Friday, 14 January 2011

Journey XVI – The Last Resort

And now I must prepare myself. I know soon I must walk down to the sea and keep walking and then I will be gone and then I will be reborn in a new life. I don’t want to know any more about it.

This is a nice place here. My chamber is bright and airy. The staff (who are a special kind of guide) look after us quietly, tenderly, prepare us for what comes next. We are all dressed in a flimsy white material (the guides are in silvery grey) and my body feels smooth and flawless underneath. I can already feel myself becoming less solid, less flesh. My mind is flowing around things, becoming simplified. I perceive directly without the use of sense organs. I am moving into the sunlight and passing out into the air where a million crystalline slivers of song and colour pierce me deliciously. I am the heat and the perfume and the buzz of insects.

Time passes. Some take a very long time to ready themselves, and we are assured that we can stay here as long as we like. Our accommodation seems to have been made by the same extraordinary process as those exquisitely sculpted Japanese seashells – of white translucent aragonite with a pinkish glow within. We rest on finely sculpted balconies and doze, or view the infinite expanse of coral sea beyond, or else turn over and look to the lagoon on the landward side, fringed with mangroves on the far bank. Travellers play quietly or sleep on the sand or on boardwalks below. It is like the most brilliant hotel ever, designed by geniuses, staffed by angels, occupied by spectres. I am still enough myself to joke that this must be the last resort but humour is fast going the way of arousal and tiredness and embarrassment and frustration and mucus and sweat and pubic hair.

I am a little anxious I must admit. I think we all are. We are all putting it off a bit – looking at the sea, going for a walk, chatting, having something to drink, having a swim. But we won’t discuss it – what comes next. I don’t know why. I could see a counsellor but I don’t want to and they won’t push. I want to go but I’m somehow not ready yet. I watched two people go yesterday – I didn’t know them. It looked like dying. I go for another walk, this time into the trees behind the beach and find a chameleon to watch.

Some ask a guide to go with them down to the edge. Some have made friends and they have them around for support. Some go down in groups, hand in hand but I want to do this alone and so at dawn I find somewhere up the end of the beach and sit on a coconut palm trunk that slants out over the water and I look down at the waves, and I have never felt more heavy and corporeal. There are tiny fiddler crabs scurrying about on the sand below, each waving his one outsized claw at the rest.
‘Wanna fight?’ or ‘Wanna fuck?’
Life eh?

So here I am. I think of the life I will be launching myself back into and it all seems horribly immediate. My only positive thought is that I’m sure I can do better than last time. I can’t just give in. I crawl a little way out along the trunk and slip gracelessly into the unexpectedly cool knee-deep water. I can feel the sand and little bits of sea detritus between my toes. I stop and look about but I know it is time not to think – it is time to move on. I slip out of the gown and it drops into the water, immediately becoming invisible there. I look around. I can’t see anyone watching. I begin to move deeper.
When I am down to my shoulders I realise with a shudder that I can’t see my body under the water, can’t feel it any more and yet I can keep my head out a little longer and I look at the sky. There’s a vivid turquoise bird flying past...

This is the last chapter of the first volume of Fruit. If you want to read the whole thing from the beginning, please go to Lulu to buy or download the book.
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Monday, 10 January 2011

Voyage XXI – Anticlimax

The next few days passed quickly. I didn’t see much of Lucy and her crowd nor of Ray and his. I stayed in my room, up on deck or in the library.
I didn’t actively avoid them however and what I saw of Harry was quietly gratifying. Apparently Liz had got a cabin to herself and was much more lively than before, flirting and joking with all the men. It was quite disgusting actually. She slid up to me on deck one night and said something about me being a nice young man. I backed off a little too obviously and she told me laughingly not to flatter myself, whatever that meant, but then she slid closer again and whispered in my ear about our ‘little conversation’ of some while back. I nodded conspiratorially, going along with her. ‘Don’t tell anyone will you’ she said without moving her lips. ‘It’ll be our little secret. Hmm?’ and without waiting for a reply, minced off to accost some apprehensive looking men who I knew to be Spanish – expired in a house fire whilst visiting family in Maidstone poor buggers.

And so the coast draws nearer. I can see houses with red roofs and white walls and some very surreal looking trees. Some are completely vertical, like black candles. Others are flat topped - like black mushrooms. Purple mountains provide a backdrop. I make some colour sketches. I love the light here, the warmth, and I can smell something new. One of the Spaniards – I can’t remember his name, tells me it looks a bit like Almeria and I tell him I’d like to go there next time in that case. He grins and slaps my back.

