Thursday, 26 May 2011

Andrea XI – Miserable old sod

‘...and then, lo and behold, it turns out, surprise, surprise, one of the oil companies had been sitting on the patent the whole time, so just in the nick of time, the good old US of A comes through and saves the world...’
I’m holding forth somewhat again. She looks bored and pissed off. I’m not even sure what her point was. I asked her earlier if she would rather we just stop meeting, give up, move on. I’m sure she must have something better to do but she says no, it’s fine. So here we are.
‘That wasn’t actually proved – the thing about the patent’ she says.
‘It was leaked to Greenpeace.’
‘I know, but they’re not exactly the most reliable source...’
‘But it’s suspiciously convenient don’t you think?’
‘It was convenient I’ll grant you, but you should be happy. No more global warming, no more smog? I’d have thought you’d have been overjoyed.’
‘And I was. Really. It’s just... It just means we can go on with even more so called “development” – owning ever more pointless junk and having ever more meaningless “experiences”. I suppose I’d just like us to have been forced to take a bit of a look at ourselves, think about what life is really about.’
‘But we probably wouldn’t have.’
‘Wouldn’t have what?’
‘Looked at ourselves, thought about it.’
‘I don’t think that’s true’ I begin. ‘It was only the bloody USA as usual, dragging its feet, and they only released the technology because the oil was running out and they didn’t want to be dependant on the likes of Venezuela and Russia. They didn’t give a toss about the environment.’
‘That’s crap Gabriel. Mithras* made a hell of a difference to life in places like Nigeria and Brazil.’
‘Only because the USA wanted the cheap imports.’
‘I still think it probably did more good than bad’ she says but we both know it’s highly debatable. Despite the almost unlimited energy it could have provided for development in the places that needed it most, like northeast Africa where Andrea spent most of her time, the licences were mostly restricted to commercial developments in more secure locations. Plus ça change, plus la même bloody old chose, as I always say...
‘Ok, so here’s the question’ I say. ‘You were in Africa until the end. Did you really see any tangible improvement in people’s lives? Really?’
She takes a while to think about that. She looks quite upset. Suddenly I fear I’ve gone too far.
‘No’ she admits quietly. ‘Not really.’
She sits back, arms crossed, frowning, looking at the floor.

I look around at the room. I’m disappointed in myself to find that I still don’t seem to be able to control this urge to try to push someone else’s opinions to destruction. But, to be fair, she started it this time – telling me how much difference the multi-nationals had made to life in Sub-Saharan Africa while she was there. Needless to say I scoffed at that. I don’t think much of myself when I’m like this but I don’t seem to be able to stop it. I tell myself that I still have something important to say, something about there being more to development than consumerism but without much hope. We’ve been through all this before.
Actually I’m more disappointed in us. Something happened to us last session, something’s gone from us, from the way we are together. Now we’re just passing time until the end of the voyage and suddenly we don’t seem to have anything to talk about. So we have reverted to this.

I had one of those dream memories the other night, about a girl I’d known back in the nineties. I’d completely forgotten about her. It was one of those festival romances. Laura her name was. We were inseparable. We spent the entire four days together talking and strolling around. We did the sweat lodge together, and ‘danced the wave’, which I never would have normally. Every evening we were there together in the main yurt, me sat behind her with my arms around her. We kissed and nuzzled a little but that was all. It was enough. There was this electricity between us – anticipation of what was to come. We were so good together.
We saw each other a couple of times afterwards but she told me it was too complicated and could we just be friends? So we spent a couple of evenings at her place, sat at opposite ends of the sofa, and had absolutely nothing to say to each other. Actually, by the end of that second evening, by the time I left we really rather hated one another. This feels like that. I still don’t know what happened.

‘Do you really believe in all this stuff Gabriel?’ she says at last, giving me that cold appraising look she sometimes has. ‘All this stuff about capitalism and colonialism and all the rest of it? Or is it just some sort of game to you, a sort of competition?’ She’s hugging herself tightly now, hunching down, pushing her breasts up under her chin, like she’s dug herself in behind her sandbags.
‘Well, if you’d lived the life I did...’ I say, attempting flippancy.
‘That’s not it. Sorry. Millions of people get made homeless each year. Most of them are just preoccupied with their day-to-day struggle for survival. Hardly any try to work out a global geopolitical justification for it.’
‘I’m a philosopher. What can I say?’
She raises her eyebrows at me.
‘That and the fact that I couldn’t bear the idea that my parents might be right.’ It was meant to be a joke.
‘Aha’ she says, triumphantly. She smiles at me and shakes her head knowingly. ‘So actually (since you wanted to talk more about what happened with your parents and your work and the rest of it) all you’ve actually been doing for the last (what is it?) forty odd years, is sticking two fingers up at your mum and dad. It’s just all been one long adolescent strop. You’re just forever pissed off that the world won’t do things your way. You think the world is crap but there’s no point in actually trying to do anything about it. You were just a miserable old sod, sitting on his allotment, bitching about it. All your “politics” is just about blaming someone else. And meanwhile I was... Oh Gabriel... Grow up!’
I sit and gather myself. I wasn’t quite expecting this tirade. Strange how, although I always expect people to despise me sooner or later, the actual moment it comes, and the form it comes in always take me by surprise. I’d like to say she’s beautiful when she’s angry but she’s not. Argument is really overrated as an aphrodisiac.
‘That’s not it’ I say, genuinely hurt. ‘I don’t think everything’s crap. And I’m not just blaming society or whatever.’ She just looks more exasperated with me than ever. ‘No, actually’ I say ‘come to think of it I take that back. I am blaming society. I don’t see why I should take all the responsibility. I didn’t fit into their plans. Yes, actually I do blame society.’
She observes me. I half expect her to say ‘life’s not fair’ as my mum would have and I’ll have to restrain myself from going over and slapping her.
‘The world’s not going to change just to suit you Gabriel.’
‘Not just me’ I say quietly.
‘So what’s your answer Gabriel?’ she says huffily. ‘What’s the solution?’
I take a deep breathe. ‘I don’t know’ I say.
‘I don’t have a simple answer. I don’t believe there is just this one monolithic solution to everything. Sorry.’ She looks disappointed, not, I suspect, because she was hoping I had a solution, but because I’ve deprived her of the opportunity to sneer at my simple-mindedness.
‘What I do know’ I continue, ‘is that nothing changes until it is widely acknowledged that something is seriously wrong and that things need to change. Once that happens, solutions begin to become more obvious.’
‘But you have to be practical.’
‘No I don’t. People used to think it was impossible to run a civilisation without slaves. If the anti-slavery lobby had got bogged down in the economics they’d never have got anywhere.’
I can see she’s thinking about it. That’s good.
‘But there’s still slavery’ she says quietly. ‘I saw it for myself.’
‘I know. But that doesn’t means it can’t change. Everybody knows it’s wrong... And anyway, even if it’s not practical... We still have to try. It’s like child abuse. Nobody seriously thinks it’s possible to simply put an end to it for all time but nobody’s saying we shouldn’t bother trying. That’s all I want – people to agree there’s a problem and that something should be done.’
‘That’s all?’
‘For a start. Look, maybe you don’t agree with me. Maybe you don’t think there’s a problem. Fair enough. End of conversation, but if you do agree... which I think most people do... everything else follows from that. You can’t just shrug and say “It’s terrible but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Do you see what I’m getting at? You can’t know what’s possible until you try. I believe the reason the world is not a better place is not because people think it’s ok as it is, or because change is not possible, but because people who stand to lose money and power really don’t want us to try.’

