Hiding Place

Before you read this, make sure you have prepared everything. Ensure you’ve slept well, eaten something wholesome like porridge, or a banana.  If you’ve gorged on chocolate, or cake, it’s likely that as you reach the third paragraph you will start to flag and blame your tiredness on the feebleness of my prose.  So sleep and eat well, and make sure you don’t get disturbed.  If you have young children, wait until they are in bed, if you have older children, wait until they are settled, or out of the house. If you have an intrusive partner, suggest they go and fix that annoying tap, or the loose handle on the bedroom door.  Tell them a bill needs paying. If these don’t distract them, don’t read this until they’ve left you, or you leave them instead.  If you have a cat, put it outside, or if you live in a flat without a garden, give the cat milk and it will sleep for an hour.  If you have smaller, more irritating pets, lock them in their cages, or shut the door on the room where you keep them. If it’s the room with the loose door handle, and your partner is fixing it, don’t interfere.  If you live on a noisy street, close all the windows, draw the curtains, put on some music, but not music that will distract you, something with as few sudden changes in tempo or dynamics as you can think of. Perhaps a Bach sonata, or a work of meditative minimalist beauty. I particularly like Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians.

It’s also important that you aren’t preoccupied.  I like that word. Preoccupied. If you are preoccupied it means something occupied you before you commenced reading this.  (Not that you should have started reading, as these are instructions on what you should do before starting). Obliterate all preoccupations. These could be serious – maybe you have a life threatening illness, or one of your loved ones is suffering. Perhaps you have financial problems.  Are you unemployed, or unfulfilled? If you are getting old, and wonder where life is leading you, then it is unlikely you’re going to be in a good position to read this without fully absorbing all the subtleties of what it is I am getting at.

All of us get to a point where we have great existential doubt. Where we wonder why we have done what we have. Life has brought us here, and it is too late to find another path.  Worse still, we know another path will take us to a similar place.

There is no hiding place.

If you still seek to hide, or are preoccupied, or hungry, or tired, or irritated, or just discontent, you’re probably not in the best position to read this. Go and do something else. I can’t help you.

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Ubiquitous Barb

The worst thing you can say to someone is that you don’t remember meeting them, whereas you can clearly picture the meeting because it meant so much. It was like that with Barbara.  At least, I think it was Barbara. It might have been Fiona.  Strange thing is, you don’t hear these names much any more.  Once upon a time the name Barbara was everywhere.  You couldn’t move for Barbaras: Stanwyck, Streisand, Bach, Windsor, Cartland, Woodhouse, Bush. They fell out of the sky. And now where are they? Barbs were ubiquitous, and now they’re almost extinct.

Handaxe Manufacture in the Rift Valley

She wasn’t my type. She was too tall, and was a little unhinged.  I liked the fact that seemed keen to talk to me, because not many people do, so I laughed when she asked me if I was lost.  I wasn’t lost, I was just idling, wandering around town, staring into space.  I laughed and from on then on it escalated.  We sat in Coffee Republic and she told me about her job in the museum. She polished flint axe heads.  I thought that a noble profession, and probably one of the oldest. She told me that it was quite likely handaxe manufacture went on continuously in the Rift Valley for something like a million years. I was thinking about this when she pressed something into my palm.  ‘It’s the spare key,’ she said. ‘To my flat.’

Swordfish

Count to twenty before you read the next sentence.

O.K. you didn’t.  I can’t expect you to do everything I say.  I can’t expect you to do anything I say.

Did you see the shooting star?  Or was it a comet?  Or maybe bits of a comet.  That amounts to the same thing I suppose.  Shooting stars/bits of old comets.

But then again, maybe it was something else.  Maybe it was a swordfish brilliantly lit up, a swordfish out of its natural element, soaring.

That’s quite funny, isn’t it.  A swordfish soaring I mean.

Humans have been able to do it for almost a century now.  Fly I mean.  So why shouldn’t the swordfish?  Those great snouts.  No, maybe not snouts.  No, there’s no real comparison really, how could you compare that appendage with anything which exists?  Other than a sword of course.

