Ghosts of Christmas

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Santa weaved past the boarded-up remnants of a chip shop at the top of the high street. ‘The Buccaneer’ was finished with swashbuckling and selling shitty chips and gravy in a cob. Glory days. Stained shirts before a night on the town. Battered sausages thrown like airborne torpedoes into the traffic. Someone with a perm taking the impact on his Fred Perry t-shirt. Shouting and laughter into the early evening, everyone pickled within an hour of food, then up to “Henry Africa’s” for the desperate sexual hunt brought down through the centuries and now refined and distilled into a couple of hours of bad music under the grim neon lights of a Scunthorpe nightclub. A flat, a bench, a dark wall behind a solicitors office – ‘Criminal Defenders. Legal Aid Welcome. Phone for Bail’. Groping drunkenly, humping someone in the dark. The realisation of something half-hoped for when those chips were going down.

Christmas Eve. Santa was alone on streets that used to be full. He was feeling his way along the steel shutters, keeping himself upright against the sway of cheap afternoon drink. He’d gone too hard too soon and now the booze was tugging at one side of his brain, trying to make him walk in an ever decreasing circle until he was pulled down to the ground by the weight of his mistake. He looked confused. This wasn’t the Christmas sleigh ride he’d hoped for when the first Jagermeister was knocked back in a bar at the bottom of Town. Things had deteriorated quickly, obviously. It was 4pm, and now the knees were dirty on his red trousers and the fluffy white end had been ripped off of his red felt hat.

I turned the corner and drove up to the supermarket that stands on the old football ground. The place was almost empty. Grim panicked faces chuffed trolleys up and down the aisles. Christmas music pumped with beige blandness from unseen speakers. A drunk sang the Twelve Days of Christmas good and loud in the cheese section, gripping a chunk of red cheese tightly in one red-clawed hand, the other wagging along to the beat above her blonde wig. Kids threw sticky treats against the long windows by the checkout. Two security guards, old and out of shape, stood idly against the CCTV screens and chewed lazily on chocolate bars.

To the sound of silence, the quickening cold wind, and the feel of despair, Christmas approached like a Motown band – barely remembered, a whisper of its former self. Worn out, badly fitting, drunk, getting through the show in a medicated stupor that freezes the face and makes limbs hard to move to the rhythm. A half-remembered song in a steel town.

 

 

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Christmas tree card

It was 2am and now he was singing about Dwarf Porn. ‘Dwarf Porn, Dwarf Porn, it’s deep down in my soul. Dwarf Porn, Dwarf Porn, that’s my ultimate goal.’

The window was open. Reefer smoke drifted out onto the hillside. He was eight pints of snakebite into the night. I watched him sitting there in my cheap armchair, singing, laughing to himself, older. He’d talked almost without a breath for over an hour. Rambling, laughing, trying his best earnest dissection of the latest problems in both of our lives. The trouble lines on his face had eased from earlier in the night. I was glad to see the change. He’d swerved responsibility again – we both had – for the zillionth time. Just a few hours back in the good old bubble. Two old hands at this now, slowed down and world-weary, going over the same things we’d been chewing up for the past thirty years. Same, same, same. Someone told me it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become really good at something. We had those sorts of hours under our belts for sure. And the bruises.

He went to sleep on the sofa. I don’t know what time, because I was in bed while he was crashing around cursing, looking for ways to open the window again for one last bedtime smoke. Scared to sleep.

In the morning I cleared up the cans. Little ground particles of weed had worked into the rug by the low table we’d been using to roll joints on. I had a train to catch. He was mumbling about bus times and trying to help his brain through the ice of post-blow-out emotional deadness. If his head felt anything like mine then he’d need a couple of days to get back to some form of equilibrium. But we knew all this. You either accept the brain reset or you go hard against it and keep the momentum going. I knew what I’d be doing: the former. A post-binge hangover is a personal thing. You’re on your own. There is no guiding light and no patron Saint to calm the fractured synapses.

