Monday, 30 January 2012

Voyage II – Like Children

The philosophers are in deep discussion again up on deck. I go over to talk to them, find out what they’re talking about today.
‘Hey, Gabriel!’ shouts Ned – he’s always pleased to see me. I go over and look at the chessboard. Olly, his opponent, appears to be winning as usual. I say “appears” advisedly, because Ned nearly always wins. I know nothing about chess (well, I know the rules, but that’s about it) but Ned’s game seems unusual even to me in that it consists of him losing nearly all his pieces and then sweeping in and obliterating his opponent’s royalty. Playing Ned is not like ordinary games of chess. It’s more like trying to work out how a trick is done. No one has figured it out yet. I sit down on a spare seat at the corner next to Lou. Keith sits diagonally opposite. They may play later. Lou passes me a glass and fills it with something tasting like port. ‘Cheers’ I say, raising my glass a little. They nod and tip their glasses in return.
I look to be the youngest person here by a long way but they don’t seem to mind me butting in. I get more intelligent conversation here than with the others, that’s for sure.
‘We were talking about children’ says Keith.
‘We’ve done the “love them but couldn’t eat a whole one” joke, in case you were thinking...’ adds Olly, not looking up.
‘Bugger’ I say. ‘That was all I had to offer on the subject.’ Ned smiles a little. I look around. Back in life this would have been appalling weather to sit outside and play board games – sleet and fog, wind rattling in the rigging, but the freezing weather can’t hurt us here. We drink espresso and all manner of spirits, liquers and fortified wines and feast on hot Danish pastries and spiced Indian snacks. We wear furs and eiderdown coats, huge fur-lined boots, and ridiculous hats. We can hardly move once we get settled.
‘What about them?’ I ask, loudly, because of the weather, and because of all the soundproofing we are wearing.
‘Whether they’re a good idea or not’ says Ned, reaching over to move his rook, holding the enormous saggy sleeve up with the other hand so it doesn’t drag across the board. ‘Check’ he says.
‘Bollocks’ says Olly contemplatively, and sinks further down in his collars.
‘What’s your take on it young ‘un? says Lou, ‘you being that much closer to it all than the rest of us.’
‘Don’t know. Didn’t really think about it’ I say, which is not strictly true. I just didn’t want to think of it when I was with Mar. She didn’t want any. The thought of us as a family makes me shudder. It would have meant me at the bottom of an even bigger heap than I already was.
‘Rubbish’ says Keith, conversationally. ‘You’ve got an opinion on every bloody other thing. Don’t tell me...’
‘Well, there’s enough people in the world already if you ask me’ I begin.
‘Folks don’t have kids to maintain the bloody population’ says Ned.
‘But it’s a factor...’ says Olly. ‘Economically... you want to maintain a viable workforce, don’t...’
‘Immigration’ announces Ned, leaning back smugly. Olly demurs. ‘Give me an answer to that that’s not racist and I’ll spare your queen.’
Olly looks down. ‘All I’m saying is... No, look, I’m not saying...’
‘Too late’ says Ned, sweeping the queen away, grinning extravagantly ‘Check mate, me old mormyrid, checkmate. Who’s next?’
Everyone sits back, relieved. Olly shakes Ned’s hand, for the umpteenth time, in defeat, grins and stands to take orders for a round of drinks. I want a latte. ‘Righto’ he says and heads below.
‘Providing lambs for the slaughter apart then’ says Ned, turning to me, ‘What do we have them for, children? We’ve been talking about this all afternoon, and not got a straight answer yet.’
‘Well, not one you accept anyway’ says Lou.
‘Same thing’ he says. ‘I believe I have demonstrated perfectly adequately to you lug-worms the limitations of your arguments...’
‘Which were?’ I ask, innocently, smiling at Lou, who is looking very serious, but who I know is struggling to keep a straight face. I’ve been in his position before – Ned likes the opportunity to recap the debate – pouring much derision on the points of view thus far expressed as he goes along.
‘Lou’s argument suffers from similar flaws to Olly’s, in that he seems to suppose that people bring forth sproggs in order to serve their genes.’
‘That really isn’t...’
‘So, being a biologist, in your case, somehow results, on average, in your having greater numbers of offspring, greater numbers of copies of biologist genes, if I understand you correctly, than Keith here with mere painter-and-decorator genes on offer?’
‘Excuse me’ says Keith. ‘There’s nothing “mere” about them.’
‘No offence intended me old stoat. I understand you had very fruitful genes’ says Ned, turning to him, gripping his thigh and giving it a good old shake.
‘No offence taken I’m sure. But yes, rather too fruitful I’m afraid.’ He looks ruefully at me.
‘It’s pure Malthus’ says Ned.
‘Steady on’ says Keith. ‘Just because I live in Three Bridges doesn’t make me...’
‘I rest my case’ says Ned, turning to me with a shrug and a stage whisper. ‘Keith is very pragmatic. He admits his children were simply his pension and rest home.’
‘I did not say...’
‘Oh but you did sir, you did. I must insist. Now, who’s for cribbage?’ Olly comes back with the drinks and some fritter-like Asian snacks, which apparently the chef has just made, accompanied by a variety of chutneys. We all dig in with much appreciation.
‘Part of a very fine tradition Keith’ he resumes. ‘Goes back to the Neolithic I should think, and still popular in many parts of the world – spawn loads of brats to take over the farm and keep you when you and the missis’re too decrepit do keep it going yourself. Makes good economic sense – for a subsistence farmer.’ The crib board appears. I decline a hand, and the others all begin to play.
