Monday, 19 March 2012

Voyage IV – Parental choice

‘I don’t see how you can say that’ says Olly. I’ve only just arrived. I look around the little group and see immediately that something’s happened to upset the cosy equilibrium here. Maybe it’s that we’re all cooped up below decks. It being like the biblical deluge outside, even we philosophers must retreat to the relative comfort of the forward lounge. Olly and Keith are locked into a game of chess but there’s a tenseness in Olly’s shoulders and a set to his mouth I don’t recognise. Ned looks up at me and half smiles, cocking his head as if to say ‘boys will be boys...’ I pull up a chair and sit on it backwards, leaning on the back. ‘Hi’ I say. ‘Who’s winning?’
Keith looks warily at Olly as the latter moves his pawn. Lou looks up and smiles at me. He seems to be quietly enjoying himself anyway. I decide not to ask what they’ve been discussing but suddenly Keith says ‘Lets ask Gabriel’, looking squarely at me, somewhat challengingly.
Olly, who I’m sitting behind, half turns and attempts to smile at me ‘Oh’ he says. ‘Hallo Gabriel. Didn’t see you there.’ He reaches his arm around toward me but then takes it back, thinking better of it. I have no idea what the gesture meant but it is filled with sadness. I look at the others and wonder what they’ve done to him. Then I see their faces and they’re worried too. What on whatever planet we’re on has happened here? Olly looks at his game for a while but can’t concentrate any more. ‘I can’t do this’ he says, knocks his king over and gets up. ‘See you later’ he says and heads for the door.

