Saturday, 22 May 2010

Journey V – Birds and bees

I remember the next part of my journey through the afterlife as a good time. Everything was simpler – the paths were easier to find and lead through a lush upland landscape of rolling hills and wooded valleys. Miranda the nymph as I jokingly called her was something of a naturalist it turned out – she had what seemed like ancient memories of a country childhood, running half naked through the meadows, jumping in rivers, climbing trees, riding ponies, playing with dogs and rabbits and ducks. I asked if she’d ever go back but she didn’t seem to think it was possible any more. She pointed out the birds and the bees, the orchids and the trees and told me how they fed, how they grew and reproduced. She told me to put away my papers and pencils. She said they were coming between me and the world – I was always trying to make a picture instead of looking at what was actually happening around me. She said I should just look, then, one day maybe I’d make something truly worth looking at. I knew she was right. I sat and looked. And not just looked – I rolled about in the long grass, jumped in the rivers and ran up the ridges, usually with her on my shoulders, to see what there was to see on the other side. I got cut, stung and bitten and bruised in the process but it was worth it.
We were bashful about our bodies although we had both been naked when we met and she must have seen me before that, washing and so on. Still, it seemed wrong to just not care. She wore a piece of red and orange silk as a sarong, and I kept my shorts on. Still, I watched her surreptitiously, and she knew it too – she told me later – sometimes carelessly letting her little pink boobs pop out as she moved about. She couldn’t help but notice my response, which was more than half as tall as she was, but we played a delicious game of not reacting.

We talked a lot more as time went on – her revealing more about her past as we went along, but swiftly changing the subject when we got to “the nasty bits”- she'd suddenly get excited about some new insect or flower or fish and set off with remarkable speed and agility after it, then she'd tell me something amazing about its ecology. Other times she would just come out with something ridiculous and make me laugh. We spent a lot of time laughing but there was always something else going on with her – you could see that, something in her expression.
‘Dad really changed when my stepmother moved in’ she told me one afternoon. We’d been swimming and were just sunning ourselves on a ledge. She looked at me. I could see from the expression on her face she was going to tell me something important today and I turned on my side to face her. She turned on her back and looked at the sky. I noticed her take trouble to cover herself up properly, which was not like her at all.
‘She didn’t like me being around anyway’ she continued.
‘How old were you?’
‘Sixteen, seventeen maybe.’
‘What about your mum? Didn’t she say anything?’
She never answered that, just stared at the sky. She’d told me before that her mother had been depressed and drank a lot.
‘It wasn’t him incidentally’ she said, turning to me, ‘in case you were wondering. He never actually abused me, physically.’  Up until then it hadn’t occurred to me at all but now all sorts of possibilities came to mind. I knew she’d been a bit of a wild child and her parents had let her do pretty much whatever she wanted, including losing her virginity at thirteen. I suppose I knew that people abused their children but I’d never really given it much thought.
‘He was a very manipulative man. There was always this thing that me and my mother were interchangeable somehow, and then she got older and I got more... “developed” as he put it... It was always a bit weird but I idolised him. All my girlfriends did. He was really good looking, and charming, my father. Everybody said so.’
I wanted to say ‘So what happened?’ but I knew hurrying her would make her change the subject so I had to wait.
‘I was spending a lot of time in a squat in Brighton at the time. It was all pretty mad...’ and she looked at me again, trying to decide whether to go on, whether I’d be too shocked. I made as subtle encouraging noises as I could and she lay down again. ‘I don’t want to go into it’ she said finally, covering her face with her hands, covering her eyes. I lay back and looked at the sky. I knew what was coming. She’d joked about it – messy, badly lit rooms, the dope and speed and vodka going around, and the sex. I’d found it kind of exciting at first – the thought of her doing that... Then, as I got to know her more I felt jealous. Now, I could see how hurt she was. Maybe I was growing up. Who knows? I reached over and touched her arm and she uncovered her eyes and gripped my finger. I could see she’d been crying.
‘What happened then?’
‘Oh they kicked me out. I had to have an abortion. I got sick, blah blah blah. Oh look I just can’t...’
‘It’s ok, it’s alright. Look...’ and I indicated a space in the crook of my arm where she could curl up and she came over and fell asleep on me.

