Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Absent Without Leave

A collaboration with Anthea Holland

Harry fingered the stripes as his boot-burst toes circled the irregular Summer detritus of sedge and mulch.

A pond or pool that was stagnant. No scent of water lilies hung on the summer evening air; no reeds or rushes bordered its banks. Green slimy growth covered the undertow.

Cold for Summer, though, Harry thought as he knelt at the edge. Despite the warmth of the day, little of the sun’s rays would penetrate the thick branches of the ancient oaks that surrounded the pond. Cold oblivion, what bliss.

‘But smelly,’ a little voice reminded him. ‘Do you really want to smell like sewerage?’

‘Won’t care, will I?’ he responded casually. ‘It’ll all be over for me.’

He stood up and shrugged his shoulders out of his jacket. No point in ruining a perfectly good suit.

The plane appeared from nowhere. He hadn’t heard it coming; it was suddenly overhead, its thunderous roar reverberating around the tree circle. He threw himself to the ground, scared shitless, burying his face in the muddy marsh ground.

The jet - for surely it must have been a jet from the Air Force base - was gone as suddenly as it came, leaving a pregnant silence behind. Harry lifted his head slowly, stickily, from the mud and gradually stood up, as embarrassed as if a crowd of people had seen his craven action.

He picked up his jacket.

“And you thought you were going to drown in twelve inches of stagnant water?” he questioned.

"Six inches," said the little voice, now in full hearing, as a long grey glistening back rose to the surface of the turgid brine - making Harry think that the pondbed itself was raising its profile. "Six, quickly becoming nothing," it said, persisting in a commentary upon its own birth.

The creature was in full to empty view, hardly breaking the murky meniscus.

"Who are you?"

Harry stuttered inside but spoke quite smoothly aloud.

The question hung about on its interrogative hook, as a whole series of imputed jets filled the stagnant air with a fleet of shadows and roars.

"I'm whoever you want me to be," the voice eventually stated. "I can be your worst nightmare or your most delirious dream. Which do you want? Think carefully, now, there is only one chance."

Harry thought carefully. He wasn't quite sure what his worst nightmare was.... Then again only a fool would ask for that option surely. But then he was a fool - amongst other things. Only a fool would attempt suicide drowning in a mere foot of fetid water, a pool for a fool.

Perhaps it was all he deserved - this worst nightmare idea. He was a good-for-nothing, low-life character.

He knew that was right, he'd been told it often enough.

But still, his worst nightmare ... what dossier of domestic doldrums could he conjure that out of?

No, better to conjure up his most delirious dream - except if he asked for that - and got it, wouldn't that give him a reason to live?

And hadn't he lunched out for the last six months on the fact that he had no reason to live?

Lunched out; evening dinnered out; night-time drunk out; and outlasted all his friends with his constant harping on his total nothing-ness.

If he were nothing, the pool creature was definitely something else. And the jets tessellated the sky like a patchwork storm, thundering more than a million twisters. Was this death? Even God had to keep an air force handy. Then silence as furlough fornicated with desertion.

"I'm whoever you want me to be," repeated the voice, in a storm that was the eye of a calm.

He looked up and wished he were a tree with tap-roots.

The pool was scummed over with grey Autumn.

Absent without leaves.

(Published 'Roadworks' 1999)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Estate Duty

I HAD BOUGHT the house on the assumption that it would be a good investment. But, so as to maximise the tax advantages, I actually ought to live in it, as my accountant told me rather late in the day.

“Can’t I pretend to live in it? I don’t really want to move out of London into those godawful mountains.”

“When you sell it, you’ve got to be able to prove that it is your main residence, so as to avoid Capital Gains Tax,” he had replied.

“Well, can’t I take the man from the Inland Revenue for a visit and show him all the ruffled covers on the bed!”

We both laughed.

“Will I have to prove that it’s my toothbrush in the bathroom?” I scoffed.

“No, but to be serious, he may send investigators into the village to test out their gossip.”

“Good grief, man, is that what we pay our taxes for, so that they can run the gauntlet of the countryside, snooping into all our affairs?”

