Apr 16 2010

Isle of Man

The world was all lapis lazuli and gold on the morning that I first thought of myself as a unit of production, a barcode. Of little more substance than the sickly smiling photopass that swung by a balding string from my belt. It was an epiphany, the first of many. I turned over possibilities in my mind. A strikingly handsome woman boarded my bus and sat down next to me. Her wild curly hair was the colour of fire and earth, her eyes exclamations. I half turned and scanned the empty seats to express an irritation I didn’t altogether feel.

“Georgie,” she said in a quiet low singsong that was either Scottish or Manx. She offered her hand. Her overalls, though they were white and spotlessly clean, stank roundly of sheep, unpleasant, but without the spiky acid highs of, say, a Roquefort cheese.

“Parsley,” I said. We shook hands. Her grip was warm. “My name is Douglas Parsley.” I showed her my pass by way of introduction. “Of the flat leaf variety, nowadays,” I said indicating the diminishing vigour of my hairline. “Though in my younger days, back when this likeness was captured in plastic you’ll notice I hailed from the curly side of the species.” I auto-laughed at my own joke, an infuriating high warble that I’d never managed to train despite countless hours of practice. “Ah, to be young and foolish again!” I added. She studied my pass, looked up at me.

“Interesting,” she said. “Do you always talk like that?”

“Like what?”

“As though discussion were a formula.” I frowned at that and considered sulking but I could see that no malice was intended. An uncomfortable silence ensued. The bus moved. Outside the windows life continued. I realised she expected an answer.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Oh good,” she said. She smiled brightly. I smiled back. She said “Do you have a job?” I raised an eyebrow and glanced again at my pass. Underneath my photograph and the insipid corporate logo was printed my name, the start date of my employment and the words, Credit Controller.

“I do,” I said.

“And what do you do?” She said.

“I work in credit control,” I said. “I’m a Credit Controller.”

“How lovely,” she said.

“You?”

“I farm.”

“Of course you do,” I said. I bestowed an oily smile.

“…I do,” she said.

“No, I mean, I know you do. It’s kind of obvious.”

“Oh,” she said. “The smell?” I hesitated, then nodded. She said, “Sorry. It’s the fat from their fleeces. The sheep. Gets everywhere. But I save a fortune in moisturiser.” We sat in silence for a while. I mulled this over, wondering if the zero sum effluvia of my world had permeated my pores and clothing so thoroughly. Formula?

“Nae bother,” I said. We looked out of the windows. I wanted to ask what a farmer was doing on a rush hour bus, or what would make her the happiest woman who ever lived. I wished I could ask why she had sat next to me, or even if she’d like to have dinner with me sometime. Instead I opened my mouth and bleated, “So, are sheep as stupid as everyone says?” Her look reconfigured me. Something light and unfathomable retreated beneath her shining skin. She stood and made her way to the door, turning before she stepped off of the bus and out of my life.

“No more than the rest of us,” she said.

At work I couldn’t settle.

The next day, a Friday, I deleted a cell from an important spreadsheet. It calmed me fleetingly.

At the weekend I filled my bicycle panniers with accumulated frippery, adornments, bits of junk and nonsense, and took them to the dump. When I got back I did it again, and later again. The calm space within me grew a little. On the following Thursday, a week after I met her, I amended a carefully crafted lookup on a suite of spreadsheets, rendering them all but useless. The next day I deleted the spreadsheets themselves, and then the backups. I donated my collection of novelty stress toys to my colleagues and quietly cleared my desk, dotting pens and packets of sticky notes in discrete caches around the office. Three weeks after Georgie I stopped going to work. I no longer had any work to do and besides, I needed the time to organise the sale of my furniture. It was another week before anyone noticed my absence. In the evenings I stripped my tiny flat of anything I could do without. I cut a dreary Kandinsky print from a frame and replaced it with my corporate pass, hanging it in pride of place above the empty fireplace. I sold my bed. A month after we met I could fit my belongings into a holdall. I felt lighter than air.

At night I left the windows wide open unafraid of burglars. When the last of my stuff was gone I curled up on the floor and slept undisturbed. It might have been days. When I awoke the world was all lapis lazuli and gold. I wondered briefly if I had died, and surprised myself that I wouldn’t mind if I had. But I must be alive, I thought. You’re only dead when you stop surprising yourself. I felt like walking and never looking back.

A knock at the front door got me to my feet. Through the open window drifted the wholesome stink of sheep. Behind the frosted glass sunlight sparkled on a cascade of flame red hair.

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Apr 2 2010

Laying on of Hands

I woke early as usual and slipped quietly out of bed, making my way to my workshop. I filled the tiny whistling kettle, and sat it on a tripod above my butane blowtorch. While it boiled I stood and watched the morning light play across the surface of my new piece. This was a simple table, an altar, solid and squat, using seven hundred year old oak timbers from the chancel of our church. They were removed when the apse was reinforced. I’d taken delivery of the beams in February, shortly after Valentine’s Day, and would return this new altar to the building soon. Beneath the blackened patina the timbers hummed with lignified life. The first one I had quarter sawn released a spicy incense, and lush yellowish ray flecks as strong as folded steel. I did nothing but inhale their musk for a week. The following week I followed the fibres, learning their secrets, laying on hands.