She nods wearily but it’s not because I’ve convinced her. It’s because she’s had enough, and so have I. Suddenly I feel very weary too. I don’t want to fight any more, but I also want her to understand something about me – that it wasn’t just a tantrum. I really did believe things could change, even if I had no idea how. I want her to understand that people don’t get angry if they think there’s nothing they can do. That just leads to apathy and self-indulgence. Anger comes from knowing things could be better. Anger comes from hope, not from despair. I need her to see this. I wasn’t a miserable old sod. That’s not fair.

* Mithraic cells (Mithras™) was a photovoltaic system developed to be installed as easily and cheaply as ordinary roof tiles or other roofing material. It made most new buildings, even in temperate climes more or less self-sufficient in electricity and created a vast surplus of energy in the tropics and subtropics. Hydrogen became cheaply available by electrolysis of water (HydroGen™) and quickly replaced petrol and kerosene as the fuel of choice. This led to unprecedented development in some of what had been the poorest countries, the end of conflict in what had been the main oil producing areas, the dropping of plans for more nuclear power plants and the almost complete cessation of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. There were suspicions at the time that one of the larger oil companies had been sitting on the patent for over thirty years when it’s existence was leaked to an environmental pressure group.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Journey XII – Escape from paradise

I didn’t leave the next morning, or the morning after that. I told myself I was gathering as large a group as possible to give us the best possible chance of survival, and that was partly true, but I was also waiting for Sophie to change her mind. Back in my mushy pea bedroom at the hostel, it hadn’t been occupied during my absence and seemed smaller and drearier than ever. What was more, autumn had put a damp chill in the air again. I’d never had a girlfriend before so I’d never split up before. The pain was deep and throbbing in my heart and my head and I didn’t know what to do about it. Part of me just wanted to go back and be with her for however long it took but the old wise man part of me knew we couldn’t be happy like that any more. We both knew she’d have to move on sooner or later but I knew my staying would not help. I hung onto the piece of paper with our date on it and wished.

So far, I knew James and Liam were interested in coming, and there were three or four others who’d said they had grown bored of this place but whose eyes betrayed something else – some disturbance they would not admit to. Ian said he’d come along ‘for a laugh’. He had little time for my attachment. ‘She’s just a wet dream’ he told me. ‘She’s the love interest. She’s not real. Nothing here is.’
I couldn’t help wondering if he was right. It didn’t seem real.
On the fourth day Gina turned up. Although of course I was overjoyed to see her I thought this might be a set back – further proof that my theory about the disappearances was just paranoia but she hugged herself miserably and wasn’t at all the way she had been before. ‘Can we just go?’ she said. I asked about Aaron but she just shook her head. I put word out that we were leaving as early as possible next morning. She slept in my bed. I lay on the floor.

In the morning, not as early as I’d have liked, I found twelve people on the lawn outside, waiting for me. James and Liam I recognised, and a couple of the girls. Ian wasn’t there. ‘He went out last night’ explained one of the girls, shrugging. I wasn’t surprised. Gina was standing behind me too so that made fourteen. I’d never been a leader before. The responsibility struck me quite forcibly and I didn’t know what to say. I felt like telling them all the problems I’d listed in my head – why we probably wouldn’t get anywhere, and then wouldn’t be able to find our way back. Gina evidently saw my expression and stepped forward.
‘We all know we have to get away from here, don’t we?’ Everybody nodded, more or less apprehensively. ‘Ok’ she said and turned to me. ‘Tell us what you have in mind Gabriel.’ I smiled and thanked her.
I had explained a lot of this to James and the others over the last few days, and to Gina the previous night. Basically I wanted to stick to the ‘head east’ plan. I had some rope from my room (‘Don’t ask’ I said. Only Gina smiled) and we roped ourselves together like mountaineers. ‘Won’t they have cut it with?’ said someone quietly. We all looked at her, and then at each other. Then they all looked at me. ‘It’s better than nothing’ I said and carried on knotting.
‘Ok’ I said when it was as good as it was going to get. ‘The plan basically is to head as close to due east as possible all day and just get as far as we can, then find somewhere indoors to stay for the night, stay together, keep an eye on each other. Don’t let anyone go missing. Ok? Have we got everyone?’ They all nodded. I was growing into my part. I looked back at Gina. I felt like breaking down inside.
‘I think she’ll be ok’ she said, guessing what was on my mind. I nodded but wasn’t convinced.