I hugged him goodbye at a lonely bus stop in the middle of nowhere – never seen anyone use it, let alone a bus drive past – and walked on to the train station. He sparked up a cigarette and stood leaning against the wind, eyes on the little road.

 

Walk with me

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At half past two in the morning, on this hill, there is only you and the council gritter lorry moving about. The orange warning light blinks into the living room as the scatter of rock salt seasons the asphalt.

Robert Redford and someone who looked a lot like Nick Nolte – I don’t know for sure, it could have been a barely reanimated corpse – were murdering a film on the tv. Bill Bryson must have been star struck or demented to sign off his book on the bullshit I was watching. ‘A walk in the woods’ (well, the book anyhow) was all about loneliness, getting older, the disintegration of a friendship, nature, and displayed a sense of beauty. It was a journey in many senses. The film adaptation was so bad that it looked like Redford and Nolte never had to move more than ten feet during the whole filming process. They must have had to shoot Redford full of amphetamines just to get him to move his mouth against the frozen strain of all that face-lift scar tissue. Even the rocks looked fake. And the plot strayed so far from the book that I kept expecting Paul Newman to appear, sensing the disaster, before jumping off of a cliff into a foaming river shouting ‘Old actors never die!’ or ‘Thanks for the cheque.’

Three in the morning is the dead land. Completely fucking empty. Just you and your thoughts, and whatever shitty film is on. I thought about taking meds to get some enforced sleep, but the plumber was due at nine and I wanted to approach the situation with a clear head. It’s now eleven am and he hasn’t showed, the lousy bastard. I knew when I rang last week that he wasn’t concentrating during our conversation. When it gets to twelve I’m going to ring him and remind him that wasted time is wasted time, no matter when. He won’t understand, but if you’ve ever stayed up through the night for no good reason, you will.

The Almighty King of the Universe

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A kid was crying across from me in the narrow aisle. His sister sat and kicked the seat in front, throwing a plastic bottle repeatedly down onto the dirty plastic table, then looking up towards her mother who was too tired to do anything other than stare grimly at the young girl and nod her head in sleepy post-holiday travel tiredness. Dad still had his holiday clothes on and his fat tanned legs bristled with almost hairless goosebumps in the poorly heated railway carriage. He was dozing, cradling a third child and waking up with every rattle of the train as it slogged across the flat lands towards the coast.

The guy with the tattoo had got on the train in some featureless shit-hole where the houses seemed to barely keep above the water table, low and squat, hugging close like shipwreck victims. It was a place you left. Thankful for every mile of distance. I guessed nobody ever looked over their shoulder back towards the ditches and dykes and loneliness, no matter where they headed or whom they left behind.

He was young – maybe twenty – but his light ginger hair was thinning and he’d started to comb it forward in kiss curls that looked like the frayed edges of a threadbare mop. He’d grown a beard. Straggles of hair hugged over his top lip and into his mouth. He sucked on the mat of it from time to time. Hands flicked and pressed at a large phone. He was occasionally smiling, staring at the screen, fiddling with his Nintendo wallet. Black headphones jammed deep into small ears which seemed to be chiseled close to his head like a sculptor’s afterthought.

I watched him – taking a covert photo of the tattoo – while the train crawled past the rows of windmills, never seeming to make any progress. He adjusted his Tom Clancy “Ghost Recon” grey top, glanced around the carriage, then went back to stabbing and swiping at the phone, still smiling. Content. I wondered where he was going? If he even knew, or if he cared? I suppose it was unimportant. He was exactly where he should be. For that brief moment he was indeed the Almighty King of the Universe.

The Blank Stare of Ignorance

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Tom Cruise doesn’t believe in Psychiatry. I guess most of his mates have the same view. The more I watched his hideously chiselled face gurning and grinning and staring like a psychic in a CIA goat-killing experiment, the more I hated him. Most of what he said sounded like first year Psychology gone wrong – like the famous Stanford ‘Prison Experiment’, only this time cash was changing hands and the agenda was more psychotic.

