A green BMC ambulance dumped at the end of a track. Half-concealed by a cave of leaves. No further, farther to go. Beyond here, if you step over the cold stream, nothing but sheep in the fields and railway line, the tracks torn up in 63. You can follow the line, hear the sheep occasionally bleating. Come to an old railway cottage – a bungalow with a pretty garden behind a fence. Most days you pass the old man comes out. Wears a blue sweater and a black railway man's cap as if he's still expecting the ghost of a stream train to whistle through any time soon. He has a black moustache and walks as if he's carrying a load. He's always happy to stop and say hello. Pass the time of day. Philosophise on work and freedom, conforming, rebellion and how it's easier, in the long run, to just buckle down. Not what a young man wants to hear. And now I'm older I still don't. The big red and yellow flowers all in rows as you head out onto the road, iron rails making bronze lines in the pale tar. The white crossing gates with reflective red circles still in place. The landscape changing now.
Friday, 27 December 2013
Despite neglecting it, this pointless photograph has contrived to follow me everywhere. The scene it depicts must be at least twenty years old and is the only photo I took during this period. It has this habit of turning up between the pages of books. I never consciously put it back in a safe place. If it disappeared from my life forever, I wouldn't mourn its passing.
But it is a remarkable photograph. I know it is because of the effect that it had on the only person I have ever shown it to.
He was a big shot. He'd seen the writing on the wall and had set off for America to make his fortune. The fortune duly followed. About once or twice a decade he returned home to England and the visit was anticipated like a state occasion. Here was the guy who'd been brave enough to actually do what the rest of us would only talk about.
We sat on a sofa while he smoked Camel after Camel – the same ones that would eventually kill him a year or so later. I don't how we got onto the subject, but for some reason showing him the photo seemed like the only sensible thing to do.
The photo was like looking into a tree. Millions of green leaves filled the frame. Not everyone saw it, but if you stared hard enough you'd eventually see a pair of electric yellow eyes beaming back at you. Once you'd located the eyes, it was a simple enough task to make out the ginger face of the cat that they belonged to. If you then looked at the trunk of the tree, the small part that was visible in the photo, it was possible to see a very strange thing. An outline, shadow was marked onto the bark that made the body of a cat as if reflecting the real creature above. Weirder still, this wooden body had a head made of twigs and ears shaped from leaves. A pair of green acorns hung precisely where the eyes should be.
The big shot inhaled the lethal Camel sharply. He got it immediately.
I got up. Casually stuffed the photo between the pages of a magazine. Promptly forgot about it for another season, by which time even the widest of profit margins hadn't been enough to save our stately visitor.
Monday, 23 December 2013
That was the year when we were in great danger. We'd left everything to the last minute. I'd even finished work and we still didn't have a Christmas tree. My friend John told us about a farm that could maybe help out. I drove out there on a day when driving was a mad thing to do. People were were walking in the middle of the road because the pavements were compacted with ice. Old people stepping carefully down the centre lines as gingerly as if they were taking a constitutional through a minefield.
The last hill to the farm, I could see that the surface of the road was slicked with ice. But the idea of returning home empty handed was too difficult to endure. Besides, I was already committed, the car rolling down past a farmyard where I'd once seen a farmer with a long beard and a battered hat holding a willow stick like a wizard's staff and he was smiling as the snow fell on him. I rolled on in low gear and prayed that no-one was mad enough to be coming from the other way. One touch of the brakes and I'd surely lose control. Here I was, a sober man of the world, risking death or totalling my car for a Christmas tree.
I reached the farm in question. I blotted the idea of the return journey from my mind. There was no way that I could drive up the track, so I left the car by a stack of logs and started to walk. Something about this part of the world slows the heart. I knew the people around here and once, used to live among them. Oh, the eccentric goings on I could tell you about!
There was one old farm where the kitchen had a wooden table and the farmer's wife, pipe clenched between her teeth, used to butcher her own cattle. The chairs in the kitchen were coated in dog hair and mud. But the front room was like an antique shop with fine carpets and immaculate furniture. They only ever used the room on Christmas Day. Her husband was a strict teetotaller and frowned upon his wife's smoking. Except for Saturday nights.
They had a brand new Skoda that they kept in the barn for funerals and special occasions. The wife referred to the car as the Sekonda but I don't think that she ever tried to put it on her wrist. Saturday nights they'd drag the pigeon-splattered tarp from the car and drive down to the village inn. Then her husband would drink pint after pint and smoke a packet of twenty. He wouldn't stop until he finally lost consciousness and had to be carried out to the car which must have been hard going considering that he weighed in at twenty stone.
Another farmer used to wander around his fields on Christmas Eve. He carried a torch under a red silk handkerchief in the belief that he could fool Father Christmas's reindeer into thinking that he was Rudolph. One year, as a diversion, he walked to the main road with a screwdriver. His plan was to prise up the cats eyes and take them home so that he could look after the pretty lights.
