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.

 

 

Advertisements

Destination

Image result for packed train

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 after a few minutes at a shopping mall. 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. It had been. Love’s like that.

The Dyatlov Incident and Me

Image result for the dylatov incident

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

Image result for gravestone

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.

Blood Brothers

Image result for Mersea Island United Kingdom

‘My friends don’t amount to one hand.’ – Mark E Smith

I picked more small pieces of paint from the wall beside my bed. It was pink. Flaked off easily once you got your nail up under the edge. The hall light shone under the bedroom door. Somewhere at the other end of the house the little black and white tv was showing something. Not loud. My parents were watching. Tired.

I never worked out why my bedroom was painted pink. I’d got some pictures of dinosaurs up on the walls, and above my bed there was a baby mobile of sea creatures: whales, dolphins, all smiling insincere grins down at me in the dark. I watched them, hardly moving in whatever draught was coming in with the light. A car came past on the u shaped road, down the hill then up the other side. Every car changing gear at almost the same point every time. I listened for them, mimicking the noises under my breath, guessing the moment.

The shelves above the tiny desk in my bedroom were full of books. I’d read them all. Even tried writing one: something about a murder on a ship. Some fantastical island paradise turned bloody. They caught him in the end. Something to do with him working alone; no help to dispose of the bodies. Mistakes were made.

I had no friends on the road. There was an idiot two streets away – Warren – but I avoided him because when he laughed, spit flew out from his goofy teeth and he looked like a cartoon character. The only people I ever really hung about with were Jack and Floyd. They lived further away on the island. We knew how to get girls pregnant. You pissed on their belly. With such secret knowledge, imparted by Floyd one afternoon to me and Jack, you had an edge over other boys. It was a frightening proposition to be in charge of creating life, and so easily. I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to piss on Leanne (my first girlfriend). I mean, we hadn’t even kissed.

The three of us played down on the mud flats, over the oyster beds. Prodding the silt with bamboo canes, digging for slippery gold. Throwing huge globs of clay at each other. Laughing. We were pretty much the Kings of the Primary school. No-one could outrun me at sports, or outswim me. And me and Jack would fight anyone, even each other, until the sun set. We became blood brothers – cutting each other’s hand with a blunt penknife and holding the two tiny cuts together while saying some gibberish about growing up and becoming men. Being bonded. Fighting forever.

We moved before my cut had healed. Before I really had time to say goodbye. Up to the North. Two hundred miles away. No friends.

 

Child, Summer, Safety, Shit.

Image result for battle caravan site

The stone staircase was grand. Probably would have been grander before they’d knocked down the huge house which must have stood on the slight rise above. There was no sign of exactly where. The staircase was blackened but hardly worn. I wondered if it and the house had been in use for long. If ladies in long dresses drifted up and down them to the lake below. If martinis and tennis whites painted the backdrop to talk about the war. Money. Privilege. Oxbridge accents, eventual death and decay. I guess even some of the super rich can’t remain wealthy, or alive, forever. The grounds were now a caravan site managed by my grandparents. You could pull up, plug into blue electricity points, and settle down on fold-away chairs under the canopy of Yew trees. Then next morning empty containers of shit into a chemical disposal slurry pit. Bright purple chemicals, chlorine smell, happy faces of men wheeling barrels of human waste to the manhole cover, surrounded discreetly by a brick wall so nobody could see the lumps jigging out and down. Splashing satisfactorily below in the tank. My Grandfather would check the level, then ride off on his little red tractor to see if the shower blocks were clean. Sometimes people smeared shit on the walls in there. He’d sort it out without anger, just a quiet shrug, while I stood outside handing him a mop, or filling up the bucket with more water. I always wondered why someone would want to shit in the showers and wipe it around. I mean, the people who visited the site were mainly retired, enjoyed sitting idly watching the rabbits on the grass in the early evening, a drink or two, simple meal. They seemed normal. Staid, even. I tried to picture what drove someone to do something like that, but couldn’t. It was a secret and perverse crime. Okay, so I’d pissed out of a tree that time back on the island when a guy was walking his dog in the alleyway below, then ran through the folly laughing, but shit was a whole different level. My crime was out in the open. My victim knew who’d soiled him, saw my face, shouted in rage, and given chase. He lost, couldn’t catch me, but he knew I wasn’t a coward. I’d given him the sporting chance to make things right and settle the score. My crime was direct. Honest.

The main reason I liked the summers I spent down on the caravan site was the fact my parents hardly ever came with me – apart from my mother from time to time. My father would spend his summer break sailing with his friends, getting drunk, and finding someone or something else to rage at. Gritting his teeth, growling and screaming like an animal, fists pumping. For those glorious sunny weeks it wouldn’t be me on the end of it all. My Grandparents were kind, loving, and let me play out in the woods as much as I wanted. Although I was used to the freedom of roaming back on the island, and I did that as much as possible, it was a novelty to not be scared to come home when the light was fading. Nothing waiting for me other than a couple of warm smiles. No terror. Just talk about my day, my Grandfather telling me I could drive the tractor in the morning. An ordinary life I didn’t usually have access to. I’d always sleep well, waking in the morning without my heart in my mouth, listening to wood pigeons cooing in the trees. Safe.

