Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Journey V – Nirvana

‘He said, “Welcome home.” I don’t remember anything much else he said.’
‘It sounds like a nice friendly place’ observes Ross.
I’m not so sure. ‘It felt wrong though somehow – presumptuous. Like he was taking a liberty. Do you know what I mean? Maybe I’m just too English...’
Ross and I are lounging out in the garden. It rained heavily in the night and the soil is hot and steaming in the sun – just right, apparently, for sowing coriander and pak-choi. Miguel found some very colourful net hammocks in the pantry (a tiny store room opposite the shower, to the left of the door to the garden) and hung one of them up for me between the mango tree and the chimney. Ross put the other one up today and now sprawls out of it, hanging his leg over the side, bending his big toe on the cobbles to make it swing. My legs aren’t up to that sort of fine-scale manoeuvre just yet but I’m getting there. Two mornings ago I woke up and discovered my foot had turned its self around to face the right way during the night. I can’t say how much that cheered me up.
Ross is a friend of Sonia’s. He has lots of mad curly hair and the kind of long nose and feet and loping hare-like way of getting about that makes me think that women probably find him very satisfying in bed. He’s brought me tomato and basil seedlings to grow on and plant out. I seem to remember something of how to do this stuff from somewhere and apparently I was muttering about remembering to earth up the potatoes and cut back the raspberries when I was out of it. It’ll come.
‘You think he was after you in some way?’ he says.
‘Maybe...’ I really don’t know now. I’m probably being excessively suspicious. ‘I was just so happy to find somewhere to stay. I was in pretty bad shape. I don’t know how long I’d been out there on my own. All my belongings were ruined or lost.’
I look over at him, eyes closed, hat over face. I’ll leave it. I’ve noticed that no one here is especially keen to talk about anything other than the very day-to-day stuff. In some ways it’s good because it stops me brooding but I still don’t feel safe. I feel like there’s something they’re not telling me.

That guy who welcomed me; I remember his weathered bristly face and his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a faded and ripped Hawaiian shirt hanging off his bony frame, his manhood barely covered by a pair of too-tight cut-off denim shorts. I knew his type from before – a man too fond of the booze to hold on to a job, fallen in with well-meaning and too trusting new-agers. I looked at the others seated on the ground behind him, smiling benignly at me or at him, or else ignoring us completely – about twelve of them. I looked at the ground – a sandy path winding among cushions of bottle green mossy fuzz, here and there spangled with tiny pink and white flowers that seemed to glow out unnaturally in the violet evening light. And there was the stream winding among the cushiony banks, flowingly palely, silkily, mauvishly, around the cobbles, as if milk (or milt) had been spilt into it. All around and rising too high to see over, banks of vegetation leaned in like God’s own herbaceous borders, heavy with flowers of poppy and Datura, arum and tobacco, too flawless and plentiful to be natural, and mixed with enormous ferny, velvety or rubbery leaves, emerald green or stained with red. The whole assemblage buzzed and flittered with insects and birds and stank overpoweringly and vegetatively rank.
I remember I’d been following the stream up through a stunted and sickening thorn forest for what seemed like weeks until I found a place that was open to the sky. The stream oozed through the leaf litter and grit beneath the low branches. Then the path opened out into a narrow, winding space with the stream trickling through it. There was tiny tinkling music coming from somewhere. I remember remarking to myself about the ultra-violet glow that everything had – the delicate fluttering wings and the veins in the flowers.
That was the thing – the light. I’d almost forgotten what it was like. For as long as I could remember I’d been in a place where the sun never rose above the escarpment and nothing grew properly – the valley of the shadow of death. Now, here, this narrow place was lit apparently by its own radiation, for the sky was still as dark as ever. I remember, that first day, looking at a lily flower hanging over my head, radiant orange, and a bell flower of so deep an indigo it almost vanished in the shadows, and thinking I’d finally found paradise. I touched the leaves and they were warm and aromatic and slightly sticky. The water was silky to the touch and fleetingly fragrant. I sat on the bank and took my clothes off for the first time in what seemed like months and anointed myself in the waters.
I came across the little community the next day and they told me I was home - I’d found Nirvana.

Sonia arrives as the day begins to move toward dusk. She and Ross greet each other warmly and then she comes over and gives me a hug.
‘How are you feeling today? You look better’ she says and I show her my newly obedient foot and she gasps and squeaks as if it’s the best thing she’s ever seen.
‘Now you can come into town with us’ she says, excitedly. I demur as strongly as I can but she says ‘Tomorrow. We will go out for lunch, all of us’ and she nods around to Ross and another girl I hadn’t noticed, standing in the doorway at the foot of the steps behind her. They all nod and smile and discuss where would be the best place to go. I don’t know anything about it so I watch the girl come up the steps and sit quietly by the cistern. It occurs to me that I might be being fixed up.
‘You haven’t used your bed’ says Sonia after the sun has gone down, coming up into the garden from the kitchen. ‘Can’t you get up there?’ I shrug and hope she’ll leave it but I suspect it’ll come up again. The truth is, all the while I’m on the sofa, I can kid myself I’m just a guest, not staying for very long. It’s nice – they’re all being nice to me. I feel welcomed and tended, like one of the vines here. I like the informality of it. I like being a stranger. I can move on any time I like – they’ve said as much. The truth is I don’t know what to do, or rather, I know exactly what is going to happen, because I can’t face moving on again. I know, once I go up there at the end of one of these days, and lie down on those sheets under that roof, and look at the lamp hanging above me, swinging a little, and at the philodendron sneaking in under the eaves, and the little table beside me with my book and my mug on it – then I’ll know this will be it. This will be my house and my garden, and no doubt, these will be my friends, possibly forever.
I don’t really know if I can accept that yet. Something is missing.

Back in Nirvana, I remember waking up in the morning in some sort of shelter – what they used to call a bender I think, back in the world, but open along one side so I could see the clearing where we’d been sitting the night before. The campfire still smoked placidly, surrounded by mats and cushions. The day was pearly grey out and not too warm. I looked about me. There were at least ten of us curled up under various rugs and shawls. In the daylight it all looked stained and faded where the night before, when I’d arrived it had seemed warm and spicy. I noticed the little light flowers had gone out. I couldn’t move without disturbing everyone so I lay back on a cushion (now somewhat cold and clammy) and thought about everything for a while. A girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve rested her head on my leg, apparently sound asleep. Like everyone else she seemed to be wearing nothing but a bit of cloth that hardly covered her at all. Behind me, the man who’d kissed me lay with his head back and snored. I could feel his leg against my buttocks and I tried to move away. They had insisted this was a place of peace and harmony but I didn’t feel either of those things. I wanted to get up, look around, maybe eat something. I moved my leg out from under the girl’s head as carefully as I could, sliding a pillow under in its place but she looked up at me as if she’d been awake all along. It was like having a cat about the place rather than a human being. There seemed to be quite a lot of these voiceless human pets about the place – boys as well as girls all with the same unknowing pre-pubescent lewdness about them. They always stopped smiling and chatting when they saw we were looking at them. Then they smiled as if they understood everything completely. I stood up and tried to arrange the toga thing they’d given me. I wasn’t feeling “uptight” as they later told me, just exposed. I didn’t feel safe.

Once out of the shelter I stand up and look about. It only occurs to me then that this is the first morning light I’ve seen for a very long time. I later discover that this hazy twilight is as bright as it ever gets here and everything remains misty and indistinct until it gets dark again. I remember thinking ‘Not out of the woods yet then’ but the mist seemed to suit everyone else. I looked around at our campsite, at the little burnt out fire in its pit, and the discarded bits of cloth, candles and small coloured bottles around the perimeter. I looked at the wilted ivy and flowers woven into the frame of the shelter, and discovered that the tiny luminous flowers were actually fairy lights strung together on a wire. Elsewhere the vegetation was bruised and broken and some of the flowers were artificial. I found cheap plastic butterflies and birds mixed in among the real plants. In short it all looked pretty tawdry in the thin light of day.
As it got warmer the others gradually began to move about. I was sitting at the fire, trying to prod it back into life, feeling, if anything, more depressed than I had been wandering around in the dark. There seemed to be some semi-sexual, semi-narcotic activity going on in the shelter across the way but I didn’t want to get involved. At one point another one of the men (squat, bearded, naked) brought me over one of the flowers and told me to try it out. I gave it a sniff and it made my head spin but I politely declined any more thanks. He didn’t seem especially put out and headed back to the shelter he’d just come from.
Later on a woman came over (I’d moved over to the stream by now and was watching some insects swarming on a rock) and squatted in front of me, not bothering to keep her legs together. She was short and pink and her breasts rested on her thighs as she leaned forward to look into my face. I tried not to look like I was encouraging her. ‘You’ve been seeking your reflection’ she said, swaying a little ‘and wondering who it is that looks back at you.’
I wanted to say ‘Nobody is looking back at me. It’s just a reflection, you moron’ but for some reason I didn’t want to upset these people. It wasn’t politeness. I was scared. I was scared and irritable and alone.
‘And yet the reflection is an illusion’ she went on. ‘You cannot step in the same river twice.’
I couldn’t resist it. How often had I heard that one? ‘Yes you can’ I said, as if talking to a particularly dense student. ‘It’s the same river, or stream in this case. It’s just the water that’s not the same.’
‘But the river is the water’ she said, as if it’s completely simple and obvious.
‘Erm, no’ I say ‘“River” is a more complex notion than just the water it contains, or that passes through it rather. A river is a place, for example.’
I know I’m being pedantic but I can’t resist it.
‘But the river is an illusion.’
‘What? I thought the reflection was the illusion’
‘Everything is an illusion’
‘So why focus especially on the river?’
And with that she gives me what I guess is supposed to be an enigmatic smile and backs away. Later on I discover that the scented milky quality that the water has is from people washing in the waterfall upstream.