Then there was the young farmer who was a tobacco enthusiast. He chain smoked all week and switched to cigars on Sundays. 'We've got too soft', he said. 'Look at all they old people in the graveyards. Most of them smoked and it never did them any harm'. Expanding on his theme, he said 'besides. If you're outdoors all day I don't think it's so bad for you. Might be bad for all them people who work in offices though.' Thank God he was a farmer and not a doctor.
I pushed these thoughts from my mind as I approached the farmhouse where I hoped to put an end to the great Christmas tree crisis. After all, it was a tree I needed and not an eccentric farming almanac. The house seemed very sleepy but smoke was rising from the chimney. I knocked at the door. It was opened immediately by a little old lady who had trouble speaking. Eventually, after finally succeeding in persuading the toffee to move to a part of her mouth so that she could make some kind of sense, she said that I'd have to go and cut the tree down myself. Normally, her husband would go and do it but he'd dropped dead that morning. Did I mind? She handed me a saw and pointed up the track to where the trees were. Naturally, I wanted to ask her if she was alright, but she'd unwrapped another toffee and popped it in her mouth making further intelligible conversation impossible.
I entered the silence of a December pine wood. The Christmas trees were fit for Trafalgar Square but I eventually found one that would fit in the car. I got to my knees and started to saw. Three strokes in something clamped down on my shoulder. Startled, I looked round to find myself face to face with a white horse. It didn't want to let go of my shoulder. The more I tried to pull away, the harder it worked its teeth in.
Next year I'm going artificial. The family won't like it, but then again, not everyone was too happy when Dylan went electric.
Saturday, 21 December 2013
The writer came into the room. There was a great cheer from the audience. There was lots of backslapping and banter as the writer waited in the wings, a woman on stage raising the stakes that did not need raising. This writer didn't need a warm up gig. The audience, mostly young, couldn't wait to get their hands on him.
He took of his leather jacket. Someone was immediately there to take it from him. He licked his lips, ran a hand over his hair that was already very in place. There was a thunderous round of applause as he took the stage, set himself up at the lectern. He pulled the mike this way and that as if he was strangling a snake.
He was bigger than I had imagined. He had the build of a football player. His hair looked like cast iron. Strong, chiselled features and complete self-assurance in every move.
He didn't wait for any questions. Jumped straight in. Years of experience told him exactly what to say. The audience hung on to his every word.
Laughed in all the right places.
And sometimes laughed just a little bit too hard.
Thursday, 19 December 2013
most of the day passed in a dream in a cabin hidden in a lonely wood, flicking through a souvenir program of Frank Sinatra's European tour the UK dates at the burnt end of May, I'd guess from the photos sometime around seventy four, venue the Royal Albert Hall. she told me that she didn't have tickets but the doorman, a nice old gent he was, let her sneak in.
I'll write these words
on my pillow in the hope
that they're still
come the morning
Monday, 16 December 2013
Pewter sky and a sweet wind.
I should go in now, almost too dark
to see what I'm doing. But like a child
called to dinner, I want to stay out
here, just a bit longer. I walk down
the garden, the sky is a drama
of clouds and birds set off
on a stage of freshness. I pull
up an old chair and slump in it,
stare up into all this greyness.
The trees make black shapes
and it's the one behind me
that creates the best effect:
a scribble of branches,
silhouettes of berries.
The wind in this tree generates
a perfect loneliness, an antidote
to the yellow lights of houses.
Sunday, 15 December 2013
I'd say parties, being sociable and all that, is something I don't find easy. If I was single, I'd never dream of leaving my house to go and stand in someone else's kitchen, drink insane amounts of liquid and follow all of these spiralling conversations that seem to round and round but ultimately end up nowhere.
Except that it isn't true. There was a time when I found parties to be something that were very easy. In fact, I even longed for them to come around. Someone, like, for example, the clinical psychologist I was talking to last night could probably make a great deal of that. But, I think, the explanation is simple. I was young, had an endless appetite for beer and loved loud music. I still like loud music. But I haven't drunk anything stronger than tea in the last four years. And I don't like inflicting loud music on those who don't want it. These days I confine it to the headphones.
If you don't drink, parties – worse still, being invited to someone's place for a 'quiet drink' is an interminable bore. This isn't ungenerous of me. I have heard others in my position say the same thing. There's only so much fizzy water a soul can take in one evening.
So, it was with a heavy heart that I heard the words 'oh, Claire's having people round for drinks on Saturday night. We're invited.' Emphasis was placed on the 'we're' bit. This bad news was broken to me on a Wednesday which is sort of okay. Saturday feeling like a million miles away. But by Friday night, the oppressive weight of the quiet drink began to drag at my heels. As Saturday morning dawned, I felt about as jolly as a man invited to his own funeral. All day, I racked my brain to try and think of a plausible excuse to get out of it. There wasn't one. I considered being a man and putting my foot down but the consequences were too frightening. I wrote a poem full of vitriol but decided I couldn't publish it for fear that someone responsible for organising the quiet drink might be upset about it.
As evening came around, I considered murder but soon realised that the relief would only be very short lived. So, after taking an age to shave and pretending that I couldn't make up my mind what to wear -well, it works for women so why shouldn't it work for me? - we finally set out for the party/quiet drink whatever.
