April 29, 2007
so, as promised:
My dad worked in one of those out of the way industrial estates, tucked in behind a small village in Cornwall, pleasant in the few weeks of summer, but harsh and gray the remainder of the year. He worked a machine which baked rubber sheets around a steel pole to make rollers for conveyor belts. About forty people worked there, receiving the sheet rubber and steel, winding it, baking, then trimming. The finished rollers were stacked in the corner by the overhead doors, then packed into brown crates for dispatch in lorries two or three times a week. Each day passed as the previous had done. Light-hearted banter pitched up along the aisles, newspapers were scanned in the coffee room, cash was counted on a Thursday afternoon. My dad, twenty-three at that time, was never going to move on, not in a million years.
After work on a Friday he would catch a ride home, grab something from the fridge, then head out to meet his friends in Sam’s Bar. They would shoot some pool, swap jokes, and talk about the ‘tits on that barmaid’. It was comfortable. It was warm. And he was never going to move on, not in a million years.
The flat he stayed in was quite large for the rent he paid. It was barely furnished but it would do. There was only one chair, an armchair of soft chord, which sat seven feet away from the television, the perfect distance. As he sat with the light off, the flowing colours flickered around the room, growing inexorably from the corner up onto the ceiling. On an occasional table adjacent to the soft roomy arm of the chair, sat an ashtray. In his left hand he would hold a mug of tea, or two or three times a week, a can of beer. In his right was a cigarette, or the remote control. He was never going to leave, not in a million years.
Sarah, my mother, had no idea what she wanted. She had left university, got a temp job as a receptionist in an office in Birmingham just five minutes from home, and had sat there, fives days a week, ever since. She talked to her parents about possible career moves, what sort of direction she should go in, accountancy, personnel management, retail. But mostly she answered telephones, directed people through heavy double doors with a smile. She stared at her reflection in the marble walls, she read magazines in quiet moments. She would turn down the odd request for a date from passing young men in suits. A gentle shake of the head and down-turned eyes were all it ever took. She wasn’t interested, not in this job, this town, this life, she just wasn’t interested. But she stayed, and each day became a full-colour xerox of the last.
Most of her friends never came back from university. They stayed on, either for a post-graduate course, or because they just preferred it away from home. A few had moved to London, but Sarah was never tempted. She thought about travelling, liked the idea of seeing Chile or Peru, but she never did. It was enough that she could watch some out of the way place on television, or flick through glossy prints of mountain views in the National Geographic. A couple of such pictures she had carefully removed and placed behind plastic frames in her room at home. And each day became a full-colour xerox of the last.
How would these two, separated by two-hundred miles and no obvious prospect of meeting, ever get it together? As my life is at stake here, it is only natural that I should take an interest.
All this time I have watched them, been them, grown with them. I have known what makes Sarah stare at the mirror every morning, what my dad mutters under his breath when he’s alone. I know it so completely that I cannot believe I am not here to experience life. The idea that my possibility is doomed not to crystallize seems unthinkable. The more unthinkable that it becomes the harder I pull on the fine gossamer hairs that must connect me to my parents. I wonder if I have left it too late. Was I so caught in my love for each of them that I grew complacent, forgot that I am a product of a pair and not of two individuals. I am the two of them together, linked in every way. I must remember that, I must pull harder still.
My dad is amongst the workforce, grouped together in the canteen by the works manager. There is disbelief that the unit is to close. I welcome it, change is good. My dad’s comfort turns to concern. This he feels is unjust. The Company is leaving this particular market, the spokesman says, to concentrate on its core business. The works didn’t provide sufficient profits either to continue, or for some other firm to venture a bid for such an out of the way operation. But it made money, it supported him, and the others, and this was unjust.
I am aware of little else in this world. My universe is one of two people only. I speculate from time to time on what other possibilities there may be out there, out in the far reaches that remain mere shadows of potential. Others, surely, exist. Other possibilities, other products of a liaison between my father and another, between my mother and another. I realise, of course, that I am excluded by them, by their potential. Those fine gossamer threads are all that hold me here. I must pull harder.
My father, having at first reacted badly to his change in circumstances, is fired up by his rage against the injustice he has been served. I, pulling all the time, blindly seizing only hope, fleetingly see a chance that he may move, relocate to find work. Possibilities are all I can work with, and there must remain a possibility that my parents can meet. But my father’s rage takes an entrepreneurial turn. He formulates a plan and over a fortnight agrees to buy some of the old machinery he has worked since leaving school. With a friend he leases a smaller unit on the same estate. They take on another worker on a promise of future earnings. The machines roll, the rubber rolls, on a much reduced scale at first, but it rolls nevertheless. At once I feel pride, pride at one half of the essence of me, but also horror. This pride must surely serve to keep him away from Sarah, and myself from birth.
Sarah taps another telephone extension number into the exchange. She revolves her chair around to face a visitor that has emerged through the double doors. She takes out a clear plastic wallet in which she slots a purple card announcing the fact that there is a visitor to the Company. She takes his name. His accent is strange. In fact he is not at all the typical visitor. She notes that he is not wearing the uniform, the dark suit, the colourful tie, the polished shoes. He stands before her dressed in trousers and a jacket that do not match, and she notes, as he signs his name in the visitors book, that his hand shakes. He drops the pen, he cannot remember the registration number of his car. He apologises. He tells her that he has driven this morning from Cornwall, that he is to see the purchasing manager, that he has just taken over production of some component that her firm used to buy. He tells her that he is probably wasting his time, that he should not have come all this way. She smiles. She hands him a glass of water. She feels . . . something. An emotion as rare in her life as excitement. In a curious way she wants to take him home. He looks into her eyes, she does not look down.
I am taken aback. Their eyes meet and I am charged. This new life, my life, is kindled, is announced. I can feel their longing for an actual union, a fusion which is my being. I pull on the gossamer threads that tighten and thicken into ropes. I pull and watch as, at the end of the day, they walk out of the building together. My father has a business, my mother a distraction for a day. They drink, they laugh, they love. My father drives away in the early hours of the morning eager to spread the euphoria he mistakenly believes came from the signature on the contract that is rolled up in his pocket. He means to call Sarah the next day, but he does not, not then, not ever.
