Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ghost In The Machine

Gold glowed amid lizard-skinned ashes.

The youth, Simon, with one earring, knelt to warm his hands by the fire. It had been cold outside and his mother had said it would yet be half-an-hour before tea was high enough to be served. This was a common expression of Simon’s mother, one that he never understood.

His stonewashed jeans had such gaping designer-rips at the knees, the lower half of the legs seemed to be hanging merely by a thread. Upon kneeling, parts of his body were exposed that the heat would not normally have reached readily.

He had left his motorbike leaning in the alleyway alongside the otherwise terraced house. Knowing it was only recently bought, Simon was still worried that it might be unsafe in this less than desirable precinct of the city. The “L” plate shone out luminously even after the streetlights flickered off in the late evening (which they tended to do in that area): the plate being red on white, like the jelly and cream his mother had served in just such a design, on the day he passed his test.

He put his hands closer to the fire -- either because they were growing intrinsically colder at the extremities despite the heat or, as he really thought, the audibly crumbling ashes were losing all their ability to tender more than a smidgin of warmth. There was a low, insidious grumbling within the chimney-breast: a wind picking up at the back of the house, he surmised.

Suddenly, he thought the embers were glowing brighter: re-erupting wormcasts of flame. His hands floated like autonomous entities above the rising heat, thus becoming tantamount to translucent. Simon almost convinced himself that he was the angel his mother told her cronies he really was -- at heart.

With growing horror, he lowered his gaze to the knees shyly poking from the gaps in the jeans: like wedges of cut glass with a three-dimensional map of bloodstreams within. He tried to persuade a hand to reach up to his face, but no amount of will-power could accomplish such an amazing feat. Then, after he surrendered all hope, the hand, of its own volition, swept to the top of his head, where a residue of feeling in the fingertips informed him that he was actually touching a soft substance and, as he pushed harder, his own mind performed a consequent flip, becoming madder by the second as the substance grew softer...

His mother entered the parlour where she’d laid the fire earlier in the afternoon. She dropped the tray of tea-things that she carried at shoulder height, extended in front like an offering at an altar. The clatter momentarily brought what used to be Simon to just a smidgin off consciousness -- and he wondered fleetingly why his mother looked as if she had seen a ghost.

The motorbike itself haunted the alley, a red “D”, in¬stead of an “L”, upon a white plate glowing at its buckled mudguard.

(published ‘Gathering Darkness’ 1994)

Friday, December 01, 2006

A Study In Brown

Published 'The Heliograph' 1997

The upright piano looked secondhand even when it was brand new: consigned now to the Utility Room, because the family had lost interest in its finger-marching goodness. Their words.

Countless children had been put through its paces, only to abandon it for the more customary rituals which preoccupied modern teenagers. Their short legs had once pumped at the pedals trying to keep it afloat amid the skies of childhood fantasy, only to fall to Earth in a sliding scale of long-limbed puberty. They escaped into the feel of the modern moment - via the consecutive eras of the nifty Fifties and the sexy Sixties - expunging wireless programmes such as "Music While You Work" and “Mrs Dale’s Diary” so as to make room for the rest of their memories.

Meanwhile, in that same untransfigured past, these children’s ancestors were on dinner-break - sitting, in regimented expectation, at the Factory Canteen tables, awaiting another soon-to-be-ancient wireless programme called "Workers' Playtime" to begin. It was due to be broadcast on the BBC Light Programme at 12.30 on the dot from this very canteen.

"It's a load of old tommy rot!" said George, gesticulating with a brown-smeared bottle of HP Sauce.

The man seated alongside him before a plate of runny fried egg and limp chips tried to ignore the contentious remarks. George wondered why workmates in canteens often sat alongside each other, leaning over the trestle table with clunking cutlery - whilst the toffs in the "white collar" restaurant down the corridor would tend to sit opposite each other, conducting a conversation superficially structured, polite and civilised, yet a conversation which was fundamentally unadventurous. Those, like George, of a "blue collar" persuasion in the canteen would conduct more sporadic interchanges, unembarrassed by silences, veering from side to side between misunderstandings, teetering upon the edge of anger and recrimination, but always searching, probing, broaching subjects of deep workmanlike lore.

A true description. Not George's words, though.