Fuck….I know it’s dangerous ground – going into Scientology – but stumbling on that interview really kicked me in the balls. So here we are. Yes, I believe I’ve made it apparent by now to you: I see a Psychiatrist, and I’m prescribed Psychiatric medication. I have them to thank for improving my quality of life. The meds help sleep, allay panic and fear, and give me an emergency button to press when the time is right. In short, they work.

I can’t vouch for Scientology, I can vouch for medication. One solution is measurable and has been developed by thousands of intelligent medical professionals, the other is based on the writings of a Science Fiction Author. And here is a brief snapshot into that author’s (L. Ron Hubbard) mind, where he waxes lyrical about Psychiatry. I imagine he was masturbating furiously while he typed this one-handed –

“A psychiatrist today has the power to (1) take a fancy to a woman (2) lead her to take wild treatment as a joke (3) drug and shock her to temporary insanity (4) incarnate [sic] her (5) use her sexually (6) sterilise her to prevent conception (7) kill her by a brain operation to prevent disclosure. And all with no fear of reprisal. Yet it is rape and murder … We want at least one bad mark on every psychiatrist in England, a murder, an assault, or a rape or more than one … This is Project Psychiatry. We will remove them.”

Okay? Getting the sexual tension? Me too. For the record, I’ve never been raped by any one of my five [5] Psychiatrists I’ve been treated by over the years. Nor have I been drugged into ‘temporary insanity’ or felt that any one of them was trying to do anything other than help me. Hubbard wrote the above statement on a memo in 1966, but the smell of it is still strong after all these years. I don’t like it.

But let’s not get too far off the mark. I guess you suspect a cult leader like Hubbard didn’t quite stick to his own proclamations, especially where getting fucked out of his mind on chemicals was concerned? Here’s what his son had to say –

“I have personal knowledge that my father regularly used illegal drugs including amphetamines, barbiturates and hallucinogens. He regularly used cocaine, peyote and mescaline.”

Like Hubbard Snr a little more now? Me neither, and I have taken almost all of the drug menu listed by his son, so I should feel a sense of kinship. But then I’ve never tried to get people to part with their cash by feeding them stories of Aliens coming to take their souls to a distant planet. Only somebody really screwed out of their mind on a vicious cocktail of hallucinogens and cocaine would a) write the kinds of things he did and, b) think people would believe it. I watched stars form into the face of a great celestial dog once, but that wasn’t because I was finding the secrets to the universe, or having some kind of divine human insight into what it meant to be alive, I was just fucked on LSD.

Yes, I realise you can interchange some of the Hubbard-strength weirdness with some of the rantings in the Bible (and other religions) but no-one ever really set out to write themselves a spiritual fortune like he did. Most major religions are equally hilarious in parts, but that’s not through design, it’s through ignorance, or the lost myth of human experience told around campfires stretching back into the eons. They never began as cash-cows, even if that’s how a lot of them ended up. Scientology is different. It wanted your cash right from the start.

So where does that leave me and Tom Cruise? Well, he’s pretty much as insignificant to me as I am to him, and that’s the way I’d like things to remain. One of us is deluded, and the other has psychiatric problems. I guess that makes us more alike than I thought when I started typing in the candlelight, waiting for the stars to come out.

Cash

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The car was one of those big four wheel drive things you see a lot around here. I don’t know the make – maybe a Volvo, or a Mercedes, I wasn’t looking too hard. But the thing was brand new. Shiny brand new. Status symbol brand new. Jet black. Bet the inside still had the new smell. I heard that some companies study the ‘olfactory experience’ of their new cars. I don’t know why. Don’t want to think about it any more than you do, in the same way I don’t want to think about my Singapore-based neighbours who, right at this moment as the fingers press down on this shitty red keyboard, are talking to people with clipboards on the land overlooking my home. Okay?