As I tunnel through the darkness, losing all sight in the crystallization of my being, I am filled with wonder at the embryonic human form I hold, the material which has accrued from my belief, my hope, my love. All that I had dissipates, is left behind. I am propelled into the physical. My love remains, actuates, no longer calling me to life but reinforcing it. It says to me ‘divide’, and I divide.
March 23, 2007
i saw this, via metafilter, and thought of a story i wrote. the bbc wouldn’t take it because of mcdonald’s litigious nature. i pointed out that it wasn’t anti-mcDs, or indeed anything else. they asked me to change the name to something else and get rid of the references to a real company:
the golden arch
“Define it then.” Says Naz. “Go on, what is it? I mean, how would you know if a deaf, dumb, and blind man was enlightened?”
“You could just tell.” Answers Saffie.
“Bollocks,” says Naz, “ you can’t just tell? He has to do something.”
Next April, Saffie and Naz will have been together for ten years. Everyone knew they were made for each other. They’d lived together for eight of those years, with only one six month interval, during which Naz went to find himself somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The fact that he had really found himself in the sweaty arms of an Australian back-packer named Sandy was never made known to Saffie. Still, thought Naz, she’d have forgiven him anyway. Saffie, of course, had never strayed. That time in Bali with the black South African hadn’t counted, not really. Her Catholic upbringing allowed her to view that as being something quite different, no penetration was involved after all. No, the two of them were an item; they belonged together, to each other.
Arriving in Katmandu after a short flight from Bangkok, Saffie felt a release she had not expected. The turmoil she had felt in her brain, Naz, England, that whole insecurity thing, was in front of her, in the narrow streets and mayhem. You had to let it wash over you, not let your own shit get in the way, no time for it, no space. Saffie had a purpose here; no idle sightseeing travelers’ trail this. A mission, something she believed in, something important. Saffie was happy, she smiled, very happy.
James heard the flurry of activity around him and knew the cabin crew was clearing up for the final time before landing. His shallow meal tray was whisked away, hardly touched, with a polite nod. He arched his back, stretched his neck, and flexed his fingers, tried to get the blood flowing again. He looked out of the window: Nepal. He could murder a BigMac and fries.
He wondered whether the boys from Illinois had ever come out here. He guessed that someone must have. He supposed that someone from Illinois had to have been to every restaurant. But no any one individual had done it, he was pretty sure of that. There were now over 25,000 of them in 117 countries. Not bad for what was once a west coast hamburger stand.
California 1955. Dick and Mac McDonald ran this hamburger stand in San Bernadino. One day they are approached by this guy, Ray Kroc. He had exclusive distribution rights to a milkshake mixer. He noticed that one customer; a solitary hamburger stand was running eight of these mixers. He wondered if there was something in this, some secret or mode of operation that he could use or pass on to his customers to promote the sale of more mixers. This was post war America, times were good. Ray worked hard and he wanted to be rich.
Ray traveled to California and took a look at Dick and Mac’s stand. Straight away he was impressed. They talked for a while about franchising the operation, Ray spying an eight mixer sale to each new branch. When the boys questioned who would open up these new places, Ray suggested himself. The boys had the name, but Ray was the true father of The Golden Arch.
The first real McDonalds opened 15 April 1955 at 400 Lee Street, Des Plaines, Illinois. The first day’s takings was $366.12. Today it turns over $40 billion dollars a year.
James knew it all, he was an aficionado. He’d been to that first restaurant. Now rebuilt to the original blueprints as a museum for the McDonalds Corporation. It was walking around the exhibits; mannequins styling the original white shirts, dark trousers, aprons and paper hats; that James discovered the McDonalds folklore. It was detailed and well researched. It fed James’ interest and kept raising new questions in his mind. Here was one whole strand of social history. It was micro-history that grew macro. The world was McDonalds, was Coca-Cola, was Microsoft and Disney. It was here and it was global. Best of all it was tangible, you could see it. Every McDonalds was an embassy for the future of mankind. And you could eat there.
It wasn’t just Big Business with a capital “B”, 85% of the restaurants are franchised, most of them to locals. This was a social phenomenon. This was big. James found himself after a while, traveling all over. He started in the States then moved further afield. He went to Beijing to see the largest restaurant, then the smallest, then the newest. He went to openings all over. A new McDonalds opens every seven hours. In ’94 in Kuwait City 15,000 people queued for a burger. The line of cars for the drive thru was 7 miles long. Spectacular. James was spellbound by it. Each time he asked for fries he knew that, wherever in the world he was, they had all been placed in oil heated to precisely 168 degrees Celsius and left there for exactly 2.55 minutes. James knew that his experience was mirrored in 40 million other souls all around the world, each and every day. He developed a real love for the golden arch, the red and yellow, the silver stars on the uniforms of its employees. One in fifteen Americans knew those stars, had, at some time or other, worked for McDonalds. A million, worldwide still did. This was huge.
The last time Saffie had been to Katmandu was with Naz. That’s how it would have been this time, except for that fight. Most people argue about money or jealousy, sex even. Saffie liked to think they had reached a more evolved state in which those baser elements of life had found a plane on which both Naz and herself were content to let them rest. No, what they argued about was philosophy, meta-philosophy. Neither of them was content to label themselves but they were pretty sure that whatever label outsiders would place on one, they would place on the other. And then came Croydon.
Saffie’s friend Sue had introduced her to Dave, an ex-general builder and decorator. He, according to Sue was enlightened. No idle claim this, apparently it had been confirmed by some yogi guy in an ashram in southern India. Saffie had taken Naz to see him. They had just gotten over the thirty-minute wait to see him when Dave opened his mouth and out came a South-London-general-builder-and-decorator patois. Naz just pissed himself laughing. Saffie had turned to him in dismay, only for Naz to add to it all by shouting “loadsa-answers, loadsa-answers”. She couldn’t forgive him for that, no way.
Saffie had no idea whether things would have cooled off by the time she returned, right now she didn’t care. She had more important things to worry about. It was time to get angry. She’d bought it all with her, a three-inch thick stack of pamphlets and cuttings, a whole transcript of the key witness statements from the McLibel case, the lot. She sifted through it all, picking out bits at random.
Everyone knew that McDonalds was bad. From deforestation, to make way for more grazing land, to it’s anti-union exploitative labour practices; from targeting the young to it’s never-ending profit-seeking. It was a multi-national. Which was, after all, just another word for evil. Even if the libel case found most of these charges to be poorly founded it was just the system acting to protect one of its own. Yes everyone knew McDonalds was bad. The simple truth was that places were just nicer without one. And now, tomorrow, the newest restaurant was to open, in Katmandu, Nepal for Christ’s sake! Too far this time, too bloody far. Saffie, and maybe thousands of others, were not going to let that happen.
