This is a good area this is. People work hard to live here. Each house has its own story and everybody knows everyone's story. It's only the edited bits that get into the public domain of course. What they don't know, they make up. Swap details, fill in the gaps until everything makes sense. That man at the end of the estate, doesn't he look just like Elvis Costello? But I've never seen a feller stoop so low when he pushes his mower. Bends himself nearly in half he does. Then there's Engleburt. What kind of a name is that for a man? He comes home every night with a car load of cardboard boxes. One afternoon he thought it would be a bit of fun to shove his daughter in one and wrap the thing in parcel tape. The carpet salesman at number twenty three, he's probably sane, but the mechanic opposite is carrying on with another woman and it surely won't be long before his mousy wife finds out. Then there'll be hell to pay! Two doors down, looks glamorous doesn't she? Well she hasn't paid her taxes and the bald bloke opposite sometimes forgets to put his shoes on and walks to the shop wearing red slippers. Come Christmas he works as a department store Santa – strange job for a bloke who hates kids. The big cheese on the corner? He's a director in a confectionery factory. Just caused a stir because his new Rover has a sunroof and, wait for it, electric windows. This passes for excitement around here. It's a good area.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Roundels of hay stacked up in the barn. Tatters of corrugated iron cladding the frame. Loose flaps trailing baler twine. Straw drifts. The yard outside, dusty and crumbling. Will drives into the barn wearing a white shirt. Bull neck bursting the collar. Sends the hydraulic fork upwards, guides the prongs towards a bale but it rolls down wrong, bounces down the shafts to rest against the windscreen. Will opens the rusty door and puts a white hand against the bale, starts to push. His hand slips. Loses his balance. As he falls his throat slides along the serrated edge of the rusting door. Later his wife, mouth puckered around a cigarette, said it was just like cutting a pig.
Then there was the time he was hell bent on taking the cattle to market. The weather report predicted unusually high winds. His wife told him to stay at home. The route cut across high country with few trees. This high road then descended down Zig Zag Hill – a place that lived up to its name. It was here that the wind finally took control. The lorry toppled on to its side. Another drag on that cigarette as I thought about those cattle.
A year or two ago I wondered how he was doing. Searched on-line and saw that he'd been buried.
He was ninety five years old.
Tuesday, 26 November 2013
The last time I saw him – after I'd adjusted to the ravages that time had inflicted on him, he wrote his name and two telephone numbers on a piece of computer paper. I folded it and put it in my wallet. Everything felt alright now. I had this connection and a chance to resume from where we'd left off.
Those ravages! Fool that I was, I expected him to look more or less like he did twenty six years ago when I'd last said goodbye. Lean, gaunt, with a hairstyle that made him look like the sixth – or was it fifth now? - member of The Rolling Stones.
Instead, the hair was now snowy and his eyebrows had been invaded with long, wild strands like brambles invading a once carefully manicured hedge. When he tilted his head back to laugh there was a black space where a tooth had once been.
But he was essentially the same. The lean, easy walk. The quickness of thought. A distance in his eyes that spoke of far off places.
I carried that piece of paper until it became an old-looking piece of paper. Sometimes looked at the handwriting, the tracks of the ballpoint pen travelling like a drunk on a bicycle. Worried that it would become worn away I planted it somewhere safe.
Damn. I wish I could remember where that safe place was.
Monday, 25 November 2013
The windows in metal frames spread yellow light like butter to gather around the curtain hems. Greenish shadows on the pavement and a tree rising blackly. The low hall, now black, now white...
White light from the rafters. Mellow wood on the floor. Tables, chairs all arranged for colours and odours made by rain-coats, scarves, creations of hair thanks to the pink and pale green plastic rollers.
The man at the mike wears a claret dickie-bow and Charlie Chaplin suit. The brown and red booklets with their solid numbers. Felt pens for the circling. The silent film star compère calls the numbers and the game begins.
For once, everything making a strange sense.
The randomness of numbers, the flickering of light.