She was probably in her late twenties, maybe younger. It’s hard to guess the age of someone with cash. She had her hair bundled up on her head in the fashion of today – it’s a look that says ‘I’ve taken no care at all to look like this,’ but in reality has probably taken at least half an hour to get all the messy parts in the right places. That and the eyebrows, plucked and darkened to a point where my mind always sees the image of John Wayne Gacy dressed as ‘Pogo the Clown’. His last words were ‘Kiss my ass.’

She made it to the cash machine just in front of me as I slogged across the petrol station forecourt. My knee was hurting. I was limping a little. Rucksack on, walking boots, scowl. I wanted to get some money out to do some panic buying in the Co-Op attached to the petrol station. Despite the scowl – low sun, big eyes – I was feeling good. She hopped out of the drivers seat, leaving her little child in his seat in the passenger side. The car was blocking access to a couple of the pumps. It was entitled to because it was large and expensive. Money like that pulls rank on anyone with a shittier car. It’s the unwritten rule: money maketh the woman/man.

I slowed down as I got to the cash machine. She was shielding her other hand as she punched in the numbers – 7832. The security action didn’t work, I saw the magic code without even trying. Then she pressed the £50 request on the screen, neglecting to check her account balance. Big car = no need to see the details.

The machine processed her request and then came back with a message I’ve seen a few times in my life – REQUEST DENIED. INSUFFCIENT BALANCE. I thought the machine was fucked again, like it always seems to be since the local bank branch shut down and caused the physical withdrawal of money to become a problem on my hill in the middle of nowhere. ‘Fuck,’ I thought, ‘I’ll have to slog into town and check my balance and hope there hasn’t been a run on the other machine.’ Was it drinking season yet? Why was everyone emptying the cash machines? Without the financial teat in the wall I’m screwed.

She put the card in again and stabbed at the buttons. Lesser request this time – £20. Same message. She glanced over her shoulder and saw me ten feet away trying hard not to seem interested. She turned back and put her hand down in a slapping motion onto the machine keyboard, then went back to her car. I walked up to the machine fearing the worst – it was empty, or some North Korean hacker had finally broken through and fucked up the Western World by disabling the use of the fiscal nectar distributers in the great, superior, World of the White terror. I typed my pin number in, waiting for the same denial. I was wrong. The money lolled out like a fat tongue. When I turned around she was sitting in her car watching me. Her eyes were on the small notes in my fist. She put her head in her hands then jammed her phone to her ear. The kid started to scream.

Elliot

Elliot usually calls at night. He knows it’s easier to speak to me when there isn’t a distraction. You could almost say he was thoughtful in the same way a shark is when it waits for a seal to swim away from the safety of a group. A predatory kind of thoughtfulness. I wait for the hoarse whisper, off in the distance, coming closer, the voice gaining strength as it closes in. Never a nice word.

When my bedroom is dark there is a shadow on the wall of Christ on the cross. It’s a trick of the light, but there he is anyhow, slumped forward in pain, head down, waiting, like me, for Elliot. And one day maybe Elliot will call on him too. He’s the mocking voice at the foot of Golgotha; Judas; the baying crowd; a true confessional.

When he first called I thought somebody had broken into my house and was standing behind me. I turned around but, of course, Elliot can’t be seen. He told me I was worthless. You could sense a warped enjoyment in saying what, in essence, was just a simple fact. He was probing for weakness. Gloating. I imagined him with his finger running down the page of all the things I’ve ever done, or known, in my life, waiting until he came across the worst words and deeds and feelings. I imagined the smile on his face. Storing it all up for the right moment. He knows the things you don’t. How afraid I’ve been, how sad, and how close I get sometimes to ending it all. Nothing I can say will ever give you the same kind of access as Elliot. Nobody can compete. He’s watched it unfold up close, and if he isn’t purely a watcher – which I doubt he is  – then this is partly his story too.

