Monday, 26 April 2010

Voyage VII – Liz’s story

One evening I find Liz alone up on the deck, leaning on the railings. The silky Chinese style dress she wears would have flattered a nicer figure. As it is it just accentuates her scrawniness. She seems not to have seen me, but I can’t be sure and I’m too polite, no, too easily embarrassed to take the chance. Being seen to avoid her would seem too overtly offensive a move and I still feel too vulnerable. As I get near she sighs and I’m forced to ask if she’s ok. I can see now she’s not. She’s been crying. I’m not moved. I think she cries for attention. (But why shouldn’t she want some attention, married to a shit like Harry?) She’s let the tears accumulate on her cheeks. She sniffles and gives me her ‘brave’ smile. ‘Oh don’t worry about me,’ she says, taking in a deep breath through her teeth ‘I’ll manage’. I move to go, but she continues. ‘You have to, don’t you?’ I don’t know what she means. ‘What else can you do?’ and she sucks hard on her cigarette. We both look out to sea, but I can’t help glancing at her. And I can’t avoid my eyes glancing down at those empty breasts. She catches me looking and smiles at me knowingly.
Still, I can see she must have been a good-looking woman once. Not now. Now she makes my skin creep. She goes on in a resigned sort of way about her life - I’m really not paying attention – something about a house in Billingshurst and her daughter, Rebecca, who looks down on her, and her labradors, Franny and Betsy - the only things she talks about unaccompanied by world-weary sighs and stifled sobs. I look at the sea. It’s getting really dark. A thick fog that looks like it’s been drawn in blackly in charcoal obscures everything more than about ten yards out. White birds appear chaotically out of the gloom and disappear again. ‘At least they loved me’, she says, chin up, and she goes on about the ‘sweet’ things they used to get up to. I drift off again as she whines on a bit more about Harry and how he never really cared at all, never wanted children, never loved them like she did. ‘Poor little mites’ she says, suddenly, horrifyingly, slumping, head onto the rail, really crying, deep ugly sobs coming from that bony moley chest. This is bad. I can’t help but make comforting noises, but she shrugs. What’s happened to her? What have I missed? I can’t ask now or it’ll be obvious I wasn’t paying attention. We look out to sea and she treads out her fag end with her glittery turquoise shoes and lights another. I want to say something helpful.
‘I’ll never forgive him’ she resumes presently, coldly, resolutely, and I can tell this is a big deal for her because I can see now that before, she has forgiven everything. I want to know what happened but I don’t know what to ask.
‘What did you say their names were – your children?’ I venture, cautiously.
‘Rebecca’s children, our grand-children’ she says, looking out over the side. I can see her genuinely trying not to cry, not for effect. ‘I haven’t said anything to anyone about this’ she continues, looking seriously at me. ‘You mustn’t tell anyone.’
I nod, equally seriously.
‘Katie and Matthew’ she says at length, and begins to weep quietly, looking away from me, toward the stern. ‘Three and eight’ and she pauses, breathing hard. ‘I don’t know why I’m still smoking these things. No point...’ and she flicks the fag into the swell.
‘It’d be so easy to just jump in wouldn’t it’ she says.
‘I don’t know...’ I say doubtfully, ‘I don’t think it’s...’
‘I know,’ she nods ‘I asked Jason, my – our guide. Harry won’t go to him, doesn’t want me to go, but I said I was sick. Jason says people get what he calls ‘lost’ all the time; disappear into the sea or whatever. Apparently you just merge with the surroundings, your spirit becomes as one with the waves, eventually. Sounds fine I said, but unfortunately it goes on almost forever and you spend that time drifting, feeling the same miserable way you did when you took the plunge, forever. Imagine that. And there’s nothing you can do about it, so Jason tells me. You can’t work out what has happened to you, do anything about it, you just drift, feeling that way, forever. He says Alzheimer’s is a bit like it. My mum had Alzheimer’s. Every day at the rest home, several times a day she remembered, like it was the first time she was ever told, that she couldn’t go home. Imagine discovering that several times a day for the rest of your life...’ She took out another fag and lit it. ‘What the heck’ she said ‘we’re already dead. Want one?’
‘No thanks’
‘But I’m not spending eternity with him, and that’s flat. He thinks I will but I’ll show him, him and his cronies. Ray was just a carpet salesman, did you know that? To hear him you’d think he was the bloody Godfather. Bloody carpet salesman. Thinks he’s Dean bloody Martin. I don’t know much about Sol. Brenda was mother of three, but she didn’t really care about them – doesn’t talk about them at all. Harry won’t let me talk about...’ and I see her well up and look away again. ‘Bastard’ she says, quietly, under her smoky breath. ‘He makes out it was the other bloke’s fault, but it wasn’t. He over-took us and Harry would never stand for that. Made him absolutely livid. So Harry tries to overtake on the inside and cut in. Everyone was doing over seventy. We just clipped the front of the van and that was it.’ She pauses and gathers herself up. ‘The kiddies were in the back’ she adds finally.
We stand together in silence a good long while.
‘Thing is, I don’t know what happened to them’ she continues, almost inaudibly, once the tears have let up a little. ‘They were all strapped in properly. Oh my god. I can’t stand not knowing. They’re not here. Maybe they were alright – do you think? Maybe they’re in hospital, with their mum.’
The tragedy in her is face too terrible to look at so I look away. There are no children on the boat. I hadn’t thought about it before.
‘Poor little buggers’ she says. ‘That bastard...’ and she shakes her head, steps on her fag-end and heads down to the bar without looking back.
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.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Journey IV – The nymph

