Saturday, March 31, 2007

Soft Luggage

Temperance Street was deathly quiet on the Saturday afternoon of which I speak, but especially the house where the two men lived. They were known as Biddo and Brewtocks, but I hadn’t given it further thought.

When I knocked on the door within the outlandishly prominent storm-porch, all I had in mind was to sell them a brush or two (of varying torques), or maybe a couple of pairs of asbestos oven-gloves.

Biddo answered in his Sunday best, spoilt by tattered slippers, body slightly stooped and dome-headed. He did not look me in the eyes but merely gazed at the threadbare doormat on which I rubbed my boots.

I indicated the suitcase beside me in the porch: “Can I interest you, Mr Biddo in my compendium of housewares…”

He attempted to shut the door on me but, with my heavy-duty foot wedged inside, it remained stubbornly open, not that I’m really that type of pressure salesman, but we’ve all got to earn a living, haven’t we?

By this time Brewtocks loomed from the dark hallway and, taller than Biddo, made a double face-off with his cohabitant.

I continued: “I’ve got polish so strong it’ll make your face beam. I’ve got dusters that’ll fight amongst themselves for the pleasure of getting down to the night soil in the more inaccessible corners of your bedroom. I’ve got shammy leathers as ripe and healthy as the day they were shorn. I’ve got things for your disposal system that’ll make your hairs stand on end…”

Brewtocks motioned silence and, with a mere flick of his leathery hand, invited me in. Evidently, they wanted to place a big order.

In the dark parlour, I could only discern their faces bobbing about but, as my eyes adjusted, I shuddered with distaste, for everything was steeped in a yester-year of which I’d only heard rumours and hints. The chokings of lace curtain, brown-seamed and loose-hemmed, some merely tacked decades before, seemed to twitch vigorously despite the stillness of the gloom. The skirting boards were heavily scuffed, indicating the house had once been full of irritating beady-eyed toddlers (or worse). The flock wall-paper was peeling away from the wall, even as I watched it. The light-shade was smudged with dark grease. Worst of all, the ceiling sagged in places with central nipples like ripening boils.

Biddo pointed to some soft luggage in the corner and muttered: “We used those cases when we went hop-picking in Kent before the war.”

They told me of their lives together (and separately). The war in the East End had indeed been over-romanticised, the memories of bon-homie in the air raid shelters being just figments of later dreams. Biddo imagined himself to be some kind of fateful force that moved the planets around like poker chips. He had spent the war willing a bomb to drop on him and prove him right. Brewtocks was livelier, more outgoing than Biddo. He was the one who left the house, if only rarely, to fetch the provisions that supplemented their self-made food. When he stood up, his head touched the under-hang of the ceiling, and he told me of all manner of inventions on which he was currently working. He had spent the war on jaunts to all corners of the house, neutralising all the unexploded bombs that had lodged themselves there.

And they told me stories fit to make my short and curlies straighten out…

For some years now they had only used this parlour, not venturing elsewhere in the house, since indeed the war had now long been over. I offered to make a tour of the other rooms and recommend which items of my housewares would be best suited to clear the way for habitation again.

They stared glassily at me as I left them to their own devices. I started to climb the narrow steep stairs, where each tread was half a leg higher than the previous one. The carpet, I felt, had long since retreated into the grain of the wood, leaving only textured mould cushioning my boot-studs. I ripped aside several tangles of tangible air with my suitcase, before I reached the even darker landing. Here, stench had given birth to stench for curdling generations.

I had no torch in my case but I felt for a particular device that would serve instead. It was one of those wick air-fresheners. I pulled the tab like a grenade, to release the wild glowing fragrance of summery twilit meadows. I imagined the lime-green ichor seeping up the webbed stem of the wick to spring its essence of stunning odours … but it shrivelled back into the jar like a used condom creature.

