Monday, 20 February 2012

Voyage III – Boredom

I’ve had a good look over the boat. It seems to be some kind of old pleasure steamer – the kind you see in those Hollywood films from the thirties with Cagney or Bogart. I don’t know quite what to do with myself to be honest. There’s some sort of library here with what appear to be some very rare books, and I’ve found a storeroom with some art materials but I just can’t seem to settle down to anything. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Well, I do. I’m dead – supposedly, but I don’t see much evidence of it. At least the food’s good. It all just seems so, I don’t know, claustrophobic. I’ve not seen more than a hundred metres out beyond the railings at any time so far, and apart from the fact that I can see the bow-wave and the wake, you wouldn’t guess we were moving. I wonder if the word ‘wake’ is connected to the funeral wake? It’s an interesting thought... The funeral gathering as a trail left after the life has passed. And what about ‘wake up’? Interesting. Sophie would have known. I wonder if there’s an etymological dictionary in the library.

I look at the wall of fog and around at the strange gloomy light and it’s like being in a box. I know where I’ve seen it before – in my degree show installation. I created the outdoors – a scene by the sea, enclosed in a room. I tried to get the light right, but it just felt gloomy and claustrophobic. I had this dream about people living in a city where it never really gets light and the cloud is like a lid on their world. They have moving picture windows instead of real windows – video links to other, sunnier places, or places long extinct but still stored on digital media. And then of course there’d be a technical problem, or they’d forget to pay their bill and there it would be – just a concrete wall. It would have been a really interesting idea for my degree project but the trouble was I didn’t really want to do gloomy futuristic dystopia. I wanted to do current, vibrant life. I wanted to make people care about the future, not give them an excuse to give up on it. Anyway I hope there is a view out there somewhere, because if not I’m joining the fishes. Assuming there are any fishes down there. Oh god, or whoever is out there – get me out of here. Please.

I’ve had a look at the other inmates. I was one of the last to wake up properly (typical) and they all seemed to have formed their little cliques already. I don’t really feel I can intrude now. Ned and the others are a good laugh, but I do feel very young compared to them. It also bothers me that there’s no women in their group. I always think a mixed group is more interesting – the women stop the men getting too pompous and the men stop the women getting too personal. It’s obviously a very sweeping generalisation, but there it is. I’ve had a good look at the women of course. A few seem interesting but I’ve had no indication that any of them want anything to do with me so that’s that. Sue is very sweet – she’s one of the guides. I’ve chatted to her a few times but I don’t think we’re supposed to fraternise. Ho hum. I suppose I should be hanging out with blokes nearer my own age. I look a lot younger than I did at the end, which is nice. I guess death agrees with me. There’s a group of cool-looking surf dudes that tend to congregate by the bar, but they’re not really my type – a bit too young if truth be told.
It wouldn’t be like this if I’d been on a Spanish boat. They wouldn’t have let me mope alone. If only they’d let me die in Spain instead of flying me home to England. I’ll never forgive them for that. What was the point?
I still keep looking around for other people to bother, but no one looks approachable. In Spanish, the word for ‘to bother’ is molestar. It seems appropriate. Nobody really wants to be molested.
Whenever I see a little word slip like that I think of Sophie. She was really into things like that. Anyway, I do another circuit of the deck. The boards are slick and the hull runs with rust and oil and everything drips with salt water. Up above there’s the usual sea-going paraphernalia of masts and ropes and funnels and vents, and, up in the bridge, shadowy figures we never see face to face. Davey Jones et al I shouldn’t wonder. Behind me, there’s the misted-up portholes of the bar, the forward lounge, the library and the games-cum-music room. Down below, the cabins. I can’t complain about my quarters, although they’re small they’re not cramped, and they’re nicely designed in marine ply and William Morris prints. Maybe that’s where I’ll go. I’ll get my dinner and a book and head down to my cabin and then maybe after that I’ll settle down and have a damn good mope.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Vincent II – Installation

‘So, what exactly was this project of yours about? You’ve not told me.’
