While others wander freely all around the world
Hear a tap tapping on the glass, see the big smiling face
Of another miscomprehending member of the human race
Head down little fellow, swim on
Never getting further than where you first begun
As the water grows more murky
And fungus patches spoil the orange of your skin
Dream of all the places you will never see
Swim after prizes you know you’ll never win
Until your race is done
Your tiny tattered body scooped up and flushed away
Perhaps to join the great sea at last
And finally feel the brightness of a sunny day.
[Sorry for the long break .]
I suppose society manipulates us all in one way or another. This is how it happened to me.
In 1978 I was a student at Bulmershe College of Higher Education, in Reading, half way through a BA course – Combined Studies: English Literature Major, Cinema and Theatre Studies Minor. The Film and Drama Majors seemed more energetic and fun, as you might expect, but I stuck doggedly to Literature, the first of a lifetime’s worth of errors in judgement.
A couple of details might give you an idea of Reading in 1978, where denim was the dominant textile in use – extravagantly flared jeans, maxi skirts, faded baggy denim jackets held together by patches of things like Snoopy or the love logo or popular slogans of the day such as “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, ‘Rumours’ by Fleetwood Mac the top selling album of all time.
In such a culture perhaps it’s not surprising that the students were devoid of any political sense, or much sense of any kind, which may explain how the Students Union came to select a classic TV variety style hypnotist to entertain them, as a change from murky lager smelling discos or currently popular music acts that my little college could afford.
Those of us with nowhere better to go turned up at the main hall, holding drinks from the college bar, in plastic mugs or beakers, too cultured to relish an entire evening in the bar, which was dominated by the Rugby Club, with their songs and drinking games.
To introductory music blaring over the PA Paul Globe, the star of this one man show, strode confidently onto the stage, in an off the peg suit that might befit a salesman of some kind, garishly patterned tie, microphone in hand.
“Good evening Reading!” he said, cheery and confident and quickly changing this greeting to “Good evening Bulmershe!”
The applause was polite but restrained, as it was quite a chilly evening.
“Tonight we are going to conduct an experiment in what you might know as hypnotism or mesmerism, or incorrectly consider to be a form of mind control, but which I like to call the attempt to unlock the potential of the human subconscious.”
With this and similarly persuasive phrases, Paul Globe managed to entice about twenty people onto the stage, myself included.
I had chosen literature over the stage, but still nursed ambitions so, though I had a shrewd idea of what sort of act Mr Globe’s would be, I was prepared to submit myself to indignity, hoping to learn something.
With practised smoothness, Globe got us to stand in an audience facing semi-circle, asked some individuals a few anodyne questions and then, after sending an insolent looking lad and a particularly sullen looking girl back to their seats – “Not everyone has the capacity” – leaving me to wonder why I, who took some pride in my capacity to be critical and not easily spellbound, had not been similarly dismissed, until the hypnotist took me be surprise for the first and only time by coming up to me and asking me to stand in a corner at the downstage rear.
Then, when I was properly placed facing the performance space’s unlovely rear, he asked me to start counting from one.
“One, two, three, four…”
It wasn’t difficult and so, always an obliging fellow and not wanting to spoil the fun, I kept on counting, even when Globe got his first laugh by directing his mic at me so the audience could hear what an obedient student I was,
“Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four…”
“Every scientific experiment requires a control”
Globe told the audience, as their chuckles died down.
I don’t think I missed much, though I couldn’t see the action from where I was standing; it all seemed such predictable stuff.
Globe got a boy to bark like a dog, convinced a girl she was eating a delicious ice lolly, reverted people to an earlier age – a boy who became a Manchester United loving ten year old, a girl who told us she wanted to be a nurse “When she grew up”.
Then a whole group were transported back to a Primary school playground, girls skipping together, boys having a game of footie.
One shy boy confessed to Globe that he “Loves Miss Brown ever so much!”
Now and then he would show the audience that I was still under his spell by directing the mic at me again:
“One hundred and eleven, one hundred and twelve, one hundred and thirteen, one hundred and fourteen…”
“Nine hundred and ninety-nine, one thousand, one thousand and one, one thousand and two…”
I was sure I could’ve walked off the stage at any time, but who cares what you do at that age?
I wasn’t actually humiliated, like the girl who was convinced that her clothes had disappeared and that she was standing in front of everyone stark naked.
