Monday, 27 September 2010

Joe IX – Some sort of future

Next time he looks hard at me and says ‘Give me one thing your parents could have done to help you out.’ I look at him, wondering what he’s getting at. I can’t think.
‘Take your time’ he says, ‘I’m going to get a coffee. Want one?’
‘Please. White, two sugars.’ He leaves.
What could they have done? I don’t know what he’s getting at. Dad was always trying to get me to go and play football with some of the lads he knew (he must have known I hated sports but he kept on trying), or help him do the house up – rubbing down or mixing cement or whatever. Mum was always getting on at me to come downstairs and ‘at least’ watch some telly with them. To be honest I think the best thing they could have done was bloody well leave me alone.
I don’t know. It sounds ungrateful, but I just wanted to get on with my painting or reading or whatever it was I was doing. I went to the library a lot, and I had this idea that if they built me a shed down at the bottom of the garden I could use it as a studio, maybe have a gas heater in it and a hammock and they’d never have to see me again. There was the Wendy house down there with all shrubs overgrown around it. Dad built it for the girls when they were little, and, say what you like about my dad – if he built something it stayed built. I spent a lot of time down there, especially after I screwed everything up, but before that too. I took my books and some paper and stuff and found a little cupboard and an old deck chair and some candles and made myself a little retreat. I spent a lot of time just sitting in there, peering out through the bushes at the garden. I had all the porn I’d collected hidden down there too, in a big Tupperware box underneath the floor. I used to go down there at night sometimes, or when they’d all gone out. Anyway...

‘A studio’ I say when he gets back with the drinks.
‘Like a big shed at the bottom of the garden, so I could go down there and work without them’
‘Without them all what?’ He takes a mouthful of coffee, watching me over the rim of his mug.
‘I don’t know. It was just, in the house, you were always aware of them, downstairs, or in their bedroom, moving about.’
‘Why did that bother you?’
‘I don’t know. It was just like, they could come in at any time and see me there, and there’d be this, I don’t know, irritation, like I should always be doing something else. They just had this exasperation all the time. I was always doing the wrong thing. Do you know what I mean?’
‘Just as an aside Gabriel, are you aware of how often you start your sentences with “I don’t know” and then go on to give a perfectly good answer? I’m not saying you should stop necessarily, but I thought I’d point it out. You do know Gabriel, actually. And yes I do know what you mean, but wouldn’t they have come and disturbed you down the garden just the same?’
‘I suppose so. Actually it probably would have been worse. Mum was always going on about dad and what he found to do down there in his shed. They’d have thought I was a real weirdo, even more than they did already. “Oh here comes Rasputin the monk.” She thought she was very funny.’
‘Perhaps you could have got a place on your own somewhere, once you left school I mean.’

I don’t know what to say to that. It doesn’t seem very likely. I know other people my age did that but they had rich parents or good jobs or something (or else they went to university of course). And I know there’s no excuse because I should have just ‘got off my arse’ as my dad used to say, and bloody well earned some money instead of faffing around in my room. I know that, I do, really, but then I used to look at the jobs in the paper or down the job centre and all I could see was weeks or months, maybe years of shelf stacking or sweeping up, always being checked up on, looked down on. The best dad could suggest (if I was ‘lucky’) was that I’d be a manager one day and then it’d be my turn to make someone else miserable, telling people who thought I was a jerk what to do. And that was all I could see – stretching on into the future, like endless shelving stacked with stuff I didn’t want – mortgages and insurance and MOTs and bills and pensions. And every day getting up and going to the same place, wasting all that time – time I could have spent doing something else, something better – painting or travelling or... something. I don’t know what. And then you’re old and sick and you think –  what the fuck was that all about?
But then actually I couldn’t imagine sticking at any of those jobs for very long. Sooner or later they’d find a reason to sack me, which would be a relief, for a while, but then what? Back to mum’s – that’s what, and signing on.
There’s nothing to say, no excuses. I’m submerged in shame and uselessness. I just shake my head.

He looks at me, like he can’t think of anything to say either. Eventually he leans forward and says ‘Was it just about the money?’
‘I suppose...’
‘What about the thought of you being out on your own, fending for yourself? Didn’t that scare you?’
‘That wouldn’t have bothered me.’
‘So it was just the money.’
Hah! “Just the money” he says, as if it’s no big deal.
I look about the room, not focussing on anything especially. Someone up on deck is laughing, a woman’s voice, light, feminine, sexy. I feel a surge in my chest, in my groin.
‘Can’t you imagine getting a good job – one you could enjoy?’ he says.
I pretend to think about that for a while but I know the answer.
‘Not really’ I say, and I’m not being melodramatic. I honestly can’t. Work’s not about enjoying. It’s about fucking well doing as you’re fucking well told and fucking well putting up with it. That’s what my parents taught me.
‘We need to work on that’ he says, and begins to gather his things to leave.
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.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Joe IX – Mum

