Tuesday, April 29, 2008

By The Bootstraps

(published 'Silver Wolf' 1994)

She kept quiet for most of the day, except when she resorted to dark corners of the house and sobbed her heart out.

When she invited me to live with her, I was in two minds. How could I be confident that I was the one to pull her up by the bootstraps?

Relationships, in my experience, had tended to drag people down. And wasn’t I evidence of that very rule?

For years now, I’d visited Vera for quiet Sunday teas. Little more than a nephew visiting his aunt for understated conversations on dark afternoons. Except she wasn’t my aunt...it just seemed that way.

There was nothing more to it. We had originally met at night school and decided to score a few bonus points in human contact, before our results were totted up.

I was too old to be her nephew in normal circumstances, but the age difference was not impossible. I gave her flowers every time, for the price of a tea. But I would’ve given her flowers without the tea. And she would’ve supplied the tea without the flowers.

I forget now what we talked about. Sometimes it was what preoccupied the Sunday papers. Or library books we had exchanged the week before. Or, even, the weather which, needless to say, was gloomy whatever the time of year.

I’ve forgotten those conversations, since co-habitation has forced me to watch what I say even to the extent of surrendering what I once said to oblivion. A mind has only room for one set of obligations and emotional etiquette. Living with Vera brought into focus her utter sadness. She had successfully concealed this during Sunday teas. Now, I was made aware of the failed suicides carried around inside herself during the dusting, mopping and culinary duties which she assumed at the slightest excuse.

I began to blot out matters I once broached in preference to small talk. Such topics must’ve really brought her low. World news had been depressing at the best of times. And bootless badinage thankfully ensued.

Once television had run itself into the ground with interrupted jokes and even crueller slapstick, once the soap operas outgrew themselves with meaningful morals, I talked louder, mixing my own speech rhythms with those on the screen - in the hope that she wouldn’t notice.

Then we tried to switch back to ourselves: clumsy attentions towards each other... wordless shapes which weren’t really our bodies at all, perhaps... fumbling forms of darkness...

Predictably, Vera was begining to die. She was older than me, after all. We held hands, neither of us speaking... and, towards the end, it was for dear life.

I still don’t know which of us spoke last. And knowing that has no point in any event - thankful only that we had been given the chance to make such unlikely love.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Published 'Works' 1995

Ruthven had much pain to come. Once a rich man of the City, he now contemplated what remained of his short life. People to die, people he loved, and, finally, himself--racked with pain and pointlessness. He drew the covers to his chin and followed the cracks in the ceiling to their uneasy confluence of rivers. Suffering had been so far contained within reasonable margins, so he wondered whether the worst pain was incubating, moving slowly against fate's dam, threatening to overspill at any moment.

The bedroom window rattled in a sporadic wind, the only element breaking the only silence. And the only person, perhaps the only one in the world, dreamed everything, thousands of self-imposed dreams crowding nightmare's dam, threatening to break out in one fell swoop or, at best, simply seep through the haircracks in the ceiling--silver teardrop by silver teardrop like counterfeit shilling-coins.

There had been little rain: cold dry summers edging into endless winter. The sun was a dull orange stain upon the curtains, as if it were incontinent. He recalled the others who had shared his pillows--but even the pillows had been stuffed into the rucksacks of derelict ghosts, who were now traipsing into the distance of his fading imagination; the only remaining pillow under his head was sodden with dark sweat, into which he turned his only face with a sob.

There was more than just wind at the window. Fingernails cut their teeth upon it. They were not people, but monsters, the only monsters left to taunt the one monster who still called itself man. He turned bodily in his sleep, if indeed sleep it could be called. His dreams were of clean sheets, silk sheets--and the pillow full of teased satin feathers for a pillow-fight at a schoolgirls' midnight feast--and a body so soft, so luscious, so self-responsive, he was confident that love could outlast the night. He should have known money could not purchase such love when the chips were finally counted.

Then, through the billowing curtains, there came the creature--a huge monstrosity with huge flapping banknote wings, one huge searing searchlight eye and the smallest possible credibility--shaping out the arrival of night in its own shape, a shape the sleeper could not fathom nor, in a million years, have invented. This was the shape of pain to come, now finally come--dripping indeed with spent come. Only to find the bed empty. Empty of even the last dream. The pillow plump.

