I’ve two oddball pieces in two collected editions by Pavement Books. “On Paper” is a short story, included by Jack Boulton in Hand Picked: Stimulus Respond, and “We hate humans!” is an article on skinheads and the demonisation of working class violence in Return to the Street, edited by Sophie Fuggle and Tom Henri. There are far better pieces in both collections and I recommend a quick peek, and the other publications of this relatively new press.
I’ll be travelling through Northern France for the next few days, and to honour the journey, here’s an interview with André Breton I undertook for a recent French assignment. When I’m back I’ll be overhauling this blog and introducing some new projects, but for now, I’m off to indulge in the new sins of modern times, unproductivity and idleness.
L’existence est ailleurs: une interview avec André Breton
«C’est vivre et cesser de vivre qui sont des solutions imaginaires. L’existence est ailleurs.»1
– Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924
Dans cette interview unique, nous parlons avec le romancier et poète André Breton, qui est connu aujourd’hui comme le fondateur du Surréalisme. Malgré qu’il meure en 1966, nous pouvions communiquer avec M. Breton grâce à une modification secrète de la technique de l’écriture automatique, qu’il a découverte et a développée lui-même dans Les Champs Magnétique (avec Philippe Souppault) et le premier Manifeste du Surréalisme. Nous avons demandé son opinion sur la politique, la beauté, et la vie après la mort.
Moi: Dans votre roman Nadja de 1928, vous avez écrit que «La beauté sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas.»2 Ces mots ont inspiré des générations de jeunes romantique à poursuivre une expérience plus intense de la beauté c’est impossible, qui ne peut pas être réalisé, sauf à travers une transformation profonde dans l’esprit, qui déstabilise les normes sociales restrictives dans l’expression de son désir. Se souvenir de ces mots quatre-vingts ans plus tard, je me demande si une telle idée de la beauté est possible dans cet âge anxieux et hyper-numérisé?
Breton: Non, l’idée est toujours possible, même aujourd’hui. Pour moi, le surréalisme est un engagement de l’esprit à l’expérience de la meilleure partie de l’enfance, de ce désir illimité pour explorer tout ce qui nous intéresse. Sans égard pour les obligations de politesse. Cet engagement à la liberté sera toujours politique, à toutes les époques, et en particulier à la vôtre.
Moi: Avez-vous des regrets?
Breton: Je ne regrette rien. Mais, je regrette que ma génération n’ai pas réagis plus catégoriquement contre l’autoritarisme, qu’il soit fasciste ou stalinien. Notre inactivité et manque de prévoyance a eu un impact dévastateur sur l’imagination politique depuis. Je regrette le sort triste de mon ami et collaborateur Leon Trotsky.
Moi: Décrivez-nous la vie après la mort.
Breton: Je peux la comparer seule à la poésie de Paul Eluard ou les divagations du Marquis de Sade: improbable. Je suis maintenant totalement persuadé par la philosophie de George Berkeley, que tout ce qui existe sont les esprits et les idées. Hier, j’ai pris un café avec un Walter Benjamin, qui a pris la forme d’un chat euphorique. Aujourd’hui, je méditais sur la texture du Saturne fondée sur une photo de visage d’une femme par Man Ray. Si ces choses se sont produites dans la réalité, ou ont été imaginées par mon esprit, n’est plus importante.
Moi: Qu’est-ce que vous pensez des écrivains aujourd’hui, par exemple Michel Houllebecq, qui traitent de sujets similaires de désir et la culture populaire dans leurs livres, mais dans un but moins politique et plus cynique?
Breton: La vénération des racistes radins et narcissique comme Houllebecq démontre la nécessité de maintenir une recherche collective de la beauté, sous toutes ses formes imaginaires, impossibles et oniriques.
Moi: Certaines personnes accusaient votre œuvres de sexisme, en considérant les femmes comme des objets sexuel, qui sont souvent présentes comme un « l’Autre», qui sont chassés par un protagoniste masculin triste. Comment voulez-vous répondre à cela?
Breton: Ma vie, je vivais comme une provocation, pour découvrir et réaliser la liberté de l’esprit sous tous ses formes. Je ne vais jamais m’en excuser.
Moi: Autre chose?
Breton: une fois, il y a plusieurs décennies, j’ai écrit que «Tout porte à croire qu’il existe un certain point de l’esprit d’où la vie et la mort, le réel et l’imaginaire, le passé et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable, le haut et le bas cessent d’être perçus contradictoirement.»3 Je peux vous dire aujourd’hui, hier, et demain, la vérité de ces paroles. Je découvrais la nature fictive de ces frontières. Il est ou n’est pas, ou à être ou ne pas être, et alors? Si la vie est un rêve ou une réalité elle est aussi pertinente qu’un conte de fées, charmante et absurde.
1. Manifeste du surréalisme” in Œuvres complètes, tome 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 346.
2. André Breton, Nadja. Texte intégral, dossier par Michel Meyer (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 161.
3. Breton, Manifestes du surréalisme, (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), pp. 76-77.
My story ‘Learning how to disappear’ will be read at the Albany Theatre on 16 August for a free event organised by Lewisham Talking Newspaper.
Stories and music about Deptford and the surrounding area will be brought together before a live audience, and recorded for visually-impaired people who the organisation helps, with the aim of raising awareness of Lewisham Talking Newspaper, a valuable community organisation running since 1977.
The story is about two people and their association through the Deptford Psychogeographical Association. It’s a dark and disquieting story – what one ain’t? – but suffused with a burnt love which I think carries through. There’s hope there, and not that desperate hope which demands not to speak of doubts, but something of a different species, the kind of hope without imagination that comes in the pure submission of one’s self into something other. Like cheap caffs, bad tattoos, signing on and grimey mattresses. The finer things!
It’s an honour that it will be heard in and by the community which inspired it. The event is free and tickets can be booked here.
Find out more about Lewisham Talking Newspaper, the organisers.
Or read the original story in Nyx, a Noctournal issue #5, with an excellent illustration by Andy Blundell.
I have a friend who tells me how much better I look each time he sees me. ‘You used to look terrible! Really pale and skinny, haunted, you know!’ He assures me it’s a compliment, though as regular as a morning’s mirror mantra he repeats each time he sees me. This is the story of NY fucking E.
To write better and travel more: this is what I strive for. For 2012 saw the completion of the rest. I learned to drive, formed a band, and learned to write songs and sing in my own voice. I worked my soul away for 6 months, set up the London campaign of a charity that ended up winning awards and securing its funding. There’s still a bitter memory of it all, and I am relieved I left in the way I did. I took a break, wrote some bad stories, then started work at another charity, taught myself how to write winning fundraising bids and at last joined a union. Was it worth it? I gave up meat and drink. I started combing my hair and shaving. I didn’t watch a single bit of the Olympics. It’s as solemn and profound as all that.
To see this one out, this is the final story I wrote over 2012. It’s way too long for a blog-post and is left here inexplicably like an abandoned child’s toy in a roadside gutter. Possibly it provides nourishment for wild animals, and for the rest, it’s a note to self to write something better next year. Toodles.
Nervously even for him he clambered up from the sweaty pew, arse sliding against the bare wood where he had sat alone by the altar, apprehensively, ceremoniously and most properly, the moment marked by the shriek of new shoes against marble, and ice-cold tingles rippling along his spine as he awkwardly shuffled sideways by the casket, experiencing something akin to vertigo whilst ascending the larger-than-life lectern to the rows of eyes of Ben’s friends and family. Celebrate life. In the midst of death we are in life. God would not be found in a place like this, in cold churches where people could go to feel good through feeling bad, through compartmentalising their actions into good or sin, but this is for the family’s benefit, so keep it positive. Work – football – generous – tragedy – celebrate life. Annie, Ben’s sister had asked him to do the second eulogy last week – “you are his best mate, you knew him”, but he’d only sat down to write it this morning, with an online template doing much of the work, aided by several Scotch-laced coffees.
“There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three oaks.”
– Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Buriall, 1658.
And I hope you too will remember Ben as I did, as a fun-loving friend who always loved a laugh, and as a kind, generous and warm-hearted man, whose life was tragically taken short … now he’s up there with God.
The second page had come to an end and there was nothing on the other side. As he glided back towards his empty pew he looked up momentarily, catching Ben’s extended family looking so empty, his sisters holding their elderly mother, and by the very front, Michelle too, with her family, not catching his eye, thankfully. By the time he had sat down he had to stand up again, as the congregation began attempting ‘Abide with me’ with pitiable faint-heartedness. Someone was singing very loudly in a baritone voice by the back, who like everyone else there he struggled to recognise.
“Thank you Alex, that was just right.” Annie and Sylvia, the youngest of Ben’s four sisters, had approached him by the kerb, sharing cigarettes taken from Annie’s handbag. Alex instinctively fished around the unfamiliar black suit for his lighter. They were both very cool, and silent. He could hear their mother wailing somewhere in the background, crowded by consolers. Beyond the gutter and the parked cars, the congested terraced street, the alabaster noon skies of a day which hadn’t somehow been able to start, everything feeling frozen and weightless since entering the church, since waking up the morning after. Perhaps in space too there were no emotions. The cigarette brought him back to earth. The last time they had all been together was outside the police station after the incident. Since then everything had been done by phone, very formal, usually Annie’s sweet faintly-cockney voice, but Alex feeling as if they had in part blamed him for the series of events that had unlikely resulted in Ben’s death. The hearses were pulling away, traffic queued behind, and Elena and Harold began to approach them. “Oh mama,” said Sylvia crying, and now the girls were crying, and Harold too, and Alex could feel his insides beginning to melt, tears forming, and without thinking his arms had wrapped around the family, head awkwardly facing the skies to keep the cigarette in his mouth from burning them, the pale sun glowing dimly through a cloud, a telegraph wire and an airplane high up, journeying somewhere it would never reach with unknowable hope.
Ben’s family were Armenian and had organised their own kind of reception that would coincide with the disposal of the ashes into the Thames three days later.
He’d built up a wicked desire for something to drink, and with the automatic impulsiveness that precedes any self-destructive gesture, he found himself ordering large scotch at a quiet pub by the railway station, which was quickly sunk and discarded. He drifted out and bought himself some ciders for the journey back, then staggered confusedly towards the platform, just in time to board the incorrect stopping train back home.
Dazed by hunger, passing one Tesco town after another. The great secret of these places is their void of a future. Nothing would actually happen there in thirty or forty years time. The malls and new-builds would be bulldozed and forgotten much sooner than that. With supermarket trolleys jutting out of the Thames mud. Objects indiscriminately laid out in the circumference of an invisible circle, without focus or centre. A world belonging to old men with ale-udders, mismatched sports jackets and beige chinos.
It was the early afternoon and the carriage was deserted. The cider tasted like two copper coins had been left inside it, tart yet refreshing. Alone, light-headed, here he was safe to think about the last few awful months. Michelle hadn’t said anything to him. The pregnancy showed. Ben and Alex’s lives had both run in parallel: friends since Year 3, when Ben’s family moved to Woolwich from Armenia. They both improbably supported Leeds United, were a similar height, and had surnames beginning with G-, meaning they sat together most of the time, which continued through secondary school, where they chose the same classes, bunked together, shared their first cigarette together, and drifted into the ignorant certainties of early adulthood’s stream of brainless jobs and relationships together.
They always used to sleep over at each other’s houses. The good thing about staying at Ben’s was that they could watch his older brother’s 18-rated horror videos like Hellraiser and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They used to get so terrified that they couldn’t sleep, and would stay up all night talking about fantasy football teams and debate the probable victors of fights between superheroes and movie characters. They always had the same type of lunch box, and both their mums always put in a bit of extra food for the other boy, knowing that they loved to trade and share each other’s crisps. When Ben first started at his school the other kids had mocked him for his poor grasp of English and ‘Russian’ accent, but it only reminded Alex of his gran and cousin in Cyprus who he loved spending summers with, and he liked Ben anyway, and taught him all the best swear words he knew, like wanker, twat, shitbag, prick, arseprick, dickface, slag, felcher, and later, the C-word. There’d been only one falling out, when they had that big playground fight in Year 6 when Alex was pasted by Ben after some kid, Ashley B-, had jibed that the pair were ‘gay for each other’. That, and what had happened a month before that ill-fated stag-party.
They’d both been into girls from an early age. When they were 13, they had even started saving up together for a prostitute in the West End, their big dream, but before they’d reached £1000, how much they estimated she would want, they started to work out how to talk to girls at parties. They had even shared girlfriends some of the time. He remembered when they were 19, ‘D’ her name was, Dorothea, who had been with Ben first, and who had told him how Ben liked to play heavy metal music and ‘wrestle’ with her, that’d been her words. It felt dirty but strangely thrilling being inside girls that Ben had been with. They would sometimes talk about them afterwards, “a bit kinky”, “nice tits”, but usually more in terms of what they were like to be with, “hard work”, “control freak”. As they’d entered their twenties, the years accelerated and temporary settlements became patterns – Ben couldn’t go out without first getting drunk, and then taking coke later into the night to keep going. Alex had had a string of failed relationships which usually ended after the girls found out he’d cheated on them then threw him out.
Alex had been working most recently as a security guard, his dark too-serious brow rendered by the vexations of insane drunks, possibly with undiagnosed aspergers’, and their vain attempts to steal confectionery from the store, followed by their absurd defences of innocence or necessity outside. Ben also had talked about starting his own business since the age of 16 or 17, though like most there was no clear plan or strategy, and ten years on he was still selling insurance over the telephone to dementia-suffering biddies in Aberdeen and elsewhere. Ben had got together with Michelle in his early twenties. Her early pregnancy and their fear of her dominant father required getting married young, a number of low-skill jobs in Michelle’s dad’s company. That early pregnancy later turned out to be a miscarriage, but by the time it’d happened the wedding was booking. Ben was unhappily married and the relationship seemed to have all kinds of problems. They weren’t from the sort of background that were supposed to or even thought about going to university. Both Alex and Ben carried their resentment like a club card into masculine life.
The train was starting to get a little busy. Alex put the empty can back in the carrier bag and pulled out a fresh tin of cider. When he and Ben were fifteen they had made a non-resignation pact. Neither was going to become like the other’s father, these clapped-out, taciturn and miserable men who had amply failed to provide any positive role-model to them. “We ain’t gonna give up like that old bastard”, Alex had announced, sharing ecstatic reveries with Ben on a package holiday in Majorca, the end of a wild long night. He saw the outline of his face against the mirror, gargoyle-lined, stubbled, puffy-cheeked, more rough than tough, with dark eyes suggesting little animation. On one side of him sat a few early-finishing commuters, distracted by Coldplay, Facebook, Angry Birds and other contemporary dross. Beyond the window leaving behind the suburb satellite station, a familiar and remarkable urban landscape of buddleia punctuating smears of suburb town, factory town, gas reservoir town, Christian ministries town, cosmetic surgery town, cash for gold town, doner kebab town, Argos town, Ladbrokes town, Tesco town. Resignation’s so easy. “Not like my dad”, said Alex. “Yeah, not like him”, Ben replied.
Michelle wasn’t attractive in the conventional sense. It was more her value to Ben – she had to be special – and the thought that his friend had had her and enjoyed her in the past was what turned him on. Alex was already seeing a woman, Carlie, but she was still hung up on her ex, and Alex didn’t have the patience or interest in her existential problems, and had retreated into his usual bored behaviour of casual flings with women he met on singles dating websites. One evening, Michelle had come round to his flat to drop off something he’d lent, he couldn’t remember what it had been now. Carlie was staying with a friend in Bristol, most likely her ex. Michelle was sad, like she’d been arguing with Ben, and seeing that they had little else to do that night, they both started drinking beer and talking about what they were all like before Ben and Michelle started going out, all the wild times they’d had, while she talked about some of her exs and her early life, growing up and looking after her mum, about all the cats she used to have and their names. Michelle was always a lightweight, it explained why she and Ben always argued when they went out, and after a couple of beers the meaning of her sadness emerged. Alex wasn’t really the ‘sensitive type’: love was something you said when you wanted to get with a girl or end an argument. He couldn’t remember how it had started, but he could remember being on the sofa with Michelle, kissing her, their hands mentally mapping out each others’ bodies, then soon after, their clothes pulled off. She wasn’t beautiful in the conventional sense. She didn’t want to look at Alex, so he took her from behind, and pulled her hair with one hand, and massaged her clitoris with the other, as requested. The sheer wrongness of it turned them on immensely: Michelle, to get revenge on Ben, who apparently hadn’t fucked her for months, and for Alex, the chance to enjoy something out of bounds that belonged to Ben, like reading his diary or climbing into a scary neighbour’s garden together in search of a lost football or fantastical treasure, like when they were kids. They were drunk already and neither had a condom. As Michelle was coming she asked Alex to choke her with his belt, the way Ben did it. He was worried he was going to accidentally kill her, but she wanted to go further and further, taking each other deeper into that dark night of confused, impulsive, beautiful souls.