Another time, when we knew each other better, I asked her why she wouldn’t go back and try again, avoiding all that pain. It seemed to me that the nasty parts should be easy to avoid if she knew when to expect them. She said it’s not that simple and you don’t necessarily remember enough, or anything, of your previous existence next time around.
‘I couldn’t take the risk’ she said sadly. ‘I couldn’t put her through all that again.’
It took me a moment to realise she was talking about her younger self.
‘But you could settle somewhere here couldn’t you? Somewhere, I don’t know...’ I look about at the view, avoiding her eyes on me. I don’t understand, I admit that. How can she just give up? She seems so, I don’t know, lively, and clever. How can she just let herself snuff out?

The landscape around us gradually assumed a more cultivated look as the days went by (How many days? I don’t know. It seemed like about four months, but I couldn’t be sure. Time just swelled and flowed about us). Fields and hedges emerged more often from the wilderness as we travelled, overgrown and unkempt to be sure, but undoubtedly fields and hedges. The paths remained rocky and uneven, but wider. At one point we came across a shed, big enough for cows or horses and still with stale straw on the floor. A fat grey dormouse watched us from the rafters with the shiniest little black eyes. I saw her mood drop a little in there. She didn’t want me to notice, but I did. When she turned around it was as if nothing had happened.
The possibility of being seen by people made me a little more inhibited but she carried on as before and urged me not to worry – we had a while yet she said. I didn’t ask.
She asked me about my past, and in particular about the women in my life. I told her there wasn’t much to tell, skimmed over my adolescent infatuations and humiliations and briefly mentioned Naomi and what had happened there. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea but she insisted and didn’t laugh too much. It all seemed a very long time ago and an extremely long way away. All around us insects were swarming about amid the early summer flowers, and sun sparkled in the dew on their hairy stems. Everywhere, the sheer detail of veins in leaves, in the red stain in the leaves behind the blue petals, and a black fly buzzing there, and a blue spider, sitting, like a crab, in the centre, waiting for it.
‘Actually, birds eat bees’ she said suddenly, looking out across the valley. ‘It’s an apposite metaphor for life don’t you think?’
‘Not always’ I said, although I’d like to have eaten her at that moment. She turned and smiled at me. ‘What are you thinking?’
I couldn’t tell her I was thinking about licking her entire body in one mouthful.
‘About who of us is the bird and who is the bee...’ I said, lamely.
‘Maybe we’re both birds’ she suggested.
‘Except we don’t have wings’ I pointed out.
‘I wouldn’t want to be a bee I don’t think – maybe one of those big fuzzy mama bees with all her daughters hidden in a hole in the ground...’ and she asked me how I’d been bitten. I said I wasn’t even sure if it wasn’t all in my imagination, and I explained about what happened with Lucy – how naive I’d been. ‘I know it’s not exactly the end of the world’ I said finally, tailing off.
‘But you’re so young’ she said compassionately. ‘How could you have known?’ and I suddenly felt like crying because she was on my side and I wasn’t used to that. I had assumed it was probably mostly my fault, as usual, but she didn’t think so.
‘I despise her already’ she said ‘and I haven’t even met the woman.’

We sit and look and think for a while. So much birdsong, a lizard on every available rock, as many butterflies as flowers. Maybe this was what England used to be like, before we humans got our hands on it. Miranda points out a stork, sailing over the treetops opposite. I watch a crow swoop down from behind us into the valley. In a few seconds it is over the stream, in another few it is among the trees where the stork was, maybe half a mile away. What a way to get about!
‘I’d never do something like that’ she says. ‘If I took my clothes off for you, no matter what the pretext, you’d know exactly what I was there for’ and she looks momentarily sideways at me with that bad smile of hers, tongue literally in cheek. I smile and look across the valley again.
‘I think I need to cool off’ I say, getting down off the wall and standing to face her.
‘Very sensible’ she says. ‘You do that’ and she lies down in the sun, and I look back just in time to see her tiny nipples ping free over the top of her sarong as she raises her arm to shade her eyes. Its lower edge comes up to expose almost the full length of her thighs as she bends her right leg up. ‘Don’t be long’ she says.
I bound down the valley side, through the long grass, grasshoppers springing merrily aside as I go.
To continue reading, either go to Lulu to buy or download the book, or let me know when you want to read the next bit and I'll post it on the blog.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Voyage VIII – Listening skills