I gave it my best shot. After all, when the game is up, there isn't much else you can do. I'd tried sulking and being miserable when I was in my thirties but this still didn't work. So I gave it my best shot. I talked and smiled with the help of a friendly wall. Cracked jokes with the clinical psychologist. Somehow, we'd got on to the subject of superstition. I told him that I had this peculiar peccadillo but, being a psychologist, he'd probably worked that out already. The foible I have is that when adjusting the volume on the TV, I won't have it on thirteen. Which is damn annoying because thirteen is the perfect volume. Fourteen is a hint too loud. Twelve is a bit of a strain. Despite being just right, I won't use thirteen. The psychologist brightened. 'I'm just the same', he said. His eyes clouded. 'It's such a shame. Thirteen is such a good volume.' I moved my back from the friendly wall. I'd grown tired of impersonating the paintwork.
I said I was going now. I'd served my promised two hours. This seemed to meet with approval so I ran while the going was good.
When I got home I turned on the news. Adjusted the volume to thirteen and tried to hold my nerve. Then quickly thought better of it. Didn't want to push my luck too far.
Saturday, 14 December 2013
Friday, 13 December 2013
At 3pm he'd send me on this errand. You'd never get away with it now but I was glad to get out onto the street, walk past the electrical store where the proprietor wept alone with his marital problems among the guts and entrails of vacuum cleaners.
The War Memorial made a crucifix in the square. I'd walk up hill until I reached the dusty shop with its antiquated Eldridge Pope sign, brewers of beer and importers of wines since Thomas Hardy was a boy.
The owner knew what I wanted. With his half-moon glasses glittering, he'd reach down a bottle of Claret and wrap it in tissue paper as if it was a precious gift.
This wrapper would survive the walk back to the printing house. The wine would be tipped into a chipped mug black with the residue of instant coffee.
Sometimes I'd have to repeat the journey.
Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Heavy Metal Jimmy, the rebel blessed with hair and an ample share of intelligence
and eloquence in a misty heart pod, fabricated from a spectral silver shell, has everything a heavy metal kid requires. The velvet turntable eclipsed by perspex lid gathers the spectrum into jet coils spiralling into cans/speakers. Wires, amplifiers, sleeves carrying totems
and symbols of patterns beyond. In this pod, protected from mists that linger in the dark grasses, Heavy Metal Jimmy blesses the caves of air with electric amplifications.
Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Flash of bronze placed like a reptile where the line of road becomes a dog's hind leg.
A farmhouse piled up near a white wall and the red flag of a post box. Down the sights
created by the horse's twitching ears this grey line and the bronze flash awaits our
slow, clopping approach. My companion holds the reigns in his white fists.
Poppy seeds in my pocket stolen from someone's Sunday garden. All we need
are Good, Bad and the Ugly cigars. Another shape in black sits in the shadow
of the reptile that, as we come into focus, sharpens into a Ford Cortina Mk III.
The man says nothing as we approach, and just as I think nothing is going
to happen, he gets to his booted feet, silver shining from his buckle.
Saturday, 7 December 2013
The trip home is a download of pink light/quartz skies offsetting tree spheres.
Miles of thought ahead of me are daunting, but I'm glad to have escaped the bats
from hell flying beside me. Loneliness gets into full gear, the stone deer on the arch
against a sunset on the cover of a magazine. I play Street Legal very loud, something
new on each listening, this time it's the line about feet doing voodoo because they move
all by themselves as does the car like Blackpool running all the way through rock.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
She never liked attention but here she is being photographed in her garden. She reaches out and her white arms are longer than I remember. Sections of metal beaten into petals of pearl lie on the grass. A mallet, the bit you do the thumping with, shaped like an egg. About the size of some prehistoric egg lying in sand waiting to hatch out some green-tailed monster with a pea-sized brain that can only compute killing. She wears black and her hair falls across her face, so maybe she hasn't changed that much.
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Everything poised in a no man's land. I know, this is all very vague. But it's how it is. This is a strange day, this anniversary of the day that my life began. It might be easier to say birthday, but it's also the first complete turning of the earth since your life ended on what was also your birthday. A difficult feat to achieve, but you somehow managed it. I have only come across this birth-death day once before: it was a photograph in a paperback. One of those lion things. Born Free, that's what it was. Elsa, her tombstone and the dates coinciding. Even then, I knew that this was peculiar. So how to celebrate? Everything in the balance, I'll try and do my bit to make sure nothing gets up-ended. Vagueness is the only certainty, if you need a specific.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
He woke in his cell. Life finally dripping to an end. The window allowed grey light to creep in. But wouldn't let it out again. Man and ash trying to seize the day but no-one else was alive to join in. He opened the pine lid. Silence behind doors lining the corridor. A bannister splitting the gloom. He padded down the stairs to where the green door waited for someone to dare and open it. He didn't have the nerve. Veered off into the remains or beginnings of a kitchen where an old railway clock ticked like a moon measuring out the time that was left. Steam lifted from the spout and he read this sign like a tracker notes a cloven depression in black mud.