Alex quickly crossed one leg over another, and replaced the empty can with another new cider, still chilled. The train was pulling into another busy station, the passengers now boarding had expressions like they’d just interrupted their parents, engaged in mutual coprophagia.
Everyone always says in a funeral about what a ‘fitting service’ and a ‘good send-off’ it was, and when it’s someone old, what ‘good innings’ they’d had. It was such shit. Bad poetry read out of library books. Why should he have to celebrate someone’s life, why couldn’t he just be sad that his best mate was fucking dead? Ben didn’t even believe in God. How could they let that bastard priest who had never met him, never, talk about Ben in the most intimate tones, about what had happened to Ben’s soul? He could see Ben there, sat at the back after the service, with a fag-ash stained suit and a cheeky red or polka dot tie, legs stretched out wide, inappropriate cuff-links, short hair spiked up, a look of proud derision, his lips uttering silently but the words reaching his mind.
Geezer. What the fuck mate. What was that shit you said about me. What was my life. You know what happened that night. I was out of it. You should’ve looked out for me. You shouldn’t’ve done that. I knew that feller had a knife, I knew what he was gonna do, and I didn’t care.
They’d both completely failed on that non-resignation pact, perhaps because they’d both allowed their own lives to landslide into a peculiar blend of passive hedonism and cynical grumpiness. He remembered his fear shortly after he and Michelle had got it together. Never again, they vowed, though they both had very much enjoyed it. Carlie was with him, they’d gone to a friend’s wedding, and Michelle and Carlie were away for a little to talk in one of the reception rooms of this fancy mansion. Alex was absolutely terrified Michelle was going to blab to Carlie, though in hindsight she would have had far more to lose. So, totally idiotically now, he crept up behind the door ajar to listen in. He heard Michelle’s voice, she was saying about how men were ‘disabled’, that was her word for it, they were disabled because they always wanted to fuck strangers, that was all they could think about, yet 6 months after getting it together with the same person they lost complete interest. They’d rather masturbate than have sex with them. “Alex!”, Carlie said startled, sat on the edge of a luscious red sofa, Michelle close by on a mismatching floral-print armchair. “Men and woman are both disabled”, he imagined himself uttering, bursting into that charged room now, rather differently to how he’d really behaved. “You girls are disabled too, in your menstruation maybe, but no, in your desire to bear children into this fucked up world. Why? Why not just fuck, or have relationships.” And he imagined Michelle looking up to him, beautiful in that black dress, glaring viciously, also turned on by the infliction of wounds, and replying confidently, completely out of his imagination again, words without sounds: “Men and women are both disabled by that deep sexual hunger that frees our bodies and restricts our minds into these crazes. But how we both find sexual satisfaction is through a gradual concentration and narrowing of earlier sexual pleasures. Think of your first time Carlie, or no, maybe your first really good time. You want that again and again, that same type of male or female experience, and fucking in that same kind of way, rough, violent, tantric, from behind, on top, with the first one that really opened up your mind sexually. That’s why you still want to be with your first ex Carlie, and why you keep sleeping with him. “Yes,” Alex replied suddenly, “we’re the same, different but equal”. “Yes, and that’s why you and Ben are so close.”
It was Alex’s stop. He scrambled up, accidentally kicking the empty cans over into the path of the congested train. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been asleep for. But he wasn’t worried about the spilt cider all across the commuters’ brogues and heels, as he was more concerned with hiding all the tears that had collected in his eyelashes.
Alex had got out of the habit of waking up early after the last few months of night shifts at work. The flat was freezing. He was starting to run out of clean clothes. The milk too had gone off, but he chanced it anyway for his tea and cereal, adding a little water and sugar to conceal the sour taste. In the three days since the funeral service he hadn’t heard a word from anyone, until Annie called again to ask if he was still coming tomorrow to Woolwich Reach, for the send-off. He dug out his only other suit, and hoped no-one would notice he was wearing the same shirt from the service.
After a silent twenty minute journey across the deserted riverside footpath from Thamesmead town-centre towards Woolwich, he turned a corner where, in the distant sands of the brown Thames beach, two white marquees incongruously stood and, flitting about them, twenty or thirty of Ben ‘Benyamin’s’ extended Armenian family, some playing violins in some kind of gypsy dirge. He joined Annie, Sylvia, Mila and Hermione, Ben’s sisters and family all together for the first time in years. “So, what’ve you been doing with yourself these last few years?”, Hermione asked, her words slowing over the final part of the utterance as if she were asking himself what had become of those last few years. Drunk. Unfaithful. I should’ve looked out for him that night. But how did I know that psycho bloke was just gonna stab him like that, blades shouldn’t slide in so easily. He shouldn’t’ve died, he could’ve kept going, but he didn’t want it enough. The ambulance took centuries to come. Lost in traffic. “This and that?”, he replied, with a faint smile. “And you, the baby, right?” “Well, dad wants you to go into the water with Yuri and the others to say goodbye to Ben. He was more than a brother to you.”
He joined Harold, Ben’s father, and Yuri his uncle. There were a few others there too playing music, some weeping, all in black. Harold used to say that the English were a depressed people and this explained their behaviour and politics. He had never given up his customs and ways from the old country, but never really let Ben into them either. “You’re coming with us Alex,” he said, cheerily. “Now is not to be sad. Now we go into the Styx to say goodbye to Benjamin, my son, your friend.” He put his arm around Alex’s shoulder, the first person to touch him since the brawl that Saturday night. He felt almost hysterically light-headed, like he might topple over if a wind caught him unawares. Beneath the marquee was a small table with some pastries left untouched, and a jug half-full of some iced fruit-flavoured moonshine, oghi, which the company were liberally sinking in small plastic beakers. Alex filled one of the cups up and downed the concoction. Soon after his brain was whirling, light-headed yet elated, teeth chattering like demented magnets, and he followed the sound of Yuri’s accordion towards the tide, wading waist-deep into the Thames’ icy embrace, where it was now time.
Yuri began a plaintive, beautiful dirge on the accordion, joined on the violin by another man in the water who he didn’t recognise, a cousin or uncle. Harold came in a little later, carrying the maroon plastic urn, his eyes scanning the crowd by the tide, then the four of them in the water. He handed to him the urn, which was larger and much lighter than he expected, and like a bird, Harold’s mouth opened, and a rich, sorrowful bass voice emerged, singing some song in Armenian, which after certain intervals was joined in chorus by the women on the tideline. He glimpsed the Woolwich ferry in the distance, the post-industrial abysses of north Woolwich and Silvertown, piles and piles of multicoloured containers and tiny golden lights, which when he scrunched his eyes up, which the tears compelled him to do, became much bigger, their rays of light radiating in every distance.
His friend had died because he was tired, he had resigned his game far too soon because he had lost faith in a quick victory. Perhaps Alex had too, he was only 28 but felt three times that. He had a heart, he did, everyone did, but his was soaked in hate, and the source of hate, fear. His fear was death, like everyone else, of getting it wrong, of not being someone before he was old, but in temper of this fear of death he’d become afraid of living, of being able to love, or do, or act as he was, as he truly was, and have the courage to live with the consequences of this. It made little sense, but the truths of life’s studies were demonstrated in experimentation. The water was freezing, the music continuing, a faster song now. He and Ben had forgotten what wonder meant, of that openness of mind that one has in one’s early teens, like they had. All he had known in his twenties was decay, war, stress, anger, migraines, the bankruptcy of everything, only one reality of many. Back when they’d been young, they could’ve invented a cure to cancer or discovered the meaning of god or impossible if they’d wanted, why not? They were bound that way, had that wonder, but of course they wanted to play, to fight, to get together with girls, and that was alright.
There was a young boy on the tideline who was pushed forward by the sisters, and began to play an solo elegy on the trumpet. Ben too used to be able to play trumpet, and was in the school choir when they were kids. “Now, Alex”. The urn was profanely easy to open, its cheap plastic packaging almost blasphemous. Inside a white carrier bag, the ashes, which he now shook out with urgency, like putting out a deep fire, against the wind, towards the other side of the river. The family began to wail, as his ashes are wrapped tight in the whirl of the wind, then sucked into the swilling waters, thick and almost peppery are the remains of what once housed his presence, his soul. The urn was still quite full, and as he kept scattering them towards the river, wide grey smudges momentarily filling the air like Hades’ fireworks, the wind now blowing them into his mouth and eyes, and against the onlookers. As Ben’s closest friend, it was his responsibility to mutter a few vaguely profound words to bring the ritual to its climax. Gingerly the word “hope” is repeated: sceptically, optimistically. He handed the urn to Harold to scatter the remaining half, and looked out at the water, the ashes washing into that other London that might reside tranquilly below the water, on the other side of the river like a mirror-world, a land of London dead beneath the old Thames, a community infinitely greater than the living, still present in the lime and the slime of the banks, still despatching to the living their black-humoured gifts, ministered by gulls: the typewriters, tobacco pipes, shopping trolleys, plastic bags, cut-up corpses, messages in bottles, torn-up letters, wedding rings, and the occasional bit of ironwork that all wash up on the banks, some of which are claimed by the desperate combers of the beach, impoverished junkies still plying an ancient trade, sold on as scrap in exchange for escapism and food. Alex turned again at the onlookers, and back at the waters again, the distant lights. Silence, emptiness anew.
Mate. I forgive you mate. Look out for her. Don’t give up on yourself.
It was late evening now, and they were back at Annie’s flat in Thamesmead, close to where her parents still lived and where the reception had been. They were all wasted and wearied by all the singing, dancing and heavy-duty drinking of the morning and afternoon, and Alex, Michelle, Sylvia, Yuri and some of the others had come back to hers to carry on drinking. “More oghi!” – “Music!” – “That shit’s crazy” – “Ah man, I’ve got work tomorrow, ha ha ha!”. They were jumping round to old skool UK Garage and rave music, hysterically play-grinding and pogoing to those wondrously innocent, sensual dance songs from years ago, the nursery rhymes of generation of Thatcher’s children. Later, when he was out in the kitchen fixing Michelle and himself a final shot of oghi for the road, she followed him, and leaned against the fridge door, his back against her as he washed more glasses in the kitchen sink. “You know I’m pregnant right,” she began, her harsh-sounding estuarine upbringing bleached away to a more softly-spoken, sleepy drawl. “Well you know Ben had tests yeah, his sperm. What you call it, they weren’t fertile enough. That’s why we never had any little ones even though we’ve been together for like five years.” He handed her a full glass, which she put on the counter. “What you trying to say?” he replied. “It ain’t yours Alex, it can’t be, don’t ask me why, but trust me, it’s how it feels. But all I’m saying is, I want you to stick around and help me. For Ben”.
Alex looked into her bright, deep-set brown eyes. For a second, he could feel such immense sadness, uncertainty, vulnerability, that compelled him to come close to her, and hold her. She was crying into his shoulder. Another feeling then blistered inside him, through her – hope, that there was hope, that the right thing could be done. Her hair felt soft against him, beautiful smelling, not artificial like perfume or conditioner, it was the natural smell of her he was drinking in. He could feel an erection inappropriately forming, and began to pull away. “It’s ok”, she said, attempting to laugh, her forearm wiping away at her eyes, taking off her remaining mascara in the process. “I know all you men are disabled like that”. Alex remembered his dream with her and Carlie, it couldn’t be real. He finished the oghi, and she finished hers. “I swear down, is that “I’m a Dreamer” playing?” he said, smiling fierily. “His favourite”. And so Alex took her hand back into that sitting room, their bodies roaming closer and more intensively intimate than either had felt before, charged in space with the real hope that maybe, against the grain, they might know a happiness and a truth denied to Ben, and Alex, up until that moment.
“Honours, monuments, all that ambition has commanded by decrees or reared in works of stone, quickly sink to ruin; there is nothing that the lapse of time does not tear down and remove. But the works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them; the following and each succeeding age will but increase the reverence for them, since envy works upon what is close at hand, and things that are far off we are more free to admire.”
– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 41CE
CARRY THE HEAD. BEGIN
Next to the lectern was a yellowy human skull, warm and wet to the touch. The rolling script continued, and with that due diligence and discipline that had forever been my strong point, I began shouting aloud each word as instructed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, how are we doing tonight? Cheering”, this last section I accidentally read aloud too, causing the text to begin flashing red wrathfully. I continued. “You’re all looking very lovely tonight.” More cheering. “I hope you’ve all been good. Welcome to The Talk Shop, the chance for you to have your say. Tonight, is love in the air?” The audience began cooing and ooing. “But first of all, we begin with a serious topic.” Some sad strings music began playing from some corner to convey a change in gravity. “In recent times there have been problems with user experience of the post-life period.” The audience erupted in groans and awwing. “Some people have said that the manager shouldn’t have made them, or the afterlife, or that even the master doesn’t exist.” At the bottom of my vision began running past a small blue banner, with white text, saying something like
HAVE YOU BEEN AFFECTED? SEND IN YOUR VIEWS NOW.
My vision was otherwise restricted to the small lit focus of the tablet and beyond that, a vague comprehension of the audience, otherwise such intensely bright lights glared in all directions at me, preventing me from looking around. “Today we’re going to talk about this. And with me, I have three guests who I’ll be talking to in a moment. With discontent growing by the day, one thing the manager cannot do is change human nature retrospectively. But is eternal consciousness the happiness that each of us had come to expect? Or, as critics claim, is the manager wrong, or is wrongness itself the manager?”
I looked to my left as the glass auto-cue instructed. A white European man stood there in a bluish-grey suit, with dark hair and silver glasses, perhaps in his 30s or 40s or 50s, possibly the most dull and most generic man of the mid-20th century one might imagine. “My first guest is Dr. Henrick Peabody.” Great clapping. “He believes that the eternal sadness is just a misunderstanding, isn’t that right doctor?”
“Yes that’s right Mr. Gameshow host. Now, there once was a story of a man who was very sad.” The doctor had the audience wubbing and awwing already. “Now this man was very sad because he was cold, he was hungry, and last of all ladies and gentlemen, he was very lonely. And this man thought that maybe the answer to all his troubles was somewhere beyond his means. And so he waited and waited, and hoped that through all his thinking and wishing maybe in the end he might get what he thought he wanted. And the moral of the story is, he already had everything to make him happy all along. The end.”
Perhaps the doctor had finished too soon, or had gone off-script, in any case, the crowd were for a moment silent, before beginning to boo, and to hiss, and to curse and swear. Coins and pebbles began raining down on the stage. The skull in my hand cracked and the doctor too was struck early, and had collapsed behind his desk, face-down in a pool of his own blood, before being quickly consumed by fire. “Order!” I shouted. The rage immediately subsided.
The autocue began running text again. “Our next guest is Terry Wide, who rejects Dr. Peabody’s view.” Hearty cheering. “Mr Wide, you believe that the manager is a self-contradicting fallacy, isn’t that right?” I couldn’t quite make out this figure, but he seemed to have been stood next to the first person.
“Lissen yeah. See this right, see this here, this is wos facked up abat the after-life. Every blimmin day we’re told shit about why we’re unhappy, when the truth is, we never even ad anything to be appy abat in the first place, til the manager came and told us that this was all of it, when it ain’t.” Cheering. “See me yeah, I don’ even think we’re dead yet, but we ain’t alive no more either. All my life yeah, people tol me be appy wiv this, be appy wiv that. But I ditn’t buy into that, no-one did. I watched TV, ate shit, drank shit, got fucked up, ad kids not for the sakes of appiness, but because there weren’ no choices otherwise. Every day I used to ahks him for help, tell him my worries yeah, but nothing.” The audience were clapping and awwing in consolation and admiration.
“But I’m here with a warning to people about the manager. There ain’t one!”