It was then I heard the soft shambling … from the distant master bedroom, where stinks and fetors had flocked and found comfort from cuddling each other. The waddling knot of what had once been smells feeding off other lesser smells in self-perpetuation came into view from out of the utter darkness. Its mouth was as strange as it being a mouth at all. It was rubbery and flexed itself like the brain in my head, opened its chapped lips around the grisly air and revelled in the worms it used as teeth. And from it there guttered a blotched gravy as thick as movement would allow. If it were mouth at all, then the face to which it must have belonged was wholly stench made flesh. And the nose where nose should be, was beyond belief on such a thing...

I fled, abandoning my suitcase to teeter on the edge of its puckering maw.

Biddo and Brewtocks did not attempt to prevent me leaving their condemned house. And I have to believe their polite welcome inside had been merely a device to put paid to my hard-sell; just a polite way of saying ‘no thank you’.

(published 'Hobgoblin' 1991)


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

About Nothing

The man who ate himself ended up with a terrible stomach ache.

The bones gathered themselves and, together with the yellowing teeth that had gnawn them bare, rattled off like soldiers on parade into the whirring, juddering disposal system - and ground themselves to nothing along with the spinning, spluttering, splintering rotor-blades that snarled up on their own exifugal machinations.

Armies of sparks marched up the back of the black chimney of night. Wild scintillations of smouldering bone and molten flakes of steel roared into an endless funnel of emptiness.

There was, then, utter silence - except for the almost indistinguishable hissing of an indigestion tablet.

(published 'Inkshed' 1988)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


The Winter wind’s no more.

How could the seasons have changed so rapidly?

I looked at the lady who had been sitting by herself until I came into the room. Would she know the answer? Likely she would not even understand the question.

The sense of territory was hers, although I probably knew the room better. It had once been a tea room for tourists, now a simple gathering-place that the owner offered as part of an open house policy.

As you well know, people have been more and more flinging their front doors wide, in an unstoppable movement of actually trusting each other. It all stemmed from the earlier years when there was that upsurge of geopolitical changes. With the frontiers being uprooted by the onrush of currency unions, mutual democracies and mass nirvanas, so, too, had individuals opened their arms to each other, not in an attempt to retrieve some remnant of sexuality that had been eschewed and rightfully forgotten, but more to prove to Reality that people were generally together - and that at the end of the day it was not going to get its own cruel way.

There was no need for cafes or shops with such a philosophy. In fact, the lady, sitting at the next table had just been handed a good old-fashioned dinner of braising steak and three vedge, to be followed by treacle sponge and custard.

I smiled.

February was a warm month.

She smiled back.

The golden shimmering girders of the sun shafted through the Rose Window between us, making it difficult to discern fully her face in the shifting patterns and colours of light. The shadow speckles of snow flickering across her made me wonder how I could ever forget such a vision of impending nostalgia.

A woman and a boy came into the room. He was evidently not at school because a visit to the dentist had been promised ... and, by the look of it, fulfilled. He took much delight in tentatively chewing an Eccles cake which he had taken from under the dust cover on the owner’s sideboard. The woman said she had not eaten an Eccles cake since she was a child herself and had forgotten how nice they were.

Finishing my stay, I wished all of them a good day and a better one tomorrow. There was no bill to pay, but I left my ghostly presence as a kind of gratuity.

I wondered how many second childhoods I would undergo before reaching the optimum.

(published 'Opossum Holler Tarot' 1990)

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Piano-Player Has No Fingers (No. 1)

I first met Robert at the Round Gardens. I was working as a washer-up and he as piano-player in the resident band. Robert being a man of few words, I had to compensate by telling him about my life - the many women who had passed through my hands, the enormous amounts of money I had squandered on the race-horses, the various jobs in dubious joints scattered along the English east coast, the brushes with the law, the burglaries, even the murders. And, eventually, he came round regularly to the poky kitchen, squatted on the disused oven and countered my tales with his own - and pretty mind-blowing they were too. He often moved his fingers in tune with his tales as if he were accompanying himself with silent music.

The boss at the Round Gardens was a guy in his fifties whom most of us, for whatever reason, called Teaser. He lived in a large establishment called Olive Villa near the seafront pier, into which he had introduced four erstwhile strangers: a fancy woman, this fancy woman’s daughter, the daughter’s husband together with a small boy.

