Thursday, 27 November 2014
Wednesday, 19 November 2014
Janan sheltered underneath his father’s stall, swatting the flies off the meat. The earth was cool there. He hoped the caravan would come soon. Would Mirzal’s voice have deepened in the past year, like his own? Music blared from his father’s radio. It was the best radio in the village; his uncle had been to Jalalabad to buy it.
Last night he thought he’d heard the clink of the camels’ harness and the hushed voices of the tribesmen but the morning revealed no sign of them. It must have been something else.
The approaching waves of dust made Janan sit up but it was just the American trucks. The caravan was probably waiting for the soldiers to pass, as the camels wouldn’t like the noise. The biggest one, the one Mirzal called Genghis, would look down his nose at the clatter they made. The camels had seen many travellers, many warring tribes, in their long lives. Did not Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great pass this way? Some said even the Buddha himself had travelled this road.
The trucks bounced towards the village, rolling through the potholes and craters. “Hey, kid! Catch.” The soldier, walking ahead of the trucks, threw him a bag of sweets. Janan wondered if Genghis would like Yankee candy.
As the patrol disappeared over the hill the boy heard the sounds he’d been waiting for. He ran up to his nomad friends, carrying some sweets in his hand.
“Mirzal, welcome! I have something for Genghis. May I?”
“Hello, brother. Well, let us try one.”
The beast scooped the offering from Janan’s palm with his lips. When the explosion erupted, darkening the sky, Genghis closed his eyes against the dust. He continued chewing, his great jaw moving from side to side in the fleeting silence.
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
On the day he was to die, Robert the Canadian told the truth once, though not to himself, lied five times, as discovered afterwards, bought a swim, took a shave and shampooed his hair.
It was in the Quarry Pool, on his sixteenth lap, that he joked aloud about his dicky heart. That was his truth, not that he recognized it as such. Later, in the castle garden, he told the old lie about the sea-going yacht. He had a nautical air. The dog woman, whom he often talked to, never questioned him. Neither did the beggar on Pride Hill who was used to Robert striding past, crisp in plaid shirt, polished boots, woollen walking socks and combed-back thick white hair, dispensing coins because a rich man like him, with a house on leafy Kingsland Road – lie number two – liked to give to those less fortunate than himself
Lie number three had its moment in the Loggerheads that night, sitting in Poets’ Corner watching Pete the Painter sketching. He was off to Manchester next day, Robert said. Lecturing. Pete - who often disappeared himself - never thought to question the Canadian’s movements. The man came and went. He had a farm in the Scottish Lowlands, which he talked about with fondness, and did so again tonight, lie number four. Sometime he’d take Pete up there, he said, though Pete - who knew the Canadian as a man of his word - knew too [by what reason he couldn’t explain] that he wouldn’t do it. It took one to know one when it came to the fantastical. Perhaps that was it.
Pete went home, door locked, ‘Do Not Disturb’ note sellotaped to knocker on the off-chance that nocturnal friends came visiting. The Loggerheads closed its curtains. Its last drinkers took the hint, leaving only ghosts to haunt the staircases, or so the Landlady said, drinks in hands, hopes jangling in their pockets, a remembrance of bygone days when the pub had housed a brothel.
The streets of Shrewsbury after midnight are like a millpond sea without boats. Only the latest of night prowlers would have witnessed the last walk of Robert the Canadian down St Mary’s Water Lane and under the English Bridge, following the river, though not home to Kingsland Road as was his proud boast.
It was in the Quarry Park that he was found. Who knows why a man would choose one particular bench to die on over any other? In the morning his body was stone cold. A rough sleeper with polished boots - and nobody had known it. The dog lady hadn’t had a clue. The Loggerheads lady, so attuned to lost souls, never caught a whiff of his. The swimming pool attendant – where, as often as he could, he went to keep himself neat and tidy - never would have put him in the category of the man who begged on the street. It came as a shock.
Robert the Canadian kept his secret to the end. It was his only treasure in this sad old world. He wasn’t even Canadian. That was his fifth lie. This is a true story. I have not made it up.
The sun had almost gone down. The green and purple flanks of the south Shropshire hills engulfed by darkness. The Lawley, Caradoc, and Ragleth brooding in the black. The little Morris motored up and along Sandford Avenue, its engine laboured somewhat as it reached the top of the shoulder beneath Hope Bowdler rock. The driver, Tom, crunched down through the gears, cursing whilst his younger brother, Win, gave facetious advice from the backseat.
Their companion, known as Long-nose Cleeton, sat quietly in the front passenger seat smoking his pipe.