Silence now. “And lissen, if there is one, he’s a cunt, and not the one you was expecting.”
The autocue began flashing in red, but I was unwilling to stop him. “When I first got here, it weren’ too bad, ain’t that right ladies and gentlemen?” Hoots and affirmation. “We all thought, this is a bit of alright. But, not long after the cocktails, rest, and meditation on your life’s doing and memories, I was thinking what next? I could see there was shit in my life I wanted to go back to and relive, or fix. But I couldn’t. And this is it. We can’t do anything. What I don’t get yeah, is how the manager, who I ain’ even seen right, can’t do anything. Like, if he was around, and he’s able to do anything at all, because he’s the manager, then why can’t he make us all happy? Or, why can’t he do something about all the evil in the world, the kids going murdered, the wars, the genocides n shit? I know you’ve eard this before. Ok, maybe he doesn’t want to get involved, thas’ humanity’s problem. Then how can he be a loving and caring manager then? That don’t fit. So maybe he can’t do anything, maybe everything in the past and future’s already written, like fate yeah. Well that’d mean that the manager wutn’t have free will to go change anything, which would mean he either ain’t all-powerful or he ain’t got any free will – either way, not exactly the manager we was expecting?”
I felt a buzzing in my ear. Apparently one viewer had emailed in a response to Terry, which began streaming on the autocue. “Hold on for a moment Terry, we’ve got a question from Mrs Ethel Ball from Camberwell. Ethel asks, ‘what if the manager does exist, but not in the way you imagine?’”
Terry laughed. “Don’t get lemon wiv me sunshine! You think I ain’t thought of that?”
I continued reading. “Say perhaps the manager doesn’t exist, but she’s no longer a person. Maybe people’s happiness comes from imagining the manager to have human qualities, like compassion, or physical strength, or wisdom. What if the manager is the hotel, is everything here – is basically everything, and the source of everything that is? Thank you very much for that Ethel. And remember, if you’ve got something to say, contact us now.” I was getting into this malarkey. I turned back towards Terry’s distant figure. “How would you respond to Ethel?”
“Don’t get me a wrong, it’s a fair point yeah. But why bovver sayin there’s a manager in the first place then innit? I don’t get why it’s now needed, if it’s just everything that bloody well is, like the fackin periodic table. It’s an unnecessary position. And it just goes to show that all the stuff that was supposed to tell us right from wrong, all them inconsistent and violent cults from all over the world, were just talking shit.”
“Hold on, if you don’t mind me interrupting.” The third figure on the most distant desk who I could not make out at all, but who had the voice of a young woman, began speaking. “If it’s all just talking shit as you so colourfully put it, then where are we now, talking?”
“That’s a great point, err…. Soph-Charlotte, Charlotte! Charlotte Smith.” The autocue was beginning to get confused with the great uproar and unrest that continued to rage and cheer away. “Charlotte Smith, how do you respond to the problem of eternal consciousness then?”
“Thank you Mr. Gameshow host. While I’m also unhappy like the gentleman here that the after-life hasn’t really lived up to expectations, I don’t think we can really blame the manager. All she did was give souls a chance to comprehend their lives after death. It was the way we lived that’s causing us all these problems.”
There was some less enthusiastic clapping from the audience, and the glaring lights seemed to dull a little, revealing a tall and lean black man, perhaps middle-aged, wearing a green vest and baseball cap, and to his left, a young and pretty-looking woman with dark hair. In the course of my distraction I’d lost track of what she was saying.
“…Hierarchies of status and symbol are intrinsic to our individual formation. We couldn’t escape them, nor all the madness and misdeeds of our lives, the prejudices, the repressions, the habits – we took them with us. But what would be the alternative? To leave behind the addictions and restrictions that made us the persons we were? Is that what you’d like, Mr Gameshow host? But then, that would be an afterlife without consciousness, of use to no-one, as joyous as – to use that lady’s example, the molecular reactions of elements in the periodic table. We deferred hope for after the limit of the end. We’re now faced with the impossibility of hope, of future for something beyond. No face to wash, no intoxicants to disorientate the senses. No redemption in rage or sex, or the gratitude of a infinite father who exchanged punishment for grace. The wrathful and benevolent Man or being, or beings, people were expecting was always absent, replaced with an abstract and missing energy that soon became infinitely disappointing. Who knows, maybe even the manager was all those things, powerful, wise, loving, but in order to complete himself, she had to die and become one with everything?”
The lights were now too dim to read the auto-cue, which didn’t seem to be functioning in any case. I could no longer see the audience, or the jerky figures which had been dancing and parading about with the cross and tick cue-cards. I suddenly felt overcome by a very heavy sadness and a great tiredness too, as if all these debates had happened repeatedly in different tongues, with slightly different cultural inflections, but ultimately to the same effect. Perhaps I had let the contestants speak for too long without interruption, and had once again profoundly failed in my task, which was far beyond my limited abilities.
I turned to the audience, my lectern gone. My task had always been alone, and unique I expect, but I won’t be able explain how that parliament decided to come to such a disturbing consensus without telling you a little more of this infinite sadness. Suffice to say that the incidence of you reading this account is not mere chance. No word or thought must survive of this, and these words will be the final testimony and message of our zone before I close it.
On account of my stoicism and due diligence and discipline for the task at hand, I became responsible for overseeing the collectively-agreed closure of the afterlife.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you heard the three contestants, what do you think? In a moment, you’ll have the chance to vote. Should the after-life be closed and immortality ended? Has eternal consciousness been beyond the limits of our souls endurance? Has the manager made a serious mistake in even conceiving an afterlife. Fingers on key-pads…”
The key-pads connected to nothing, and no-one voted, and no-one was there to count votes or clap or cheer or cry for shame or anger. Through consensus, it was perhaps agreed that the infinite would be annulled, shelved, postponed. The intense and breathless claustrophobia of this space abated, to the point where only souls who did not desire their own end remained, til they to began disappearing, their vain clinging to their apartments taken with them, echoing under bridges, in cellars or abandoned houses, where they still continue their lives as inconsolable spectres.
The young man came forward, the last of them all, and wordlessly, conveyed this song.
That Moon’s abandoned, like myself and my laughter,
But let’s just pretend for a moment that there’s peace,
That we can burn, so willingly and lovingly
Becoming fire to each other.
Love is not apologising for tears or silences,
The clay died, what’s left to be done
For the spirits of mere pots?
But we doubted, like the manager and her dark star
Permitting lies, the god-hawkers reported
That circumstances change with time’s passing,
When time itself never passes.
Through love and deeds, I learned nothingness.
And everything that now eludes me is nothingness.
Take it back now, sweet fire I never knew.
How had we come to this point?
It was only years later that I could return to begin to make sense of these things. I say years, but time is just a metaphorical concept in these parts now, as basic and impossible as a god, or the existence of omniscient shadows orbiting the stratosphere. That god we had feared had been of our own making, a devil of sorts we had done service to in those lives of ours, supped on hunger, beatings, and cheap mysteries. Had I not such a venerable and well-regarded responsibility in the collective restructure of the post-life period, I scarce would have bothered telling you the sorry story of our collective self-termination.
With the advantage of an eternity’s reflection, my life had contained little worth re-examining. I had known the laughter of my children playing in the streets outside a small suburban townhouse. My hand had written and signed deeds in languages like French, Russian, and possibly Latin, using words now even more absurd for their fetishised regional inflections. People often congratulated me, but in them I only saw the image of my schoolmaster and father humiliating me in front of my older brothers, and that success did not feel valid. I had known my wife deeply, had first come to distrust and then love her simple heart, had found domesticity in the punctuality of Sunday evening love-making, in her fretting over the one aspect of control she had in the upbringing and morals of our seemingly-wayward children. With age came both an uncomfortable combination of a heightened need for romantic comfort and love, and an increasing callousness in obtaining it. Affairs became intense, distressing but ultimately boring things, as both parties realised there was no remedy to escape the scorch-marks of past mistakes. I was like the others, one man and no man, knowingly devoting my life to a name that would disappear within a generation, preserved only accidentally in the names of hospital wards and libraries within which my accountant had deceitfully pressed the firm’s profits into.
The moments after my physical death came like awakening from a long sleep. Not conscious of crossing the threshold between dropping off and dying, I awoke in the space after life, infinitely passing. Like the eye that can never see itself, nor never know the edge of the horizon.
The first sense that everything that we had come to expect may have gone awry came at the river-crossing, where a suffocatingly large group of huddled figures, seemingly cloaked in the same coarse-cut cloth of brown and grey, groaning and grumbling together in the most pathetic fashion on the edge of a long harbour. Dock-side and restless, boots dragged over the barren muds and sands, soles crunching over mountains of broken crab-bits and oily fishes choked up by the seas. The atmosphere was fevered, humid, the air humming with an earthy sourness, like wood-rot in abandoned mushroom-picking sheds. Maybe some epidemic had ravaged their former homes, and these refugees now sought little more than a gentle place to collapse? The ferry-man had not come, had not been known to have ever arrived. Perhaps we were waiting in the wrong place? But it was too late to move forward or to move back, as the figures continued to assemble under a dirty dull-blue sky that seemed to become one with the ocean.
But even those murky waters contained some other life like that of women and men, grasping at the surface of the water before submerging back into the sub-currents. This tide-scene shifted continually, its features and figures temporarily magnifying and oscillating to the centre of my extremely disorientated ‘sight’, before shifting away again, as if in a kaleidoscope of memories. It was here that I first came across the first of many paradoxes of the post-life period, and perhaps one of the least difficult to grasp, which I will attempt to recount to you now.
A man without face or form told me a story of a wanderer. The wanderer had long left his home and had travelled through unknown lands, finding bread and shelter in the teaching of riddles and seditious doctrines. A president had asked him to summon the devil: under threat of death, he had relented, composing his usual shadowplay of glossolalia, light-trickery and street-magic. But in some rip between chance and absurdity, the devil did indeed creep out of that grotto-scene and took the form of a burning fire, impossible to comprehend without lasting blindness yet compellingly lovely to see, blinding all of the spectators in the grand council assembled in that huddled, smoky assembly, and the president with his long black moustache and pointy accusations.
The devil then took a more familiar form to this wanderer, who had always invested superstitious significance in the form of the goat-man, as had many of his culture. For the pleasure of summoning him, the wanderer had already been punished – had he not already known? – to wander for infinity, desperately clinging for pathetic emancipation in some enlightenment that would take him to the end of one long dream’s journey, and into the beginning of another. An infinite chain, which he must pass through for eternity, that is, until he could discover true faith in the credulous belief in the devil’s double, God. For aeons then this wanderer desperately did all he could to know the innocence of faith and love of God, prostrating himself before the altars of deities of all hues, shapes and caprices, but at each point he was reminded that this task was only guaranteed and instructed by the vanity of such a vocation. His burden was infinite knowledge, and with that, the capacity to judge and administer lives. With that weight, the wanderer was condemned to journeying through an infinite corridor of dreams, to the point where even that first detail of the wanderer, his meeting with the goat-man, just seemed another detail from another dream, sandwiched between lives as equally lustrous and luckless as all that preceded and exceeded it. ‘Who will announce to this sorry wanderer that here is the end of his journey?’ I replied, after a long silence between the two of us. ‘You would have to tell him that’, and with that, the man disappeared.
There was unrest at the harbour-side. Some demanded compensation, others, mere release. The narrative of guilt, worship and absolution still dovetailed the frames of comprehension. Although we had each probably long abandoned our expectation of ever realising or being released from the ultimate object of our desires, we had at least expected some promissory note or some bread and circus distraction. Finally, came a visual means of interpreting our situation.
I was inside a small lit bathroom unfamiliar to me, a probable feature of some deep-placed memory, facing the reflection of myself as an elderly man. I ran the taps and went to splash some water on my face, water which I couldn’t feel, and which ran through my bones. I looked up, and saw my thirty-year-old self confidently splashing water against its cheeks. Outside the bathroom was a small beige room with fairly archaic interior fittings. My wife was making love with my close friend, whose name now escapes me, a scene which had affected me deeply at the time. My children were fighting, scratching and pecking away at each other. They could not hear me, and I could not hear them. I picked up a solitary brochure from a desk by the door, which seemed to suggest some kind of hotel, but in my hand the text disappeared. On the back was titled a note of apology:
THE MANAGER REGRETS TO INFORM RESIDENTS THAT HE WILL BE AWAY FOR SOME TIME. ALL INQUIRIES SHOULD BE FORWARDED TO THE RELEVANT DEPARTMENT, VIZ. SEE OTHER SIDE. ETC.
On the other side of the brochure was the same message, again. I went to return the brochure to its place when it at once became a key, which the locked door refused to give back after insertion. To the left and to the right were corridors which proceeded without pause for an incomprehensibly exhausting direction. Small doors of each chamber faced each other, with figures opening these doors in both distances, figures too small and inscrutable to properly attend one’s focus to. All I could tell was that each had a grievance, a story, like those in the chamber I had left behind. And had there not been another entrance opposite the one I had left, on the other side of the children? And immediately I knew that that door would open onto another corridor like this, with fairly archaic interior fittings of varyingly dull and translucent hues, and an ever-expanding caseload of unanswerable questions by figures one could neither focus on nor distinguish between, each wanting to similarly realise what was most improbably possible and at the same time probably impossible, happiness, in spite of themselves. I collapsed in tiredness.
I awoke in the hotel lobby, where a young man was wordlessly addressing me, his animated eyes communicating some happy and very important message. His hard brow and raised cheekbones glared towards me, commanding me to check my appearance in case of shabbiness. I looked down to find my body had disappeared. “Now you are beginning to be able to see things”, I heard, “as they are.” I went to reply, but wordlessly we both instinctively agreed that anything I might say would be unnecessary, and certainly counter-productive. He continued: “the manager has left behind instructions that a man like you be recruited to solve the problem of misery, given your knowledge of worldly things and their passing.” But my suspicions were later confirmed, that they had captured the wrong man, but had lacked the will to reappoint my brother, he who had counselled souls into death and might’ve known something of this after-life. Still, I attempted to proceed with the task at hand with due diligence and discipline.
My first task was to comprehend the infinite scale of the after-life. Although the manager or one of his team seemed to have generated some clever equation to ensure sufficient capacity to accommodate all residents, there had been no strategy to address the welfare of the residents, provide some kind of activity programme, listen to their feedback, or provide information on other activities outside the hotel. I had begun to voice my misgivings about the hotel’s mismanagement when my investigation was consigned to just my room again, where I had to work with the background of my bickering children. I had no means of summoning witnesses other than randomly dialling numbers on the hotel’s room-telephony system and summoning whoever answered and could understand my tongue. Those that were then able to find the room had never seen that brochure nor anything else I had described.
The atmosphere of the hotel felt always cold, breathless and stifling. There were the souls of all ages, some arriving, some ancient. To most, the languages we had spoken and images we had established our mental worlds upon were unknown and alien, a cause of mutual suspicion. The most common exchange between souls was that of shriekish heckling. For those that spoke to me of their grievances, a common experienced emerged. First a welcome state of immaterial bliss, one’s memories endlessly replayed, close and soft, filigree etchings around forms so wondrously beautiful to mentally conceive of, all flowing into each other and becoming one matter, like mind but feeling intensely close. That state of infinite delight would not last.
One posed in beatific reflection, of the kind performed perhaps by only a handful of prophets, embellished and brought to life by a mendicant’s hand. Few could manage. Without body, experience was mediated through the nerves and not through the senses. It was confusing at first, but soon one learned how to ‘feel’ and ‘hear’ what was nearby, but the inability to distinguish individual forms meant that the basic cooperation, feedback and social reinforcement of communication became frayed. What had once appeared as a hotel or dock-side had become something far more queasily cosmic. The intense proximity of other souls sparked resentment over privileges unfairly bestowed by the manager towards them and not us – arguments would erupt about whose afterlife this was, and whether it was heaven, nirvana, valhalla, or some biochemical effect of permanent neurological bliss in the mind of a higher being.