In any event, the stand-up comedian was already preening himself on the makeshift stage, waiting for the mikes to go live. The theme music was tuning up, being played direct from Broadcasting House.

George's conversation began to misfire. He was settling into the egg and chips, his tongue finding it more and more difficult to unsnarl itself from the curdled fat. "Only yesterday,” he stammered , “Jean caught her fingers under the piano lid. We got that ol' joanna so that we can give our kids some sort of proper music ... to keep 'em up with the toffs. But it's all going to come to nowt..."

George's listening neighbour stared quizzically at his fork. A sliver of crinkle-edged eggwhite on its midspoke became almost a holy relic.

The comedian's patter tannoyed from the stage: "Oi! Oi! Guess what happened to me on the way to the factory? I met me ol' mate Wilfred Pickles. He said, 'Have a go, Joe!'"

A stooge with an outlandish clown's nose interrupted the comedian, bundling towards the upright mike: "But your name's not Joe, Joe!"

Raucous, uncoordinated laughter and banging of pudding spoons echoed around the starlights of the canteen's giant Meccano rafters.

"Give 'em the money, Brian!"

"I'm Barney, Mr Pickles, not Brian."

The last bit was repeated by the audience in rehearsed unison. And the timeless jokes rattled on through the air, followed by an unseen hand slowly running its fingers upon tingling keys which, finally, emerged from a million ghostly wirelesses in a million empty front parlours.

Then an announcement and timecheck in King's English.

In those days “brown study” meant a moment or two of deep meditation. George's brown study was workmanlike but with a deeper meaning than mere words...

He had been known for donkey years as a jolly good, all round egg - a dependable regular who often treated himself to an extra half on top of what he called his "medicinal" pint of best bitter. His missus sent him round to the pub, of course - and a more understanding spouse it was difficult to imagine, even though she had the ulterior motive of getting him out of her hair for an hour or two. So that she could listen to the wireless in peace.

Brian knew George quite well. It was Brian's brown study that used words in uncommon usage. He counted himself one of George's pals. A straighter fellow you'd go far to meet was George. He did the march-past on Remembrance Day. Just a shade over middle-age, when Brian first met him. George entering the Autumn of George's life with as much grace as it is possible to muster in such circumstances of what one could only describe as encroaching oblivion. Brian knew, when he got to George's age, he'd go to pieces, more like. So, Brian admired George's equanamity, as it were, his urbane nonchalance, his avuncular, if taciturn, charm. They often sat side by side in the works canteen.

George had grown-up children of his own, he told Brian, who visited him now and again, but not frequently enough for his liking. Still, George understood. Youngsters had busy lives, these days. They must have had commitments to others of their own age. Why should they concern themselves with "oldies like me"?

Brian would nod, not necessarily in agreement, but merely to acknowledge that he knew what George was saying. In fact, Brian had once been one of those "youngsters" who'd rather spend his time in a pub with relative strangers than visit his own folk in the Fen Country. It is peculiar how family ties can loosen up over the years. Brian had been a staunch loyalist to the clan back home - that is, until he left to go to the Big Smoke. Then, Brian had wondered why blood-links were so important. He could not be proper friends with members of his own family in normal life.

Thus unrooted, other people's ideas helped to raise Brian's two feet from the ground. He gained wordy ambitions. But, thank goodness, he spotted the danger signs before it was too late. He avoided being an intellectual by the skin of his teeth. Or at least he hoped so, and still does. Despite the words he uses to describe his thoughtful brown studies.

In those days, Brian positively had to sit at home in his digs, in those quiet moments of self-hypnosis, and convince himself that he was still one of the Fen folk, a home-spun youth who had no more in his top storey than the usual junk in trivial clutters. His mind flittered, at one moment, from almost philosophical exploration of his own thinking-patterns, then at another, to a perhaps forced colloquial remonstration against any such pretentious crap.

Anyhow, Brian does indeed remember George, that chap in the works canteen, that steadfast man in the pub who always insisted in having his beer in a straight glass. George often sat at what he called Old Joanna and jammed tunes straight through from ears to mouths. George. A good solid name for him. It couldn't have been invented better.

Then, the surprise...