Saturday, 23 November 2013
Like a giant loaf of bread, the horse box ferments in the orchard. It slowly bakes in July. Stains of previous winters sprinkled like flour on its aluminium walls. Crusts of lichens. Blooms of moss. It has been a long time since any horse set four feet in here. The boughs of the trees shed apples that bounce on the thunderous roof. Leaves settle on the stationary wipers. The tyres, half-flat as if too tired to go all the way: sink into the rubbery grass. In this way, life gallops by.
Friday, 22 November 2013
A giant tooth, black and blue, furred with green
a pelt of moss growing through the sea skin
a mere backdrop in a cine-film each scene
a celluloid surface sticky, a mist dream
congealing in a jar of black honey.
Cars with mirrors, clasps and hinges
shine like pocket watches
mirror the seas dark flashes
the film dreams in the tin canisters.
Thursday, 21 November 2013
Yellow leaves the size and shape of an eye
black lashes, yellow eyes shaped like leaves
trees on a ridge, an undulating line
sheltering a path of white stones.
Do trees have spirits?
This one with silver skin
holding out its brown arms,
green hands in the trembling wind?
Coffee, toffee and tobacco leaves
the wind whispering through
the trees ever pliable filters
holding an ageless silence.
And I think, my palm on bark,
why not, why not...
It almost feels like,
when you can't be anywhere else,
that part of you, the best part
is really here, dressed in a suit
of yellow leaves.
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
Monday, 18 November 2013
He finished his coffee and headed for home. On one thing he was certain. The ghost of the cat had to be exorcised. He didn't think that the sisters could help him. And he was pretty certain the church couldn't either.
The decorator was already at work sanding the blistered paint from the door. He offered him a cup of tea and the decorator said 'this kind of work's alright. But it's proper painting that I want to do.'
'Yeah. It's what I do when I'm at home. Oils mostly. I'd like to have my own exhibition one day.'
'I've got just the thing for you.'
He went to the tool shed. It didn't take long to put his foot through the canvas. When the paintings were free he tossed them outside. There would be time to burn them later.
The decorator was delighted.
The ash from the paintings was scraped up into a bag and put out for the dustman.
When the dustcart finally took then away, he opened the newly painted door. 'It's alright now' he whispered, kicking up the remaining leaves with his foot. 'He's gone. They're both gone! Come inside and eat.'
He never saw the rustling in the leaves again. But his cat never sat in the armchair again.
As if it knew that something else was occupying it.
Adapted from a true story written by Rodney Legg, from personal experience. Included in his collection GHOSTS of Dorset, Devon and Somerset (DPC 1974)
Saturday, 16 November 2013
The following morning, in a bid to integrate himself into village life he attended a coffee morning. It was in one of those old church hall kind of places that never have, and never will, change. An old woman in a blue hat was sat at a nearby table with a younger woman who was her sister. He'd seen them coming and going from the cottage next door.
'It seems that you've been having a bit of a clear out' the woman in the blue hat said.
'It needed it.'
'There aren't any relations' the younger sister said. 'At least, not around here that is. There was a daughter but I don't know where she is. It might be Australia if I remember rightly. It was all along time ago. People say there was a family quarrel and the daughter ran away.'
'And the parents?'
'We didn't like either of them. Especially the old man. It was him that we disliked the most. You see, they had a cat. Just for the mousing. He was too mean to feed it. One day it stole something. The old man killed it.'
'How do you know all this?'
'He told us!' the other sister said. 'To him, it was just an animal. Couldn't see that he'd done anything wrong.'
'Anyway. I said to him, I hope one day that it comes back to haunt you!'
Thursday, 14 November 2013
A flurry of leaves flew up and settled around his feet. The layer of black still clinging to the soles of his trainers. Then another flurry followed by what sounded like something scampering through the leaves. A small and dark shadow slicked away across the front lawn in the direction of the fields. But, the oddest thing, the shadow had no body...
He went on down the hallway and into the sitting room. The cat was curled in an armchair, a picture of contentment.
He tried to convince himself that he must have been seeing things.
Tried, not altogether successfully, to think no more about it.
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
He made himself look at the faces again.