‘Come on then’ says Ned to me, once they’ve all made a start, and using one of the pegs off the score board to pick his teeth, to everyone’s disgust.
‘Me?’ I say
‘Children’ he says. ‘You didn’t have any. You told us that.’
‘Did I? Oh, ok’ I say. ‘Well...’ I begin. I pause. I wait. ‘Some people really seem to like children... Strange but true.’
‘ “Like” you say?’
‘Well, you’
‘No, “like” is good. Lets stick with “like”. Did you like your children Keith?’
‘Of course I did. I’d do anything for them. What are you getting at?’
‘Oh, nothing. “Love” hmm...’ he muses, then turns to me again. ‘Do you like children Gabriel?’
‘I suppose, some. Babies are very cute...’
‘Ah babies, yes. Is it my go? Sorry. Got caught up in the reverie there for a mo.’ He takes his go and smiles vaguely for a time. ‘Babies’ he says to no one in particular. ‘What a rotten trick.’
‘Excuse me?’ says Keith again.
‘Terrible biological trick to play on a person. Cuteness. Do you think it’s innate Lou?’ Lou tries to look as if he will have something useful to say, but it’s a pretence, and we all know it. ‘Baby animals are so cute, even frogs – all big googly eyes and wobbly legs, even baby fish – not the legs of course – have you seen them? All eyes. It’s universal. Are animal parents programmed to find babies cute and so look out for them do you think Lou?’
Lou, as expert witness, knows Ned as barrister will make what he wants of his testimony, but enjoys providing it anyway, we all do. Lou is the voice of science, Keith is the man on the Clapham omnibus and common sense personified, I am the voice of youth and idealism. Olly, when he can be riled, is the embattled man of faith. I know what a mormyrid is, and as nick-names go, it’s spot on.
‘Well,’ says Lou, after much thought ‘there are sound developmental reasons why juvenile animals are proportioned the way they are – the disproportionately large eyes for example are...’
‘I understand all that’ says Ned. (We knew Lou would not be allowed to talk any more than was strictly necessary. He does drone on a bit, and never uses a few syllables where several more will do. I swear I once heard him tell Keith that a tree he’d seen had had “significant spatial magnitude”. ‘It was quite a big one then.’ said Keith dryly.) ‘But what I’m suggesting here,’ continues Ned ‘is that parent animals have come to recognise this combination of characters as, in some way, appealing, and therefore worthy of nurturing hmm? The very characteristics that we term “cute” and treat in much the same way.’ The impersonation is very good.
Lou knows and takes it well. ‘I think you may be anthropomorphising a tad’ is all he says. Both of them smile broadly.
‘Just a tad. Anyway, where was I?’
‘Before that. Errm o yes – Rotten Trick’ he says. ‘Everybody likes, nay, loves babies, of course, they’re so cute, but they’re easy to look after...’
‘Oh come on,’ says Olly from behind his cards ‘you’ve had children yourself. You know better than that – lack of sleep, nappies everywhere, teething, you name it... not to mention labour, caesareans...’
‘Episiotomies. I remember it well, but as the midwife was keen to impress on me after our first, it’s still not the hard part. It’s just biology. It’s relatively straight forward - medicine, surgery, nourishment, shelter...’
‘Oh come on, I don’t think...’
‘Keeping a baby is like keeping a fish tank – you feed it, you clean it, you keep it warm. It’s biology. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you get my drift. It’s hard work... ok, ok, I know, I know, it’s very hard work... but...’
‘Glad my wife’s not here to hear this...’
‘But it’s not the hardest part is what I’m getting at. Do you wonder why everybody says they want a baby but no one says they’re looking forward to having a five year old, or a thirteen year old, or, god help us, a two year old?’
‘Well it normally follows on naturally – two, five, thirteen year old. Hopefully at any rate...’
‘But that’s not what people are thinking when they actually plan to have a child. They all just think “Ah cute babies.” Trust me. Children are a totally different bucket of eels. The only plausible reason anyone would let themselves in for that is biology. We have babies because they’re cute, but then before you know it you’re overrun with children.’
We all sit quietly. ‘And teenagers. It’s true’ says Lou, finally. ‘Babies are the easy part. Relatively speaking.’
‘A lot of mine wouldn’t have bothered if they’d really thought about it I don’t think’ says Olly. He means his parishioners I think. He had a particularly rough inner city patch.
‘We had two with a lot of problems early on – lost one. That wasn’t so easy’ adds Keith biting his lip.
‘Sorry Keith. I wasn’t talking about babies that get sick. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean...’
‘I know. S’alright.’ says Keith, reaching across, gripping Ned’s arm. Everyone sits quietly for a while. ‘But people can get ill any time any way’ he adds. ‘It doesn’t make any difference to your argument...’
‘I think a lot of people don’t really like children that much at all’ I say. ‘They just have them because, well, everybody does.’
‘I think there’s a lot of truth in that’ says Olly.
‘So, I think we are agreed’ says Ned, standing up. ‘People have children for all sorts of reasons: hoodwinked by biology, enlightened self-interest, lack of imagination, and occasionally eugenics, but the only good reason to have children is because you like them, and with that gentlemen... I bid you goodnight.’
The rest of us sit for a while – finish the food and watch the sea moving darkly along side, then all head off to our cabins.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Vincent I – Bof!