He still looks bored. I don’t really want to go into it. He’ll only trash it. He knows I was at Art College, but I haven’t told him anything else.
But then I think – I should be proud of what I did. I shouldn’t allow myself to be put down by this wanker.
‘It was a video project’ I tell him.
‘Ah’ he says, nodding, as if he might have known. I look at him. I know what he’s thinking – all those pretentious ‘installations’ – a never ending loop of ‘The Artist’ tying his shoe laces titled “Pedestrian Bondage” or some such. I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve done equally silly things, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I actually caught myself once in the refectory very earnestly saying “but is it art?” I passed the comment off as ironic – post modern, but really, I meant it. I mean, Conceptual Art – it’s fun – you wake up one morning and say “Ooh wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to do?” Fun ideas, clever ideas, scary ideas, ideas that make you go “That’s bloody weird”. It’s creative, it’s interesting, but I’m not sure it’s art. I believe in craftsmanship. I guess it’s my proletarian roots showing through.
At that time I was working mostly in silk-screen – doing some gritty social realist things - lots of red and black, stars and hammers. I don’t know. It wasn’t really me. I was into nature – Piper, Craxton, Sutherland, but at the time you couldn’t get away with being that ‘literal’, or “parochial”, or “romantic”, so gritty realism it was. I took the time to mess about with ‘mixed media’ and ‘found objects’, and go out a lot and do student stuff. I remember one of the pieces I got especially good responses for was particularly ludicrous, and it was literally gritty. We had this idea late one night at a friend’s place that we wouldn’t need to vacuum the lounge if we just got an enormous roll of sticky tape, covered the entire carpet in it, and pulled all the crap off in one go. Then we got onto talking about what that would look like – a record of everything we’d done in that room over the last two years, impregnated into the carpet, then sealed forever in polythene.
To cut a long story short, I went out and bought industrial quantities of clear sticky-back plastic, and spent a weekend when everyone was away, moving the furniture around, getting a cast of their entire living room floor. (I would have done my place but I wasn’t really messy enough.) It was amazing what I found, although I cheated a bit - the condom hadn’t been there, and I replaced the spliff butts with cigarette ends, but the soiled knickers and the Smiths LP were authentic. It was enormous. I took it out in the back yard, turned it over, and had to buy another job lot of sticky-back plastic to seal the other side. It was pretty disgusting actually so I bought carpet tape to seal the edges – otherwise I think it would have been a serious health hazard. I called it ‘Floor – Laminated’ and I got a first for it. Well it’s not something I want to boast about, but it was quite impressive in its way. The carpet was quite clean too afterwards.

‘I started doing videos after I finished my degree’ I tell him.
‘What grade did you receive for your degree?’
‘A 2.1’ (Who bloody cares what grade I got?) ‘Anyway, my elder sister, Justine, used to take me to Brighton Aquarium sometimes when I was a kid...’ I can see he’s bored already. I press on anyway. ‘I really liked the way they made these underwater scenes, in these huge tanks, big as a room, and really murky and mysterious with these huge grey and green fish looming out of the gloom at you – claustrophobic too – because you could tell the scenery was all fibreglass and stuff, and you could see pipes and so on, and there were the fish just moving about aimlessly.’
‘Fascinating’ he says, almost supine in his chair. I pause. I want to go over and smack him.
‘So, basically’ I go on, ‘you’re in this dark, damp tunnel, smelling of the sea, with light just from these chambers filled with sea water, full of these mindless, dead eyed...’ My imagery gives out. I decide to give up trying to interest him in 1970s public aquaria and move on.
‘So I started making these fish tanks – basically boxes, made of card or wood originally, but later I used old cupboards, TVs, fridges...’
‘Once a whole room, for my degree show.’ He nods, satisfied that he is, of course, way ahead. ‘I used a whole load of found stuff to make the exhibits. They started off quite literal, trying to get the gloomy underwater effect of the real thing...’