It’s dark. Everyone else seems to have gone home (everyone except Ross who has settled into the hammock). I stand in the space between the kitchen and the lounge facing the front door, facing the night, unsure what to do. The cunnilingus frog as I’ve come to know it, calls intermittently outside. I assume it’s a frog. It might be a gecko. I hear a small sound behind me. I’ve not lit the lamps and it takes me a moment to work out that it’s Sonia standing there with some dishes she’s brought in. She goes over and puts them in the sink.
‘Are you ok?’ she says. I don’t know how to reply. I want to cry but I can’t. She comes around and looks up at me.
‘I feel really lost Sonia. I don’t know where I am.’
She nods and leads me over to the sofa. We perch on the arm. I look without focus at the door. I know she is watching me. I know she is worried and I’m touched but I can’t respond.
‘Come on’ she says. ‘Time for bed’ and I think for a moment that she means us, together, but then I know she obviously doesn’t mean that. It’s that other place – the so-called Nirvana, poisoning everything. She stands up, takes my hand and leads me over to the steps. I pull back a little.
‘Why not?’ she says but I don’t want to explain. It sounds ungrateful.
‘Wouldn’t it help if I stay with you tonight?’ she says.
I guess she sees the shock on my face because she laughs and says ‘Not for that. Not for sex.’
I relax visibly and now she pretends to be offended that I don’t want to have sex with her. ‘What about Miguel?’ I say, feebly.
‘Oh he’ll understand. Come.’ She leads me over to the ladder and follows me up. My legs are almost completely healed but still weak and aching and it’s a while before I can stand at the top. I still can’t bring myself to look at the bed. She squeezes past and collapses down on top of the thin cotton covers, still in her day clothes. I look around at her. She’s just lying there, looking about. Maybe it’ll be alright. I go around to the other side and lie tentatively down without looking at her. ‘Is this alright?’ she says ‘Which side do you normally...’
‘It’s fine’ I say, lying stiffly down, avoiding contact at any point along our lengths. I look at the fine workmanship in the roof. It’s actually rather beautiful – the way the laths have been interwoven and tessellated between the beams. After a while it becomes obvious that neither of us is ready to sleep.
‘You’ve been very hard to talk to you know’ she says at last. I say nothing. ‘We can’t understand what you want. We’ve been trying to help but...’
‘And you have – you and Miguel and Ross and the others. I’m really grateful.’
She shakes her head impatiently. ‘It’s not about gratitude. Actually what we want is for you to start getting yourself together and pulling your weight around here.’
It takes me a while to realise she’s only half joking.
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean get out of the house, be a part of things. Get your hands dirty. There’s so much to do.’ She turns on her side and leans her head on her hand, looking intently at me. ‘You’ll feel better for it too. Look, we know you’re not completely mended yet. That will come, but you need to get about more. Are you coming into town tomorrow?’
‘I’ll think about it’
‘Not think about it. Yes or no?’
‘Ok. Yes’
‘Good. Everybody wants to meet you. You’d better not let us down. Now we should get some sleep’ and with that she reaches down and pulls a bed spread over us, turns over and apparently falls fast asleep, just like that. I don’t. I lie there awake. I have this image of the whole town clamouring to get hand-fulls of me as I make my entrance tomorrow. Bloody hell.

As I lie there my mind drifts, as it usually does, back to “Nirvana”. I have the clearest image now (Sonia’s proximity must have effected me at some level) of standing naked under the waterfall and two naked girls coming over to wash me, rubbing small cakes of soap over my tired battered body and giggling, lingering, passing comment in some chuckling sub-language of their own. Only when they actually touched my erection did I ask them to please leave me alone and I rinsed myself off and went somewhere private to dry. They’d looked about thirteen and I felt dirtier than ever. One of “the guys” then came over with a small boy and stood there grinning knowingly at me while the boy lathered him up. I looked down at the litter of soap wrappers on the ground. They all had ‘Beacons Motel’ printed on them.
‘Hey man’ he said, ‘Don’t look so lost. It’s early days yet. It takes a little getting used to but these guys’ll do anything for you - you ask nicely.’
‘I don’t think I...’ I said feebly and sloped off, still not wanting to cause trouble.

Later on, near the fire, two or three of them are discussing my ‘problem’ or rather, are musing in a vague way about how good life is here and how no one in their right mind would ever want to be anywhere else, or do anything else. The children hang around eyeing us apprehensively, apparently waiting for something. I stare into the embers and draw a tie-dyed sarong around my shoulders.
‘Man, if you can’t dig this you are truly a dead man’ says the first man and he passes me a long tubular white flower, shaped like the trumpet from an old gramophone. The other’s noses are still running from their last blast and they sit there sniffing and giggling to themselves. A woman sits down close to me – too close, chewing some leaves she’s found. Chewing and sniffing the undergrowth seems to be the main recreation around here – that and talking crap. I’d overheard them earlier discussing the guy with the pony-tail I’d met at the beginning. They said he’s always got six or seven of them servicing him at any one time. I assume they mean six or seven of our little hospitality workers. Apart from anything I’m getting sick of the fact that everyone seems to talk about exactly the same things every day as if they’re the most new and amusing things ever. I suppose there isn’t much new to discuss here, that or they have very short memories. I want to ask about the guy with the ponytail but realise of course I don’t know his name, or anyone’s names for that matter. I ask about it.
‘Names are like flags’ says one of them.
‘Or shields’ says another.
‘Names are irrelevant. They’re like prisons.’
‘My name is Heartbeat’ whispers the woman to me.
‘No it isn’t. It’s Astrophysics’ jeers one of the others and they all laugh. The woman looks ashamed and goes back to her bowed position, concentrating on her leaves.
After they’ve all calmed down the guy who kissed me says ‘You have to try to speak without words man, without symbols’
‘Without meaning?’ I suggest.
‘Exactly’ he says, evidently thinking I’ve said something very profound indeed when actually I was just being sarcastic.
‘You mean be silent’ I say, playing along.
‘Absolutely not. Quite the reverse’ he says and someone across the way farts luxuriantly. Everybody grins beatifically. The kiss guy raises his eyebrows to me as if to say ‘Now do you get it?’
‘I have no idea what any of this means’ I say.
‘Exactly’ he says again, as if I’ve finally understood everything. They all go into some sort of meditative trance and all the while the children move about, touching here, conferring there. I note they tend to avoid me, but Heartbeat, or Astrophysics or Brainsplatter or whatever her name is beside me seems to think she’s in with a chance and slides imperceptibly closer. I feel like screaming and running away.

I look over at Sonia beside me, now lying on her back and snoring quietly and feel a huge relief.
The trouble is, now I’m not sure I’ll ever want to sleep alone up here again.

Voyage V – Lust and Commitment

I deliberately steer the conversation around to relationships next time the girls and I meet up. I want to get it out in the open – the fact that I can’t imagine ever getting involved again and I just want us to be friends. I don’t say overtly that that’s why I’m telling them – that would be presumptuous, but I just want to pre-empt any awkward notions that might crop up, either on their side or mine. In the process I manage to make it sound tragic (which, actually, it is) to get lots of sympathy, and also to make it sound romantic (which actually it isn’t. It’s bloody hard). I ask about the people they were with at the end and it turns out they were all more or less single. Lisa and Ruth are both tight-lipped on the subject, not to say bitter, but Raz tells us more than we really wanted to know about the men in her life.
‘There was Ken at the end – sweet boy, face like a mastiff but what can you do? I swear he was gay but he was trained to be a nurse and I made sure it was all worth his while. Before that it was Robin. He was just a gold-digger really but I’ve got to say the boy did his best to impress me. We lived the illusion together – always complementary about whatever new software I’d had installed.’ (By which I assume she means cosmetic surgery.) ‘We got through a terrific quantity of lubricant I can tell you, what with the HRT. My second hip op was his fault...’ and so on and so forth. Lisa doesn’t know where to put herself.