‘What is it about your parents? You don’t seem awfully keen to talk about them.’
I shrug and look away ‘dunno’ I say. ‘They were alright.’ Joe looks sceptical. ‘Really, I mean it. They were alright.’
‘You got on alright with them.’
‘Well, you know. Parents...’
‘I do actually. I was one.’
‘Oh’ I say. I’m surprised because A, he looks about 21 and B, he says he’s gay. I realise though that the first is misleading, and anyway he could legally have a five year old at 21. I ask about the other thing.
He thinks about it for a while, then says ‘Hey, I’m the one supposed to be asking the questions around here’ then goes on to tell me that he didn’t really admit what he was, even to himself until he was about thirty, which answers both points really. I ask about his children. ‘Just the one’ he says, ‘Kirsty’.
She was ten when he died apparently – he’s not sure what of – some weird thing where he just didn’t seem to be able to fight off infections any more. He died of pneumonia. I want to ask him what happened but sense it’s not my place. I want to say that if he needs someone to talk to... but that seems wrong too. Instead I have a brainwave and ask if his guide had been helpful, and if he could still talk to them now if he needed to. He smiles warmly at me. ‘I’m ok now, if that’s what you mean. Thanks.’ He sits and thinks for a moment. Then he looks up. ‘Anyway’ he says abruptly. ‘Your folks. What did your dad do?’
‘Various things’ I say vaguely. ‘Mum was the breadwinner really. She worked as a receptionist and secretary for a few years then got a job running a nursing agency in Brighton later on.’
‘That’s quite unusual.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘You know what I mean’ he says smiling. And I do. In some ways I respect them for it, my parents, not just doing the normal thing. Why do I feel weird about it?
‘It was alright.’
‘Fair enough. I wasn’t criticising.’
‘Mum was weird though. She just had to have things a certain way, sort of arbitrarily, unnecessarily difficult.’
‘Like what?’
I think for a moment. ‘Oh, I know – like she wouldn’t have a lock on the bathroom door, “in case there was an accident” she said, but then we had to keep the door closed all the time, “in case of visitors” or something, so we all had to knock on the door to see if anyone was in there, but if it was her in there she wouldn’t answer, so I was always barging in on her when I was little, getting told off for it.’
Joe smiles sympathetically at me. ‘Bit of an exhibitionist then, your mother?’
‘God no. Absolutely the opposite. She was too polite to shout she was on the loo, so if we needed to go, either we were going round the house checking to see where she was, or we were there outside the door for ages whispering “Are you in there mum? I’m going to come in.” and eventually you’d hear a little noise in there, toilet paper ripping along the perforations or something, and you’d know to come back later.’ I shake my head in wonder. Joe is chuckling. ‘We ended up peeing in the garden a lot of the time.’
I haven’t really thought about it much since I’ve been here. It all seems funny now, but it wasn’t at the time.
‘She was fucking mad’ I observe coolly. ‘She wouldn’t let my dad say things like “germination” or “pollination”. I remember once she had some friends round and he came in and said he’d had a good germination out in the greenhouse and she went berserk.’
Me and Joe are both having a good laugh by now.
‘Didn’t she know what the words meant?’ he asks.
‘I suppose so. I don’t know what she thought. She was just... barking.’
We sit and think about it for a while, giggling a little from time to time.
‘I don’t know why I keep saying “was”. It’s me that’s past tense isn’t it.’
‘Well... tenses are a little hard to pin down here – you could be future too.’
‘But right now we’re in each others past, aren’t we.’
He shrugs a little. ‘That’s the thing’ he says sadly.
I really want to ask him, if he does go back, if he’ll be able to change things, so Kirsty won’t have to have her dad die when she’s little, but I can’t find the right words.