She began sobbing to herself and, mercifully, Globe did release her from the spell and send her back to the anonymity of the audience, who gave her a generous hand.
It all seemed pretty banal – nobody was levitated or returned to a past life. The dead were not invoked and if this was a true “demonstration of the capacity of the human subconscious” I was rather disappointed but still, this was Reading, so what could you expect?
I don’t like to fail at a task, and counting has a certain charm, so I kept it up throughout:
“One thousand seven hundred and two, one thousand seven hundred and three, one thousand seven hundred and four…”
“Two thousand three hundred and three, two thousand three hundred and four…”
And on and on, until Globe appeared to run out of ideas, or get a little bored himself, and the act came to an abrupt end.
“There is no shame in having the capacity to unlock your present state of consciousness. There is no shame in being without that capacity. This was merely a demonstration, as I told you.”
Globe completed his act with some such mumbo jumbo and then, in a manner that sounded like pure ham to me, he added,
“Oh, I almost forgot!”
He waved the microphone in my direction one last time:
“Seven thousand one hundred and fifty-two, seven thousand one hundred and fifty-three…”
and gently brought me back to the ‘real’ world. He thanked me politely for my participation and for being a good sport and sent me on my way, inviting the audience to “give me a hand”.
The applause wasn’t brilliant, certainly not life changing, but it’s always good to hear and I soon forgot the whole evening. I didn’t feel damaged by it, only mildly bored.
Globe has not subsequently phoned me with a coded message to go and assassinate somebody, as far as I know.
Life has gone on in its dull way. Since then I have performed a few equally forgettable stage roles occasionally, but have yet to be ‘discovered’. I am aware of the power of suggestion but remain an obliging fellow who is willing to listen, not uncritically, to what others call reason.
However, tonight, years later, in 2014, it seems that I may have remained under Globe’s spell all this time.
My ability to manipulate numbers has not advanced very far, but I do keep counting, as we all must – the time, the temperature, the bank balance, the latest economic and political statistics, the expected earnings for the next week, or month, or years.
With computers and the present box ticking culture, it seems that all one can do is try to keep up with the numbers that keep mounting, so there is little room in one’s life for anything else. And I wonder if Globe could have been an agent of those who keep control of the figures, placed at that college to plant an idea, a way of seeing the world, a minor but abiding obsession that can’t be escaped.
I’ve got by and just survived the economic crises and recessions imposed on us since then – with the power of those all important statistics – by putting my personal ambitions on hold and doing whatever work is available to someone with a 2:2 degree from a minor college – counting stock in various shops or warehouses, occasional bouts of cover teaching, counting kids, keeping to my Job Seeking Agreements when unemployed by making sure I meet those targets – speak to the required number of employers and apply for so many jobs each and every week.
I have to count everything, from the number of words in an essay to the number of pounds and pennies left to last till the next payment, calculating the hours and minutes left in the day, how long I have before I have to get up, adding the number of years gone by and opportunities lost, watching or being told the details as time goes by. It all makes me so tired but it’s all I know, the only satisfaction I ever get calculating the sum of what I’ve done, noting how many years I’ve put in, and though I do envy those who don’t think that way I can’t help thinking that sooner or later they will have to count the cost.
Perhaps the boy who barked like a dog is still doing so in some way, the young woman who was shamed by her sense of nakedness still unable to bare it. Or am I the only one who is so easy to dupe?
If I could only believe that it was just me, that other people can think of something other than their own statistical data, then perhaps I could release myself from this oppressive sense of obligation to keep counting, to keep abreast of the latest figures, to keep hoping that I myself might in some way be counted, to count.
[Before the usual drivel, allow me to wish a sincere Merry Chrismas/Happy holidays to all readers of this blog, with thanks for all your interest and support, and special greetings to all those I have in any sense met and befriended thanks to the modern wonder that is the blogosphere.
The mordant piece below is my attempt to continue that lovely tradition - the spooky ghost story!]
The Ghost at Christmas
Sometimes the festive laughter has unease underneath
Glances are exchanged, certain subjects avoided
Someone is missing from the feast
The children up late are getting bad tempered
The remaining food’s started turning to leftovers
The presents and treats have spent their surprises
Long before they can all be paid for
Those few left awake can’t help but recall
Absent ones who didn’t make it this time
Passed away or passed over, lost, forgotten or uninvited
And, though the guests and the hosts don’t speak of it
One person, who always had something to add and to give,
Is in each of their minds
Should be at this table, was always essential.