‘I would have’ says Vincent, my guide, shrugging in that very French way he has, as if it should all be perfectly obvious. ‘Why ever not?’ he says.
We’re in the talking room for another session. I know it’s designed to help – a de-briefing from life, and I do have stuff to sort out, I know.
‘I don’t know’ I say eventually, but I do know – it’s because I was weak, and he knows it. I’ve said too much. I wish he wasn’t my guide. I’d prefer one of the girls, but not for the obvious reason. I can usually talk to women easier, that’s all. This feels all wrong. Vincent is an arrogant sod. I don’t like him and yet I keep coming back for more. Why? Maybe I should ask if I can swap. He can’t even look at me. He just looks about the room, bored. He obviously doesn’t want to be here. I feel like saying ‘Go if you want. It’s ok – I can do without this.’ but I don’t.
‘I would have gone to see this head of department or whoever you say he was’ he continues ‘and I would have told him “I want a different supervisor or I leave”. They have to take you seriously. If you leave it looks bad on their paperwork. You should have told them. No way they want people dropping out.’
‘It wasn’t not quite as simple as that’ I say, feebly.
‘If you say so’ he says, holding his hands up, giving in.
‘Look,’ I explain, ‘I was already half way through the project. I’d have had to start all over again – if (I emphasise the “if”) if they could have found someone to take me on. I just couldn’t face it.’
‘You could have taken a year out, done some travelling, considered your options.’
‘Yeah, but I was thirty-five. They don’t really like people my age...’
‘Nonsense’ he says. ‘If you had wanted it badly enough you would have done it. You would have made it happen.’
‘It’s not as simple as that’ I say again, with even less conviction. I need to think about this, and I do, in my cabin, after Vincent has dismissed me.
I feel like crap.
I hate that phrase - “If you’d wanted it badly enough you’d have done it”. I’ve heard it a million times. Well, maybe I didn’t want it badly enough.