‘But then?’
‘Then it got more surreal – I started using other stuff that reminded me of the sea. Weird stuff, trying to make it look claustrophobic and strangely lit inside.’
‘But it did not really go according to plan?’
‘Well, no. I mean, people liked them – I even sold a few small ones but they ended up being a bit too tasteful really. I wanted them to be spookier. A bit disturbing, but they weren’t. I couldn’t get the light right. I tried using real fish tanks, with real fish for a while.’
‘Really?’ He seems troubled by this. Is he an animal rights nut?
‘Well, it’s like, most people’s fish tanks you see in their living rooms are really tacky, you know, all brightly lit with those pink grow lights, and plants and fish all colourful, when, for me, the thing about being underwater is the light, that wobbly effect you get on the river bed from the ripples on the surface, and the algae on the stones, and the community of fish and other things moving about down there, usually just a few kinds, but maybe lots of them – do you have any idea what I mean?’ I’m beginning to lose patience. He’s sitting there inert, looking at me quizzically.
‘I do’ he says. ‘You wanted people to understand what it means to be under water, instead of just looking at a glass box with a collection of fish in it. I know exactly what you mean. Please continue, it is very interesting for me.’
I’m not at all sure now whether he’s taking the piss or not. ‘Ok, well, it didn’t really work.’ He nods – he saw that coming. ‘Keeping fish properly is quite complicated – you can’t just bung it all in a tank and expect it to do what you want. The system takes time to mature, and you have to get the mix right or they fight, or eat each other and it’s expensive, plus I was renting a room... It needed to be done properly to work, so... I gave that up, but I did have this idea, about using video.’ I pause for effect. I want him to get this. This is The Big Idea. ‘Video technology was really getting going about then. I had this idea about setting up a TV camera on the seabed, sending a constant stream of live images to projectors or screens in a gallery, so it would be like a living aquarium.’
‘Ok...’ he says. Finally, he looks interested.
‘Then I thought, what if you have four cameras, facing four ways, and four screens? A whole room could become a giant aquarium, you could walk into, or maybe six cameras, one up, one down as well, like in a watertight ball, suspended under a buoy? Or, why not feed the images to screens in place of windows in a room, so it looks like the room is under water? Affordable flat screens and digital video technology was on the horizon about then, and I got quite excited about it. I saw it as a way ordinary people could really get to grips with what was going on in the environment without having to cage actual marine animals.’
He nods ‘Why not?’
‘Then I thought, why just underwater? What about rain forests? Antarctica? What about a village in Africa, or Papua New Guinea, or New York? People could see it all. Plus the technology would be easier to install on land, so a lot cheaper – assuming you could stop the locals nicking it. So we got some sponsorship money and did a pilot project on Brighton Station. We made...’
‘I got some guys from Friends of the Earth to help out. We made a sort of marquee in there using old parachute silk and projected live images from a patch of ancient woodland that was threatened by road building.’
‘How did it go?’
‘Well, the rail people weren’t too chuffed about Friends of the Earth being involved, but we got good publicity.’
‘But it worked?’
‘The silk was hard to get flat enough, and there were problems with the amount of light it needed to be really convincing, but yes, you went inside, and, it felt quite convincing. We had live sound feed too of course, which helped. I mean, not much happens in an English woodland a lot of the time, but we had people spending the night in there, chilling out, watching – there were badgers, a deer once.’
‘And that led on to other things’
‘I actually had commercial interest, but I went for a post-grad scheme, supervised by someone who was already working in digital video.’
‘Quite impressive’ he says, and he does look impressed, finally. ‘See? I did have something’ I want to say, sneering and possibly poking my tongue out.
‘I think it finally hit me – all those years, up in my room, every day, thinking I was just doing my own thing and suddenly, whump! Some recognition, maybe even a career. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘You couldn’t believe that what you had always been striving for all those years might actually be recognised as important.’
‘Absolutely unbelievable.’
‘How did your family react?’