I know I have a very long way still to travel but I want to get going now. I understand that we’ll be in mule carts and apparently the scenery going up from the coast into the mountains is magnificent. It certainly doesn’t sound very arduous. And the guide we’ll be travelling with, Kevin, I’m told is a really nice guy. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be great to get away from everything that’s happened here anyway. It can’t possibly be worse.
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Friday, 7 January 2011

Joe XIV – Dad

‘You wanted me to talk about my dad’ I say.
It's nearly the end of our last session. I haven’t planned it. The words just pop out. I’ve been prattling on about my painting, the journey ahead, the food, anything to avoid talking about Lucy or Harry or anything here on the boat. I can tell Joe is getting frustrated. We don’t have much time.
‘Well...’ says Joe, looking troubled.
‘He was a gardener. Worked for the local parks and gardens department.’
There’s a challenge in my voice – I know it. I feel so angry.
‘That doesn’t sound very terrible. I was expecting something – I don’t know...’
‘Like a paedophile, or a terrorist?’
‘Maybe. Frankly I’m disappointed. Why didn’t you want to talk to me about him before?’
‘I just didn’t want to talk about him’ I say, defiantly. ‘Plus I like coming here – it’s just I’ve never been allowed to talk like this before – didn’t want to give you everything too soon.’ I smile apologetically. Now I feel guilty for wasting his time, and sad because we’ll be there soon and this will end. ‘Is that ok?’ I ask.
‘Of course’ he says quietly. We sit in silence for quite some time. ‘So let me rephrase the question. What did he do to make you not want to talk about him?’
I have to think about this.
‘I don’t think he was really interested in kids, and after my sisters were born and he had the snip they thought that would be it. Then I popped out and he had to stay home to look after me while mum went out to work.’
‘The snip?’
‘Sounds like you think he made a big sacrifice for you though.’
‘I suppose, but somebody had to. I mean, he wasn’t just going to walk out on me. He did what he had to do. He did it for mum. He really loved her. Can’t think why...’
‘Why what?’
‘Why he loved her so much – she always talked to him like he was thick.’
‘She never respected him, ever. He was just too soft – let himself be pushed around all the time.’
‘But you didn’t respect him much either by the sound of it...’
I consider this. All I know is that when I think about him it just makes me so angry and I don’t know why. ‘I just stayed out the way’ I say.
He looks at me. ‘And Justine looked after you quite a bit too you said.’
I nod ‘She got me up in the morning, made me breakfast, got me dressed for school.’
‘And your dad? Where was he?’
‘Around, doing stuff.’
‘In the shed?’
‘No, he was around the house in the morning – he took me to school when I was little – on the back of his bike.’
‘And in the evening?’
‘He made dinner, got me ready for bed, you know.’
‘Read you a story?’
‘Sometimes, maybe, when I was little.’
‘Can I ask what your mother was doing all this time?’
‘I don’t remember her being in the picture much – I think she worked late quite a lot... Sometimes she picked me up from school in the car – I remember that.’
Joe frowns at me. There’s something wrong. I feel so angry whenever I try to talk about them. I still don’t know why. I mean, I know a lot of kids have terrible parents – violence, neglect, abuse. I never had any of that. I suspect I’m just a whinger, making a fuss about nothing, but I press on anyway.
‘I think maybe things went wrong later really.’
‘When in particular?’
I sit and try to think. None of it seems very important.
‘I don’t bloody know’ I say exasperatedly. Now I’m just frustrated with myself. I can’t think straight.
‘Gabriel, did they ever really make the effort to talk to you would you say? I mean really get to know you, find out who you really were, what you wanted?’
I want to say something about it not being possible to talk to teenagers, but stop myself, because here we are after all, as Joe pointed out before. ‘I don’t remember’ I say, avoiding the subject.
‘What do you remember doing with your parents, either of them?’
I shake my head. ‘I told you, I stayed out the way mostly.’
‘Did you ever – I don’t know, help your dad in the garden?’
‘I used to watch him sometimes. Actually he tried to teach me some stuff –“pricking out” – hah! I always remember that. But he always seemed so – I don’t know – frustrated about it. It was like, I was always in the way somehow, or really clumsy. I think I was a bit of a div to be honest.’
‘A what?’
‘A div, a wally, a prat. You know, stupid. He used to tell me stuff and it just didn’t go in, so I either had to ask again or hope it didn’t matter. He got pretty frustrated with me. A lot of people did. I was always doing things the wrong way, except they made sense to me, or getting blamed for things that weren’t really my fault and at the time I’d be feeling really stupid or embarrassed but then later I’d think... There was one day I was doing some potting up for him on the bench in the shed. Some job he’d given me to do, potting on the tomatoes or something. Anyway, later on I’m in the kitchen and he says “You’ve done these a lot of good” and he’s holding up his glasses and he tells me I’ve filled his new glasses case with grit and he goes on about how much they’d cost to replace, just in this muttering, grumbling way he had and I just felt really stupid again. I said sorry, but then, later I thought “Why leave them on the potting bench?” It’s just a stupid place to put them but of course I didn’t say anything. I suppose I thought just because something makes sense to me it’s no reason to think it makes sense to anyone else. In the end it doesn’t matter if something’s actually a good idea or not does it? Not if people don’t want to know...’