But I did want it very badly. How badly do you have to want something? And then, on top of that, to make matters worse, there’s the likes of Jason and Cat just buggering about – went to Art College because they didn’t know what else to do but they’re getting on with their careers, unlike me, not because they wanted it more than me but because their daddies paid for them to do it. It makes me sick.
Fucking makes me really fucking sick!
I stamp around in my cabin for a bit and then go up on deck for some air.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Journey I – Disembarkation

Like something out of Treasure Island, at dawn we head for shore in four small rowing boats. The ship lies at a slight angle in a few feet of water on the low tide sands. Each boat takes eight passengers. Eight times four is thirty-two, so that’s three trips altogether to empty the ship. I’m in one of the first, although I didn’t push forward. I just happened to be in the right place. As we move up toward the beach through the shallow lapping tropical water a veritable flotilla of huge turtles move along with us, their flippers as much as ten feet long, their heads like small cars, ploughing through the water. Up ahead a bank of beige sand is topped with tall, slender-stemmed palms and a mass of other vegetation. And it’s hot. Now we’re down at sea level there’s hardly even a breeze and we wear as little as possible. I’m not sure how Mrs Sadeghi manages, in her robes and headscarf, but she seems comfortable enough. I suppose she’s used to the heat where they came from. Shamim is much more lightly dressed in a thin white blouse and trousers. I can almost make out the dark form of her body underneath it. She’s not wearing a bra. I smile guiltily at Mr Sadeghi but he doesn’t seem to have noticed me ogling his daughter and he smiles jovially back. I like the idea that I’ll be travelling with them. They’re good people.
Once on the beach, and with legs wet to the thighs we shoulder our packs and head for the shade. The new guides are there with mule carts for us to travel in. Mrs Sadeghi looks none too impressed but her husband helps her up and we settle among the sacks. Shamim smiles cheerfully at me and sits closer than I would have expected and I feel her warmth fill me up from my belly to my eyebrows. Others gradually join us - a man I spoke to briefly once at the bar (‘I’m, Mike’ he says, shaking our hands) and two ladies I don’t recognise. They introduce themselves as Agnes and Muriel.
Lastly, with a shock I realise Nicky is clumsily trying to hoist herself over the side. I’m too taken aback to move and Mr Sadeghi comes forward to give her a hand. As usual there is an unobstructed view of her breasts, wobbling in her thin cotton top as she leans over the side and then flops down before us. I glance at Shamim who is clearly enjoying my discomfort. I smile apologetically back at her. Eventually, having treated us all to a display of her arse as she tumbles in amongst us, she sits back and introduces herself. She smiles coolly at Shamim and I and then settles back in her sunglasses to doze.
We all feel sleepy I think. Most of us were up late the night before and it’s been an early start too. Although we’ve had plenty of warning of course, packing has been a last minute thing – what with all the drama during the night. I hope I’ve got everything I need. I didn’t even get the chance to say my goodbyes properly.
Pretty soon we feel the wagon begin to move on the uneven track and we all look around at the beach, the ship and the others, still disembarking. I notice Olly wading ashore so presumably Lou won’t be far behind. I give him a wave but he doesn’t see me. I know our carts will become separated as we go and I probably will never see any of them again. I’ll miss them. I really will. I’m worried about Ned too. I have a strong feeling he’s not coming with us this time.