We walked in a huddle, passing through increasingly unfamiliar but endlessly similar streets, parks and alleys. It was a nice, bright day and we were in good spirits and one of the girls came up with some songs to sing – mostly old Abba and Duran Duran songs everyone knew. About mid afternoon Ian rushed at us out of a side street. We all thought we were being attacked and screamed appropriately, which amused him greatly.
‘Is this a private conga, or can anyone join in?’ he said. We roped him in and carried on.

The party atmosphere fizzled out somewhat as it got dark. Looking around us everything was much the same as where we’d come from and more than one of us said something about going around in circles. As luck would have it we found a party, which we crashed and that was us sorted for the first night. In the morning there were only thirteen of us. None of us could think who was missing but we comforted ourselves with the opinion that we’d all considered going back and that was probably what had happened. Someone at the party said he wanted to come along so we roped him in too and said our goodbyes.
The next day went largely as before, although the atmosphere was less jolly, more stoical. We marched in silence, stopping from time to time for a breather and to get our bearings. I was grateful the sun was out or we wouldn’t have known where we were going. That night another, more sedate gathering was found and we were invited in for dinner with some very posh people. The house though was in the same dilapidated, half decorated state as all the others we’d seen. Gina sat beside me on a cushion after we’d eaten and we drank a bottle of wine together.
‘How are you bearing up?’ she said.
‘I honestly don’t know’ I said.
‘You’re thinking about her.’
‘I really do think she’ll be ok.’
I showed her my piece of paper and she smiled. I’m not sure either of us believed it was likely to happen, but it proved she had existed. My handwriting had never been that neat.
‘She said it would be perfect that day. She’d be twenty-six, I’d be thirty-five. Looks like she’d given it some serious thought.’
‘She really cared about you. I suppose you guessed she wasn’t exactly chaste before you met her...’
‘It did cross my mind.’
‘She never stayed with anyone for very long bless her. But she stayed with you, and she would have...’ and I’m crying, silently into my hands. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said...’ she says, putting her arm around me, not in a formal way, but genuinely, generously. She rests her head on my shoulders as I bend over, weeping.
‘Maybe I should have stayed with her’ I blub into my lap, and all she can say is ‘It’ll be ok, you’ll both be ok’ because there really isn’t an answer, and we both know that.
‘You loved each other didn’t you’ she says, once I’ve pulled myself together.
‘I think so, yes. I loved her. I never told her.’
‘I think she knew.’
‘Can we stop talking in the past tense please?’
‘She knows.’
‘We love each other.’
‘She’s probably sleeping with someone else already’ I say, trying for levity.
‘Actually I don’t think so’ says Gina seriously. ‘I think it’s going to take a while.’
‘But at least then she wouldn’t be alone.’
‘That’s very true’ she says.

The morning of the third day is the worst. There are five people missing, including Liam, and I can’t believe he would have just wandered off. We stand around indecisively and it takes Ian, physically pulling us out the door yelling ‘Ta for having us’ over his shoulder to get us moving.
Wandering around that day the streets seem to be arranged deliberately to send us back on ourselves, curving back the way we came. We eventually resort to cutting through gardens – hacking through hedges and scaling walls to get to the next street over. It’s very slow going but Ian is like a one man SAS team and actually finds himself a machete from somewhere to cut us a path through the undergrowth. A couple of times we have to untie ourselves to scale a wall and that must have been when we lost two more of the group. Nobody heard them go but we are aware of strange distortions and reverberations in the air around us, as if one scene is being replaced by another. Spot the difference. As dusk approaches I notice brightly lit upstairs windows and I know for sure that’s where they are, because it’s not like the horror films, this place. Here it is the monsters that turn all the lights on so they can see what they’re doing and play loud music while they do it, because it is they who own this place, not us. Here it is we who have to skulk around in the dark.
What’s more there are no signs of other people anywhere – no parties or other gatherings. It occurs to me that at least we are away from where we started but I’m not sure we are in a better place. We look around for somewhere to spend the night but cannot bring ourselves to go inside anywhere. On top of that the night is overcast and tending to drizzle and we don’t want to keep walking. We stand in a tight huddle, all looking restlessly outward, jumping at every tiny sound, real or imagined. Then we find a tree in an open area of grass and huddle around it. It’s cold and wet. None of us can sleep. We watch the night away. Even so, by morning we are two down. Ian is nowhere to be seen. Someone suggests, only half joking that maybe he went to do a recce. It would be just like him – stupid bastard.

But it was a sunny day again, the trees beginning to turn for autumn and we stretched and untangled ourselves and started out.
It took us a while to realise that things had changed. As we walked along it became obvious that there were more open spaces here, the gardens were bigger and the houses further apart. The road had something of the look of those ‘unadopted’ roads you come across sometimes among otherwise ordinary suburbs – potholed and overgrown. Coming to a rise in the lane there was some new sense of open spaces in the distance – of a less curved, claustrophobic world, more of a landscape. In short, we were coming into the outskirts and our mood lifted decidedly. Once more there was song and silliness in the ranks. ‘Told you’ I said to anyone who would listen.