I have to say, I’ve noticed there are an awful lot of good-looking women on this boat – more than you’d expect (but then, I suppose they’re all looking their best here aren’t they). There’s one in particular I keep seeing around who’s really gorgeous. I don’t seem to be able to stop looking at her and a couple of times she’s caught me and she’s given me that haughty sort of sideways smile, like she thinks she’s so much better than me. I’m used to this sort of reaction but it still bugs me. It’s not like I would do anything embarrassing. I’m only looking. Anyway, she’s way out of my league, that’s for sure.
Sometimes I slip into the kind of thoughts I used to have at home – worrying mostly – Am I going to be a complete looser forever? Am I going to be alone forever? And then it hits me – I’m dead – all that’s in the past. I don’t have to worry about all that any more. And then I actually feel better than I ever did when I was alive.
Mostly people here seem to be keeping themselves to themselves (apart from Ray and the others, and Lucy and her group of course). A few friendships seem to have started. The women seem to pair off more easily – find someone so they’re not just sitting there talking to themselves. The men don’t seem to be able to do it so easily though. It’s sad. They try but no one knows what to say. It’s like they don’t trust each other. Then they try to talk to the women but they don’t really know how to. No one really knows how to behave. No one knows what’s going to happen next.

I do sometimes wish I had someone to talk to other than Ray and the others. I know there’s Joe and I don’t want to seem ungrateful because I know he doesn’t have to be here, but it is a bit like a job for him. It can’t be easy. I saw him up on deck with his morning coffee the other day, watching the water (there’s a lot of really big fish here suddenly I’ve noticed) and I stood there casually and asked how things were going and he said ‘fine’ but didn’t elaborate, so I mentioned what Liz had told me (not naming her of course) and asked if there was any way she could find out what happened to her grandchildren. He looked like he was thinking about it but had other things on his mind. I said I was quite worried about her. He suggested I get her to come and see him. I said I would try although I was not hopeful, but I could tell the conversation was over.

Ray and the others just seem to want to spend their time complaining about things. Brenda especially just seems permanently pissed off with the service – not because it’s bad, which it isn’t – everyone’s very helpful here, but more I think because the staff aren’t servile enough. They’re not our inferiors. Like Joe they’ve chosen to stay behind to help out. Recently Brenda wanted to have a go at one of them about something – having to wait a while for her coffee I think it was, and she really flew off the handle at one of the girls from the kitchen. Ray wanted to call the manager but the girl just looked at them with this quizzical little smile on her face. ‘Well, there isn’t a manager, per se’ she said. Harry commented on her use of ‘per se’ but she just carried on calmly, speaking quietly, explaining where the facilities were where we could make our own coffees, should we so wish, and then with a bright smile she turned and went about her business.
‘Well...’ huffed Brenda, obviously very put out. But there was nothing she could do, except make her own coffee presumably, and she wouldn’t stoop to that, so that was it. She had to wait.

In some ways this is a lot like my old existence – going off to write or draw or to think, or just to look at the scenery, except no one’s having a go at me here.
I actually did get talking to someone new recently – a skinny little bloke with a pencil moustache. He looked about twenty-six but talked like my granddad - really nasal London accent. He had been a mechanic in Croydon apparently. I was being polite, passing the time, he was talking about his business – I wasn’t really listening properly – I’ve never been much interested in cars. Actually I was thinking about how much I wanted to get away to work on this painting I’d started. But I wasn’t exactly short of time, and I had wanted to talk to someone new. Why was I so keen to get away from him? I forced myself to listen.

I suppose some people just love talking don’t they. I don’t. Well, I say what I want to say, if I’ve got something to say. I get it over with, but some people just go on and on. They don’t just say ‘I went to the shop and got whatever it was half price’. They tell you the whole conversation – and he said and she said and then I said... Maybe that’s why I don’t have a lot of friends. You need a certain quantity of talk to fill the time to maintain a social life, and unless you’re a comic genius most of it’s not going to be that interesting is it? Or you could be lucky enough to have a friendship with ‘comfortable silences’, but that’s quite rare I think.
So I try to listen and it feels like a real effort to nod in the right places and smile and say ‘really?’ I feel like I want to go get a hammock but that’d be rude. I shift from foot to foot and try not to yawn.
‘I’m sorry’ he says sadly ‘I know I go on. I just miss her so much. I’m sorry. You go’ and I feel like a complete shit. I don’t even know who he’s been talking about.
‘No, it’s okay’ I say brightly, but I do have to sit down. ‘Do you fancy a coffee?’ I say, indicating the stairs down.
‘Nah, s’alright’ he says, and goes back to looking out to sea.
I want to ask him about ‘her’. I hope he didn’t notice I wasn’t really listening. Maybe he was just talking for himself, not really caring if anyone was listening. I hope so.
I couldn’t do Joe’s job. But then, maybe he’s not really listening either.
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Sunday, 2 May 2010