‘Do you really believe that?’
I’m trying to act like I haven’t really thought about it. I think it’s called being disingenuous but it doesn’t really work. I say ‘No, not really, but it’s true in a way isn’t it. If they don’t think much of you generally, or if they feel like they want to show you who’s boss then it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. People are more interested in being in charge than in having things done properly I think. They say they want you to use your initiative but really they just want you to do as you’re told without them having to tell you.’
‘Did that make you angry?’
‘Oh I was always getting angry about things. Didn’t do me any good.’
He leans back and has a stretch. ‘And I thought gardening was supposed to be a relaxing pass-time’ he says.
‘Yeah – like in “Being There” Did you see that? I love that film.’
‘Yes, like that.’
‘No, it wasn’t like that, well sometimes, but mostly I remember him being fed up because something had eaten his lettuces, or the cats had crapped in his parsley or something.’
‘Did he get angry a lot?’ Joe says this like he’s just realised something important. I’m sorry to disappoint him.
‘No. Just with the slugs and things. He never shouted or broke things. Mum was the one for that, not him. Mostly he was just erm...what’s the word? ...preoccupied – and sort of frustrated.’
‘With you?’
‘Sometimes. It was hard to tell with dad.’
‘He never said anything?’
‘Not to me, not until later anyhow.’
‘When was this?’
‘When I was fourteen maybe – O levels coming up – they were both getting fed up with me – couldn’t understand why I wasn’t applying myself, thinking about what I was going to do afterwards. I didn’t know what I wanted to do...’
‘Had you thought about becoming a professional artist?’
‘Hardly’ and I smile and shake my head as if he’s just suggested I become Prime Minister but then I realise he’s serious.
‘Why not?’ he says.
‘Well...’ And I stop. I really don’t know why not, except people just don’t – do they? Not people like me. It’s just a hobby, something you do when you’re a kid at junior school.
‘I never really thought...’ I say. ‘I thought, you know, technical drawing or, I don’t know, working in an art shop maybe...’
He looks at me as if I’m a moron.
‘No’ he says, ‘you could have gone to art school.’
I look at him like he’s completely insane.
‘Why not?’ he insists. I’m thinking money again. ‘You get a grant’ he says, as if he’s read my mind ‘maybe a weekend job... and off you go.’
I can’t believe it. Do people like me really do that? Nobody mentioned this to me.
‘I had a friend painted for a living’ he says. ‘He didn’t make much but he was ok. Had to do other jobs sometimes, but he was doing alright, last I heard. He had a house, holidays abroad...’
I can’t believe this has really never occurred to me before. People make a living as artists. I suppose they do, but I always thought they were completely different to me, to us. Nobody I knew did anything like that for a living – we were all working in factories or offices like mum, or lorry drivers. People who did interesting things like write books, or travelled were like a different species altogether. Maybe his friend was from a posh family?
‘Did he get much help from his parents?’ I ask.
‘I don’t think so – he was pretty independent. Wouldn’t your parents help you though – if you showed you were keen enough?’
I laugh a little. I can’t imagine even suggesting it to them. They’d go mad.
‘Maybe’ I say, but I don’t really think so. I’d have to do it alone, I know that, but I could. I don’t need a lot of money. I could manage. And suddenly I feel quite excited about it.
‘I suppose I ought to point out’ he says, ‘in the interest of balance, that you shouldn’t be too cross with your parents. The world’s different to when they were your age. Back then you went out to work, got married, had kids and were bloody grateful. They just wanted a normal happy child who would do more or less what they did, only slightly better, and avoiding some of the more obvious cock-ups. They probably couldn’t imagine your life – the choices open to you. I’m sure they didn’t understand.’
And I realise this is one of the reasons why I’m so angry with my dad. He didn’t even try to understand. It’s because he just did as he was told, accepted what they told him to do, for years, cutting grass, weeding, sweeping up, on the council estates, doing the verges, picking up the litter, even though he had qualifications he did as he was told, and he never complained. I think he even liked it. He knew his place. I’m furious with him because he liked it – his mediocre, ordinary, tedious life. I tell Joe all this and he nods as if he knew all along. But it’s not enough of an explanation for what became of me. I know that. He knows that. Maybe we’ll never know.
‘Anyway, lots to think about’ he says and, unexpectedly, gets up and comes and holds out his hand. I get up and shake it. So it’s over. Time to go.
‘Good luck with everything’ he says, trying to look optimistic.
I emerge from my surprise at the suddenness of it all and say ‘Thank you’, also trying to look hopeful, and I leave that room and never see him again.
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Monday, 3 January 2011