At Christmas, we staff went to Olive Villa for a seasonal tipple. Robert didn’t drink, but he went for a chance to play solos on Teaser’s Grand. I went mainly because I did drink - probably too much for my own good, but what’s life without a little of what you fancy? I had my splashes on the rocks, anyway. Oh, I forgot to tell you, at the time there was a war going on and this seaside resort by the Naze took the brunt of the night flights from enemy quarters. On this particular Christmas (the third of the war, I think), Teaser had held a party at Olive Villa for all his hobnobbers. It was a strange one, to my eyes at any event, for everybody had to come in the clothes of the opposite sex. Robert said he was shocked, which I found surprising in view of what he had told me about his previous experiences.

Indeed, from whatever perspective, it was strange. The men had stockings threaded by hairy legs and wore utility print-dresses, false boobs and bottoms, eye-makeup fit for a circus act and falsetto voices to boot. The women in three-piece tweed suits, with deep turn-ups, fob watches, kipper ties and voices so gruff they must have nurtured sore throats for days before. Teaser loved it all. He was dressed as neither. He looked a bit like an angel or, maybe, a cricketer in white flannels.

Robert played the Grand. And the motley guests did old-time dancing, with the women leading the men across the large lounge floor. I sauntered from the kitchen, where the makeshift bar was erected, occasionally to take a good look because, even then, I realised that affairs such as this were the stuff of future memories. And what else was there in store for me but mere memories?

But, now, a word about Alice. She was teaser’s fancy woman in question: a rough diamond, grown from muck-heaps of war-time East London, true, but a lady for all that. She did not always put on airs and graces. Sharp, shrewd and forceful; one moment common, the next noble, but mostly a bit of both.

She treated me well, but Robert did not like her, called her the governor’s bit of stuff in her hearing, and she tried to get him sacked, but Teaser did not want to lose the best piano player on the East coast. She argued in her typical oblique fashion that Robert had tangled fingers, making the music unhearable.

All of which brings me to the night of that party. Like Teaser, Alice did not stoop to cross-dressing, yet sported a white organdy outfit, with a brushfire of flowers across the bodice. She took long drags at a slender cigarette-holder and held court as guests from time to time approached to flatter her.

Robert, I could see, when on my excursions from the steamy kitchen bar, was scowling as he played the Blue Danube for the umpteenth time. The waltzing couples swirled across the polished floor, as the air raid sirens whined distantly...yet they continued dancing like the dodgem cars on the pier. Suddenly, the total scene froze into what I can only call a waxwork tableau. Even now, I wonder whether it was me freaking out, or them. But, whatever the case, the piano music had stopped, allowing the deep droning to fill the newly vacated silence. Teaser and Alice had no doubt skedaddled off to the air-raid shelter at Olive Villa, to taunt each other with drunken jokes. And the men and women on the dance floor looked as if they had clothes - strung on washing-lines - hanging between them.

I hadn’t been drinking all that much, I can assure you, nor had Robert - him being a teetotaller after all - but he was moving freely about the dance floor, amid all the waxworks, waggling his fingers like drying underclothes. He was playing a plaintive tune that would have brought tears to my unblinking eyes and shivers to my spine, if I had not myself been carved from solid timelessness.

The war lasted longer than anyone had predicted. Robert disappeared from my life, as did the Round Gardens itself. I resigned my position, mainly because the smell of the sea did not agree with me.

I hitched to East London, to seek my fortune, only to have all my hopes dashed by the post-war slump. I did encounter someone who may well have been Robert, at Gibbet Court near St. Paul’s Cathdral - where they executed miscreants.

He was in the process of being strung up by a particularly vicious-looking hangman in drag. Robert’s head jerked in the noose...his tongue lolled out...his “gentle” stiffened...his eyes met mine, not in accusation, but in the manner of tenderness, as if he knew that I would be worse off alive in England’s future than in the utter purity of death’s blackness. He held out his fingers as if they were a parting gift. With that, his eyes filled with shadows, as if someone was turning down the dimmer-switch of his soul.