I made tea, spooning torn leaves from a tin into a chipped pot. Bronwyn would join me soon, serious after sleep; she would take her mug and curl herself into the cave of her favourite chair, clinging to the vistas of sleep, battling the entropy of office life. I knew not to talk until she was ready. I felt my eyes smile, and closed them to keep her image intact.

I was an early starter: twelve years old when I began working wood. I composed my first footstool between five and six a.m. on an unremarkable day. Like Bronwyn it was small and deliciously awkward; knock-kneed: the knuckles of its joints were wrong too. I built it in a dream. When I awoke I felt as red and warm as the setting sun. I put on my clothes, brushed the tangles from my hair and carried my crippled footstool to breakfast. I had it with me as I packed lunches and hurried the younger ones for school. Nobody noticed, not even my mother, especially not my mother.

I placed a mug of hot tea in the window just as Bronwyn drifted in. She trailed a hand clumsily over the altar, blessing it, making it holy. I watched her move in arresting shudders, a series of tiny accommodations with the world around her. She is like light. Even a stretch is poetry.

Every day after the footstool there was a new creation. I kept them secret. A question avoided here, an equivocation there.  I studied joints at the library, learned to read grains. At the age of fifteen I knew every step in the manufacture of a sash window. I could build doors and doorframes in my sleep. Trusses became a staple. I moved on – back – to my first love, furniture, conceiving elegant Queen Anne tables and chairs, fine filigree screens, before the ecstatic discovery of Shaker cabinets, and the catharsis of imperfection. I made boxes for my tools, then the tools to go in them. And all this without ever handling a single piece of raw lumber, or hefting a hammer. Without making anything real.

Nursing was hard. Mother arranged it. On Sundays I sat tidily in my best dress deconstructing the lectern while Byzantine lessons were taught. While we prayed I steam-softened the glues binding pew dovetails and reverse engineered them back to riftsawn boards. I preferred them like that. I preferred everything like that. Simple. Hadn’t Jesus been a carpenter too?

They discovered it before me. Not the secret of my creativity, but another secret. One I’d kept even from myself. A secret so dark that exorcism failed. So did rage, though they tried both. At dusk I said goodbye to the place I loved, not knowing if I could return. I left nursing, and with the money I had saved I rented a workshop.

I decided at the beginning against mortise and tenon joints to bind this piece.  They are not the only way.

Bronwyn wrapped her arms around me, placing her hands gently on my back. She understands the beauty in these rough-hewn pieces. She understands me. Her head was heavy on my shoulder. Her voice still stained with sleep. “Thank you,” she said.

For Josie.


Mar 19 2010

Hypercube

She stood across the compound. I brought cups of the calorific tea they served to the children and placed them next to her at her feet. On the surface, a scatter graph of buttermilk formed star-shaped arabesques. “Are you okay, Miremba?” I heard myself ask. And “Could we talk?” She might have blinked a little.

I wore the blue beret of an international peacekeeper uneasily. I had no front line experience. At home I studied mathematics and grew fat in the bounteous Punjab. Hubris had brought me to Chad, to this refugee camp, where a vigorous PhD thesis on supply chain economics had curled up its toes and died within a month, killed by bankers hurling sub-prime spears from the hearts of their dark towers. I’d stayed on to help.

I moved quietly, but she was lost anyway. She stood just like a little girl, newly orphaned, in broken red sandals, her head slightly cocked. Her left arm, stick-like, baked in a clay of sweaty dust, hung at her side caught at the elbow by her tiny right hand behind the sunken cage of her abdomen. She had walked for seventeen nights, calculating from the setting sun a bearing that brought her directly here through the eye of a needle. She had slipped the nets of the Lords Resistance Army, drifted past within a militant degree of the terrible Janjaweed. She was part of a trickle of refugees who made the journey across three war zones, three countries. And while inefficient zigzagging cost many their lives, she had walked a dead straight line through slaughter and mutilation and carried her four year-old brother upon her back. In the few weeks I’d known her, Miremba had become my god.

She understood hypercubes, mapping their twisted geometry through ten dimensions. She had been here, like this, since sunrise, pondering the dekeract: a 10-cube. A mathematical kōan. A shape so abrupt, so surprisingly precise, that it contained more than eleven thousand faces – a thousand times more than the goddess Kali herself – all of them perfectly square. She regarded them now in turn. Smoothed them across the swift undulations of her nine-year old neocortex. Plotting vectors. Assigning possibilities, names, numbers. She dared look them in the eye. She tamed them.

Some days this was all she did. On others she would feed her brother the extra rations I brought, making him strong. Today, while she thought, she watched over him scratching shapes in a patch of dirt. My rude untutored eye could discern nothing to commend this patch from any other, but to Miremba it was expressive. From it she mined raw clots of data. I stood discreetly at her side. Awestruck.

“Miremba,” I said. “There are reports I must discuss with you. I can make arrangements for you both to ride with us. We can go to safety.”