‘Tell me what it felt like, to be there, in the house, with your family’ he says at the beginning of another session.
I think for quite a long time. ‘Like I was a nuisance? Like I was always in the way?’ I say finally.
‘In the way of what, do you think?’
‘Them getting on with life I suppose – stuff they needed to do – normal stuff.’
‘You felt that they didn’t want you around.’
‘Maybe they wanted someone easier, more normal.’
‘You’re talking as if you can just submit your requirements and take delivery of a child of your choice. It’s not like that.’
‘No, I know that, obviously, it’s just...’
‘Maybe I could have tried harder – been more, I don’t know, less individual – less awkward. It’s like, for instance, just before I... just before I ended up here we had this ridiculous fight because I didn’t want to drink instant coffee any more. I always said I’d rather have a glass of water. I didn’t mean it as a criticism but they always took it that way. I just didn’t like instant coffee.
Anyway, there was this old metal coffee pot in the larder. I think it was a present from Spain from somebody. Anyway mum said fresh coffee was too expensive so I said I’d pay the difference, but then she said she wouldn’t have me paying for food and drink all the while I lived in her house. Then she said she was worried the coffee pot might explode, so I ended up brewing up on a camping stove down in the Wendy house like it was some illegal drug fix or something. Then they found out what I was doing and took it away because they thought I might start a fire...’
Telling this now it all seems so ridiculous. Maybe I should have just let it go, for a quiet life, as dad used to say, but I couldn’t. I don’t know why. I just couldn’t.
‘Whenever mum made herself a coffee she’d make one for me too and then announce “Oh I’m so sorry. I forgot you won’t drink our coffee any more” and pour it down the sink.’
‘Sounds like something of a power struggle going on’ says Joe, clearly amused at my petty drama.
‘It’s not funny.’
‘I know.’ He looks around the room, for inspiration I suppose.
‘Maybe if I could just have...’
‘I don’t know – just given in – let them have it their way.’
‘Why do you think they were so intent on stopping you working out your own way? I mean, you don’t seem to have been a bad kid. You weren’t taking drugs or doing anything dangerous. You were never rude or even particularly naughty from what I can see. You were creative, busy, intelligent... You did well enough at school, up until you’re A levels anyway. What do you think was going on?’
‘I don’t know. I just think.... I just think I was too... different. Maybe if I’d just been more...’
‘Maybe if you’d just been someone else?’
‘Maybe... You know what I mean.’
‘No. Sorry Gabriel, but no. The trouble seems to be they didn’t want you, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try Gabriel, you’ll never be someone else – not and stay sane. Look...’ he leans forward and takes my hands in his. Oddly enough this doesn’t feel uncomfortable.
‘When you have children, you have them for better or for worse. There should be vows at the christening except that’d be too late. It should be on the bedstead, on the condom packet, over the damn pub door.
If you have sex, even if you use contraception, you have to take responsibility for the child that may result, and you can’t just look at it later and say “This is not quite what I had in mind.”
It seems to me you think it’s your fault that you were not the type of boy your parents wanted, or even that it’s your fault you were born at all, but it’s not. When you have a child you have to go with what comes along, make the most of it, as it is. Teach it, play with it, guide it, protect it by all means, but it’s not a little custom-made mini version of yourself, or a do-it-yourself buddy. And it’s not up to the child to make everything alright for you – to give your life meaning. It’s not there for the parent’s benefit.’ He sits back, hooks his thumbs in his pockets. ‘Or not any more anyway. It used to make economic sense to have children simply so you could look forward to a relatively comfortable old age, but not any more. Now it’s a choice people make and have to take responsibility for, and yes, even when it’s an accident. I hate these absent fathers who won’t even pay maintenance more than almost anyone. Like I say the adult must accept responsibility that there may be a child, or I guess pay for an abortion at any rate.’
‘Mum would never have done that.’
‘But she’d bring a child into the world and then make it apologise for its very existence? Think about it Gabriel – I’m not convinced you owe them anything.’

‘I’m not just here to blame other people for what happened’ I say, very quietly. I’m close to tears again. ‘I’m really not just saying it’s everyone else’s fault.’ I rummage around in my pockets trying to find a tissue. Joe picks up the box and hands me one.
‘I never said you were’ he says.
‘I know you can’t do that’ I say, too loudly now. I try to lower my voice. ‘You can’t just blame your upbringing or whatever... It’s just... I just can’t stand it being all my fault... everything... They can’t blame me for everything can they?’
‘Of course not.’
‘But it does seem like that.’
Joe nods, mulling it over.
I wipe my eyes and blow my nose and hide the evidence in my pocket. (Can’t have the others seeing me like this.)
He puts the tissues next to me and we sit in silence a while longer. It’s getting late.
‘The thing is Joe, I’m not a child any more. I should be able to...’
‘Gabriel, that’s irrelevant and you know it is. Children don’t just become adults, wham, like that, on their sixteenth birthday, or their eighteenth or twenty-first or their fiftieth for that matter. The way you are as a child – the way you were with your parents all those years... It stays with you your whole life. It might work for you or it might not or you may be able to change parts of it if you really try, but what happens when you’re a child... You can’t just alter that by force of will, because you think you aught to or because you think it’s about time. Most adults never do and teenagers certainly can’t be expected to. It’s never the children’s fault or even fifty-fifty.’
‘But what’s the point blaming them? What are they going to do about it?’
‘In your parents’ case, I suspect, nothing. Unfortunately I don’t think you can expect anything much of them Gabriel. I doubt they’ll be prepared to really think about it and they certainly won’t admit to anything. I’m afraid it becomes your unavoidable responsibility as an adult to make the best of it and try not to make the same mistakes with your own kids. That’s probably the best you can do.’
‘So I can blame my parents all I like but I still have to take responsibility for sorting out the mess myself.’
‘That’s about it, yes.’
Oddly enough that makes me feel a lot better. Strange.
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.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Journey VIII – In The Wilderness

We soon discovered why nobody had tried to stop us. They knew no one would be stupid enough to go running out into the wilderness.

