Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Breaking Dawn

It came as a shock that Avian Influenza was back in the breaking news.  It was the day I made a visit to the National Gallery not far from where I lived in London.  I wasn’t entirely sure whether it housed ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ and, if I had a computer, a computer that actually worked, I could have looked it up I suppose before I went.  One fact of which I was sure, however, was that ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ was not the painting’s correct title; it had been christened that by some future Victorian lady.  Its eyes (or, rather, his eyes) not only follow you around the room, they also follow you, perhaps, through time itself.  A knowing, smirking look that told each one of us something. Something like: trust in me and I’ll save you. Or: I am nothing but chemical pigments, so despair!

Dawn was breaking, like a Turner, before I reached Trafalgar Square. The taxis looked as if yellow yolk had spilled all over them. It made me think this wasn’t London at all, but a  different city that did not otherwise exist. I was driven by some unknown purpose. Taken a sickie from work. It was almost as if I then thought that ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ was a form of lucky charm, a talisman in tangible form, to ward off the onset of doom.  Whatever else it might have said with its eyes. 

I imagined a chicken soul. A tiny spirit of existence that was obsessed with eggs.  The dawn by now had become slugs of orange marmalade crawling along the roof-ridges and draping the top of Nelson’s Column (i.e. Nelson himself) with pithy residue from God’s lemon-squeezer.

I cursed. I could see the Gallery was not yet open. Foolishly, I imagined everyone else had, like me, been up for hours.  It felt like lunchtime to me.  I asked a passer-by whether the Gallery contained ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ because, if not, I would be able to kill time with a task satisfyingly useful: like tracking it down elsewhere. I was ignored as if I were considered 'persona non grata'.  With some dismay, I suddenly realised the painting might not be in London at all. But in some upstart city like Amsterdam or Madrid. Upstart. The word had ‘art’ in it! I laughed with self-mockery as I opened my earlier packed lunchbox while sitting near the stone lions and the fountains.

Swarms of pigeon-life swooped around in synchronised patterns because some tourists illegally scattered breadcrumbs for them in the square. That reminded me that the news had only broken late yesterday, the news about the re-awakening of Avian Influenza or H5N1 as some called it. Many of these torurists may not even have heard about it. I liked the expression Bird Flew. I laughed again. This was no laughing matter. When you eventually read this and see how I spelt ‘Flew’, you won’t laugh, either. Unless you never  get to read this...

Eventually, I saw the doors of the National Gallery being opened. Dawn, had, by now, finally broken.  And the oranges and yellows were slowly fading to grey.  Like a painting that had sat too long in the sun. Hung in a window that got too much exposure to the prevailing heat of a long hot summer. I replaced the uneaten Marmite sandwich in my box and I called across to one of the Gallery wardens standing on the outside with a cigarette in his mouth.

“The Laughing Cavalier?”

“Wallace Collection,” he shouted back.

I shrugged.  At least the wings’ communal shadow might protect this painting of the city from the desiccations of light. Its moving column of darkness following wherever I looked.

(written today and first published here)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Pilot Looked Round

The stiff key – or what I thought to be a stiff key – became sticky in the lock and bent out of true as I tried to turn it.  The place I was trying to unlock seemed more like a barn than a cottage but I had already convinced myself – based on earlier-read literature – that it was comfortable inside. Well, as a cheap place for a weekend break, pretty basic, but still acceptable with a real bed.  No need for heating at this sticky time of the year, I thought, as, despite having bent out of true, the key released the tumblers one by one in slow motion sound. 

Inside was dark. No lights.  I cursed as the switch by the door made no difference at all – not even a short-circuit flash. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was still enough natural vision to read the notice just inside the door: “The pilot is under the sink in the kitchen”. This was the shorter of two notices. The other one was full of small print relating to the temporary tenancy. 

I presumed it meant the pilot light. 

I lingered for a while looking back through the open door at the wonderful view of rolling hills. I found the key still in my hand – strangely in two bits, as if I had just carried out, absent-mindedly, my own version of a Uri Geller trick of softening metal with the will-power of my tender fingertips.   I’d better find the pilot light under the kitchen sink before it was too dark even to find the kitchen.

The rolling hills had merged with the twilit sky even as I gazed at them back through the open door. The moon had carved its horn-shape into Heaven’s ebony under-roof. Words that had taken over my mind, as if I were a poet, not someone who had very little vocabulary before entering this edifice of text, let alone the holiday cottage or pitch-black barn. 

I felt my way along the wall, meeting protuberances that I would not care to describe or guess their nature despite my increased word-power to do so.  I desperately tried to stop my new gift of imagination running away with itself.  Normally, I could not even imagine anything beyond my immediate selfish needs. 

Eventually, I found what I guessed to be the kitchen – judging by the smell of rank food. But then I stumbled into what could only be described as a bed. Soft covers – too soft – my fingers going through the material and its under-stuffing with uncomfortable ease.  But then I found the sink – drip, drip, drip, said the tap – so loudly I wondered how I hadn’t heard it before now. Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, said the drain beneath the open plug. I bent down to open the cupboard where I imagined the u-bend to be.  Even if I found the pilot-light, how would I ignite it? With a hiss of flame or the mere click of a switch – as the whole place would hopefully, at best or at worst, spring into flumes of gaseous gloom, a gloom capable of outshining the darkness that had by now set in with an impenetrable shroud, thick enough to touch. 

I saw the back of someone’s head under the sink, strangely luminous with smooth brylcreemed hair glistening off the reflection from my eyes, eyes still storing depletions of hillside sun that I had kept inside the hump of my own head.  Slowly, that head looked round – as if on a revolving plinth like one of a seaside array of novelty clowns. 

I struck a sudden match, snapping this unexpected find in two, but not before allowing the flame to ignite one of the nostrils – and bright red eyes broke open not only from the head in question but from scores of other heads around the walls like Hallowe’en pumpkins.

This was not going to be a holiday easy to forget, I thought, my absent mind now returned to simple words and simple thoughts. I was ever the simple soul...

In the glowing blood-light, he staggered back to the disintegrating plumpness of the bed-covers – tired of the dreams. He twisted the key in the lock and let sleep do the rest.