Once he’s gone everybody relaxes visibly. Ned heads out to the bar and Lou follows him to give him a hand. Keith cradles his tumbler.
‘What was that all about?’ I say.
Keith thinks about it. ‘Families?’ he says eventually, as if he’s not even sure himself. I’m intrigued but don’t feel I can show too much enthusiasm under the circumstances. I like families. They’re a favourite topic of mine.
Ned and Lou come back from the bar with drinks and snacks for everyone, including a latte for me.
‘Any sign of Olly?’ says Keith, evidently quite concerned about him.
‘He’s ok’ says Lou. ‘Gone for a breather.’
‘Ah’ says Keith, nodding and topping up his glass from the new one they’ve brought him. Then he leans back and holds the glass on his knee and gives out a long ‘Phew.’
‘So what was all that about?’ I say again.
‘Hard to say really’ says Ned, looking around for confirmation. ‘We were actually talking about crime statistics and prison and so forth, but Olly...’
‘I think there’s something he’s not telling us’ says Lou. Ned looks like he knows but is not letting on, yet. No doubt he will, when he feels the time is right.
‘All I said’ says Keith ‘was you can’t just blame their upbringing for everything. The law has to assume free will, people’s freedom to choose, a life of crime or... or not, as the case may be.’
‘That’s not actually what you said, to be fair’ says Ned. ‘You actually said, correct me if I’m wrong, that the little shits have wet their beds and they should be made to lie in them.’
‘Well, I didn’t mean it quite like it sounded. But no, I think there’s a place for setting an example, don’t you Gabe?’
I sit forward and stir my cup. I really don’t think so but I’m not sure why. It just seems wrong. ‘I suppose it would depend why they did what they did’ I say tentatively. I see Ned nodding but Keith goes ‘Noooo’ sounding like a plane coming in too fast. ‘Bollocks it does. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. You break the law you know what happens. Boom boom boom. Easy. They should teach it in school so nobody's in any doubt.’
‘I don’t think children work like that’ I say, looking around hopefully at the others but neither of them seems inclined to intervene.
‘What we were talking about before’ he continues ‘I was agreeing that er... yes, that the families have a lot to do with it, and poverty and education and all the rest of it, certainly. Actually, what was he on about broken families? I didn’t get that at all.’
‘He was saying you can’t justify comparing the children of one-parent families with those of two-parent families because the former are likely to be the poorer’ says Lou.
‘So?’ says Keith.
‘Well, normally we assume that the inferior performance of children from single-parent families is because of the traumas associated with the split, when in fact it may be a simple matter of economics. Hence he advocates more generous handouts’
‘He was saying more than that though’ says Ned, leaning forward. ‘He was saying that since any unhappy families in modern Britain are free to split up, it follows that the remaining two-parent families are likely to be the happy ones. He was saying that by comparing single- and two-parent families all you’re doing is comparing unhappy with happy families and children from happy families are bound to perform better.’
‘So families should stay together. That’s what I was saying.’
‘No, he says the studies need to compare unhappy two-parent families with happy-two parent families. Do you get my drift?’
‘Not even slightly.’ He tuts impatiently.
‘I do’ I say. ‘I get it.’
‘Go on.’
‘Ok. A child might be doing badly because their family is poor or because the family is unhappy, but it’s not necessarily anything to do with them being a single-parent family. Yes?’
‘But single-parent families do tend to be poor and unhappy. That’s my point, exactly’ says Keith thumping the table.
‘Yes, but... But’ interjects Ned ‘you can’t solve the problem of the unhappy family by forcing them to stay together. They may be even more unhappy that way.’
‘Oh now, you see that’s where I disagree’ says Keith. ‘I think if a few of these so-called unhappy couples just stuck at it... I mean look at me and my Alice, all those years...’
‘Happily married...’
‘No. Bloody desperate...’ Everybody laughs. ‘But that’s not the point. We stuck at it, and the kids didn’t suffer. Didn’t know anything about it.’
‘I bet they did’ I say.
‘Excuse me?’ he says, turning on me, suddenly not funny any more. I go quiet. There is something scary about him. I don’t want to push it.
‘Anyway’ says Lou, rescuing me, ‘Olly was referring to the results of child abuse.’
‘Well everybody has to watch out where that’s concerned, keep an eye out for strangers.’
‘No, he meant within the family’ says Ned. ‘The vast majority of abuse occurs within the family. He implied that if we’re serious about combating child abuse we should look at the immediate family more.’ His voice trails off as he catches Keith’s expression, which is decidedly threatening.
‘What are you getting at?’ he says.
Everybody goes quiet.
‘I think it’s being inferred’ says Lou, ‘that the traditional family may not be the cure-all that is commonly assumed’ and for once I’m glad of his rather impersonal way of expressing himself.
Keith continues to brood however. ‘I still say...’
‘What? What do you have to say, me old porpentine?’ says Ned, trying to reassert some of the old levity, but failing miserably. Keith ignores him.
‘I still say we shouldn’t undermine the traditional family by casting aspersions... I still reserve the right to know what’s best for my kids, as a parent...’
‘This is where we came in...’ says Ned to me in a stage whisper.
‘And I won’t have no social worker or teacher or... or vicar come to that, come and tell me what’s best for my own kids. That’s all I’ve got to say.’ Keith shrugs and takes a sip as if he’s just finished giving evidence, not making eye contact with any of us. Right on cue, Olly appears with a huge mug of hot chocolate. ‘Perishing out there’ he says to no one in particular. His coat is heavy with water and he hangs it on another chair to drip. He looks around at us. ‘Sorry about that gents’ he says.
‘Think nothing of it’ says Keith, and on the face of it we’re back to normal.

Some things are hard. Why does that phrase of Vincent’s keep coming to mind?