It seemed like the best thing to do was to move on as quickly as possible. Miranda agreed. I checked the equipment, took one last look the way we’d come and we set off up the slope into the forest.
Later on, sitting at the campfire, chewing on the bones of some sort of wild chicken that Miranda had chased down, I asked her, just conversationally, if that was how all after-life settlements were going to be. She looked at me with a troubled expression and said nothing. I was happy though. If that was the case then that meant I wasn’t going to be settling anywhere any time soon and we’d have more time together, but I sensed she didn’t feel the same way. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to spend time with me she told me and I believed her. It was just... ‘complicated’ she said and then I just felt sad again because I knew she would have to go at some time. I’ve never been any good at putting things out of my mind.
The night passed uneventfully but I didn’t feel sleepy. I watched Miranda sitting there. She was thinking but she wouldn’t tell me what about. It felt like she really wanted to be somewhere else. Sometimes she looked up or turned around – like I’ve seen small animals do when they’ve heard something inaudible to the human ear, or picked up a scent. Then she turned back, glancing over at me, propped up in my sleeping bag, to see if I’d noticed. I pretended not to. (I remember realising, with some surprise that she was about a foot tall now. When had that happened?)
We kept moving – she insisted on it. She said we’re not out of the woods yet and I thought of making a joke about it because obviously we were deep in the forest, but I didn’t say anything. I was just enjoying the scenery. I’d felt nothing of the ‘presence’ I’d felt before. As far as I was concerned it was just another fabulous spring day.
And I watched Miranda’s little body, no longer very thoroughly covered with my scarf. Its hem barely covered her bottom now and I stayed alert for glimpses of what lay underneath, following her as we climbed whenever I could. I couldn’t help it. Of course she knew what I was doing but I didn’t realise I was so obvious at the time. I felt guilty and horny more or less equally and very immature but after all, there were larger pieces of fabric in the bag. She didn’t have to keep on wearing that one. And it was wearing very thin in places too. She said she liked the colour.
Anyway, we travelled uneventfully for the next week or so and our conversation fell into the same half playful – half serious groove it had been in before. She told me more about her childhood and the friends she’d had and places she’d been when she was alive – things she said she’d not thought about for a very long time, things about her mother and the place they’d lived in when she was little, up in Snowdonia. She told me she’d finally ‘checked out’ in ’74, but she’d done everything, and didn’t regret any of it. I knew that wasn’t quite true but I didn’t argue. She had good memories of the sixties and a lot of parties and festivals. She’d seen Bowie and T Rex and The Small Faces and I was very envious. She described for me some of the parties and the bizarre things that had gone on. She didn’t talk about the drugs specifically but I got the impression that they were heavily involved.
And it was good that summer – sleeping in the sun, swimming in ponds, watching the animals and plants do their things. One morning we watched a vast herd of immense shaggy beasts pass by in the valley below, crashing through the undergrowth and churning up the ground. They were accompanied by tall, stocky grey giraffe-like animals and some long-legged birds. I thought it was all fabulous and Miranda was very excited too. She said she was so happy she could show me all this. Then she told me to keep very still and pointed out another animal, something like a cross between a wolf and a wild pig moving stealthily along, keeping pace with the herd.
‘It’s ok’ she said. ‘They’re not very bright and I still remember some of my old guide tricks, but better safe than sorry.’
I’d never been so scared in my life but I thought it was magnificent. Later on, after dark we could still hear the herd going past. There must have been millions of animals out there on the move, each as big as a bus. I asked her what she meant by guide tricks and tried to make a joke about baking cookies and doing the ironing but she ignored me and said some vague things about covering our scent and camouflaging ourselves but I knew that wasn’t the whole story. She was hiding something. I also asked if the animals were in their afterlives, like we were and she said they probably were. They ate and hunted and mated and migrated just as they had in life because they still had their instincts. But they never died, and they never reproduced. ‘They just keep on going, forever’ she said, a little sadly I thought. I wanted to ask how they could survive being eaten but decided I didn’t want to know.
Another night, a few days I suppose later on, we were sitting by the tent looking out across an infinite ocean of grassland with patches of woodland and pools of water like islands randomly scattered across it. It was a clear night and everything was picked out in silver, and quite suddenly I realised there was a sound coming from across the way. I suppose I’d been dozing or maybe just thinking. Miranda looked up at me to see if I’d noticed. The sound was so subtle, like the wind in the trees or rippling the water. It was hard to tell where it was coming from. We sat very still.
‘Best not to disturb them’ she said and nodded a little to our right. There was a ghostly movement in the grass. When I looked directly at it there was nothing to see but I knew they were there. I could feel them somehow. It was as if I could perceive their feelings. It was as if they were nothing but feelings and I could plainly feel them passing by - sad, confused, lonely, and yet wondering vaguely if perhaps things might be better somewhere else.
‘Where are they going?’ I whispered to her.
‘Home’ she whispered back to me and cuddled my arm, like she was suddenly very cold.
‘Where’s that?’ I said.
‘No one knows’ she replied.
Gradually they passed by, in little groups or lone individuals. The yearning in them so strong by the time they came parallel with us I swear I could almost see them – just the merest trace of a person, a feint grey sketch, all substance erased and just this one thought left – to find a place to rest.