No it wasn’t a swordfish.  Not unless I decide here and now to change the meaning of the word swordfish.  No I won’t do that.  Shooting stars/bits of old comets, that’ll do for now.  That’s what I suppose I saw.

But  I’m not convinced.  Not really.  It was unlike anything else.  That’s it.  It was something that doesn’t have a name.  Not because it doesn’t exist.  No.  Because no one has ever seen it before.  The great big swordfish/comet/star.

Nothing like a swordfish at all.  Expect a bit.

 

Sound

Frank first heard the sound on a rainy November evening.  He was sitting on a bench outside the Friar’s Tavern.  His dad was looking after him that night.  He was in the pub and had left Frank outside.  As he went in he said he wouldn’t be more than ten minutes.  It was more than an hour later and Frank was tired and thirsty.  The light and the laughter coming from inside the tavern made him hungry too, in a funny way.  He wanted to be warm inside, like the pub was.

It was cold.  He shivered.  He wasn’t wearing enough.  Then he heard the noise.

It was like a hammer hitting stone but it was bigger than that.  There was something about the sound that made it seem bigger than the town.  It came from miles away, probably out towards Middlesborough.  Somewhere there was hitting something.  He heard the sound three times, at regular intervals, about twenty seconds apart.

He called after someone who was going into the pub.  “Can you ask Mick Mason to come out?  I’m his son.  Tell him I want him.”

He didn’t get an answer but about two minutes later his dad came out.

“Sorry Frank,” said his dad.  “I forgot.”

They walked along Sullivan Street then through a gap in the wall and along the canal bank.  It was dark.  All that was visible were the flats on the other side, over the trees.

And there was the sound again.  Frank stopped.

“What’s that sound, dad?”

Mick Mason laughed.  “Come on,” he said, “come on.”

Frank asked his dad three times.  His dad wouldn’t answer.  After the third time Frank gave up.  His dad went like that sometimes.  All the way back Frankie could hear the sound, feel it, echoing in his head, a huge sound, big as a mountain.

When they got in Mick made some tea and brought some to Frank in a big mug.

He put his own mug next to his son’s and sat down.

“When I was about your age, I used to hear that sound.  I remember I was with my dad fishing out on Monk’s Point.  It was getting dark.  The sound travelled right out across the river, like a ghost ship.”

“So what is it?” Frank asked again.

“I don’t know,” said Mick, slurping his tea.  “It’s a good sound though, isn’t it?”

 

 

Milkshake

Someone recently told me that your intestines could stretch from one side of the country to another.  I imagine food travelling from Bristol to Ipswich, a dollop of mulched toast pulled in by the police, an articulated take away overturned on the hard shoulder.

People say I talk too much, that I don’t let them get a word in edgeways.  I imagine words travelling on their edge.  Is this possible?  What happens if you turn a loudspeaker on its side?  Does the sound come out sideways?  Can music be upside-down?

I rang up the opticians the other day to make an appointment but but the receptionist said the optician couldn’t see me.  That’s a joke I’ve told over and over again. Over and over.  You can’t see people when they are on the phone can you?

Do people still give you a ring?  Telephones stopped ringing years ago.  Someone gave me a lift the other day.  It works quite well but I still prefer to use the stairs.  That will be lost on Americans.  They don’t have lifts.  And some of those skyscrapers have a hundred storeys.

I have a hundred stories.  And I don’t need a lift to get to them all.  All I need is a pair of tweezers and a sharp pencil.  The tweezers to pull them out (they hurt, like pulling out nose hair and it make your eyes water) You need a sharp pencil to write them down.   Otherwise they disappear.

I used to think it was possible to live on bread and water alone.  I tried it for a week.  I didn’t mind the bread, or the water but I didn’t like being alone.

The French eccentric, Charles Fort, used to keep records of weird happenings.  He kept lists of frogstorms (frogs pouring out the clouds) and fishstorms (fish raining).  I suppose it is possible that aquatic creatures could live in clouds for a while.  In the future we could have continents of clouds moving across the land, each populated by a different species, floating farms, airbourne zoos.  If humans could make it up there too it would solve any worries we would have about overpopulation.

Listen!