Soon they were bumping along the lane past Soudley Post Office and winding their way into Ticklerton and home. The village nestled unevenly between two farms, and all three men reminisced fleetingly and in silence, recalling shimmering summer days in the fields with their friends, gathering and loading the harvest onto the waiting carts, leading the great, snorting beasts that pulled them to the barns.
They would do their bit this year too, but their childhoods were over; six years of war had hardened their hearts. They had all seen horrors, things that no one should see.
"Well, I don't know about you two, but I fancies a pint or three," said Win as Hill View lit up in the headlamps and Tom brought the Morris to a halt before it. Their mother's house stood close to the road, the uniform darkness of its frontage interrupted by one dim light in an upstairs window. Long-Nose pulled the pipe from his mouth, visibly leaning forwards, peering up towards it. Playfully, Win took ahold of the brim of Long-Nose's hat, pulling it down sharply over his eyes.
"He's hoping to see our sisters in their nighties, Tom! Dirty little bugger. Which one d'ya love, Long-Nose, Ruth or Eve?"
Long-Nose wrenched the hat from his head and looked at Tom.
"I was doing no such thing Tom. You know how high I holds your sisters in my esteem. They are both lovely young women, indeed they are. But I knows my place. Why neither those ladies would ever see me as anything more than auld Long-Nose, and quite right too".
Tom forced the gears into first and revved up the engine. "Light your pipe Long-Nose and keep your eyes on the road. Now, all those in favour of Win's suggestion of alcoholic beverages say aye". "Aye!" came the unanimous reply. "The ayes have it gentlemen," said Win. "Post haste to The Plough at Wall, driver, and don't spare the horses neither."
They drove on around the bend, and carried on along the uneven lane towards Eaton-Under-Heywood. The Morris began to pick up speed as they came down the bank, and they could see the old white fingerpost pointing left to the village of Wall. Tom ground down through the gears once more, span the wheel in his right hand and pulled hard on the hand brake with his left. The tyres screeched as they slid around the bend, Tom and Win whooping like cowboys whilst Long-Nose held on grimly to the leather strap above his head and puffed furiously on his pipe.
They met no other road users until they drove into Wall. Tom slowed down as he manoeuvred the Morris past two men in a horse-drawn cart who waved at them as they drove past, the two horses skittish, still unused to the roar of petrol engines.
The Plough was well lit and inviting. They left the car in the road and stopped briefly to speak to Walter Clacket, who always sat and drank his ale in the porch. Fifteen years earlier, Walter had fallen out with The Plough's landlord, vowing that he would never set foot in the bar again. He had been true to his word, relying on others to keep him supplied with pots of ale while he sat on his bench outside in all weathers.
Once again, young Win tried to coax Walter indoors, reminding the obstinate old man of the comfortable seats in the inglenook. Walter was adamant. He had sworn never to cross the threshold and he never would, despite the fact that the offending landlord had died over seven years previously and The Plough had changed hands three time since.
Within was the usual scene of working men sat talking quietly to one another, or playing dominos and darts. At the bar they were greeted by slim Ivor, the enormously overweight landlord who bellowed down to young Ralph, the cellar-boy, to carry up two fresh jugs and, as an afterthought, to not spill a drop upon the stairs lest he find himself with a thick ear and face down in a barrel. Slim Ivor's threat was empty, because since taking over the licence in forty six, no one had seen him go down or come up from the cellar once in the two years he'd been there.
As they waited for young Ralph, they were distracted by two strangers stood further along the bar. One nursed a pint and looked down into it, seemingly embarrassed by the loud and bragging nature of his whiskey-drinking companion. "Just look at this filthy old dump," the companion was saying, "I should like to gut this place, clear it all out and replace it with modern decor and facilities. Have proper pumps, like in town, with a pretty barmaid to pull the pints. None of this carrying drink in jugs. It's disgusting, old fashioned, like drinking in a pigsty."
Tom put a restraining hand on Win's sleeve and pointed to a vacant table. Reluctantly, Win followed Long-Nose and sat down while Tom waited. "Jesus Christ" continued the man, "this place is the pits if you ask me. We should take a leaf out of the Yank's book, have proper, stylish bars like they do. Get rid of these old pubs and drag these sorry peasants into the twentieth century. Fucking country bumpkins. I hate em."
The bar was silent now, the atmosphere charged with anticipated menace. The man lifted his glass to his moustached lips and drained it. "Come on, let's get back to civilisation," he said. He lifted the empty glass above his head, then, looking straight at Tom, he slammed it upside down upon the bar.