The fact was, he just didn't like them. The woman had archetypal granny hair, white and tied back in a last century bun. Her eyes looked mournful like she'd just received some very bad news and there was no hope of anything ever getting better again. And he got the uncomfortable feeling that she wouldn't have had it any other way. Her mouth was down turned. She could have been stood beside a freshly dug grave rather than posing for a painting.
Her husband had short white hair attached to the sides of his bald head. He was very pale and had cold blue eyes that had a hard stare. He looked like a dentist applying a drill to the sensitive tooth of a terrified patient. And that he was getting a sadistic kick out of it.
Some faces wear and fade like the mosaic tiles on the floor of the county museum. They become refined and shaped by the stories of the years and take on an alluring beauty.
These did not.
Later, he told me that the woman had a face that was just plain miserable. The kind of face that liked being miserable. And wouldn't be happy unless everybody else was too.
And the man?
Well he had a mouth like a rat trap.
He quickly turned the portraits so that they faced the wall. Got out of the tool shed as fast as he could, the work table now clear of junk, his white trainers sinking into the black stuff compacted on the floor.
It was dusk now. The sky was clear and tinted with purple. A sliver of moon hung above the hills in the company of one solitary star. Lights shone in pin-points from the houses on the hill. Not a breath of wind.
Tomorrow the decorator was coming. If he was to do his job properly, the leaves that had collected along the path until they were banked up against the mouldering front door would have to be cleared.
He'd left the leaves around the door because the cat had loved playing in them.
He opened the front door and stood in the hallway. Turned to take one last look at the moon, the solitary star and the lights shining from the slopes on the hill.
It was then that a very peculiar thing happened.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013
In this, this country district, he reasoned that there must be someone out there.
Someone for who these portraits would have some kind of meaning, some kind of value.
Having made the decision not to throw them out, he didn't feel what he expected.
He first noticed it the day the scrapyard man came with his low-loader.
The scrap man looked at the old car and his eyes narrowed with what might have been disgust. Smoke drifted from the bowl of a charred pipe he was smoking. He took it out of his mouth and scratched his nose with the mouth-piece. It was a caricature of an old man's nose. Bulbous was the word that sprang to mind. No other word would do.
'Not your responsibility, you know. Shifting that car.'
'No. But the previous owners haven't left me much choice.'
The scrap man grunted. 'No. They wouldn't.'
The car was winched up onto the low-loader.
The old man re-lit his pipe before getting into the truck.
He had a terrible, unaccountable urge to ask this old man to take the paintings too.
Anything to be rid of them.
But sensed that the old man wouldn't, no matter how valuable, touch them with a very long barge pole.
Sunday, 10 November 2013
A terracotta cottage some two miles west of town. Walls about two-feet-thick. Old beams.
The new occupant thought that it was just the place to meet a ghost.
But not the kind he expected.
A whole load of garbage had been left behind. A blue car rotted on the drive. Moulds creeping along its blue body. The steering wheel had a greenish tinge too. As if a corpse had been driving it.
The upstairs bedroom was painted a peculiar purple with a gold door. The carpet was thin. A dark shape where the double bed had been. There were wasps scattered all along the window sill. There were wasps scattered all over the carpet.
Husks of black and gold that, it being impossible to step around them, crunched under your feet.
A tree grew too close too the walls. Tentacular roots grabbing at the foundations as if nature knew something that the man didn't and desperately desired to pull the place down.
A washing machine lay in the path that led to the front door.
The door was painted in a faded plum colour. The paint was peeling and blistering to reveal patches of black and orange underneath.
It was as if the door had caught some terrible disease.
Around the back of the cottage there was a tool shed. It had an old-fashioned latch handle. Inside, once your eyes had adjusted to the gloom – there was no window and the place wasn't fitted up for electric, there was a workbench made from rough timber. A vice had been left behind. The whole place smelled of logs. There was something black compacted onto the stone floor. Tools were still on the workbench. Old wooden handled screwdrivers, a stub of carpenter's pencil. A tape-reel too rusted run freely from its casing. Rusting tobacco tins filled with nails and screws in no particular order.