At last the forest begins to give out. The trees are not so close, they don’t crowd out the smaller plants on the ground so much, and a lively retinue of insects and birds take the opportunity to make a living.
The weather has changed too. The first time it happens I’m looking ahead through the lower branches and I spot something big and bright and golden ahead, covering the ground, almost too bright to look at directly. I wonder what it could possibly be until I almost step in it and realise it’s just the forest floor lit by sunlight. Hallelujah!
I step into it and look upwards into the rays. I can feel my body warming through, front to back, top to bottom. I drop my bag. I open my shirt. What the heck, I strip naked and just stand there, basking in it for a while.
After a while I look around me. The ground is covered in a thick and slightly prickly mat of pine needles. Blades of grass poke through them here and there.
I’ve got some shorts somewhere in my rucksack and I spend a bit of time emptying it out, looking at all my poor damp, crumpled belongings, things I’d forgotten I had here – books, drawing materials, and chocolate! Now there’s a find. I could have sworn I’d eaten it all. I search around and find some cleaner underwear. It’s still early in the day – I can see the path going on some way ahead. It’s like a miracle.
I follow the path through the morning. The trail heads down some, then flattens out, and I’m coming out into a wide valley by dusk. There’s a broad, boulder-strewn river below, the last of the sun laying a trail on it. The mountains I’ve been walking in for what seems like a year form a solid black wall behind. Mist is beginning to come down. I can see less and less and I begin to unpack the tent. I could really do with a coffee right now. I sit in the doorway and watch the dusk come in. The weird calls I’ve ignored all day get amplified at this time and the noises that go with the darkness begin to edge in. Small bodies move in the grass. I can hear the river below. This is the first evening in a long time I’ve not fallen asleep to the steady sound of rain. It’s actually hard to get to sleep.
By morning it’s business as usual – heavy rain makes the view grey and grainy. A packet of coffee and a carton of long life milk turn up unexpectedly in a side pocket of my rucksack. Something funny is going on here but I’m not complaining. Maybe I’m losing it. I get the coffee maker going anyway. ‘Thanks’ I say, loudly, looking about ‘whoever you are.’ Then, as an after-thought ‘How about some bacon? and ooh – some toast and butter, and marmalade?’ Worth a try I reckon.
The rain actually eases off as the day progresses and I pack up and move on. The sun even makes an appearance. At one point I even sing.

There’s a tiny woman in my backpack. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny. At first I thought it was just the product of my fevered, sex-starved, post-adolescent imagination, and I’m still not sure, but we’ve been talking a bit and I feel better so I’m going with it.
It was earlier on today she appeared. It’s been my third day walking along the side of the valley, and I came to a place where the river simply fell over the edge into another gorge way below and I could have just sat and wept. Well, I did weep, and kicked stones over the edge. The only path I could see headed steeply up a slope at an angle from the lip of the fall and disappeared into the haze as the cloud base came down once more to meet me, bringing drizzle and greyness with it. It was about mid morning. I sat on a tussock and looked at the view. I wanted to throw myself off but I knew I wouldn’t die, just hurt myself so what was the point? What had I thought was coming? Did I think now that I was in some pleasant, relatively flat valley I’d find civilisation, a place to stay, people to talk to?
Yes of course. That’s exactly what I’d thought. I didn’t realise until it obviously wasn’t going to happen. Shit.
Some large woolly animals with huge curved horns were looking at me from the khaki coloured slopes above. They didn’t look predatory – they looked like yaks. I asked them what the fuck they thought they were looking at. In return they ambled off, dislodged some stones and I had to run to avoid getting hit. I screamed abuse at them, at the hillside, at the cataract, at the people who weren’t there, at everything. I tore my clothes off and threw them in a tree. I threw my back-pack in the river and it floated away. It sounds very comical now but it wasn’t at the time. I’d had enough. I was getting rid of everything, getting ready to get rid of myself, again.
That was when I heard her voice – it was coming from the river and it was swearing at me. I could only just make her voice out above the muffled roar of the water below, but I could tell what it meant. I went over and looked. I couldn’t see the bag but one of my red socks was on a rock in the middle and there seemed to be a tiny, pale pink woman with long red hair wearing it, shouting at me. I could see her mouth opening and closing. She seemed really pissed off at me, or really scared.

