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.’

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.