The next day we packed up and moved purposefully on, as if we had somewhere to be, but I could see Miranda was even more preoccupied than usual and I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking ‘That’ll be me, one day.’ And she didn’t know if it was better to keep going like this for as long as possible, with me, or to just give in to it.

Anyway, before long it looked like the decision was going to be made for us. Some of the lost were less content to pass peacefully into oblivion.

Something woke me up. I still don’t exactly know what. It was like a sudden drop in temperature or pressure. The woods were utterly silent. I glanced around looking for Miranda and there was just enough light to make out her tiny crouched form staring fixedly at the entrance, waiting, petrified.
I said ‘What’s happening?’ and she just said ‘They’ve found us.’
I got up and slithered toward the door on my belly but she leapt on me and begged me to be still. I wanted to ask what had happened but she fiercely shushed me and made me lie flat.
‘They might not have seen us’ she said in a desperate shrill voice but then there was a sound, a deep groan that I felt through the ground rather than heard exactly. I thought maybe it was a machine, something huge. It reminded me of the sound of the engines, thrumming constantly in the background when we were at sea. But we were in a forest, on a mountainside. And in any case it wasn’t a mechanical sound. It was a voice, or many voices. We felt it become quieter, moving away down the slope and I thought it had gone but then there was another sound, harsher somehow, rushing across the place where we were lying flat on the ground, sweeping down through the tree tops and then whining back in from another direction, flattening us again. I whimpered a little from the pressure in my skull.
It happened three more times that night and each time was like it might never end. I waited in dread for the next one and we were both sat rigidly upright when the dawn came, staring at the doorway (as if something like that would bother with a door.) By morning I was utterly incoherent and we sat in the sun, twitching at every sound.
As soon as there was enough light we packed everything up and moved on.

After a lot of seemingly random scurrying about I had to ask her if she knew where we were going. For the first time since I’d left the boat the path seemed to be petering out and Kevin had told me the most important thing was to stick to the path, whatever happens. Now, here, there seemed to be a whole maze of weak, twisting, overgrown paths, and places that looked as if they might once have been paths but were now just random clearings among the trees. Time and time again we came to places where the way was blocked and I knew we were in trouble. Miranda said nothing to me but her movements had an increasingly frantic pace and she began to mutter to herself. When I asked her what was happening she told me to let her sort it out and there was nothing I could do. She looked at me with contempt and exasperation, then tried to apologise when she saw the hurt expression on my face but there was no time to talk. All too soon the sun was motoring off into the distance again. It was too late. The path disappeared altogether and we came to a slope of boulders, come down among the trees off the side of the mountain above. We hopped and slipped and staggered our way some way up. I knew she no longer knew what she was doing. We were just trying to get out into whatever remaining light there might be, as if that might stop them, whatever they were. She still hadn’t told me.

Miranda and I made it to a relatively large clearing just as the light failed. We sat on a rock too small and craggy to pitch a tent on, surrounded by thorn scrub and watched the night move in among the trees. The forest here was like a spruce plantation. Ranks of tall, perfectly vertical black trunks surrounded the clearing on all sides and receded endlessly into the wet fog, apparently into infinity. I looked up at the canopy of sea green needles above, merging into the haze as night and drizzle descended on us. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I felt her reach for my hand and huddle against me. ‘I’m so sorry’ she said and began to cry, slow heavy tears. ‘I have been so selfish’ she said. All I could do was hold her close and stroke her hair. I said ‘It’s ok. We’ll be ok’ and she just looked at me with an expression that simply asked how I could be so dim. But she was grateful for it. I sensed that.

When nothing happened immediately I asked her what it was we were running from and, because she knew there was no point wasting time hiding any more she sat up, dried her eyes and told me I wouldn’t see them probably. They would come for us, cautiously at first because they were afraid of us too, and they couldn’t see very well or move very easily, but when they knew where we were, and how alone we were, and how powerless... Then they’d come. I asked who ‘they’ were and she told me they were the lost – her kind, the hopeless and the despairing. The way I looked at her I suppose showed my scepticism. They sounded tragic, certainly, but not dangerous. She shook her head. ‘You don’t get it’ she said and at that moment I saw the first movement among the trees at the foot of the slope. She saw it too and at the same time I heard that same low mournful note echoing up and down the valley below, hunting for us it seemed, blindly, casting about.
‘What’s doing that?’ I yelled over the row. We heard it coming up towards us again and crouched down against the rock as it came down. I looked up and all the trees were bending and twisting as if something was trying to wrench them down. But of the thing itself, all I saw a darkening wave in the air as it went past – nothing more.
‘Despair’ she said. ‘Endless despair’ and I was immediately aware of figures watching us from the edge of the clearing, barely distinguishable from the silhouettes of the ferns and brushwood they stood amongst, but undoubtedly there. They were just pale forms standing about in the undergrowth with just the trace of a face – just a smudge for eyes and mouth. I never saw one move but every time I looked back they were a little closer. I swung around and found they were standing all around us, just a few feet away, and with that impossible clamour in the air, swirling like a tornado above us, thrashing the branches about, I stood up and yelled at them. I stood up and I screamed ‘Fuck off! Fuck off and leave us alone!’