It took quite a while to sort it all out. The water must have been close to freezing, mist was settling, the rocks were very slippery to walk on, and yet jagged to stumble against. I splashed about, trying to get out to where she was, all the while pathetically conscious of how tiny my willy had become. No woman had ever seen it before (except family obviously). I found it hard to concentrate.
I managed to get out to the rock she was perched on and she pointed further on. I tried not to look at her too much. She didn’t have anything on either. I tried to concentrate on where she was pointing. I couldn’t make out what she was yelling. I went to pick her up but she wouldn’t let me. She got very fierce about that. I got down, lowering my self into the frigid water and put my ear close to her. ‘Bend down further’ she shouted. I crouched down and felt her surprisingly warm little body jump onto my shoulder and settle on my neck.
Rising carefully to avoid slipping, and wading in the direction she had been pointing I couldn’t help being aware of her legs spread either side of my neck. I thought how typical it was of me to be in this much trouble (to have got myself in this much trouble – I had no one else to blame) and still just be thinking about sex – with a woman only ten inches tall at that. Between her legs seemed very hot on my skin indeed. I was glad my willy was shrunken. The alternative would have been intolerable.
She’d been pointing at the rucksack of course. It was lodged between two rocks with water rushing between them at the very edge of the drop. I felt my way forward gingerly, reaching forward as I went to steady myself. The water was remarkably calm near the edge, and there was a deep pool I had to swim across a couple of strokes. I could feel her hanging onto my hair at the back and making encouraging noises.
The bag floated remarkably well – it was designed that way she told me later, and everything in it was dry. I waded back to the bank with it in tow, her standing on it looking very proprietorial, like a mini whale hunter with her catch.
I didn’t say anything as I towelled myself off and found something dry to wear, then I went and retrieved my other clothes from where they were, hanging soggily in the leafless, stunted tree or scattered on the ground beneath. When I came back she had covered herself with one of my shirts, which was a relief because it meant I could talk to her properly, without worrying about getting a hard-on. I sat on a hump and looked at her long, oval, rather serious face and pale grey eyes. She was covered in freckles. Then she looked at me a little sideways, cool and naughty at the same time, and I thought she was rather attractive, in an odd sort of way.
‘I’m so sorry’ I said ‘I didn’t know you were...’
‘I know’ she said quickly ‘I should have...said something...before.’
I was glad she seemed as awkward as I did. ‘Haven’t you got any er...clothes?’ I said, trying to be chatty, trying not to offend her.
‘They don’t really work at this size’ she shrugged. ‘Physics...’
‘I didn’t think physics really applied here’
‘I don’t know. I suppose it must do... a bit’ and she looked around as if there might be an answer in the grass.
I was glad she didn’t know everything and seemed as uncomfortable with the situation as I did. I felt stupid enough as it was. She smiled at me in a tentative friendly sort of way and I got out some biscuits and the coffee making paraphernalia for us. ‘Can you eat?’ I said and she smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
It turned out she’d been in my backpack almost all the time since we’d left Jeannie and Duncan’s place. She told me Kev had arranged it so that I’d have a guide without being aware of it and reminded me how dangerous it was to travel here without one. Guides apparently get some special tricks as part of their training to keep the wildlife here at bay and keep the travellers safe, but it’s a risky business all the same. As she talked I watched her trying to move to get comfortable without exposing herself. She did it very elegantly considering. She would have been quite tall if she’d been normal size, taller than me I thought, and quite slender, and probably quite a bit older than me – maybe thirty or more. Her voice was small but very clear.
‘So, what are you, exactly?’
She looked very amused. ‘You mean am I a fairy?’
‘Are you?’
‘I don’t think so. I can’t fly. I can move surprisingly fast when I have to. Can I have some more of your coffee?’ I set the cup down on the ground and watched her drink, her little red head over the edge of my cup, her little freckly hands on the brim. She covered herself up again and sat back. ‘There’s a lot of odd ways people are here' she continued, ‘I think a lot of the legends and myths and fairy stories in the world are based on things people have come across here.’
‘I’ve heard that’ I said, and we sat and looked at the river for a while.
‘Maybe you’re a nymph’ I said. She laughed a little and fidgeted in my shirt. ‘Maybe’ she said. I didn’t realise what I’d said until later. It was so embarrassing.
We sat in silence for a while, sharing my coffee. I lit a candle.
She told me she’d spent the whole journey in my pack. It was designed so there were ways through from one compartment to another and she could burrow about very quickly in there without me knowing. I asked about the clean laundry and the food. She said yes, that was her, but wouldn’t explain how she did it.
We sat and looked out for a while. Evening was coming down fast. I wasn’t sure what to say next. It did seem a very odd situation, even by the standards of the afterlife so far. I tried hard to think of something intelligent to say but I couldn’t think of anything.
‘Did you used to hike a lot, you know, before?’ she said eventually. I wasn’t sure what to say. I thought about my drunken stroll into oblivion on the South Downs. I didn’t really want to tell her about that.
‘No, not really’ I said ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – you seem very at ease with it. You know – most people would have gone bonkers by now, given up.’ I look down at her beside me and she’s huddled in the shirt looking up at me. ‘Actually, do you mind if I...’ and she shifts toward me on her bottom, struggling to keep the shirt in place. ‘If I could just...’ and I feel her snuggle up against my leg.
‘Oh I’m so sorry – you must be freezing. Why don’t you let me...’
I looked about for something warmer for her to wear. ‘Maybe in my pocket?’ I suggested. I had a hooded sweatshirt on with big pockets at the hips. I held one open. She looked in doubtfully and I knew what she meant – a bit too close for comfort. Then I had a brainwave  - ‘What about my hood? Can you get up?’ After a moment’s hesitation she literally jumped at the chance and was up on my shoulders remarkable quickly, like a squirrel. ‘You really can move, can’t you’ I said.
‘Physics’ I heard her say as she got herself settled up there. ‘Excellent’ she said at last ‘Now I don’t have to shout.’
I looked across the river, at the screes beyond. It was nearly dark. It was the time each day when I was most likely to see dark things moving about, shadows shifting, never sure if they were real, or just my eyes making things up. Sometimes I thought I saw lights, or eyes. There were a couple of nights early on when I just sat rigid half the night, watching, waiting for the moment when they – whatever they were – would rush forward and mutilate me, but nothing came and I quickly got used to just getting into the tent as soon as it got dark and shutting them out. Now I could feel the tiny weight of her up there on my back and I felt safer.
‘Sometimes,’ she said, after a while ‘I used to sit up on the top of the pack like this when you were walking along. You never noticed me did you?’ I said I hadn’t. Or had I noticed there were small transparent panels in the rucksack she could look out from inside? What had I thought they were for? I had to confess I had noticed them but not given it much thought. So much here seemed inexplicable. I said she certainly had a very cosy way of getting about, apart from the grubby underwear of course. ‘And the getting chucked in the river is not much fun either’ she said. I apologised again but I could tell she was just having me on.
‘And I don’t mind your underwear’ she added. ‘You don’t smell too bad anyway – for a bloke.’