This absence has a reason, but all must pretend not to notice
Because ghosts are not supposed to exist.
And who is this absent person, so sorely missed?
You mustn’t ask but know it’s true
That one day it will have to be you!
They hadn’t spoken for days, apart from dinner talk.
Finally, when Jason (who couldn’t sleep or get up without a cuddle) couldn’t stand it any more he pounced on Clara’s sleeping figure and tried to be ruthless but charming with it,
“Is it true that rape doesn’t count if it happens first thing in the morning?”
Clara rolled him off her and hurled him onto the floor with a couple of too well used moves.
“What the fuck are you doing!”
Jason had to laugh, though everything was so horrible.
He sat up gingerly, transformed in an instant from a priapic demigod to his usual prattish self, and smiled at his angry Clara.
“Sorry mate, you’re right. It’s time; I should tell you what I’m doing.”
“I know what you’ve been doing, you fool! I’ve seen the site, ages ago. ‘The War upon the Motorcar’ indeed! They can’t even be bothered to arrest you for it. Do you really think popping a few tyres is gonna change the world?”
“Several vehicles have been completely destroyed!”
She snorted at his boast, and that never sounded good to Jason. He just had to hope that some small percentage of that aggressive sound came out of amusement as well as irritation, or worse.
Clara sat up, which was nice. They usually missed each other in the mornings, now that Darren’s accident had destroyed their old routine. She’d have somewhere to go that she was already in danger of being late for. He’d be groggy from another weary night of pursuing his impractical schemes. Now she was sitting up looking at him and Jason could look back at her, into her eyes, try to define that clear, dark, china blue shade, hardly aware that anger was the reason for her long stare.
“It’s not helping, Jason. You’re just wasting your time – our time – and will only ever make things worse.”
“I know, but it’s all connected, don’t you see? People just need to be reminded that people are more important than cars and all this endless, meaningless traffic!”
“I all means something to somebody! Unlike what you do.”
Jason had to think it over yet again; he owed her that, but of course he didn’t want to. It was just the only thing he could think of doing, and he wanted to take it to such an extreme that something would have to happen.
“I admit that the methodology is stupid, but I’m working on that, darling.”
In fact he had done something the previous night, another first for him, that had wrecked two cars at once, and made it look like one of them had been at fault. It was the satisfaction of having achieved that much that had put him in such a frisky mood in the first place, though now he could only realise that the danger he’d put them in would’ve been doubled.
Clara gave up on getting any more rest and jumped out of bed, with the grace and decisiveness that would always thrill him, even when she swept past him so dismissively.
He looked at his watch. She had enough time to give him one more chance.
“Look, this could make a real difference if, if I can just get the right message out.”
She could only think of Darren now, and would really lose it with Jason if he delayed her getting to the boy’s bedside for another second.
“So what are you going to do today?”
She’d given up asking him to go to the hospital with her. He’d just mope about and accept whatever the medical people said.
“Why won’t you just deal with the reality of the situation and try to get some real help?”
“I can’t Clara! You know what the ‘real help’ is like. But I promise you, I won’t give up.”
She couldn’t argue with him any more; what was the point?
She felt like he needed her to build him up, and hated never being able to escape that tiresome responsibility. But she had to believe that Jason was capable of being some sort of useful resource, if she could only manage him properly.
“Well, what do you need? What is the point of this campaign? Have you got any plans?”
Jason hated projects, and he knew she would tear any suggestion of his to pieces. But finally having her interested enough to ask anything gave him some hope.
“I just want it to change from this lonely, doomed crusade to something that people want to support, a proper campaign!”
“Then we need allies.”
Jason hated ‘allies’! Pitiful as it was, this had been the one thing he’d kept to himself, that he could at least pretend to have some control over. Clara, his one real ally, would take that away without a thought and now he would have to allow her to do that; but it was good news, of course, and he did feel a bit more hopeful.
“It’s finding the right ones, of course. And please don’t tell me that we need to start a petition!”
“Yes, it’s really too serious for that now.”