Her glasses were a marvel: gaudy aviator frames that threatened to slip from the tiny nub that was her nose. She didn’t need them; she rarely focussed on anything real and in any case the lenses were missing. In their place she’d stuck a colourful collage of plastic biscuit wrappers. She existed in the space between thought and movement. As though her arms were always just about to rise, or her head about to turn. I imagined an expression of shock registering on her face that she was not alone. When she was like this I longed to hear her speak. I willed her to twitch a wrist; a simple outward roll of involuntary recognition would send ripples through the cosmos. To watch her was exhausting.

Today the camp was chaotic. The refugees had heard the news. The violence in Darfur had spilled across the border. Everywhere, people ran to strike camp and flee the fighting.  But Miremba stood and thought.

When finally she looked at me she saw everything. I felt – not exactly naked – but reduced to my component parts. Like she could reach out and stop the particle tornado, the twists of nothing, that made me me.

“Let’s play dice,” she said. “I have found a new one I would like to try.”

That night, before we were airlifted to safety I watched Miremba take a different road to the fleeing crowds. I read all of the newspapers in London a week later, but there were no mentions of a gentle genius child or her little brother, or even of the massacre.


Mar 5 2010

Bo

It was enough for me to know that in the Bo language, the word for ‘flower’ had been an inflection of the word for ‘flame’, itself a shortened vowel away from the word for ‘star’. I’d curled my tongue and then my brain around these gentle, sensible contours for a decade since taking Linguistic Anthropology 101 with Dr Denizen M. In the intervening years I’d published a thesis myself, gone public with my love, and now only my admiration for Denizen was private – especially from her. Dr M. had been asked to discover what had been the purpose of the Bo culture, and whether the recent extinction warranted United Nations commemoration, and so it was only natural that she and I board a boxy airfreight out of Kolkata bound for the Andaman Islands community at Port Blair.

Our home was an adobe shelter, a tumbledown joy. During the day I fed scraps of rice and chicken to the brightly coloured frogs. I ran for miles on dusty paths and forgot about my research work. In the evenings we sat and looked over the water towards distant dystopian Myanmar. Denizen was tired after three weeks of oily interviews with dignitaries and cricketers, and no further forward in her mission. Nobody could say whether the Bo culture had a purpose. How would they measure it? She slept fitfully, woke fretting. In contrast, I slept the sleep of the dead. When I woke the 34 Bo words for dappled light played across my mind. It felt like an eternal spring.

Bo. Prototypical, archetypal Bo, a grandmother among languages, spoken long before biblical Jericho was even a blueprint, before those cities of Ur and Harappa had sprouted from and crumbled back into the alluvial dust, before the great texts of the Torah and Veda, the epic poetry of Beowulf and Gita. Before writing had invented our future.

It was on a rainy Sunday that the pakora seller knocked on our door and told us that the last word uttered in Bo was ‘tikh’, a word he translated as: ‘feelings that span and change worlds’. After we had shared his savoury tray I looked up the word in my own Bo dictionary – a work in progress. Etymologically, ‘tikh’ was among the oldest unchanged words, a time machine stretching way back into the Pleistocene era. My rather inferior definition had it as: ‘the compelling happiness or sadness one takes between states of consciousness that change these states thereafter’. I thought it referred to waking and dreaming life. I marvelled that such a word existed.

At 70,000 years old (give or take) Bo was, perhaps, the missing Afro in Indo-European. And that last word breathed by this dying culture: ‘tikh’ – feelings that span and change worlds – how fitting.

While Denizen worked I walked. I ran. I discovered 45 new words for mangroves, another 17 for the reflections of water on leaves. The word for alcoholic drink, I found at a beach bar, had changed sometime in the 19th Century from horseshoe-bat-behind-your-eyes to death-will-call. People knew these things, but nobody could tell Denizen the purpose of Bo. She began to sense failure.

I cashed my life assurance, who wants to live forever? I called home, sold my car. Sold my stuff. I stopped paying rent on my university apartment. Denizen grew jittery. I wrote my last assignment, saved it on my laptop and FedExd it to my university office. Inside, on the screen I stuck a Post-it: ‘Thank you for the work, it was fun but I’d like to stop now please’. I made shelves in our adobe house. I started making shelves for our neighbours’ adobe houses. I planted vegetables. Two days after she left for home she called me from New York.

“I slept all the way,” she said.

“You were exhausted.” We listened to each other breathe. I knew she was fidgeting with her hair. My stomach tightened.

She said: “At the airport, I asked a pakora seller about the purpose.”

“Of Bo?”

“Yes, of Bo.” She was silent again. In the background I could hear sirens wailing.

“What did he say?” I caught myself whispering.

“Well, I know it’s a meaningless question now,” she said. “He laughed at me.”

“But did he say anything?” I said.

“He said tikh,” said Denizen.

“Tikh?”

“I miss you,” she said. “I’m coming back.”