 

The Wedding

Image result for fuct

It was dark on the manicured lawn. No lights, other than the shitty disco colours through cracks in the curtains a hundred feet away on the other side of a sand bunker and a small car park. Muffled music ran like thick sludge from the doors to the hole in the grass with a flag in it where I was standing. I was looking up at the stars in my hired three piece suit. The July night was clear and warm but there was an ominous feeling, like I was committing a murder, or had just felt a sudden strong gust of wind on a cliff edge. I didn’t want to go back inside. About a hundred people were sitting looking bored, or had drunk too much and decided to dance. People weren’t talking to each other. Nobody looked interested in anything other than getting the fuck out of there and back home. I was no different. I lay down on the grass, wondering how long it’d take before someone realised the groom had gone. If it mattered?

A friend of mine had driven from Leeds but was sitting in his car smoking weed. I could smell it from the eighteenth green, lush and fragrant, like a last note of many years of fantastic music. There’d be no more of that kind of thing for me. At 27 I was already so deeply into normal life anyhow that whomever I used to be had been kicked to death. And I was having my wedding reception at a Golf Club…..a fucking Golf Club….! The shitty, dull, grind of nothingness was already weighing heavily. What sort of robot had I become? Somehow I’d got with a woman so incompatible that the days lasted forever and the nights couldn’t come soon enough just so I could go to sleep and waste the hours. Inside the Golf Club hall she was sitting talking to her sister, laughing. The wedding dress was cutting into her armpits but she kept it on. It was her day.

I got up and walked slowly back inside. Shitty music now, booming. Alternate blue/green/red light illuminated faces all staring into space or down at the plates of food from the £1,000 evening buffet. I hadn’t eaten any of it. I waited at the bar to be served. Somehow I’d have to get through the honeymoon. How? I couldn’t bear to think about it. I drank the lager quickly and ordered another, which didn’t taste as bad as the first, but couldn’t have lifted the mood even if it had been laudanum.

That night, in the bridal suite, I saw someone had smeared lipstick on the mirror. Some bawdy bullshit about screwing my new bride. There was a penis shaped balloon tied to the bed. We undressed. She folded the wedding dress carefully. I chucked the suit on a chair and climbed into bed. She got in beside me. ‘Did you enjoy the wedding,’ I asked.

‘It was wonderful,’ she replied.

‘I’m very tired.’

‘Shouldn’t we….’

‘Maybe in the morning. That okay with you?’

Silence.

I slept well. Avoided any physical contact in the morning. Ate breakfast. Drove to the airport. We didn’t even have sex on the honeymoon. I managed to dodge it by saying I felt poorly, hungover, sunburned, headache, stomach ache, tired, and spent the week drinking, walking around in a daze, avoiding thinking about marrying the wrong person. Feeling like a rat trapped in a barrel. No chance of escape.

Character Study in A Minor

Image result for cowboy

He was odd. I knew that much the first time I’d met him, before he even started talking. Today he was wearing a long duster coat and cowboy boots, white shirt open nearly down to his navel, blue jeans. It was 1990.

The kid had lived up the road from me for years but had gone to a public school rather than mix with the rest of us in the festering pool of genetic freaks, shared girlfriends, and poor educational prospects delivered at the local comprehensive. Now we were standing outside the smokers common room at the sixth form college in a nearby town. It was sunny. Dust blew along the old surface of what used to be a tennis court. He was a few feet away, chest puffed out so it looked like he had some form of spinal problem. Inane grin showing too many teeth, arrow straight, like a nightmarish Muppet or a horror film cyborg. His chin extended far in front of his face, not helped by a sight underbite. Flattop hair, buzz shaved at the sides, sloped downwards and mirrored the angle of the chin. I was studying him, watching him leering at a girl he was talking to. I could hear him telling her lies about having signed up for the Army, being trained in close combat. She was disinterested, took a cigarette out of a packet, and went to light it. Like a gunslinger, in a blur, he took a matchbox from a pocket in his jeans, lifted up a snakeskin cowboy boot, and struck a match on the sole. He flourished it at her cigarette. I guess she was too overcome with the ferocity of the gesture and the stares from the people around us to refuse. He waved the flame out and tossed the dead match onto the ground with too much effort. Now she looked embarrassed.

His voice was kind of mid-Atlantic. Gravelly, too. Cross between Clint Eastwood and Eton. The accent took a lot of effort, and he spoke slowly, considering the vowel sounds and the tone of the thing before saying the actual words. He was trying to portray a superior air. We were all beneath him. He was leering again, his eyes flicking down to her chest when he thought she couldn’t tell. Most of the other people on their smoke breaks had stopped talking to each other by now and some were openly laughing at him.

‘Hey, Alastair. Why do you light matches on your fucking boots?’ someone asked.