“If you had your way, they wouldn’t be getting any taxes....”

“A vicious circle...that’s what they are. I try to earn an honest crust, work my heart out for a bit of comfort and then what happens? The man from the Revenue travels all the way to Frixton and pops his head into the local newsagents to see who I’ve been sleeping with!”

* * *

Frixton was hardly a village. It nestled between the two great peaks of the Panjandrum (as it was called in the local parlance), a group of about a dozen red brick houses that would have seemed more at home in an industrial setting. The slate roofs and the TV aerials on oversized chimney stacks rose glinting into the mist that so prevailed one could even pretend that there were tall factory chimneys beyond the reach of the sight, instead of those real towering unscalable rocky pinnacles which, from time to time, emerged spectacularly with the infrequently bursting upon the scene of the sun.

For one who spends all their time in financial matters, I’ve always considered myself nifty with a turn of phrase. My business letters have been considered more colourful than most, to say the least. So, please excuse me if I get carried away and leapfrog the words. But, please don’t forget, I’m the sort who only writes about real things. I’ve got less fanciful notions in my whole body than you, who read this, have got in the quick of your fingernail.

The house which, through a whole chain of agents, I had turned out purchasing was a strange affair. I had been told it was going for a the circumstances. Those countless meetings in countless banks’ offices, arranging the finance, the mortgaging, the re-mortgaging, the back to back loans and ‘bed and breakfasting’ of my gilt portfolio, were all over. I was now proud owner of Frixton Grange, once residence of the man who had founded Frixton as a sort of folly...but, that was before the sniff of survivalism had hit the country. The global tensions, I was told, far from relaxing as some would have us believe, were tightening their grip on the population’s subconscious. And Frixton, I was also told, would be the Mecca for such survivalist claptrap, the illogical consequence of which would be property values there topping the sky before the next decade was out.

It was just another investment to me....

The Grange itself, when I first saw it....

Stop, I’m getting ahead of myself again. The journey from London involved twelve changes of train, each one more dilapidated as a form of transport than the one before. It was going back in time, almost. I did not drive because I had been warned that you could not get anywhere near Frixton in a car. Only a train would do.... The last lap saw me sitting in a juddering carriage, speculating on the use of the thick leather strap swinging from side to side on the grimy window. Before you tell me, I’d better make it clear that I’m not old enough to remember those types of train that once steamed between all big cities. I’m one of those young get up and go individuals who are making it so big these days. So, this train was the first I’d ever come across, much to my surprise that any still existed at all.

You could actually feel it straining to lift itself into the mountain areas and, as it teetered along by the steep drops, I could see that any enclaves of population were becoming sparser. I had already informed the train driver that I wanted to disembark at Trusthoe Halt which was supposedly within hiking distance of Frixton along some pretty suspect footpaths.

“I never stop ‘tween here and Ilston Junkch.... I don’t even know if the bye-laws allows me to stop a train at all ‘long those tracks.”

“But its says on this map that there is a Halt...and one of my agents got off there a few months ago, he told me.”

“No-one I knows has stopped a train at that there Halt for at least fifty year. Your mate must have done what we call a bounder. Broke a leg, no doubt!”

At that point, I handed over a wad of mixed denomination notes. The driver didn’t even bother to count them and said: “I’ll slow down a be on your mettle.”

* * *

I’ve made most of my money by investing in ‘smokestack’ economies. I don’t know why I thought of that as I jumped clear of the trundling train on to the rickety wooden contraption no doubt laughingly called a platform. Perhaps someone will take time out to explain to me when I have a bit of time - probably after I’m dead! Anyway, I ended up clinging to the damned contraption for dear life, watching the backside of the hissing monster as it disappeared into the low sun.

The timing had gone all awry, for I was now faced with the prospect of a trek in the darkness across completely unfamiliar country. I settled myself down for the night under the ‘platform’, where life was so sparse there were no rats lurking nor even insects...thank goodness.

By morning, the sun had disappeared. The murky mists to which I was soon to grow so accustomed coiled across the head of the path I was due to follow. But, by judgement rather than luck, I managed to reach Frixton more quickly than I anticipated. In fact, it was only just around the much for those misguided fellows back in London who had directed me.