So Raz is back from her fling with Doug and back in her ‘lounging apparel’, sipping a martini. She knows a lot about martinis and I asked her if she’d get me one and she asked which kind and I said I didn’t know there was more than one kind. She’s brought me five different ones so far and I’ve enjoyed them all, so that’s a revelation. Ruth and Lisa are also here, as usual, and we’re joined by a small, stocky woman, also apparently in her mid to late twenties and with lots of curly hair around her face and over her shoulders. She introduces herself as Wen (‘Short for Arwen. Dad wanted an elf but he got a hobbit’ she explains cheerfully). They’re talking about men again. I sit casually sideways on, drinking arm resting on the table, listening in, watching the others. A lot of the early excitement has died down now. People have settled in for the long haul. Outside, the weather is filthy, the storm flinging all manner of foam and debris up on deck. Down here is stuffy and poorly lit, but not unpleasant. There are an awful lot of chessboards and packs of cards out. I wish I enjoyed games more. Still, the conversation is seldom boring here, and I can always look at my book if it is. The other day I found a small book of poetry in the library, and I nearly put it back because poetry has always seemed contrived and awkward written down (same with Shakespeare). It’s like reading some lyrics without knowing the music that goes with them. Sometimes I’d catch the poem being read on the radio by an actor and I’d hear the thing come alive. That’s what I like about this book. I opened it casually, not expecting much (but with the vague sense, left over from childhood that I ought to read poetry) and there it was, as I read, speaking alive in my head – poetry. It wasn’t like a recording. It was me, but suddenly fluent in poetry. I’ve kept the book on me and shown it to a couple of people but no one else seems that impressed. Either they weren’t interested in poetry or poetry was always like that for them. Lisa was even quite scathing. She couldn’t imagine how anyone could not “be in love with poetry” and I think her opinion of me dropped a few notches. Wen was more scathing still. She wanted to know why, if you had something to say, making it rhyme would somehow say it better. She likes instruction manuals and textbooks. Dad would have liked her.

Anyway, I hear Ruth is on about ‘commitment-phobics’ again and complaining about her last boyfriend. I brace myself.
‘I mean, you weed out all the bloody rejects and time wasters and you think you’ve found something worth having and...’
‘How do you mean?’ says Lisa ‘weed out?’
‘On-line dating darling’ says Raz. ‘You weren’t much into the technology were you sweetie?’ Lisa looks piqued but listens anyway.
‘Anyway, as I was saying...’
‘But how do you do it?’ says Lisa. ‘I’m sorry, do you have to go on dates with them all?’
‘Heavens no. You look at their profiles and see what you fancy – age, religion, hair colour...’
‘How can you tell anything from that?’ says Lisa appalled.
‘Well there’s usually a photo and a quick resumé to go with it’ says Raz ‘You should see some of them’ says Ruth and the two of them do a bit more cackling.
‘Some of them, honestly, it’s unbelievable. Some of them can’t even be bothered to write a profile, I mean what sort of impression does that give out? Or they just write “Help. I’m lonely and I can’t even tie my own shoe laces.” I mean really...’
‘Pitiful, it really is...’
‘So... what? You go out with a whole lot of strangers?’
‘No worse than meeting someone in a pub or a club darling.’
‘No, I get that, but I mean, well, how many did you go out with in the end?’
‘About twenty-five I think, maybe. Obviously you have to narrow it down. Some things are obvious snags...’
‘Like religion? Or if they didn’t want children...’
‘Well, income of course. Obviously I wouldn’t think of going out with a man who earned less than I did, which narrows the field considerably I have to say, or one who was shorter than me for that matter. That isn’t such a problem of course.’
Lisa just says ‘Ah, of course’ but I can tell she’s troubled. She must be five ten herself. Perhaps she’s thinking that was her problem. I have to say I never found it a problem. Vikki was a good two inches taller than I was.
Vikki – oh my God. Poor Vikki.
‘Anyway’ resumes Ruth ‘that was how I met Clive – six foot four, architect, five hundred G, two kids with his ex in Bristol, seeing each other alternate weekends and whenever else we could get away. I really thought, maybe, who knows? Could be the one, and then he invites me to meet his kids and come away for the weekend with them and I think “This is it, at last.” And then, next thing I know, whoosh, dumps me the week after. I mean, am I missing something? I mean, ok, he wasn’t the easiest man in the world to talk to for example but I thought maybe that was because of his ex and so on. I wasn’t in any hurry myself to be honest. Not after Leo. I wasn’t exactly writing wedding invites. Know what I mean?’
She looks at Raz who is fiddling with her olives. ‘The thing is darling’ she begins ‘and stop me if you’ve been told this a zillion times before, but men and women are not designed to be happy together long term. I mean, present company excepted (I nod thanks without looking up) men are just not after the same thing we are. I mean, we’ve had sixty years since burn your bra and women are doing nicely in the work place and so forth now, but I really don’t believe it’s made a jot of difference to the way men think.’
‘I think that’s bollocks if you don’t mind my being so bold’ says Wen, leaning in. She’s in an awkward position relative to the rest of us, sitting with Lisa down on the soft leather sofa whilst Ruth and Raz are on chairs. I’m in an armchair off to one side, staying out of it. It doesn’t seem to affect Wen’s ability to be heard however. ‘It’s all about what kind of men you go for’ she says.
I can see Ruth’s hackles rising. I raise an eyebrow at Raz. This should be interesting.
‘I mean, no offence, but I’ve heard you talking about all these men you dated and it’s the same story over and over again. Has it not occurred to you that perhaps it was something about you?’
Nobody says anything for a minute or three. Not a word.
‘I’m just saying’ she adds, shrugging.
I can see the muscles working in Ruth’s jaw as she tries to formulate a civil response.
‘Then how do you account for the fact that all my friends had precisely the same experience, over and over again?’
‘Well, maybe it’s the kind of people you hang out with.’
Ruth flushes nastily, like a strawberry allergy. ‘And you’ve been happily married all your life I suppose?’
‘God no, but I know I’m a difficult cow. High maintenance, that’s me.’
Ruth is speechless. Raz pretends to concentrate on her glass but secretly watches Ruth’s face.
Lisa puts her book down and leans in. ‘Are you saying then, that it’s all the woman’s fault?’ She looks really miffed.
‘Not always. Usually it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. But I just think, if it happens to you a lot, well, maybe you need to do some thinking – not you necessarily. Anyone I mean. I don’t know your situation...’
‘And actually you don’t know mine either’ says Ruth tersely.
‘Well, you’ve hardly kept it a secret. You’ve talked about little else since we’ve been here. Honestly, you have. I’m sorry.’
‘Well, with all due respect I don’t think you understand.’
‘Ah, maybe not. That’s fair enough. Can I get us all a drink?’ and she gets up holding hers and Raz’s empty glasses. We tell her what we’d like and she goes to the bar.
After she’s gone Raz looks intently at me and says ‘What do you think about all this Gabe?’
‘Oh, don’t drag me into it’ I say, secretly hoping she’ll insist. She does. I knew she would.
‘Go on, you can’t chicken out. You were married for what, twenty-five years? Did you never look at another woman in all that time.’
I take my time answering – keeping them guessing but in truth I don’t know what to say.
‘I looked’ I say guardedly. ‘She knew I looked. We both did. We used to discuss who we fancied. It was like a game.’
‘For you perhaps’ says Ruth, tightly.
I avoid looking at her. She’s really beginning to piss me off actually.
‘Actually’ I say, equally tightly ‘my wife was quite secure enough in herself to enjoy the game. She knew exactly how I felt about her.’
Ruth looks at me. I know exactly what she wants to say, but she doesn’t. Instead she says ‘In that case she was a very lucky lady’.
I want to say it had nothing to do with luck. I want to say that she was the kind of woman that inspired devotion, but I can’t. It would be too much truth.
‘I still think men tend to just play at it’ says Lisa angrily from her end of the table. ‘I felt like I was a toy sometimes. They can just pick you up or put you down when they feel like it.’
‘Thank you Lisa,’ says Ruth archly. ‘We’re not all quite as needy as you.’ Lisa goes back to her book.
‘Oh look, I need to freshen up’ says Ruth, rising suddenly. ‘I’m going to go and have a sauna. Raz, coming?’
‘I’m ok here for a while dear. You go ahead.’
Wen arrives with a tray as Ruth heads out. Ruth barely acknowledges her.
‘Bloody hell, what’s happened here?’ she says as she puts the tray down ‘She’s left her drink.’
‘Oh I’ll deal with that’ says Raz tipping it into her own glass. ‘Anyway Gabe you never really answered my question. You must have broken some hearts before that I’ll bet. Come on, spill the beans.’
I smile demurely. Lisa I note has looked up from her book and is waiting intently for my answer. This is why I like female friends. Men are a constant mystery to them, whatever they may say to the contrary, and they appreciate having a tame specimen on hand to study. A friend of mine (female) explained it this way – men have traditionally seen woman as the great mystery, like looking up at the stars and wondering at infinity. Women on the other hand look at men as if they’re observing an amoeba down a microscope and wonder how something so primitive can possibly function. For my part I never found women much of a mystery. Men on the other hand...
‘I did ok’ I say cryptically and smugly.
‘How “ok”?’ says Raz, grinning smuttily at me.
‘Never you mind. Drink your drink.’
Lisa looks at me. I can tell she’s formulating a question. She pokes at her ice with her swizzle stick. ‘But don’t you think... I mean, men do look at women differently, don’t they...’
‘How do you mean?’ I can imagine, but I want her to tell me.
‘I mean, not exactly as sex objects necessarily, but... What am I trying to say? More as...I want to say conveniences, or hobbies or something. More like pass-times.’
‘As opposed to?’
‘Well I think maybe a woman looks at a man she likes more as a... a potential soul mate or something. Am I being very silly?’
‘A bit simplistic perhaps’ says Raz, charitably.
‘I know I don’t know much about it. Sorry. It’s just... I just do feel that men don’t really care about women the same way women care about men. Do you know what I mean? Or women about other women for that matter. I’m not being heterosexist about it...’
‘I think there’s a lot of overlap though’ says Wen. ‘I think maybe if you look at the extreme cases...’
‘And you’ve got to look beyond all the bluster and keeping up appearances darling. Don’t be fooled. I’ve had some very devoted followers.’
‘They were just after your money’ says Wen.
‘Everybody’s after something sweetie. I mean, how many of these ever so devoted girls are actually just after a baby, and how many of them totally lose interest in the man once they’ve got one?’
‘That’s totally different’ says Lisa, evidently quite affronted.
‘Is it?’ says Wen.
Lisa doesn’t answer.
My turn. ‘Are you saying I shouldn’t have had anything to do with a woman unless I was prepared to marry her and give her babies then Lisa?’
‘Well...’ she thinks about it. ‘Not necessarily, if it’s understood... If you both want the same thing.’
‘But I don’t think many women would...’
‘Oh come on. What century are you living in girl?’ says Wen.
‘I’m just saying... Oh I don’t know. Maybe I’m very old fashioned.’ She looks very upset. ‘Oh look, I know I’m talking rubbish. Ignore me.’
Suddenly I feel the need to rescue her. I don’t want her to feel so beaten. ‘Lisa’ I say, ‘It’s not that you’re completely wrong...’
‘Yes I am. I am wrong.’
‘Oh sweetie’ says Raz, reaching out and taking her hand.
‘No, you’re right. I should have just... It’s ok, really...’
I look at her and wonder what’s happened. I can see she’s been hurt but she hasn’t told us anything about herself. She’s a picture of vulnerability – tall and unsteady and her eyes seem too big for her face sometimes. They look like they’ve done a lot of crying.
‘Well, to be honest’ I say, ‘I tend to assume that women are well able to look after themselves, or at least, as much as men are.’
She’s not happy with that answer either.
‘I think you’re one of the exceptions sweetie, don’t you? One of a rare breed of decent blokes’ says Raz.
I can feel myself blushing. They take it for modesty but it’s not.
‘Oh come on. I don’t believe that’ says Wen, ‘I mean, Raz, you’ve got to admit you’re not the world’s best judge of the male character yourself.’
‘What do you bloody mean, cheeky cow?’ she says with mock indignation and gives Wen a bit of a shove with her elbow. ‘I think I understand men rather well’ and she gives us that raucous cackle again.
‘Yes, but...’ says Wen waiting for her to settle, ‘for instance, would you have gone out with Gabriel here?’
Raz eyes me lasciviously ‘I might have’ she says, ever keeping her options open. I appreciate the flattery and smile back.
‘No, you wouldn’t, and do you know why?’
‘You tell me darling.’
‘Because he’s too nice.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘It’s true Gabe, I’m sorry. You’re a decent bloke and a lot of women like that sort of thing – nice, polite, charming.’
‘Oh hang on. You make me sound like some sort of freak.’
‘No, but really...’
‘Anyway’ interjects Lisa ‘I don’t believe he was that nice.’ She’s looking at me very narrowly, accusingly even. I’m beginning to think she knows something. Do I know her? I couldn’t forget a girl like Lisa – could I?
‘Ok’ I say, ‘look, just for the record, yes, I didn’t always handle things as well as I might have, but I got dumped too.’ It’s a feeble rationalisation and we both know it.
‘But you broke somebody’s heart didn’t you. I know you did.’
‘What? Look, I really don’t know what your problem is Lisa.’
‘Oh nothing’ she says, suddenly deflated. ‘Nothing. Forget I ever said anything’ and she goes back to her book. We all look at one another and talk about something else. She’s upset me though. How did she know?