Of course it wasn’t over yet. We were still stuck in the edge of town that night. The houses out here were mainly bungalows, or low, wide two-storey buildings. Since two of us had disappeared when we were outside in the open the night before it was decided we might as well be warm and dry in danger as wet and cold in danger. We broke into a likely looking house while it was still light and got ourselves settled in. It was fairly simple art deco place with big curved steel framed windows at the front. We felt like the owners might come home at any moment and demand an explanation.
There was food in the freezer, which was still somehow working, and tins in the cupboard and a microwave so we got ourselves things to eat and drink. Then we made our way up to the main bedroom, which had plenty of soft furnishings to curl up in and a huge window taking up the whole of the front and with a panoramic view across the roof tops. There were only seven of us by now. James had gone. I didn’t notice when that had happened. We looked at each other with a grim resolve and prepared ourselves for a siege. We barricaded the door with cupboards and chairs and arranged all the bedding we could find on mattresses on the floor, making a kind of fortress between the twin beds next to the window. It was like being a kid again, playing soldiers and we settled in there with books and munchies as it began to get dark. We half-heartedly attempted to organise a watch rota but were aware that such attempts at organisation never seemed to work here – not least because there were no clocks.
We thought we might as well introduce ourselves. There were four girls and three guys, Gina and I included. Lisa and Diane seemed to have paired off with Warren and Nicholas. That left Meg, who luckily was the most cheerful and organised of all of us – the one who had lead the singing on the way here. She was quieter now since her friend, Alice had gone missing but she kept a very stiff upper lip throughout. We lit the lamps and settled down to our books, all together under the blankets and quilts. Nobody spoke much. Meg tried to start a game of charades but none of us was in the mood. Slowly, everything outside the room dropped into darkness and we were lost together on our tiny island of light. We hardly dared speak, just waited, painfully awake for whatever had to happen to us.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Voyage IX – Health & Safety

I was talking to Paul again the other evening. We were sitting in the bar together. Everyone else had gone to bed and it was just me and him. I was reading a book and wishing he’d get the hint but I could tell without looking that he kept glancing at me – hoping I’d notice and give in and start a conversation. Eventually I put the book down, still avoiding eye contact and keeping my finger in the page.

I take a sip of my drink and he harrumphs a bit self-consciously and says ‘Did you really want to know how I died?’ which takes me by surprise somewhat. I nod equivocally and he leans in and says ‘It was a concrete mixer.’
I have a comic image of him being run over by a lorry.
‘One of those little ones on two wheels you see on building sites’ he adds. ‘We hired it.’
I confess I’m intrigued.
‘We were doing my sister’s extension – me and my brother in law, Ted. She had this beautiful conservatory going up – all stained glass and palm trees, and a Jacuzzi. Top of the range it was.’
‘Ok...’ I say, wishing he’d get to the interesting part.
‘We’d been at it all day, making this platform going up to it like. You know. All tiled it was – mosaic. She’s always liked that sort of thing – ever since she was in Crete. Anyway – long story short – I’d never used one of these things before. Ted had. He’d done the new stadium up at Falmer but he’s round the front of the house talking to one of the delivery drivers. Anyway it’s the end of the day and I’m rinsing out the drum as it's going round – with a hose, as you do, and knocking out the residue with a bit of two by four and I gets my hand stuck behind one of those curved blades inside – you know the ones that direct the mix into the centre – and before you know it the drum’s turned and my elbow’s up inside, crooked...’
He demonstrates but I can see what’s coming. I feel sick already.
‘And I start to shout, but not very loud because I don’t want to make a twat of myself and it’s all happening so slowly and I can’t believe I’m watching it happen.’
He goes quiet – leans forward and looks down at his hands, wringing together between his knees.
‘Twisted me whole bloody arm off’ he says. ‘Died of loss of blood. Stupid thing is I didn’t even shout. Didn’t find me ‘til it was too late.’
‘I’m so sorry Paul. I didn’t...’
‘Oh it’s nothing’ he says leaning back. ‘Water under the bridge. But you were right. I’d had a bit to drink. Shouldn’t have been operating machinery at all should I? It’s me own fault.’
‘I’m sorry.’
He shrugs, drains his glass, stands and says, more or less cheerfully ‘Toodle-oo then. Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire’, smiles and heads for the door.
You just never know do you?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Andrea X – All You Need is Love

