Friday, 11 April 2014

Voyage XIV – Utopian

Two more days to go, at the most. There are thickly forested hills to port and innumerable craggy islands to starboard, wider at the top than at the base and much taller than we are, like the titanic prows of fossilised aircraft carriers run aground in the shallow tropical waters, each with its own improbable topknot of jungle spilling over the sides. Huge flocks of sea birds swirl about among them and there are the otherworldly calls of countless unidentifiable creatures on the air. On the side of one island we see as we go past what appears to be a huge black and white shaggy animal with a long snout full of needle-like teeth and with monstrous sickle shaped claws, like a giant predatory anteater. It watches us inscrutably with its tiny eyes as we pass, then goes back to watching the water below, presumably looking for lunch. Further on an overhanging tree is full of pale orange Magnolia flowers that smell of liqueur chocolates, and what appear to be feathered squirrels with vivid blue and red tails cocked rigidly. They leap and tumble, gliding the longer spans from branch to branch, following us and snapping at flies as they go. I see one catch and swallow a luminous orange tree frog. Wen is giggling with excitement and shaking her head in wonder. After a while we find loungers and sprawl about in the sun. The humidity is a little less here but not much and it still rains heavily every afternoon. Anyway, we lounge out on deck most of the time. With our smoothies in the morning, cocktails in the afternoon and wine in the evening it really is very pleasant. Besides we have only a very vague notion of what is coming next and are determined to make the most of it. I alone, as far as I know, have a fair idea of what to expect but can’t bring myself to spoil the fun. All in good time I think. Anyway Raz is still preoccupied with our debate. All credit to her, she does actually seem to listen but the way we see the world is so very different. I like her a lot, in a way that I really don’t like Ruth and I think it’s because Raz so obviously has a good heart and she is genuinely interested in what other people have to say. As Raz pointed out when we were talking about Ruth the other day, you don’t necessarily have to be very bright to be rich. All you really need is an obsession with money and raw cunning.
Anyway, just as we’re getting really comfortable Raz turns to me and says ‘I have to say Gabe, going back to what we were talking about, it does all seem a bit flat, this utopia of yours. I’m sorry but I just think I’d die of boredom. It might be ok for some people who don’t expect much out of life, people without much of a brain, and incidentally you don’t strike me as being one of those people...’
‘I always thought this constant craving for novelty was a sign of a less intelligence rather than more.’
‘Well, yes, ok, that’s as maybe but what if you’re not into weaving yourself a yurt or teaching yourself the didgeridoo? Isn’t it just a matter of life style choice? You happen to like that way of life whereas I...’
‘Except that my lifestyle choice gives the world a future and yours doesn’t.’
‘You sanctimonious arse’ she says levelly. I shrug.