At the time I thought Kev was some sort of genius – to give me a female companion, but in such a way that nothing could possibly happen between us – it was a very good idea. I thought what it would have been like with a full size woman accompanying me. I knew it wouldn’t have worked. Of course in reality I was just desperate for company and she knew that. I didn’t ask too many questions because I was afraid she’d disappear and leave me alone again.

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, 5 April 2010

Joe IV – Jobs

Next time I see him I tell Joe about the careers advice I’ve been given. I try to make it sound funny but he can tell there’s something troubling me.‘I really don’t mind hard work. Honestly.’
‘I believe you.’
‘So what is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How did it feel, when you were there, at the shop? Try to take yourself back there for me. What does it feel like?’
‘Sort of, I don’t know, frustrating? And like... It’s like they’re watching me all the time, waiting for me to do something wrong. I don’t know if it was true. I just felt on edge the whole time.’
‘What did you think might happen?’
‘I’m not sure. I just thought I was going to get into trouble all the time, or get the sack. It just felt... tense. I don’t know how else to describe it. And I was so fed up. I just wanted to get away, do something else. There were all these things I was supposed to be doing there but they just seemed so pointless. I know they weren’t really pointless. Someone had to do them – sweeping up and so on, facing up the shelves, but... I don’t know. I tried so hard to concentrate and do it all properly and make sure I was doing everything right... I don’t know.’