Everything stopped. The noise tailed off and settled to a hum. They were all very close. Miranda was crouched at my feet transfixed and shaking somewhat, waiting for the worst and I stood there watching them all, staring them out, not taking my eyes off them. Eventually I couldn’t stand up any more and I crouched down but I watched them all night, with Miranda sat there beside me, waiting for a move that never came. When the sun came along she was asleep and I carried her out of the clearing and along the ridge and onto a well-worn path, exactly where I knew it would be.
After a while I pitched the tent and lit a fire, all the while letting her sleep. Then, by mid morning I had to lie down too, just as she was blearily beginning to move about. She let me sleep.
Later, when we had both recovered a little she said ‘It’ll be a bright night tonight. No clouds. They won’t be back tonight.’ We knew they’d watch us but they weren’t going to try anything. I wasn’t even sure now that they were going to do anything to us. They just seemed to want to look at us. I was sure they weren’t like the first group we’d seen, out on the savannah. The feeling was quite different. 
Looking at them standing around in that clearing the night before, the only thing I’d felt was emptiness and loneliness and cold but they were attracted by our warmth and liveliness. They wanted it and hated it at the same time and if they got close enough I knew they’d extinguish it. I wasn’t sure whether they understood that, or anything, for that matter. They just had to come and find us, to be near us, to look at us. I wondered where Miranda fitted into all this.

After several uneventful nights she began to tell me a few things. We’d been travelling along broad ancient roads cut into the hillsides and with traces of cobbling still visible in some places. We were making good time, beginning to talk more normally, as we had before, but I knew she was keeping things from me.
We were sitting looking into the embers and she said ‘That was very brave of you, back there, swearing at them.’ I knew she was being sarcastic but I pretended to take it as a compliment.
I said ‘I was just sick of waiting for them to do something.’
I suppose I was being a bit cocky.
‘Well you were lucky’ she replied after a while. ‘We both were.’
‘Well it was a lot of noise and so on but really, what could they do?’
‘We were lucky’ she said again, looking intently into my face.
I couldn’t accept that. I’d been the hero after all. ‘I don’t know’ I said ‘I just thought they needed a bit of standing up to. I think they responded...’
‘You confused them. That’s all. They didn’t know what to do about you. And yes, you may be right. Maybe they’ll just leave us alone now. I don’t know.’

Something about her tone brings me back down to earth, or wherever. I want to know what she knows about them, what her connection with them is and she begins to prevaricate again but I push her for an answer.
‘You know them don’t you.’
She looks away, then finally, she nods.
‘Ok. Are you one of them?’
‘In a way, yes. But it’s not that simple. Gabriel please...’
‘Why aren’t you with them. Why didn’t you stay with them? I mean, I don’t want you to go, but...’
She sits and says nothing again but I think she will talk eventually so I wait. We sit and look into the embers a bit more and I decide to get up and throw some more wood on, to keep it going a bit longer. I stand up. They’re still out there. I know it. She knows it. It occurs to me that maybe she fell in love with me, like in those old stories about squaws and cowboys and now she’s trying to protect me from her people. Maybe that’s it. I can’t ask her though. It would sound ridiculous.
‘The thing you have to remember Gabriel’ she says at last, almost inaudibly ‘is that nothing’s cut and dried here. It’s not them and us, or you and us rather. It’s all rather confusing...’ I watch her trying to formulate her sentences, explain to me without getting herself into even more trouble, because she is in trouble. I can see that.
‘But you are one of the lost spirits, right?’
‘It’s not as simple as that. Please Gabriel. I’m trying to...’
‘You’re nearly lost, or something. You said something like that. Is that why you’re so small?’ And I see her begin to cry. I reach out to her but she turns her back on me and curls up. She looks especially small now and I suddenly realise it’s because she’s far away. It’s a trick of perspective. She doesn’t shrink and grow at all. She gets further away or closer. How strange. I sit down and want to cry a little too. It all seems too terrible but she turns on me and says, very fiercely ‘Don’t you start’ and I’m not sure if she’s joking. I look about to see if they’re closing in again. I can’t see anything.
‘I...’ she begins, leaning back ‘I just sort of hitched a lift, you know? With you. I liked the look of you, so I... We do that some times. Like a final fling, you know?’
‘Did you want to trap me, get me lost too?’
‘I don’t... No. Not really. You don’t... we don’t, think, exactly. It’s not planned. We don’t think “Ooh I’ll have him. I’ll make him one of us.” It’s not like that.’
‘But you could have.’
‘Could have what?’
‘Made me like you. Couldn’t you?’
‘You looked like... I thought you might be. I don’t know...’
‘You thought I looked hopeless. But I’m not, am I?’
She says nothing for a while, then looks up at me and says ‘Make us a coffee will you?’ and I can see exactly how she was when she died, that sadness on her face. I know it. I’ve seen it before.
I get the coffee pot out and find some water. She just sits and looks into the newly roaring fire.
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.