After about a quarter of an hour she says ‘Alright, what about a technological solution? We could carry on in the way to which we’ve become accustomed and save the world too. It could happen.’
We all look at her doubtfully.
‘Well... I don’t know’ says Raz. She puts her empty tumbler on the deck and looks like she might go for a top-up but then lays back. None of us can be bothered to move just yet.
‘Honestly Raz’ I say, ‘I’d defend your right, as a capitalist, to buy and sell and hire and fire and generally screw each other to the wall for all eternity if you really want to. As long as you don’t come near the rest of us I’m fine with that. It’s like the difference between a boxing match and a mugging. I don’t mind being a spectator but I don’t want to be forced to take part.’
‘Hmm... You don’t think most people would want to join us, when they saw the amount of dosh we were making?’
‘Well of course the vast majority of you wouldn’t be, and I don’t know how I’d feel about all the millions of losers coming crawling back to us when things didn’t go exactly the way they’d hoped.’
We sit quietly for a while, observing the sea.
‘So are you really offering the prospect of a world where people just do things for the love of it?’
‘Oh God no. Obviously people still have to make a living. I just think, given the chance, most people would rather make a living doing something worthwhile, or have more time free to do something they’re really into.’
She sits and cogitates for a while. The birds seem very busy today, swooping and diving. I glance at Lisa. She looks very relaxed.
‘Well it all sounds very harmonious and wholesome but surely the need to compete is completely natural – naked apes and selfish genes and all that. Wen? Back me up on this – “red in tooth and claw” and so forth?’
Wen huffs a bit and says, without looking up from her book ‘Sure. If it’s good enough for a bunch of baboons. Why not?’
We wait but that’s all she has to say it seems. Lisa is snoring slightly. Apparently this is between us two alone.
‘Seriously though Gabriel – competition is what keeps us keen, makes us strive to do better... No? You don’t think so.’
I frown at her. It’s a sympathetic frown but a frown nonetheless. I never understood this argument.
‘I always found this need to be proving yourself all the time a bit desperate to be honest.’
She just raises her eyebrows at me.
‘Well anyway’ I continue ‘I didn’t really feel like that. I just did what I did as well as I could. I don’t think worrying about what other people were doing would have improved my work. Probably would have harmed it actually...’
‘Well you’re maybe a little unusual in that respect sweetie.’
‘Well maybe. But I don’t believe that highly competitive people are necessarily better at their jobs.’
‘Well obviously I can’t accept that.’
‘Well obviously...’
‘But all the same, you must admit, the reality is that nowadays competition is a fact of life. You can’t avoid it. Everybody has to be prepared to compete to survive.’
‘Raz’ I say condescendingly, ‘everybody has to go to the toilet. It doesn’t make it the meaning of life.’
I see Wen laugh a little. I like that reply. I came up with it years ago.
Raz just shrugs.

We watch the afternoon’s storm clouds rolling in from the west. It’ll be time for lunch soon. The deck is oddly deserted. I guess the others have gone in already. A huge bird soars overhead and jettisons an impressive amount of guano in the water not far away.
‘Fair comment’ says Wen. Lisa grips my hand and we sit there, holding hands like that, in public. There doesn’t seem to be much point hiding it now. Oh well.