‘Oh, well... I don’t think they really understood to be honest, well, my sisters came to my show. They thought it was wonderful, but mum and dad I think found it all a bit scary – you know, some of the other’s stuff was a bit, you know, “challenging” if you know what I mean.’
‘So they never went.’
‘It was ok. I understood.’
He looks at his papers but doesn’t appear to be reading. He looks distracted and irritated actually.
‘So you began this post-graduate project. What did that involve?’
‘Oh, well, loads of stuff – actually getting the thing to work properly for one thing, finding sites and doing some trial runs in the UK, approaching various NGOs to see if they’d be interested in funding it...’
‘And you worked well with your supervisor?’
‘I thought so at first. It was a woman for a start, so I thought she wouldn’t be as hard-headed as a man, more receptive, less egotistical ...’
‘Something like that. Anyhow, she just took over. It just ended up being her project and I was just doing the stuff she didn’t have time for, plus, she wanted me to do all the IT and electrical stuff, which I wasn’t interested in, or at least, I knew there’d be some, inevitably, but I wanted to be in on the creative side too. The first installation we were aiming for was to do a market place in Sierra Leone, because she had contacts, and get publicity for one of the aid charities out there, by showing what it was really like to live there, day to day. I was all set to go out there and work with them, which I must confess, was a major bonus for me. It would have been a fantastic thing to be involved in...’
‘But it never happened.’
‘No, she went instead. She was pissed off that I wasn’t doing as I was told. I was bogged down in electronics and writing up. I was just a technician in the end.’
‘So you gave up.’
‘I did. I took her down with me though.’ I stop and think about that for a moment. It feels like such a defeat  but I still can’t imagine how I could have gone on with it, with her. ‘I screwed her project when she lost my funding, but she deserved it. God she was horrible. She had this thing that she was sassy and ambitious and everyone else was just jealous, but actually she was just stroppy and obnoxious and everyone loathed her.’
He looks at me with that ironic gallic expression of his – the one that tells me he thinks he has a more informed opinion on the matter, probably, than I do, but that he’s going to keep it to himself because he can’t be bothered to get into an argument with me. I know what he wants to say anyway. He wants to point out, as almost everyone I tried to explain this to did, that as a woman she would have had a very hard time getting to where she did and perhaps that explains her attitude and I should have had more sympathy.
To which I reply ‘Well boo hoo. My heart bleeds. I wasn’t the one who gave you a hard time. Don’t take it out on me. Bitch’ or words to that effect.
‘She just thought if she pushed hard enough eventually I’d just buckle under...’ I take a deep breath and look across at him.
‘But you were already half way through?’
‘Oh it had been wrong for months. I held on as long as I could but it just got worse. Then, when she said she was going to Sierra Leone without me I flipped.’
‘Did a bit of yelling at her, lodged a formal complaint with the college and the funding body and walked out.’
We sit in silence for a while. I can see blue sky outside, and hear music from the lounge.
‘I just felt so tired of it all.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘Went to Spain, taught English for a bit...’
‘Forgot about it?’
‘No. Oh look I know, it was partly my own fault. I’ve never been any good at doing as I’m told. I just knew I could do it my way and make it work, and she just wouldn’t let me. Had to have it her way. Had to take over, interfere...’ I sit and brood on the memory for a while. He sits and nods. It occurs to me now that he knows exactly what I’m talking about.
‘It could have been fantastic’ I say.
‘I don’t doubt it’ he says. It occurs to me that he doesn’t look bored at all. He just looks very weary.
‘Some things are hard’ he says quietly. ‘Things take time.’
So I should just shut up and get on with it like everyone else – is that what he’s saying? Just stop making such a fuss and grow up?
No that’s not what he means. I leave, confused.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Journey II – Green eyes

When it gets light the first thing I do is glance over to see if Nicky is still there. She is, and still asleep too. Mr and Mrs Sadeghi are prodding and feeding the fire because it’s still perishing cold out here. Mike is taking a little stroll. Everyone else is sound asleep. I look down at the little mats we’ve been equipped with to sleep on. They’re surprisingly comfortable, even on this rocky ground. Mrs Sadeghi notices I’m awake and quietly beckons me over.