The manager had not yet returned, nor did return of any kind seem likely. My notes from the investigation continued to disappear, and I could not be sure if it was my elderly son or elderly daughter who were eating them, or some conspiracy of the two. Gazing into that bathroom mirror at the reflection of a forty-five year old Freud-looking figure, it became clear to me momentarily that when provided with everything it might need, man could not be possibly sustained by abundance. Idleness gave way to crime. Plenty gave way to greed, or to a compulsive and insatiable gluttony. Possession gave way to rivalry and war. Happiness, to the terrifying prospect of having no point to fear, no past to regret, no brutalised memory of famine from which one could then, momentarily, concede happiness. The human was not built for it. Personality, memory, desire, were all premised on lack, deprivation, and fear of punishment. The deferral of happiness for an after-life had been a gross miscalculation.
I did not have any solution to this matter, but when finally permitted to leave the war of my chamber to speak with the commanding figure again, I felt some sympathy for the now weary-looking boy, who distractedly picked his years and adjusted his sleeves as he glared at me. For his benefit, I generated some half-truths about an intrinsic flaw in human nature, that could link together these god-fearing Latins, war-loving Teutons and pill-popping Yanks. “Most interesting,” he finally replied. “And what do you propose?”
Later, an unsigned note had been pushed beneath my door,
I felt the uncanny intuition once again that this instruction had been delivered to the wrong destination, or that there had been some great delay in the arrival of this message, which on second-examination had become an unpriced menu of items that could be ordered from room-service. I fretted for several days, standing over that leaflet until finally I relented, and unlocked the door beside my children, who were now pointing ballistic weapons at each other, and my wife, who was weeping most grievously at her own looking-glass’s reflection. The menu became a key, and the door gave way to a long black corridor, its only exit – the faintest twinkling of a silver circle – facing me in the far distance, which I proceeded to follow for some time, but without ever getting closer, until after some hours I turned to look behind me, to its black nothingness, and then ahead of me, which was now too just darkness, until I could not be sure which direction I had first travelled towards, or if I had ever been travelling towards a direction at all. In the far distance, I could see again something, the faintest particle of a silver circle, like a very distant moon which, with an immediate shift in focus, became a white ‘on air’ cue-card. The parliament had not long been in session.
The audience sat in tightly-packed rows on a single stand facing the open arena, seemingly apprehensive for some kind of performance. The young figure from the hotel lobby was with two others, perhaps older sisters or brothers who were much uglier, and without word they pushed me towards the centre of the stage, which featured a colourful small lectern, which in turn faced three numbered desks behind which figures also stood. I couldn’t make out the text behind this lectern but it was most probably the name of the performance, given the overweeningly filigree fancy script. I could make out only the first row of the figures, who were the usual collection of physically shape-shifting spectres glanced in the hotel, none recognisable. Some figures hurried through the crowd and out to the front and lifted up more cue-cards with green ticks painted on. The audience erupted in cheering, whipped on further by the dancing and clapping figures.
What did they expect of me? Had I not already done enough? The lectern was even smaller once one was standing next to it, and what had seemed like fine mahogany was in actuality a flimsy paper mache effect. Upstanding on the lectern was a large glass tablet, on which lines of words continued to roll down, seemingly matching whatever phrases the dancing figures were shrieking at the audience.
My reflection now stood self-pitifully proud in the bathroom mirror of the empty apartment.
For a short time those unending hotel corridors were empty and silent, and I was able to stroll along them until I tired. However I had inherited a kingdom whose dimensions and laws I did not know, and I was unable to cease the equation that meant that after a time, new souls arrived, with the same new old doubts and wars raging within them. I was able to persuade these to congregate for their own safety in one apartment, which I was then able to lock, after which, after tearing around in the hotel’s plant room, I was able to smash the electricity power, which from thereon prevented the entrance of new beings. The explosion created a rip in the room. I fretted for a long time, until finally I chose to venture through that tear to the other side, which was a place much like that I had known alive, a small late-modern London suburb, whose dimensions realistically correlated to the laws of physical space, rather than carrying on in vertiginous circles of infinity as I had long known. I was as ancient as sand, able to see and preside over decisions of death and doubt that the lives of towns like these contained.
There must not be any repetition of that blissful suffering known after life, do you now comprehend? I closed that portal behind me, and determined to teach this world not of the after-life, but of the pleasures of destroying the self in servitude and collective hedonism. But I found few adherents to my ideas, reproduced occasionally in fringe publications of seditious or esoteric doctrines. I wandered for many years, vainly attempting to study the problem of human nature and writing down my story, of which this version here is just one of many accounts, all of which vary in circumstances and details as my limited memory and confabulation permits. Now, in this hotel quite like any other, with archaic interior fittings, I write these words again for the benefit of no man. The women and men of the era claimed that self-abandonment would not feed their children, and in their misery demanded justice, demanded witness, demanded compensation for every crime and insult against them. And who was I to deny them that afterlife? And if only it too would now allow me to return.
They must not understand that there is nothing more desperate than the space after the end.
A “print-out-and-keep” commemorative tale inspired by the late jobcentre plus in Camberwell.
A not-so-young man gingerly approached my desk. His eyes darted below and to the sides in an attempt to avoid eye contact with his destination, but soon he realised there were no features for one to be distracted by in this office.
I did not address him. He sat down in the chair provided. I clicked through my emails in a self-important manner, but these I had already read through some hours ago. I then scrutinised him intently. What a weasley scrounger. After some moments he laughed nervously, and took his dusty black suit blazer off. “Warm, are we?”, I announced. He nearly jumped out of his seat.
It was necessary to keep the candidates on their toes, otherwise they got soft.
“So, Mr. … W-”, I began, getting his case file onto the screen. “Ah yes, the client with the PhD in semiotics”, I looked up to express my disapproval, but he was gazing at his fingernails. “Well, I had a Marxist geographer in your place a few weeks ago, and he’s now happily working as a customer services intern for a major insurance firm’s call-centre. I take it there’s been no success with your job search?”
“No, err, I’ve been applying for this and that but…no luck yet”
“You’re not looking in the right places.”
“You’re being unrealistic.”
“But I have a PhD, that’s why I’ve been…”
“Have you tried teaching?”
“Err, yes, to postgraduates, when I…”
“How was it?”
“Well… they didn’t pay much attention, and they just wanted to repeat the same old clichéd student crap on Marx and Nietzsche….”
“Very well, this will be just right. A secondary school in south London requires a teacher.”
“Well, if it’s in philosophy, which I very much doubt, then…”
“It’s to be a teacher in misery.”
“Well, I don’t know if I could do that…. I hate children….”
“I’m not a morning person…”
“Not a problem.”
“I don’t think they’d listen to me…”
“My doctor says I have an alcohol problem. …I drink and I feel guilt, but I have to drink, to cover up the increasingly all-pervading sense of worthlessness and failure of my life, all the missed opportunities, wasted potential, and failed relationships. Day by day, I feel like a little bit more inside me dies….”
Finally the nervous candidate had begun talking with some animation. Clearly his own misery was a subject he’d be able to inspire the school-children with.
“Perfect. I have here the job description. It states,
‘Today’s young people are boisterous, naïve, excited about all life’s possibilities, and keen to take their place in driving positive change for tomorrow. This is not realistic. We therefore require a semi-skilled candidate who can train the young people for a life of draining and dull work by condescending, mean bosses. We need a candidate who can inspire the students to spend all their time working on computers simply because they cannot imagine anything else to do with their time. We all know life is not easy, but the young people will struggle after they leave school unless they can expect not to be paid for working, that settling for second best is ok, not to burden tax-payers with their costly anti-depressant prescriptions, but to find happiness in buying things on credit, and not to bother the government or corporations with their selfish and unrealistic demands for a better quality of life. The main part of the teaching workload will involve using a blackboard to write exercises from a textbook, provided, which will be the basis for lecturing the students for their idiocy, obstinacy, and bad behaviour. Enhanced CRB disclosure required.’
I think it matches your CV perfectly. Shall we call them now?”
“What have I told you Darren! Read the board: W . A . S . P. – no walking, asking, speaking or passing. Shut up Nathan! Put that phone down! I won’t ask you twice!
“Sir, what are we supposed to be learning today?”
“Right, err… today… we’re…”. At last, he found the right page in the textbook. “Today we’re talking about the future! We’re talking about expectations, and we’re talking about realities.” He wrote the three words across the blackboard. So, hands up, can someone tell me what they expect after they finish at school?”
Hands shot up. He selected one of the less disruptive boys from the back. “Get a job sir, get some money and buy a car and move into my own flat, innit”.
“…Get the ladies round!” said his neighbour.
“Yes bruv!” he replied. Their clenched fists knocking together in friendship.
“Very well. That’s the expectation. But can anyone see any problems with that scenario?”
Silence for a moment, then finally a dissenting voice from the back. “Craig’s a batty boy though, AHEM!”
The class erupted in hoots and laughter, tables banging and pieces of paper flying across the room.
“Be quiet! Does anyone have anything intelligent to say?”
“Craig’s too retarded to get a job though sir, no lie!”
The classroom went into frenzy. He could hear the teacher knocking against the wall disapprovingly from the adjacent classroom.
“Shut up! Now, Jonathan has a point. Craig expects to get a paid job that’ll give him enough money to rent his own flat and buy a car, but that’s not realistic. Now Craig will get some GCSEs, though probably not many, or not as good as the boys at St. D–‘s. He’ll look to get a job, but, what’s this? There are three million people also looking for a job. And who knows how many more millions working part-time or on temporary contracts, also looking for jobs? So Craig won’t get a job, unless he works for free. That’s just how it is. And because Craig will need to work for free for at least a year, he won’t have any money to buy a newspaper, never mind a car!”
And here, for a moment, Mr W.- allowed himself a chuckle, before continuing. “Now, because Craig doesn’t have any money, no-one will want to go out with him, will they? And his mum and dad will get sick of him, but he won’t be able to leave, until finally he acquired enough photocopying and coffee-making experience to get a very simple part-time office apprentice job.”
“My brother’s got one of them!” said another boy.
“Yes, you can get a paid job if you work very hard. But let’s carry on. And from that, he’ll work for a number of years, perhaps also working in supermarkets and coffee chain-stores to supplement his wage, until finally, around middle-age, he has a middle-manager job where he gets to hire and fire other interns like he was, many years ago.”
“Yes mate, hiring, firing, and perspiring!” cheered another boy.
“Yes… and, err…. Craig might be married, he might not be, but either way, he’ll be fat and depressed, and if he did get married, he’d probably be divorced soon after. That’s just the way it is! No-one cares about anything. Nothing really is interesting. People don’t change. None of you will become better people or more interesting people. Most of you won’t do anything significant with your lives, except add more to the general bill of human suffering. There isn’t a future out there, that’s what being realistic means.”
The classroom was silent, Craig was entirely subdued. Finally Nathan interrupted the weighty mood: “Sir, is that why you teach here then?”
The classroom resumed back to its usual atmosphere of heckling and chaotic disorder. “You got told sir!” “Sir, is it true you’re a paedo?” “I ain’t gonna be no pussyole like that”. Chairs and pens began flying around the room, some hitting Mr W- directly.
“You’ll see!” he said, quickly retreating out of the classroom to find the Deputy Head, his arms vainly shielding his face from the artillery of exercise books.
A not-so-young woman came gingerly approaching my desk. Her eyes flickered below at the smartphone in her hand, captivating her attention with unknown images, to the point that she almost fell over into the seat in front of the desk.
I did not address her. She sat down in the solitary seat provided. I clicked through my online purchases in a self-important manner, before scrutinising her intently. What a misguided oxygen-waster. After some moments she asked if she could take her jacket off. “That’s a nice coat, did you steal it?”, I announced. She nearly jumped out of the seat.
It was necessary to keep the candidates on their toes, otherwise they got soft.
“So, Ms … Y-”, I began, loading her case file onto the screen. “Ah yes, the client who thinks she’s an artist.” I looked up to express my disapproval, but she was gazing into the space above my left shoulder. “So, you’ve been busy exhibiting your work. It says here you have an MA in Graphic Design. Ah yes, and that for the last three years you’ve been doing various different internships at arts organisations across Europe. Very proactive, Ms Y-, but it’s not realistic.”
“Please,” she murmured quietly, almost inaudibly quietly, before clearing her voice, and speaking louder, continuing. “I’m in so much debt. I can only afford to eat one meal a day. I’m having to borrow money for prescriptions. I’ll do anything, please.”
“Don’t fret. I had a sex-positive feminist activist and part-time substance misuse counsellor in your place a few weeks ago, and she’s now happily working as a sandwich artist for a major supermarket’s bakery. I take it there’s been no success with your job search?”
“Not yet. I’ve had a few interviews for gallery assistants at different places, but I don’t want to do anything commercial…”
“You’re not being realistic about the job market.”
“I was thinking about doing another really great internship with…
“a community arts foundation…”
“At this rate you’ll make yourself unemployable. Now, how about advertising?”
“Well, I once promoted a friend’s show with posters and twitter…”
“That sounds more like it. I have a role that’s just come up from a West End advertising firm. It’s paid. They’re looking for creatives who can help develop leading concepts and sales solutions for their clients in the fast food industry…”
“But you’ve got to be really stupid to believe anything those adverts say…”
“Yes, that’s right. Good answer.”
“But I don’t know the first thing about food.”
“But isn’t it a bit…unethical?”
“Aren’t you being unrealistic, Ms. Y? Do you not want money for prescriptions? Now, here is the job description,
‘Do you have the wow-factor? Can you KO clients with communications that show oodles of style and pizazz? We seek advertising creatives who know that some bogus stats, infantile cartoon characters, racy innuendo and soaring indie landfill rock are all really great ways of selling produce. In today’s tough economic climate, the challenge of getting people to buy what they don’t need and cannot afford is even greater. Survival of the fittest! So if you’re a money-motivated self-starter who just needs a brief and a budget to sell sand to the Arabs and snow to the Inuits, then we want to hear from YOU! Payment is based on performance and successful meeting of targets. Candidates must be prepared to also work evenings, weekends and holidays, family funerals etc., as per necessary.’
The young woman looked pale. “Well, I guess I have been a bit unrealistic and a little self-indulgent about my career. And I certainly could put together brand packages…. if I can market Anarchist expressive body art to hipster Dalstonians, then selling fried chicken to retarded mums and dads from Liverpool and Lancashire can’t be that hard…”
“That’s more like it! It’s not every day I see a go-getting candidate like you, Ms. Y-! Let’s give them a call now!”
The clients, two sales managers representing Dollar Fried Chicken, were directed from the wide open-plan office with its sweeping London views, rolling news and playschool-coloured furniture to a private meeting room. As they entered the meeting room, clutching onto their complimentary cappuccinos, they were greeted by Ms. Y- and Charlie, a not-so-young brand manager whose lenseless glasses and checked shirt were a vain attempt to conceal a growing beer belly and the usual effects of ageing.
Now suitably awkwardly seated, Ms. Y- clicked her presentation on and began the pitch. “Okay gang. Let’s talk about ‘Project FeastNight™’.”
The two sales managers cooed and rubbed their hands.
“Ok, Charlie, can you give the clients the skinny on the initial brief. Shoot”.
“Thanks babes. So you came to us to talk about how to expand the market for your extra-large meals to new demographics. You were worried that parents and some journalists might object to the very high salt and fat contents of these foods, and the ethics of irresponsibly marketing to children – what we call in the business a media cock-block.”
“Lols Charlie!” Ms. Y- continued. “So we took the extra-large meals and gave them a brand overhaul. What we’re talking about is FeastNight. Simples. You take the four extra-large meals and establish a brand partnership with a leading comedian, actor or sports star for each meal. Personalise the boxes. Then you market it to the comfort bracket. Take a look at this 30-second ad we’ve put together.”
Charles switched off the light, and the clip began. A leading stand-up comedian, known for his somewhat salty and blue humour, is seen walking running down a high-street, chased by a gang of ethnic minority children dressed as vegetables, covered in flies and dirt, as well as an old-fashioned looking brass band playing a dreadful though somewhat catchy tune.
“Ironic, huh!” Charles sniggered.
Suddenly, a piano drops on the roly-poly comedian, and it looks as if our salad-dodging hero is done for. But inside is a former children’s television presenter popular about a decade or two ago, dressed as a butler, who serves the comedian one of extra-value FeastMeal boxes. Then another well-known comedian’s voice booms over: “Need to refuel! You deserve a break! Join the FeastClub!” His voice is immediately followed by a somewhat weedy but fun-sounding trumpet parp.
