Monday, 22 April 2013

Journey III – Peter

Peter, I presume it must be, blots out the sun. He stands in the doorway, ducking under the lintel. Dressed in pale robes and with a full beard he says ‘Knock knock. Anybody home?’ in a voice that is at once soft and very crisp. I’m sitting up at least but haven’t been able to do anything much else today.
‘Mind if I come in?’ he says. It takes me a moment to work out why he sounds so weird. I suddenly realise I’ve been speaking Spanish up until now and this is the first conversation I’ve had in English since I arrived.
‘Be my guest’ I say, indicating the general space, any amount of which he might want to occupy. None of it feels like mine yet anyway, although I am assured by Sonia that this is now my house, if I want it.
‘You look much better’ he says, dropping down onto the other sofa, making the springs complain. ‘Any chance of refreshments?’ he says, turning to the kitchen and half rising.
‘Oh I’m sorry’ I say, beginning painfully to rise. It’s incredibly hard to stand and he doesn’t offer to help but I find some ancient stores of politeness propel me up and on. It’s not until I almost collapse and brain myself making a dash for it across to the sink that he realises anything’s wrong and then he launches himself in my direction, grabs me by the arm and swings me back to sit on the arm of the sofa.
‘Are you alright?’ he says, looking closely into my eyes.
‘Still a bit weak’ I say, understating it for the sake of sarcasm. He doesn’t get it.
‘Shall I give you a hand?’ he says earnestly.
I nod deeply, expecting him to let me lie down again and rummage around for the “refreshments” himself, but instead he props me up and steadies me as I walk across to the sink. Then he goes and sits back down and picks up a book.

After we’ve sat around for a while, making polite conversation and drinking coffee (my coffee I suppose it must be) he begins to heave himself up and says ‘Well... Can’t hang around all day...’ and I realise I’ve been waiting for him to tell me about how he found me. I certainly had the feeling he had something to tell me. Perhaps not. I’m going to have to be more assertive.
‘Yes’ he says, sitting on the edge of the sofa.
‘I’m sorry. I thought...’
He looks at me expectantly. How can he not guess what I want to ask? And why can’t I ask? ‘It’s ok’ I say ‘Thanks for looking in. See you again soon?’
‘Probably not actually. Just passing through you see. Anyway, thanks for the coffee’ and with that he’s gone.
Well he was quite irritating anyway, I tell myself afterwards, and go back to the sofa. I wonder when Sonia is coming back.

Night falls suddenly and the sound of the running water and the myriad life forms outside permeates everything. I can’t sleep. I’ve done enough sleeping but I don’t even have the strength to hold up a book and focus on the page. Mainly, I realise, I’m bored. I look toward the window, at the moonlight highlighting everything in silver and I try to think what’s different here. Wind chimes tinkle remotely. There’s a breeze picking up. Could be a relief. It’s been very muggy these last few days. I lie back and look at the ceiling. The light is making ripple patterns there. There must be a puddle outside. Or maybe it’s the bucket under the down pipe. That’ll be it.
Sonia. Her eyebrows meet in the middle but she has a very nice bottom. I think she likes me. I move my hands over my chest and belly down to my groin. Still no response. There’s still a terrible gash just over my right thigh where it joins my hip. Everything still jars and grinds when I move but it’s uncomfortable rather than painful. The pain has been much worse...
I wake up from a terrible dream – of falling, but it’s no product of my imagination. The fall is sickening in its suddenness, rushing through air face down, seeing in deadly detail the crags and shattered trees rushing up to meet me, I hit... And wake up, and I know I was pushed.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Alison II – Mother Nature’s Son

Alison and I resume next day.
She has that sceptical look on her face already as I arrive.
‘What about friends?’ she says. ‘Other children...’
I smile a little and shake my head, take a sip of water.
She gives me a bemused smile, as if I’m perhaps just being dramatic or trying for a little pity, or just didn’t understand the question.
‘Not at all? No little playmates?’
‘Nope.’ I shake my head and smile, then shrug for good measure.
‘Surely your parents must have realised this wasn’t normal?’
‘I know.’ I say. ‘It seems very strange now but I honestly don’t think I met another child until I went to school. That was when I was about five years old. I didn’t believe it myself when I realised but it explains a lot. All my parent’s friends and family had grown up children, and the next generation didn’t start until well after I was born. The closest was my cousin’s son Matthew and I was already three when he came along so we had very little in common. There was one time I was left with a couple who had a little girl. (I think dad had to go to the hospital – nothing serious – varicose veins I think.) but I wouldn’t have anything to do with her. I’d never come across a girl before.’
‘No child minders, nursery school, that kind of thing?’
‘I don’t think it ever occurred to them.’