It still surprises Brian to think of it. It wasn't exactly as if George had moaned, like others of his generation, about the young people of the day, like the lager louts and the self-seeking yappers in the City and the so-called football hooligans - and, of course, the ungrateful young blighters of George's own spawning who sat in their colour supplement lounges lined with mock bookspines, staring at endless suds on a flickering box.

No, George did not indulge in such diatribes, as Brian's own father did, for example. Brian's father swore blind that civilisation as he knew it was crumbling and the home-grown enemies were "worse than the bleedin' Nazis!" No, George was not quite like that. So, it should not have been a surprise when George came into the pub one evening with a ring in his left ear!

Brian's own father called lads with such jewellery "Nancy Boys" whom a few years "under the wing" of a sergeant-major on National Service would soon lick into shape. Therefore, for George to appear with his lobe threaded by that extraneous bit of metal amid his cronies in the pub Snug was quite unbelievable. One of the dead-eyed dart throwers who frequented this particular bar threw straight off the board, instead of the treble nineteen for which he was aiming. The landlord of the pub over-pulled a pint of Bitter, its froth disappearing into the system that later appeared as Mild.

"What's it for, George?" Brian asked, pointing to the ring that was of the type Brian remembered his mother calling a "sleeper" to prevent the pierced hole from fleshing over. George tentatively put a finger to his lobe, and smiled. Just that. At first, Brian thought about dropping the subject. But then he blurted out: "It suits you." George turned a brighter shade of crimson, as if he were about to have a stroke. It was as if the pubful of drinkers had received a message from a hidden force in the Universe, since everybody grew quiet as dead mice. Even the dart-throwers launched their arrows more gently into the cork. Words were useless. Even canteen-talk was out of the brown study window.

"Thank you, Brian," George eventually replied. "It's God's way of branding us his beasts of burden and to remind Him which is which."

Brian supposed if he'd looked closely enough at the ring in George's lughole, he would have seen a microscopic number etched. Indeed, George did not seem to notice he had caused quite a stir, but later that night, Brian dreamed a brown dream that the whole side of George's head had been embedded with a sculpture, a large star-shaped contraption that could have served as a tightly meshed drain-cover, and it sparkled in the putrescent pub lights. George was also wearing burnt umber shades, but more a lop-sided version of the hi-tech binoculars Dan Dare used to wear on the front of the Eagle comic.

George died peacefully in his sleep. His missus told the mourners this as they trooped into the terraced house to commiserate. "I knew," she said, "there was something peculiar when he didn't go to the pub for his usual pint." Which, in hindsight, was even more peculiar, since he had died the very morning after his last visit to the pub wearing the ear-ring. But none cared to broach the subject with his missus in the circumstances.

So, all George's friends, one of whom Brian was proud to number himself (the youngest, in fact), marched past his open coffin in the front parlour - a ritual moment of remembering and forgetting. That was the tradition, those days. They were relieved rather than surprised that there was no ring in either of his ears, nor any sign of piercing. Just a hint of a smile on George's steadfast lips. And no words.

That night Brian had another brown dream about George. This time, George being dead, the dream seemed realler than the one about the huge device that threaded his skull. This was dream was more in words than pictures: the first time a dream has come to Brian in this way. The way it told Brian about itself was that just beyond the deadish volcano of Noog, whereby the brown River Bandshow flows, lies the land of Wireless. Nobody knows of its existence except those, if any, who live there.

The houses move up Archer Hill, its central plinth, like turtles intent on breeding. Upon the brown brow of that hill squats the fort that was built to defend the town from any unlikely marauders and, within the fort, King George sits enthroned, if it is a throne indeed upon which he sits. He's become a surly man, with a brigand's moustache and ploughshared brows, staring unbelievingly into the middle distance with eyes that, if once steel blue, are now of seeping copper.

King George abruptly shouts and momentarily stirs from his own dream, a dream that is within Brian's dream; the pity of it being that there is nobody near to hear his shout except himself. He does not answer, retracting his tortoise-head into a new shell of convoluted dreams.

At no real distance from the fort, there is a courtyard, out of bounds to the townsmen, if townsmen there are. Its slabs are crazed over with moss-tracks that have long since created their own jigsaws of reality, so abstract and indefinable there are no further words to be used about them. No words at all.