“People of the twenty first century! Listen! It is I Lord Thw um N, enemy of all over-dinnered tyrants! Dribble if you must, spit if you must, but you shall be made to suffer the torture of my voice.  It is voice so cacophonous it will unseat your molars from their housing.

On my brutish mule Crox, I have travelled galaxies – real galaxies, galaxies of the imagination.

I condemn dullards, ne’er-do-wells, wishy – washies amd yawnbrokers.  Be gone!  The time of unreason is upon us.

Earth, what a dull planet.  Dull shape.  The dullest planet in my own solar system is a perpendicularly inverted icosahedron, restrung, without the mattress and no batteries.

And yet everything from Earth looks round, too.  The effect is mind flattening.

Globes, spheres, cricket balls, tennis balls, snooker balls, marbles, bubbles, eyes, noughts, hoops, ripples, tedious roundabout the merry go round, round and round the raspberry bush.

Space!  Just as dull.  It goes on bore-ever.

Listen!  We only have to twiddle a few of the controls, fiddle with bits, exchange wires, greetings, packets of hubba bubba and we can explore!

Where do I begin?  Listen pinhead!  I do not have to begin.  We don’t have beginnings.  Only humans worry about things like that.  Beginnings and endings.  Get up, go to bed, birthdays, death days, kick off, final whistle, dawn, dusk.  You need to catch up.

Where am I?  You want my LOCATION?  We gave up locating things back in the damp ages.

(Now, I must not be so uncivil.  I will lose you if I do.)

O.K.  I come from the planet Imtgm, (IM-TUM), famous for its catalogues.  I used to be a travelling salesman but the travelling got me down.  Travelling light years just to get your catalogue back can be disheartening.

I remember selling a variety of items to a human.  He bought a useless jar, a lotion for removing unwanted dust and a shovel for shovelling thoughts into the nearest bin.  He found a use for the jar, which surprised me.  I called on him a few times, when I was in the galaxy, and he would empty out the jar to show me what was in there.

Then, one day, he said “I want my money back, this jar isn’t useless.”

“There’s some handy space in there,” I said. “Should you ever need to expand your horizons.”

“I didn’t buy the space off you.  I bought the jar.  And it’s quite useful.”

I remember the way he looked at me; tight lipped, arms crossed.  Stubborn.

I gave him his money back.

The King of Volnia

My father used to drive a taxi.  He gave that up because his back hurt too much.  He worked for a while as a security guard, then as a caretaker in a big high school.  He became fed up with that when the children began calling him ‘smelly old man’.

‘Be off with you, spotty youth,’ he would yell back, ‘I am the King of Volnia’.

He wasn’t old really, but he looked it.  Many of my friend’s fathers looked half his age.  It was his beard, his bald head, his worries.  He could have been a king in a play, if someone lent him a crown.

When I was fourteen he said he wanted to tell me something important.  He rarely spoke to me at all.  If it wasn’t ‘behave!’ it was ‘do as your mother tells you’, both orders coming from his face behind a beard behind a newspaper on the sofa.

That miserable Sunday afternoon he asked me to wait at the kitchen table.  He returned with a big dusty old book.  At first I thought it was a bible.  It wasn’t.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘this book has been in the family for a hundred years.’  He opened it randomly at a page in tiny spidery ink.  ‘This is the diary of your ancestors.’  He turned to the last quarter.  I recognised three or four pages in his handwriting.  ‘I’ve done my bit, told my life story.  I want you to have this, read it if you like, although most of it is incomprehensible.  When you get to my age, write your life story, pass it on to your children.’

And that was it.  He lit a cigarette and disappeared into another room.

I come to that time now.  It isn’t easy.  My father’s entry, in three pages, is chaotic.

…to twelve o’clock every night.  When I get home everyone is asleep.  I talk to nobody.  The King of Volnia lives apart from his people.  Our holidays in the mountains, our sleek panthers.

This, at least, is written in sentences.  Most of it is far more obscure.

summon the gatekeeper – stewed fruit and cold custard – spies in our midst, the pigeons, the woodwork – those chords are not right when I met with the minister of…

The last line of his short contribution to the diary of generations goes like this.

I am the King of Volnia.  Volnia is gone.  I am no longer recognised.  My sons, my daughters, find your own country!