Voyage XIV – Kids today

Today is quite stormy out and the ship is rolling somewhat. I’m told it’s not possible to be seasick here (or any other sort of sick) but Liz is making a fuss anyway and Harry is taking the opportunity to show what a big man he is by comforting her and taking the piss out of her more-or-less equally.
‘Anyway, how old were you?’ he says turning unexpectedly to me. Apparently it’s been a subject for debate in my absence. I shrug, trying to smile enigmatically. I’m not telling them, not after what Lucy said. I’ll let them guess.
‘What do you reckon Ray?’
Ray shrugs. Solly pretends not to have heard. He looks at his cards and takes a sip of his drink. Harry squints at me.
‘Eighteen’ he says at last and I’m disappointed that it’s so obvious. I don’t confirm his guess but he takes it that he’s guessed correctly anyway.
‘What was it then? Some sort of accident?’ Again I see Liz flinch and look away. I shake my head. ‘Suicide?’ he says loudly. I look away but I can feel him looking at me. ‘Got no fucking time for them. Fucking loser’s way out. Have to learn to fucking face up to life like the rest of us. You’re not going to tell us then? How you did it?’
‘It was exposure’ I say quietly. ‘I died of exposure.’
‘You what? Exposure? How’d you manage that?’
I don’t answer. He goes back to his cards, still muttering about suicides. I decide to say something anyway. What’s the worst that can happen?
‘I do think people should be free to decide if they don’t want to live any more’ I say, as inoffensively as I can.
For some reason there is very little reaction. I’m slightly disappointed.
‘What about their mums and dads?’ he says quietly, looking from his hand to the cards on the table and back again over and over again.
‘Well, if they’ve tried their hardest... if there doesn’t seem to be...’
‘You think it’s alright to top yourself’ he says, still not looking up.
I look around at the others. Brenda is the only one looking at me. I can’t tell what she’s thinking.
‘I’m not saying it’s alright’ I say. ‘I’m just saying maybe, sometimes it’s understandable.’
I notice Liz is crying again. Solly’s expression tells me I should have known to expect this.
‘What, even if it breaks his poor mother’s heart? It’s understandable is it?’
‘If he’s that unhappy... and there’s no way...’
‘How can you be so insensitive?’ he says putting his cards down and looking down at his wife. ‘You alright love? Can I get you anything?’
Liz shakes her head and we play quietly for a while.
‘Kids’ says Harry cheerfully, flicking a card neatly onto the pile ‘Who’d have them? Not like it was in our day is it love?’ Liz, still facing away from us, shakes her head.
‘I can’t keep up with it’ says Ray.
‘You were a teddy boy weren’t you saying Ray?’ asks Brenda.
‘I was. Well, you knew what was what in those days. Not like now.’
‘Punks and Rude Boys. What’s that when it’s at home?’ says Solly.
‘New Romantics...’ adds Ray.
‘Bunch of poofs’ adds Harry, predictably.
‘And that music they listen to – fucking racket some of it. You see them on Top of the Pops, can’t even sing most of them.’
‘Can’t even play their instruments. I reckon, put them up against Buddy Holly...’
‘Roy Orbison.’
‘He could play...’
‘The Shadows. Not that nancy-boy Cliff Richards though.’
‘Ooh I used to like Cliff’ says Liz and she starts to sing ‘We’re all going on a... Summer holiday’.
‘Cut it out I’m trying to concentrate here’ says Harry, shrugging her off. ‘You seem to have got over your sea-sickness remarkably quickly.’
I watch her wonder if it would be too obvious if she tries to look sick again. She decides against it. She wasn’t getting much sympathy anyway.
‘What I don’t get, right, is that Boy George’ says Solly. ‘I thought it was a girl at first. I didn’t half feel like a plonker.’
I can see none of them feel comfortable with this image and they all look at their cards.
‘What about Adam Ant?’ says Ray, ‘What’s that supposed to be?’
‘Let’s ask Gabriel’ says Solly. I knew this was coming. ‘Hey, Gabriel. What do you make of all this new romantic stuff?’
I see Harry lining himself up to enjoy himself at my expense. I can’t think of a way out. I try to look like I’m thinking about it.
‘Do you like Adam Ant Gabriel?’ says Harry, asking as suggestively as he can.
‘Some of it. I quite liked their second album.’
‘What’s your favourite song?’ says Solly.
I avoid their gazes. I know they’re not even slightly interested in Adam and the Ants. I know this is a wind-up. I cast my mind back. All the titles sound stupid anyway – Ant Music, Ant Invasion, Prince Charming. I liked Killer in the Home best.
‘I don’t know’ I say casually. ‘I wasn’t that into them to be honest.’
‘So who did you like?’ says Solly. ‘Seriously, I’m interested.’
I don’t trust him but I give them a list anyway ‘Talking Heads, The Specials, Ian Dury, The Cure, Bowie of course...’
‘I liked David Bowie’ says Brenda. ‘What was that one – Major Tom to ground control?’
‘Space Oddity’ I say, knowledgeably. I didn’t like that one so much but I humour her, trying to keep on her good side.
We sit and play a bit more. I actually have a good hand. I feel a win coming on perhaps.
‘It’s not like the old days is it though’ says Ray. ‘You can’t dance to it can you, or sing along?’ and he starts into Only the Lonely with lots of exaggerated yodelling. People turn and look. He pretends not to notice, rearranging his cards. Then Solly leans in and starts singing too. It’s very embarrassing.