He didn't know where to begin.
He grabbed a dustpan and started on the wasps.
He arranged for the decorator to come and do something about the purple and gold. The festering front door.
He called the scrapyard. Yes, they'd come and get the car. But the price of scrap has gone down, you know?
He didn't know.
Didn't care. Just wanted it gone.
He hauled the washing machine into the back of his car. No easy task. It weighed a ton. They put cinder-blocks or something inside them to stop 'em dancing across the floor.
He started dragging and bagging the junk from the tool shed. It felt a little wrong. Spanners and hammers going into the bags. But what else was he to do? He couldn't live with all this junk.
Came across an old gramophone case with the little HMV dog eternally staring down the funnel. He lifted the lid. No gramophone. Just green velvet lining the box. He paused for a moment. Then into the sack it went.
But there was an awkward item at the back of the shed. No. Make that two awkward items. Two framed portraits of an old couple. Someone had commissioned a real artist to paint these portraits. The frames were gold-leaf – or at least, something that looked convincingly like gold-leaf on a heavy wood that didn't come cheap. The canvas alone had to be worth something.
It felt wrong to throw these things away.
It felt wrong and cold-blooded to ditch something that somebody had once really cared about.
So he decided to hang on to them for awhile.
But this, as you sitting in the homely glare of your computer screen know only too well, was a big mistake.
Saturday, 9 November 2013
First thing, try and locate the scene.
Guesses, possible terrain.
I must have been there,
stood in that place of foam and speed.
The rock, a living thing, breathing –
the trees and leaves making
a green cave of sky.
Four, five tributaries powering
down in ghostly flumes.
For an amateur snap, it's not bad.
An indication, a clue...
What dates it is the reverse.
AGFA. The fact that it was sent away
to be developed. Film, then.
The water held in a frame of 6 by 4.
Stopped mid-torrent to be lost somewhere,
misplaced, put in a box and forgotten.
My life similarly frozen.
Trying to get back to the source.
The sense of time and energy flowing again.
Thursday, 7 November 2013
On Sunday mornings Mr Williams would sit at a table in his back garden with a newspaper before him. He smoked a Dunhill pipe. The smoke curled from the briar bowl in a way that seemed perfectly natural. In no way could it be imagined that such a peaceful activity would actually bring harm to the body.
His wife was always baking. Cakes of vivid colours that, on account of the fact that she was on a crusade against sugar, tasted somehow flat and bland. How could something so pink taste more like bread than cake?
Mr Williams had a black beard that made him look like a bear. The first time I met him I'd been hitting a tennis ball against the house wall. He came out from his garden, the bear from lair, and stood on the path where I felt his presence before I actually thought to turn and see him.
When I did, the racquet went limp in my hand. 'Do you think that you should be doing that?' he said. From the vantage point of nearly forty years I might have said 'what's it got to do with you? It's our house wall, not yours.' But being a kid, I said 'no', the word coming out in a dry whisper. The bear nodded, turned and went back into his lair.
The next day I came home from school to find a copy of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich in the kitchen. 'This is for you' my Mum said. 'Mrs Williams brought it around. I'd told her you liked reading.'
It was heavy going. But it impressed Mr Taylor the maths teacher when he caught me reading it when I should have been doing algebra. Normally, when, to use the jargon, you were 'off task' he hit you with a wooden ruler. Instead, he said 'well done. But please get on with your algebra.'
Mr and Mrs Williams had a record player. It didn't look like Dad's new Hi-Fi. This thing looked like it had been severed from the bowels of a space ship it had so many wires and dials. It wasn't a compact series of neat boxes like Dad had. It took up a corner of the living room and had to be hidden behind a leather sofa. There was a drawer for cassettes. Classical. I tried listening to one. Then I plucked out another. It wasn't classical. Strange, powerful music that was like nothing I'd heard before. Mrs Williams smiled and handed me a plate of bright green cake.
One day we came home and the front window of Mr and Mrs William's house was gone. Lifted clean out. 'What's going on?' I said.