Journey XV – Down to the seaside

As I kept on walking I felt the climate gradually turn hot and heavy and the vegetation became richer and more exotic. The birds, insects and flowers got bigger and brighter and the noise and odour of the place became more and more overwhelming. I’d never been to the tropics in life but I had no doubt that this was exactly what it would be like.
Increasingly, I came across other travellers along the route too – some in groups with their guides, others alone. I saw myself among the loners and they – we, all had that same weary exultant expression on our faces – we’d made it. We’d arrived.
The traffic was increasing too – mostly mules and other animals pulling various sorts of rough carts but also some vans and bicycles – and I got a lift some of the way. Settlements became more common too – clay and wood walls and terracotta or thatch roofed cabins usually set around a well or a fireplace in a clearing among the trees. At night the locals welcomed us in and brought cushions and rugs and spicy food and we sat around the fires or crowded into rooms if it was raining and ate and drank and sang or played games until dawn when we slept for a while, got breakfast and moved on.
After one particularly entertaining night, ten of us collapsed into the back of a truck with our belongings, a small pig and a fruit tree in a pot and took the dusty track through the fields to the edge of the forest. At that point the land fell away steeply and the road was nothing but bends.
A little later we came round a curve and the sea was there far below us – electric blue and shimmering in the heat. We walked or rode the remainder without resting, jubilantly singing and laughing along the dusty track among the whitewashed houses, under the flowering trees and palms.
And so the realisation of what was going to happen next gradually became unignorable. I’d hardly thought about it since Joe told me about it all those years before. I wondered briefly what had become of him.

In quieter moments I take the opportunity to try to think back to my so-called life: England, Sussex – that job I had, and those people... It all seems an incredibly long way away and yet I know it’s just around the corner now and I am going back there somehow and I haven’t even thought to find out how that is supposed to happen. I try to recall the things Joe and I talked about, and what Miranda said, and Jim, and I wonder if he is still there, tending his goats for all eternity. Then I take a seat on a log and look across the treetops and wonder impatiently what I’m supposed to have been getting from all this.
I gather myself up and try to really think about it seriously. What has it all been for? Joe said people tend to get what they really want here, whether they like it or not, or words to that effect.
I’ve met a woman who wanted to have sex with me. That’s certainly something. Ok, she was only ten inches tall, but still... And I wonder where Lucy ended up. She just seems sort of ridiculous now by comparison – immature, selfish. I don’t know.

What else? Well I could probably grow all my own veggies if I needed to, and raise chickens and goats. Jim was a really nice guy, resigned and enthusiastic at the same time. I miss him most. I wish my dad had been more like him... And I find myself lost in sadness again and almost in tears. I check to see if anyone’s about but the road is quiet at the moment. It’s about midday I suppose. Most people will be indoors having their lunch or crashed out in the heat. I hear a man laugh somewhere across the way among the trees – a friendly, warm laugh, but I can’t see anyone. I sniff a bit and wipe my nose and eyes on my sleeve. It’s covered in grime. Nothing I have on is even slightly clean. The front of my shirt is stiff with fruit juice and sweat stains and the creases in my shorts are drawn in with soil and crushed vegetation. I can imagine Justine’s smiling face looking down at me and giving me her own bright female version of that laugh because I’ve got myself in a mess again. I was always in such a mess.
Shit, what am I going to do? I cast my mind back as fleetingly as possible over the last year or two of my life and then quickly around at the thick vegetation on the slope below and the sea beyond. There’s a boat out there with a triangular sail the same burnt sienna as the soil around here. When I think back about all those other people in the sixth form, Camille and Carly and Gareth and Tom and the rest, getting on with it, sorting out their careers and their university places, it seems like everybody else knew what to do. I lean back propped up on my elbows with my head hanging back and feel the sun roasting my face, evaporating my tears away, and I listen in to the insects and the birds going about their business around me.
I don’t want to think any more.
Joe, I know, had big ideas for me and my career but I really can’t imagine what I will be able to do to make any difference whatsoever. All I know is that I’m not going for a walk after that party. After that, who knows? I haul myself into the standing position and pull my pack onto my back.

Right on cue, a cart pulled by a cow with enormous curved horns rounds the corner. It is driven by a very dark skinned man and he seems to have a few passengers already, sitting up on top of a lot of sacks and crates. I stick my thumb out and he grins at me, his teeth so brilliant white, in such contrast to the rest of his face that I can hardly make out the rest of his features.
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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.