‘Here’ she says. ‘We made coffee. I know you like your coffee.’
‘Damn straight’ I say with some enthusiasm and they shush me vigorously and point at Jeb who is dead to the world, so to speak.
‘He didn’t get much sleep – keeping an eye on...’ and they nod at Nicky, foetal in her sleeping bag across the way.
‘I tried too but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.’
‘Did you hear her crying?’
We all nod.

The second day is a little livelier than the first. Mostly we still loll about among the luggage and watch the countryside go by, but when we get bored we take turns sitting up next to Jeb, or walk alongside.
The landscape is truly breathtaking. As the gradient gets steeper the road snakes increasingly tightly, making a ladder of tight loops up the side of what I’ve come to realise is a mountain, not a hill. The vegetation becomes less dense as we go but more interesting. It occurs to me that in my next life I really must visit the tropics at least once, but then I think – well here I am. This is the tropics. Why do I still think this is somehow less real?
On the verge of the road I stop and peer down among the shoots and stems and fronds. Every millimetre of soil I expose has things scuttling for cover – worms, scorpions, beetles, lizards and a whole lot of other things I have no names for. I really wish Lou was travelling with us. He’d have a better idea. Then I remember that Shamim was interested in the environment and maybe I should ask her. It also occurs to me that we haven’t seen any of the other wagons since we left the beach. I stand and look down where we’ve come from but there’s no sign of them. I look over at our wagon, labouring up a steep incline and see that nobody is sitting with Jeb at the moment. I ask him if I can come up. ‘Sure’ he says but doesn’t look like stopping to let me on. I look at the side of the wagon and find a leather handle and a step and swing myself up. He winks at me in a fatherly way (an idealised father. Not my actual father) and I suddenly feel very at home with things.
‘You seem very at home with all this’ he says.
‘I used to love going camping and trekking. I never went anywhere like this though.’
‘Isn’t it magnificent? This is my fifth trip. I never get tired of it.’
We sit for a while and look at the view.
‘Hey’ he says, then looks surreptitiously over his shoulder and lowers his voice. ‘Do you know anything about this young’
‘Nicky’ I whisper and look around for her. She’s in the same place as yesterday, at the back, and apparently sleeping.
‘Nicky, that’s it.’
‘She told me some things. She didn’t want me to tell anyone else.’
‘She troubles me. Is she really as young as she appears to be?’
‘She’s about twenty I think.’
He nods and looks around again.
‘We all need to keep an eye on her.’
‘Will you try and talk to her some more, when she wakes up?’
‘I have been trying. She just brushes me off.’
‘Well, they say nobody ever committed suicide because people tried too hard to help. I suspect that’s true here too.’
‘You think she might go?’
‘I’m sure she will, at some point. The question is, will she do it because she wants to be chased or will she genuinely want to disappear? I can’t tell yet.’
‘You’ve seen this before.’
‘That I have.’
We sit and look a bit longer. We pass through a grove of palms whose grey pleated fan-shaped leaves are at least ten feet across. They stand by the road like sentinels, unreal, serene.
After a few more miles we cross a ridge and look down into a broad valley, almost entirely filled with trees.
‘See that?’ He points. Way below us a small area of what look like fields can be seen.
‘That’s where we’re headed. Not tonight, the next night, they’ll put us up.’
I nod and wonder how long this journey will be. Beyond the settlement below I scan forward and see another range at least as high as this and higher mountains beyond that in the far distance. My head spins with the scale of it. I feel a tap on my back. It’s Shamim.
‘Do you want to walk a little more?’ she says.
I jump down as we’re still moving and almost fall on my face but he halts to let her off. What a gentleman. She thanks him.
We walk slowly at first to let the wagon get ahead a little.