The courtyard's periphery is bounded with high ancient walls, crested with jagged shards of brown beer-bottle glass that give to the bladdery sun a thousand versions of itself, many of which outlast the night that always seems to follow. If darkness be brown, then this night congeals faces rather than hides them.

The twists and turnings of the Old Town verging upon these courtyard walls are a maze which only one particular child can solve with paper and crayons one special Christmas morning ... and that child died several years ago anyway, its parents having earlier sailed off down the brown Bandshow, the last to leave Wireless before the final trap was sprung.

Within this maze of broken-signed inns and disused laundries, there stands the forbidding tenantless prison (identical to the fort in shape and design) into which the townsmen, if townsmen there are, yearn to enter, if they can only find its giant rusting keys, so as to complete the circle of curtailment; for they find the town walls are not prison enough for them.

One night, when the rusty stars themselves came down and dodged like fireflies between the skid-marked roofs, touching them with gildenspires, the patroller of the prison, known as Walkman, donned his night head-dress and skirted the walls of the King's fort, believing that this was the prison he was meant to frog-march round amid the toad shit.

Beneath his streaming hair, Walkman listened to the dead phones of night that threaded his curlicue ear-lugs and filled him with tight-fisted silence, to such an extent that he did not notice the crackling of the distant Noog volcano on the sky-line which was meant to have no guts left to honk. Nor did he hear the majestic fart from inside the fort - as loud as any coastguard's gun. King George had spoken. Too late, he had stirred for the very last time. A dying breath, that fart. His last word.

Thus, Walkman, the prison-keeper, did not hear the distant crashing of the prison walls. The rusty keys had finally turned against him. And all the townsmen, if townsmen there were, withdrew into a freedom of mere flesh constraints.

One firefly spark remained, its only hope being that Walkman would lead it beyond the bounds of Wireless. A stench still wafted from the fort, so vile it veiled the coming light of dawn; but Walkman could not sense it through the brown hangings of his nostrils.

The last firefly spark extinguished, as Walkman was spiked upon the jagged wall of his own body's protruding bones which, if he had cleared it, would have allowed him to leave Wireless.

The ultimate horror was that King George's dream-fetters remained upon him, even within death ... if it indeed was the King who was trapped inside his own corpse-keep, and not someone else called Walkman (or even Brian). And George landed into the nifty Fifties feet first and with a bit of a headache. He always felt a bit queasy after travelling through the time locks: there had been a big delay in 1939 and a rough ride until the relatively calm waters of 1945. Now, there was just the residue of war fever in the air, making his veins tingle - but, by putting his mind into a slower gear, he found he could take a panning shot of the Phoenix Eras that most remember as their childhood.

It is true to say that George was not a through and through sympathiser with the people he surveyed. He had been brought up outside of time, and it is rumoured beyond space too, as he had the mark of what some would call Jack the Devil in his face - piercing eyes of hidden depths - hooked nose with gaping bristly nostrils - chin jutting below a mouthful of corrugated teeth - and a tunic that had been innocently customised and derived from those commonly worn by certain members of Hitler's entourage in the two decades immediately prior to George's arrival back on the dry land of history.

The strains of "Oh, What A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts" were ringing from the British Legion Hall. Being Saturday night, most of the backyard houses had emptied out and resorted to the weekly social, for an attempt at re-living the camaraderie and bonhomie of the war years. "Roller bowler bowl, roller bowler bowl..." The singsong rang out into the benighted streets, along with the endless rattle of the tinkling joanna, everyone's favourite biddy pedalling hard to the tunes it played. One among them had evidently won the football pools.

George was frog-marching down the dark street eager for a bit of colour-injecting, whilst savouring the challenge of a new age. Things then were not black and white, as the newsreels depicted, but various shades of brown. And having been taught that there is nothing more modern than the present, he was surprised at the rather utility, makeshift appearance of the Fifties lifestyle. It needed, he thought, colour and slickness, together with an importation of firescreens from the theatres to the front parlours - fast information, fast food, fast sex, to prevent the wasting of a that scarce commodity called time. The streets needed light, the importance of which had been lost amid the air raid blackouts. Above all, words were needed, words worthy enough for worlds to wield.

As George marched, he dug up metal arms from between the roots of Earth, these having been sprung beneath the pavements in an alternate universe now encroaching on this one. He proceeded to raise them and illumine their topmost bulbs with his breath, also seeing fit to make them parallel with the goalposts etched against the horizon of allotments. Some were later to call that vertical. Give or take a few inches.

