backward glance as Cheriso lit the fuse at the base of his steel steed and eventually merged with the speckled merriment of the benighted universe.

The clouds were thought - by the villagers of Essex - to contain shapes that were heavier than air. Not a religion as such but, nevertheless, a faith in impossibilities as truths. As for me, I'm a villager who questioned everything - one of the very few who can tell a mock reality when he sees it. And I shall now speak of the most bogus of all...

In the old days - when I was younger - I, too, naively gulped a different belief with each swallow - even when someone maintained that the newly published dictionary had missed out the word "gullible".

I had things either in tow or after me.

But, at the time, I didn't believe anything. I soon learned my lesson - and I was proud of it.

So there was no difficulty when Arabella knocked on alternate doors of the village and asked whether the householder in each one thus knocked upon had seen the ... or, at least, felt the presence of ... creatures which lived in the clouds.

As it happened, I was the last one that woke up from his or her sleep that momentous night. I simply told her that even parts of normal daily life were, in themselves, dubious, let alone tall tales of creatures in the clouds. There were no fixtures, let alone commodities such as futures.

She pulled me by the hand into the outside to look at the sky. All I saw were stars. And no clouds at all (unless they were too far away to be seen). I quickly scuttled back indoors, because, secretly, I'd seen something like a silver pin or flashing sword.

Since I had been the last but one house that Arabella had seen fit to visit, I took her inside for hot soup. I had some simmering on the hob for just such an eventuality.

She was pretty enough but I did not believe in love lasting beyond the first look. So I had never got married.

"What's that on the carpet?"

She pointed at my shadow lolling behind me like a bloodstain - evidence for moveable murder or a dry feast for vampires, I nearly said aloud but didn't since Arabella was a simple girl. In fact, most of the villagers were simple. None could fathom my complexities, least of all sweet Arabella.

"What's the village like these days?" I asked, ignoring her question and hoping to encourage her to speak without my intervention, although agoraphobics as intense as myself were even disturbed simply by talk of the outside.

"Well, they've built it up a bit more, and the library has been refurbished..."

I nodded. I remembered it well from the old days when I was similar to every other villager, which meant slightly more than half.

"The square has got dustier - with the seasons drier and the sand from Clacton-on-Sea being borne on the winds. The shapes in the clouds..."

I hoped she would pause at that point since the soup should be supped while it was still piping hot. But she managed to continue speaking through mouthfuls of pea-green slime.

"...some say Great Old Ones are lurking up there ... sewn together by God's needle."

"So someone's been reading the Necronomicon again, eh?" I asked with some grasp of the ancient art of interruption.

"It's still in the library..."

She paused now for real, not for a fresh spoonful, but because she dared not tell me that villagers had been withdrawing the Necronomicon unstamped-out by the librarian. I could read all that in her wide, bowling eyes. Her legs crossed and uncrossed in a rather becoming fashion but I kept myself more or less fixed upon her upper face. The only truth was in eyes - they could tell me far more than any mouth or gesture.

"Are the others still there?"

What others? And where? The secondary questions were unvoiced since Arabella guessed I meant the books in the basement instead of the more accessible ones in the main body of the library - because they were even more arcane, recondite, abstruse, esoteric, occult or simply more dangerous than the Necronomicon itself.

As we thought silently, there was a tangible feeling in the air of impending doom. This was the first time I had felt it so strongly since abandoning myself to a claustrophobic cure for disbelief in the existence of the outside world. Simply because Arabella was a representative of that very outside did not entail any diminishment of my faith in open-mindedness, an open-mindedness so intense I often found myself searching horizonless dreams for brooding nothingnesses bubbling like soup at each centre of infinity ... a soup that coagulated within cores, cores unto themselves.

I shook my head. Craziness had no place in me. If I were crazy, then there was nothing upon which I could depend. I could not hang my hat even on the hook of my mind, in such circumstances. To gain some purchase on any smidgen of reality whatsoever, I began to visualise the library building as I remembered it, facing out upon the dusty village square.

The feeling was so strong, I felt Arabella's small hand inside my big one, tugging me with barely perceptible gusts of breath filling her rosy cheeks. Yes, there, the library, with its two old-fashioned turrets, one containing the erstwhile school bell ... the one that had tolled a token of a more ancient tugging, when I myself was as young as Arabella. In those days, it had not seemed strange to be led by the claws of a tentacular beast who was a human being in disguise - where only the perspective of adulthood made me realise that disguises, like basements, were never-ending.

Cheriso stood at the library door. A smile on his face.

"I knew you would come, Uncle," the youth said.

And the old man spread his fingers as if to encompass the whole world. The girl lightly kissed his deep-lined face, before she left to enter the library with Cheriso. The old man could see they were becoming closer than he had ever managed with another human being.

In the dusty square stood a silver fountain. It had been there years, hadn't it? He approached it, determined to vanish within its folds.

He yearned for the Heaven next door but one, where he could be merely himself, no longer a figure of Fun.

The book was slammed shut with a dusty explosion. The ancient couple entwined twigs for bones and chuckled merrily at the unexpected ending.