And the truth is, it never seemed important. Dad or the girls were always around, and they just didn’t worry about whether I had anyone to play with. I didn’t know any different. In any case, I was very good at entertaining myself. I had pencils and paper and plasticine, and a lot of books and cast-off cuddly toys to keep me quiet, as well as all the dogs and ducks and rabbits on the farm – plus all the wildlife to make friends with. There were silverfish in the fireplaces at night, and mice in the scullery and a toad in the wood shed. The jackdaws grew on me but I was never entirely sure they wouldn’t break in one day. Anyway, I was never bored.
I loved the garden too – I was out there in all weathers – quite often in nothing but my pants and vest even in winter. I loved crawling about under the raspberry briars and sitting in there watching the world. Or I’d be hunting frogs or slow-worms or making ponds or burrows.
‘I was quite feral actually’ I say, to sum up.
‘You must have been absolutely filthy.’
‘Oh Dad just made me strip off at the back door and put me in the bath.’

I was often left to fend for myself when dad was in the garden, I just went where I felt like. One fragment I have is of my dad calling for me outside. He didn’t sound too worried. This happened a lot. I was in the lean-to greenhouse under the staging. I could see out from my bed of hessian sacks, over the clay pots to the back wall of the greenhouse. I was watching the shadow of some string whirling about in a draught in the cold autumn sun. The whitewash was peeling away and a tiny fern had managed to root into the exposed brickwork. Below, flakes of lime and crumbs of plaster lay on the tiled floor. I could hear the wind outside and dad’s voice lost in it. I remember looking around at my nest with all the debris from the summer – curly brown geranium leaves and mouldy dried up grapes and the sheets of grey silk the long-legged spiders had made. I was getting cold but I didn’t want to go in. There was a small triangle of glass an inch from my toe. I knew what it was but I wasn’t afraid of it. I had been warned about broken glass and I was always careful. A moth flapped uselessly on a silk thread but no spider came to finish it off. I released it and it flew away and flapped against the glass instead.
I let my old soul look about. I’d loved this greenhouse – the smell of the tomatoes and geraniums and the hot soil in summer. I’d made little places to hide everywhere. I don’t know why. I wasn’t afraid or in need of privacy. I just liked finding little places I could be and call my own. The fragment ends with dad coming in and crouching down and saying ‘Bath time Gabriel’ in his firm business-like voice. He never got angry back then. It must have been that last autumn before we moved.

Then there was another time I remember being in Amelia’s wardrobe and she had some friends round. I was watching them get ready to go out, hidden among the shoes and boxes and other bits and pieces. She knew I was there but she didn’t tell anyone. She was always wandering around in her knickers and bra (unless mum was in) and later I had a bit of an obsession with hanging around, hoping to catch a glimpse of boob. I suppose a lot of little boys do. Anyway, I watched them fixing their stockings and lacquering their hair and sticking their false eyelashes on. After they’d gone I stood in the middle of the room, listening to a car’s doors open and close and the sound of excited female voices, and then my dad’s voice, low and steady. He had a certain authority – even with my sister’s boyfriends. I heard the car drive away and the back door close and I looked around at the room, recently emptied of young female life and now full of shadows leaning in on me from the corners and from between the wardrobe and the chimney-breast. The warm rich scent of my sister became cold and sharp and the colours of her clothes turned to grey. I hopped up onto the bed to avoid the shadows gathering around its fringes and slipped under the covers - the smell of her body wrapping me up tight, still warm from where they’d sat doing their toes. I think this was the evening she came back late, crying and crying and wouldn’t speak to anyone about what had happened. She collapsed into the bed without turning the light on and almost crushed me. She let me stay although she didn’t really want company. Dad was outside the door for ages going ‘Please tell me what’s wrong love. I won’t be angry’ over and over. I never found out what happened. In the morning everything carried on as normal.
‘She’d probably just been dumped by her boyfriend.’
‘Probably. Like I say, I never found out.’