Alison V – The Handover

‘Now then’ says Alison next time I see her. ‘You were telling me about your school days. We may have to hurry it up a little if we’re going to get to the end in time.’
‘Oh. Ok, well, in that case I’ll tell you when things changed. I was nearly ten years old. It happened really quickly one day and I remember the whole thing very clearly. I was in a maths lesson. Mr Hendrick was our class teacher by then – he was a horrible sarcastic old man, the last of his kind.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, there a lot of old teachers there still when I started. I think they were left over from the war when schools had had to take pretty much anyone who wasn’t fit to fight. There was Miss Williams, Mr Philbert, Mr Hendrick. They were all a bit eccentric, and close to retirement. We didn’t start to get the new younger teachers until later on. Anyhow, I hated Hendrick. We all did. He didn’t have any time for anyone who wasn’t good at maths or science and I dreaded having anything to do with him. Anyway, it was quite early in the new year – January or February maybe and I remember I was sitting despairing over some geometry he’d given us and I was looking around the room as I often did – anywhere but at the page and I hear him say ‘Fortune’, in that supercilious tone he had. He strolled around to the front of his desk and leaned there, looking at me with those beady old man eyes, sizing me up, thinking about how he was going to humiliate me today. Luckily one of the girls put her hand up and he turned his attention to her, but not without giving me his ‘maybe later’ glance. I started on the lines and angles and tried to make some sense of it.

I remember the change as like a handover, or passing on of a baton. Up until then my old soul had been riding along up there in my head, observing but unable to exert much of an influence whilst my young self went about his usual childish business. It’s been difficult to work out which person to tell this story in. Sometimes I am the old soul, watching and seeing things happen against the backdrop of many previous lives and after-lives. Other times I am that young boy, oblivious of all this, coping alone, only vaguely aware of him, the old soul, trying to help. That was before.