Feb 26 2010

Cusp

Over dinner I saw that another atrocity had been committed in this evening’s commuter rush. The armed wing of Old Man Pincott’s ‘Elders’ had already claimed responsibility.  I flicked over to Reality News to hear an ageing actor read their statement aloud – you’ll have seen him dressed up like the renegade himself in the trademark chequered shirt, high-waist slacks, those sensible shoes. His watery eyes and white whiskered face were aflame with patchy anger. He spat words at the assembled cameras. Even his voice carried the same high vibrato, the same incendiary zeal, as Pincott’s before his voice was forever banned from the airwaves:

“To watch our young ones embrace or body-swerve commitment, slam-dunking meds or booze or work, wracking their bodies with sports and sex or any number of addictions, with a tenacity I haven’t seen since the day was mine and to say – to do – nothing, to stand for nothing, moreover to be asked to stand aside further into the dark margins, to create more stage space for this sick, cyclical drama of youth to unfold in all its boring glory – this is what is demanded of us, your rightful Elders. This is what is called for. An impossible negotiation. You say: move out of the damned way! Shut your wrinkled mouths! Make of your geriatric selves an irrelevance. Better yet, wither ye away.”

I watched for the cut – there: the studio producer, an old friend, a pro – scenes of bloody carnage, what Pincott ironically calls ‘mercy killings’ to ensure these innocents died young before corruption and canker swelled in their bodies like the ranks of his tumescent following. I flicked off the television and went outside.

In the garden, beneath clouds and stars my grandson sat on a low wall engulfed in the pixelated pedestrian bitstream of his game console.

“Okay, Billy? How’s it going?” He looked through me. I smiled and pulled up a chair next to him.

Sure, we make opposition like Pincott’s easy. We encourage it, even. Only stupid societies don’t wish to learn from the old, and as societies go, we are way up there with the worst. We are ageing too, dammit. The explosion of celebrity-obsessed tabloids are surely an inversely correlated sign. Read the rhetoric in the party manifestos. Visit the bright box-homes in deathly cull-de-sacs in which our young intend us to be sequestered. Beyond a certain age you only have to venture out to feel the antipathy in public spaces, in public transport. Hell, just in public. To be old is to be a separate species. Invalid. Literally, we all become in-valid. The more moderate political wing of the Elders wants to legislate for respect.

But the Elders are wrong. Pincott is wrong. Our dramas are just different, sleepier, more measured plots. Shuffling plots. We, the mouldering fruit of its loins, don’t really know this world any better than the young. There was no golden age. Society is not decaying any faster than it was for the Romans. And deep down we know it.

A challenge: to stand not in opposition but shoulder to shoulder with these self-same young and look at a world that you think you know. To see it afresh as an alien place takes imagination. And yet by the time you do this, it certainly is an alien place. We must handle the transitions. We pass it on. Okay? Or they take it. Nothing remains, all right, except the wisdom and experience that is our gift. Hold on and it will be pried from your arthritic fingers, or you can pass it on willingly. It is the same with respect.

“Hi Grandad,” said Billy. “I missed you.”

Do you hear that, Old Man Pincott?

In the cascade of social contracts the voluntary agreements we make will always outshine, will always have more dimensions, more facets, more impact, than familial legislation to bind us to those we do not wish to know. And to break the rules? To forage for meaning in these margins and forge new templates for communicating across the boundaries of generations? To kill, even, one’s own ageing ego and push back the parameters and allow a younger soul entry on their own terms into this adventurous world? To move oneself, finally, out of the damned way? Yes, these are heresies for the Elders.

But this is what it means to love.

Above me a new moon in this nicotine sky, these pointed ends, these cusps.


Feb 12 2010

Rift

Rain has fallen since New Year’s Day. Five sodden weeks – almost six. Forty days of needling. Forty nights watching these grey heaving bladders jostling above the rooftops like Zeppelins over Nuremberg. Full cover. I am one hundred percent sick of clouds. Sick. Wherever I look, clouds scuffing their bloated bellies along the ground, swallowing streets. Everything slick, glistening. I need a holiday. Please can we just grab our things and go? Please Oz, let’s go this weekend, just the two of us. Somewhere we can be together and talk about time. Somewhere with more space between the ground and sky. My lungs are full of water.

I looked at what I had written, then tore it up and went to work. Above the clouds the stars would be coming out.

At breakfast I found Stephie’s ripped note and threw it in the fire. She meant babies. Somewhere we can be together and talk about babies. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside. She would finish her shift soon. The sun shone from a pink-blue sky. That ought to cheer her. I stalked down the slope towards town. At the crossroads there was a gathering. People arranged in a long scar across the road, heads bowed as though in prayer. As I came closer I saw it, the rift. It was deep, like a crevasse in the tarmac – twenty metres at its shallowest point – and wide as a house. I stood apart and looked into its depths. Everyone agreed that the biblical rain had formed it. An underground aquifer had collapsed. At the bottom of the rift a raging river swept mightily beneath our town, stained blood red by our rusty soil. The walls magnified the sound of this diastolic rush – a sound like hell booming. As I looked I sensed a rising emptiness that seemed to seep up through the soles of my feet.

At the south end of the rift the back of a haulage container peeked above the rim. Three of the truck wheels still spun in the breeze, scraping the air for purchase. My neighbour stood, bent forward over the edge in his dressing gown and slippers.

“No way anyone could live through a fall like that,” he said. “But we should check.” Opposite him, across the void, a woman crossed herself.

A trestle table appeared in the road. Someone brought out an urn from the community centre and settled it on top. A gas-heated tureen joined it from the church. Soon the aroma of coffee and tomato soup rose above us. The crowd had coalesced now into loose clusters. Stephie would say this is the way of nature. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be collected by the spiral arm of the nearest group. I swirled with them, one hand deep in my pocket, the other clutching a comforting mug. I shivered with them too though the February morning was warm. We began to think of ourselves as survivors.