Among those who had crowded into Gibbet Court to share in the blood-lust, I saw a ragged busker playing a tuneless concertina in the hope of a brass farthing in his battered top hat. He held a sign saying he was Barnaby Rudge. Beside him, crouched on bruised haunches, was a scrawny female sucking on an empty bottle. The busker’s face looked remarkably like Teaser’s but he showed no sign of recognition when I said hello. I dropped my last coin into his scrimper, dye-casting yet one more memory.

At Olive Villa, fancy woman Alice’s grandson had lived, the toddler boy-child - and I fear that it was his memories that were to fill my future, rather than my own. But how would I ever tell? There was an ancient lady with the air of a rich widow, flounced up in clothes too young for her. The spectacles that rested precariously upon her foxed face were definitely a throwback to the nifty fifties, dark purple with removable butterfly flares on the upper frame. She spoke as if she were mistress of all she surveyed. The second participant in the memory was a younger man, in plus fours and tweed sports jacket: there were leather patches on the elbows and bright yellow socks which I could see were held up with calf suspenders. His face was familiar, naggingly so. The third individual lolling about in the easy parlour chairs was difficult to decipher as either male or female. The light was a bit tricky. It could only grow worse, for the afternoon was becoming late. Still, I just made out the outline of the person’s dressing-gown and head. It did not do much speaking but, when it did, the undertones were as if they were spoken in the next room. I was the fourth participant, yet unsure whether they knew I was there. I was hiding behind the Grand Piano.

“Everything was so simple then, Teaser, don’t you agree?” asked Alice. “People knew where they stood. I had admiring glances wherever I went. The people who now look so foreign were never seen. I doubt if they existed at all then. The woman who did for me at Olive Villa, she told me about her family. And I was only too pleased to give her a Christmas box each year to help out. And men? They were so gallant. The ones I met, anyway, and they did not automatically expect bodily contortions as repayment for their care and attention.”

Her voice was on edge, despite its intermittent laughter. She was evidently not so self-composed as I had originally assumed: the tones were brittle spiders arching like yawnercats. Or fingers clawing the silence. The carriage clock on the mantlepiece suddenly went dead: not that I had noticed its clacking beforehand, though it must have been there, I suppose.

“I can’t remember as far back as you,” said the one addressed as Teaser.

“Come on, come on, Teaser, you’re not so spring chicken as you’re cabbage looking!” said another participant.

“But I do recall those times as a child,” said Teaser. “I had a clockwork train going round a circular track which had only one station. The stupidity of it was lost on me then...”

“My grandson had one, too,” said Alice. “That reminds me, I bought him a space gun that worked off batteries, with coloured flashing lights. The newspapers said Prince Charles had been given one, so I decided what was good enough for him was good enough for my grandson.”

“Hello, Nanna, I’m back again,” I suddenly said.

There were startled glances as all three turned towards me in the piano. I suppose the sudden white glow of my speech patterns was enough to frighten even ghosts.

“I really did enjoy that gun present,” I continued. “I know I left you only too soon afterwards along with a dreadful disease that stitched my eyelids to the cheeks...”

Alice screeched incoherently. She watched the black and white keys depress themselves in the unholy rhythm of my speech chords.

Teaser stood up and, approaching me with a poker grabbed from the companion set, asked: “Who’s there? Come out into the open, whoever you are.” He watched the pedals for tell-tale signs of a piano-roll.

“Careful, Teaser, you’ll tear your scar,” said another, although my memory is not certain about the exact words.

“It’s only me, your little grandson, Nanna,” I tinkled. “I once played on your garden swing at Olive Villa in those endless hot days of lost childhood and raced marbles with Mum and Dad’s crib board. You loved me, didn’t you, Nanna? Your whole life centered around your only grandson. You came back from the Round Gardens to see my dear round face bounding along, eager to discover if you’d brought me another present. Remember that huge box of chocolate Smarties that Mummy threw on the fire because I’d spilt them on the floor? She didn’t want me to get a dreadful disease from the carpet. You were furious. You said that my mother never did anything but clean the house, what possible harm could have been done to me if I’d eaten the Smarties?”