‘So, how did you make a living in the end Gabriel? What did you do?’
‘Oh, mostly teaching... a bit of gardening. And I had my painting and drawing. My wife did freelance stuff – translating and such like, and some writing. She had a book published you know.’
‘Really? What was it called?’ asks Raz.
‘Um... You know, I don’t remember. That’s embarrassing. I do remember it was the story of a young woman doomed to a life of servitude and drudgery, who goes down into Hell (I don’t remember how she got there), meets the love of her life and learns to fight the demons. It was a sort of an epic poem in the style of Dante or Milton I think. She was very into that stuff.’
Raz and Wen want to look appreciative but I can see why they don’t get it.
‘I know it sounds a bit archaic or pretentious’ I add, apologetically, but then think, why should I apologise? It was wonderful to read as I recall – full of fabulous imagery and amusing asides, and a lot of genuine pathos. I remember being quite mute when I reached the end.
‘In the end’ I go on, ‘the girl leads the Unjustly Condemned to freedom. It’s very beautiful.’
I can’t begin to describe my pride when she showed me the publisher’s letter. It was only a small independent publishing company and I don’t think they sold more than a couple of thousand copies but she said it was the most fulfilling moment of her life (apart from meeting me, she said, but I’d have been more than happy to take second place.) God, why can’t I remember what it was called? It was something classical. I never had the memory for that sort of thing. Still I should remember that much.
‘It sounds wonderful’ says Lisa, beaming at my over-evident rapture. I’m almost in tears again.
‘So anyway’ I say, pulling myself out of my reverie and getting back to the subject, ‘that helped with the bills...’
‘What Raz?’
‘I just find it hard to accept that you were prepared to just settle for such a humble existence like that... to just give up, when you were both so obviously talented.’
‘Excuse me? Give up on what?’
‘Well, on success, on fame and fortune, as an artist I mean, didn’t you want some of that?’
‘What, immortality you mean?’
She laughs a bit. It seems a ridiculous concept now. ‘You know what I mean’ she says.
I just have to shrug. I genuinely wasn’t that bothered. Why do people think of that as ‘giving up’? Why couldn’t we be happy as we were? People liked my paintings and I enjoyed making them. They gave me money for them and that meant I could stay home and paint some more instead of having to try to motivate a bunch of day-releasers at the college full time. It paid for my materials which meant I didn’t have to plunder the household budget. It was a good system. I remember when one of my pieces turned up in one of the Sunday supplements – it was a bit of a shock, the attention I got, for a while, and I was glad when it passed.
‘Honestly Raz, I’m not being funny. It makes no sense to me at all. I simply don’t get it.’ I glance at Lisa. She looks proud to be with me. ‘Really’ I add. ‘I was really happy as I was... We were really happy... I don’t want to appear smug...’
‘Ok, but you did have a nice little place in the country. It’s not exactly typical.’
‘True. And we bought it out of the proceeds from our respective parent’s properties too, so we were practically aristocracy. No I just think that, if the world was set up properly everybody’d be able to afford a little place of their own somewhere. And of course not everyone wants to live in the country. I don’t feel very guilty about having a two bedroom bungalow with a veggie patch to be honest.’
But the fact is I do feel a little guilty about it. I know we were very lucky to have what we did.
‘You think if the world was set up properly everybody would be able to live the way you did. Is that what you’re saying?’ says Raz eventually. Actually I think I do. I think about our little self-build up there on the Coombes Road looking out across the valley at the old cement works. It was a place I’d loved to go when I was a teenager, when I needed to get away and empty my head. As it was I always came back with a head full of pictures to paint instead.
‘But didn’t you sometimes think – wouldn’t it be nice if I could have a state of the art... I don’t know... What do artists use that’s hugely extravagant? I don’t know, a camera or something, or what about a new hi-fi? You liked your music didn’t you, or a new Aga for the kitchen? Your wife would have appreciated that surely?’
I shrug and nod equivocally. It would have been nice. My studio was a pokey little shed at the bottom of the garden with a wood burner. It was literally frozen in winter sometimes. We’d looked into having a nice new timber-framed building, but then...
‘It’s just... when it came to it, all I could think about was all that time I’d have had to spend at work paying for it, when there were so many other things I wanted to do...’
‘You didn’t feel the need for anything else at all?’ She clearly doesn’t get it. Not want new things all the time? What kind of freak was I?
‘To be honest we just liked our little place. And there was always the ducks and the rabbits and the dog to feed and the veggies to look after. Nothing else seemed that important in the end I suppose...’
But it does feel a bit weak somehow – me of all people, the Little Englander. A memory came to me last night of my girl at dusk in early spring among the daffodils on the grass, talking to the ducks, dressed in just her nightdress and wellies. I take a photograph – her still fine body silhouetted against the dying sun, grinning at me. She always liked to feel the cold air on her skin. She must have been in her late forties by then but she was always a good-looking woman. The glow of the billowing cotton around her legs contrasts with the heads of the purple sprouting broccoli and the flat maroon of her two Indian runners striding about like a pair of vicars deprived of their arms.
‘People always think life is elsewhere’ I say, ‘like teenagers going “It’s so boring around here. There’s nothing to do.” But I was never bored.’
Raz sits and looks for a while, somewhat sadly it seems to me.
‘What is it?’ I say.
‘I think you were very lucky’ she says. I nod pensively. ‘No, not the way you think’ she adds. ‘I think you were lucky because you had the passion and motivation you did. Most people are boring – they don’t want to think about anything, or create anything, or God forbid, have a proper relationship. They just want everything laid on for them, quick, cheap and convenient. Give them four days off a week and they’d go bonkers. The only thing they’d want to do is go shopping.’
I observe her for a moment. She looks so comfortable, so glib in her misanthropy.
‘It makes you feel good doesn’t it Raz – how completely crap the human race is, and being certain there’s sod all to be done about it. It gives you that warm cuddly feeling inside doesn’t it.’
It’s the only time ever I saw her look really pissed off by something I said. It didn’t last though.
‘I don’t want to worry you but it’s starting to rain’ interrupts Lisa. I reluctantly start to gather my things.
‘I don’t know’ says Raz eventually as she rummages around for her sunglasses case. ‘I just can’t help thinking that none of what you’re talking about would be possible without all those thousands of oiks toiling away behind the scenes. Seriously... I don’t like to disappoint you Gabriel, but...’
‘No, you’re right’ I say, standing there with my book, waiting for them to gather all their feminine things together. ‘I actually don’t know if it’s possible to live even as well as we did without the oik factor.’
The first heavy drops begin to fall and we scurry for the door. Once inside we look around to see where there might be a seat. Outside the door there’s a deluge and everything is under an inch of water almost instantaneously.
‘Made it just in time’ says Raz. ‘Where shall we sit?’