My neighbour appeared in a frogman outfit, a rope coiled around his shoulders. I helped him secure an anchor point to a tree, tied him a harness. “Remember,” he said. “If I’m not back in 30 minutes I’m a dead man. Will you call my wife?” I nodded, though I don’t know his wife’s number, or even her name. It felt wrong to mention these things. He pulled down his mask and gave a thumbs up. I watched him descend into the gloom, face down like a skydiver, with a powerful torch gripped between his teeth.

We met at work, Stephie and I. She still nurses, though I gave up porting years ago and trained as a mechanic. The silence suited me. The maintenance. Half way between starting and stopping. Stephie wanted children even then. She has always been more at home with beginnings and ends, with life and death.

The sun turned the flowing water lava red. My neighbour flailing slowly silhouetted against the boiling rush. And this is how it is. I saw it clearly: we’re young until we’re not. Things don’t stay still. Time doesn’t stand still. It is an illusion. A comforting fiction. We’re here and then we’re gone. Flotsam tossed in a torrent. I felt an urge to shout to my neighbour, ask his name. To pin him in memory and fight the tyranny.

The rope went slack. An overhang obscured him. Looking up, I saw that Stephie stood opposite me on the other side of the rift, entangled in the crowd. Her head was bowed, hand near her perfect ear holding her blue-black hair away from her eyes. Her tears fell into the gap like a blessing. I wondered if she had seen something too.

The truck brake lights blinked rapidly, then three sharp tugs on the rope. I hoisted the driver and then my neighbour from the wreckage. The driver had a dislocated finger. As we celebrated beside the rift I looked for Stephie. I shook my neighbour’s hand. We breathed deeply together, bent over with our hands on our knees. I succumbed to the moment and told him that I wanted to be a father. He clasped my shoulder.

“That is good news Oscar,” he said. “Stephie will be over the moon.” I walked home as the ambulance arrived at the rift. In the house the silence opened like a void. On the kitchen table I found another note.


Feb 5 2010

Naked Music

A dawn dream: I flew. It was more like walking upright, just above the familiar trees at the end of the road. I carried in my arms the half-sculpted block of sustainably sourced teak wood. Even asleep in my nightdress I knew this was a sign of becoming. I can do this, my dreaming self said. I can be someone yet.

That morning I pottered in the garden. That’s what they call it: pottering, as though to make clear the distinction between active and passive pastimes. There is no purpose in pottering, no feminine nurture nor masculine chop. It’s sexless, product-less, apparently dead. Safe, in other words, for people of my generation. I renamed my greenhouse the pottering shed as a private joke and marked the words in my calendar so I would remember them for my granddaughter’s next visit. I like to hear her laugh. Perhaps I will pass my remaining days pottering. Producing – amounting to – exactly nothing. As though that’s how you weigh the value of a life.

Back in the house I collect my coat and a put on my walking boots. Walking is both a way to remember and a way to move on.

When we were younger we would walk out here each weekend, down the lane, past the church – 14th Century, Norman, built on the foundations of an earlier church itself raised on the ruin of the 1st Century temple of Mithras – and out into open countryside. The church has eloquently absorbed these changes, but then it has had time. In comparison a single year has passed for me since I was razed. Michael. He and I would sit here on our walks and look at the church pond. In the summer, we listened to the Moorhens beeping in the reeds or the rousing melodies of the organ music, the codas between passages. In winter we stamped our feet and watched the longest willow fronds frantically stirring the freezing water, forming irregular ice holes through which the grasping mouths of carp groped the air obscenely.

It’s the scope I find troubling. We spent a lifetime together. It felt epic at the time. Now what remains is compressed.

I take a path that I have taken many times before. It doesn’t bore me. I like it. On this path, we once saw a sheep outside of its field, petrified in freedom. As we approached the kissing gate it suddenly bolted, flinging itself bodily at the hedge to escape us, bleating pitifully until it forced its way back into the fold.

‘How stupid,’ I said.

‘It’s frightened,’ said Michael. ‘They’re social animals. Separation is terrifying.’ He looked down at me, ‘you wouldn’t understand.’ I had smiled, proud of my independence.

I let myself through that gate now and cross the field by the well worn path. Then up the hill, though slowly.

A memory: in the first Gulf War Michael came with me to London to protest. We ripped the Socialist Worker logos from our placards like other middle class non-conformists. In the road beneath Westminster Bridge I was stopped by an Arab gentleman in a green jacket.

‘Are you Iraqi, sister?’ he said. I had bristled.

‘What is that to do with anything?’ I said. ‘What if I were? I am human!’ I said it loudly and in English. Michael had pulled me away. I maintained an uneasy silence with him for the rest of the day.

I’ve spent my life outwardly resisting the easy definitions. Always contrary. We are the authors of our own destiny. I drummed it into the children. And yet, I know now that Michael authored me, and I needed him to do it because I was incapable of completing myself. And now without him to oppose I cannot write my next lines nor carve the next feature, I am paralysed, fearful of what I will become, jealous even that he was the one to go first leaving me to navigate this final stage. It’s a special sort of paralysis, more a fear of creating something out of nothing than a fear of creating nothing at all – that is the easy option. But added to this I know that we become in spite of ourselves, whether we are active or passive. It’s an entropic twist in the tale which threatens to redefine all that has come before. How can I not mess things up?