“Careful, Alice,” said Teaser, “this entity is not what it seems!”

“He’s been dead these thirty-five years,” Alice sobbed, “and he has come back to me. Don’t take that away from me.” Her asthmatic clogging took sway for a few minutes, as she tried to get her tongue round the syllables of my name.

“I would trust that thing in the corner less than I would trust myself,” persisted Teaser.

She lifted her body and approached me, whilst doing a little mock jig to my undercurrents, as was her wont, to prove her bones had not seized up with age. I then knew it must be her.

The people in the room finally faded leaving me nearly alone: I just sat there staring sadly into the silent sound-box of death, flashing my torch on and off.

But another participant was still in the room: I had not noticed its shadow in the sorrow. It swivelled on its plinth, showing its naked bones stumping out yellowly like huge rotten teeth. This I knew must indeed be the real Teaser, returned from my memories, the man who had taken my grandmother to his bed, who owned Olive Villa and the garden with the swing and the nickname Teaser. He had always opened doors for ladies, despite sometimes dressing as one. Yes, no tease this time. He followed the others into fading, but not before his open maw of a body swallowed me into its gulfness. The past spun round my head like a confused train, slowly winding down as it got nowhere. Until it reached a secret ring-fenced garden of counterpoint memories...

My Mum and Dad never believed in banks. In fact, back in the old days, they would not have had enough money to make anything like that nearly viable. I often recall (and I am in a good position to recall, being an only child) their red tin. It was a flat box, about six by nine, and one high, with a hinged lid. Inside, their were eight sections partitioned by strips of tin in a grid...and it was in there that they saved their copper pennies and silver sixpences, shillings, two bob bits and half crowns, each section for a specific purpose, such as the gas bill, the rent, electricity and so forth. As far as I recall, there was no section called Bunce or Pin-Money… more’s the pity.

They didn’t have a name for this tin. But, I’ve thought of one since: How about a scrimper? But theysimply called it the Tin...plainly, innocently. More often than not, when a particular bill came up for payment, there might not be quite enough in its apportioned section of the Scrimper. I recall them getting into a huddle...trying to keep the worry away from me...and debated the pros and cons of moving a penny or two from a different section. Such a discussion was more important to them than a board meeting of the biggest global corporation.

What happened to the Scrimper? I often mean to ask them, when I make my increasingly rare visits. I wonder if they have left an odd copper in it for luck. Nowadays, they keep their money in a bank I’m sure, but how would I know? I’m not interested in money as such, only in things like the Scrimper which are full of memories. Like mascots, one should cherish memories, however painful. However pianoful.

Now, I don’t even question the mysteries of life; I rather bask in them. I simply compartmentalise between reality and fantasy...though I do often debate with myself the apportionment between them. But reality and fantasy can never overlap and, unlike the legendary Scrimper, never feed off each other nor tease one into believing it is the other.

It makes me unaccountably sad to think of my Mum and Dad. So I’ll let someone else do it instead. Someone else called ‘I’. Indeed, when I was lad, I had lots of imaginary playmates, like Teaser, Alice and Robert - except the last one was in fact myself. In those days I didn’t find much to do other than stare at the new-fangled TV contraption that my Mum and Dad bought for the black and white Coronation of the new Queen. From that time, being the only child of lonely parents, I noticed their eye-lids growing heavier and heavier, larger and larger like flaps of chicken breast. Yet I did not always stare at the TV. I also raced glass marbles, concocted knock-out competitions with a dice for sixty-four unknown names, listened to Radio 208, played Del Shannon 45 singles on my Dansette auto-change, formulated programme schedules for an imaginary radio station and climbed the bullace tree in the back garden to escape real-seeming enemies. My grandmother, who wanted to be called Nanna, made me a Davy Crockett hat from remnants of her fur... and often just she and I sat in the front parlour, where the electric plugs were of a smaller gauge - and we whiled away the time merely enjoying the security that such an ambiance provided for us, she clicking her number eight needles which sprouted endless knitting and me twiddling the tuning-knob on the great glowing console of the wireless, searching for a station playing “Apache” by The Shadows. The piano in the corner remained lidded over, because neither of us could play it.