The first day of our overland journey begins very quietly. I feel incredibly tired and the others evidently feel the same way. We all doze through the morning, only occasionally looking about when the wheels drop into a particularly deep hole and we get jostled about. I drift between sleep and looking about me, at the rank vegetation along the trackside and the occasional glimpses of life amongst it, at the people around me, and at Nicky’s long, rather fleshy white legs that are sprawled out to my left. I can see the regularly arranged specks of her follicles where she’s shaved them. Shamim sleeps on my right – her head tilted back, she snores and makes amusing gargling noises every time we are jolted.
As the sun gets hot the guide stops the cart and swiftly arranges an off-white, rather tatty canvas over the wooden frame above us and, with Mike’s help, ties it down. The rest of us look on in befuddled silence. Now we all lay together in the dim light of a constellation of rips and punctures and threadbare patches. It’s a beautiful soft warm light. I look closely at what we are lying amongst. It appears to be a lot of kitbags filled with bedding or perhaps camping equipment, perhaps food. It’s hard to tell. The coarse weave of the bag nearest my eye becomes hypnotic, compulsive. A tiny glossy black beetle appears from a hole, waves its antennae and disappears into another. I look closely at the worn, bleached grain of the boards in the floor next to my head. I study the old nails holding it together, scraped and bent. Another jolt and Shamim shifts again. I feel her breath on my neck. I look at her brown arm in its thin cotton sleeve. It looks so fine and elegant. I want to kiss it.
Another insect trots happily across the small wood-floored canyon between my pillow and her arm. I watch it investigate the tiny grains of dust and fibres of its environment. It seems to know what it’s doing. I turn on my back and look at the canvas. I make patterns out of the tiny pinpricks of light and think of the constellations of stars I’ve not seen for months. Outside, crickets are in full chorus. I look down over my chest and see Nicky looking intently at me. I smile but get no response. I prop myself up, give her a little wave and see that she only looks awake in the half-light. In fact she is sleeping with her eyes half open. I take the opportunity to observe her then remember there are others with us and look about to see if they’re watching. Agnes (or is it Muriel?) seems to be awake, peering out under the canvas but otherwise all is quiet. I look back at Nicky, laying on her back, spread-eagled, legs apart, skirt up around her thighs so I can see her knickers, blouse fallen open so that her bra is uncovered. And yet somehow she just seems sweet and silly rather than lewd and dirty – like an over-grown child who is not old enough yet to know about the dangers. I want to go over and cover her up.
I look at her feet and her ankles, which are not delicate and graceful like Shamim’s but she wears a fine silver ankle chain with a tiny heart on it and it seems terribly sad somehow. I’m reminded of Emily, Sophie’s little girl. She loved things like that. We didn’t know what to make of each other at all but I knew almost immediately that I would be committed to being there for her in the future (her father was not much help) and that felt exactly right. It makes me wonder how Nicky managed to get into the mess she’s in. I can see her as a sweet girl too. I wonder what happened.

As night falls we feel the wagon come to a halt. We’ve all been awake for a while but haven’t felt the need to say very much. It’s been a peaceful, silent fellowship. When we stop the guide pokes his head in and says ‘Time to stop for the night folks.’
We all stir ourselves and stumble about among the sacks – a little mild swearing as accompaniment. I drop down onto the ground in time to see the sun disappearing behind a mountain. I look about. The sea already seems impossibly far below, and a mass of vegetation rises above us. The road has been built into the hillside and there is a considerable drop on one side and a steep bank on the other, cut into the jungle.
‘Now, can I get your attention just for one moment folks?’
We all look at our guide – a tall, bony sort of a man with a tiny, comical moustache. His lankiness contrasts interestingly with the extravagance of his shorts and bush hat. We all look at each other, wondering what we’ve let ourselves in for.
‘Ok, now my name is Jeb and I’ll be your guide for the next part of the trip...’ He rubs his hands together as he says this, and shifts agitatedly from foot to foot.
‘Now, I took the trouble of collecting fire wood this morning so we wouldn’t have to go blundering about in the dark now, so if you’d like to unload... er...?’
‘And err...?’
‘That would be fabulous. You’ll see it all, slung between the wheels. Now ladies, perhaps you’d like to have a look behind the driver’s seat where you’ll find some pots and pans and other bits and pieces and we’ll be away. Mike I have a job for you...’
And off we go. Shamim turns to me with a big smile and a shrug. ‘Ladies?’ she says. Mrs Sadeghi and the other two women are already busy and Mr Sadeghi is waiting for my help. Only Nicky seems not to know what to do. She stands there looking about, looking totally lost. Shamim glances at me and goes to help her.
‘Now young man’ says Mr Sadeghi. ‘Are you feeling strong?’
I look at the firewood and realise we’ve got a major job on our hands. One thing’s for sure, Jeb’s not going to let us get cold.