The wind is starting to pick up outside. The leaves are falling in a good number. The heating is on. In a moment I’ll light some candles and stare out of the window towards the nature reserve at the back of my house. On the hillside, Buddhist prayer flags weave their words into the breeze. All I have to do is catch them. I feel a bit sad. Elliot knows this, and maybe tonight he’ll mock me for it. Until then, here we are: you’re reading, I’m waiting.

 

 

Destination

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Never pry into someone else’s life – especially a stranger on a train. This is a sound doctrine and it has served me well. But something about this young guy made the huge phone shine its messages on the screen like a beacon from the seat in front of me. I couldn’t help myself.

I’d seen him on the platform – red short trousers, heavy make-up, silver high-heeled shoes, the points of his blacked in eyebrows almost impossibly sharp. Like a catwalk model. Hip thrust to one side, the universal uneven stance from every red carpet minor list celeb event you’ve ever seen.

I got on the train first. It was just luck that he ended up in the seat in front. Then he held up the huge phone and that’s when I saw into his young life.

Some guy was messaging him, telling him he was the owner of a ‘multi-million pound company’, and asking if ‘she’ was available next week.

‘Yes, darling.’

‘Will you be wearing an on point outfit?’

‘Of course.’

That was the limit of the thing. Nothing really. Just some young Asian man making ends meet. Turning a trick who was so deep into his fantasy that he was starting to concoct a backstory for himself involving wealth and success, almost like he was trying to justify payment for the services rendered. His money meant more. The kid might even work harder if he bought the millionaire company bullshit. It was worth the risk.

The train stopped again after a few minutes. The young guy got off, clattering down the platform, chin up high, on point.

The next guy in the seat was a businessman. He laid out a laptop and got to it. Very important man. Time too valuable to waste. Life more grey than his hair.

When I left the train at the end of the outbound journey I knew I’d be back on it soon enough, deep into the canned lives of everyone on those tracks. Chugging slowly along. Gambling with the proximity of the next person to take a seat nearby.

The return trip was worse. A football match between two local sides was happening that afternoon and the train was so full that I was left standing up against the luggage rack, listening to heavy talk of fights and fear, beer cans being opened, men trembling with excitement you don’t often see on a train. Everyone pressed up close to each other, laughing, banging on the windows at stations when a pretty girl appeared on the platform. Police officers in front looked bored, constantly on the radio; seen it all before. An hour and a half I stood there staring grimly out of the window, waiting for someone to single me out as not being a member of the same shitty tribe. They didn’t bother. I was thankful for it. As the train rolled into the opposition’s town the mood started to turn ugly. People were pushing, lighting cigarettes, starting the first bent over steps of Liam Gallagher walks. It was a bad scene. They swaggered out of the train like a pack of Lemurs searching for fallen fruit. Good times. Bad postures.

I walked up the hill in the sunshine. Travelling is okay, I thought, as long as the destination is worthwhile.

The Dyatlov Incident and Me

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On February the 2nd 1959, nine experienced Russian Hikers cut their way out of their shared tent in the middle of the freezing night and ran away into the Ural Mountains snow. Half of them weren’t even dressed. Some were barefoot. All of them died within twelve hours. And when the bodies were found some of them had injuries that the Coroner described as being ‘unable to be inflicted by any human.’

Two semi naked members of the party were found with bloodied hands and had climbed five meters up into a tree to pull branches down and make a fire barely 250 meters from their tent. But there was abundant dry wood laying around on the forest floor. Why did they do this?

Some of the bodies had their eyes removed, and one person was missing their tongue, although her stomach contained blood – meaning she was alive when it was taken. Another Hiker was so badly crushed by something that it had apparently broken every single one of his ribs.

They had taken a camera with them on the trip. It was found propped up on a tripod inside the tent, facing the buttoned up entrance. The film was developed successfully. All normal pictures of smiling hikers, but many of the same scene: the treeline by the campsite, almost like they were trying to capture something on film lurking out there in the forest. The last photo was blurred and appeared to show two lights in the night sky. After the bodies were all recovered the Russian Government placed an exclusion order on the entire area for the next three years.