Clara had her mug of tea and was back sitting on the bed, looking so thoughtful that Jason might have tried kissing her again, if only his back weren’t still aching from his last attempt at doing that.
Now into the third year of his despair, Jason realised he had been consigned to a kind of internal exile. The last time his country had been that badly damaged by the reassertion of the Status Quo he had gone and lived abroad for eight years. This time he couldn’t even afford to get his passport renewed, and this man of the pen had been indoctrinated by the mantra of the day: “Pen is penis; the PC is peaceful change”.
It was terribly believable, but he lacked the latest skills and was stuck with what he knew, only a few things that would always need saying, but nobody had time to listen any more.
The ‘War upon the Motorcar’ had brought him odd moments of guilty exhilaration and relief at not being detected, and then the understanding that his actions – despite some explosive attacks on parked cars – rather than being undetected, had barely even been noticed.
At his local news outlets each day, scanning the papers on the shelves, craning his neck (they had been placed upside down carefully to deter non paying headline readers like himself), still finding his actions ignored by even the pettiest tabloid.
That day’s local rag might occasionally contain some reference to his latest ‘Act of Vandalism’, never on the front page, never giving any indication that they understood the true purpose of it.
The campaign to ‘Pile up the Rubbish’ didn’t catch fire either, apart from the trash fire that had led to the Council removing what had only ever been an insignificant build up of litter around the estate.
The rest of his time, away from his ‘hobby’, Jason struggled to keep up with the petty demands placed upon him; he was always just a day or two away from going under completely.
The flat was in a state, and that was Jason’s responsibility too, because if Clara wasn’t at the hospital visiting Darren she was out getting more short term zero hour contract work than he could manage. Her mess was all about her daily routine – clothes hanging up, freshly laundered and waiting to be ironed, scraps of paper that ‘mustn’t be moved’, discarded or reserved products (he could never tell the difference) and items that got her to work looking presentable or relaxed her afterwards, their equally intimidating packaging, or the special piles of journals and correspondence relating to her never ending crusade to get the boy well and home, an increasingly lonely battle for Clara because he was so useless or clumsy in everything that might help Darren, Clara or even himself.
Left alone there, all Jason could think of to do was tidy up the place a bit, clean up his messy cups and plates, try and dust, and punish his own hoarder’s instincts by throwing out or at least cutting back his own ‘collections’, all worthless to everyone except him. His ‘war weapons’ were stored away and hidden from Clara, neatly enough but with the effect of making their home seem smaller and even more cramped.
Having partially completed that chore he would go on to making preparations for that night’s dinner or trying to keep up with his ‘job seeking’ obligatories – useless and irrelevant to him but mandatory, time consuming and stressful.
It was a treat to get off the computer but he had lost the ability to switch off and rest. He had to think but rejected each of his own ideas and schemes. The simplest effort distracted him, ate up his time uselessly, mocked him.
So he would sit or lie back, peer through the shutters or stare out the window, eavesdrop on the activities outside, imbibe the media’s latest messages of doom or enforced cheer.
The weather on that December day was cold but still; he could only think of worse storms coming, nothing good.
There was Darren’s room, kept intact, mainly by Clara, but already a place the boy would have outgrown, should he ever return. The memories it brought back to him were irresistible and unbearable, because there was nothing to replace them and it seemed there never would be.
He wasn’t really that angry with motorcars. They just represented the first offensive line of forces he couldn’t fully understand, or control any more than his little boy could. They had power, status and respect; his attempt to rebel against their dominance and the culture that accompanied them was just another aspect of what led to his loneliness, they helped to point out his uselessness, though what they contributed to was the destruction of the planet.
The dream was of course to change the world’s mind, make it see that there were other values, other ways to bring change. At that moment Jason could only see the extent of his failure. He couldn’t even think about it any more; he was irrelevant.
The familiar sound of Clara’s key working the door made him jump, and she came in, full of her day, radiating it’s chilly realities.
“I thought you were going out”
Clara said, not unkindly but without a hint of gladness. As she strode past him on the way to the kettle Jason noticed she was carrying a glossy shopping bag, a souvenir from more prosperous times.
he asked her. She ignored him for what seemed an age, not even offering to make him a cuppa. Then, her coat removed, mug put in it’s place on the coffee table but still standing, she pulled the bag open and removed a tatty toy they both knew well. It was a childish version of an elephant, made of some durable but unappealing form of rubberised plastic, a big artificial smile on its face.