After we’ve eaten (some chicken and beans and potato. It’s all very Old West) we sit about on our rugs and bags and stare into the fire. Jeb is talking quietly to Muriel and Agnes. Mr and Mrs Sadeghi sit together in silent contemplation, he half behind her, caressing her shoulders. She looks round, smiles and pats his hand. Shamim is talking with Mike. Nicky and I sit a little way apart, but except for a few pleasantries I’ve not been able to get her to say anything. She looks very unhappy indeed. Jeb keeps looking over at her with a worried look on his face too.
Slowly the temperature drops and we all crawl into our bedding. Jeb stays up a little longer, watching over us. All around there are sounds of things rustling and scuttling about, sometimes very close by. Unidentifiable and bizarre calls echo about periodically. And amongst it all there is the tiny sound of a young girl crying herself to sleep.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Voyage I – Coming to

Feels like I’ve been here a very long time. Why have I just accepted this state of affairs? I don’t know these people – I’ve been sitting with them for time untold, we’ve even spoken a bit, but I have no recollection of what we said. We smile and nod when we see each other but everything moves away as I try to grasp it. A girl in a grey outfit brings me a drink on a small tray. It’s perfect – the best coffee I ever tasted and yet oddly spiced. Am I being drugged?
I can move. I bring my arms out and sit up. I appear to be in some sort of steamer chair, snugly wrapped in a quilt. She smiles at me encouragingly and suddenly I have this feeling of having lost something terribly important. I've lost everything. There’s no one I know here and I know it’s not possible ever to see the people I do know ever again. I'm a snowflake in a whirling sky.
‘Are you feeling a bit more awake today?’ she says in a voice so gentle it hurts.
‘Where am I?’ is all I can say – she can’t hear me I’m speaking so quietly. I try to collect my thoughts better. ‘I don’t know anyone’ I say, choked up. ‘These people...’ I point vaguely at the other chairs ‘...are not mine.’
She looks down at me – a mother’s pity in her eyes, and yet I don’t know her. Why should she care? It doesn’t feel real. And yet I can’t help needing her to stay with me. She turns, I think, to get assistance and I try to implore her not to leave me but my voice is lost in the wind. (Why is it so cold? It’s arctic here.) I turn and look at what seems to be the sea, although all I can see is a frozen, misty grey haze. A fine frozen wet is stinging my face. My body is warm and relaxed. There’s nothing to see.
I think about my body and it feels very small and weak, while my head feels huge and wobbly – I can barely lift it, just roll it from side to side. I look at the other people on either side of me, similarly arranged in rugs on deck chairs and I feel this strange glee rise from my solar plexus to my head and I giggle a little to myself.
‘This must be what it’s like to be a baby’ I think. ‘Maybe I’m a baby now.’

Sunday, 1 January 2012

book 3 ~ Misadventure

Landscaping by Leonardo
This landscape has no truck with geology. It’s like something by one of those old French painters - Claude or Poussin or somebody. As we walk along I see chiselled pinnacles and gaping grottoes with trees grasping at their lips and curved escarpments with wind-carved spinneys at their summits. Fossils protrude randomly from the strata as if placed there for the express purpose of convincing any doubter that evolution had most certainly not occurred here. At any turn I half expect to see a temple on a promontory or a tower on a crag, wreathed in mists in the middle distance, or, worse, some seventies prog-rock band doing a photo shoot.
I mentioned this to our guide when we arrived - said something clever about this place being like some sort of Tolkein rip-off, and she looked at me, paused, smiled, and said ‘No, quite the reverse actually.’

I look at these improbable rock formations, cresting and flowing around us, encrusted and impregnated with life of all kinds and I realise suddenly – all the painters and writers I loved most, all those disorientating perspectives and airless spaces – this is what they were on about  –  the afterlife.

Death # 3 - Pratfall
I remember reading that news story about Rod Hull. Remember him? He was big in the 70s, him and that preposterous emu glove puppet. Anyway apparently he died when he fell off his roof whilst adjusting his TV aerial. I have this notion (I’m sure I’m not alone in this) that the emu was up there with him that day. And the emu of course was tugging the aerial out of Rod’s hands, and Rod snatched it back. A hilarious tussle no doubt ensued, and Rod, as they say, was history.

I’m fairly sure it wasn’t like that. I don’t suppose the emu was involved at all but I can’t, off hand, think of a better example of the Ludicrous Death – more literally tragic-comic than all the Beckett plays put together – to die idiotically, comically, but (and here’s the punch line) with a little time to lie there, look at the sky, and think ‘What a bloody stupid way to go.’ Friends and family would turn up in due course, do what had to be done, shed a tear etcetera, but along with the grief there’d be the unspoken consensus that after all, he always was a bit of a prat.