It was during this lesson that that ten-year-old boy and the adult he grows into became the ‘I’ that is telling this story now. At that point the ‘I’ that had been telling the story (the old soul) slipped into the background and became a kind of a surreal dream-like memory, alongside my normal childhood memories.
The result was a peculiar double perspective – still very much the child I had always been but now suddenly with a broader perspective. I could not see into the future and make specific predictions but I ‘recognised’ things – people, places, events. Certain situations seemed familiar somehow. I’d be aware that something important was happening and I’d stand back, so to speak, and observe. Furthermore I found myself with abilities I’d not had before – new insights and ways of understanding. It was like being an amnesiac who, whilst having forgotten where he is or what day it is, nevertheless somehow retains the ability to read and speak. I had no memory of acquiring these skills but there they were. I looked at the page in front of me and saw that it was a simple exercise involving Pythagoras’ theorem and which wouldn’t take me a moment to sort out. I looked up and the girl, Matilda, was at Hendrick’s desk pointing to something in her exercise book. As I watched I saw he had his big, veiny old arm around her small back as he spoke, his coarse old hand on her tiny hip. She was a pretty blonde girl, popular with the boys, and with Hendrick too. I watched his hand move on her hip and pull her back onto his knee. I looked around the class. No one else seemed to have noticed and I realised that I wouldn’t have paid much attention normally either. I’d seen him do this many times before, and not just to Matilda, and we’d just accepted it because we knew no better. I looked again. The school uniform dress was short and he’d moved his hand onto her thigh. I saw her squirm a little uncomfortably and try to concentrate. Then I saw her get up and pick up her book and with a thwack on the bottom from him, go back to her seat. I couldn’t tell if she understood what had happened or not.
Hendrick rose from his seat and went to the board and said ‘Everybody finished?’ It wasn’t really a question. ‘Fortune. Finished?’
‘Yes sir’ I said, although I’d written nothing. I did the calculation in my head as he drew the problem on the board.
‘And what do you make the answer, Fortune?’ he said, evidently expecting some entertainment.
I’ll give him his due – he did look mildly impressed that I gave him the correct number, and he didn’t trouble me any more that session. As we worked our way through more such problems I looked around some more. I watched my fellow pupils scratching away. Hendrick was extremely strict about working in silence but the usual suspects were muttering and giggling and imagining he hadn’t noticed. I looked across at Adam and Geoffrey and Alan and Simon and Robert and Gordon, then over at Donna and Tina and Jessica and Sally. I remember enjoying my cool appraising observation, all the while keeping an eye on Hendrick himself. Somehow for the first time I could see the others perhaps as he saw them, or at least as other, less evil adults saw them. I liked Adam – he had a calmness about him and Jessica always wanted to make people feel better. Nicholas was an ignorant bully, Nigel a nasty little liar. Donna was a spoilt brat. Matilda thought Donna was her friend but she wasn’t. It was so obvious. They didn’t scare me any more. I knew what they were up to. I watched Jessica chew her pencil for a while then realised it was getting late and started on the problems.

‘I would have thought the change would have been rather obvious when they saw your work. Didn’t they – the teachers and your parents comment on this sudden transformation?’
‘It didn’t really work like that. For a start I was still me – uncoordinated, “off in my own little world” as they used to say... It was as much as I could do to concentrate and use my new insights a lot of the time. Mostly I was so lost in all this new stuff that I was as much “in my own little world” as ever. I just had different things going on in my imagination. It was the same with my social life. I’d been a bit of a misfit before and now I was a misfit again. The only real difference was now I was happy to be on the outside whereas before I’d always felt left out. Also I stopped doing weird embarrassing things in public.’
‘But they must have noticed a change, surely.’
‘I understood enough to know it would be best to pretend not to suddenly be a genius, but the thing is, I know now that I’d actually been fairly bright all along – I just hadn’t realised. And anyway I was only ever one step ahead – I just recognised problems as they came along and knew how to approach them. I didn’t suddenly have a whole school-life’s worth of maths in my head for example. The best thing though was that now I suddenly had the confidence to get on with it instead of panicking and making stupid mistakes. To be honest, at the time, I didn’t really think about it that much. You know what kids are like – things happen and they just accept them as normal. That’s what I did...’
‘What happened to Mr Hendrick and his thing for little girls?’
‘Oh, eventually he got fired for it. That was after we left. At the time I didn’t know what to do. I knew it was wrong and I knew he knew it was wrong. I remember thinking and thinking for ages about what to do about it.’
‘Did you come up with anything?’
‘No. I was just a little kid after all. I asked Jessica about it when we were talking on the way home but she changed the subject.’
‘Didn’t you talk to anyone else?’
‘Who? I knew my parents wouldn’t take it seriously. They’d say he was probably just being friendly or something and the other teachers weren’t exactly approachable. I remember looking at him very intently once when he was doing it but I don’t think he got it. At any rate he didn’t stop. I think mainly I used my new insight to stay out of trouble. It sounds selfish I know, but I was only ten.’
‘I know. I’m not blaming you. It’s just...’
‘I know, I know’ and I shrug because I still feel guilty about it but I really don’t know what I could have done to help.

‘What happened with you and Jessica?’
‘Oh, she was a sweetie. I got to know her pretty well. She moved away about the time we went up to secondary school and we lost touch.’
‘But she was your girlfriend?’ she says, clearly amused.
‘Well, in as much as twelve year olds can be said to have girlfriends.’
‘In my experience that can mean quite a lot.’
‘Well, this was the seventies.’
‘Even so...’
‘Yes, well we had some good times together. It was quite sexy I suppose. There was a school trip to Normandy when we were about twelve. That got quite steamy. And then the rest of the school found out so it all got blown out of proportion.’
‘Did they tell your parents?’
‘They sent a letter about an ‘incident with another pupil’ and, get this, my dad immediately assumed it must have been with another boy.’
‘I think he just assumed that since I wasn’t a proper boy it must be because I was queer. His word, not mine.’
‘Did you try to explain?’
‘It wouldn’t have been worth the agro. It sounds strange now but it really wasn’t up for discussion. He’d made up his mind and that was it. I’d have had to make a big scene and tell him he was wrong so I just left it. Or he’d have told me I’d misunderstood what he said or something. It didn’t actually change anything as far as they were concerned anyway.’
‘They didn’t care whether you were straight or gay? I find that incomprehensible.’
‘I think it suited them for me to just be this weird, incomprehensible child – like a changeling dumped on them by the fairies – not their responsibility.’
Alison nods as if recalling something and then writes something down. ‘Ok’ she says. ‘I see, that makes sense...So did it change things with your family – this change you’d been through recently?’
‘Not really. I remember coming home that night and looking at dad as if I’d never seen him before and thinking he didn’t even really say hello to me. He was bustling around in the kitchen, making dinner and he muttered something about letting cold air in and that was it and I remember thinking that we were different to other families. And then an hour or so later mum came in and they hardly spoke to each other either.’
‘And she didn’t say anything to you?’
‘I was standing watching her and she said, “Haven’t you got anything useful to be getting on with?” and disappeared.’
‘It sounds bad.’
‘Oh God no, not really, not compared to... well, you know, what other kids have to deal with. But it had been that way all those years. I’d just accepted it. I remember sitting at the dinner table that evening and my sisters were still living at home then and they always had these private jokes and secrets going on which I know really pissed mum off and Justine always wanted to know how I was getting on at school and so on and that day I just smiled at her and said “Really well actually” and I remember them all looking at each other like I was a talking goldfish or something. They both left soon after that, my sisters. Amelia got married and Justine said she couldn’t stand it any more and moved out soon after. That was really bad.’
‘Because you were left alone with your parents in the house.’
‘I think previously I’d really held it against them – leaving me behind like that, Justine especially.’
‘But this time?’
‘I knew it was right. She was twenty-two or something. She had wanted to go to university but then couldn’t for some reason.’
‘You don’t know why?’
‘I never did find out exactly but I can guess. For a start it wasn’t that common back then for working class kids to go to uni, plus she was a girl, plus mum and dad were getting close to retirement. You have to remember the government expected quite a big parental contribution for students back then and I think mum made it difficult for her. Anyway she moved out – only to Hove. It wasn’t the other end of the universe and she let me come and stay quite often.’
‘How did you cope in the house alone with them?’
‘I just stayed in my room, or I went out a lot – just around the town initially, then further on my bike – out in the country or down to the harbour. Some evenings I walked over to Justine’s place but then she got a boyfriend and so that wasn’t so easy.’
‘And other relatives. You haven’t mentioned any other relations as far as I can see...’ She stops to look at her notes. ‘Ah. Holidays, ok. What was that like?’
‘Oh, you know, relatives...’ I say. She gives me that look that tells me she knows exactly what I mean. ‘Auntie Jen was ok. She always wanted to see my drawings and things. Uncle Len was a bit of a arse though.’
‘Len and Jen?’ she says, eyeing me doubtfully and I have to laugh.
‘Len and Jen’ I say, reminiscing. ‘Actually she was alright, my auntie Jen. Uncle Len thought I was a complete waste of space. He used to refer to me as “The Prat” when we went over there. He thought it was funny.’
Alison is clearly not amused ‘Your parents never said anything about it?’
I shake my head. ‘They didn’t like to make a fuss.’ Alison sighs and writes something down.
I have this very clear memory of Uncle Len taking me aside one Christmas. I can’t remember what had happened – something I’d said probably, and he gave me a little conspiratorial wink and took me out the back, and I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I remember he said, in this very cool, man-to-man sort of voice ‘The thing is Gabriel, you insist on always doing things your own way all the time – it doesn’t make you interesting. Nobody admires you for it. They just think you’re irritating. I don’t know why you don’t get that.’
He was always one of those ignorant turds who think it’s down to them to ‘tell it like it is’.
‘What about your friends?’
‘That changed a lot. I started to try to make friends more at school, which was new. But really, it sounds dreary but I was quite happy just getting on with things on my own, in my room or down the garden or wherever. I was used to it by then.’
‘And your parents never wondered where you were?’
‘Sometimes, if I came in really late. Mum used to take the opportunity to get really angry and say how she just couldn’t understand me, and she couldn’t imagine where I got it from and maybe it was the kids at school or something.’
‘But never anything to do with her or your father of course.’ She tuts and slowly shakes her head. ‘I have to say it never ceases to amaze me how parents instantly leap to their own defence in these situations. It always makes me very angry. They’re so puffed up when their offspring are doing well, but anything bad and they’re instantly blaming the TV or the other kids being a bad influence or maybe a medical condition, but it’s never their fault. You’d think, if they really loved their children they’d be prepared to do anything to find out what was going on, but no... Anyway. Where were we?’ She sorts through her notes quickly. ‘So did you get into any serious trouble at all?’
‘Not really. A bit of trespass but they never caught me.’
‘And your school work?’
‘It was ok. I mean, it wasn’t brilliant but it wasn’t worse. A lot of the time I was just bored with it. I think the thing that changed really was just about my confidence. I just didn’t worry so much because I knew I could do it when I needed to. I think confidence was the thing that changed everything – making friends, getting away from home, getting a bit of pocket money, taking my painting seriously. I think before I just couldn’t think about any of it because it all seemed too complicated and like I was just this useless weird child who’d just get it all wrong again but now I didn’t worry about any of that. I knew I could do it at least as well as any of the others so I just relaxed and got on with it.’
‘And I bet you were more popular with the other kids too, as a result.’
‘I was. It was very cool, and I remembered enough of what I had been like to really appreciate it too.’