I wandered in a speculative mood along the only street that Frixton boasted, simply to find it was not a street at all, but the flat roof of the Grange! I had inadvertently come down upon it from an unlikely direction which, I was later told by the keeper of the only shop, could be the route that had been used by the original settlers of Frixton but since forgotten.

The Grange, as I was soon to discover, was actually built between the two skirts of the Panjandrum peaks. So, all it needed was a roof, which happened to be a flat one...which, as a genre, you all know, is not the best architectural feat of mankind, by a long chalk! So much for a tax avoidance planning investment! The whole thing probably leaked!

I clambered down precariously, trying not to ladder my stockings, for I had not brought many spare pairs with me.

Eventually, I managed to reach the door in the rockface which, O light and joy, the key I had been supplied fitted. But, gloom and doom, it did not turn. Those accursed agents again! They had a lot to answer for.

I managed to get in because the screws in the door hinges were merely finger tight.

And I had to live here! God forbid. I crawled into the only bed I could find, because I was dog tired, after a particularly fitful night under the ‘platform’. Pleasantly surprised to find the sheets already warm, I was equally stirred to the bottom of my entrepreneurial soul to find I was not alone in the bed.

“Hello, my dear, I hope you don’t mind me being here. But a job’s a job, and the Inland Revenue Authorities who employ me are hard taxmasters....”

His voice was hard and, unlike the train driver, he was certainly not queer.

(published 'Sol' 1997)

Friday, April 15, 2005

He felt as if

He felt as if he were about to go completely mad. There were only a few moments, if that, to communicate his last sane thoughts. He chose the medium of writing because there was nobody within sight nor sound of him. The trouble was it was far too late to communicate anything worthwile and, even when he first put pen to paper forming that large illuminated curlicue ‘H’ with all the cherubs flying in and out of its struts, he was already pretty stark raving bonkers.

(published ‘Psychopoetica’ 1991)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Builder-Dragons Of Planet Ishgilia

Planet Ishgilia was exactly 30,000,000 years old that day. Beasts gathered at the Anniversary Point in readiness for the festivities; mostly fire breathing dragons, ones with short memories, originally exported to Ishgilia in man-made mindlessness (from St George’s Land on Earth) to work as labourers on the Anniversary Point’s construction.

During the last century or two, indeed, mountains on the dark side of the planet had effectively vanished, as sizeable cross-sections of them were transported by the dragons to the Anniversary Point - via a tunnel that their breath had fire-bored straight through the planet to bypass the mid-marginal ice caps.

Only the evening before, Magri had watched the banana shape of Ishgilia’s sun dip behind the completed Anniversary Point, feeling much satisfaction in a job well done. As Human Foreman of the Terrain for the Furtherance of the Building of the Anniversary Point, Magri had gazed lingeringly at what he could only call, in his Earthen terminology, a giant statue or ornamental stone marquee. Dying sunlight had embossed its massive silhouette, while the shuttle wings of last minute builder-dragons clambered over it - their saw beaks wreathing smoke upon the background of brightening stars. Hundreds of them, Magri had thought: hundreds scrambling to finish the tremendous pounding and moulding of cataclysmic sculpture.

That had been yesterday. Now the sun was high and elongated in the clear blue sky - literally minutes from the precise moment of Anniversary. Magri recalled the thoughts that had drifted through his mind since the previous night and, as he watched the multitude of smoking dragons entering the Anniversary Point’s ground level gate of gaping black, the image of Belinda , gorgeous blonde-head and sweet mind-shape (the actual words with which Magri tantalised himself) provided him with exquisite pain, abandoned as Belinda had been back on Planet Earth, consigned as a slave to the Inevitable Wheeling of the Universe - whilst he, Magri, equally susceptible to the unseen moving of mysterious cosmic forces, was pursuing this geomantic mission on Planet Ishgilia.