Monday, 12 March 2012

Vincent III – The wilderness years

‘So, why did you not start earlier, this career of yours?’ He flicks through his notes, holding the upper ones daintily between index and middle finger. He’s very cool about everything. It’s impossible to work out what he’s thinking. It puts me on the defensive.
‘You began your degree, when? When you were about twenty-seven?’
I nod. ‘About then.’
‘What happened between school and college?’
I really don’t want to talk about this. It was a fairly crap time in my life – unemployment, living at my parents when everyone else had gone to university or went travelling. Most of them had careers by the time they were twenty-three.
‘Did you travel? Work? Come on. I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me Gabriel.’
I decide to start with something positive ‘I did some courses – life drawing, art history, Spanish...’
‘For... er... nine years? All that time you “did courses”? What else were you doing? You had no ambitions hmm? No hopes, dreams?’
I look away. I can’t stand the way people can only think of ambition in terms of work and money. I had ambitions. I wanted more time to spend painting and reading and walking in the country. I wanted to be left alone to get on with it, not worrying about what the boss thought of me. Hope? What the hell does he know?
‘I was unemployed a lot’ I mumble eventually through my teeth, defiant and ashamed, glaring at the floor between my feet.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear you’ he says, bending down, peering irritably up into my face.
‘I was unemployed’ I repeat, too loudly.
‘Ok’ he says smiling. ‘Ok. No need to shout. You were unemployed – so what? It was the eighties – everyone was unemployed or so I gather. It was your Maggie Thatcher. It’s nothing to be ashamed about is it? Actually I understand it was quite fashionable at the time...’
‘Not from where I was standing.’
‘All those punks and anarchists – the Sex Pistols and The Clash. It was quite cool – no?’
I smile and wonder where he was at the time.
‘No’ I say, but at least smiling ruefully now, not so disgusted with myself. It had been an interesting time. In some ways the music had kept me going, up in my room with my half-finished drawings and collages everywhere (although I was more into The Cure and New Model Army myself.) But it hadn’t been cool, not at the time. I’d lost contact with everyone I knew from school and somehow never made new friends afterwards. The worst thing was my parents coming in from work. They never said anything, or nothing much anyway, but I knew from the silence what they thought of me.
‘I wasn’t really part of the scene to be honest’ I say, feeling a bit sorry for myself, as usual. ‘I didn’t really know anybody...’
‘Did you try?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well’ he shrugs, ‘go out, meet people, make friends...’
‘Yes, sometimes...’
I think about those times I hung out at the Electric Grape or The Old Vic, sitting at a table or leaning on the bar. I’d lean in and ask someone what they thought of the band or whatever, but half the time I couldn’t really hear what they said and the conversation tailed off. I didn’t get the impression anyone was particularly keen to get to know me anyhow, and nobody else ever tried to start a conversation. So generally I ended up down the by the stage, dancing wildly, or drinking too much and being sick, then spending the rest of the night sat on the floor at the back. I could never really work out what was going wrong. Surely this was how people met up and made friends – bars and clubs and gigs? I shake my head. ‘Nothing’ I say. ‘Not really.’ He frowns at me, like there’s something I’m not telling him. Maybe another time.
‘But you must have been doing something?’
I tell him about all the time I spent in my room, drawing etcetera. ‘And I had a few shop jobs and so on.’ He looks encouraged by this. ‘I worked for a landscaper for a while – my dad knew him, put in a word for me. That was god-awful – lugging rocks and bags of cement around in the rain or strimming all day in the heat with a hard hat on and protective clothing, with the fumes and the noise and the dog turds flying around. Not my idea of “getting outdoors and doing something healthy”. And why do they insist on starting so f’king early? What is it with this bloody work ethic that says you must start before it’s light or you haven’t done a proper day’s work? I don’t get it.’
He looks at me doubtfully.
‘Look’ I say, ‘it’s just that whole stupid protestant working class thing where you have to “work all the hours God sends” even though you’ve got sod-all to show for it at the end. Like my parents were always making out that if I worked really hard and saved up I’d have the money for things I wanted, but it never worked for them – they always slogged and slogged on their crappy wages and it never made any difference – there was always something came along to soak up any extra they made, some unexpected repair or household expense and they’d be back at square one, but having wasted all that time at work on top of that, so they didn’t even have the time to do ordinary things – either that or they ran around at the weekends, frantically trying to fit everything in. I was fucking exhausted just watching them. Amelia was the same with her kids – always off to some class or club or other, and keeping up her career. I don’t know how often she actually spent time with them.’