One other fragment I really remember well involves an adventure outside the garden wall on my own. This wasn’t unusual. Any number of times the neighbours (and at least once a complete stranger) brought me back to the house from where they’d found me, out in the fields or along the lane, strolling along, cheerfully chatting away to myself. Nobody would let their kids out like that nowadays.
On this occasion I must have been about three. I had the farmer’s old collie for company – hanging on to her collar when necessary. I’d actually got as far as the edge of the woods up on Steyning Bowl, which must have been a good quarter of a mile away from the garden boundary. The fragment begins with me on all fours among the travellers’ joy and the woodbine, in nothing but a pair of pants, turning over lumps of green stained chalk and flint looking for ground beetles, which were my latest obsession. I look up and see the farm below across the field. There’s no one in sight. The dog has gone home. It’s a bright, warm day and the sunbeams dance merrily on the woodland floor as the branches of the beech heave to and fro above. Everything is green. It’s like being underwater in a very clear pure stream. I watch a fly pass, come back and land in front of my foot (I’ve got no shoes on as usual). There’s moss and last autumn’s leaves by my toes and a centipede. I hear a cuckoo and a woodpigeon.
As a child I could sit for what seemed like hours and watch leaves glowing in the sun. I looked at the view and giggled at how far from home I was and at the same time, as an old soul, marvelled at how I’d come home from so long away. That day I leaned back against a stump of elder and lived in two lives at once – the child spellbound by the daylight, and the old soul, captivated by the child.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Voyage II – Ruth

‘Mind if I join you?’ says the woman in the green top and purple skirt. She’s a petite woman, apparently in her late twenties and seems uncomfortable in her outfit – like she’d prefer to be in something more formal but has been told to try to loosen up. She reminds me of someone. I can’t think who.
‘Do I know you?’ I say, a little embarrassed and trying not to appear rude.
‘Ruth’ she says, holding out her hand over the table. ‘I don’t think we’ve met before.’
‘I’m Gabriel’ I say, shaking her hand. ‘Is there something I can do for you... er Ruth.’
‘No, I just fancied some company for dinner.’
‘I hope you don’t mind. It’s just I’m new here. Well, I suppose we all are aren’t we.’ She laughs a little nervously. ‘I feel a bit lost to tell the truth. You don’t mind do you, really?’
‘I don’t know if I’m going to be very good company.’
‘Well, that makes quite a few of us I expect. Would you like some wine? I could order some.’
‘I’d love some. Thank you.’
She turns waves to a waiter to come over.
‘What were you reading?’ she says once she’s told him what she wants.
‘Oh I wasn’t really. I find it’s best, if you’re going to sit in a bar on your own, to bring a book.’
‘I wish I’d thought of that, but then, now I don’t have to, er unless you want to read.’
‘No no. I have to admit, when I first woke up I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but now, despite everything...’
‘Here we are.’
She looks at me intently in what I think of a very old fashioned feminine way, with her elbows on the table and her chin balanced on the backs of her interlaced fingers. There’s something very Audrey Hepburn about her. I feel she expects something of me – scintillating conversation or reassuring advice and I’m flattered but not entirely at ease with her. Anyway she may have died at eighty for all I know. There’s something disturbing about old ladies that have hung onto their girlishness I always find. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse when it sneaks up on you disguised in a young body. Also I used to be very easily taken in by this kind of attention – a woman shy enough to bring out my masculinity but outgoing enough to save me the trouble of making the first move. Unfortunately I’ve come to distrust it: either the timidity will be a front and she’ll turn out to be a complete bitch or the boldness will be put on and I’ll spend the rest of the trip counselling her. Oh listen to me. What a miserable old curmudgeon I’ve become. We order Tunisian lamb with cuscus and roasted vegetables and she tells me all about her life without my having to contribute very much at all. Apparently she ran a shoe shop in Lewes in East Sussex, a place I knew very well so we should have plenty to talk about. I realise quite quickly though that she was one of those very ‘focussed’ people who never did anything much except work. She claims to have ‘absolutely adored’ art when I mention it, and music, and gardening too, but never found the time, what with the paperwork and staffing problems and all that.