She knows something’s up as soon as I walk in. I’m a little late for a start, which is a first. Normally I’m here before she is - eager to get started.
‘What’s up?’ she says.
I don’t know how to tell her. ‘I think we shouldn’t see each other any more’ I say. I know it sounds like I’m ending an affair. That’s how it feels to me.
‘You’re dumping me?’
She sits there, apparently aghast, and I notice her gather the collar of her tunic together, covering her cleavage.
‘Well thanks a bundle’ she says.
It really hadn’t occurred to me she’d take it this badly. I’d assumed that, yes, she liked me well enough these days in a professional kind of a way but that it wouldn’t mean too much to her. There’s an awkward silence.
‘Why?’ she says at last.
I want to say ‘Because I love you’ but I don’t think it’ll help. I don’t even know if it’s true. Looking back on the women I’ve “loved” I can’t help thinking a lot of it was just lust and loneliness. Greater minds have made the same mistake.
‘I can’t deal with this all just being about sex’ I say finally. ‘You just thinking all I need is a damn good screw...’
I know that’s not what she means but I want to be dramatic. I feel like starting a fight. She frowns at me quizzically through narrowed eyelids.
‘Can’t you see what it’s like for me?’ I say, trying to get something articulate and insightful assembled. ‘I don’t want to stop coming here. It’s just...’
‘Then don’t’ she says simply.
‘Ok, I wont’ I say, hugely relieved. I hadn’t really wanted to stop. I hadn’t really thought it out properly. I needed to make her understand something though. This had just been a rather melodramatic way to do it. ‘I’m sorry’ I say and sit back in my chair.
We sit for a while and let the atmosphere thin a little.
‘It’s not just about sex’ she says eventually.
‘It is a lot about sex’ I say, and she smiles guiltily.
‘I thought it was an important issue for you.’
‘It was...and is, I suppose. It’s just, with you...’
‘What about me?’
‘I can’t be cool and... detached about it talking to you.’
‘Because you want to sleep with me.’
‘More than that.’
She nods and thinks for a while. ‘What would you prefer we talk about?’ she says eventually, coolly.
‘Oh look...’ I say, laying my cards on the table as it were. ‘I would love to talk about sex with you. I would like nothing better, except of course actually having sex with you, but that’s just the point. You can’t, or won’t, so it’s just so...’
‘To say the least. And look. I’ve been an old man, quite recently. I’ve had the most chronic sexual frustration all my life, and then it was over and I was free. I could relax, give up on it.’
‘But now...’
‘Now it’s all come back again. Worse.’
‘Not worse. You’ve got me to talk to about it. You can’t have me – not like that – but you can learn. Look, you’re not just an old man – you’re a young man, or you’re a baby, or you haven’t even been conceived yet – don’t you get it?’
‘I do, really, but I was thinking – what about the fact that I never had a proper job in my life? What about the fact that I hardly had a close friend all my life? What about the fact that I hardly spoke to my father the last ten years of his life? Don’t we need to think about some of that?’
Now I’m beginning to choke up but I get myself under control. She contemplates me a while.
‘We can talk about those things, absolutely’ she says softly, ‘but tell me this – when you look back on your life, which do you regret most – the fact that you never had a decent job or the fact that you never had a proper girlfriend?’
She stares at me seriously for a while. A voice in my head insists that the lack of a girlfriend was trivial, irrelevant, whereas the unemployment was like mortal sin. It’s my dad’s voice. That’s why I couldn’t face him all that time.
‘It’s not just about sex anyway’ she says eventually. ‘I’m not saying all you need is a damn good fuck. What I’m saying is you need the love of a good woman. Which, if you remember is exactly what you said you wanted at the start.’
‘I was being flippant.’
‘No you weren’t.’

We sit for a while after that – regrouping.
‘How was it with your parents in the end?’ she asks conversationally.
‘I don’t know if I do want to talk about it actually, to be honest.’
‘You did tell me your dad was made redundant.’
‘Yes, when they privatised the parks and gardens department – put it up for “compulsory competitive tendering”.’
‘How did he react to that?’
‘Hard to tell with him. None of the landscapers that took over would employ him – said he was too old.’
‘What did he do?’
‘The last job he had was on the checkouts at the local superstore.’
‘That must have been humiliating for him.’
I shrug. If it was he really didn’t show it. Not to me anyway.
‘I went to the shop a couple of times – I watched him. He always had this diffident, courteous, slightly subservient way about him. I watched him methodically packing people’s bags, so precise and efficient and it was like watching him handle his plants, taking care not to crush the roots, bruise the leaves – because you know, usually if you let the staff pack your bags it all goes in any old how. I watched him – he took such pride over it. He didn’t say much, just, you know, polite, time of day stuff. It was pathetic.’
‘Pathetic? How?’
‘That they’d reduced him to that and he just put up with it. He could have been head gardener at some big country estate, he had that much knowledge and experience and he was so diligent and conscientious and they just took advantage because he wouldn’t put himself forward.’ Now I am near tears. I look up at her.
‘You don’t think perhaps he was content to be that way?’
‘I think he accepted it. Well, he accepted the menial work. The most angry I saw him was when they made him prune the Elaeagnus when it was in full flower simply because it fitted in with their maintenance schedule. I don’t think he ever accepted people’s attitudes but he never did anything about it. He always looked bruised – like a dog. You know he really reminded me of one of those sorry looking dogs that always look like they might get kicked any moment.’
‘That’s a sad image.’
‘Hmm...’ I say, noncommittally. It really is, but I can’t show it.
‘What was your mum doing all this time?’
‘God, she worked until she dropped, almost literally. They died within a couple of years of each other.’
‘How do you think she felt about your dad?’
‘At the end they were quite close I think. He had some sort of a breakdown, a seizure or something. Then he had to stay at home, and mum and Justine and I took turns keeping an eye on him. I remember the day we suddenly realised... It was very odd.’
‘Go on...’
‘All his life he’d been into these alpine plants – these ridiculous tiny plants that are so ill suited to growing in the UK you couldn’t even go away for forty-eight hours in case they keeled over and he was out there every day, with his tweezers and his badger hair paintbrush in this special alpine house he’s got, and he’s got his magnifying glass and a torch strapped to his head and he’s peering at these plants that look like little green blobs in their pots, and he’s teasing out dead leaves which might rot and brushing away aphids and it’s unbelievable. He got prizes for his Dionysias.’
‘Which are?’
‘These tiny crevice plants – come from somewhere in the Middle East – little green mounds, in gravel, in a pot, and if they get too damp at the wrong time, or slightly the wrong watering that’s it. Game over.’
‘Do they have flowers?’
‘Oh yes, if you get it right, they absolutely cover themselves in little pink or yellow flowers. You can’t see the leaves, if you get it right.’
‘And he did?’
‘Absolutely. Drove my mum nuts. It meant they couldn’t go away on holiday at all. She was doing quite well financially and she wanted to travel, but no, we had to stay home in case one of his prize Dionysias got a chill or something.’
‘Couldn’t she go on her own? Or couldn’t you take over, do the watering or whatever?’
‘Yes, that’s exactly what she did, and no, he didn’t trust me, or anyone for that matter. Miserable old git.’
‘Seems like a funny name for such a feeble plant’ she muses. ‘Dionysus – god of robust over indulgence.’
I smile. That’s my girl. ‘I did mention it once or twice.’
‘Not amused?’
‘I think they might have been named after a Turkish botanist or some such.’
‘It’s still funny.’
‘Not to him.’
‘Anyway, you were saying...’
‘Yes. It was weird.’
I very rarely miss my dad. I look about the room and wait for a feeling about him to materialise – sadness, loss, anger? But no. I seem to have frightened it off again, but I know it’s there – a little lost yearning at the edge of my consciousness.
‘Well, after he couldn’t get about so easily he gave away his collection and went in for easier stuff, rare bulbs and things, but I don’t think his heart was in it. It was always hard to tell with him. And then one day... he’d been retired for a few months I think. I hadn’t been round there for a while...
Anyway one day he came home and he said to mum “I’ve bought you a little toy windmill.”’
I have to stop for a moment there, look about the room, think what to say next. Such a stupid thing…
‘It was just some cheap ornament from the garden centre – painted white, with little wooden peg people on the balcony. The sails were supposed to go around in the wind I think. We all just sort of looked at it and then at each other and tried to say something helpful. He took it down the garden and set it among his precious alpine plants on the rockery. He never would have let anything like that in his garden normally. He wouldn’t let mum have so much as a bird table...’
I look away toward the door. I remember he looked so happy that day. Poor old sod.
After a while I realise I haven’t said anything for a while and Andrea is waiting for me to go on. I find myself leaning forward, my hands covering my nose and mouth. I make myself lean back and keep my hands in my lap and try to look normal.
‘What happened next?’
‘Er, well... we all just stood around, watching him trying to get the bloody thing to stand upright in the mud. I remember mum going out to help him, which was not like her at all. Eventually she had to come in and leave him to it. He was still fiddling with it at midnight and she just came in and sat down and wept. I’d never seen her cry...’
I look out of the window. I feel sort of dull – stupid – can’t get my thoughts in order. Andrea is watching me, waiting. The sky is clearing. Perhaps I’ll go up and sit outside later on.