Here the screen changed to a hovering perspective of one of the extra-large meals in a large cardboard box, the fried chicken, chips, apple pies, doughnuts and chicken wings all piled up on one another with an almost rustic flourish. “Every day there’s a different Feast to try!”
The next screen showed a big group of primary-school children laughing and eating away, supervised by a couple of middle-class looking mothers. “Treat them today. And if you’re under the age of 12, buy one FeastMeal, get the second half price, limited offer now on, only at Dollar Fried Chicken! >”
The final screen, lasting no more than a couple of seconds, flicked back to the comedian inside the piano, who is now holding the Feast box, whilst the butler next to him titters and shakes his head in cheery disbelief. “Why not?” says the portly pub stand-up, in a very silly voice.
“>Why not? That is the topline message that the FeastClub meal conveys”, said Ms. Y-, switching the light back on. “We’re challenging the audience – tell us why you shouldn’t eat far more food than you need. And if anyone replies, ‘because it causes obesity and heart disease’, we outmanoeuvre them with the ‘Gag Defence’ – it’s supposed to be funny, it’s ironic, if you criticise it you miss being in on the joke and are therefore very uncool.”
The two sales managers were spellbound by the pitch. They had this one in the bag. Later that afternoon, she’d pair up with Charles again for another presentation for a major high-street betting shop. They’d put even more work into the superhero-themed antics of the ‘Have a go, hero!’ online poker campaign. Although the job still offered no securities, the boosted income now meant that not only could she keep buying the latest gadgets and afford even more prescriptions for anti-psychotics and tranquilisers, but she was now able to live fifteen minutes closer to her workplace, though once more still struggled to pay the rent each month.
A not-so-old man came swaggeringly approaching my desk. His steely-blue eyes darted not below or around but dead towards me, with the commandeering leer of a man unfamiliar with disapproval.
As he landed on the solitary chair provided, with the grace of a great bird plummeting from a migratory height, he slapped his palm onto the desk. One of his thick silver bands clacked with a peculiar trill. Using his other hand, he rolled his smartphone from his inside suit jacket and slapped that on the desk, the phone falling and bouncing onto my keyboard. “Oh, ever so sorry”, said the man in his expensively-bred voice.
I did not address him. After clicking through some of my Facebook friends’ profiles, I turned to the man and scrutinised him intently. Little Lord Buttfuck the Shareholders. But he returned the glare, until I called a truce and switched on the electric fan. “It can get rather stuffy in here”, I finally uttered. He folded his body back into the seat and gave me a look of disapproval, as if he had been tested to a draw by an inferior opponent.
It was necessary to keep the candidates on their toes, but some were more easily intimidated than others.
“Mr… S.-P-.”, I began, loading his file onto the screen, which presented a rather unimpressive history as an investment banker. “Now, according to this, you’re not looking for any work at all. Is this correct?”
I raised my eyes to express a look of disapproval, but he had beat me to it, and was probably fantasising about inserting sharp objects inside my intimate cavities.
“Look, Mr….” and he craned over to read my name-tag, which was in fact blank. “Err… I make money. That’s what I do. I don’t work, and I never have done. I pay other people to do that for me.”
He snorted like a goat, as if the word work were as scatologically-suggestive as plaiting one’s anal hairs.
“I meet people every day who don’t wish to work Mr S.-P.- Now, according to your record, you’ve primarily worked as a … partner, and an…. investment banker for S.-P.- & Sons, and before that, at various other investment banks, it seems.”
“I’m done with that”, he replied, brushing away the suggestion with his hand.
“For what reason,” I replied, typing in my own name into a more obscure internet search engine, to compare results.
“I’ve played the game. Played it very well. Got bloody loaded for a while. I was the UK’s 14th billionaire under the age of 25 once, bet you didn’t know that. But the game eventually played me, because I played the game, and the game plays those which plays it, play to win… umm… You know what, it was because of people like you. Little bureaucrats with their little desks…”
By this point, he’d picked up my stapler and had begun rapping it threateningly against the edge of the desk.
“The nanny state nearly stifled my entrepreneurial spirit with an unpaid tax bill and some chumped-up charges of gross mis-selling and fraud, which my father’s lawyers were fortunately able to settle out of court.”
“Does that mean you still have a clean criminal record?”
“Oh yes, of course. The only people prosecuted these days are chavs and hoodies who can’t afford a good legal team. But, the settlement does mean that I cannot have any involvement with financial services.”
“What are your views on politics?”
“I have none.”
“Very good. Do you profess to have any ethical or religious beliefs?”
“My one vocation is making money. I’ve never given a thought to anything or anyone else.”
“Perfect. Now, what are your views on the NHS?”
“Filthy beds, nurses who can’t speak English, incubators of diseases in the feckless and workshy underclasses…it’s a socialist sham, political correctness gone bloody barmy.”
“Do you enjoy any sexual practices that might be considered deviant or indecent?”
“It depends what you mean sir. I sometimes do enjoy a bit of dress-up with a couple of dirty escorts…”
“What do you dress up as?”
“Well you know, errr…. officers from the Waffen-SS, that kind of thing? I like the escorts to dress up in those stripy blue-pyjamas like the whatsits used to wear, though I prefer it best when they play camp guards, and give me a ruddy good hiding…”
“Yes, that’s quite enough, thank you. From what you have just relayed to me, I think I’ve found just the right opportunity. Have you ever thought about going into politics?”
“I don’t know the first thing about politics.”
“That’s not a problem. This is the job description,
‘Can you persuade a captive audience that the sky is green and the grass is red, in total sincerity? Could you then persuade that same audience that the sky was in fact red, and that you had never said it was green, and that only lunatics and political-correctness-gone-mad would say such a thing, still in total sincerity? If so, we want to hear from you. We are a very prominent media and infrastructure conglomerate that seeks a representative of our commercial interests in national and international government. Candidates must be confident communicators and networkers, able to immediately suss and indulge whatever mirage each demographic wishes to hear. Connections to major financial institutions and journalists, preferably through school or university, are essential to succeeding in this role. The successful candidate need not possess political views of their own, but must be able to consistently represent the interests of aggressive entrepreneurialism throughout the echelons of civil decision-making and policy. This is a customer-facing role, dealing with a potentially hostile electorate: experience of plying gullible and self-centred groups (e.g. shareholders) with greedy incentives and appeals to maudlin sentimentality (morals, patriotism, etc.) is essential and we will expect previous experience in this area. Although we are an equal opportunities employer, we are only recruiting candidates from a white British male background who have been privately-educated and have attended either Oxford or Cambridge university.’ ”
A wry smile had crept up onto the side of his face, beneath his buttoned lips. “I suppose it could be a possibility,” he offered, after a few moments silence.
“As I thought. Let’s give them a call now”.
The press room of Q.- MediaCorp was now dangerously full. Beneath a palisade of microphones, the MP could see a small army of interns arrowing about, attempting to persuade journalists at the front to part with their seats in order to accommodate more reporters into the room.
The MP for Thorpeswaite and West Cumleigh had become something of a ‘rockstar figure’ in British politics, and had charmed much of the apathetic electorate. His aristocratic brashness, cheeky contempt for parliament’s ‘bureaucratic bobbycock’ – his term – and his almost mercenary approach to flogging the interests of large corporations and financial institutions had won over hearts and minds. Here at last that here was a politician who could be trusted, to the sense that he made little effort to conceal his untrustworthiness – “we can trust him about that at least, that’s honest of some sort!” was often the feedback reported from focus groups. In particular, he had consistently advocated for the Q.- MediaCorp, which had first funded his electoral campaign into a safe countryside seat, followed by an aggressive promotional campaign which had smeared his rivals to the point where he was parachuted into the role of Energy Minister in the current government. Rumours circulated, usually via Q.- MediaCorp channels, that he could be the next Prime Minister.
One his PAs approached him from behind the stand, he could never remember her name, but she had a great figure. Pert. Absolutely lovely. She was fretting about some complaint by one of the local constituents about their right to die from some dreadful condition. He brushed her away with that same gesture of her hand. “Can you sort it”. It was much easier having the secretaries run the salons and business of the constituencies, as he later boasted at one of his expensive dinners.
The MP had successfully obstructed a Commons bill with a rambling four-hour speech. The rambling series of generally unrelated peregrinations and autobiographical anecdotes had often bordered on farce, forcing the eventual end of the session, causing a scandal. The press were already calling it ‘Ballsgate’ on account of his frequent use of that offensive term. “Balls in a tea-cup!”, he announced.
A bill had proposed to set up an independent commission that would establish further committees, staffed by impartial experts, to effectively re-regulate financial services, property and currency transactions, as well as media and information fairness. “More quangos! More red-tape! Not in my name!” he shouted again, a bead of white froth gathering below his lower lip.
He was repeating the slogans from an ambient media campaign his team had used with a popular West End advertising agency, which utilised revolutionary-looking street stencils and a viral video game to attack red-tape and monstrous bureaucrats. “Simple. Rip a new orifice in the liberals, and fuck them into unconsciousness.” said the young marketing woman behind the campaign.
“Sir, does the torpedoing of the bill related in any way to Q.- MediaCorp’s proposed buyout and takeover of the BBC?”
“Pure coincidence. Next?”
“Sir, footage was leaked out yesterday that recorded you selling lands across the country to an international luxury property construction firm, land which had previously been used for school-playing fields, public parks, and former nursing homes. How do you respond to charges that you’re just a stooge for big business?”
“The era of top-down government Whitehall dictatorships is over! Next question!”
“But sir, those lands were sold without prior consultation or even official approval.”
“I have no memory of that. I will request my lawyers investigate. You?”
“Ballsgate has seen your popularity spike ten points higher than the prime minister. Can we expect you to stand as leader in next year’s election?”
“It’s certainly something we’ve been considering. That’s it, thank you!”
After the press conference, the Rt. Hon. S.-P.- was dining that evening with the head of a major petrochemicals company, some favoured journalists and MPs, and a couple of advisers. “You’ll be leading this country by the next summer, I count on it,” said the oligarch. “How do you do it?”
“It’s just like banking. All I do is sell other people’s property at inflated value to my friends, and I get away with it. Money is the only real thing. Eventually everyone, even the doubters, believes that. You know what I say to my liberal critics? I say ‘that’s fine for you to think, but who can disagree with power?’”
“Money, what else could there be?” laughed the oligarch, shaking his head.
I have a short story in the new Omen edition of Stimulus Respond. ‘On Paper’ was written as part of a double, the second being ‘Doilum night’. Yes it’s weird, and still a little clunkily written, but sadly I can only write like this. There are more out there, more I hope to publish in other places, but it’s the main kind of writing getting done at the moment.
Texting unlovely acquaintances, online shopping, visiting the less salubrious meat dispensaries of the city: all appropriate activities when viciously inebriate. But poking, tasting, and bringing to the light the mould of your mind online? Oh no. Here’s an appropriate story instead of others. It’s the second part of a story, but can be read separate in any case.
On paper (reprise).
[n]ot the person I wouldve been
“That seat, is it taken?”
There was no reply at first. The figure was sat alone on a bench, its oversized grey overcoat concealing either a man or a woman, of late middle-age possibly, with an intense, possibly fecal smell, and beneath thick grey hair, eyes wizened and furious that gazed intently on the conversations of ghosts. Only the black Labrador guarding the figure’s overstuffed trolley bag had acknowledged the polite request to sit by the young woman, who had been standing in the housing office for at least an hour now.
“Yes yes, yes”, came at last a hoarse, impatient reply.
Crevice-skinned, paranoid, these thin night-dwellers who had been calling themselves Papierists had been conspiring and plotting heady visions throughout the summer. The unusual skin complaints of many city residents were reflected in the built environment’s strange transformations according to a spectrum between decay and chrysalis. Increasingly incongruous and unrecognisable estates and malls, semi-occupied still, had experienced an unparalleled bloom of buddleia, bindweed, dandelion and other wild flora. On the outskirts, the number of hiding places were increasing, as organic matter reclaimed not the public parks, which were still meticulously kept in their primary and secondary colours, but in the old high streets and closed down libraries and leisure centres of impoverished locales. Matching the dirty violets and reds of the flora, new skin conditions mapped themselves on the faces, armpits and groins of residents unable or unwilling to seek remedies, causing the eyes to swell and become red, the ears to take brown hues, and the arms and legs to develop insatiably itchy patches of raised skin. The working-class suburbs were at times overwhelming by an viscerally pungent odour from these wild plants, sweet and rich like marijuana yet nauseating, painful to the eyes and difficult to breath. The air often hummed with it, transported by the winds. Superstitions festered and began to flower in the cracks between hope and reason.
Caught in a hyperopic eye like Keira’s, who had known a successful, ‘normal life’, with a son, who had taught God and the Devil to nervous school-children biting their fingers and whispering away in the schools, none of the above seemed of immediate consequence. These fools who had forsaken their gods and occupations had forgotten that a person’s first loyalty is not to their destiny, or to their true self, but to the hand that ministers them food, that points them to shelter, that commands them to fight or struggle in the name of the hand that ministers, lord, king, fuhrer, or God. Like a dog or any other mammal, like Doilum, her faithless yet greedy companion, who accompanied her when she sang in the street.
She only knew about four songs, or really three and a half – the chorus and bridge of U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ was usually sufficient. Her singing style was hoarse, sincere, she used to enjoy singing Sandy Denny and Joan Baez songs in her past life. Having the dog definitely garnered some sympathy and tourist’s interest, as well as the fact she was one of the few female street entertainers on that stretch. “You gotta roll with it, you gotta take your time…. thank you very much sir. You’ve gotta say what you sayyy don’t let anybody get in your way … thank you m’am, have a nice day now. So come with us, we’re here to stay (is that the line, ah fuck it).” Rooted by the trees and benches opposite the Royal Festival Hall, on a good hour or two Keira would make about a tenner in silvers and change, but she could spy only five in the guitar case, by which Doilum sat glumly. Her fingers wrapped around the stolen acoustic guitar, covered in a student’s finger grime, and she reached another bar chord. I remember back in ’66, in the government yard in churchtown … observing the lunatics … thank you sir …. and the good people in the street, altogether now … no woman no cry! This one’s for me son … no woman no cry! From a severe-looking family watching in the distance, a boy came forward to drop 50 pence. Some Dutch tourists were watching and clapping. Everything’s gonna be alright! Everything’s gonna be alright!
They were conspiring and plotting heady, vicious visions in the city that summer. Keira had slept in the cellar of a derelict pub, creepy enough to prevent other superstitious wayfarers from disturbing her and trying to steal, and once it was light enough the next morning she worked her way out up the staircases and across the glass and split tables strewn across the bar-room floor. The hypnotic drone of a drum machine or dance track looped continually in the early morning from a nearby sound-system. Outside, the urban backstreet bracketed into two contrary directions, where to her left pogoed a solitary boy, possessed by the beat from the upstairs part of the pub still, eyes disappearing into the back of his head, feet stomping against the playground in some substance-induced Saint Vitus’ dance. No older than sixteen. “You got a cigarette miss?” Three golden bows of dawn light heralded her right, a chill wind, the street full of parked cars despite much of it semi-occupied now. Doilum and Keira found a supermarket. The security guards had at first attempted to refuse entry to a dog, but Keira feigned blindness. That greedy Doilum had got distracted when they were leaving, a child of a anaemic-looking mother was pretending to have biscuits in its hand for the dog. Come away now. It was only when a bottle of milk fell out of the waist of her long-skirt as she hurried out that they were found out.
“You greedy bastard Doilum!” She crouched down and slapped the dog, who whimpered obediently. “Bad!” But this was always happening, and hungry Doilum was always eating most of their food, taking and not giving, the worst of all the sins, like the bankers, “Bad!” Another slap fell against the dog’s back. But despite the blows the dog was not learning, he would just keep on doing it, using her, using her up, like all men, the filthy, selfish bastard! “That’s enough! That’s enough! You cannot be kicking and hitting your dog in here madam, it’s against store policy!”