‘Are you avoiding me?’ she says, smiling her little challenging smile.
‘You know I’m not.’
‘What then? Oh look! Look at this.’ She crouches by the side of the road and lets a mantis crawl onto her hand. It’s about six inches long and boldly banded in yellow and black. Amazing. I never saw it among the plants, but here it is, on her arm, like some sort of miniature motorway maintenance machinery.
‘Do you know much about all this, you know, nature and stuff?’ I say.
‘A little. I know more about the mountains at home - the Elburz.’
She shows me some other things, explains a little about the flowers and the insects. I’m impressed. Then she tries to get me to talk about what I used to do, but I say I’ll tell her another time. She sees her father stand up and stretch and she waves at him. Nicky sits up too and sees us but makes no visible reaction.
‘Is it because of her?’ says Shamim
‘You know very well what.’
‘Ok. I don’t know. She worries me.’
‘Is that all?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh Gabriel! You know exactly what I mean. Stop pretending you don’t.’
‘I don’t want her if that’s what you mean, well, in a way... But she’s so young. And she’s so fragile. To be honest my main feeling is protective. I mean, yes, there’s lust too, but no. It’s just too weird.’
‘Have you spoken to her much?’
‘Yes, quite a lot actually, back on the boat. She’s really messed up. I don’t know if she’s talked to anyone else much.’
‘Have you had sex with her?’
‘God no. She kissed me once, that last night.’
‘I saw you together. You looked very uncomfortable.’
I turn and look at her. There’s a wicked smile barely disguised on her lips.
‘You’re enjoying this aren’t you’ I say but she just grins at me.
We walk along in silence a bit further.
‘The thing is’ I begin, ‘I think I might be the only person she’s really talked to. I know that sounds very self important, but... I feel like she’s my problem, in a way.’
‘You could be her knight in shining armour.’
‘Don’t take the piss.’
‘I wasn’t.’
‘Yes you were. Anyway, I feel I should be trying to help. Jeb asked me to. She started talking to me back on the boat and I just think maybe...’
‘I don’t like to disillusion you but you do know she “talked” to a lot of men on the boat, don’t you.’
‘I know, or rather I don’t know exactly. I think she maybe slept with a few of them, and she was always flirting and playing about I know, but I have no idea if she actually talked to anyone else – not properly. I don’t know. Anyway she doesn’t look like she’s going to make any new friends here, so...’
Shamim sighs and nods. I think finally she sees the problem.
‘Honestly I really don’t want this responsibility. I just want to do this journey, look at the scenery... spend some time with you perhaps...’
She sees the shy expression on my face. I’ve never dared flirt with her at all before. She smiles and looks away.
‘Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?’
‘I’m just afraid she’ll be jealous...’
‘Really? She has something to be jealous of now?’
‘Ok, ok. I just think she might not open up if she thinks...’
We walk along a bit more. I don’t know what more to say – I’m covered with awkwardness. At least Shamim seems to think it’s funny.
‘I think she will have to get used to it’ she says after a while. ‘Anyway, I spoke to her a little last night. Maybe we can be friends too.’
‘That would be better.’
‘Ok. Oh, by the way, did you know she wasn’t supposed to be with us?’
‘No. Jeb told me. She ran and jumped on before they could stop her.’
Now I’m worried, and Shamim knows it. We walk along for another couple of miles. She points out all manner of bugs and flowers but I’m too preoccupied to really take it in. As far as I know I’m the only person on this wagon she already knew. She must be expecting something from me. I see her sitting there among the baggage at the back. She looks at me sometimes but then quickly looks away when I look back. She looks down at her fingers and plays with the cuticle.
Soon it starts to get really hot and it’s time to put the canopy up again – Shamim and I arrange it this time, then we climb inside and get comfortable. Shamim’s mother offers us lemonade and pastries.
Nicky conspicuously avoids looking in our direction. I feel like somehow this is my fault, and if anything happens to her I’ll be to blame. I don’t know what to do.

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.