Collectively, the regulars of The Plough gasped at the insult of the upturned glass and, in the following moment, Tom clenched his right fist and swung it hard, straight into the man's waiting face.
The punch knocked him clean out and he slumped to the floor in a pile. A cheer went up. Tom picked up the offending glass, bowed to his applauding fellows and placed it back upon the bar, the right way up.
Graham Attenborough (2014).
Way back, when it mattered, I'd said: "There's only one rule and that is there are no rules."
You laughed. “You can’t do that,” you said. “Can’t say there aren’t rules and make that a rule – it’s a contradiction.”
“Okay,” I said. “Call it a guideline then. No rules, that’s the guideline. Agreed?”
“Yeah, cool,” you said. You laughed again, you sounded full, and I knew I had you.
You were making coffee. Instant. You didn’t drink the proper stuff back then. Even with coffee, you wouldn’t follow the rules; you’d pour hot water into the cups then sprinkle granules on the surface where they’d float in belligerent denial of purpose. You had to stir it for ages before they dissolved.
Now you’re making coffee again, in the espresso maker we bought last June, and you hand me mine – black, just as it comes. Into yours, you shake sugar from the bag, not caring whether you get one measure or five, and you stir the sticky brew with an egg spoon for ages.
“I was wondering,” you say, “what the guideline would be for seeing other people.”
The coffee burns my top lip, hits the roof of my mouth and burns that too. I swear, jerk the cup away, hot liquid curls over the edge and spills onto my shirt.
“I mean theoretically,” you say, “you know.”
“Why ask me?” I dab at the spill with a tea-towel, but it’s seeped right through and is clinging fast. I go to the sink, dampen a cloth and press the stain gently, glad to have my back to you. I wait for you to speak.
“Well, as guardian of guidelines,” you say. “I mean they are always yours, right? So I thought, well, you might have... you know... one in reserve…”
You move forward and peer over my shoulder.
“Rub soap on it,” you suggest.
“It’s silk,” I say, “dry-clean only.”
“They always put that, just covering their backs, it needs soap.”
You do the laundry with the same reckless will with which you sweeten your coffee. I had to make it a guideline in the end – after the first couple of months of sludge-grey whites – that we each take care of our own clothes.
“So…” You drain your cup in one mouthful, swallow it down on the pause. “What say you?”
“I suppose it’s a case of to thine own self be true,” I say.
“That’s the guideline?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Okay,” you say. “Cool. It was just theoretical, just curiosity, you know.”
You put down your empty cup.
I stand by the sink, a circle of damp encroaching on my chest.
And I wait for you to leave.
She was taken from her cell by two guards in their google uniforms. At the end of a long white corridor, still flanked by her guards, she was greeted by a smiling young woman who looked up briefly from a glowing tablet as she was brought in to a gleaming office, then looked down again.
'Please sit,' said a man sat behind a Habitat table adorned with a magnificent digitalised flowering plant. She sat, the one-piece paper suit they had given her to wear crackling as she did so. 'What is your username'? the man asked. She said nothing. 'Your google account? Amazon? What is your smart phone number?' 'I don't have a mobile' she said, 'or a username, a blog, a Facebook page or a google account. In fact, I don't even have a fucking computer - okay!'
They all looked at her as though she'd just said that she butchered babies for a living. The man turned to his screen, tapped on it a couple of times and turned it towards her. Immediately she recognised herself walking along a fairly busy street. She saw that as other people walked along, the giant billboard screens flashed up their usernames and quickly directed them to their next shopping destination. A hint of a smile danced across her lips as she saw how the screens went blank as she passed them, unable to identify all her consumer wants and needs.
'As a matter of fact,' he said, 'no, it's not okay. Do you even have a bank account?'
'No' she said, 'I do not have a bank account. I don't want a bloody bank account and I have a democratic right not to have one if I choose.'
The man laughed.'Oh, democracy. That old chestnut. Didn't you know? We have no need of democracy in the age of google because we have no need of governance. We are all free and equal under google. The world has moved on, my dear. You see, you and your kind are still living in the bad old days. That's why you insist on calling yourselves neo Luddites and Latter-day Diggers. They tried to halt progress too, didn't they, and of course they failed. I suggest you read about them sometime, on Wikipedia, that is - when you're back online. And you will be back online, reconnected to the net, because that is the only rule passed down by google in its all-consuming wisdom.