Friday, 5 July 2013

Voyage IV – Lisa

A few days later, after my morning snooze (people seem to sleep a great deal in the afterlife) I arrive for lunch and the only person I recognise is Lisa. ‘Where is everyone?’ I say, failing to hide my disappointment until too late. She smiles nevertheless, as if she’s used to it and pulls out a seat for me. ‘Good day to you too’ she says. I sit down and I observe her for a moment. Actually, she’s intriguing but I really just wanted some easy company today just as a distraction, and easy, she is not.
‘Did you sleep well?’ she says.
‘I did. What are you reading today?’
She turns the book over to look at the spine, then slumps a little with a perplexed look on her face. ‘I don’t know really. It’s nothing like anything I’ve seen before. You have a look’ and she passes it to me, keeping her fingers in place to mark the page. I read a few lines and it seems like poetry but without any obvious structure. ‘I think it’s a description of a mythical city and all the things that go on there’ she says ‘but the weird thing is, it looks like ordinary prose, but when you read it, it just falls into this amazing rhythm all by itself’ and she takes the book back and sits up and begins reading. It takes a while for the sentences to fall into place but then quite unexpectedly it begins to sound like a song. I watch her reading, lost in the words and get quite lost myself. I can see the city with its leafy shaded squares and clamouring market day and its views over the walls, across the plain. In a café sits a beautiful Arab girl and her father, sipping coffee. I feel like I know them. I realise she has stopped reading and we both have tears in our eyes.
‘It’s marvellous isn’t it’ I say.
‘I’m glad you like it’ she says, obviously very pleased with the effect. ‘Shall we order something?’
‘Absolutely, yes. What’s on today? Shall I go and find out?’ and she smiles and I go up and look at the blackboard and try to memorise everything so I can go back and tell her. I know she’s vegetarian, and I wouldn’t mind going veggie today so that cuts down the amount I have to remember a bit.
I used to do this back home. For a moment I see myself in that pub in Fletching near the end of my life, trying to choose something to eat and having real difficulty making sense of it all and she would come up and help me. I wouldn’t have let anyone else ‘interfere’ as I called it (although they meant well no doubt). Somehow she never made me feel inadequate, my darling girl, no matter what stupid things I did or said.
I don’t know if I can stand this today. I can’t imagine ever standing it. I can see this sort of day happening over and over, without her, for all eternity. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder – just the way she would have done and I turn and Lisa is there and she says ‘I was wondering what was keeping you.’ Then she sees my face and says ‘Are you ok?’ but I don’t want to have to explain. Even if, for argument’s sake, Lisa were a woman I could love (which I’m sure she’s not), how could I ever start all over again? How could I ever think of trying to make someone new understand all over again, after so much has happened? I could never take the trouble to get to know anyone else like that, make all those plans over again, all that history again. It would feel like a cheap imitation. To say I can’t be bothered is to describe an ocean as a mere bucket full.
‘I’m not really hungry’ I say. ‘You choose’ and she studies the board and I hang back. I don’t want to be here but I don’t want to be alone either. I told Alison that I was seriously considering going over the side and getting lost but she tells me that I would have to spend that long last time drifting, simply feeling how I feel now with no hope of ever coming to terms with it until I finally dissolve into oblivion. There seems to be no way out except to distract myself if I can.
‘Come on, you must eat’ she says.
‘I’ll have whatever you’re having’ I say and she goes and orders.

We sit down together and I start to put the food in my mouth. Actually it’s ok. Food always made me feel better. It was what we used to do, when all else failed – make a nice meal and then go to bed. Lisa notes my distracted attitude and says I don’t have to eat with her if I don’t want to.
‘It’s not you’ I say weakly but she seems determined to take it personally so I suppose I’ll have to explain. I tell her about how much I miss my wife and how things remind me of her and how I’m not sure I can cope with all this afterlife ahead of me. She sits impassively throughout my explanation and observes the tears that come to my eyes dispassionately. I can see she’s weighing up whether to say something.
‘Tell me what you’re thinking’ I say.
‘Oh, it’s nothing’ she says impatiently, shaking her head as if to discourage a persistent fly.
‘I can see it’s not nothing’ I say, in my softest voice and reaching for her hand.
‘Oh, go to hell’ she snaps, snatching her hand back.
I feel like saying ‘Too late’ but it sounds melodramatic.
‘Ok’ I say and begin to get up. She sits there looking about, still looking as if she wants to say something. I stand there waiting for a while then move to go. At that moment I hear her say something very quietly. I don’t catch it.
‘I said I think you should consider yourself lucky, that’s all – to have had that.’
I sit down again, looking at her. ‘I do’ I say. ‘I think I was very lucky’ I sit and look at her a bit longer.
‘That’s all’ she says. ‘I didn’t have anything else to say. You can go now.’
‘I didn’t want to go.’
‘Why did you get up then?’
‘You told me to go to hell as I remember.’
‘And do you always do as you’re told?’
‘Ok. Whatever. I’ll see you around’ and I leave her to it, whatever it is. I’m sure she’s very hurt and I feel bad for her I really do, but I wasn’t the one who hurt her and I refuse to have it taken out on me just because I happen to be available. Probably she wouldn’t have had the courage to take it out on the one who actually did the damage so she takes it out on someone who she knows won’t hit back, ie. me. Bloody women.