‘It sounds like it might have been a brain tumour of some sort’ she says after a while.
‘That’s what they said.’
‘What happened in the end?’
‘Some sort of stroke I believe. It was quick at least. I wasn’t there.’
‘And you never really talked to each other?’
‘No...’ I look around, feeling a bit lost. ‘Men didn’t though, did they, not his generation.’
‘What would you have liked to have said?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. I’ve thought about it so much but there’s nothing I can think of.’ I sit quietly for a time, thinking about him. She watches me. It’s getting dark outside. I can hear the others going through for dinner.
‘Yes Gabriel?’
‘You know, it seems to me that so much of what parents say about their children is about pride. It’s all about being proud of what their children have achieved, what they’ve done with their lives. But what if they’re not proud of them? What if their children got everything wrong? What if they didn’t do anything to be proud of? What then? Is it ok for the parents to not have anything much to do with their children?’
She looks at me for a moment. ‘I don’t think so’ she says. ‘They’d still love their children.’
‘So they say, but if they have nothing to say, don’t particularly want to do anything with them – or they just do their duty – then what does this “love” actually mean? It might as well not exist surely. It makes no difference.’
‘I think love always makes a difference’ she says finally. ‘Come on, it’s dinner time...’
I stand to go but wait to let her go first. I think we’ve got maybe a couple more sessions together. I can’t tell if she is looking away deliberately as she passes.

I went up on deck and looked at the view, then up into the bows and looked at the waves parting and at the dolphins that were not dolphins but something else, something more primitive, surfing. How do they move like that, with no apparent effort? I went down to the bar but didn’t fancy anything to eat. I saw the others by the window but I didn’t go over. I went to the library and then the games room but there was nothing I wanted to do so I went back to my cabin and had a lie down.

When I awoke it was dark and all I could hear was the water outside. I guessed everyone must be asleep. I lay there naked and couldn’t even summon up a decent erection.
‘Love’ I thought.
I didn’t even know what the word meant. ‘Dependence’ I thought. Dependence and desperation. Lust and loneliness, and dreams that bear no relation to actual people whatsoever. I had been infatuated almost all my life, obsessed, possessive, jealous, depressed, and then lonely. Once you take all that away what’s left?
People I hung out with back in the 90s used to go on about love. I don’t know what they thought they were talking about. The Second Summer of Love they called it but the people I knew who went on about it the most were among the most self-serving, self-indulgent, self-obsessed people I ever met. It suited them to use the word because it specified no particular action or effort on their part, save a kiss and a cuddle – it was a handy password excusing all transgressions. Once you’d told someone loved them you didn’t have to try so hard. That was how it looked to me anyway.
And my parents... What did they think it meant? Did they even mention it? I don’t think so, but then parents didn’t back then. Hippy parents said it all the time. Their children were like tiny dinosaurs on the rampage, trashing everything they encountered – generosity, tenderness, treats – snatched or dismissed with scorn or spite. And yet their parents said they ‘loved’ them. So that was alright.
And yet what would I not have done to have someone I loved tell me they loved me too?
I can’t begin to imagine.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Journey XI – Revelations

In the morning she comes in with coffee and croissants and jam and cheese, and sits with me in bed. We eat, we make small talk, we don't look at each other. This is not like us.
‘Gabriel’ she says when all the food is gone. ‘I can’t come with you yet. No, let me finish, please.’ She pauses, fiddling with the tie of her kimono. ‘I’m not sure you’re wrong, about this place. I don’t know.’
‘I just don’t get why you want to stay here’ I say. ‘It’s not like you really fit in. It’s just.... I don’t get it. What’s keeping you here? Really, I mean it Sophie.’
‘Don’t shout at me.’
‘I’m not... Ok. Sorry.’ I stand naked and impotent at the bottom of the bed. I can’t bear being here and I can’t leave her here alone. She looks away. Why doesn’t she get it? She understands everything else so well.
‘I have to stay a bit longer’ she says, almost silently. I half form the word ‘why’ but she shushes me. ‘I have to get through this. You don’t understand, I know.’
‘Explain it to me then.’
‘I will.’
‘But when?’
‘Now, if you’ll give me the chance.’