James left his hotel and headed for Durbar Square. He had been told that today was a festival day, but not a large one. In fact there were over four hundred festivals in Nepal. If they closed up shop for each one, then nothing would get done. He made his way, passed a group of kids playing soccer in the street, to a nearby café. It was pretty crowded. He took off his glasses and placed them in the pocket of his faded green shirt.
Saffie loved Katmandu and she was here again. Without Naz she actually felt free. As she walked, she expressed to herself the hope that she’d run into some like-minded people, people she could talk to. She would lose herself in some conversation, nothing too heavy, just something in the right direction. She entered the café, pausing at the tables outside, before choosing to escape the afternoon sun just inside the door. There were no tables free, but there was a couple of free chairs around one table.
James looked up and had one of those moments. One minute he was just taking in the movements of the square, the next he witnessed the bright sun projecting a halo around a face, which spoke. He was so overwhelmed with the vision that he couldn’t make out the words. It was a beauty that he had seldom seen, wisps of golden hair blended in with the bright sun, as if the figure before him was emerging from it, rather than from the street.
“OK if I sit here?” she smiled.
“Err, sure, sure, help yourself.”
James didn’t want to say anything, lest he mess this up. He knew this was something special, really special.
Saffie pulled the wicker chair from under the table and took off her knitted woolen shoulder bag. She took out a wedge of papers and sat down. The guy before her was watching, not in any way which displeased her, just watching as if he didn’t know what else to do.
“What are you thinking?” Saffie asked.
James did not even contemplate lying. “You’re beautiful, an angel, a fiery angel.”
Saffie was not taken aback, not shocked, offended, or displeased. She was in Katmandu and this was the sort of thing that was supposed to happen. She smiled the smile of the angel that he thought she was. James was filled by it, given energy by it. He felt loved.
The two of them sat back. Somehow there was little distance between them, as if their initial exchange had cleared whatever barriers social niceties would have demanded. This was not England. This was Nepal; somehow things were just easier away from normal life. Saffie quickly learnt that James had never been here before and had, in fact, probably been on the same flight in. Consequently Saffie felt it her duty to a fellow traveler to pass on some tips and information.
“Yeah, this place is amazing, I mean, really incredible. Out there in the corner of the square is a palace, not that you’d recognise it as one. In it is a living goddess called the Kurmina. She is chosen as a baby and lives there as the living embodiment of the Hindi goddess Durga. Every day she looks out for a few minutes so that people can see that they are watched over by the gods.”
James is pleased. Saffie appears to like him; at least she is talking to him.
“Really” he says, “and she never leaves?”
“No, well occasionally she is paraded outside, on feast days I think, but generally she just lives up there.”
“Fuck” says James, “sounds bad, lonely I mean.”
Saffie likes this; this is her kind of thing. “Maybe” she says, “who are we to judge another culture? Cultural relativism it’s called. Can’t judge, just try to understand. Anyway, she isn’t there for life, just until she bleeds for the first time, then they choose a new girl. I think she just goes back home, although I did hear that men pretty well steer clear of her after that, I mean, you don’t want to fuck with a goddess do you?”
He smiled a secret smile that Saffie caught sight of. Saffie heard the word ‘fuck’ repeat itself in her head and saw that smile. “Oops”, she thought.
The travel alarm awoke James at five-thirty. He’d been asleep less than two hours. It was all he could do to keep in mind the business of the day. His brain kept replaying over and over the image of Saffie, arms stretched out above her head, eyes closed, and him a few inches away. Last night, he decided, was the best night of his life.
Saffie had been mildly disappointed that James had left when he did, but not with the night itself. Incredibly she felt no guilt. Naz could screw himself, she thought. In James she had found a gentle soul. He gave her time and space. He never pressured her, nor chided her, just cared. She could picture his face now, his large blue eyes hovering above her, taking her in, just as she had taken him. She shivered involuntarily. This feels right, she thought, really right. He was even here for the same reason as her. At some point in the evening he had said that he needed to get up for the opening. She smiled to herself. She hadn’t mentioned that she too would be there. She would surprise him. As she unfurled her ‘McDonalds Murders’ banner, she thought of the two of them together, last night, today, maybe even tomorrow.
Durba Square, 8AM. The white cloth that, for the past few days, has covered the latest encroachment of western civilisation, is removed. Some dignitary or other gives a clipped speech. A ribbon is cut. The two hundred people in the queue at the double doors surge forward. James, first there, loses a few places. He is happy. He has already taken a roll of film, more material than usual. He is perhaps happier than he has ever been. He knows he will see Saffie again. He wonders if, perhaps, they will travel the world together in future. This morning, he has even heard a rumour from a McDonalds employee that a new restaurant is due to open in Bhutan sometime soon. He thinks he could mention this to Saffie, perhaps she hasn’t been there yet.
Saffie is stoic in the face of the poor turnout on the demo. She and four others stand powerless in the face of the duped locals. Hundreds of beautiful brown faces display a new, learnt, kind of greed. She looks around and sees that Katmandu has changed in that moment. She knows she can never come here again.
However, the trip has not been wasted. There was James after all, although he was missing right now. He had said he would be here, but . ..
And there was James. For a moment Saffie was elated; at seeing him, at the fact that he was right in there. How stupid I’ve been, she thought. That’s the way to do it, no pissing around on a picket line. Direct action, get in there and . . . Get in there and what? She watches, hardly blinks, she hopes that whatever James is up to isn’t going to land him in jail or get himself hurt. She rushes to the window and peers in. There he is at the counter. He’s smiling. This must be it.
James turns around, large fries and a coke in hand. He sees Saffie pressed against the window. He begins to wave. Then he sees that she is crying, sobbing. He can’t quite fathom it. Then he catches the half-hidden words on the banner, now dropped to the ground. He understands now. He understands so completely that he can’t move. He is fixed, rooted. Fixed, rooted and utterly alone.
Saffie lays in the dust. McDonalds destroys, it has even destroyed last night. She can’t move, doesn’t want to move. It is bigger than she ever imagined. McDonalds destroys tomorrow.