“Of course I do!”
“I found it outside, right next to the bins.”
“I’m sure it’s not his but it is just like the one he had.”
“You sure? You sure it’s not something else you threw out that day?”
He couldn’t be sure about anything, of course, so he said nothing.
Clara might’ve started an argument, but she just rejected his belated effort to touch the precious reminder and stomped off to the bathroom with it, to sponge it clean and ask him, with the tender tone that always melted his heart,
“Do you think Darren would like it? Do you think it might wake him up a little?”
“I don’t know love. I hope so.”
“Don’t call me ‘love’, for God’s sake!”
So they lapsed into silence and he kept his distance but watched his wife, silently sharing the memories of happy bedtimes when saying goodnight to Eric the Elephant was the last thing their son asked of them before he snuggled down, ignoring their last kisses, and escaped into innocent oblivion.
Clara’s determination could drive him mad, but there were times when he genuinely admired it, taking strength from her refusal to give up, something he did every day. She would just keep going, every trivial action full of purpose.
“Your tea’s getting cold,” was all he could find to say but, though his words were useless, she could still find something in his tone that raised a wan smile, and she grabbed her mug and gulped down her drink.
“I’m sorry, it’s been a hell of a day.”
“Do you think he’ll get better?”
Too many of Jason’s previous promises had turned out be fruitless, but he truly wanted to say something that would make her feel better. Finally he half whispered,
“No matter what state he’s in, he’ll always know we love him,”
and, though he could even doubt that, Jason resolved there and then to make it so.
“So will you come to the hospital with me tomorrow?”
That was no comfort to Clara, his efforts had let her down too often before. She bristled a little but it was better than the gloom and negativity she usually came home to.
So that was their life, and Jason couldn’t imagine anything changing. He was so tired, everything so hopeless, but just having her there was a kind of comfort, so he could honestly imagine just giving it all up and accepting that nothing would ever change. It was the same despair, but at least it enabled him to smile when, in her own familiar tone of matching resignation Clara finally asked him the same old question,
“So, what have we got for supper?”
It’s different every time
And you only ever get a glimpse of the real thing
In all its unprepossessing glory.
Keeping your eyes open, to catch a sight
Might be considered rude
Undesirable, plain unpleasant, or unforgettably sweet
Intense concentration is required on all sides, of course!
That, or some insane level of intoxication
Utter ruthlessness, selfishness, cunning and spite
Or fearless, loving and joyful delight
Which cannot ever be faked
So far our intercourse has been more social than sexual, except perhaps
For one or other of us separately, once or twice?
That one time when your breath and voice touched my ear at once,
That was something else again, and I’ll never stop listening to you.
So, should you ever have or could feel something of the same
The prospects for deeper intimacy seem unusually good.
But sex! Sex is something else
It’s like trying to cook a special dish together
Fit for a “special occasion.”
Less self critical chefs or cooks might enjoy making a mess of it
Others might be horrified most of all
By the stolen bites and clumsy nibbles.
And we do have to be careful
When every moment together must be so memorable
When ridiculous things like shoes or cards or rings
And even the most abused and neglected, unkempt body parts
Suddenly draw unexpected attention and cause such tension
It’s unbearably impossible for love not to be mentioned.
So let us take time and use all the arts
To share and forgive our bodies and learn the secret of our hearts.
Darren’s condition remained stable but, however passionately Clara and Jason pleaded, the hospital would not let them take him home, explaining or at least claiming that he needed ‘special care’. This may well have been true, as the coma persisted for weeks, then months, and the doctors worked to stop the boy’s head swelling and pressing into his skull, but to Clara in particular it could seem as if “they” had simply decided to adopt her son for themselves. Every comment seemed like a criticism of her as a mother, and the way the ever smiling Dr Simbese (“Call me Joan”) spoke to her didn’t help.
“We’ll give your son the best care!” she said, “You must carry on your lives as normal, ready to welcome him home when he is ready.”
“Nothing is normal!”
Clara snapped, while Jason tried to be positive but to be supportive to Clara and to glean the best information and, of course, felt utterly useless in himself.
“Nothing is normal.”