I come to my own entry.  My daughter plays the piano in the other room.  I have to sit here nibbling my pen until I can come up with something.  So I begin.

My father used to drive a taxi.  He gave that up because his back hurt too much.  He worked for a while as a security guard, then as a caretaker in a big high school.  He became fed up with that when the children began calling him ‘stupid old man’.

Jobs

I paint strawberries for a living.  Ones that aren’t red enough to sell in shops.  I get paid two pence for every twenty strawberries.  Next year, if it’s as hot as this year, I’m going to paint blades of grass.  Parks everywhere get to look a bit yellow after a few weeks of no rain.  That will be a nice little earner.

I used to have an apprentice, Bobby.  I tried to teach him the great art of strawberry painting but he just yawned and said “I’ve got to go home and have my tea.”  He was only four.

I haven’t always painted strawberries.  I had to climb my way up.  I started as a match arranger.  Some people think that matches just fall naturally into the right position in their boxes.  Now let me tell you, that just isn’t true.  Every match has to be carefully laid with its head at one end and paralell with the sides of the box.  That is a highly skilled job.  Before that I fixed holes in tables.  Sometimes tables get holes in them.  When they do I fix them.

Yesterday, just after finishing my seventy fifth strawberry (it needed quite a bit of ree-painting, that one.  Not only was it very unripe it must have been in close contact with something radioactive.  It was glowing.  I soon painted it over) anyway, I had just finished repainting that strawberry when Mrs. Cornwall appeared.  Mrs. Cornwall is the nicest woman in the world.  She always drops in now and again for a chat and a cup of tea.

“Hello Mrs. Cornwall,” I said, “have you just dropped in for a nice chat and a cup of tea?”

“Never mind all that,” she said, “is this anything to do with you?”

She held out an apple.  It was gold, and glowing, a bit like my strawberry.

“Funny,” I said, “that looks just like the strawberry I just finished.”

“It seems to be happening all over the place.  Fruit and vegetables have started to glow.”

We decided to go and investigate.  I put on my big wool jumper and we set off.  What an adventure.

Hat and Glasses

I didn’t know who they were.  Then I did.  Then I didn’t again.  This went on for ages.  It went on for what seemed nearly forever.  I would know who they were and then I wouldn’t.  But this is what I called them when I did know who they were.  I called them HAT and GLASSES.

Hat and Glasses came to our house every so often.  Once in a while.  Now and again.  They came with smiles, funny faces and sometimes presents. Hat made funny noises and Glasses helped me walk around.

I know who they are now.  They are Grandma Glasses and Grandad Hat.  They come to our house for tea and cake or because of a visit.  And we go to see them, in their nice big house with a garden where I can run around and play on my bike.

But I couldn’t then.  Then I couldn’t walk.  Well not without help from Grandma Glasses.

Grandma Glasses had big eyes.  She would take her glasses off and put them on and take them off over and over again but that still was not enough.  Grandad Hat would come and smile and show his teeth and wink and poke his tongue out.

They seemed very, very big and they smelt of things that were ever so far away.  Glasses came to drink tea and Hat to eat cake.  And biscuits.

Grandad Hat it was who showed me how to eat biscuits.  I couldn’t eat them like him when I was that small but I soon would.  He would push one biscuit into his mouth in one go, close his mouth around it and crunch.  I tried to do that and choked.  Grandma Glasses blamed Grandad Hat for me choking.

When they came to our house they came in from outside.  I thought they lived outside.  I thought all the people who came to see us were always outside the front foor just waiting there until Mummy or Daddy called them.  They waited out there,just behind the hedge and talked about things like tea and how to eat biscuits.

The thing was, when I managed to get to the window to look, I could never see them.  Perhaps they were too well hidden behind the hedge.

Hat and Glasses behind the hedge? I asked my Mummy one day.  I must have been nearly two.

Mummy told Daddy later.  They opened their mouths a lot and made this noise: HUR HUR.  Well Daddy did.  Mummy made this noise: HEEEEE

I know now, of course.  They were laughing.  Grandad Hat and Grandma Glasses were not behind the hedge.  They were probably in Italy.  They liked going on holiday there.  I might go there one day, said Mum.