Furthermore, if it’s a truism that people tend not to contemplate their own mortality until fairly late in life, it’s completely unthinkable that death will not be taken seriously. Whether it is horrific and sudden, ugly and protracted, or (if you’re lucky) peaceful and dignified, it’s a matter of grave concern. But what if you die ridiculously, embarrassingly, through your own idiocy, doing something moronic? It must happen all the time.
It is further unquestioned that obviously you won’t be around to suffer said embarrassment. Wrong again.

My name is Gabriel Fortune, late of Brighton, England, but I died at the age of thirty-four on a mountain in Spain. There were four of us – my wife, Mar (short for Maria del Mar – Mary from the sea. Isn’t that nice?), and a couple of Spanish friends, Carmen and Riqui. We hadn’t been getting on very well lately, Mar and I. She really was a stereotypical Spanish woman. She’d looked magnificent dancing sevillanas (very Surfarosa), but would never ‘demean’ herself now. She had a powerful certainty of opinion on everything and a frightening temper to go with it, but she also had a doctorate in African women’s literature. We’d been together about three and a half years, married less than two, and I’d been utterly besotted. We’d travelled together for a while, and then lived in various places in the UK. Eventually she got a job – in the local college library, and taught Spanish in the evenings, and we rented a place together in Brighton. Meanwhile I was trying to set up my workshop, get some studio space and start my career as a painter (I’d only finished with college the year before). That was when the problems started.
Up until then I’d found her fiery rudeness amusing, even sexy. I kind of liked being told how foolish I was. How could I possibly have imagined I knew how to make, say, a veggie lasagne when after all, I was just a man, whereas she of course was a Woman, and a Spanish Woman at that! Previously I’d been widely considered ‘a pretty good cook’, but Oh no, it was all wrong. Early on in our relationship I’d chuckled at being sent across the kitchen to do some menial chore, like chop onions (‘no no. You do it like this’) or open a bottle of wine. I knew she was fond of me (why would she be living in England with me otherwise?) and the sex was pretty good. I found the sight and the feel and the smell of her body enough to keep me going for hours and she liked being massaged and caressed. I couldn’t get enough. In retrospect I'm not sure she felt the same way.
In any case I came to live for those moments when she would look across at me and... Well, the fact is that I was living for those occasional, fleeting delicious scraps of indulgence. I’d say the honeymoon period lasted about six months. The actual honeymoon lasted a week and was the last truly loving time we spent together – in a tiny hotel in the Sierra de Cazorla. I’d had this dream of us making love in the mountains, in the sun under the pines, maybe near a waterfall, somewhere where we could swim naked afterwards. That wasn’t when I died, in case you were wondering. That would have to be a minor species of the Heroic Death – a category I forgot to include in my list above, but which would still be considered an impressive and serious way to go I think. I wouldn’t have minded being remembered that way.
Anyway, it didn’t last. Things got rather mundane on our return. She didn’t like her job, which she considered beneath her. I tried to tell her it might take some time for a suitable position to come up at the university but she dismissed my opinion. And we had a lot of rows. I might sound very self-righteous when I say that our arguments consisted of her screaming and me trying to reason with her, but trust me when I say I am well aware of how infuriating that must have been for her. She didn’t want reason. She wanted anger, and she didn’t much care what she had to do to get it. She’d get in from work, tired and frustrated, find something (socks under the bed, tomato pips on the bread board) to bitch about and start on me. I wasn’t like that. I was scrupulously sincere. Somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to use any argument that I couldn’t rationally defend. I tried irrationality once – some sarcastic half-truth about her faking orgasms but the fury of the response was terrifying and I didn’t try it again. Eventually the exchange would reach a crescendo with me shouting to be heard above the fury, pleading that she couldn’t possibly mean the things she was saying about me. Finally I would run out, flayed by the contempt spewing from the mouth of the woman who was supposed to be the love of my life.
The first time I ran out she was so soft and sorry when I came back some hours later, and so worried (I’d gone up on the hills, it was dark and raining). She held me and we cried for hours together. On later occasions my exit just became the subject of more contempt – how typical it was of me, running away and so forth. Frankly, as time went on I ran away because if I hadn’t I’d have hit her. And of course, a man must never hit a woman, no matter what the provocation.
Having said all this I wouldn’t want to give the impression we did nothing but argue. I suppose this kind of thing happened about ten times in the entire relationship, and at first it was ok. We felt we learned something on each occasion, but as time went on it became clear we were learning nothing. I had no money for studio space and she gave up on her academic career.
It seems laughable to think now that there was a time when I’d be strolling along some country lane and I’d come across some scruffy little cabin or bungalow or a caravan perhaps, sunk in billows of briars and nettles and potato plants, the ground strewn with chicken wire and rusting mowers, climbing frames and paddling pools half deflated, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t one day find a place like that and do it up and plant trees and grow some veggies, maybe get a dog.
But then when it came to it, and even though we were both working hard, with property prices being what they were, we had to accept it wasn’t going to be like that. We simply wouldn’t be able to afford it.
I even suggested we go back to Andalucia, maybe go live on the finca with Mar’s parents but she wouldn’t hear of it. So there we were, stuck in that miserable little flat together, ’til death did us part.