The security guards attempting to take her beneath the arms, but the small boy who had pretended to offer the dog food ran forward and ran its hands around the Labrador’s soft fur. “Poor doggie!” he cried, and began to wail. She had already raised her hand, ready to pound the dog a little harder than before, now starting to get into her element after just a few practice blows – the school had complained she hit the children too hard, but she needed to, it was the only way they would learn, it was the only way Doilum would learn his lesson, like Pavlov, when momentarily she saw not the dog and the boy crying, but a single figure, in a grey cloak like hers, vertical, ready to say something, a man, but its face concealed by a white mask, as if its head were being plaster-cast. The man looked up at her and over her, through her. “Death to the gods that made us”, words she heard momentarily, spoken in her own tongue, but from the man, Doilum. The security guards finally managed to pick her up beneath the arms and shoved her out. “I’ll sue that fucking crazy bitch!” screamed the mother.
Peel away the layers of comprehension, the layers of experience, and beneath those, the layers of memory and of feeling: Keira had discarded most of the unnecessary clutter of her psyche. She wandered through the evening in search of something to eat, Doilum limping behind her. She was tired and didn’t have the energy to walk all the way to the central train station cafe where she used to like drinking coffee all day. Exhausted, she sat on the raised step of an old churchyard, stuffed with anonymous poor, diseased whores and plague dead. Pages and pages of some old maths textbook were pasted against the church walls, over the windscreen of a parked car and adjacent recycling bin, and further down, the skeleton of a payphone booth. Someone had painted over the pages on the wall in thick black marker-pen DEATH TO THE GODS THAT MADE US, with two letters at most per sheet of paper. There was no moon that night, and without the light to guide them, the quiet streets were teeming with the forms of the dead, short figures, faded and unfathomable complexions in mean grey garments, hurrying hither and thither along the streets, great hoots of laughter and shouting rumbling through them. Their difference to the living was hard to state with accuracy, aside from that they had a kind of washed-out appearance, as if somehow out of focus, or wrapped in a thin sheet of cellophane. Their sadness affected Keira deeply in her heart, that last place where memory had been reluctantly permitted refuge, and she could not help weeping at their attachment to these cynical places, their vain attempts to reanimate and influence a history that was already written far ahead into the future without them. There was nothing for them except the repetition of their lives and habits, their children now passively repeating the same cycles of reproduction.
Doilum sat by the trolley-bag, coolly unaffected. The gold and silver hues of the street-lights and overhanging corporate high-rises began to intensify, a chill wind sweeping away all the pages into gutter and across the deserted street. In the distance, a pair of figures were arguing by a wall. Great sheets of paper were flying about the place now, old newspapers and burst bags of rubbish too. One of the spectral figures had fallen and collapsed into the paper. Soon it too disappeared.
“Fuck off mate, I already told you, I didn’t know it was a no-parking zone here.”
A blue transit van had parked just in front of the large bin behind which Keira and Doilum had been asleep. The driver seemed to dumping lots of full bin-bags and a well-worn mattress by the bin. Clearly, local parking restrictions were in force.
“As a road-user you must agree to the local government restrictions on your driving”, came the reply of the traffic-warden, with a particular acute emphasis on every fourth or fifth syllable uttered.
“Who the fuck you work for man? The council ain’t gonna do shit. Whoa, get off me crazy lady, shit, I ain’t got no change. What is wrong with this city.” The man had possessed an uncanny resemblance to someone Keira had known well, not her son, but someone else, like one of these figures from her dreams. Doilum knew well enough, but he wasn’t talking now, he always got self-conscious and wouldn’t talk when other people were around. “Go on, tell them! Tell them what we’ve been seeing!” she shrieked, and went to bend down to hit the dog, who quickly scarpered away back under the bin. The van had swerved out in reverse, and hurtled down the empty early morning side-street. “Wankers!” came the driver’s final goodbye.
“What are you doing here, it is not legal for you to be sleeping here”. His gaze lifted from his hand console up to the side-street, to the Papierist slogans plastered over the low levels of the office block and the bin behind which the pair had slept. “You need to go to a housing office and be processed there.” It was starting to rain.
“You don’t get it!” she shrieked at him. He was shaking his head and gazing back at the console again, which didn’t seem to even be switched on. “People are disappearing! Listen! He’s seen it, he can tell you!” The last comment seemed to catch his attention. “Madame, do not shout at me. That is a dog,” he said with a smirk. “Well he fucking talks when he wants to, when he’s hungry, don’t you, you daft cunt!” she shrieked back, kicking the bin, beneath which Doilum was cowering. “He turns into a man with no face and talks about God, the cunt!” “Madame, you are not allowed to sleep here, whether your dog talks to God or not. Local government regulations forbid it.” Doilum had now skittered out from beneath the bin and down the road. “See what he does, rah. Have you got any food, anything at all? Please, I’m homeless, I’ve to get away from people, the people doing all this” Keira replied, the anger and passion from her voice draining away by the end, finally looking at the middle-aged man in his lean, almost handsome face. “Madame, are you responsible for this, the illegal fly-posting?” His fingers were now tapping away codes into the broken console.
Beneath an ironically semi-topless photo of herself pouting in a nightclub, Lauretta began typing her latest micro-blog entry of her London travels. I don’t know what I am doing. I look back at the excitement of when I was younger, and my home feels like it is under a landslide, between Western freedoms and China. My certainty about who I am, and what I wanted to be, is shaking. My soul is lost… Nothing feels right. I cry, alone. A girl kissed me at the club. Who am I? Is my name Lauretta or Lin-Hui? Lauretta looked up from her tablet device and took another sip of her latte. Outside the window, she could see some dirty vagrant figure in a long grey smock shrieking and swearing at a local policeman. A mangy malnourished black dog skittered past the window and into the tiny coffee store, and began sniffing around her feet. Do the dogs have rabies in London? She took a photo of the dog and quickly uploaded the second of the two entries to her blog. Already her first entry had started attracting comment. She searched and quickly found a quote by the lazily misanthropic Charles Bukowski, which she attached to a picture of a popular female film star. One guy from her English college had already posted back a Nietzsche quote. She began replying back when the angry looking vagrant hurried into the shop, shouting and trying to kick the dog, called Doilum, which was cowering beneath her stool.
Keira was authentic London. After buying her breakfast twice over, she began to talk to the shy-looking Chinese student, who wanted to film, photograph and digitally record everything Keira showed her. The two bacon baguettes had taken the edge off her paranoia, and Doilum wasn’t winding her up so much now. They found a bench behind Leicester Square and she cracked open a bottle of wine which the girl had bought. “I’ve not got an alcohol problem, I quite enjoy it” Keira said, quite sincerely. Following the Papierist trends, London’s built environment was back on the cultural map, but so far the mostly international middle-class bloggers had either been too lazy or unable to actually talk to find a real authentic Londoner to feature – until now. Keira’s alcohol quote had already been retweeted by a notably pompous English celebrity writer. It was so amazing how the homeless woman always talked and shouted at her dog Dawkins like it could talk back. But it was when Keira began talking really fast, that no-one even on Twitter could understand her, that people increasingly started to believe she too might be a prophet, in that one could hear almost everything and nothing in the inebriated trance of tongues she talked in, phrases congested and curled in upon one another. What she said, about freedom, about the men with white masks chasing her, about the Gods and the disappearances, seemed to bloom from the same subterranean place as the Papierists, and that was so goddamn cool -_-
It was remarkable how the Londoners had all kinds of slang words for things that were bad, like shit, or crap, pony, poxy, and so on, but very few for anything remotely positive. Even nice one suggested a kind of reservedness, a suspension of credulity, a withdrawal – nice for you, but please don’t bother me any more detail of it. Most of the vagrants at the food donations spot near Trafalgar Square were drunk and cursing loudly, complaining at the standard of sandwiches being shared out by suburban guilt missionaries. Lauretta was filming the event on her tablet under the real cool caption the crows of London. An investigator, McGinty, had messaged her. He wanted to meet Keira. Lauretta advised bringing some thing to eat or drink for both Keira and the dog.
Arranging the meeting was the simple part.
McGinty held down the Ctrl and Del functions, cursed the laptop, then administered a series of kicks and punches to the motel furniture. The intelligence community and the government had been taken by surprise by Papierism. Although it had never been theorised, to McGinty’s mind there had been a mass desertion in religious belief following the discovery of the death camps, the populations of the developed world too exhausted and demoralised by two world wars to conceive of anything except short-term escapism that took one’s mind away from the gruesome blood potlatch and transcendental guilt which overhung the West. Again, in which table of the standardised report would such a peregrination fit in? Yet there was no denying that the responsibility of explaining the unknown, and providing remedies for it, had shifted from priests to scientists. So who could come forward and explain the phenomena of the burning man?
He rubbed his temples and rested back against the solo bed, his eyes wearied enough by the peeling mustard wallpaper. The footage must’ve been faked somehow. Yet the figure of the burning man had induced online hysteria. Unlike previous self-immolations, which were already increasing to a problematic extent, this burning man didn’t ask for sympathy: the global poor were too hungry and cynical to sympathise with anyone’s poverty except their own. His statement was that of a man. His prophecies were texts, disregarded and discarded pieces of paper, once stowed away in local archives by a post-literate generation, but now dusted away and forcibly inserted into the cracks of everyday life. They were simply inexplicable: perhaps that was the first point of provoking unrest. Everything up till now could be explained, and was explained rapidly, and repeatedly. The burning man was protean, his ‘prophecies’ emerging across the cities at any moment, long after his disappearance. Nature was a force, and energy that, when harnessed and applied in the correct way, could be unlocked by the truth-containing text. Life therefore had some value in potential, in an inner animation surplus to economic requirements. This therefore linked the burning man, the images and graffiti of the stick man and the flames, up to the cult popularity of ranting prophets, often vagrants in a state of narcotic or alcoholic exuberance, talking in tongues to cameras, out of which thousands of comments soon appeared interpreting their meaningless glossolalia into timber-shaking utterances.
The city was like dry paper, ready to burn. Yes, there were potentially a number of equally valid causes for Papierism. Despite its endorsement of physicality and the reclamation of urban spaces, its influence was primarily online. The inner city suburbs were rarely cleaned any more due to long-standing council spending cuts, and so the incidence of random pages and phrases being pasted or painted on disused buildings made little difference. Its significance was occult, not political, expressing some repressed need for bodily instruction and domination in the sickly urban residents. There was talk about climate change creating the vicious blooms of wild flora, former leisure centres and schools becoming like greenhouses of monstrously oversized wisteria, cow-parsley and knotweed. People had been going missing for years. Perhaps some of it could be explained by unrecorded suicides – like other mammals, when a colony was in decline creatures would lose their fertility or willingly end their own lives, through reckless conflict with others or through a more intentional choice. It didn’t matter, the people going missing weren’t people that mattered to important people. It was just life, like the weeds that hadn’t been cut back, like the striking factory workers in China secretly culled like cattle by their middle-class communist overlords. Some life mattered more than others, it was as simple as that.
Why didn’t they bloody get it? The traffic below the tenth floor window was thinning out as rush hour ended. Why bother. Most eras had their mystery cults. The arseholes would probably end up closing down the cities, shooting the ‘ringleaders’ (and here he kicked the radiator beneath the window again), and collectively punishing the rest through some embargo or other deprivation. “There will be vices as long as there are men”, he remembered his former Director telling him in their last performance assessment review. McGinty had since been on sick leave. Officially, this report hadn’t even been commissioned. His freelance colleagues in the British intelligence community had more or less abandoned him as a crank. But, all the same, he felt there was something potentially significant and explosive in this reclamation of the physical text. This rejected, negated life – this was what was reacting most viciously in these sorrowful suburban streetscapes. And it was all so damn easy, so boringly easy! He could hear a man and woman groaning and banging against the wall from the adjacent room. Even they would get it! Was it not peculiar that the new working-classes, mostly immigrants, had so readily adapted belief in a man who was claimed to be the son of a God, who was forced by his father to die in order to absolve the world of its ‘sins’ – and his church in which man’s worst sins have since been perpetuated in its name? Wouldn’t a new figure come around? The paper, the wild flora, the skin conditions, the near-universal occurrence of mental disorders and hysteria in the long-term unemployed in these ex-industrial territories, all signified to McGinty’s imagination a collective reaction to abstracted, digitised economies. Landfill sites were willingly poisoning agriculture, caught in the recent images of tyres, bathtubs and broken VHSs bursting beneath swollen strawberry fields. Oceans overwhelming coastal towns, destroying the derelict high-rises which had once been inhabited by holiday-makers from Fordist countries. All this life had become surplus to the production of wealth, now abstracted and digitised. But how was he supposed to write this in an intelligence report, not just a memo? Nothing could be clearly discerned or verified by any number of reliable witnesses. His eyes began to mist over, as if they were rapidly calcifying. He took a glass of water over to the bedside table, switched off the light, and poured the icy fluid over his face.
He wasn’t nervous about meeting the woman from the Internet. She was most probably insane, but could have some accidental insights into the Papierism and some of the new urban disruptions. He found Lin-Hui through her GPS, filming a filthy assortment of hobos and heroin-addicts by Charing Cross station. “It’s great going upwards”, uttered one middle-aged junkie to the camera. He began bending over backwards, slumping to his knees, hugging a lamp-post in a vain attempt to remain upright. Surprisingly, as the rotten reprobate fell into McGinty’s leg, he could see beyond the grubbiness a good quality suit on the man. There was a traffic of besuited bankers further up the street, streaming from Coutts bank into waiting taxis. McGinty was assessing the scene: a real security nightmare. He overheard one banker passing nearby talking on his phone, who in his speech managed to underline some phrases and place others in apostrophes, with a highly grating effect. “Listen big boy, YOU WANT THE SKINNY ON THE AGM? It’s a no-brainer. Those ponced up little pricks want heads rolling. We showed them the money and asked them what colour bog-roll the Pope brings when he goes for a number two in the school playing fields. COMPRENDE?” After brief introductions, and handing the case of dog biscuits, cigarettes and whisky over, Keira interrupted her silence to suggest they go to talk in a nearby betting-shop where no-one would care to hear them.
“How can you be a fucking investigator when you ain’t even got a badge?” The guy was clearly a prick. Doilum was just sitting there doing nothing, as always. But the guy had paid and he wanted to hear what he wanted to hear. “Paper babies, I’ve seen them. Plagues: have mercy on us. My heart could just burst with the sadness of carrying all these ghosts in its pockets.” Keira began weeping again. He felt she was causing a scene, and so after a couple of minutes he insisted that they get up and start walking over to Speaker’s Corner, where they could talk without fear of being recorded by any devices. He hadn’t even thought that Lauretta would be streaming everything live straight onto her blog.
Hideous clouds had become ensnared on top of office-blocks and street-lamps just ahead, the dawn’s golden bows giving away to the cast-iron melancholia of a cool overcast evening. Keira had a fondness for Speaker’s Corner. In a past life she had taken to the soapbox as a member of some left-wing faction she could hardly recall, but in these days it had become an easy place to steal from tourists, and this promised to be a good night. The area was fizzing with crowds desperate for easy answers, some even recognising Kiera from Lauretta’s Hamlet in London blog. Placards of the burning man were carried by angry, anonymous-looking figures. A teacher-looking scruff man struggled to shout loud enough for an impatient audience. Unused to being listened to, it took his fourth or fifth sentence before he finally made his point clear, by which time most of the patience in the audience has been exhausted. He explained that due to ‘unforeseen’ effects of atomic and anatomo-physical experiments, a reaction had undone the temporo-spatial fields that structure reality, largely assumed to have existed but lacking sufficient evidence to have ever been fully theorised. Time is layered, and these layers have become unstable. This had caused different exposures of time to overlap. Spatially, this caused the collision and combustion of materials relocated in recent times.
“I don’t even read fam! Fuck that shit!” punctured the audience’s distracted attention into sheets of spiteful laughter.
If the field wasn’t restored, unlikely given it was never properly understood in the first place, then earlier and earlier time periods would appear, or rather interrupt, the current. The spatial disruption would be devastating, never mind the psychological effects. The audience were unimpressed and annoyed at the length of his presentation, exceeding well over a minute. What are time layers? Why did this happen? How do you know? His inability to speak in plain certainties confirmed the uselessness of knowledge. The crowds found more satisfactory answers to their worries in the buffet of catastrophiliac conspiracies and hate-mongering on offer that evening.