While Darren was confined to a hospital bed and fed by tubes and could only be visited under strict supervision, Clara couldn’t think about much else. She tried, but couldn’t consider any of the temporary roles she was offered, even though the benefits agencies, seeing that Darren’s condition had stabilised and that Jason had failed to find a permanent job for himself, prepared the best way to force her back to work and, ideally, off at least some of the benefits she was in receipt of, as a mother whose child was under full time care.
Clara was aware, dimly, that Jason would shut off his PC and go out at night as soon as she had made him think that she was asleep.
She wanted to believe that he had some scheme, however mad, to bring Darren back home and, without destroying that hope by putting it into words, would ask him questions that seemed to Jason – who felt completely out of his depth – like further attempts to discover the secret of the war upon the motorcar (which, for her own protection, he couldn’t share with Clara) or just like veiled criticisms of himself as a father, a provider and as a man. So their relationship continued to deteriorate.
Thanks to his “magic spray” Jason could decimate up to five cars a night – the only satisfaction he was getting out of life – and, while anxious to escape detection, it didn’t seem to make any difference to the relentless flow of traffic round Southampton and Jason even began to be annoyed that his campaign wasn’t getting any attention apart from a few references on line, to the point where he began to think about how he could possibly go public without being arrested immediately.
As a kind of stop gap measure, a step towards fully revealing the true nature of his campaign, Jason started a subsidiary campaign, which was inspired by what appeared to be conditions deteriorating around the estate.
People seemed to be increasing the amounts of rubbish being dumped around the place – old furniture, including chairs, shelf units which varied in showiness of design but had all proved unable and too flimsy to meet the first test of an antique and last anything remotely close to fifty years of practical use before being rejected and thrown out – wardrobes, beds and all sorts of smaller items,outmoded flat screen TVs that had been replaced by other flat screen TVs that were even bigger or more digital, children’s toys, mattresses and so on and on, anything, in short, that the council would charge to have removed properly and which – the council having moved the town tip to a more distant spot only reachable by car – the inhabitants could only afford to jettison by stealth, often by simply throwing items from the most convenient window or balcony before clearing it away properly, or not.
As a conscientious green and “free cycler” himself, Jason would notice this buildup of random items placed near the bins behind each block, near the recycling bins by each car park or just anywhere, and in happier days he had picked up a lot of rubbish and a few treasures, leading to lively discussions with Clara as to which category each item he brought home fell into. And, having grown up on the rubbish strewn streets of central London, he would even feel a nostalgic inner glow where others might just complain about the neighbours causing such a mess, or blame the council for not clearing it up quicker.
The increase that might have been noticed at that time was really just for the usual reasons – people moving in or out, or dying, or wanting to treat themselves to “new” or different stuff, or finding a bargain of some sort, or selling ‘up’ or ‘down’ as their circumstances seemed to dictate.
After the shock of Darren’s accident had worn off a little and Jason began to notice his surroundings again the normal chaos seemed to be just more grist for the mill of his depression at first, but then he saw certain possibilities which he attempted to exploit.
Jason ‘s greeting to an elderly man who had approached the two large bins stored under their block at the same time as him was so unusual and so artificially boisterous that it almost frightened the life out of him!
Jason suppressed his irritation at being regarded with such fear and suspicion, and his distaste at observing the other’s unsorted waste, and attempted to strike up a friendly conversation.
“What do you think of all the rubbish dumped around here?”
“The rubbish round here!”
“I aint deaf!”
“The rubbish round here!”
“Yeah, it’s terrible; they should go back to their own countries, or Millbrook or wherever they came from.”
Racist as well as an irresponsible sorter of his own domestic detritus. This was why Jason generally didn’t speak to others living on the estate, or fancied himself to be a cut or two above them.
“Well, there is a lot of it, but sometimes it adds a bit of colour round the place, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the trees. And there’s a lot of good stuff mixed in with it, I expect. What’s that you’ve got there?”
Jason terrified the poor old boy again by diving boldly into his open carrier bag and pulling out an item that looked promising, but hard to assign to either the big general waste bin or the recycling one.
“That’s my old radio!” The man (who was called Charles and affectionately known as Charlie by the dwindling number of people who knew and liked him) retorted with the sudden interest that energises people when other people take a sudden interest in something they’re about to throw out.
“A radio! Oh yeah. Is it broken?”