‘If it’s for a lady, then I have to make an extra special effort,’ he replied, grinning at the girl. My God, those teeth went on forever. I wondered how many teeth a human head is supposed to contain and if he had broken some kind of natural order of things. She took a step away from him, her legs unconsciously moving her away from danger; primeval instinct of self-preservation. He had the same look in his eyes that I had seen on nature documentaries: a shark heading up through the surf and about to open its mouth before the first exploratory bite; the adrenaline keenness and focus of an apex predator. Like a San Francisco harbour seal, stranded from the safety of its own kind, she could sense a shift in the atmosphere, she looked scared.

‘Err…thanks for the light, Alastair. I’ve got to run, I’ve got an art lesson in a minute.’

‘I’ll see you on the bus then, my lady.’ He looked pleased. Okay, so he had missed the target in his first rushed attack, but he knew where the prey would be heading and he was going to make damn sure he was ready for the ambush next time. On the college bus, no-one could hear you scream.

The clock ran round to the hour. People began to leave. I had a free period and was going to smoke some hash on the playing field, so I was in no rush. I sat down against the wall and checked I had enough Rizla papers. I looked up. Alastair was standing there, blocking out the sunlight.

‘You know, Ben-boy, drugs are bad for you. They make you weak.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘The women prefer someone with class. Someone who can operate at maximum performance all the time. Drugs just slow you down.’

‘Really…’

He fidgeted a bit, like there was some kind of internal struggle going on behind the crazy look in his eyes, then grinned again, pirouetted around on one of those high cowboy boot heels, and walked slowly down towards his GCSE retake class.

Panda

 

panda.JPG

She was talking in a softer voice. And she had leaned forward towards me. By then I was staring at the floor, breathing heavier, letting the tears find their own path. She kept going ‘Ben, this is the sadness that you have to feel, and to get to know. It’s ok.’

My mind was jumping from childhood images, to recent events, to hopes, and then into the overwhelming void of all of our fears and horrors. It was an overload of such harrowing proportions that I stopped being able to see anything in the beige room clearly. Only the sound of her soft voice encouraging me, telling me I was ok, kept me free from disassociating into that secret place I’d found when I was little. I used to be able to choose the entrance point, the length of stay, and the depth, but now I’m sucked inside without a choice. I could feel the unseen hands on my shoulders. She kept talking. I guessed she knew what was going on.

After a while I looked at her. She was flushed pink in her thin face, unsettled, it seemed like what I had said and how I’d reacted had resonated with her. ‘Can you hug anything when you get home…a teddy, pillow? I know it sounds stupid, but try.’

I nodded my head but had no intention of following her advice. I glanced at her again, she seemed sad too. I thought of how stupid I looked – tears still wet on my face, trying to breath calmly – and apologised. Most people do when they’ve come out of a crying fit in front of another person. I guess it’s because we all know how it feels to see somebody in distress. Watching someone cry is difficult viewing.

I drove home feeling emptier than normal. I pushed the accelerator down harder than usual, drove fast and careless, skidding the car around tight corners. I was trying to get out of the fug, just to feel something. I made a vague plan to hurt myself when I got back.

When I finally came home I locked the back door behind me. I was heading for the kitchen and the knife drawer. That’s when I saw it, looking at me from a shelf. Just as I’d left it. Old as me, nose squashed from all the hours and days and years of being held tightly in times of trouble. Keeper of all my childhood, comforter, the only friend I’d had in dark times, now just an old bear sitting in my little old house gathering dust, kind of forgotten.

I walked over to it, laughing at my own stupidity, then picked him up and held him like I did when I was just a blonde-haired boy who never knew if he’d die tomorrow. I hadn’t hugged that bear for thirty years. He knew what to do, he didn’t ask me anything, didn’t judge, just quietly listened. I forgot about the knife and put him back down on an armchair. He still worked.

 

Staying Alive

Image result for stayin alive barry gibb

At 3am you get the sense you’ve been here before; light crawling up the hillside, the grey porridge of the end of night, too early to move, too late to go to sleep. Early July, 3am, is a time to sit on the edge of a bed and draw the curtain and create the notion of hope in the forming daylight. You might sit like that for a while, pausing to throw yourself back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling and wonder, and think, and try to let all those thoughts drift up and out of the open window with any prayers you might have silently mouthed. And I did.

Where thoughts like that go is anyone’s guess. I could almost see them reaching out from inside and forming long golden lines like cosmic silk, floating up into the morning. Almost. Perhaps some God somewhere gathers them in and weaves a better future if you can only provide enough? A vast omnipotent being, taking in my hopes and dreams and slowly piecing the threads together until it hands them back to me fully formed into a gold jacket. Maybe that’s what happened to Barry Gibb? He had the right contacts up there, a direct line. Priority customer. Maybe I’m still in the queue, further down the list? Or they boogied all their bonhomie away on that one sacred item of clothing? NO energy left to complete my order.

And that’s it today. The birds need feeding, the grass needs mowing, and I still have to write some more stuff in order to eat. Standard day on earth. Basic human events. Totally under control. So why is my heart beating faster than it should? My thoughts aren’t still. They get only so far then return to the same point over and over, like a looping disco track. I just don’t have the right clothes.