Alison IV – Juniors

I find myself walking along the path toward the school gate with my anorak and leather satchel. The playground is already full of boys and girls running and shouting, waiting for the whistle to blow so they can go in. I guess I must be about nine and it feels like late autumn. The ground is wet and the sky is heavy, but the sun shines from under the clouds. I feel sick. I don’t know why but I feel like this every day. I guess it’s nerves. With every step I feel like running away but I know I can’t. There are other children running past me. Then the whistle is blown and I have to run to get in. This always happens. I’m always last. I don’t know why. I suppose I just don’t walk very fast. I walk up and stand at the end of the line and wait. Getting glared at by Miss Williams, I feel really embarrassed, again. The other boys are chatting among themselves, not listening and Miss Williams shushes them several times but they just don’t seem to be able to stop talking. Eventually she says ‘Nicholas. I won’t tell you again’ and finally ‘Nicholas, stand by my desk’ and he just grins at us and goes.
Inside there’s that smell of rubber and disinfectant and boiled food and something else – decomposing PE kits perhaps. The corridors are exactly as I remember them – long and echoing, with display boards showing the results of various projects and art and story-writing classes, all mounted on sugar paper and labelled with pupils names. There’s one of ours – something about wildlife. Miss Williams gave my piece on badgers eight out of ten and I put a lot of work into it – going to the library and looking things up. I remember being really impressed by how sanitary they are, badgers – making their latrines and so forth. I had this huge scheme worked out showing all the tunnels and the trees and the other wildlife and the cubs and everything – maybe a 3D diorama too. But I never finished it of course. My schemes were always “somewhat over ambitious” as they put it. Nothing ever got finished properly. Anyway it never got put up there because my handwriting was so messy and I gave it in late.
We enter the classroom and I sit down next to Simon, who is ostensibly my best friend. He’s talking to Alex and Adam across the way and gets shouted at for it. It occurs to me, my old self, that I’ve neither spoken to anyone nor been spoken to, which seems strange. It doesn’t seem to be bothering my young self however. He thinks it’s normal.
I look around the room. It’s fascinating actually, just as I remember it – all the art materials at the sink at the back – yoghurt cartons and palettes for paint and jars of paintbrushes, then the windows that fill the wall on the far side giving a panorama of the sports fields and the black sky and squally rain dashing in at us. We’ll be inside for playtime, which will be a relief. No standing in the cold.
‘Good morning children’ says Miss Williams.
‘Good morning Miss Williams’ we all reply. I look over at the girl’s table – Donna, Jessica and Tina and the others. It feels very wrong to be looking at little girls as an old man so I leave my young self to get on with it on his own. He’s clearly very taken with Donna anyway and it’s obvious why. She’s the one with the blonde ringlets and the rather haughty expression. She looks like bad news to me. He’d do better with Jessica. She’s quite cute and looks friendlier. Anyway, this doesn’t feel like a healthy topic so I look at the books along the wall opposite the windows. I remember I particularly liked Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – that little cosy Baltic world they lived in, with Moomin Mama and Papa always so generous and tolerant and Moomintroll – so wistful and sensitive. I always thought he was a bit soft actually. I preferred Snufkin because he was so independent.
My name has been called for the register and Simon elbows me. Miss Williams says it again, with exasperation. ‘Yes Miss Williams’ I say.
Simon shows me the new rubber monster he’s got on the end of his pencil and asks if he can borrow my pencil sharpener. I realise with horror that I’ve left my pencil case at home. I look at Miss Williams. I’ve done it again. I wonder how I can be so stupid, again. Unbelievable. She’s beginning to write something on the board, something about division. I’m going to need my pencil and my rubber. I’m going to have to borrow one, or ask Miss Williams. Simon hasn’t got a spare. I feel sick. Glynn (one of the boys from the line and a really unpleasant sneaky spoilt cry baby of a child) puts his hand up and says he’s forgotten his pencil. He thinks it’s funny. Somehow that makes it worse. I don’t want to be like him. I look at my exercise book and my mind goes elsewhere, I’m not sure where – Moominland perhaps. My young self hasn’t consciously thought that maybe she won’t notice, or that it’ll soon be over. His mind doesn’t work like that. He just knows she will notice and then he’ll be in trouble again. So he’s just switched off. He just looks at the page and waits for it to be over. Eventually he’s spotted not writing and gets given a new pencil and another withering sigh from Miss Williams. And looking on I realise that’s how it is – it just goes on like that, day after day. There was never anything very terrible about my whole school life – no shocking ordeals or cruel and unusual punishments, just, every day, a string of small mistakes and humiliations. He spends every day just waiting for the next thing, wondering which angle it will come from. And there doesn’t seem to be anything much to balance it – no fellowship, no chat, no one on his side, neither here nor at home. He puts up with it on his own.
I look around at the other children. Most of them seem to be getting on with it or having surreptitious conversations. Only one other child looks at it blankly, with that lost confused look on his face, and that’s Lawrence. No one sits with him because he smells and he’s thick. Even Robert is getting on with it. His work is almost as bad as Lawrence’s but he’s a good-natured clown and the teachers simply smile and shrug. I think maybe I’m thick too. Maybe I should be with Lawrence and Robert. But somehow I know that’s not true. I should be able to do this.

I don’t know what’s going wrong here. My older self should at least be able to intervene with the maths, make it easier for him, give him a hint. It’s only long division for God’s sake. It’s not quadratic equations, but he seems to have just stopped. He’s gone into a panic. He looks at the page and it’s all a big horrible mess and he doesn’t know where to begin and he doesn’t want to have to ask again (he probably won’t understand the answer anyway). I watch his paralysis, the normal classroom hubbub going on around him. Then, at last I see him pick up the pencil. I see him write the numbers, barely legible, but there they are. I watch him look at the numbers and begin the calculation. I can see him do it, step by step – fives into thirty-seven is seven. Thirty-seven minus thirty-five equals two. Bring down the six. Fives into twenty-six is five, remainder one. He’s right. He’s got it right, and he goes on, doing the others, rushing a bit, making a few silly mistakes, but basically getting them right. He comes to the last one with a couple of minutes to spare, completes it with the wrong remainder, closes his book without a backward glance and goes into a trance. He can’t bear to check his work. He doesn’t know what he’ll find there. He thinks they’re probably all wrong and he’ll be here forever, trying to work it out. It’s too horrible to contemplate. As it is he’ll get about fifteen out of twenty and be told to do something about the scruffiness of his handwriting. The teacher will fail to mention that he basically knows what he’s doing and just made a few daft errors because he rushed it and didn’t check his work, and she certainly won’t mention that only two others in the class did better than he did.
This kid seriously needs some help.

Journey IV – Almost like heaven

Today Sonia and a friend of hers – Miguel, came over and made me lunch. He’s a lovely chap, Miguel, pleasant and cheerful but guarded somehow. After we’ve had something to drink – a fresh fruit punch made with papaya and lime and some other things, Miguel suggests they show me the garden, and with that they gently get me to my feet (the left one still pointing the wrong way I note with irritation) and guide me to that door I’d noticed around to the left, directly opposite the front door. Miguel puts his hand in the stirrup shaped handle and twists but it’s very stiff and he has trouble getting the bar to lift. With some forcing the door moves and I can see a little light coming in through the gap but he has to really put his shoulder to get it to open more. Through the crack we see a mass of leaf litter and other organic dross has accumulated in the small space behind it. Sonia gets a chair for me as Miguel finds some rubber gloves and a bucket from under the sink and then, crouching down, grabs great handfuls of the stuff and fills the bucket. All manner of frogs and worms and scorpions come out and Sonia shoos them out with a dustpan and brush. I begin to see out as the door can be opened more and more and then finally, with a little token Latino machismo, Miguel gives it a good hard shove and there’s sharp green light spilling in. Immediately on the other side of the door a set of six narrow mossy stone steps leads up between two walls and we struggle collectively to get me up them. I look around at the damp stone as I rise, not wanting to see what awaits me until I’m right at the top and I can catch my breath and look around properly. I note orange salamanders and sporeling ferns as I go, a huge white crab spider and a lot of tiny red and pink snails gathered together in a chink.
‘Cover your eyes’ says Sonia as we near the top and they guide me carefully up and onto flat soil. I can feel the sun on my neck again and a breeze.
‘Open them’ she says, and I look out upon a sunlit clearing, shaded with trees and divided up into beds, all edged neatly with pebbles, presumably from the beach, and with pebble paths between. A small round table sits off to one side on some slabs and several large pots stand around, overflowing with bromeliads and aloes. ‘Come and sit down’ she says and we head to the table. They say nothing more for the moment, smiling, letting me look around. I look at the soil in the beds, recently turned over but inexpertly weeded (I’ll have to have a proper go at that later, I think) and at the surrounding borders a few yards away and the trees spaced irregularly in them, and the walls beyond that, almost invisible for the vines and weeds festooning them and the dazzling sunlight spilling down, cutting through the shadows. I twist around as well as I can in my seat (I’m going to need a cushion) and behind me I recognise Hibiscus and Hedychium flowering, and Crinum and Fuchsia, all tangled and sprawling about where the weeds have recently been cut back off them.
‘Who did all this?’ I say, astounded. Miguel modestly half raises his hand. ‘Some friends and I. We heard you liked gardening. It’s been a bit neglected’ he says with a shrug. I don’t know what to say. It’s beautiful. In the pause that follows Sonia declares it’s time to arrange lunch and goes down to get things. As she does, Miguel goes and rummages around in the corner under the eaves and pulls out an ancient metal barbeque. ‘Ta-da!’ he says with a little bow and I give him a small round of applause. Soon Sonia reappears with fish and salad and bread and Miguel fetches wine. I watch them fussing over the charcoal, bickering light-heartedly over something, pausing to kiss and then grinning guiltily in my direction. ‘Don’t mind me’ I say, and turn away to look at my trees. At least, I assume they’re mine now.