Then Robert went to the Docks. He did not know why. He was older of course and now had the wherewithal for travel. He’d been through various experiences since the time of the heavy eyelids, the marbles with their colours as nicknames, the bullace tree (now chopped down) and the intimacy with his Nanna in the piano parlour. TV was now more taken for granted, less a novelty, a way of life that few avoided. His aging Mum and Dad slept for twenty-four hours in their armchairs in front of the expanding screen, ever since the TV programming had swallowed its own tail. There were so many radio stations scattered about the country, too, fading in and out as one sped along the motorways... playing all the same records with gaps for inane chatter which, whatever the dialect, ended up in the same result...the ears trying to grow flaps, but failing abysmally because God did not give ears lids like eyes. There were no longer any silences in the world.

So, he came to the Docks, for a self-awareness exercise, a re-spray and, oh yes, to find his piano-playing fingers. He followed an endless dock wall that itself traced the same course as the rail-lines embedded in the road. He often trailed his fingers along the abrasive surfaces, wincing at the ever-present pain. From time to time, he saw a mighty ship whose funnels seemed too big for it. He waved his fingers in the empty air. There were warehouses on top of each other as if built by a long-term inhabitant of a play school; security fences interspersed with red and white striped frontier poles; land wasting away beneath rusted heaps of girders and other unrecognisable hard muck; big tipper lorries shunting back and forth without really finding the depot they sought. He pointed, jabbed and made V-signs. Again the noise was in crescendo. Industrial gothic. Avant garde trills of so-called civilisation.

Let your fingers do the walking. Yellow pages wind-trailing the gutters. Robert followed, seemingly getting nowhere; he had to return to his car soon, but only if he could find it amid that grid of wide, unapportioned, tall-walled roads. He spotted a crane rearing into a darkening sky, like an antique TV transmitter, or like an ancient Gibbet, dangling a huge copper man-hole cover with the Queen’s head embedded.

Why the marbles came back to him at that point, it is hard to say. But I suddenly recalled that I only had one of them left from my childhood days, one left from those racing games, releasing them down a slope, after holding them in line with my Mum and Dad’s crib board, to see which one rolled the furthest. And that one was usually Split Dark Blue. I kept it in the car as a mascot. However, down the road came other old marble friends...Big Blur Green, Spot Yellow, Thick Red, Scratch Light Blue, Funny Green, Big Light Blue, Bubble Red and, oh yes, Split Dark Blue, the champion, himself ...all of them almost ten times life-sized, rolling along the grooves in the disused rail-lines, in disciplined parade. I saluted them...these were true friends...and I thought I saw a glimpse of a giant-sized version of Alice, Nanna, Grandmother, further down the dock road, bowling them towards me, one by one, a smile on her face (much younger then when she originally died). Alice in Toyland.

I waved my fingers. I felt secure, for the first time, in this huge parlour of the world. And as I heard the droning, we froze like waxworks, this time forever. Carved from solid timelessness. No teasing, this time. No scrimping the memories. You see, if memories are mascots. And the keys black and white only because there was no other reality than that locked into ancient TV screens.

Robert was found in a particularly downtrodden part of the Docks. When the doctor first examined his body, he was mystified by the ingrowing lids that completely covered his eyes as if someone had knitted them up. And why he was wearing an out-dated Davy Crockett hat from the fifties, not even his wife or children could guess. But the doctor failed to notice Robert’s missing fingers. You see, autopsies were far more careless when life itself had become so valueless.

Some people in life only reach the heats, others the quarter finals but, if you reach the final itself, you still cannot be sure of being the cream of the crop. Even the apparent winner may have further rounds to face, more thoughts to traverse, in an entirely different level of that knock-out competition which is Existence.

As the cross-dressed shadows rear, thankfully the dimmer-switch of memory clicks off with the very last piano-roll.