Here at last, the clump of trees at the top where I sit and look out over this ice-scoured landscape. In these months I’ve learned to love the silence up here, to discern its quality. It is textured. Like the sheep and my sculptures this silence oscillates between desires for escape and confinement. At other times it is like an awkward gap in conversation or a breathing hole in the ice, but mostly it is a restful musical interlude, a quiet launch pad pregnant with possibilities.

Everything is in the process of becoming something, pushed along by glacial forces: Michael and me, my half finished work, this view, the sheep. There is no messing things up. Even the silence is naked music.


Jan 22 2010

Aurora Borealis

Passadena, California. 21 January 2010. 06:27:43 UTC

Spirit Control watched their four-hundred-million-dollar baby dig itself into the maddening crust. The rover had been trapped for nine months at Troy, a thermal vent named by a literary minded space scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for its association with siege. Spirit’s front left wheel bit deeper with every turn. The right had skittered lamely across the Martian soil until a month ago, when its motors – damaged three years earlier – suddenly began to operate as though the machine sensed the animal finality of its situation, its wheels increasingly immured in tiny silicate trenches. Winter was approaching, and with weak sunlight in the southern hemisphere, Spirit’s batteries wouldn’t last. In a daring manoeuvre in September the microscopic imager had been lowered to peek at the obstruction beneath the vehicle. Subsequently, in a move which spoke of desperation, a middle-aged gentleman was dispatched from England to assist. Today, contours mapped, material strengths and elasticity computed, the rover might at last break free. A note arrived from Church the Bootmaker, London. In a fluid, economical hand it said: Wishing you every success. With our sincere apologies for any inconvenience.

‘Start the fifth extrication drive,’ said Mission Leader Bridget Tuft. She prayed for success, aware of the ironies, and signalled to send the order. In fifteen minutes the instructions would be received and unpackaged by Spirit’s on-board computer. It would all be over before they saw anything. The dance would take only moments. They waited.

On the surface of the red planet, Spirit’s cameras captured everything: the sad, prosaic turns, the rhythmic genuflection of all six robotic legs and then that inspired spring, that hopeful slide. Spirit was free! As it rolled to a safe distance away from the vent the cameras focussed on the stubborn obstruction. The image, when it arrived, filled the monitor banks at JPL. It was a slightly worn British size nine Oxford Brogue in oxblood tan. Church’s distinctive patterning formed a constellation of dots on the surface of the upper. What appeared to be a Burlington argyle sock poked hopefully above the topline.

Tuft tutted in frustration. ‘Congratulations team,’ she said. ‘Now, let’s roll this rover out. We have work to do.’

Chennai, India. 21 January 2010. 12:18:02 UTC

On the moon, there are:

  • 80 archaeological sites
  • over 100 metric tons of human artefacts including
    • 17 sick bags
    • 3 lunar buggies
    • 7 combination scoop-and-tongs (scongs)

The list went on.

And yet.

None of the 80, unbelievably, were protected as UNESCO heritage sites. The US government seemed uninterested in applying. And now a prize offering $30 million for the first robotic lander to scout up there again, an extra $5 million if the robot stumbled bovinely across these elegies to human endeavour to snap a verifiable photograph of this assorted junk. A gold rush had begun. Tranquillity Base, the obvious target. Tonight, the team from Chenai University would be triumphant. Flight Director G.S.Shrinavam was aware that he would go down in history as the despoiler of a sacred secular monument. For scientists like him it would be worse than the when the Taliban used dynamite on the Buddhas of Bamyan, worse than the accidental bombing during the first Gulf War of the historical Tower of Babel. But G.S.Shrinavam would be steadfast. Like the warrior Arjuna in his beloved Bhagavad Gita, G.S.Shrinavam would ignore the consequences and act on duty. He came from a distinguished line of poets.

In his small but well appointed Mission Control Room in Mahindra World City he peered, hawk like, at the footprints beside the Apollo 11 landing stage. Not Armstrong’s famous footprints, but another set. Unpaired. Apparently unhinged. He saw clearly the left leather sole of a dress shoe, accompanied by a bare right foot. Five largish toes were clearly visible in the dust. In the control room the image composites were assembled over hours. Trajectories were traced. Finally, G.S.Shrinavam called together his disciples. He straightened his creaking back.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Was danced a most spirited waltz.’

Inari, Finland. 21 January 2010. 23:57:44 UTC

The bridge. He was watching for the bridge. It would appear soon, he was sure. Like the mythical bridge, Bifröst, from the old Norse sagas, connecting worlds, connecting Earth with Asgard, the home of the gods. It would appear in the heavens. There would be a day where he would rise along its path, cast off this aching shell and ascend. But not tonight. Tonight, though cold, he fizzed with possibilities.