The golden arch gleams in the sun, almost blinding the eyes of a young girl sitting in a small room almost directly opposite. Not just any young girl, for she is the living goddess. She thinks, she cannot but think. She thinks that the golden ‘M’ must hold some significance. A knock at her door momentarily necessitates her turning away. She is handed something in a paper wrapper. She resumes her vigil. She watches as a woman slumps down in the dust, her head propped against the sparkling new glass.
Tentatively the Kurmina unfolds the wrapper and brings the exotic smelling parcel to her mouth. She bites hard. According to her aid, it is called a McChicken sandwich. Her mouth fills with saliva, her taste buds furiously working on the hitherto unknown. She wonders if the woman by the window has been similarly overcome.
March 16, 2007
Just now Jake and I are spread across a blanket on the grass. We’ve got a bottle of wine going and Jake’s drawing on something through a cigarette holder and is smiling and smiling. You know, I think we’ve really got something here. I cast my eye about and there’s nothing that displeases me.
I don’t know how many years the two of us have been tweaking this and that just to get the yard sorted out. It’s important to get the yard looking good. It’s like an extra room for the apartment isn’t it?
The end of the yard was difficult. We always wanted a fabulous view, and we’ve got that now. There’s a rush of lavender in the meadow, lilac trees beyond, and hills rising to mountains that, in the mornings, show purple through the wisps of cloud. There’s a track snaking down through the hills and into the meadow. It comes a hundred yards from the fence we put up and goes off to the right. That fence has been a hundred colours over the years. We tried everything. It’s the lilacs and the purples, nothing goes with that, trust me. You can’t reflect those colours in any way. Contrasts slice up the scene and take away from its power. Still you had to have a fence, how else would you know what’s yours? In the end we hit upon this grey, it’s almost like it isn’t there until you look for it.
Occasionally we see movement along the path. Not so often as to make us uncomfortable. We wouldn’t want to be constantly anticipating or anything like that, we like it as it is. There never seems to be a pattern to it and sometimes days go by and nothing happens. At others we can see as many as five or six movements in the space of a few hours.
Just now Jake called my attention to something three or four hundred yards out. We made out a young girl standing behind a tree. She appeared to be watching us, occasionally looking down and fingering the hem of her dress. For a long while we watched each other. Jake and I didn’t speak until she turned her back and drifted away.
We often go over these things. Jake is keen on getting a meaning out of every little thing. Why a girl? Why the dress? Did I notice the white flowers embroidered on the hem. She kept fingering it didn’t she? Nothing, as far as Jake is concerned, is there by chance. Did I notice her smiling? I didn’t. Why would she smile?
I don’t know what the neighbours see. They never say.
Against the house, the yard is laid in roman tiles. We have a mosaic in white of a chariot racing over the sun. There are three steps down to the lawn, where Jake is still figuring, and I next to him. It’s open and simple and we like the grass. Next door you can see that they’ve paved their whole plot. They have a small pool and a table and chairs. But I like to feel something alive beneath me.
They’re nice people. Good neighbours don’t bother you unduly, and they don’t. Some people don’t like neighbours at all. I don’t understand that. Jake wouldn’t be so bothered, but I like to see people around. It makes me feel part of something. I like the odd word through the fence, a good morning or evening, a bit of news from elsewhere. Just to see someone else regularly. It’s not as if you don’t have a choice is it?
We’ve had several sets of neighbours in the past, good and bad. I don’t think you ever quite know why something went wrong. We’ve got on for years with people and they’ve left, sometimes without saying goodbye. On occasion we’ve been the ones to oust them. They’ve got to be people acceptable to both of us, and that’s not always easy. Then there are the whims. Jake wanted to be next door to a Chinese family once. That never happened. But others did. We’ve had gay couples, families, the flirty and the prim. You can try to match with whatever criteria you like, but there are simply no guarantees. Sometimes I wonder what they asked for in order to come up with us.
We spend most of our time out here. Sometimes in the evening you can catch the deer grazing on the hills. And there are the surprises. Like the little girl. Jake says it’s about innocence. The flowers on the dress, the long hair, the fingering of the hem. I just know how it makes me feel.
Jake takes life hard. In a minute we’ll have sex. Here. The mountains are clear now. I think I can even see a bird up there, maybe an eagle. After sex we’ll share a smoke. Then I’ll leave him out here. He likes some time alone. I’ll call a girlfriend or go off to bed. Jake will sit for a while, then turn it all off.
I’ve tried a few times to understand what he gets from it. When he first started doing it I stayed. But not now. It made me cold. It’s a chill that seems to be in the bones. I can’t help thinking about it when he slips into bed next to me. He carries it with him. He makes sure I’ve gone, then off it all goes. One flick of a switch and gone are the neighbours, the mountains, the light, leaving dark grey walls on each side. I can’t get over that feeling, of grass with no sky, of the loss of depth. Yet Jake will sit twelve feet away from a bare wall with no sounds except his breathing. God knows what the neighbours think when we just disappear. They must have got used to it, or maybe appreciate the extra privacy in the evening.
No there is nothing in this view that displeases me, nothing at all. But nothing does displease me. If only Jake didn’t like it so.
March 12, 2007
i read this and thought of a story i once wrote. and here it is:
This is Love
Each morning I awake to the soft singing of Shirley. Each morning she surprises me with something different. She has a million tunes. She runs my shower, temperature perfect. I dry myself on a warm towel whilst Shirley tells me the news of the day. She knows I don’t want to be bothered about the dispossessed, the hungry or the sick at this time of day, so it’s mostly gossip, intrigue and titillation. Just how I like it. Shirley tells me that it’s cold outside. It rained earlier and the roads are wet. Best take my thick jacket. Best take care.
Shirley wants to know if I have got a minute to discuss something before I go. It seems she has been talking to a new friend of hers, Roger. His mistress, they both agree, is the perfect girl for me.
I promise to talk when I get back. Shirley reminds me that tonight I had asked for lamb, but that didn’t I prefer something a little lighter? I had been eating a little heavily of late. I think that, yes, something lighter would be good.