'As I say' he went on, 'we are all free to choose under google but our choices must be made online. That is the rule. Everything we will ever need is to be found on the worldwide web and you must be a part of the great google family. Otherwise, well, you are nothing, nothing but a shadow, a waste of digits, an affront to consumerism. Someone like you is a non unit. You might as well be dead.'
'Are you actually saying,' the woman said, 'that our only purpose is to shop? To buy stuff online?' 'Of course', the man replied. 'What other purpose could we possibly have?' She looked at the man aghast. She longed to go home, to her dogs, to her books and her vegetable garden. She didn't need google to be fulfilled. She only needed her freedom, her friends, love. She said: 'you can't force me. You can give me an iPad and a username but I just won't log on. I don't want you, I don't need you.'
The man sat back in his chair and laced his fingers into a steeple. He said, 'Nonsense, we all need google. Google is us and we are google. You see my dear, if you were online and keeping abreast of google events, you would know that the latest google nanotechnology means that we can now connect you to the web intravenously. You should consider yourself privileged, you shall be one of the first units on earth not merely to be connected but actually to be a living part of google itself. There shall be no logging off, even as your physical body sleeps, you shall live and breath within the net, being updated instantaneously. I'm envious I can tell you. Just imagine, you will be as one with google, and, gradually, as this marvellous, google-given technology is rolled out, more and more of us will join you, our minds and bodies sharing forever the power and the glory of the one great google!'
Realising there was no escape from this madness, the woman began to panic. She stood up and tried to run, but the two google guards grabbed her by the arms and held her fast. 'They will take you down to the technicians now,' said the man kindly, 'we shall meet again my dear, online.'
He stood to attention, tapped his chest with his right hand before stretching his arm out before him. 'Google be praised' he said, and the others responded.
'Praise be to Google!'
Her legs gave way beneath her.
“For a shilling? I’ll do it,” said a ragged young man. Several mouths opened then closed up, a few caps were shaken but nobody spoke. The stranger looked once more around the tap room then turned to the young man and said, “Come with me.”
When it was over, the young man went back to the inn, put his shilling down on the bar and ordered a pint of ale. The landlord stared at the silver coin and slowly shook his head. The young man grew red and shoved his shilling further across the bar. The landlord took a step back. When the embarrassed young man glanced around the room, every eye seemed to sink in deep contemplation of a glass. At length, old Thomas reached into his pocket, drew out two copper pennies and placed them next to the silver shilling on the bar. The landlord nodded, fetched a pint of ale and pushed it towards the young man.
When he raised his glass, not one hand stirred but his own so he drank in silence, alone and too fast. Not until the door had shut behind him did anyone take a sup or speak one word. As he reeled along the lane and across the meadows, the young man heard old Thomas start a song. He felt the bitter tang of the shilling in his pocket and tasted it as he lost his pint of ale in a ditch.
The sourness remained and tainted his luck; he rarely got work, few bought the poles he cut or the sticks he tied in bundles and it was seldom he met with a smile. One November night, he heard a voice and saw a lantern approach with a well-fed growl, “You’re wanted.” The young man was reluctant to go. He sat and thought for a while but, this night or all, one silver shilling or thirty, what he had done was done. So he followed the lantern over the meadows and up the lane to a house where one window was lit.
The corpse lay stout and tall, starched linen under broad black cloth leaving scarce room at head and foot for two women, one quite old, the other quite young, both well dressed in the same black silk. A wooden platter of bread was propped on the dead man’s breast. The young man took it and ate. The old woman passed him a bowl of ale and he drank, the growl in his empty belly the only sound in the room.
When he had done, a maid appeared with a trembling hand to take the platter and bowl for burning. “Now say it,” the younger woman spoke and he remembered words repeated over an open grave, “I give easement and rest to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen. Christ receive thy soul.”
He travelled wide where nobody knew, but found neither work nor company. A farmer hiring looked once at his clean straight limbs, again at his face and moved on. If a girl smiled or looked his way, her friend was sure to hurry her on. 'I cast a long shadow,' he thought, ‘It is the darkness I’ve taken into my soul.’
With his two shillings he bought supplies and returned to his corner to earth. They found him out whenever a death came sudden, unshriven. Each time the bread grew harder to swallow, the bitter taste grew stronger, the weight of the words grew greater. In the meadows he went muttering, “I’ve pawned my soul and can never be redeemed.”Down the lanes he’d wander and howl, “I’m lost. I’ve lost my soul.” From his bed in the woods come cries in the night “My soul. My soul. My soul.”
The village hears and fears their wanderer who had belonged but was lost, who carried his burden of sins into his grave and on, in their meadows and down the lanes.