Once seated and perusing today’s menu Raz leans over and places her hand on my arm and says ‘I’m just being realistic Gabriel’ as if I need consoling. I don’t. I haven’t lost.
‘That’s what people always say when they’re being negative’ I say smugly. (Another ready reply from way back.) ‘You entrepreneurial types are always on about “pushing the envelope” or “thinking outside the box” when it’s about making more money but when it’s about making the world a better place you’re all “Well you have to be realistic” and “Mustn’t do anything too risky.” But no, you’re right. I don’t know for sure whether it’s possible. But then, neither do you.’
Raz nods cogitatively and says nothing. Time to shut up I feel. We sit for a while, looking at the wine list or looking around at the other people. I’m going to miss this.
‘The thing is Raz...’ I say after a while. ‘This is the last thing I want to say. Promise.’
She looks up at me ‘Yes’ she says and I have to admire the fact that she does at least hear me out. It’s most unusual.
‘The thing is, I’m not a religious person...’
‘Oh come off it sweetie, you’re one of the most religious people I’ve ever met’ and she grins at me and pats my hand. I can’t be bothered to argue the point. Maybe I am. Who knows?
In my humblest voice I say ‘The thing is, I am aware my views seem stupid and idealistic, but...’
‘I never said they were stupid.’
‘Naïve then, but really, I just can’t bear the idea that we’re just going to go on as we have, the human race I mean, contaminating the place, torturing each other, for ever. I can’t. I just have to believe we can do better than that. I suppose it is like an article of faith with me. I have to believe in it.’
I suddenly realise I have something of an audience. The whole table is looking at me, including a group of strangers at the far end. Lisa is gripping my hand.
‘I mean it’ I say. ‘I couldn’t bear to go through life not believing that. I can’t imagine how I’d do it’ and I go back to looking at the menu.
Raz takes a moment, perhaps agreeing it would be best to leave it at that but she can’t resist trying to have the last word. ‘I hate to say it Gabe, but I really don’t think it’s likely to happen, human nature being what it is.’
I look up and say ‘I didn’t say I thought it was likely. I just have to think it’s possible.’
‘And you really do think it’s possible.’
‘Absolutely. If we want it badly enough. One day we’ll look back on all that frantic rushing around and think “What the heck was all that about?”
Raz nods and says nothing.
‘I think this is the “agree to differ” part of the show’ says Wen. ‘Shall we order? There seems to be a rather tempting Thai fish curry on offer.’
I grin at Raz and she pulls me toward her and kisses me on the cheek. I think we’re done. I don’t have anything more to say anyway. Lisa smiles at me and we order our meal with champagne. I have no idea what we’re celebrating but there’s definitely something in the air.

After dinner is over, Wen, Lisa and I sit in the forward lounge with our books and our coffees and some rather wonderful chocolate truffles. Outside the weather looks fairly clear but we’ve learned not to trust it. Tropical storms seem to blow up at pretty much any time after midday. Raz got her glad rags on after dinner so we assume she’s on the razzle (‘Very droll’ she said ‘Don’t think I’ve not heard that one before’). We wave her away and get back to our books. As time goes on and it gets darker, the chocolates deplete and the coffee changes for liquers and Lisa and I sink closer and closer into our sofa and Wen says it’s time to call it a night. We say good night to her too and cuddle up together there, not even pretending to read. Outside, someone is laughing so hard they sound like they might rupture something.
‘Tell me about you wife’ she says.
‘Because you loved her so much, I can tell.’
‘Maybe tomorrow.’
‘That’s when we land’
‘Maybe tonight then.’
‘Ok. Tonight.’

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A life backwards

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