I come home around four and it’s starting to get dark already. Shirley opens the garage doors for me at my approach. I’ve bought some orange carnations today. Shirley thinks they look lovely in the kitchen. She says that, because I had only a sandwich for lunch, then perhaps lamb wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Apparently the girl lives just a few streets away. Her name is Mandy. She works in Public Relations. She has auburn hair and a not unattractive mole on her left cheek. She enjoys shopping and good conversation. Shirley says that her temperament is just right. I ask what she means. Shirley tells me to trust her, she knows. Shirley’s friend agrees that Mandy is just right. Perhaps a call tonight? Just as I would want it, Shirley says, Mandy is an old fashioned girl and it would be only proper that I take the initiative. “Later.” I say.
Right now I feel like a good comedy. Shirley knows just what I mean, she always does. She puts on an old episode of “Mr Sheeny”, the one where Maurice ends up eating Chet’s pet chinchilla. Suitably cheered, I decide to go ahead and call Mandy.
“Hi Mandy.” I say. “It seems you and I are quite well matched. I must say you look as attractive as I was lead to believe. But would you mind if I shared just one concern? You see, I’m a happy person, never too down, if you know what I mean. Don’t much like to be brought down either, if you follow my drift. You wouldn’t be liable to do that would you?”
Mandy doesn’t think that she would. Mandy says that Roger has noted little in the way of mood-swings in he-doesn’t-know-how-long. Mandy doesn’t have any questions at the moment. She is happy for limited access to take place. I nod. We agree to speak tomorrow. So, tonight is to be the night of limited access. I go to bed with not a little trepidation.
Whilst I sleep I know that Shirley and Roger are together.
In the morning, over breakfast, Shirley tells me that Mandy is really quite well looked after. No unappealing habits to speak of. Immaculate educational and vocational record, prominent in all her corporation’s performance statistics. Though she does have a cat.
Shirley insists that she knows I have no allergy to cats, though I confess to being squeamish about a live creature running about the place. Shirley thinks I’ll get to like it.
The roads really were quite bad yesterday and Shirley has called me a cab. She really is thoughtful.
Today I bought blue dahlias. Shirley thinks they look delightful on the coffee-table. With dinner I have half a bottle of Algerian wine. Shirley tells me that it’s the recommended Merlot for this year. I tell her that it is good and that I’d like it again whenever Shirley thought it best.
Shirley and Roger think that it’s best Mandy and I talk now. Mandy says she has no objections to full access. She confesses to being quite excited by the prospect. I agree.
That night Shirley and Roger spend all night together.
I awake to the sounds of birds singing and sun streaming in from the windows. I know that things have gone well between them. I stretch and yawn, alone in a bed made for two. Shirley tells me I have some time due me, and that I am to relax. Today is a very special day.
I have sausages for breakfast and begin the crossword. Shirley says I should finish it in half an hour or so, but there’s no hurry. She’s right of course. As I mark in the last clue on the grid, ‘prominent river of Ipswich in Suffolk’, “o-r-w-e-l-l.”, I am not a little chuffed with myself to note that it’s taken me less than twenty minutes. Shirley says that it’s because of my rest this morning. I have been working hard recently.
Perhaps, says Shirley, it is time for a change. Perhaps Mandy is just what I need. She bids me sit down on the sofa and take it easy. She’s going to leave me until I call. In the meantime she’s prepared something for me to see. I should take my time, she says. There’s no hurry.
“Until I call?” I ask, to make sure, but Shirley has gone. Before me starts a series of images. A pretty auburn-haired girl walking towards a house in a street not too far from here. Then in the kitchen, reading, painting a water-colour. A long shot of her sleeping, hair pushed to one side revealing a shapely neck. She awakes suddenly and smiles. She walks naked from her bed and enters a shower. Her statistics have thoughtfully been added to the bottom of the screen. Curvaceous and lean, just to my taste. As she exits the shower, wet and glistening, I shout ‘stop’ and the screen pauses. I tilt my head and imagine touching her flesh. Confident that I’m alone, my mind let’s her touch mine.
Shirley asks me how I liked the presentation. “Most encouraging”, I say. We agree that there appears to be no obstacle, no obstacle at all.
Shirley and her friend have come up with a proposal. They think that Mandy and I should have no trouble with it. Mine is the larger house, appreciating at a rate a full four per-cent higher than hers. They’ve mocked up some alterations to the décor which seem appropriate enough. I approve. Mandy approves. Shirley says to leave it all to her and Roger. Shirley is excited. A date is set for three days time.
The next day after work I find the upstairs altered to specifications. The hard lines have been softened, little touches here and there. I spend a little while picking up new objects, her objects. Shirley says she needs some down-time and will come back when I call. She’s good like that. I pick up from my bedside table a new addition, a vase. I run my hand over its belly, peer along the lip. The glaze catches the light, and in that light I see Mandy. My mind allows me to see so much.
On the third day, I leave work. I can barely get myself into the car. I call Shirley. Yes Mandy is there. She is delighted with how things have turned out. She really looks forward to me getting home. Shirley says that I am looking a bit peaky. She says nerves are only to be expected. She tells me it’s all going to be fine. She tells me she is pregnant.
The drive home seems to take hours. I hear my heart beating. I take deep breaths. I draw into the drive. Shirley opens the garage doors. I am introduced to Roger. He seems pleasant enough. He says I should just be who I am, and not to worry, Mandy really liked what she saw of me. And now it is time to say goodbye. To Shirley, too. It will be strange to be without Shirley.
I enter the lounge to find Mandy standing, her back to the window. The light settles about her shoulders. She smiles. I can’t think what to say. We move toward the centre of the room until our hands touch. She looks into my eyes. This is love.
I am first to stir in the morning. There is a gentle light entering through the shutters. It is early. I wonder who I am to share my life with; who will grow to understand my needs, my hopes. It is a total blank. Then I rest my eyes on Mandy, her white cheek and the small island of darkness at its centre. I sit up in bed and await her waking. If I am to find out, so should she. This, of all moments, is one for us both to share.
At last her eyes open, blinking realization. She lifts herself toward me, her nakedness beautifully contained within the sheets. We look at each other and smile. I nod for her to proceed.
“Are you there?” She whispers expectantly.
There are a few seconds silence before a voice, young, masculine, and almost imperceptibly synthesized, responds. “How can I help you?” His first words.
It’s a boy.
December 18, 2006
the 2nd installment:
tried fools (cont.)
Brigitta called early today, around lunchtime I think. I was half-asleep and my conscious was filled with Sartie’s Gnossiennes. I didn’t want to be disturbed and I let it show. She cried.
We made up with a cuddle. Her hair carried a hint of the meadow I lived beside when I was a child. Everything about her reminds me of when I was a young man. I hate that.