Yet, Brian suspected this was George masquerading as someone else, or vice versa, more likely. The suspicions were well-founded since Brian was the one who once sat disguised alongside George in the canteen, when George was truly George, not this hybrid George who had learned too many words from the future and who was brown-beaten and brainwashed with the Daz of coming times, when wirelesses would be tweeters and woofters. It was 9.10 a.m., on one of those aimless mornings most only just recall, and the opening bars of the "Housewives' Choice" theme spilled from the wireless into the parlour. George had forgotten for a while his role as burnisher of the inevitabilities of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. He had crossed, as only time travellers can cross, into a new way of life - put on a frock - and sang along with "Music While You Work" as he steam-ironed his unsuspecting wife's trousers.

Times already moved along predetermined channels - or had it all gone wrong already? Had George flitted on to another time, another place? Or did he eventually die an unnatural death caused by a shrapnel-crazed footpad in a blind alley behind the British Legion Hall - whilst the voices roared in crescendo: "Oh, What A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts..., Roller Bowler Bowl..., A Penny A Pitch..."?

In Brian's ears the song rolled on, but it soon faded into other times, other climes. And the night always came earlier in the Wastes. George had decided that he would live here, ever since he had lost a card-gambling match at the heart of Future City. He forsook all his worldly goods in one fell turn of the card: it had been make or break, and Destiny had come down on the side of the latter with an unequivocal conviction. George had suspected that Fate had always kept this one moment up its sleeve as a cheating trump card.

The shadowy hands had come out across the baize card-table: George had not dared look at the competing faces again, as the fingers had flickered like hungry tongues in the gas light, lapping up the denominations of currency into the mouths of their palms.

Inside his shack, with all the untamed sounds of night growing outside, he stared at that one playing card. It was before him on the green-felt fold-over table, the surface of which bore the stains of ill-eaten food, as well as the skid marks of angry copper coins. He had retrieved the Jack of Spades from that final game in Future City, as a souvenir. Not that he wanted to remember the cruel cut, but merely let it act as a warning symbol that no good could come of fighting against Destiny. Ear-marked by Fate.

The Wastes, a dark patch of land which must have once been several smallholdings of scrawny pickings, stretched from one particular nowhere to another ... though, nowheres, to George, were only such when compared to the once busy streets of Future City. Here there were simply abandoned smallholdings and shaggy-cabbaged allotments.

Outside the door of his shack, there sloped a disused football pitch, the wireless goal-post stumps daggering the sky's underbelly ... with crossbars long since dislodged by the near-miss goals of bad-loser ghosts, only teams by virtue of their insubstantial white strips. But divots of earth showed that such teams had once been more than just haunters of George's dreams.

Put a cross in the graph-paper box, he thought, if you feel that the result will turn out to be a tie. An "X" was also a kiss of lips so soft they reminded him of a love he had taken to his heart, only to find them an ownerless puckered mouth. Or an "X" is the mark of a mistake that his first true love (the teacher at infants school) had appended to his clumsy attempts at arithmetic. Or an "X" betokens the clothes exchanged and cherished for their frills and lace trims. But, hopefully, "X" marked the spot where he'd dig up Death.

George watched from his shanty window long after the dawn should have arrived, begging that neither team would score. He merely needed this particular draw to complete the jackpot on the coupon. But, then, he heard the distant braying of a mob in unison - the chant of "'ere we go, 'ere we go, 'ere we go" and "Roller bowler ball...", as an unlikely goal was put away by Destiny's striker, the net belling out with the trawling catch.

George felt his head to ensure it was still stationed upon the tee of his neck. It would soon grow light, he assumed, The Wastes would one day be a City again, he mused. Turning back to the Jack of Spades, it was like looking into a lady's funfair cosmetic hand-mirror. George’s head was perfectly poised, as Jack's shovel-ended club took its swing. Crowned him with one fell swoop. At least, George no longer needed to be trapped as this last survivor on a desolate brown pitch once called Earth. And, hopefully, Destiny had nowhere else left to dig.

Then, perhaps, reborn from primaeval mulch to live the life of Brian. Wireless and unplugged.