She looks out of the window and pulls the duvet up to cover her breasts. I sit down near her and reach out but she draws back. ‘Let me think for a while will you?’ she says quietly.
We sit for what seems like half an hour and then I go and make more coffee.
When I hand her the cup she cradles it close, as if she needs all the warmth she can get. She looks hunched, like an old lady in constant pain.
‘When we got off the boat...’ she begins, ‘When we first got off the boat we didn't know where we were supposed to be. We couldn’t find our guide. It was getting dark. I ended up wandering around this dead town on my own. Hmm...’ She stops and sips her coffee. ‘No, what you need to understand is... My parents, they weren’t abusive or anything... well, I suppose they were, technically, but they never... anyway, my point is, by the time I died, I didn’t believe in their religion, not really. But when I arrived here, alone, I just thought it was where they said I’d end up. I thought I was in Hell. The boat was like being in Limbo and this was like Hell. And I was expecting it, no, more than that, I deserved it.’
‘Hang on. What had you ever done to deserve going to Hell? That makes no sense Sophie.’
‘You don’t know me’ she says simply, and I have to admit she’s right, I don’t, hardly at all.
She says ‘None of this makes sense, don’t you see? None of it – the boat, the landscape, the people. Why shouldn’t it be called Hell?’
‘Ok, call it Hell. But what did you do to deserve it?’
‘Nothing. I don’t think I did anything to deserve it.’
‘Well then.’
‘No. You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter what I think or what you think. It’s not a matter of personal opinion. You go to Hell for breaking the rules. God’s rules. I broke the rules, ok Gabriel? I broke God’s rules and now I’m in Hell.’
‘But you don’t believe in all that stuff. You told me.’
‘I don’t think it’s literally true, no. And yet here we are – getting hacked to pieces for fun apparently, according to you.’
We take a little time to sip our coffee. I stand in the window and look across at the houses opposite. Are they in there, the demons? Are they listening to all this I wonder? I bet they are, and having a good old laugh at us too.
‘Gabriel’ she says softly and pats the bed beside her. I go and sit down. She strokes my arm. I try to look implacable.
‘You want to know what I did?’ I nod. ‘It’ll seem silly to you.’
She lies back hugging her pillow and breathes out.
‘I had my tubes tied’ she says. ‘Sterilisation.’
‘What? That’s it? You’re consigned Hell because...’
‘Because I didn’t want any more children.’
It takes a while for me to be sure I haven’t missed something. It seems ridiculous. I can’t believe that’s it.
‘You don’t understand how serious that is’ she continues, ‘in my family. It means I wanted sex – just for pleasure. I don’t think, unless you knew them, that you could understand how completely and utterly and absolutely despicable that would be to my mum and dad. Totally obscene. As bad as an abortion. As bad as if I’d taken one of my own babies and slaughtered it in the kitchen along with the Sunday chicken.’
‘But it’s not against the rules. You were married. I don’t understand.’
‘I can’t explain. It’s not about The Bible. It’s about... It’s about my mum and dad. It’s like there’s all these babies out there – little innocent souls waiting to be born. And I’m rejecting them – flushing them away like excrement. Oh, I knew they were wrong – rationally, logically, I knew that. I don’t really know how I knew but I did. When I was younger... When I was a girl... I don’t know... I mean, I knew what sex was. Kids do I suppose, at some level. They experiment. They play with themselves. And as I got older I couldn’t see why it was so bad. But that’s not how I was brought up. I can’t explain it. It’s like they’re all in my head, this trinity - the father going “Sophie, you’ll be damned to hell, you even think about it!” and then there’s the child, little me, furious at the unfairness of it all. And then there’s this ghost – my spirit, my reason, me as a grown-up, pleading with them – going “Its ok Sophie. It doesn’t matter.” But she just can’t hear my voice over the screaming.’
She looks around the room. Her eyes glisten and I want to hold her in my arms again, like before.
‘It’s exhausting’ she adds after a while, ‘fighting all the time. I don’t think you can really know what it’s like to grow up in a house where there is absolutely no compromise, where there are absolutely no other points of view. It didn’t matter what I read later on – Freud, Greer, Masters and Johnson... There were just all those years and me just thinking “What the hell’s wrong with me?” Apparently Florence Nightingale had the same problem – couldn’t stop playing with herself. How about that? It didn’t make me feel any better though. I knew all this stuff but I just felt so guilty all the time. I thought I must be a sex maniac. You must think I’m a sex maniac.’
I shake my head but have to admit it has crossed my mind.
‘I had so many punishments... Oh nothing weird. I got beaten a few times, locked in my room, made to do extra chores, that sort of thing, but the thing was their disapproval. That was the worst. They were everything to me, my mum and dad. I loved them, I really did, but I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t stop doing it. I hated disappointing them. You have no idea what it’s like – your whole family, all your brothers and sisters, lined up on their knees praying for you because you’ve been caught with wet knickers again. You’ll have noticed my little... er...’
‘Ha, yes. My little squirt. It’s hard to hide. Mum told me “Sophie, it’s God’s way of making it so you can’t hide your sins.” Didn’t work of course. I just did it sitting on the loo.’
She slumps back, wondering at her own story. She doesn’t seem angry, just bewildered.
‘So then I met Doug and I just thought – Great! Now we can do it whenever we want. I hadn’t thought about getting pregnant and having a load more kids to look after, but anyway Doug wasn't that keen on having sex with me. He told me I should “exhibit more self control” and it wasn’t “decent”. He just liked to get it over with without me getting too ‘excited’ so I went back to my old ways. Just a couple of times a week, down the allotment, in the shed, but I thought, well what the hell? I’ve done it now. There’s no going back.’
She shrugs and looks away, shivers a little and rubs her exposed upper arms. It’s getting chilly. I offer her a cardigan and she takes it and puts it on.
‘Of course’ she says, ‘now I understand I was just a fairly normal woman with a crappy sex life, but at the time it was like they were all watching me, with that look on their faces. I can’t describe it...’
‘Contempt, disappointment, embarrassment.’
‘Exactly’ she says, pleasantly surprised. She smiles for the first time since the story started. ‘You know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you. Hah! How about that? So, anyway... Then I had the op. I was nearly fifty. I made an appointment and went and had it done. They didn’t know, my family. I didn’t tell them. But there was a complication... So here I am – divine retribution.’