Joe V – Pretty boy

‘It is weird’ admits Joe, looking across the room at nothing in particular. ‘Generally people come here, they’re raw. Death strips everything away. You don’t need anything. You don’t have anything. You’ve just got yourself. Usually people are very quiet when they get here. Well, you can see the others. Usually people are just... They think a lot, talk a little amongst themselves. They cry quite a bit, as you’d expect... People tend to be more truthful here, more open about what they really think, how they feel. It’s almost like they can’t help themselves. Nothing left to lose I suppose... It can be a little unsettling for you English at times’ he says with glee but I don’t react. I never thought I was a very typical Englishman. ‘Anyway’ he resumes, coughing a little, ‘there’s always a few – not many – try to carry on the way they did in life. It’s always the ones who were most preoccupied with how big their car was compared to everyone else’s, or whether they could get the biggest bonus, buy the latest whatever it was, convinced that everyone else was as deluded as they were. It doesn’t really work here. Here you’re stripped of all that - your belongings, your status, the ambitions you had in life – you can’t use them here, so it’s just down to you, what you have inside – your “inner resources” so to speak. Some people just don’t really have any. My suspicion, although it is just that, because they won’t come to talk to us of course, is that Harry, Ray and the others just lived for how they looked to other people – making an impression, scaring or sucking up to people, competing, trading. It’s all show – everything. They don’t actually have anything to show for their lives now.’
I’m not so sure. Harry really hates a lot of people, and he wants to take it out on me for some reason.
‘But why me?’ I ask, ‘why do they want me around?’
‘He probably fancies you. You’re quite pretty you know.’
I take a moment to think about this. I’d always seen myself as fairly funny looking. ‘But they’re always going on about “fucking queers this” and “fucking queers that”. How...’
‘First sign matey. Trust me. Homophobes? All closet poofs.’
I’ve not heard this word before - “homophobes” but I can guess what it means.
‘But he’s married’ I add and can tell almost before I’ve said it that it’s irrelevant.
Joe just shrugs. ‘Still...’ he says
We sit and contemplate for a while. ‘Um... what about you?’ he says tentatively.
I know what he means, but I act innocent. ‘What do you mean?’ I say.
‘Well, are you... you know, have you... er...’
‘Why do people always think that?’
‘Er, sorry. I just meant... Well, you seem quite...’
I know what he wants to say but I’m not going to help him. Why do people always think, if you’re sort of quiet and artistic and not into sports, you’re probably homosexual? Uncle Len was always saying I should get my hair cut because I looked like a queer (his word, not mine). And why are gay men on the telly always supposed to mince around with their hands on their hips, talking like my auntie Jen? (“Ooh, look at the muck in here.”) I don’t get it. I’d have thought if you were into men you’d go after rugby players and firemen, not ‘feminine’ types like me. If you were into people being feminine I’d have thought you’d want to go out with women. I don’t know. I look over at Joe. He’s waiting patiently, as always.
‘I thought about it’ I say at last. ‘My dad...’ I smile at the memory. ‘My dad tried to have this big man-to-man conversation with me about it once – you know (I do a deep voice) “Son, if there’s anything you need to tell me...” I didn’t have a clue what he was on about at the time.’
Joe leans forward, ‘but...’ He is really keen to know. I have the feeling that if I deny it he won’t believe me, and if I then object he’ll take that as proof he’s right. It’s happened like that before.
‘No. I’m not...’ I say, almost inaudibly, shaking my head but I know it lacks conviction and sounds suspicious.
‘Well I am,’ he says, sitting back. ‘I hope you’re ok with that?’
I feel suddenly unexpectedly relieved. ‘Absolutely’ I say, and add, possibly a little too emphatically ‘Of course. But you know, I don’t think I could ever bring myself actually to... you know... It’s like, you know... penises...’ I do a little shudder and a grimace to emphasise my point. ‘But, if you... I mean, er, if other people want to...’ I add hastily, ‘you know... I don’t have anything against that... It’s up to them, what they do, you know...’
‘Thanks’ says Joe smiling somewhat fixedly, ‘just a simple “yes” would have sufficed.’
I feel oddly elated at my declaration, and rather chuffed at my broad mindedness. ‘I’m not a homophobe’ I think to myself with some satisfaction on the way back to my cabin. What a relief!
To continue reading either go to Lulu to buy or download the book, or let me know when you want to read the next bit and I'll post it on the blog.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.