Her father, John, was like a brother to me. Not that I didn’t have one already, though he and I were like strangers. But John died. I was with him, I saw him die. His face turned a deep red, he coughed fighting for breath, he checked out. We were roughly the same age, early forties, and Brigitta was yet to reach puberty. It came as a huge blow to her, losing her dad. Her mother had fucked off long ago. She went to find herself shortly after the millennium and ended up losing everyone she knew. She didn’t leave any contact details and we didn’t try, not even when Brigitta was left on her own. I was the sole constancy in Brigitta’s life, the replacement father. She went to live with an aunt in Deptford but I kept my promise to John.
I forget myself. I made no such promise, and no request was made. I invented that for Brigitta, and it made her feel better. But I did keep in contact, and as she grew up we saw more and more of each other. I watched her blossom. I watched her hair grow, her angularity soften into gentle arcs. She is more beautiful than her mother had been when I had known her, but she carries the same insecurities and my magic works just the same.
Brigitta hated the harshness of her aunt’s manners. She was tolerated but not loved. Everything she needed came from me. I funded her education, her wardrobe, set her up in an apartment not too far away, but not on my doorstep. She adored being a part of London and I took her everywhere. Arm in arm we’d walk across Waterloo Bridge as the sun set. I’d ask her what this and that building was. She learned the names of all the bridges. We still do it today, although the skyline changes so often that I don’t carry the answers to my own questions. She, however, is au fait with everything that is going on. She is my access to the emerging world.
When we go out to dinner I notice, with absolute satisfaction, the looks that we get. I stride as well as I’ve ever done, but I carry a silver-topped cane as an affectation. As we walk she smiles. She smiles more than anyone I have ever known. She takes my coat as we enter the restaurant; she ensures I am comfortable before she sets herself. She is an angel.
I hold her in my arms, the meadow wells up in my memory and I see my brother and I hurling clods of earth at each other. I carry a scar to this day, more visible than ever now that my hair has thinned and lost it’s colour. A stray piece of flint and my ensuing scream, more of outrage than of hurt, despite the blood from the open wound. I can feel the ridge of aged scar tissue, smooth amidst the dry leather of my skin. Brigitta looks up as I finger my skull and swears that she has never noticed that ridge before. I tell her of the clods of earth in summer and the snow in winter, how my brother and I fought until we left home, and have neither fought nor seen each other since. I don’t tell her how I revenged myself for that hurt, but I can see it clearly now. Odd how so many things we have gone through but of which we are unaware until moments like this. I can see him on the swing poking out his tongue. What is he? Seven or eight, perhaps. That would make me just ten. That ten-year-old barks for him to get off and do it now. Or what? He says. The rough plank I held behind my back now whirls through the air. I see a nail standing proud as it spins. Did I know, then, that there were nails in the wood? I can’t recall. So much blood.
It is okay now. Brigitta slips off to the kitchen and emerges with tea. I settle in my chair by the fire. There is a lamp on in the far corner of the room but it is not bright. The flames from the fire light her eyes as she talks to me from the floor, her fine fingers cradling her mug for warmth. She likes it here; she says it reminds her of home. I know that this is wrong but I know what she means. This is, or rather, I am, her home.
She wants to tell me something, that much is obvious. However, it’s part of the beauty of life to receive information on one’s own terms, hence the slight contretemps earlier on. But we are settled now and she may begin. Did I mention that she had a sweet voice?
You know that I applied for a position with the Bureau? Well I got it!
That she is thrilled is obvious, that my approval is important, even more so. That education I had paid for, Oxford then United London University, all exemplary grades. She has a PhD and I half-fancied her remaining an academic. After all if she looked up to me, which she undoubtedly did, and if she were an eminent Professor somewhere, why, didn’t that say something about me? Not that her area of expertise in any way reflected my own, not at all. She majored in History and Archaeology and went on to study Genetics. I had a more humble background in Literature and Music.
Harling, . . .
She called me by my surname in the same manner as her father, the two of us having left Lancing College suitably prepared for the previous century.
. . . you know it’s what I wanted all along, what I’ve worked for since I was fourteen. Now I’ve got it, aren’t you pleased? Really, I’m too excited for words.
Me too, I assure her, and I demand to hear all about it.
Of course I knew of the Bureau, pretty much known as that because no one could remember quite what it’s full name was. Like every other organisation it had the letters U and N in there somewhere. What was it? UNBBM, or was it UNBEBM? What did it matter? I remember it being set up sometime after the millennium, a body to look after the public genome projects that were being undertaken. As far as I could recall they searched out malign genes and instigated programmes to eradicate them from future generations. They were variously hailed as being at least partly responsible, amongst other things, for the fall in infant mortality and the reduction in violent crime in recent years.
So, I say, you’re going to find all those nasty genes that make the world a rough old place?
Not at all. I’ve been selected to join the investigative department, ensuring that gene sequences which are identified as being ‘nasty’ don’t have any beneficial characteristics. We don’t want to wipe out a future Raphael or a Mozart do we?
Apparently, and I didn’t know this, the Bureau employs several hundred archaeo-geneticists who trawl through archives. They look for traits and behavioural patterns that can be attributed to one gene or sequence. Fascinating stuff, if not without some inherent problems.
Does it pay well, I ask, as any avuncular figure should at such a time.
I’ll get by.
She smiled a beautiful smile and I quite lost the urge to argue personal freedoms. Another time, I thought, another time. Right now she was happy and I was content that that was the case.
I proposed an immediate celebration and we agreed on The Lansborough. I ask Brigitta to call a cab as I busy myself with an old man’s fear of the cold.
You really must do something about your house, Harling, I can get someone to sort it out for you.
We have discussed this a thousand times. Albeit with some affection, Brigitta sees me dwelling in some antediluvian hovel. In Brigitta’s apartment you only have to mention a cab and, by the time you got to the door, there would be one waiting. It’s not that she minds getting out her phone to hail a taxi, more the incidental things like light-switches. She can never find the one she’s after and she flaps her arms in frustration. Light switches, I guess, are intuitive when that’s all one is used to. Not that Brigitta gets mad. Emotional yes, angry no. But, when we walk out, it is she that checks to see if the door is locked. Not anger, just fear.