The cracks in the ceiling drew to a tangled doodle of tentacles--but nobody was left to tease out the final clear-cut image. The sleeper had departed in one final trial of nightmare--to reseek his fortune in the City, where it was said the streets were paved with gold--and the low lying motorway across the central City filled quickly with sea-water after marauders undermined the coastal dam--but the palace was water-logged and the pelican crossings impassable. The money-lenders foreclosed when the Exchange's plimsoll-line for narrow money supply fell short of the realizable residue of the readies.

Ruthven became senior dosser, on the southernmost bank, but did not have enough pockets to take what came floating down with man-made tides. Then there was the body in the water. Ruthven recognised the body that must have thrown itself in. A mock-up, a right Madame of a waxwork.

"Blimey, that body's me!" he screeched to the wizened woman who took alternate sucks with him on a bottle of pother.

"Now! Now! That can't be you, 'cos you are here." And she pointed to the bottle's glass neck which he French-kissed. "That’s your reason for living."

"But it sure looks like me bobbing like a corpse." The Thames twined between hard shoulders that were planned from time immemorial for its course. Large black inverted statues of fish creatures supped at its margins. In the distance, the searchlight on the top of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral winked like a lighthouse, its beams crossing the whole of the city skyline "with the revolving spokes of qod on His one-wheeler,” some smart-arse dosser nearby whined out.

Professional wreckers were discerned combing the more outlying areas, in wait for bankers--craft to be lured into the darker canal regions--yet unplumbed by any upstart A to Z cartographer recently laid off in Venice. Dislodged pavement slabs with the gold plate flaking off stood on end like reefs. Floating merchantmen cast money-notes to the wind, in the hope that such inflation-ridden confetti would placate any robbers. They even launched giant coins in cork life-rings as some cosmic game of Shove-Halfpenny. The dossers gambled upon them eventually landing between the tramline territories. It was all a cheap way of keeping busy those who would otherwise be dangerous.

Ruthven turned over under the gummed banknotes that were unaccountably warmer than newspapers. He could not sleep properly, however, because of the hard currency in his back. There was old gold with which to enamel the city basin and hard loot to sink in venture capital: such were his waking dreams, born out of sunset, by high-rise. The wizened woman put a finger to his cheek--and sunk it to the bottom bone of spent existence, through the yellow waxy loam of his flesh. She felt his heart turn over like a sick house-pet in its sleep.

The Ferris-Wheel eye in the sky hovered--a huge silent Angel Helicopter. Even as children, they never had enough pockets for the money. She wept to see how shorter she had became than when first a child. The coins were now so huge and dragging, yet worthless. She idly counted the "blessings” as they floated upon the scummy river: ancient uncustomised vehicles which used to circle the City rather than dare cross it. She turned a blind eye and took suck at Ruthven's ribbed chimney-flesh neck, whence the head had crumbled. She believed that God was probably a Dosser who could not bear the flesh-corrupted body with which He had been saddled, so he flung it off him in skin-shit desiccations of gold--whilst the vast money-spider monster sat upon the Cathedral's dome, knitting its tentacles.

The dam which finally burst was not one of fate nor of nightmare, but that of death itself. Yet Ruthven's previous pain had not presaged a healing death, only more pain, a pain that was so painful he could only hope to share it amongst others. And upon the death of each human creature, the residual pain continued to grow for those still left alive. And still does. A tontine of torment.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Folie de doute

Published 'Sierra Heaven' 1995

I am accused of gullibility. Yet it will not stretch into believing that anybody can be as paranoiac as Sandall.

I first encountered his existence at school, where both of us are cruelly bullied: a fact which fails to bring us closer, simply seeing each other as distant co-victims, too crestfallen to taken things further than that. Yet I can easily imagine Sandall telling me of the awful dreads instilled in him by a supposedly impending torture worse than having the fingernails ripped out one by one. I suspect, too, that he in turn empathises with my similar dreads, hoping the effort of cultivating me as an acquaintance, let alone as a soulmate ... is a sign of single-mindedness? A belief system unsaddled from paranoia? Or simply a tortured admission of schizophrenia?

After all, my name, if you can credit it, is Sandall.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Ghostly Time

Published 'Ammonite' 1995

Madge sung as she spun. Motes of dust were hanging in air’s limbo - thus frozen by the laminar flows of her faultless wheel-treadling - whilst seasonal storms stung her cottage window with salt and the oil wick grew gloomier. Madge’s singing, like her spinning, was loomed upon the rote of memory — and even the darkness invading her parlour from the sea could not sway such mindless efficiency.