I come to a halt and look at Vincent. I have no idea if he was listening or not, but I felt like having a good old rant anyway.
‘And your mother found you some work at a nursing home?’ I nod. ‘How did you find that?’
So he isn’t interested. Ok whatever...
‘It was ok, for a bit. Better. I didn’t mind. I mean it was fairly revolting now I come to think about it – putting old ladies on the commode and changing their wet pants and so on. It was ok though, but I just got so bored, you know, with the routine and the stupid pointless conversations. Mum said I was “work shy” but I don’t think that was true. I just always had other things I wanted to be getting on with. I suppose in the end I just thought I could do better. It sounds arrogant I know...’
‘Not at all, not at all...’ He nods with satisfaction and writes something down. What I haven’t told him is that I managed to make myself entirely dispensable everywhere I worked. They were ok at first, these jobs, but pretty soon I was just so totally bored out of my skull. I don’t think I was alone in this. Everybody was bored, but the others seemed to be happy to just look busy, and spent most of their time chatting to each other. For most of the staff it was more a part of their social life than a job. I would have actually preferred to get on and do something useful, but for them the actual work was frankly a bit of an inconvenience. I didn’t really fit in. The landscapers were all typical blokes, and the care workers were either middle-aged women or gay. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I just made them feel uncomfortable. Generally they’d find a reason to lay me off sooner rather than later and it was always a real relief when it came to that, even though it meant I’d have to face my family – again, and go and sign on again, and look at the situations vacant pages every Thursday again, and write all those sickly sucking letters about how much I wanted to work in their shop/office/factory. I look over at Vincent. He’s still writing. I take a sip of water.
‘So you became bored with the routine and long hours and wished to move on, follow your dream. I am not surprised. But what I don’t understand is what took you so long.’
I look at him. I like the way he tells it – makes it look as if what I did made some kind of sense. It didn’t feel that way at the time.
‘It wasn’t really planned’ I confess. ‘I’d pretty much given up on going to college when I left school. I didn’t have any ideas what to do next.’
‘But you knew you could do something, something better.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No?’ He clearly doesn’t believe me. ‘And yet you kept on with your art and you did do something with it... eventually.’
I think about this. I think about my frustration back then. Sometimes I used to get so furious. Sometimes I smashed things up – nothing important, mostly my things. I never hurt anyone (although I’d like to have done sometimes.) Sometimes I’d just break down in tears in the street on the way home, if I’d had a bit to drink. That’d be the worst times. Alcohol never agreed with me. I try to think back, unravel it.
‘It was like, it didn’t matter what I thought of what I was capable of, or what I wanted. It wasn’t up to me.’
He looks at me, as if straining to understand, and failing. ‘But it is always up to you’ he says, ‘to make choices. No one else can do that for you.’
I shake my head. ‘I don’t think so, or at least, that’s not how it seemed. At the time, it felt like everyone else was in charge, and I couldn’t do anything unless they let me.’
‘And they would not?’
‘I gave up asking.’
‘But you thought you could do something better, nevertheless.’
‘Yes, but that was irrelevant.’
‘But you did believe in what you could do. You believed what you created was good – even before that – and you never really gave up. Am I correct?’
‘I suppose so...’
‘Look’ he says, ‘I’m not saying that anyone can simply do anything they choose. Clearly that is not true. Many things come in the way – your sex, your age, your nationality, the place you are born, how you are brought up and so on and so forth. Or simply bad luck. Some things you can overcome, some you cannot. I am not a naive existentialist but...’ and here he leans forward and looks intently into my eyes. It’s a bit uncomfortable. ‘...but we can all choose for ourselves what we wish to do, and we can all try. That is all. We may fail in our ambitions, but not to choose, and not to try – that is true failure. Surely you know this.’ I look at him. It’s a bit scary. I’m not sure I really tried very hard. Mostly I just felt overwhelmed. I feel like a fraud.
‘Anyway’ he says, leaning back and clapping his hands together. ‘Next time we will talk about why this happened – see if we can’t speed the process up next life and achieve even more. By the way – did you have a girlfriend all that time, I’m sorry, forgive me. You might be a homosexual.’ I shake my head. ‘So, you had girlfriends?’ I nod. He’s getting up, collecting his papers together. I notice as he does so they’re mostly covered in doodles. ‘Ok’ he says. ‘We will have to talk about that too. Next time.’ He opens the door for me. I don’t know what to think.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Journey III – Spartan