“Had it for years.”
“Much better than the TV, aren’t they? The pictures are better.”
“It’s got no pictures, it’s a radio!”
“You know what I mean! Er, what’s wrong with it, is it broken?”
Jason couldn’t go so far as to claim that he could fix it, but the two of them did bond a little as they examined the ancient transistor, neither remembering that non digital radio signals had recently been taken off the air.
“Don’t know what you mean about the rubbish looking good, mate, it’s a disgrace! The council should keep up with it all and take it away properly.”
This gave Jason a way to work around to his potentially cunning agenda.
“We should protest!”
“That never works; it only causes more trouble than it ever sorts out. What about, anyway?”
“About all this rubbish everywhere! And if the council had any sense they’d make some money out of it by recycling it properly and not just driving it off to the nearest landfill or whatever.”
Jason continued to make his case in wearisome detail that the reader need not not at present be wearied with until, as with so many ‘politicians’ of all colours he had so wearied his listener – Charlie in this case – that he felt obliged to at least agree with him.
“Well anyway,” Charlie looked longingly toward the door of his single bedroomed but ground floor flat whilst attempting to placate this nutter long enough to make a getaway, “The council never listens to anything, so what’s the point? Do you mind?”
Jason picked up Charlie’s remaining rubbish bags and his own modest leavings, taking care to choose the right receptacle for each item, while carefully choosing his words.
“That’s why we’ve got to use reverse psychology, if you know what I mean. The council isn’t going to do anything if we just make ineffectual complaints. We’ve got to take bold and direct action!”
Heedless of the further alarm he was causing Charlie, Jason ploughed on, in effect thinking aloud.
“They won’t be bothered if we just quietly put away what we can and wait for them to deal with the big stuff. We should just leave it all to rot until it makes a big enough mess to attract nation wide attention, or city wide at least. A big enough mess to, dare I say it? Hold up the traffic!”
Rapidly reassigning Jason from the category of harmless nutter to that of a dangerous one, Charlie covered a rapid retreat with a tide of incoherent muttering, while Jason entranced himself envisioning the block’s bin area, the neighbouring patch of grass, access routes, the entrance lobby and indeed the whole ground floor of that and all the other blocks on the estate, even its one tower block, all covered in litter, scrap and trash until individual piles of waste overflowed and combined with each other into one massive ocean of junk, from the tiniest tissue to the most enormous item of domestic equipment, finally achieving his ultimate aim, causing an obstruction that would be impossible for any vehicle to get through.
Meanwhile, Clara had taken a rare afternoon off her duties at the hospital – which now consisted of patiently staying by her boy’s side tending to every possible need that the nursing staff might have missed, and pressing anyone she could find with time to talk, anyone at all, for specific answers – to go to a meeting at the quietest café that could be found near the General Hospital, for parents, mostly mothers, in a similar position.
She recognised several faces she had seen before, in those unwelcoming corridors where each of them had spent a few desperate minutes finding where their child had last been confined, to be prepared for operations and/or subjected to courses of therapy that they could never ever learn enough about until the ordeal would finally be brought to an end by the tragedy they dreaded or the resolution they dreamt of, whatever the odds.
Clara had never really been at the heart of a medical crisis before, but plenty had. After several soothing minutes of mutual sympathy and tears, with the blessed relief of exchanging the details of their individual stories, the meeting was ‘called to order’ by Shelly, the woman who claimed to have the most experience in chairing meetings and who had the most obvious chance of using the familiar routines of appointing a minutes taker, proposing procedures and setting agendas to distract herself and dull her own pain.
They started with some hope of pooling their skills and experience, and there was quiet consolation in agreeing the time and venue of the next meeting, which would be held, at her insistence, at Tracey’s beautiful home, which everyone there soon realised was all she felt she had to offer and the only place where she could hope to feel remotely normal.
The absent parents and especially the dads came in for a considerable amount of humorous mockery and bitter criticism, but Clara, though it had been good to feel like there were others there who could understand what she was going through the only way anyone possibly could, having got used to this different situation, found herself growing surprisingly irritated with everyone there, the repeated explanations of why Southampton’s health care system was so useless, the claims of knowing about the most miraculous cures, the agonising dumb show of grief and anxiety which some present were not yet able to conceal.