After they’ve finished (and got a small round of applause from a group near the bar) Ray says ‘Well, at least we knew how to have a good time, didn’t we Sol’ and I assume that’s today’s lesson over but I assume wrong.
‘Fucking kids today’ says Harry ‘Don’t know nothing. That fucking David Bowie’s queer too.’
‘He’s not’ says Brenda, aghast ‘Is he?’
I nod. ‘Bisexual’ I say, and I know I’m asking for trouble.

‘What’s that mean?’ says Harry.
‘You know, AC-DC’ explains Liz out the side of her mouth, nudging him with her elbow. He doesn’t react, just carries on rearranging his cards. There’s still time to get out. I just need an excuse.
‘Talking of kids’ he says, laying his cards down and glancing at me, ‘our youngest... Sodding waste of time. Let us down twice he did – I won’t tell you what with. I don’t want to embarrass Liz here...’
‘Stop it Harry’ she says quietly, stroking his arm pathetically.

‘I said if you want to do that sort of thing you can do it in someone else’s house, not under my roof. I told him didn’t I...’
‘Yes dear. You did’ she affirms, head bowed, tears beginning to fall, still stroking his arm. No one speaks. We sit and wait to see what comes next.
‘My eldest’s the same’ says Brenda. ‘He used to be such a lovely little boy. I don’t know where he gets it from.’
‘Gets it from the telly I expect’ says Ray, throwing his cards in, picking up his glass. ‘Not like in our day.’
‘Kids at school...’ says Brenda.
‘Fucking disgrace’ says Harry.
‘That’s the trouble with young people’ says Ray. ‘Think they know the lot just because they’ve been to college. I tell them – when you’ve been around as long as I have, then you can tell me how to run things and not before. Bloody out all night then they expect me to put up with them in the morning. It’s my house I tell them. If you don’t like it...’
‘But we used to get up to some tricks Ray, didn’t we’ says Solly, winking at me inexplicably. ‘We had some laughs.’
‘Not like now, all the blokes in makeup and green hair.’
‘We’d have decked them if they’d turned up looking like that.’
(This is weird actually. I’m fairly sure Ray and Solly never knew each other in life. I suppose it was all much the same wherever you went back then – teddy boys, mods and rockers. I might ask them about it another time.)
‘What I don’t get is why they want to fucking look like that. It’s ridiculous. Who’s going to fancy them looking like that, well, except other you-know-whats.’
‘Jamie had a nice girlfriend’ says Liz. ‘You remember Karen don’t you?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it. Go and do your mascara. You look like shit.’
We sit in silence for quite a while. It occurs to me that one of the reasons I’m not moving is because I want to know what’s going to happen, which surprises me.
Liz comes back and sits down. ‘All I was saying Harry, is that Jamie hadn’t changed that much...’ Harry glares across the table – not specifically at me, just generally. Liz strokes his shoulder ever so gently. ‘He’s still your son.’
Harry stands up explosively. Cards and drinks go everywhere. He holds his hand up as if to slap her but doesn’t for some reason.
‘I said I don’t want to talk about him’ he shouts down at her. ‘You got him admitted, you can deal with it. Right?’
‘But I can’t, not now, can I?’ she says, cowering defiantly.
‘Fucking waste of space’ he says and stomps off. Liz gives him thirty seconds and goes after him. I make my excuses and head out too. I note Lucy and the others are at a table not far away and have been listening. I give them a shrug and carry on to my cabin.
Once there I realise I feel incredibly angry. Why do people let him get away with it? I don’t understand it. And I wonder what happened to Jamie. What was he admitted for? Drugs? Mental illness? Attempted suicide? Being bisexual perhaps? I wouldn’t be surprised. Jamie has my sympathies. He’s better off without his father anyway, wherever he is.
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.