‘You wouldn’t believe the mess I came back to if I was out for just one weekend’ she tells me. Nobody else could be trusted to do things properly. She had to do everything herself – even mop the floors sometimes. I can imagine. It’s my mother she reminds me of. I ask about family and she gives me a sad little shrug. No time for that either I suppose.
I lean back with my arms folded listening to her berate everybody she ever had to deal with for their slackness and lack of commitment. I try to look sympathetic but really I think, she talks about her business as if it’s this terrible burden she’s been forced to bear when actually, she chose that life, and she believed in it, and she was proud of it. And now apparently she wants my sympathy.
‘Sounds like you could have afforded to take some time out’ I say, somewhat disingenuously.
‘I don’t think so’ she says seriously.
In life I learned to use the phrase ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been extremely busy’ as an excuse when I was late for things (which was all the time). People seemed to be more impressed with that than if I told them I wasn’t really a morning person or I’d mislaid my keys. I’d tended to assume everybody did the same and that this ‘busy lifestyle’ shtik that everyone claimed to have back then was something similar, but no, apparently some of them actually meant it. Anyway, she’s wearing me out just sitting with her. She tells me she died of cancer but mercifully doesn’t offer details. She was sixty-five.
She then politely asks me what I did and I give her a quick prĂ©cis. Finally I imply that I am still very upset about losing my wife (or being lost by her rather) partly to put her off, in case she has any designs on me, and partly so that I can be a bit preoccupied without seeming rude. She reaches over and grips my hand in sympathy but doesn’t let on about anyone she’s missing particularly. We order coffee and retire to the forward lounge and chat politely about our lives, carefully avoiding the ‘messy bit’ as she puts it, as if the end of her life was just a faulty product. Actually it’s her does most of the talking; glibly dropping in the names of haute couture designers, exotic resorts and fast cars as if of course anyone aught to know what she’s on about. I haven’t a clue but I smile as kindly as I can. I only really wake up when she starts on about the ‘myth’ of global warming and her penchant for jetting off to the other side of the world whenever she ‘felt like a change’. Apparently she’s one of those who firmly believed that the whole thing was a left wing plot, cooked up entirely to give governments an excuse to put up taxes. Bizarre.
‘Do you know...’ she continues, ‘Do you know my gym had the nerve to suggest rigging up the exercise machines to a generator? Said it would cut their lighting bill in half. We told them in no uncertain terms. We said “We’re here for the good of our health, not for the good of the bloody planet.” They couldn’t say anything to that. Bloody cheek! I told them – “I don’t pay my membership fees to work for the national grid.” Bloody cheek...’
To argue with her feels particularly futile under the circumstances. I can concede in any case that the connection was never absolutely conclusively proved, even after fifty years or so of scare stories, but given the fact that, when I last checked, global temperatures (and sea-levels) were indeed rising, it seemed extraordinarily bloody-minded to carry on as if nothing was happening. I’d wanted the theory to be wrong as much as anyone but I wasn’t prepared to take the risk. Anyway, the conversation moves on without incident.