(published ‘Palace Corbie’ 1996)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Mouseful Of Pins

The parlour was as quiet as a mouseful of pins. In the depleting light, a pair of armchairs seemed peopled with stares. There had already been words of ghosts and frights, but neither set of eyes had flinched. The fire had dyed itself black, in recognition of the coal that had given it birth. A knock on the door or an unseen hand brushing against the shoulder might have startled their revery. Yet the simple scrabbling of a pointed creature in the wainscot was hardly worth the mention, let alone the pricking of ears - until one of them took up a second spate of speaking:-

“I travelled in a train - an ordinary day - except I listened to a number of ladies from behind me in the neighbouring part of the carriage. I couldn’t see them, but I guessed they were middle-aged or above. They had spent the whole journey so far chortling, gossipping, prattling of - wait for it - knitting! The train juddered northward uncaring, it seemed, of signals and stations - an express in every sense. Their banter ranged from treatises on back-stitches to belly-laughs on chain ones - every combination and convolution of the art of clicking needles together, weaving a web of action or reaction, of colour’s shade or husband’s size, stitches loose or tight, grip or wield, cast on or off. What a nice gathering - how very civilised in this day and age, I felt, listening to a knitting group on an outing. I’d never overheard such laughter and jollity surrounding doubts regarding brown against orange in a knitting pattern - something about tail-end wool. Then, as I heard the chunky clunk-click of large stitches being made, I wondered if they knew about the two main varieties of wool: shorling or morling. It hadn’t arisen in their conversation - which was a surprise, since everything else plain and purl had been chewed over and skittishly aired. Well, let me tell you...”

One nodded in the full-shrunken light of the parlour, as the other continued to speak:-

“...shorling is wool sheared off live sheep, morling that off those already dead. There is, believe it or not, a difference in feel. One is more suitable for men, the other women, but not necessarily for all men or all women. Well, I peered round the back of my train seat whence I heard the ladies’ ribbing, so as to tickle their fancy with my teaser. There, with long tapering bones clasped in their hands, were several large grizzled brutes of men with falsetto voices. One turned and gapped a smile. Another waved a criss-cross weave of vessels that would have looked better on the inside of a body than the out.”

The parlour wore an air of indifference, until the one who had been listening, assumed responsibility for manipulation of the meandering conversation:-

“I myself was also on a train once - the only time, in fact. Being an agoraphobic, I found it hard to travel. As the oil seed rape glanced by and further yellowed the sunshine, I speculated on my own loneliness in the world. Yes, alone in the whole wide world. For many years, people have believed that several dread diseases only needed a merest flesh-to-flesh contact to flourish. So, today, as we reach the end of the Millennium, there are no handshakes, no fleeting kisses, no rubbing together of shoulders, nothing like this can possibly be countenanced, not even the slightest brush of skin on skin - even with clothes between. Hence train seats have become single ones. This has led me to wonder whether all people other than myself are a dream. I have no means to prove otherwise, as you can appreciate. The simple act of dialogue has never been able to disprove this dream theory of mine. So, that day on the train, I was beset, as ever, with an attenuation of reality. No prestidigitation of philosophy could fully bolster the inferred substances of an otherwise rarified life, even when I took thoughts to the most dependable areas of logic. Simple touch between doubters would have been sufficient verification, but touch was simply out of the question. Yet, as the benighted city landscape made cruel overtures to the yellow meadows, I felt a caressing hand upon my padded shoulder ... but it was sheer imagination, a touch of Harry in the night…”

The first speaker had tried to interrupt. Yet nothing came from the mouth, as if it were full of tangled choking wool.

A snouty thing skittered across the carpet and plummetted up the cold parlour chimney towards the cloudless, yet starless, night sky. The agoraphobic, more startled than a rabbit in a sudden beam of light, abruptly realised that the state of death had indeed no more open space than its prior life. There was a sigh of relief as the parlour slowed beyond its way-station with a mouse-like squeak of brakes and anaemic hiss of steam. Both parties were glad that their thick-knitted mitten-ended twinset cardigans swaddled the whole skin’s map of surface needle-bones. Yet two loving vein-knotted touches crossed swords.