He had been a banker in London until the crash, and now retirement in Finland, above the Arctic Circle. On nights like these he sat in the garden, staring upwards from his deck chair, the only furniture he had bothered to rescue from his home in Stoke Newington, a flask of hot tea at his side and an electric alarm clock to guard against dozing in the dangerous chill.

There! It appeared near the pole star first, a delicate arch, then scythed through the sky, slashing dots before plunging its billowing curtain of lights down upon these lonely latitudes. He sighed, keeping his eyes open for as long as he could. He allowed himself to remember her then.

What would it be like to hold her again? To dance once more with her? They had danced together first a lifetime ago under these Northern Lights, These Aurora Borealis, the Spirit Dance of the Cree Nation. Afterwards he had bared one leg to the knee, removing shoe and sock, borrowing from his Lodge the only sign of sure commitment he could muster. He proposed marriage. She had laughed at him, then accepted.

Tonight’s show was magnificent. Bright enough perhaps to knock out electric appliances like the Big One they’d watched from Quebec in March 1989. As sleep came, he thought he should probably check his clock. He registered too that his right foot was growing oddly numb. One day he would ascend to her.


Jan 15 2010

Chicken Dance

That summer of 1986 was my last in single figures. I marked the days off in this diary – a Christmas present – with a sense of disbelief. My fingers instantly remember its heft. This was the first in an unbroken chain of journals. The slim pencil still here, hiding in the spine, this randomised leatherette grain, the impressive gold lettering and inside, yes!, the thrilling superstring of London’s tube map. 1986. I think of that year as the beginning of my consciousness. The birth of a continuing sensible thread connecting me through time in a traceable arc. I wrote faintly in this diary, barely brushing the pages. Using it – using it up – felt wrong.

I squat in their attic next to the suitcase of my old things. The roller skates I’ve been sent to collect temporarily forgotten. This, like all of my diaries, falls open in July. On July 19th I had recorded my earliest foggy memory, the echo of a conversation that had looped in my memory for four years. On this day in 1982, the day before my sixth birthday, my mother was alive:

Me: ‘Is that the Queen’s sister?’

Mother: ‘No, she is a shopkeeper’s daughter. She is also our Prime Minister.’

Me: ‘What about him? Is he the King?’

Mother: ‘No, we don’t have a King. That man was an actor. Now he is the President of the United States.’

Me: ‘They look like King and Queen of the world.’

Mother: ‘They are in a way.’

I close my eyes and flip the page. July 20th. A marker in time. I know it’s blank. I wanted to go to Hyde Park to see the horses. A single IRA nail had pierced her femoral artery. I was six. I didn’t know how to stem the bleeding. Thereafter, in all my diaries, always this – our last remembered conversation on July 19th, and always on the 20th nothing. Writing, not writing. The emptiness, that sacred space had became a totem.

My father became a widower in his thirties. Now, in his sixty-first year he is squarely handsome in a way which sadly skipped a generation. He met Jean a full three years after my mother’s death, time enough for childhood’s conservatism to impress on me its fusty dread. Jean meant change. She would stay sometimes in the summer of 1986. I took an instant dislike.

I’d been chicken dancing before that year, pre-consciousness, in a sense before time, when I was a mere potential, a chaotic collection. If you listen you’ll hear it – that bright, synthetic melody. Mimetic. It invades your brain like a storm. And with its own prescribed dance it was perfect for blocking out the future, for filling myself to the brim; a comfortable, predictable infusion. I did it in secret. The music was self replicating, archetypal, vaguely Austrian. It embedded itself in the temporal lobes. I didn’t need the things other obsessive compulsives required: no soaps with which to scrub, no light switches to flick, no extraneous props at all – though in time I added for the sake of authenticity a tea cosy hat with a glove cockscomb. I needed nothing but the memory of a song and dance. Chicken dancing kept the world at bay. It filled spaces, imposed order.

A memory rising. I flick pages. Yes, here: June 22nd 1986. We watched the disreputable football game between England and Argentina, you know the one. Jean joined us. My preparation was fastidious: my shirt was inside-out as befitting an international game, I wore the correct blue socks with the stripes down the sides, I sat in the appropriate chair. Yet still the gods were against us. In my diary I recorded this: England out of the World Cup. It is my fault. Not the players’ nor manager’s, not even the skilled if fraudulent Diego Maradona’s fault but mine. Bad blood had entered our home. That night, after midnight when the house slept I crept downstairs. The exorcism – I remember it now – was terrifying, exultant, transformational. I put on my chicken dance hat and started the mental music, the gloriously extended five-and-a-half minute club edit. When it stopped I did it again. It was a communion. A consuming flame. Into it I threw every fibre of my soul. It was fuelled by disappointments, by rage and uncertainty, by excoriating injustice. When I was done I collapsed panting on the floor, my cheek pressed into the carpet. For the first time I felt weightless, vacant. I sensed absolution. In the corner of the room I saw her then; Jean. She sat huddled in an armchair, her eyes wide with insomnia and shock. My intestines clenched.

She said: ‘I dance when I’m sad. Can we do it again, together?’

‘All right,’ I squeaked.

We danced until dawn, until we were empty. In the morning I asked my father if Jean could move in.