I hope I’m not going to be stuck with her alone for too long or this could turn out to be a very long voyage indeed. There are still very few of us up and about. There should be as many as a hundred of us, plus guides somewhere. I count about fifteen. Alison tells me it’s early days.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Journey II – The fall

Sonia (the woman in the orange skirt) comes each day to check up on me and bring me milk and fresh fruit. I still feel very tired and spend a lot of time sitting down, either on the sofa indoors if it’s too hot outside, or on the lounger outside when it cools down. The house has a serene organic look, set into an overgrown bank, half submerged among ferns and creepers. It reminds me of a fisherman’s cottage, maybe in Cornwall, or Crete. The window frames are even painted blue. I climbed the bottom few rungs of the ladder and had a quick peek upstairs yesterday and found an airy roof space with big windows at either end, and a broad, low wooden bed waiting for me above where the sofas are down here. It looks very inviting but in the state I’m in, I fear I may not make it down again in one piece. ‘And we don’t want that again’ says Sonia. I don’t ask.

So in the evening I’m sitting out on the lounger, watching the parrots and monkeys in the trees opposite. They always seem to be especially active just before the sun goes down, shrieking and shaking the branches. It’s quite comical really. I take a sip of my lemonade and look up and down the road. No one comes along here much – just occasionally someone on their way to the beach, which I’m told is just over that rocky rise on the right. I can hear the waves and the gulls from here and sometimes the gulls come up into the river to bathe in the pools. They have pale blue beaks and feet. Quite stylish.
It’s hard to focus that far away for long. I sink down in my seat and look at the sky but that’s too bright and my sunglasses are indoors and I can’t be bothered to go and get them. I look down at the path. It seems to be made of rounded pebbles, and weeds fill the spaces between them – bright little orange pea flowers and magenta mallow flowers on trailing stems. I watch a velvet worm make its laborious rippling way from the pile of leaves by the water butt to the terracotta pot by the door. It’s about ten inches long. I don’t think I’ve seen one that big before. I look at the bundle of dead sticks in the pot and consider asking Sonia if she’ll find me some seeds to plant. The whole exterior of the house needs some attention I notice. That would be a good thing to do when I’m feeling fitter.
A delicate metallic sound comes to me from the left, along the road. I turn and look but can’t see anyone because the road curves round out of sight toward what I’m told is the town. All I can see is the steep bank that my house backs onto (“my house”? The one I’m staying in anyway). I took a short walk along there yesterday with a stick for support. I don’t know much about tropical vegetation and I stood and stared into the mass of cactus and fern and palm and agave and trailing flowers all tangled together, and the nectar birds and the emerald lizards and chameleons and tree frogs, mantis and butterfly and a myriad other more cryptic life forms I have no names for yet, all going about their business. I nearly toppled over into it. Now there’s a man driving a mule cart past, heading toward the sea. He tips his cap to me and I nod back. They all know who I am apparently but I have no idea who any of them are, except Sonia of course.

‘Have you remembered anything?’ she says next day as she bustles around, tidying things up. I look around, ashamed. I’ve been a total slob. There’s tissues and books scattered about all over the place and I don’t suppose there’s a clean cup left in the cupboard. They’re all over here, with dregs and tidemarks. A couple are in the bin in pieces because I forgot how to walk and carry things at the same time but I’m getting the hang of it now. Sonia tutted and shook her head but I get the idea she likes having someone to fuss over.
‘I’m sorry’ I say, avoiding the question, ‘I’m not normally as bad as this’ and I make a feeble attempt to stand and help her with things. She just goes ‘Pshht’ and waves me back down. I slump back gratefully. I don’t think I ever felt so totally exhausted in my life...
My life.
There was a little house on a hillside and a woman in a white cotton dress...
I can’t seem to remember her face or her name. I find myself weeping quietly about it. Sonia doesn’t notice. She’s too busy. Good thing.
I try instead to work out what my last memory is before I woke up here.
‘Was I injured?’ I ask her.
‘You could say that.’
She gives me an expression that asks if I really want to know.
I nod and lie back. No, I really don’t.
I remember a canyon, or a crevasse. I have this feeling of being there, looking up at that thin, jagged streak of sky high above, watching the weather pass, and birds circling (buzzards I guess, or vultures) for what seemed like the whole of my existence. Anything that might have happened before, I let go of. It made it worse, remembering. Better to be like a rock, or a branch, broken and fallen into a ravine, waiting for rot and erosion to cover me and blend me with my surroundings, to return to my elements.
The warm sun and the soft, comfortable furnishings of the house feel like a mirage or film, like I could push my hand through the brightly coloured surfaces and find stones underneath – the sharp, ripping, crushing edge and mass of them. The water was not cold enough to freeze but cold enough to feel it trickle and seep into every part of me. I feel myself heavy with it, waterlogged. Meanwhile I feel my blood, still warm and sticky, draining away into the grit and moss that has settled around me. And some of the edges grinding and scraping are not the shards and splinters of the wood that fell with me – some of them are bone, my bones, shattered and exposed to the air and the drizzle. Steaming and clotting I can’t bear look at the damage. I am becoming a compost, a ground person, chopped and mashed and mixed with my fellow minerals and organisms here in the dark and the wet and the cold. 
And yet this tumble is not something that has happened recently. There is no emergency. I’ve been here as long as I can remember. Soil has formed around my arms and the rocks crushing my pelvis and legs have settled into position. Moss has spread from the soil behind me across my shoulder. (What was I wearing? A coarse material, canvas or heavy linen, dark blue – it decomposed into the humous as I lay there but I can still see a trace of my pale, porous skin exposed through the dirt. How strange.) A tree seedling I can plainly see has appeared in front of my face where my body should be. I hate to think where it has sent its roots or what it’s feeding on. It’s at least six feet tall.
I remember some peculiar, insubstantial characters came along to talk to me sometimes. I never saw them, just heard their voices, or perhaps not heard them exactly, but I understood what they meant. They were sympathetic but not much help otherwise.
‘How long was I there?’ I mutter.
‘Sorry?’ she says, turning and smiling brightly at me.
‘How long was I down there?’ I repeat, more clearly.
She says she’ll ask Peter to drop by later on. Apparently he was the one who found me.
‘Ok’ I say, doubtfully, but I’m not sure I can stand any more company just yet.

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.