The meeting concluded with an agreement to organise a fund raising event, “to make people aware of the situation” which, it was finally decided after much wrangling, should be a jumble sale, the sort of worthy effort that Clara, in happier days, with Jason’s encouragement, might have affected to despise.
So they trailed out, each gloomily considering which possessions they might be willing to sacrifice to the cause, remembering the memories and efforts associated with each one of them.
There was one face that stood out for Clara and seemed to offer a real hope of companionship. Yes, Linda might not have some solid information for them all, but there was something about her tough, unsmiling expression that seemed to offer the hope of a new and mutually supportive friendship.
“Thank the Lord that’s over for another month,” Linda said to Clara boldly, as they made their way out and back to their parked cars, “I hate that sort of thing, it’s so boring, with everybody trying to be so serious. Get over yourself! That’s what I always end up saying. Stuff Tracey’s place; next time let’s meet in a pub!”
Clara certainly enjoyed the idea of doing that, but Linda had two kids due back from school and couldn’t stay to look for a suitable venue. So Clara stopped for a lonely glass of warm white wine and made her way back to the Northam estate.
She had only ever accepted living there as a temporary measure, and when she got back to it the estate, though busy with the usual after school crowd, certainly looked particularly gloomy and ramshackle on that day, kids shouting at each other, sheets of newspaper blowing around as a breeze blew up and rain started.
She was going around the back of her block to avoid the playground when she was woken out of her reverie by a solid thump and then a sudden shower of broken bits of wood spraying shockingly close to her, from the flimsy little cot of an infant babe.
That was followed by what Clara could now see was the cheap mattress that went with it, floating down to land on the grass, to be held in place by the dampness of it.
Clara looked up instinctively and saw Jason leaning out of their window at a crazy angle, struggling to work the remains of their son’s first computer out of it.
“We’ve got to pile up the rubbish!”
Jason was saying when Clara found him in the chaos that used to be Darren’s room, just about to chuck what was left of their baby’s clothes after his first bed.
“We’ve got to pile up the rubbish!”
[Sorry, left myself too little time tonight, early start, batteries dead. Hope these three poems from 209 make an interesting read.]
After We were Beaten
We used to see documentaries
That showed all the evils of other states
The criminal madness of their leaders
The brave but hopelessly tiny minorities
That fought and died for freedom.
Now we know that our leaders were really the worst
That those we’d despised were right.
We used to look down on the rest of the world
Believing that our ways were best
That all sins could be forgiven
In a country of such wealth, such history
And though we knew that things could be better
We only rebelled in ways that wouldn’t rock the boat.
Now we are caught by the turning tide
Follow rules we no longer understand.
We used not to be afraid of making a noise
Didn’t mind making fools of ourselves
For any good cause, or just for a laugh
Now we must never make another mistake
Be perfectly obedient and pray that we seem stupid.
Meanwhile Terrible Things are happening in the World
Which is more painful to dream about
A real woman you’ll never have
Or an unreal woman you’ll never meet?
Both dreams are wrong, but serve a purpose
To live in the Eden of ignorance
Or to drain the snake that always renews its venom,
To staunch the old wound for another night
Or suffer in hope until the morning comes?
How far this is from love, I know
My love just carries on, a continual throbbing drone
Though l persist in living alone.
If we let ourselves rest we could dream better dreams
Meanwhile terrible things are happening in the world
Signs of Life
In a tree nearby two crows are making a terrible row
Screeching at each other like a squabbling couple.
Reflected in my shaving mirror
I see a large Winged insect flying past behind me
For a moment I think it’s a small bird.
Salieri’s Requiem is playing on the radio
It’s not so bad as the press he got
Not so bad.
Hate to be the one to tell you
And please understand my dearest
That I’m only talking about the skin
Around your funny bone and surrounding area
But from there it has gone, the youth of it
And no amount of lotion will ever return it
To the time when that portion of flesh
Glowed from within like a flame through wax.
Still beautiful, precious and your own
While much of your flesh is still perfectly fresh
The first bloom has left that bony knob on your arm
We must mourn it and remember
The wrinkled relic that remains there remains your own, precious and beautiful
Different now but still deserving love.
I shall kiss it still, more tenderly yet
So please don’t shove it in my face again!
[Don't be scared, faithful readers, The War upon the Motorcar will resume next week]