“Most memories are false, but when I am faced with the only true memory, which is death, I have then no need for it.” (From Rachel Mildeyes’ AUTOBIOGRAPHY, posthumously published on 31 December 1999 as revised and completed by Allen Ashley and HP Lovecraft)

(Published 'Roadworks' 1999)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Fair Of The Dog

“I am finding it hard to keep the noise down.” The speaker’s overalls were too thin to hide the sweat hollows. He had plunged what seemed to be his arm into a large cranking a lever! I stared in disbelief at the spinning flywheels and the crossmeshing of heavyduty cogs. For a short while, whatever he did appeared to work, since the crashing gears abated. Then, with a wink and a halfsmile, he withdrew the jagged stump of his arm...
* * *

The rest of the Fair was comparatively humdrum… and I had not even paid to witness the performance of the conscientious handyman in charge of the ferriswheel engine.

One item that did catch both my eyes, however, was a mediumsized marquee with an archetypal crowdstirrer outside, standing on a beerbarrel and waving his arms about. There was a twodimensional largerthanlife pasteboard model of a dog beside him and, even if I couldn’t hear precisely what the cheerleader was promoting, I didn’t have to guess at the nature of the show. The model dog had two heads on one body. Evidently, a mongrel.

I relinquished twopencehalfpenny to the crone with the ticket roll in her charge. Excruciatingly slowly, she tore off one ticket, ensuring that the rough edge was as straight as possible. In the process, she accidentally unravelled the rest of the tickets which, I could see with amusement, she painstakingly rewound on to the spool, before serving the next customer.

Inside (and still sharing a giggle with myself), I found it was darker than I expected it to be from the first impression of the marquee’s redandwhite silk billows - a bent old man whose face was hidden by the shadow of his nose proceeded to snatch the ticket from my hand so as to tear it in half...

I was therefore unsuprised to discover that the show had already started before I arrived in the hemispherical auditorium AND a huge logjam of braying prospective onlookers behind me.

The sun cast one narrow shaft through the unmanmade gap in the pinnacle which seemed to follow the act as it was led around the ring. It was not the dog, as THAT was evidently to be the grand finale. The elephant with three trunks did not seem to be in the same class.

Eventually, the complete crowd had all straggled in with their ticket stubs and settled noisily upon the tiered wooden benches. A few desultory acts were still being wheeled around. The only one (other than the unmemorable elephant) that I really recall was the bearded lady. Not only did did she have curlers in the beard, she also gave me a sweet smile. Or I took it as if the smile was directed towards me and, indeed, that it was a sweet one.

I heard the distant cackle of a laughing policeman dummy. It must have been going on for a long time, but this was the first time that I had noticed it. As the bearded lady ambled into the darkness of the tunnel leading to the menagerie, the angle of the sunbeam shifted from the esoteric crosspoint of meanings and the ring was thrown into shuddering shadow.

The audience shushed each other, fingers pressed to mouths in demonstration. The shushing was somewhat louder than their normal hubbub, so that the announcement that emerged from a tinny tannoy was entirely lost on me. Then, as silence gradually emptied the arena of noise, I could hear faraway shrieks from the ghosthouse - far too insistent to be tokens of joyful excitement.

The ticket woman hobbled in.

Could there be someone in the audience who had actually limboed in under the gaze of her scrutiny? For God’s sake, it appeared as if she were about to check everybody’s ticket half! Amidst moans and groans (and some squelches) - AND some pretty unrepeatable insults - she began to make a systematic checking. Then she came to me...

I searched my pockets in near panic. At the best of times, I could never find my comb. I KNEW I had been issued with a ticket. But where the hell was it? It must be lost in the lining. One pocket had dreadfully jagged holes, leading to regions of my jacket even I dared not plumb for fear of what I might find. In the end, with her beady eyes upon me, I took the plunge and...CHOMP! The little beast that had somehow crept into my jacket and lurked there, scuttled into the ring. It wagged its tail, as one head smirked and the other chewed. For a miniature it must have had extremely sharp teeth.

The onslaught of applause around me at the sight of this prize specimen of Creation in a revived cast of sunbeam shamed me into clapping, too. Or as best as I could, in the circumstances.

Published 'Dementia 13' 1990

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Plug