We sit silently for a time, watching the darkness close in once more outside.
‘I still don’t get why you have to stay here’ I say.
‘I don’t really either’ she admits, smiling feebly. ‘It’s just a thing I have to do.’
‘Like a penance.’
‘More like an I told you so. I honestly don’t know Gabriel. There’s just something I have to do here. There was something the guide said on the boat... I was so depressed and confused and scared back then. I couldn’t think straight. I thought – what will I do if I go back? What can a ten year old girl do to change the rest of her life? Wherever I go, whatever happens, I’ll be like this. I was ready to jump over the side, I can tell you. Then she told me – she said “I can’t promise anything but things that happen to you here can change everything.” You carry them with you – like an alternate version. There’s a freedom here. Do you see? It’s about fighting your demons. Maybe that’s it – that’s what you’ve been seeing – people’s demons. Maybe it’s time we all stood up to them. Then when I get to thirteen next time I’ll be ready. I’ll know they’re talking out of their arses and I’ll be able to tell them so.’ She grins mischievously. ‘Or more likely I’ll just smile sweetly and say “Yes Daddy. Whatever you say Daddy” like a good little girl, because I’ll know better. Honestly, when there’s so much torture and death in the world, you’d think the religious would have something better to bang on about besides sex. It’s idiotic. I’m quite sure God would agree with me if He existed. Jesus definitely would.’
I sit down in the wicker chair in the window. It’s totally dark now. I look at my hands. She can see I’m not satisfied with her explanation.
‘And I’ve had your love here too’ she says softly. ‘I’ll carry that with me, and I’ll look for you when I get back. And when you find me you’ll know I was right won’t you. Hm?’
My tears are coming again. I can’t stand this.
‘I just need to do my time ok?’
‘But how much time?’
‘I don’t know. But I do know I can’t just leave because you want me to. Do you see that? It has to be when I’m ready. And you can’t stay, just to look after me. I have to do this on my own now. Do you understand?’
‘I suppose so. No not really...’

She comes over, puts her arms around me again and rests her head on my shoulder.
‘I’ll be ok. I promise’ she whispers.
‘But, how can you?’
‘Please Gabriel.’
I try again to say something. ‘Ssh’ she says gently, her finger to my lips. ‘I know you’re afraid for me, and I will be extra careful. I promise. I won’t be alone...’
I sit back, utterly miserable.
‘I didn’t mean like that’ she says, unconvincingly I think. She pulls me against her and I allow her to half hug me. ‘I’ll make sure I always have friends around, and not go out alone at night. I didn’t used to before anyway. I think... Well, whatever. I’ll be ok, and I will leave. I will come after you. We will meet again, in life, I promise’ and she kisses me hard on the mouth and I turn and hold her tight. We both know it won’t be as easy as that but she finds a piece of paper and writes - Palace Pier, Brighton, June 21st, 2000, three in the afternoon, by the doughnut stand. She folds the paper up and puts it in my bag, grabs my face in both hands and kisses me hard again. ‘Now you have to go’ she says. ‘Talk to James and the others. Go!’ she says, smacking my arse as I roll off the bed.
It took a while. I had to find my clothes and things and I found other excuses not to leave, and we cuddled and kissed a few more times. I told her to be careful so many times it got ridiculous, but eventually I went through the door and down the stairs and out down the street.

The hostel was exactly as I’d left it and James and Liam and some of the others were there. I told them I was leaving town, so if they wanted to come...

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Voyage VIII – Cathy

I had a sobering conversation with Cathy the other day, about her kids and Mick, her partner and her parents and all the rest of the people she knew and cared about all those years. Mostly she bitched about them - the most self-centred, lazy... They’d never cooperate, any of them. They just walked all over her. Took her for granted. Sometimes she wonders why she even bothered and would they even notice if she just failed to come home one evening?
‘I bet they’re still stuck in front of the box now’ she says, ‘vaguely wondering where I’ve got to and who’s turn is it to go out and get the Chinese.’ She slowly shakes her head in exasperation and affection.
I try to be light about it. ‘I'm sure they did care’ I say, ‘really, deep down. Give them a bit longer. Christmas perhaps’ but I know I’ve said the wrong thing. There’s nothing obvious, but I can see it in her eyes.
‘No’ she says at last. ‘Actually I wish they wouldn’t. I’d rather they never noticed. Leave them be, in front of the telly forever, oblivious...’ Tears are coming again, and I’m giving her a cuddle again.
Nobody else in our little group talks much about people they’ve left behind. I think back, recalling the few I had in my life at the end. I’d been alone for so long by then I’d forgotten what it was like to have a social life, or people that cared about me. Justine was the last and she died ten years before I did. I picture my mum and dad, not as they had been at the ends of their lives but as they appeared in my dreams, which they did regularly right up until the end. I didn’t want to bother Cathy with it – she had enough to deal with. I resolved to talk to Andrea about it next time though.

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.