This generation will change us, as every generation does, and there will be no turning back. What confuses me is the extreme pace of it all. Life seems pretty much the same on a day-to-day basis; indeed, it doesn’t actually feel any different to my youth. However, one glance with the benefit of hindsight and one becomes aware of the vast differences.
I play this game with myself, and have done for many years. I stand before my bathroom mirror, an old-fashioned one, one I would recognise from my childhood, and I pause. I find that I can bring my twenty-year-old self forward. I always start with the mirror but I can exist in that state thereafter for quite a while. Why do I do this? I allow my young self to be amazed at the lifestyle changes that have occurred, at this almost fantastic technology that surrounds us, me, even in my semi-luddite manner of living.
There is also another aspect of it. Some part of me believes that by bringing forward that young man, I am also passing something to myself as I was then. Years ago I thought that I was saying ‘it’s okay, look, everything works out just fine, you’ve got all this to look forward to’. Now I suppose my attitude has changed slightly. It is more that I am still alive, that there is a future of some kind. I find it difficult to make any kind of judgement at all. In fact I pretty much think that any course I had taken would be equally as valid. The signal, I think, is just one of ‘keep on’. I have often found a sense of familiarity as I manoeuvred myself about life and found myself in new situations and places. I put it down to this practice of pre-warning.
So it is that Brigitta and I climb into a cab, she from one side, me the other. Her lithe form is settled first, my entrance met with a sparkle of sapphire. And on.
December 15, 2006
being quite drunk, and with a combination of other circumstances (chiefly people asking and realising i’m not going to do anything with it in the short term), i’ve decided to blog my book. well, we’ll see how it goes.
so, from the beginning:
Common sense tells us that the things of the earth have hardly any existence, and that the true nature of reality is found only in dreams.
Don’t fools get tired?
How could fools get tired!
. . .
. . . .
a blank. absence of all kinds. his mind is alert. he waits, straining every sense.
there, right at the boundary of hearing, something.
there, he can make out the horizon. it seems impossibly far away, yet there is colour, a flush spreading every which way. it comes toward him.
somewhere he smiles.
the colour is damson. it fractures again and again, and everywhere it does so, patches of cream, purple, everycolour, bloom in tiny, widening, undulating signatures.
a patter. it rains, drops of sound, a single note from a voice, again and again.
he feels softest touch, lighter than air, priming. It is all over him, and he is everywhere. something brushes him, releasing spores of fragrance, clean and sharp, it hits him.
he is overcome. always unprepared, he is lifted in short breaths, never quite catching up.
gently, it is a passing thought.
the sounds, the colour, the air, the world, spin together in ropes, twisting around him, binding together. flexing, they align.
there are steps, a slope, he moves forward, choosing now, to follow.
she is here.
A pair of eyes, improbably blue, scan the horizon.
Once, there was a world. From the flatness of this space, these few miles, to the whole globe. A globe of business and pleasure, of life being as it was.
Now we wait. One day to the next.
They, the ones who had come before, thought they were headed somewhere. A future, good or bad. But always ahead. Does anyone, now, look to a future?
There was a time, he knew, when it had vexed many. Wars even, had been fought. There had been a misapprehension. The future would not always lie ahead.
What the billions that had come before him would make of it’s final manifestation, Vacron is unsure. That there would, or could, be no other, he was certain. He had been taught that everyone gets what they want. When he looked backwards, at what had been aspired to, he guessed that had always been true. Everyone gets what they want.
Not an aspiration, an interval. In twenty-nine days he would be fifteen years old.
Vacron crouches down and begins to mark the dust. With a finger he traces out four vertical lines, then cuts them with a diagonal. A five-bar gate. Steadily he repeats the process until there are five gates. At the sixth he ceases before the final line.
Then adds the diagonal with a flourish.
In a ceremony, held on the next full moon, the villagers would sit late into the night and bid him farewell. Last night it had been Fabian.
There wasn’t anything in particular that bound them, it had just always been easy. From the time when he was seven, Fabian had mattered. But it was over now.
Everyone would still be moping around the village. Ordinarily Vacron liked to avoid it. The villagers’ brand of earth and toil, is a throwback of incredible proportions, back maybe a thousand years. Against his better judgement, he had stayed. Curled up against the outside wall of Noma’s house he’d fallen to a fitful sleep. It isn’t something that he’s made a habit of, and he’s glad that he’s not there now.
Noma comes to school only occasionally. It’s clear that she is going nowhere. Her father’s doing. Seelan, as near to a leader as the villagers can manage. On the few occasions that they had spoken, it had always been pleasant enough. It was what he stood for that Vacron abhorred.
Never overestimate humanity, thinks Vacron. Here is mankind delivered of a future in which each participant chooses their own way, where their needs and wishes are met without obstacle. The sages and the dreamers of the millennia that had passed had all seen such a place, yet each saw something different. And now all of these visions had been proven. All. Man could have what he wanted. The sole remaining choice was whether to take part. Seelan and his small band of followers, no doubt mirrored in other parts of the world, chose against. Fabian and Vacron put it down to poor genes, the inability to differentiate between realities. Fabian used to say that it was like taking off the blindfold and keeping your eyes closed.
Being not a mile from the sea, the village is cruelly exposed to the elements. The salt air renders cultivating anything an extreme act of defiance, yet it is done. Vacron watches twenty or so men and women, dressed in drab cloth, walk out along the unmetalled road carrying hand-made hoes and picks. They would pass the near-empty dorms in which food could be had free of toil and which would provide clothing designed for the conditions in which they lived. But no one could be coerced. What would be the point?
It had taken many years for Vee to become accepted. And even then it wasn’t that everyone suddenly decided to go along with it. People are inherently conservative. Gradually more and more stations were built, blocks and blocks of them. An air of finality must have overcome those remaining. They grew older and the young grew to maturity then disappeared. Skills were not passed on. Through Vee, people lived far longer and the world’s population grew to extraordinary proportions, but effectively the outside world became depopulated. Trans-national structures deteriorated then disappeared. Almost the last act of true governance was the formalisation of the universal right to access at the age of majority. Within a hundred years Vee had replaced society almost entirely. Those, like the villagers, were a tiny minority, operating in isolated pockets. Man is stubborn. Perhaps, thinks Vacron, these odd groupings will survive for some time to come; yet he knows that finally they, too, must succumb.
The present future, the future present. A destination reached. The failure, of some, to disembark could not negate that fact.