Downstairs, my children are with Jean, the Grandmother they love impossibly. She clears space for these her seedlings like she did for me, nourishes them, allows them to unfurl. I turn back and read again. This time I see something new, a promise, the possibility of reinvention. Thatcher, Reagan, my father, Jean, even the IRA and Maradona all reinvented themselves to become the kings and queens of their worlds. And now, jobless and unexpectedly alone I know she has sent me up here to learn this lesson afresh, the roller skates are a ruse. I flick the page again to July 20th. There. A small note in Jean’s hand on a page so holy I would allow only her to mark it. It says simply this: vessels must be empty before they can be filled.

I pull out the chicken dance hat from my suitcase and after twenty four years of absence, I find that the music, the movements, come naturally.


Jan 8 2010

Escape Velocity

I lift one of his arms. Another. I weigh them carefully on my palms and notice the muscles of his upper body have begun to atrophy. His skin puckered, greying in my grip. I remember it differently. Taut. As he moves fungal puffs of air rise from beneath the wadding.

‘Easy.’ He says it rasping through gritted teeth. ‘That hurts.’

‘Sorry.’ I mean it. I’m so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened, he shouldn’t have to go through this. I prepare to push his arms through the sleeves of his cardigan. My old two-tone blue cardigan: he has nothing so sensible in his wardrobe. It hangs on his body like a curse. I take hold of his still discoloured fingers and feed them into the sleeves slowly, like rethreading a drawstring, rucking the fabric as I go. When it is done I zip up the front. His chest says ‘OK’ and in a way, he is. He leans back into the seat and exhales.

‘Jesus.’

I wanted to kiss him on the head, on the hair, like I would have done until a few years ago. I hover in front of him uncertain, half bent at the hips. Rocking. In moments like this I am aware that I am becoming increasingly mawkish, a stupid old man, balanced uncertainly in the umbra of changes wrought by his mighty and fickle adolescence. He looks up at me, twists his head, blows his lopsided fringe out of his eyes.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

‘What then?’

‘Really, it’s nothing.’

How can I tell him that this youth, this vitality, is everything? That right now it is the closest thing he has to escape velocity. In contrast my life, my work, has made me into the threadbare rabbit before him, hunched on life’s roadside, watching for mercy.

I strap his arms over his chest like I have every day since the call. Three weeks, a month almost. I had been at work and unwilling to leave my report. It’s about Benedict, they said. An accident. I stood up at my desk, clenching and unclenching my fingers. Ben? Oh god.

I choose to ruffle instead of kiss his hair, only slightly more acceptable to a fifteen year old. It’s OK. He was OK. This fact alone has the power to bring me to my knees in private moments. He flinches. I have my hand on his head still.

‘Dad.’

‘Sorry.’ I turn away and gather my things. I clean up then, washing my hands in the sink. While my back is turned I can hear him struggling to get up. I don’t turn, knowing that this routine humiliation is carving deep lines. Indelible lines. Barriers that threaten to separate permanently. My own struggle is to make space for him. To risk it all. I have to allow him to define where the lines fall. He has to do things for himself; redemptive things. My eyes are shut tight, willing him upright. I hear myself intoning a story from the morning news. I open my eyes. In the mirror, in my peripheral vision, I see him place his face against the tiles and use his bony shoulder and forehead to lever himself like a caterpillar off of the toilet and walk himself tall. His trousers, his shorts, with elasticated waistbands that he has taught himself to roughly position without the use of his arms have today succumbed to gravity and are pooled around his feet. He looks at them and squints. I see his strong footballer’s quadriceps tighten. His knees bending slightly. I can hear the voice in his head screaming at his unresponsive clothing to arise.

As usual he doesn’t know whether to turn his back or front from me. He turns sideways at an angle. His eyes staring, his head no longer hanging. I take this as a good sign. But it could just as well be bad. I wonder what is happening to us. This intimacy, though domestic and complicit, is imposed. It can’t last. Five more weeks and the casts will be removed. He has multiple fractures in the radii and ulnae, and in the humeri of his arms from the force of the impact. If all goes well he should be able to use them as normal. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t offer to help. I didn’t want to. But he is fifteen – an awkward age – and didn’t want his mother to see him naked. If I am truthful I was afraid. Still talking, I stoop and pick up his shorts tugging them upwards into place a little too quickly. Then his trousers. I can’t, won’t, do the minor adjustments. It’s a question of comfort. It would be too uncomfortable for us both. He looks at the ceiling. His jaw is clenched, lips pursed. His nostrils flare in anger. He is angry at himself, or at the situation. I don’t notice for both of us. I open the door and hang back so he can leave without me. I hear him pad down the corridor to his room. I hear the creak of his bed as he sits on the edge, the rapid hollow thuds as he kicks the stuffing from his relocated punchbag. I go the other way, to the kitchen, and knock up some sandwiches. I eat alone. When he’s ready, he joins me. His insteps, I see, are reddened. I look up from my paperwork, he has something to say.

‘Thanks.’

I take off my bifocal glasses and sweep them in front of me. ‘You’ll do it for me when I’m a stinking cripple?’ He smirks at that, then meets my eye for the first time in three weeks. In his eyes I recognise a flurry of fearful knowledge that suggests a first acceptance of mortality. Perhaps he understands too, if only dimly, that we only ever escape life’s pull through other people.

‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I will.’