Yeah, you’re thinking what I’m thinking too: why am I even reading this stuff? I don’t know. It is the basis for some really crazy hours of internet research when I should really be writing about things that make my heart glad and fill me with life-affirming thoughts. But here we are…stuck in the possibilities of something that is almost too terrifying to consider. What it is for sure, I maybe can’t figure out. Look it up – The Dyatlov Pass Incident.

Why do I get bogged down in things like this? Do I need a purpose instead of sitting here at this desk and staring down into the portal of the internet waiting for some bullshit thing like this to grab me by the amygdala and thrash my psyche around like a Kingfisher slapping a minnow on small branch? The dull thwack thwack thwack until the flapping stops and I’m moved on to some thoughts about that bastard Donald Trump and his promise today to cut corporation tax in the USA to 20%. ‘It will help the USA,’ he said, tiny fingers making that perverse OK sign that has come to represent nothing more than a rich mans take on a wanking gesture. ‘Here’s what I think of all of you.’ Secret laughs in the back of the Presidential Limo afterwards. Back slapping as pornography is streamed right into his eyeballs by the CIA. Those people know how to control a sexually dysfunctional clown like Trump – beam old Miss World shows right into his brain, or scenes of Russian prostitutes snorting cocaine from the inside of his soiled underwear. That freak could get his kicks from anything if you gave him enough time and the promise that he’d never really be prosecuted. He’d fuck a dolphin, or even a rubberised half-human, half-rat mannequin, without once looking over his shoulder to see if the whole thing was being viewed by the entire population of the World.

Horror scenes aplenty here on the Hill this morning, in my little stone cottage. Not what the doctor ordered. The music is fine, loud, and this is a good thing but yesterday I killed the menacing fat spider out the back of my house that was being cared for by my elderly neighbour as some form of pet. I knocked it out of its web with a small stone, then stomped on it when it hit the ground. My neighbour will know it was me, but I will deny it and blame it on a bird; the wind; Donald Trump; or simply tell her the spider could read the writing on the wall, even if we couldn’t, and left for greener pastures. I am a bad liar, but I’ll do my best this time. No-one likes to admit they have killed something for no good, logical, reason. Not even me.

Yes, things are weighing heavily this morning. In a weird way, I kind of know why those Russian Hikers ran blindly into the night all those years ago. I just don’t want to believe it.

 

 

Mr Pie

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Mr Pie bent himself forward into the climb. Twenty young schoolkids, his schoolkids, walked behind him wearing rucksacks and carrying clipboards and pencils. They were excited.

‘Hey, Mr Pie, here’s another old building. I wonder what it was used for?’

‘Hmmph’ Mr Pie continued his slow walk, grey head bowed.

‘Mr Pie?’

Silence. Mr Pie didn’t raise his head from staring at the gravel. The view was beautiful but he wasn’t looking. Still, the wide space was putting the zap on little brains behind him; the simple pleasure of not being encased in the middle of concrete, bricks, and diesel particles. Here there were golden leaves, the soft rolling hill stretching up and over and down to the river, ducks to feed. Small birds were jinking between the birch trees, spider webs hung with hope. Life was everywhere. No traffic. The kids were making memories.

Mr Pie was thinking about how long he’d been in the job, and how he could manage to get through the day with as little hassle as possible. There are limits to how much someone can be pushed. Teaching was overrated, like most things. He had a home, no kids, and an equally unhappy wife to sit in silence with as soon as he could get out of the school gates and through the rush hour. A takeaway; bottle of wine; Eastenders; sleep; shared experience of misery. These things are to be cherished, unlike his job, unlike today. ‘Teaching,’ he mouthed silently.

The kids made their way up the incline, past the last crashed train truck in the Catch Pit. Excited noises. Mr Pie trudging on stoically. Staring at his feet moving forward in big walking boots, moving forward towards the end of his day.