After lunch Miguel brings out a garden mattress and a rug and some pillows and we all sit around drinking wine and Sonia tells me about the trees. ‘Guava, litchi, mango, lemon of course you know, bananas down the end...’ I peer through the tangle of undergrowth and spy the massive tatty leaves fifty metres away. ‘We haven’t dealt with that part yet’ she says.
‘Well, leave it for a while. I’d like to be able to help’ I say, not at all sure when that’ll be.
‘There are a lot of plants here we don’t recognise’ she says. ‘None of us are really gardeners. But there are books?’ she says, looking hopefully at Miguel who nods.
‘On your shelves. I had a look, while you were...’ I wait for him to finish his sentence but he looks away, confused. I look at Sonia but she is just smiling at me. I want to ask what is going on but politeness stops me again. It’s been a beautiful afternoon and I won’t spoil it. They’re evidently keeping something from me but I really can’t be bothered to work out what it is yet.
‘Show me’ I say. ‘The trees I mean. I could do with some exercise.’ And I move to get myself up off the rug. Sonia comes to help me and mouths something to Miguel. He nods and heads down into the house.
Tottering around, I have to say I feel like a very old man and I know this feeling. I call her Emily at one point, which is confusing. I wonder who Emily was. The path follows the line of an irregular, curving stone wall along the right hand boundary of the garden with a narrow border between it and the path. I recognise tomato and sweet potato vines and chilli and okra. It’s an amazing place. Everything is completely overgrown and muddled up and yet wildly productive. There are what look like African marigolds over six feet tall lined up further on with some sort of creeper among them sprouting red tubular flowers. We watch a hummingbird zipping about, in and out, and then a little orange bee taking its turn. Further down, where the path curves back toward the house we look at the crowd of banana trees standing dense and scruffy and hung with rotting fruit. The whole place smells ripe and fungal with just a trace of a high note of jasmine or lemon. Lemon blossom – that’s what it is. I look over the wall as far as I can at the surrounding woodland, then down at our feet where a tiny brook runs in a gully recently cleared of leaves. We follow it beside the path along the other wall under insane tangles of bean and squash and passion vine, disturbing all manner of flies and lizards as we go. Eventually (I am very tired again) the brook runs into a rectangular cistern with a long-spouted watering can perched on the edge and we’re back at the original clearing.
‘You should plant salads and herbs in these beds’ she says. ‘I think the man who was here before you enriched the soil here especially.’
‘I can tell’ I say.
‘Of course you can. Sorry...’ she says.
‘No, it’s ok. I didn’t mean... Maybe you’d like to help.’
‘I’d love to’ she says, gripping my arm tighter.
I sit, or collapse rather, down onto the mattress again and notice Miguel sat there propped against a log, his hat down over his eyes. There’s coffee waiting and some more fruit and we settle down for the rest of the afternoon, dozing in the sun, listening to the frogs in the cistern and the birds on the roof. It’s like paradise.
Why does that not seem like a good thing?

After they’ve gone and the sun has set I head indoors. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but I definitely feel better this evening – as if I can move without thinking about it so much. I perch on a stool at the work surface and wait for the cafetería to do. A disturbingly large marbled grey gecko has pressed itself flat into the angle between the window frame and the wall. I thought it was a stain at first in the twilight, or some sort of fungus. I watch it lick its outsized fractal eyeballs. A red and purple moth flutters across the window but the gecko doesn’t move. It has all night I guess. I combine the hot milk with the espresso in my cup and, without too much trouble, make my way across to the sofa.
I sit there and look at the window. It takes me a moment to realise something. This feeling I didn’t recognise is growing, this buzzing in my head, behind my eyes, making me agitated and impatient.
I’m bored, that’s what it is, and perhaps lonely too.
Well that’s got to be progress. Up until this morning I didn’t care what happened. I could stare at the leaves making shadows on the whitewash all day long unless someone came in and made me get up and do something. And now I’m really bored, and irritable to boot. And I’m not sleepy either. It’s going to be a long old night.

I shuffle around the back of my favourite sofa to look at the books on the shelves there. I find an eclectic mix of art and poetry and books on wildlife and gardening interspersed with what appear to be slushy romantic novels and some fairly serious erotica. The pages of the latter are not stuck together, in fact they appear very well cared for, but it does make me wonder who lived here before and what became of them.
I still have very little feeling in my groin so I settle for the gardening books. I like the pictures.

At some silent moment in the night I am awoken by a sound like a sharp little gasp. I lie still and try to focus. The whole kingdom of animals that is trying to mate outside my door every other night since I got here seem to have gone quiet. Can I hear someone breathing? Or is it my breathing? I lie back and wait for something to happen. A gust of wind passes around the house. The palm fronds across the way clatter woodenly. A bird or maybe a frog makes a whooping noise down by the water’s edge. Maybe that was it. As I lie there and glance about I wonder if the shadows are quite where I last saw them or if they’ve moved while I was looking elsewhere. Now I’m beginning to scare myself.
There it is again. A surprised little voice – like a clitoris surprised by a tongue. Maybe someone is having sex outside. The door is open. There’s no way I can run for it but at least I’m fairly sure it’s not in here with me now. I heave myself up as soundlessly as I can and make my way to the door, pausing occasionally to listen and look about. The gecko has moved. The moth has gone. I stand by the door frame, steeling myself before I lean and peer out. I hear the sound again. It’s just outside the door. It doesn’t sound like a woman any more. More like a bird. I wield my stick and lean out. I look quickly left and right. Nothing. I stand there feeling a little stupid (But that’s good. This morning I didn’t give a toss how I looked). The sound comes again from the undergrowth a little further away. An animal of some kind. I sit myself down on the stone bench to my right, under the front window and look at the night. The moon is long passed and everything is in shades of black and blue. Just the merest residue of moonlight clings, allowing me to just make out the running water and the rocks breaking the surface. Miguel said there’s been a lot of rain in the hills so we can expect something of a flood here some time. The cobble road outside my door is built about ten feet above the normal water level. I hope that’s enough. He mentioned there’s boards to fit into the doorway if not but they’ve not been used for a long time. I suppose this could be the reason they gave me this place – nobody else wanted to risk being flooded out on a regular basis.
Why the hell am I being so suspicious?
Because someone tried to kill me, that’s why, or to get rid of me at any rate, since I’m already dead. I try to remember what that means.
I think I had some sense of it out in the garden this afternoon, up at the end, near the banana trees. I haul myself up, plant my stick for support and go inside again. The back door opens easily and I look up the narrow steps into the trees silhouetted above me. There’s the rope Miguel fixed up before he left, using the old metal rings set into the wall presumably for just this purpose. I get myself up to the top more easily than before and look around. The mattress is still there, getting damp (but it’ll dry in the morning) and the barbeque still puffing away. I cross the cobbled area and pass the cistern, still trickling, then head into the shadows under the slumping hammock of vines, following the bright thread of water to a place I don’t recognise. I become aware of a fragrance on the air, burnt and spicy. I can’t see the path exactly but there seem to be tiny flickering lights on the ground ahead. I remember this – walking through the woods at a festival, tea lights in jars among the trees, marking the way, and the mellow sound of a guitar, and of quiet chatter. (Don’t want to wake the kiddies do we?) Happy, harmless hippy days. The smell is of wood smoke and patchouli and sandalwood, and of course cannabis.
Why does that fill me with horror now? I lose my balance and find myself sitting down hard on the soggy ground. The stream here is not luminescent. There are no tiny perfect white and pink flowers in the grass. There are a couple of glow-worms in the lower branches and dead leaves and sticks and the undersides of bushes, dusty and webbed, where the sun and rain don’t fall. In short, a real live garden. What was that other place?
I remember the people there, so untroubled, so at ease, looking at me with... What was that expression? Was it love? Well how could they love me? They didn’t even know me. What were their names? Did they tell me their names? Did they have names?
A man with lank floppy hair let his robe fall away and crawled toward me and kissed me moistly on the lips. I know he felt me flinch and he said everything was cool but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. What had he been expecting? I looked at the others, the ones he was with. What was the expression on their faces? What was it telling me? There was a girl there too, very young, also mostly naked. She was watching me with that same inscrutable expression but with something else there too – something less completely blissfully happy. Apprehension.
I get myself up onto my knees facing away from the shadows at the end of the garden. I crawl forward a little until I find my stick then rise stiffly to my feet. I’ve given myself quite a knock and a wet bottom. I look around but see only the menace of an overgrown garden in the middle of the night. The smell is of nothing more than smouldering charcoal and left-over food getting to be past its best.
At the house I enter and hang the stick up. I stand up straight and look around. Who was the young girl? Why does she trouble me so much? What’s going to happen to her? What were they going to do to her? I know the answer but I can’t seem to find it right now.
I want to light all the lights in the place but then I won’t be able to see what’s going on outside. I want to lock the door but what if they’re already in here?
I walk almost normally across to the sofa and sit down, on edge, literally, not reclining. I look at the darkness and can’t wait for it to be daylight again.

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.