Whilst McGinty gazed into the yellowy-eyed professor’s direction and Lauretta filmed the scene, micro-blogging Keira’s eerie utterance about ghosts in pockets, Doilum collided with McGinty’s leg, almost tripping him over. “Yes, lad!” Keira erupted. And in a dash, she’d pulled up McGinty and, in the process, pocketed either his phone or wallet, possibly both, the slow cunt. The crowd were surging forward to get a better glance at the humiliated teacher. Someone was heckling the man, and another had begun to tug away at his jacket. Keira and Doilum stole the moment’s opportunity and disappeared swiftly.
“What have you done to me, you fucking bastard?” came a woman’s voice from a second floor window above, one of the few still lit on the terraced side of the street. In the blue window, the outline of a man paced across a damask-flocked wall, until his stick-thin figure filled the bare window. His naked chest was covered in small red sores, with scratches and bruises on his back which now rested against the window. “It’s nothing baby girl. If I hadn’t given it to you, you’da just got it off some other feller anyway.” The nocturnal silence that was Keira’s alone returned once again, except for the scrape of her trainer-tread and trolley-bag wheels against the asphalt, occasionally kicking into a discarded lager can. The air hummed with dog shit. Doilum was quiet and brooding over some ill-omen, he was probably missing the on-demand access of treats from the Chinese girl too.
It was very late and the park seemed empty, though over the fence she could glimpse through the branches streams of paper hanging down, the red sky ministering its word through these Papier emissaries. “I don’t know why you’re complaining, Doilum. We can’t change what we are.” He looked up, and with his eyes gestured over the fence, which was assailed with difficulty, and for a while Keira had to untangle her impaled overcoat. When she turned around to face the perimeter path and the dark trees beyond, she could see that those awful wraiths had reappeared again. Great shrieks began through the trees, disembodied and scared. At last, Doilum had the nerve to speak, and took back on his familiar form of the long shadowy figure in grey hood, the man wearing the white mask.
“Have you ever thought to consider that the ultimate expression of natural perfection is not mankind? Instead, rising temperatures should be celebrated and accelerated as permitting new and bold expressions of life.”
“No Doilum, you bad bad man. I won’t allow it. The ultimate quietism!”
“Anything that permits life is beautiful, and that might not be humanity and its industry, which for the last century or two has posed the greatest danger to life.”
Deeper beyond the first perimeter path, the park increasingly hard to navigate through, the red night’s glare and the surrounding street-lights increasingly unable to penetrate the untended and overgrown thickets. Doilum had fall away somewhere behind. There was some answer waiting ahead of her, deeper in those unknown groves, that would unlock every past moment of her life, allow her to correct all that now blurred as bad histories – her parents, that holiday, marriages, work, words, breakdowns, words, words, all of that rubbish. She scaled a small fence and waded into dark waters, the cool tide never reaching more than knee-high, the grove-island ahead.
“A man is made, not born”, said the wind behind her. The spirit of the burning man was here. What did spirit mean? And yet they had always talked of it, the ancients and the analysts. Beneath a tree appeared a man in a long grey-coat, not like that of Doilum’s but her own, like a smock, his long grey-brown hair and dark brown eyes, her male double. “Only man and woman made me”, she replied. “The air is alive with it, don’t you feel?” said the figure, its words disembodied and swept swirling round by the wind. The figure stole behind a tree, the one tree that seemed to reside on the islet. Keira ventured closer, to the empty tree, and to the small shrub there, and below, beneath all the words and inscriptions carved into its sorry bark, a great pile of blue, brown and red hardback books, and the prone and unconscious body of Doilum the dog, and sat squatting, mobile phone in hand, McGinty. “So you want to do something about the misrule of men?” he said, mischievously.
There was a look of total confusion. It was him; it was her. Four years hadn’t changed much to the face of either. Did he have a piercing, or had he ever had a piercing? Was her hair a lighter shade of red? Sit down, or stand up? Hug, or kiss, or too forward? Shake hands?
They uncomfortably hugged over the breadth of the table. He used his rucksack as a pretext for breaking it off, and sat opposite her. Her pretty silver notepad worried him. He looked stressed and distracted, carrying that slightly tortured and punctured air he always had, like those who have unwillingly had some sad event foisted on them which they now cling onto responsibility for long after. His wrist-watch made him look more grown-up than she remembered, though that was undermined by his patchy post-adolescent stubble. His grey eyes fired about, at her fingers, at the menu, back at her face, at his fingers, restless. He was still handsome, though not quite so as before, something had changed, though he would never tell her what.
“How was the journey?”
“Painful” she replied, revealing a well-rehearsed awkward smile. “I could not smoke for three hours!”
He started, and then stopped, before starting again, with the least audible of all bumbles, “painful, I imagine”. She was still beautiful, only a little older, the gentle and patient way she articulated this alien language suggested a kindness and a gentleness that was hypnotic. Beauty was still hers, in those greeny-blue eyes, her light face, that slim figure. His eyes briefly met hers before searching, in cold panic, to some other discernible distraction. No, no, I can’t look, things are over, everything’s changed, it’d be wrong. He caught sight of a irritable old man at the other corner of the café, ponderously rolling a cigarettes. He focused on him for a few moments, before returning his gaze to her hands, those spidery pale fingers he remembered.
After the awkward silence passed, she took it upon herself to initiate conversation, something she was not in the custom of doing. The same thought had crossed his mind.
“Did… did you recognise me still?”
“Ha, no, you first!”
“Yes, of course. How could I forget?” he smiled with a cheeky look, then frowned. Mustn’t come on strong, no. “Yes, you’ve not changed much. Well no, a little, maybe … your hair’s a bit different, have you lost weight?”
“Ha ha, nice turnaround! Have you seen my arms, I’ve been inked…’
She extended her long thin arms across the table, for a moment her knees knocking against his, displaying a mixture of sailor-type images, a ship in a bottle, on the sea, some pin-up type girls, a heart with an axe through, all with some non-English fine script woven in between, covering up most of her skin. The script intensified around her wrists and under-arms, taking the shape of waves like a calligram, but enough to still see the ladder-work of scars. Would he guess which one was about him, or for him? Or would he just keep gaping with that confused and lost expression?
“Nice, nice… looks really smart.” Her body felt so thin, but strong, lacking that vulnerability it had before. She’d grown up. He looked up and smiled. “You look really well. It’s good. It’s good, you know… it’s good to see you again.”
He’d emphasised the again, and that was ok, but it was only half of what he really meant. What if he’d been honest and emphasised the you, it’s good to see you again? And more than that, it was lovely, it’s more than anything, no, too corny. Ok, what about I’ve really really missed you? Would that be ok? Or not, because that made it sound like she’d just gone away before, like she was sofa-surfing around, when really he’d driven her away, and not because of some silly heart angst, but because of a selfish miscalculation, but one despite that, he couldn’t regret?
She smiled back. He still had something about him, like an air of trouble, but it seemed more frayed now, like his spark had become jaded and self-inflicted. His eyes, buried beneath high cheekbones, were still dark in appearance, but with the addition of a thin reddish line around his eye-lids which made his expression seem even more distant and slightly mental. Has he got into drugs? “You’ve not changed much either! You still look like you’ve been living on a diet of cigarettes, sleeplessness and booze!”
“That bad eh…!”
“No no. A lot of girls go in for the cute lost-boy look.” She gave a silly wink.
“Hah! Well you know, I stopped smoking actually, but I still drink, a lot, but not so bad as I used to be. No more blacking out…”
He picked away at his fingernails, which were neatly bitten away. This whole situation felt really weird, but already kind of nice, kind of natural. Are my feet touching hers? No, nearly. He could smell a very gentle perfume. He could feel himself hard, turned on by that same perfume she’d worn, but relaxed still. The caff-owner in his striped apron was looking at them. God, she mustn’t get any sense that he still found her attractive. He picked up the small laminated menu but there was nothing particular that he wanted.
It was oddly natural being with him again. He wasn’t as hot as she had remembered, but there was still something about him, that had her thoughts drifting back to being in bed, and the way that he murmured her name while they fucked, she’d asked guys to do it since, to say her name and pull her hair like he’d done, but hadn’t been the same as that first time. Maybe he hadn’t changed much. Maybe the horrible parts of him could be peeled away, or quarantined. Maybe cured. Maybe he hadn’t meant to hurt her, it had all just been an accident, or even it hadn’t’ve happened, and a magician and a brass band were going to pop into this poky cafe in a moment to announce all this. Surprise! It was just a test! You’ve just earned your right to a happy life now, bravo! That’s enough suffering collected in sadness points, please now redeem it with a faithful, caring and honest love!
If so, it seemed hardly the place. The waiter was gazing absently at them from the counter: they should really order something. But here, at this point, it felt like everything was paused. It was late afternoon, yet the overcast skies and autumn rain, the damp and empty cafe, it all felt like it could be four in the morning, like when they first met in that garden, and talked about their lives, what they’d known. Maybe there is a future. That’s what she thought then. Future now? How long will this pause last? How long before she had to return back into this world of roaming for a home forever receding?
The waiter politely approached in the usual circumstances. “Can I get…. um…a large espresso please. You have skimmed milk?” “Yes, skimmed, semi-skimmed, soya, even goats milk!” he said, smiling with an affable glint at the pair of them. “With skimmed milk please”, she smiled back. “And for you, sir?” “Oh…um…can I get a…umm…”
Bollocks. Must pick something.
“A caffe ristretto?”. The waiter’s cheery expression suddenly clouded over in confusion and inner turmoil. After a moment, he cleared his throat and spoke in quieter tones, “it’s very small, and strong, what they drink in Romagna, sir.” It sounded fine enough, but his disapproving cautiousness suggested he’d be making an erroneous choice, like an Englishman cannot, or should not, be allowed to access black coffee. Where the fuck is Romanya? Why couldn’t they just have a machine in nice places like this where you put your money in? He still hovered above, disapprovingly. Something straightforward then. “Black coffee then.” “Large or small Americano sir?”, his worried expression showing no sign of relaxing. “Small black coffee please.”
The caff-owner disappeared to another table, where a group of international students were noisily trying to attract his attention for the bill.
His begrudging politeness was so awkwardly enacted it seemed the very essence of Englishness. If only he could see how funny it all was. She was smiling at him, with a look that was deeply generous, almost forgiving. “I didn’t even want anything!”, he said, with a laugh.
“So…are you in the city for long?”
“Just a few days. Staying with an old friend.” She looked away. “Look around, hang out for a bit, see some bands, get drunk with a minor member of the Royal Family, you know…”, and she looked back. “And you? Are you still living in the city?”
“Err yes. I never moved away.” They were quiet again. She was looking intently at him, her expression more steely. “I’m doing my degree in London, […]
The noise from one of the nearby tables obscured what he said, but he was speaking into his collar with such quiet tones it was hard enough picking out anyway. But there wasn’t any point in asking him to repeat anything at this stage.
“And you know, of course, me and Julia moved in not long after she became pregnant…”
“Yes, you’re a dad. How’s that?”
“Fine, fine. Louise is learning to talk at the moment. The nursery say she’s doing really well for her age. She’s crazy, causing mayhem where she goes. She’s even taken to riding on the dog. No, really well, it was a surprise, you know, but it’s worked out really… ok. It’s one of the nicest things surprisingly, being a parent. Makes you very boring of course!”
He was smiling again and shaking his head gently, some stream of images flooding his downward gaze.
It was an expression that was impenetrable, and the temporary shelter established together in this sweet-perfumed grotto of a memory had again disappeared. He’d only told her long afterwards that Jodie was pregnant after he’d spent that night with her. That act of infidelity, however drunken or confused or whatever he said it had been was, it ended them. The child just added more weight to that. But something good had come of it, something that was naturally good and not premised on pain, and maybe what they’d had before had been so unnatural. But nature’s shit, a blank flag for anyone to ink their colours into. He was talking away about his life, about his daughter and his partner, and he looked happy. And she was rootless and roaming. She remembered that final day in the city four years before, the last time she’d been there. Wandering around with him, but something was wrong, and he wouldn’t say what, until the very end. All that time, not saying anything, as if by not saying something you could somehow froze it in time and prevented it from having consequences. She didn’t even shout at him. It was unforgivable. And that final day on her own, walking around the city where they’d been, where they’d first known each other. They’d been men she’d loved before and after, but this one had really hurt. Going away to get him off my mind, work it off my mind. Always on the move, living out of suitcases. He was asking her something.
“What’s that sorry?” a grave and serious expression had taken over her face.
“I said, ‘and how about you?’ ”, he said, with a nervous smile, attempting sympathy with a liberal dash of condescension.
I haven’t got any fucking kids, Callum. “Ok yeah. I’m not a mum!” She felt like looking at him pointedly, but the appetite for confrontation, something she normally enjoyed in part, restoring the balance, wasn’t there. “I was working back home in a record shop for about a year, that was fun, and now I’m at uni too. I want to write screenplays, but really, I have no idea what I’m doing!”
“That’s ok, neither do I.” His phoney expression from earlier was fading away, revealing a face that looked more tired, like as when he’d first wandered in, confused, not spotting her at all until she called him out.
“Who does. You think you do and then you don’t.”
The coffee arrived. She continued. “I think it’s part of how we live now. We’re roaming, we’re rootless. The way we work benefits capitalism…”
“…It prefers workers to be rootless, no contracts, no security, moving around to fulfil demand, working for lower and lower wages with no attachment to where they work…”
He agreed entirely. He’d written anti-capitalist pamphlets and more since then, but it’d never been much of a feature of their relationship. Talking about it reminded him of facetious and pedantic disagreements over doctrine in paranoiac squats and dreary pubs. Of people like him and who knows, perhaps like her too, who hoped that a political transformation would solve their personal problems. “Have you moved around then?”
“Yeah a bit. Different cities – Berlin, Glasgow, a few towns around Sweden. Marseilles, Turin, Geneva. Frankfurt, now that was dull…”
“I like Glasgow. Boy can they drink!”
“Hehe! Sounds like good times.”
She was fingering the silver ring in her right hand, while with the left she sipped at the strong coffee. When should she give it back? It was not hers, it had never been hers, when what it symbolised wasn’t hers, and wasn’t even his to give.
“Do you write at all, still?” she asked, more quietly.
“Yes, but I haven’t tried to get much published.”
That was his excuse. “I self-publish a lot, in little magazines and home-produced books I make.”
“Umm-hmm, so no-one will ever read it, right?”
“Yep, that’s the plan! Not sure who’d choose to read moody and cryptic little stories anyway…”
“I’ve worked in a bookshop, and believe me, a lot!”
“And you? You were writing stories too before, I remember.”
“Well not so much stories, more articles, some autobiographical stuff. I had a few things published online under a pseudonym, until a teen magazine back home picked them up. They’re a bit more ‘literary’ over there, haha!” she said with a smile. “…So, reluctantly, I agreed to do a series with them, about two years ago. Ok…”
With this, she pushed her long and thin frame forwards, her hands pressed towards Callum, ready to pitch.
“Imagine now, what’s the most corny, gay-sounding title for a series of autobiographical articles about issues, experiences, desires and disasters that a fair young lady like myself might encounter, living in an era of late capitalism?”
She was laughing and smiling, her expression different from earlier. It was so pleasant to see the transformation. He wanted to stay longer and longer.
“Ha, I don’t know…umm… “Chihuahuas, Chanel and Chelsea tractors: the ennui of an independent woman?”
“Haha, no no, much worse. Some experiences, some stories, bundled together, of course I can’t imagine you would heard of it, it wasn’t very cool…”
It was finally at this moment, and for this moment, that he could feel some intense flickering within that brought him back to her eyes, fluttering langourously by a window, by a bridge, by a night with its distracted and hopeful faces, when he realised that this could not just be some insignificant affair. Do his best or not to forget her. Her mouth fluttering again with giddy nerves and charming self-deprecation, her words washing over with the beauteous meaning of her. Touching her arm and back again was like connecting with some dark and sexy current that charged manically between them. He nearly fell off his chair.
“The Temple of Mithras. They were autobiographical, of course, you know, but with details changed. Anyway, it was a hit with a particular audience, and they ended up publishing the pieces together as a book, which is now getting translated into German, Finnish, some others…”
“Congratulations, I guess! Did you get much money out of it?”
“Probably enough to cover these coffees!”
Would she mind asking? It didn’t seem so. She was all happy and sad, one moment her hands running against her long hair, the next her arms folding her thin frame inwards, her colours changing continually. “And do you still cut, Agnes?”