The next few days pass largely without incident, chatting, eating, singing and generally getting to know each other better. Even Nicky seems a little more relaxed. Agnes has taken her under her wing and Nicky seems to have submitted to it. Agnes and Muriel, although superficially young and girlish were undoubtedly old ladies when they died, the thought of which amuses me immensely. They really seem to enjoy their refound ability to sing raucous camp-fire songs and climb trees and chase lizards. Agnes makes no secret of the fact that she died horribly in a hospice, demented, incontinent and alone and that there’s no way she’s ever going back and taking the risk of that happening again. She has a tendency to fuss and get tetchy if things don’t go the way she thinks they should but on the whole she seems ok. Muriel is good hearted and motherly, although she died childless she says.
That evening the campfire conversation turns to death and I tell of my ridiculous demise – to much hilarity.
‘Well, that is at least easily avoided next time’ says Mike. ‘I won’t be going back – I had MS and spent the last year or so on a ventilator. I mean, I don’t regret the life I had – my kids and friends were wonderful and I made the most of it while I could, but I don’t feel the need to go through it all over again.’
‘What line of work were you in?’ asks Mr Sadeghi.
‘I worked in a factory making electrical equipment – just ordinary shop floor dog’s body, you know.’
Mr Sadeghi nods.
Mike looks about thirty, but died a lot older I know. His body shows not a trace of disability and he’s clearly overjoyed about it. I know it’s a cliché, but it certainly makes me wonder what I was making such a fuss about in my life.
Next the Sadeghis give a brief account of their sudden demise, all three of them adding their own memories and we all exclaim and look shocked at how horrible it must have been for them.
‘I remember most clearly...’ begins Mr Sadeghi ‘...the smell of burning – burning rubber, burning plastic, oil and... other things... I was thinking it was burning my throat and my lungs out and I couldn’t breathe. And I thought of my darling wife and daughter but I couldn’t see... couldn’t find them.’ Mrs Sadeghi grips his hand as he tells it, as tears begin to well in his eyes. They’re here with him. He’s very lucky. I briefly consider a suicide pact with Sophie for next time but dismiss the thought. What if one of us survived, or just lived a little longer in a coma and missed the boat?
‘I remember the noise’ says Shamim, ‘not of the collision, but of the other vehicles going past. They seemed to be right there, beside my head.’
‘You were lying on the road, I remember that’ says her mother. ‘I remember a tin of ravioli, and those instant noodle things. I still can’t believe you bought that sort of trash...’
‘It was all across the motorway, all your shopping...’
‘I remember the road was wet’ says Shamim ‘and the tiny bits of yellow and red plastic from the lights, right there.’ She holds her fingers an inch or two away from her eye.
‘We don’t remember much of the detail of the final moments’ says Mrs Sadeghi, cutting it short. ‘For which we are all extremely grateful.’
It’s strange to be mourning the deaths of people who are sitting right there beside us but it seems right somehow.
Then we come to Muriel and at first she declines modestly but we tell her we’ll only assume the worst so she tells us about the stupid accident with the toaster that brought her here. ‘I just remember the smell of grilled meat’ she says and I see Mr Sadeghi flinch. That must have been the other smell he remembers, but he didn’t want to say.
It’s at that moment I realise Nicky must be next to tell her story and I look across at her. She’s sitting cross-legged, hunched down, picking her cuticle again. Nobody says anything or even looks her way overtly. I don’t know if she wants to say anything or not. I don’t want to ask. After a brief pause Jeb mercifully takes over and tells us about his unusual experience with nitrogen narcosis whilst wreck diving. I’d never heard of it, but Shamim of course has and gets quite excited about hearing the details.
‘I just went deeper and deeper’ he says, ‘and I remember becoming certain that it ought to be possible to live down there. After all, the water is full of dissolved oxygen, and the fish manage perfectly well, and I think I had this idea that if I just breathed the water in, in a calm and relaxed fashion, instead of thrashing around as you would if you were drowning, and if I kept my exertions to a minimum, that my lungs would adapt. And do you know, it actually seemed to work for a while there? I even felt I could see clearly, as if my eyes adjusted to the changed optical qualities of the water. And I didn’t feel cold any more. I swear I could feel my body changing, becoming aquatic.’
We all look at him, amazed and excited at this new prospect.
‘Of course, I’m sure this astounding new insight must have lasted only a couple of minutes before I finally blacked out and drowned, but I remember it all very clearly. I’d recommend it, as a way to go, if you had to make a choice.’
Agnes looks horrified and shudders conspicuously, but Shamim looks on, fascinated.
‘Have you been diving since you’ve been here?’ she says.
‘Hell no’ he says. ‘You won’t catch me anywhere near the darn stuff now.’
We all laugh.
‘I drowned’ says Nicky unexpectedly, from under her hair. Her head is bowed almost to her legs so it’s hard to make out what she says. She looks up and says, quite conversationally ‘I drowned myself. In the Thames it was.’ We all look at her and don’t know what to say and she looks down again and goes on picking her fingers. Agnes goes to put her arm around her but is shrugged off. Suddenly it feels very chilly – like time to sleep.