Chief Dragon approached , interrupting such sentimental musings. The planning and negotiation had been an overweening preoccupation for the duration of Magri’s prime years and, secretly he cursed those who had manipulated such involvement on his part - whoever “those” were. Still, everything had its compensations. He fumbled with the stubble of his burnt cheek as he returned the dragon’s tail-flick salute. Magri had never grown fully accustomed to these wonderful creatures: with their grimy armoured scales, great jointed limbs, smouldering orifices and huge, yet human-like, eyes. Their likening to lizards had been mere subterfuge.

Chief Dragon waddled towards Magri and reported, in grunting tones - barely audible on Magri’s side of the timbre threshold - that the birthday festival was open and in full swing. Wasn’t Magri coming to take part in the fun? Magri shook his head as if to convey that there was no business for him within the Anniversary Point. His job was finished. The absence of Belinda as a reason was left unsaid.

Disappointed, the dragon stumped back towards the Anniversary Point. No doubt it sensed some affection for the two-legged man and cast a second tearful glance at Magri’s handsome blue-robed shape standing alone. Indeed, Chief Dragon could now not face the uproarious stamping and buffets of the multi-coloured fire-dance herding from corner to corner of the Anniversary Point’s vast catacomb. How could he enjoy the side-splitting, leather-beating fandangoes when Magri remained outside emanating sad vibrations across the plain : a plain that stretched illimitably in featureless abandon around the Anniversary Point’s pinnacle of towering landmake. Chief Dragon knew that Planet Ishgilia died around them all. It had read that on Magri’s graven brow - and it disappeared into the Anniversary Point’s gate with no further backward look.

Magri heard the distant thumping of eager dragon-feet. Three of the creatures suddenly emerged from the entrance in a flurry of activity, and he soon realised that two dragons of a male persuasion duelled for the affections of a female one. The latter could be distinguished by the many nippleless paps drooping from the underside of the body. The male dragons spat sparks at each other before the two unwieldy bodies met in clumsy collision. Then, the conflict grew more violent as the flailing appendages and fast-champing jaws clashed and curbed. Chunks of dragon-flesh ripped off, leaving crimson gashes on both sides - and, before long, one had chewed through the opponent’s limb: a rather gruesome stance standing there with the fire-bubbling extract crunched between it’s steam-spitting jaws.

Magri turned his back, reminded of a similar incident back on Earth: the reason for his mission to Planet Ishgilia and the abandonment of his sweet, sweet Belinda to an unfathomable Elsewhere.

Try as he might he could not recall Belinda’s reaction to his departure. He had been her hero, of course, and this fact confirmed itself once again in his mind, he swivelled on the balls of his feet to view the dragon’s fight. The two male protagonists slumped together in a dead pile - bits and pieces of chopped purple arrayed about them - with the female’s teardrop-curds sliding over her useless paps.

From such bitter sorrow Magri lifted his wet eyes to the bright banana-shape that started to dip in the deepening sky. He knew that his vantage point was one of magical destiny - since, no sooner had he found himself gazing at the magnificent, if mutant, sun-star, it faltered and dimmed. Then it died. Simply that.

Simultaneously, from within the Anniversary Point, the thumping of the dragons ceased - as if conscious of the planet’s near death - a magical realisation of the universe’s mastery amid their drunken cavortings, an inevitable sorrow sparking from joy.

A spectral effulgence, the source of which was a mystery to Magri lit the abandoned plain in the shadow of the elongated sun’s residual stain. And, black against such a wan saviour glow, the magnificent Anniversary Point soared into universal night. He wept for this memorial, pitying its looming omnipresence. He knew that it would stand solitary and bleak on a dead planet for an eternity of forgetting - a massive black shape thrusting mindlessly into deeper, more forbidding, black. He prepared to surrender himself to a cold aching demise beside the Anniversary Point: the huge statue whose construction by gullible dragons Magri had organised.

Magri watched, as fiery smoke began to curl from the cavernous nostrils of a massive stone nose. Magri knew that the huge smile was just a stone mouth’s quirk. The odd pitiful dragon grunted, as it managed to struggle out through the Anniversary Point’s left ear: disturbing the silence for a while, quite irrespective of timbre thresholds.

Magri meanwhile recalled another Belinda, one with soft lips.

(published 'Odyssey' 1996)