Abruptly, the wheel snagged and halted, as if something had become lodged between the wooden spokes. Her revery disrupted, Madge thought she had just seen the dead - or the dead had just seen her. The wind whined and pretended to be a thousand Hell’s demons wildly spitting upon the panes. She idly speculated that either the wick had turned the dimness pink or the very morling wool being spooled upon the floor by the wheel’s extruder was already dyed by its donor sheep. She imagined the coiling strands to be shredded threads of various husbands’ remains: those various husbands she had shorn of their manhood over the unreckonable years.

A retributive ghost, she finally assumed, had left its disembodied hand in the wheel, during a state of temporary semi-materialisation, the blood from its wrist stump dripping upon the spun wool. Madge smiled at this now more likely explanation - for well she might, the ghost having failed in its course of vengeance - and threw the barely warm hand into the fire grate as potential kindle. Then, she resumed her mindless crooning to the wheel’s relentless hum. She did not even bother to remember whether she had recognised the familiar feel of the hand’s sweaty grip.

Another day, another night, another misplaced memory. Madge squatted on the stool before the fire dreaming that she no longer existed or, at best, she was a ghost returned to find her stool empty. Perhaps, she had never lived at all and the series of men wedded to her between drowning tragedies had been no more than betrothed to a lick and a promise. She did not question how such words came to her in this state of rarification.

The sea’s sound was softer tonight outside her cottage. On those earlier occasions of storm when the rollercoasting fishing-boats trailed nets like desiccated wings, she was accustomed to stare through the fucus-spattered panes for a sign of her latest husband’s bobbing torchlit homecoming: but with no hope of catching the squelch of his thigh boots through the salty puddles. Yet, now, tonight, with the fire having doused its crackling, it would have been possible to hear his breathing at the distance of a speck on the runnelled horizon.

She had surrendered the merry-go-round of marriages after the feather-toed creatures of the sea had failed to return her last one. She had been granted simple mementoes of all previous husbands — a cheek-flap or a nuggetted finger or barnacled toe. Sometimes, the bits were delivered late, half-decades late. Tomorrow, the delivery may be a man’s sea-weathered privities on a silver tray, like an aborted Innsmouth lobster.

She wept. The privities might be those of one six husbands ago: the only man who had been able to service her better than she could herself.

The weeping made little noise, like a corpse’s. And as dawn broke, the knocking was fainter than the wings of an angel-fish; quieter even than the many squelching tip-toes that preceded it.

Now to my own story, the one I know best. You see, I once saw Madge standing and I likened her figure to a shrunken, blackened lighthouse with its one failed eye-beam flowing, then flapping down the torso like shadowy wings of a cloak. She was barely visible against a storm-cloud, the darkness of which fed upon a cross-section of the sea that was as straight, long and narrow as the distant horizon. It was strange that only a few seconds had passed since the sun first turned into a solitary purple bruise of a cloud.

She was awaiting, I assumed, the return of her latest husband who usually had to fish the sea until the last daylight was sucked back by the surfacing wreck-fish. This had been no raw deal on better nights when the giddiheads of thundercloud were nowhere near. But, today, she must have wondered why he was braving the onset of foul weather. The need for catch was surely not desperate enough for such measures. But, of course, recently, the salt-wine had scrawny fruit for fins and bones. Nothing but a mouthful of scales for breakfast

Wait, what was that shape at sea darker even than the storm? I crawled nearer to Madge’s skirts to catch her low mumbles. I cupped my fan-nerved hand to my ear:

“Ne’er-be-lickit is my belly’s tongue,
Cradle-clothes are stuffed within me,
Winding-sheets swaddle a love unsung,
And a funk-willie’s my man’s chimney.”

She faltered in her tuneless crooning, since the shape had by now become obvious to her, too. If I had known the words of her song of childlessness, I would have continued it. Instead, I made it up as I myself took up the strain:

“Hog’s lard, fear-babe and pricker-roach,
Sea-shade, blub-bring and earth-fly,
I must boil the sea, let them poach,
‘Cos gulpswollen is my birth-eye.”

The sea soon regurgitated its prey before the storm broke. I helped Madge drag it back through the sand-puddles to the cottage where we put it to bed together, like parents tucking in their only child.

Her tears were dry. I wondered if she even noticed me helping at all. Clambering to the window sill, I could see the storm had nurtured the tallest, most imposing lighthouse ever, sweeping the sky with a god’s flashing eyes. I sang, wordlessly this time, in the hope it would lull Madge into a dreamless slumber. Eventually I nuzzled up to her, to ease a bout of the shyfryngs. Seeing, my solitary birth-eye in the darkness, I assumed she knew I was the baby to whom she’d never given birth. Or was it that the past had no monopoly on ghosts?