The settlement we saw from the ridge has a spooky peace to it. It’s not that no one is home – at the entrance we are greeted by a softly spoken woman in a white robe, who bows and takes us in through a wide courtyard with citrus trees and pineapple plants in pots and a formal fountain at the centre, and then out through a gateway at the far end to a much less formal, grassy space with more fruit trees. Even the insects buzz less stridently in here. The walls are whitewashed and have terracotta tiled roofs. It all looks as I’d expect a Roman villa to look, or a Mexican hacienda.
We’re shown to our rooms through shady loggias and pergolas. The rooms are Spartan – almost literally, with stone floors, stiff white sheets and unglazed green painted window frames set high in the walls. I sit down on the bed and try to bounce but there’s very little give in the mattress.
The bathrooms too are pretty uncompromising – ice-cold water gushes continuously out of holes in the wall in a room at the back, presumably from a spring. A man shows us where it is after we’ve dropped our bags off, hands out towels and then leaves us to it. We decide the ladies can go first and we men head back to the first courtyard to see what else there is to do.
Very little, seems to be the answer. The locals go quietly about their business, some bringing produce in from wherever they must be growing it, others bustling in and out of what turns out to be kitchens. We find a vast echoing empty dining room adjoining. It’s all very clean.
We go and sit out in the shade in the orchard where our rooms are and find the women coming back already.
‘That didn’t take you long’ says Mike.
‘You don’t want to stay in there long’ says Muriel, shivering. ‘It’s bloody frigid. Have you seen anywhere we can get a hot drink here?’
Mr Sadeghi indicates the kitchen but suggests they don’t get their hopes up too much for anything very interesting.
‘We’ve still got the coffee’ suggests Mrs Sadeghi.
‘That’s if you can locate Jeb and the wagon’ says Mike. ‘I don’t know where he’s disappeared off to.’
I look at the women, still wet from their ablutions and it occurs to me what a fine-looking bunch they are, all in their white robes, looking tanned and healthy and in their prime. Mrs Sadeghi has her hair out and is a stunningly handsome woman, a taller, more powerful version of her daughter. Even Nicky seems more content now and throws her head back to let the sun warm her face. Shamim is watching me look at them and smiles knowingly.
‘Ok, lets go’ says Mike.
‘Keep the coffee hot for us’ says Mr Sadeghi, and kisses his wife on the cheek. We head into the shower room.

Jeb didn’t come back until the third morning, giving us some time to get to know the place a little, help out with the chores, and relax. The locals were not unfriendly, the food was plain but wholesome and the place had a wonderful serenity about it but there was a strong feeling they weren’t looking for new faces and would feel better when we’d moved on. The only really worrying thing about that first settlement was that if they were all going to be like that no one was going to want to stop anywhere for all eternity. Certainly none of us were at all tempted. Frankly it was all just a bit dull. We headed out that third day and began the long weary trek across the floor of the valley in the still, dry heat.

The canopy is up from mid morning to late afternoon. I lie sprawled on my belly on the luggage, peering out at the passing scenery – a mixture of twisted and shaggy trees and towering termite mounds all set in a haze of dry grass seed heads. Some peculiar looking, what appear to be llamas, each with a single horn on the nose stand by and watch us pass. We ride in the wagon, too enervated to speak, each dozing or lost in our own thoughts. I can’t imagine doing anything much here and yet when I glance at Shamim sleeping beside me I feel I could lean over and kiss her, and what’s more, I think she’d like me to. If it wasn’t for the others, and her parents especially being here maybe I would.

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.