That last trip to Spain I had no high hopes for a reconciliation. We met up with Carmen and Riqui and went into the mountains in a borrowed hatchback. It was a fantastic day – we saw eagles and picas and swam in a river. I loved Spain. I had some ideas for a series of pictures and began to formulate a plan for coming back alone to do some drawing. Mar was civil but distant.
That afternoon I’d been doing the driving, which always wound her up. I wasn’t too confident driving on the right-hand side of a narrow twisty mountain road with bloody great trucks coming in the other direction, so I was taking it slowly. I was very aware of her mood.
The problem really started when I was manoeuvring in a car park, and the car rolled backwards over a dip so that one of the front wheels was slightly off the ground. It was front wheel drive and we couldn’t get any traction. The three Spaniards were all talking at once. My Spanish was ok but not that good and I left them to it, walking around the car, trying to look useful. Mar was getting more and more heated, but the others seemed to be taking this in their stride. Riqui was laughing and shrugging a lot. Carmen was as loud as Mar, but good humoured. After a few minutes Riqui got the jack out and was propping the rear up and Carmen was running the engine, trying to get a grip. Mar and I were sitting on the bonnet trying to weigh it down. I could feel the full heat of her derision radiating at me along with the stultifying heat of the midday sun. ‘This is no bloody good’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go do something useful?’ I knew it was my fault that we were in this situation, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do about it but I still didn’t feel I deserved this treatment. It was just a silly mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, but somehow, being with Mar just made me feel like I was the most stupid useless person in the world. It felt like I was full of hot, acid vomit, burning my chest, ready to burst out of my head. I could feel it leaking out of my eyes. My teeth were clenched so hard my jaws ached. And yet I couldn’t yell or cry. I held it in. I got down and looked under the car. It occurred to me that the jack could go a little higher. It was on some loose stones and had shifted. I got down to have a look and to hide the tears that were leaking out.

So that was when it happened. You can see it coming can’t you? Carmen was revving the engine, and Riqui was bouncing on the bonnet, amidst much yelling and gesticulation. Somehow, I don’t really remember how, I had my head in the wheel arch when the jack slipped.

I had quite a lot of time to think, or so it seemed. The weight of the car on my shoulders and neck was enough to stop me breathing, but I think I kicked and scrabbled for a while. I was vaguely aware of people around me, shouting, running around, but I couldn’t really hear anything over the engine and the sound of my heart in my head. Eventually someone turned the engine off and I stopped struggling. It was over. I remember thanking God for the silence. I had a final image of my poor sweet girl and how sorry I was it had come to this. Everyone’s voices seemed very far away – like I was underwater. I could see gravel and pine needles under my nose. I could picture my predicament – my body splayed out, my head stuck in the side of a car. It looked very funny. It would have been a great slapstick moment in a circus with a clown car perhaps and all the clowns running about ineffectually beeping horns. I don’t remember any pain. I don’t remember being aware of my body at all in fact. I just remember feeling ridiculous, and somehow, not surprised.
‘Typical’ I thought ‘What a prat.’

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.