I remember turning up at the shop that first morning and it was just all so confusing, trying to find things and remember all the things that needed doing but then by the end of the week I thought, this is alright actually – sorting everything out, showing people where things were. I felt quite chuffed with myself because at last I was doing something useful. The others took the piss out of me for working too hard, showing them up. But then I got to the middle of the second week and I remember I just stopped and looked around and I thought - this is exactly the same as last week. I’m going to do exactly the same things all over again. How do people deal with it, month after month, year after year? I don’t get it. And then there was Tim and John and one of the office girls mucking about out in the yard, having a laugh, chucking stuff about, and I just turned around and got on with organising the sandpaper or whatever it was. Why do people always have to put it back in the wrong places?
‘How do other people put up with it?’ I say to Joe. ‘Why couldn’t I just bloody get on with it and stop making a fuss? Other people seem to manage.’
‘Is that what your parents said?’
‘No. I never told them. What was the point? They couldn’t have done anything.’
‘Was there no one else you could talk to?’
I try to think. Did I talk to anyone? I hardly remember. There was Ron. He was a venture scout leader. He was always stopping to talk to me and inviting me over to his place. He tried to get me to admit I’d had a homosexual experience when I hadn’t, but it seemed like the more I argued the more he’d insist I had something to hide. I liked talking to him though. I don’t know why. I suppose I needed the attention. Pathetic really.
‘Anybody?’ says Joe, bringing me back to the present.
‘Not really...’
‘No friends?’
I think about it for a bit. I did have people I hung out with at school sometimes but we never seemed to talk about anything important.
‘They didn’t seem to need to discuss things like that. They just seemed to get on with it somehow.’
‘You think they knew something you didn’t?’
‘Maybe, Something... I don’t know.’
‘Don’t you think everybody gets bored and hates their jobs sometimes?’
‘I suppose so. But I mean, I hate my paintings sometimes, but I still have to do it. I don’t know. Actually I really do think most people are ok about their jobs. I really do. I know they complain but... they seem, I don’t know, fairly relaxed about it. They just get on with it, accept it.’
I think back to how it was then and it occurs to me that maybe I would have been happier if I’d been able to just accept the situation – known my place, not expected something better. But I couldn’t. I don’t know where the idea came from but I always believed, despite everything my family said, that I could do something better, something exceptional, that I had this ability, this talent. I don’t know why.
Joe says ‘Don’t you think it’s the people you work with that make a difference?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But you didn’t really look forward to seeing the other people at the shop.’
‘I didn’t really know them that well. I think they all knew each other really well already. They were always mucking about together.’
‘But you were there for, what, two months?’
‘I know. I should have made friends with them by then.’
‘I’m not saying you should have necessarily got on with that particular group of people, but generally, perhaps somewhere else?’
I try to think about that. I can’t think. I change the subject.
‘Solly and Brenda said I should just think about the money. Mum and dad used to tell me to do that too. Just think about the money.’
‘It does come in handy.’
‘Well, yes. But there’s got to be more to it than that hasn’t there? I mean, you spend all those hours there, at work, every day, years and years.’

I don’t understand why anyone would want to live like that, well, not want to exactly, but I don’t understand why anyone accepts living like that. I don’t see why we should have to do eight hours a day, five days a week (or more, usually because there’s overtime), and then you have to actually get to and from work which adds on another hour or so, and you have to sleep eight hours and in the end all you’re doing is eating and resting and recovering just so you can go back to work next day and you never do anything else. It’s disgusting. How can people live like that? Especially when nowadays there’s all these labour-saving devices and automation and so on. We should be able to produce just as much as we used to but in half the time and have the rest of the week off, but people still seem to work really long hours and it doesn’t matter how much people earn they always complain they don’t have enough. Why don’t they understand they’ll never earn enough? They don’t see it. I don’t think I’ll ever fit in. I don’t know if I want to.

‘Terrifying, isn’t it?’ says Joe, laughing, but I don’t think it’s funny. I really think it is terrifying. They don’t understand that, none of them.

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.