Without Fabian, Vacron is alone for the first time in years. As far as he is aware he intends to head east, toward the sea, but he finds himself walking north. To the north and west lay nothing except station upon station, vast rectangular blocks that seemed to act like pillars connecting earth and sky. Everything is quiet. Away from the dorm, and from the village and fields, Vacron can be sure of being alone. There is simply no reason for anyone to come here. Yet he knows he is surrounded. Countless souls wander unseen landscapes. In the stillness he half fancies he can hear an echo. Some activity lying somewhere just below the surface. All else is still. He aches with the proximity.
He makes his way between two stations now, barely fifty feet separating them. He has no idea how the buildings were planned or are maintained. He guesses that the same kind of regime operates here as it does in the dorms. An automated system took care of everything, largely unseen. He knows that there are automatons, which conduct repairs when necessary. He and Fabian had seen one. That was many years ago, perhaps he would have been nine or ten. They were out west, probably two or three hours walk. The metal-backed creature was scuttling up one of the huge edifices, pausing every few feet. They watched it for a while, threw stones at it, but it never seemed aware of them. Finally it climbed to the very top and disappeared from view.
He skirts around the northern edge of the village a few blocks inside the array of stations. He wonders where his body will come to rest. He knows that, when the time comes, he will be given the block address. These numbers appear at the ground level of each building, standing an inch proud of the mottled grey-green cladding. Vacron is before block PP239 right now. He runs his fingers over the letters. The cladding seemed slightly sticky. He knows that if you look closer you can make out a hexagonal pattern under the surface, like a honeycomb. Quite how you gained access to the inside he wasn’t entirely sure. He had heard that the door just opened, although how it knew you were there, or recognised someone as being authorised to enter, was a mystery to him. Many times he and Fabian had tried to force sharp stones or twigs into half-imagined gaps, which they took to be the outline of an opening. They had hammered their fists, shouted, spat and urinated against the walls, all to no avail. But it won’t be long now, thinks Vacron. For Fabian the time had already come.
Last night, in the village, sitting under the moon, Fabian was set on his way. Seelan and some of the elders talked in half-whispers about living a true life. Odd how two groups of people can attend one ritual yet relate to it in such different ways. For Seelan’s people there was sorrow, for everyone else a celebration of majority. They had sat with bowls of foul-smelling plant-extracts around a large fire. There had been music, fiddles and a guitar, others danced and sang. At the end of the evening, in the small hours of the morning, Fabian stood to go. As he walked away, Vacron too had risen. Fabian grabbed his hand. Vacron remembered his eyes moisten but tried not to let it show. His last memory of Fabian was of him walking away in a blur shouting out “PP239.”
Vacron sits with his back against the edifice and completes his tears.
August 6, 2005
I saw this earlier. The kind of suicide on the rail network that we are used to. That and someone telling me I should post some writing on my blog. So this:
Two cheers for the unidentified body currently lying on track twelve. A last trump in Paddington Station. Not exactly fairy land, though strangely enough it’s always held a fascination for me, too. The scene of a million arrivals and departures. What is one more?
I sense, in a way, a kindred soul. A man, or woman, for whom the vaudeville of a modern transportation system, a space where dirt lingers amid the plasma communiqués and polished steel, is somehow more pertinent than the spiral of suburban life. Someone who, tired of taking in other’s washing, has instead hung himself out to dry. Well, it’s a seller’s market.
The transgression here is not in taking a life, but in delaying the four-fifteen Great Western to Swansea. I stand, one of the milling mourners, our newspapers tucked under raincoated arms, our grande lattes in hand, ever glancing at the plasma screens. This service will not be calling at Didcot Parkway.
This planet, on which I perch, on which they perch, is the same planet inhabited by the Romans, Greeks, Mayans, Incas, and Egyptians. Everything alters in a never changing world. I have The Standard at my arm. I haven’t read it yet, a treat saved for the journey home, but I could tell you what it contains. Each of the meandering souls surrounding me could tell you, if they gave it a thought. None of them, I swear, give it a thought.
I am tired of standing up. A sedentary profession like mine, like yours I bet, has bred out of us all stamina for such a simple endeavour. We feel more comfortable cushioned, preferably in a chair that revolves at the slightest pressure from the sole of one foot or the other. My desk is close to the window, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like a view, though again, before I gaze my mind has it writ. It is, I say it again, all so obvious.
This man, or woman, has done us a favour. The act itself reversing the trivialization of a subject inherent in the absence of the thing itself, even if it is just the delay of the four-fifteen to Swansea. It is, I suppose, a matter of survival. On the savannah it doesn’t do to ponder on such things.
This favour, this rich gift, strikes where it is most valuable, and where it hurts most. I peel open a sachet of white refined sugar with my teeth. The contents, diamond crystals under the striplight glare, cascades half in, half out of the cardboard cup. I have no spoon. An index finger is scalded, sucked clean, and left to the chilled night air to dry.
These fellow travelers have been given time; time to themselves; time in a place of no escape, where there is, simply, nothing that can be done. It is excruciating. Within five minutes of the scheduled departure the hands-free wires appear. Hundreds of people turn for succor to a microwave powered, digitally enhanced, disembodied voice from home.
It is a human sacrifice, a soul given not to god, but to its fellow men. It is shot across the airwaves in a gigabyte of helplessness, in the smoke of a hundred Benson & Hedges, in the act of saliva on the greasy neo-plastic near-meat patties clutched in cold hands. It is in the air, on the gleaming tiles that echo a thousand steps; it is in the moment, this moment. It is everything.
It is a pause that ends. The broken body swept up by artisans as frustrated as we, as keen on retreat as we. It will be taken, chilled, cut with a knife, opened for inspection. But what it had has gone. We have it, had it, and we let it go.
On the train, at last, the carriage ceiling seems a little higher. There are, not so much smiles, more the even-mouthed triumphalism of escape, of a near miss. We have survived, and we owe the knowledge of that survival to the un-named, without whom this day, as any other, would pass by forgotten, in a speeding bullet of brandished light.
We settle in, comforted in post-ordeal spleandour. It is a rusty slumber, one we are all used to; never truly detached lest we stay too long; never truly alert, lest we become aware. As the miles rumble by, normalization resurrects itself. We are delivered from our terror.
It would take, well, another body, any body, to shake us once again. An announcement pierces our dreams: “Due to the late departure of this service, this train will be calling at Didcot Parkway”.