With a very quick clearing of throat, she matter-of-factly responded. He could imagine her having to update her doctor or therapist or whoever she went to see in this kind of formal voice. He missed the first part of what she said. “…but despite that, I’m better at the moment I think. Things have been ok for about a year now.”
Why was he asking all this shit, like as if he was immune from it? Fine, he can hear things like everyone else does. There is no special place for him or anyone else, just the world and I, the world against me.
Love will make you drink and gamble, make you stay out all night long
But Billie Holiday didn’t have the choice. Her songs are all about being a victim of love, and of taking these lousy unfaithful men back.
Love is just like the faucet. It turns off an’ on.
“That’s good to hear, really…”, he murmured in place of a sincere reply a moment later. Who trains you for these things?
They both stared into their coffees.
He could no longer clearly remember how they’d met. Memory always feels like a film capsule that is only allowed perhaps one or two exposures, before it becomes corrupted by contemporary environs, becomes confused with anachronistic or wishful details added or subtracted to the picture. He’d thought over too long about how they’d met in the past, to the point where those happy scenes in the past haunted every conversation and scene. We were like two of the same kind, our moods and our movements, like the last two of a forgotten species, mostly silent, but in a sexy way. Hands always off and on each other. But we were just kids.
Seventeen’s not kids, she thought. He’d said shit like that in his letters later, the letters that she now carried in her rucksack with the ring she was also to return to him. Seventeen is when your apprenticeship in life, love, sex, and self is in full throes. So at what point does it become too late to unwrite bad habits? This, perhaps, she would love just to chance to ask to someone. But all roads led to fucked-up exes either of the past or of the future. It was all so wrong.
What was it about her? She was of course, most obviously, very attractive, in an intense, subdued, compelling way. He wanted to know her, but ordinarily would’ve been too shy to introduce himself or some matter of conversation, had it not been for the plentiful amount of alcohol around at that small party, where, in the garden, he heard her talking to her friend about music, who would later turn out to be a relative she was staying with in London, and a mutual friend of his friend. And he interrupted them, because at that point they happened to be talking about one of his favourite bands…
He was a bit drunk when they’d met. He rolled out into the garden with a cigarette in his mouth, talking about this band he was in. He seemed like a bit of an arse but kinda cool, anyway, they got talking, Mel probably could see they liked each other, as she left them to it, and the more they talked the more they got on. He was a nice boy…
But she was unhappy, you could just tell. And that was the bite. That sadness he wanted to salve, he could feel all the pain in her, he could sense all the love that she needed, and he wanted to be one to give what she needed. So it is that sadness often first attracts young lovers to find refuge in each other, and to project all the confused, rootless, positive qualities in themselves onto someone else, with such hope for a life no longer alone, but shared with someone else…
She’d never believed in love at first sight, but there was intense attraction and lust, and that was far more real than all the abstracted and tragic descriptions often given of love. You grow up feeling alienated and alone from being a child, from the security of your parents and their lives, and all that longing and angst might well be some genetic component that kicks in to force you out into the wild and rootless world, to increase your own chances of genetic propagation. All that makes it sound so straightforward. But no personal development is ever simple. And rarely is it simply a case of just lust or sex…
Yes, that was it. Every conversation seemed leaden with distrust, cold mockery, and cynicism. For once, he wanted to put his trust in her, perhaps. So he’d asked her, ‘how’s life?’ That was it, so simple enough…
No-one had ever asked her that before. And that was how they’d ended up talking for most of the night, until Mel insisted that they had to go and catch the night-bus, and they made sure that they’d meet up again the next day. It was sweet how he’d followed them to the bus-stop and they’d kept talking…
The following afternoon they’d spent walking around and talking again. For a long time they’d sat at a riverside bench by the booksellers, facing the Thames. She had retraced her steps at numerous different points since to that bench, with its peculiar plaque, ‘Everyone needs a place to think’. She sit there alone and evaluate her life and where it was heading, with this alien river as her company, just as for a moment he’d been her companion. It was not home, but places like that were a kind of home, back in a time that she still had the power to revisit. But later, they were round at his, where they could drink easily enough. It all felt natural at that point. He’d not really been with girls before, and so when they first made out, he asked her what she liked, and what she wanted. She hadn’t believed that he was inexperienced for a long time. ‘I bet you say that to all the girls’. But she was so beautiful, and all her doubts made that a beauty without a hint of self-consciousness. If only they could have stayed within those first few days…
She’d always been uncomfortable with intimacy – for instance, she hated it when guys touched her without any kind of warning, and she didn’t like guys taking her clothes off – she preferred keeping control. Touching, fucking, she was ok with, but somehow it felt most uncomfortable and strange being completely naked with another, and making love. It was like she’d never been able to properly relax. But that was the first time where she had relaxed and found herself. It was the first time that a guy had properly made her come. She’d never been that open with a guy before, but in a different city, other things felt possible, like maybe she could move here and make a new start, have her chance at happiness…
They’d been silent for almost too long now. She’d come here to return his things, to say goodbye properly, not to just sit in a sad silence like this. There’d been quite enough of that.
“So, I have the things you wanted.” She placed on the table some CDs and a book he’d long forgotten ever possessing. She’d give him the ring at the end, it didn’t seem right now.
“And I have your letters here. You said some very beautiful things in them…”
She’d read through them a final time the previous day, along with all the mixtapes he’d sent, for the first time in at least two years. She wondered what she’d put on hers, or the cards she’d made, of those things exchanged between them over a one year-period after that first night, and then abruptly halted.
…“What did you do with mine I sent you?”
“I haven’t got them any more Agnes. I had to … get rid of them… there was no choice.”
Jodie had known about Agnes. They were just fucking, just friends. Nothing was ever said of that other thing, until it was pretty clear that there was never any such thing as just fucking. It was after she’d found out she was pregnant, when they had to take their lives far more seriously, and of course, he never said anything about contraception, that she discovered Callum’s letters, and evidence of phone-calls, and texts, and everything else. ‘Why did you think you could do this?’ Perhaps his first gesture of commitment was in burning all of those letters. He felt the soft skin of a ridge in his nose where later, extremely drunk at a friend’s house, he’d burnt matches into his skin, like everything else.
“Why does that not surprise me?”
She had prepared so well for all of this. So far, although it had been sad, every part of this conversation had been in some way predictable. But this last detail had tripped her up. Just how could he do it? Still?
She remembered a poem she’d seen on the city’s public transport system after the second time she’d returned to the city, six months after that night. That second time was horrible. Something had gone wrong so badly. It was only at the end that he’d bothered to tell her the truth she already knew: that he’d got lonely and got together with someone else, but kept both relationships hidden from view. How the fuck could he, when we were so good. It was like before but all wrong. Walking round in quiet sadness, hugs, holding hands. A letter at the end that explained, written on a piece of cheap and dirty coloured card.
I loved you once, knowing I would never be your lover
She found the source of the words later, by the poet Carol Rumens. She could quote Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Genet now… of nameless punk bands and blues singers, lyricists of the ‘fuck it’ school who’d been an aid since, I’m leaving here yo cryin won’t make me stay, but it was this line which took her back to this time. Perhaps none of it was especially significant in itself, except this was when she’d first meaningfully lost her naivety, in that cruel taste of bliss taken away. And though for a long while she’d blamed him, it was clearer now that this is what men were like, and what people were like. Like Billie Holiday, could she take him back? Looking sad and pathetic there, his lips murmuring away, attempting to justify why he’d set fire to all that hope. Was it not enough to break her heart, he had to set fire to it too? She couldn’t listen.
“Callum, why did you want this? What were you hoping to see? You fucked it up…”
“No, I let you fuck me up. I put too much trust in you, too much trust in anyone. It wasn’t your fault. How could you compare to my dream? I though you were an angel, but seeing you with her – isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that really why we’re here? – everything’s changed…”
Everything’s in between everything, displaced and rootless, wandering. She caught her breath.
“I won’t ask you, and I don’t think you’d know either, except like how it always is, ‘yes’, ‘why?’, oh, ok, ‘why not?’”
She was angry, but with tears in her eyes. It would be offensive to attempt to console here. Better just to hold it together, hold these arms together, until it’s over, until things maybe stop making sense again. But there was something kind of silly and sweet in it too, the way she’d dropped her voice in this kind of deadpan-mopey way to take the piss out of how he spoke, he was trying hard not to laugh, even though he was starting to get a bit wet-eyed too.
“Hey don’t laugh, don’t laugh, you hear me? You fucking asshole!, haha!” What use was there still being angry? It was all so silly, and she couldn’t help laughing too. She mock-slapped him, but did in fact hit him a little hard. He was laughing more and more, but he deserved it.
“If you keep laughing, I’ll read out one of your really corny poems!”
“Go on, I’d love to know…”
She skimmed through for vacant margins in his tight cursive. “Ok, remember this?”
She cleared her voice, and put on a thespian-sounding, deep-pitched voice:
“ ‘You and I, we fed ourselves on dreams til we were fat‘ … oh my God Callum… ‘and too full on this sadness to act on just dreams‘… I think I’m going to be sick! Ok, let’s see if it gets any better…. ok, here’s another, in your last letter actually. You really should’ve made it up to me in this one, I mean after all, I really liked you, and you went and cheated on me with someone else who you didn’t even tell me about, I mean, come on…”
The silliness and humour was getting more and more painful to keep up. “Ok, here it is: ‘Agnes, I have crushed both your soul and mine in attempting to cover up my lies. And there is nothing left of me except the world’s least acceptable sorry, and goodbye” ‘. At least you attempted a rhyme there, very good…”
As she read aloud those letters that he’d poured his pathetic doggerel and post-adolescent heart into, he remembered that time once more when they’d made love, two bodies in the night, hands mapping and discovering each other’s bodies, and how that had compared to the second time, and their final night together, just stroking and kissing her hair, holding each other, knowing everything would always forever be fucked in some capacity, like it had been before, like it always would be. He looked up at her. She was thinner than before, but he could imagine still what she was like, he could smell her still. But nothing would ever happen. What could he teach Louise of this? But he’d do it again, of course. No regrets.
“Would you do it again?”
“What do you mean? Do I regret anything, is that what you’re asking? Oh my god…”
“Yes, I guess.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong, don’t forget that. But I won’t regret feeling love of any kind, and of offering that love…”
“Callum, it was madness, all of it. Every moment from start to finish. But how were we to know?
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not a damsel in distress… that’s not my style.” Strangely, as she would later reflect back on this whole conversation, she kept seeing images of her and her flatmate Eliane drunkenly wandering around a hypermarket in Turin looking for lampshades.
“…but it would’ve happened somehow anyway. No long distance relationship lasts…”
“The body always beats the heart…”
“I don’t know. I drank a lot too, and who knows, maybe I would’ve fucked a guy at home too, or maybe not, maybe I just could’ve waited…. but all your letters make this error, I checked.”
She looked up, and smiled at him. It’s ok to be sad about the past, but it’s the past, she wanted him to know. She’d found the courage of her voice finally, within a transparent labyrinth of glass partitions of things once said, what should be said, and what shouldn’t. “You always assume that love and ‘the heart’ are somehow separate, higher domains to sex and ‘the body’. But it’s just not true. There is no lower or higher love – you love with the body. We liked each other, our bodies fit together, we loved each other. But yes, maybe we were just kids, I can say that even now. I couldn’t lock you up, and we should’ve called it off as a beautiful holiday-fling after the first night. You waited, then you fell for someone else. Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your intention, it can’t be unwritten. I’ve loved others since…”
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so turned on like I was that night. It’s like you gave me the taste for something I’ve kept searching for since. But I will find it.
“Agnes. These are yours, aren’t they?” He handed over what he still had of the mixtapes, the letters, things he’d kept hidden from everyone. She gasped and smiled. Of course he hadn’t destroyed everything. As she began to look through the finely-decorated letters and outpourings of her own once-young heart, he downed the rest of his coffee, and began to gaze out of the now empty cafe’s windows, at drizzled buses beating streets covered in the black and the gold of another urban autumn night.
Maybe she was right. It reminded him of literary history, and of some French theorist he could vaguely recall studying, and his sweeping yet compelling remarks about the 19th century. The world only ever offered a temptation to give in: this was the submerged message of 19th century high literature. Its long novels, usually serialised into episodes, concerned the waves of tempting assaults on a hero or a heroine, and how their subjectivity variously yielded or resisted such temptations. The heart and the soul were intertwined and at times taken for granted as synonymous. So maybe then, the 20th century modernists partially abandoned the soul, attacking it as a fusty construct of religion and class, with its temptations merely moral prejudices. Instead they’d invented the ego and its stream of consciousness, hoping to liberate in their narratives some era-shaking drive. But whilst the soul was abandoned the heart was kept, at times as the gushing optimism of the mind, at times little more than the speaking clock of the cunt and cock.
And what of the 21st century then, that melancholic minefield of dead ideologies and dead futures? Now the body had become the protagonist, like his, operating outside the narrative but defining its limits and structure of references. 21st century characters are shaped by their doingness, by their activities as customers, consumers, and producers. They buy and buy into sex, sleep, love, and romance, and go tumbling and stumbling into one romance after another in a vain search for satisfaction as permanent state, when it could only be temporary. But much of these shifting thoughts were of little help here. He didn’t regret Louise, of course it had been a surprise, he’d naively thought that Jodie was using contraception. But it had created something beautiful and wondrous, which never would’ve otherwise existed. He was starting to feel a little faint.
“Err, I’m just gonna go for a slash.” He politely ducked round the cramped table, coldly knocking his legs against hers.
Need to get away, work you off my mind
She was glad that the conversation had nearly reached its end. She’d mapped out this conversation countless times before, in short stories and screenplays, in lucid dreams, and in passing holidays in her memories. This time, it had almost failed to live up to some of the high drama, or the sensuousness, or even sadness, of those past conversations, which now all seemed like the distant lights of faraway planets, whose present tense could only be seen thousands or millions of years after the fact. But in those distant travelling lights, the past continued to remain alive, and perhaps if we had a powerful-enough telescope, we might see on one star or planet lives like ours, living through again and again their past romances, excesses, and special moments. Perhaps in a telescope or another medium someone from the future would see what became of them, on those nights.
But he was still kinda hot, just unshakeably sad, and she no longer felt like trying to save him from all that. It wasn’t for her to hold him. She’d become comfortable with that loneliness now, it was hers, and must be killed again before ever shared. Hurting oneself in order to feel spelt a degradation of feeling. The waiter began to pile some of the chairs on top of the tables. “The bill please?”
The cold water helped bring him back to earth. Yes, he had given her back everything. Was there anything else?
“I’ve got a question and a statement left to say. Do we have to go?”
“Yes, but go on.”
“What happens if you just say yes your whole life, for fear of losing something by saying no?”
“Well well, the answer most often is a question.”
“Ok Agnes.” He wanted to hold her hands. No. They were folded in on each other, but her rich green eyes looked into his without any gesture of friendliness, as if perceiving their own reflection. “… I’m sorry. And that’s it.”
Is that really it? Of course it wasn’t, but at least they were both now released. “That’s ok Callum”. I forgave you a long time ago. “But this will be the last time we see each other.”
His expression seemed to have stalled into confusion. He looked about to say something, but then retracted. He went to down the coffee, though of course the cup was empty, though he pretended it wasn’t, and adjusted his seat again, then folded his fingers together.
“Which way are you heading?”
“Just up the way to the station, back home”, he lied. “You?”
“Back to my hotel, then out again later, meeting up with some friends for a pint”, she replied, also lying.
“Well, I guess this is it.”
“Good luck Callum, I hope you find the happiness you’re still searching for.”
“You need that luck more than I do, Agnes, love.”
And with a long hug, and a kiss on the cheek, and their departure in different directions, so ended their conversation.
Dazed by hunger, passing one Tesco town after another. The great secret of these places is their void of a future. Nothing would actually happen there in thirty or forty years time. The malls and new-builds would be bulldozed and forgotten much sooner than that. With supermarket trolleys jutting out of the Thames mud. Objects indiscriminately laid out in the circumference of an invisible circle, without focus or centre. A world belonging to old men with ale-udders, mismatched sports jackets and beige chinos.
– from “Burial Customs”, one of a number of new short stories I’m working on. I’m hoping to complete a book-length edition of these, plus a musical collaboration of the article’s name, by the end of the summer…