'They're having a picture window fitted.'
'What's one of those?'
'It's a big sheet of glass without any frames to spoil the view. It must have cost them a fortune.'
The view in question was of a whale-backed hill with a solitary tree stood on its pinnacle. If the hill had really been a whale the tree stood in the spot where the blow hole would have sprouted a jet of water. This tree was all contorted like a witch huddled on her broomstick.
I looked at this hill and rested my hands on the radiator under the window. Let the heat get into me. I thought about Ivan Denisovich. No radiators to comfort him. The ridged structure of his day in the work camp. How he'd found some fluff deep in the corners of coat pocket and managed to make a cigarette out of it. Then I heard that music again, the mix of rock guitars and a jazz saxophone. Let it blend with the shape of the hill as darkness came down and the witch was gone.
Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Five Coat Williams stood in Dad's kitchen.
'All this fluff', he said.
Clogging the grooves of life's record.
'Life's a racket', he said.
Talking, then trying on the structure of the home baking.
Spumes of jargon, a form, frame of living algebra.
'To say no is natural enough, you know?'
'What do you say?'
AGFA/saxophone, film/sound – all the house impressed.
'It got him...when?
got him to account to the rock of questions plucked from actuality.
Bent the shape of his hat on.
Monday, 4 November 2013
We'll start with the high street.
The rainy electrics. Empty traffics.
hanging in the balance.
Fills one end of the street like a dinosaur suddenly let loose.
All eyes and size sends up little mists that scintillate with electrical shades.
Driver calls into a balloon
a protective sac.
The man blinks and still finds it in himself to crack a rain-coloured joke.
Saturday, 2 November 2013
In memory of Peter Knowles.
I was never head boy material. Too many lures.
But, in recognition of my application to study I was rewarded with responsibility.
I was put in charge of managing the school stage. This brought perks.
When all of the other pupils were condemned to freezing in the yard, I was looking after the stage.
This, in those pre-computer years, meant rigging up the OHP. It meant finding the right hymn for the day in the folder of transparencies.
The one I dreaded was Holy, Holy, Holy.
Because it was the Head Master's favourite, it came along quite often.
It was a horror.
Four pages of transparencies taped together. It was the Devil's own job to keep it straight on the projector. It was like hanging wallpaper. One slip and the whole thing could slide through your hands to hit the stage floor. The kids in the hall knew it too. As I knelt in front of the OHP I could feel a thousand eyes boring into the back of my head willing me to mess up.
The spotlights burned my neck and the palms of my hands were slick with sweat.
Worse still, the Head Master was very particular about the way the hymn was sung.
I'd hold the transparency as straight as I could with pages two, three and four doing their best to obey the laws of gravity. But the pupils would drone through the words with all the energy of a Ford Transit trying to turn over on a flat battery.
The Head Master, wearing a cape like Dracula, would shake his head and say 'you can do better than this. Put some effort into it!'
And off we'd go again. But by this time the hymn would have slipped off to one side. The words were all askew.
The spotlights beamed on my neck. My neck exposed to the spotlights beam. The OHP before me like an executioner's block.
The Dracula Head Master would shout so loudly that I'd nearly drop the transparency all together.
'It's not 'Oly, 'Oly, 'Oly. It's Hoe-ly, Hoe-ly, Hoe-ly.'
On around about the third run through the pupils finally got into gear. They realised that there was no other way out of this one than to wake up and give the Head Master what he wanted.
Old Dracula boomed along happily. But somehow my trembling hand managed to travel across the OHP's power button and trip it to off.
And everything went dark.
There was a magical rug on the floor of the dentist's waiting room. It had endless squares and patterns that made perfect roads for the toy car the boy was pushing. It was a model of an open-top car from the fifties with a cream body and mint green trim. The boy travelled down each road that the rug never failed to supply.
When they were called in to the dentist's room the boy slid down into the chair and looked up into the big lamp that hung there like a sunflower. The dentist said he wouldn't feel a thing as he handed the boy a mask and told him to just keep breathing in before going down another road into a black country where the sky was pink and the air tasted like rubber.