Monday, September 15, 2008

More moon gazing

Just now it's nearly dark. The trees look especially black, like wooden scenery put up in front of a real sky. Mother of pearl swirls of cloud and blue yonder drift around above them. Over to my left a neatly bisected moon slides behind dull thick low cloud in another sky.

I can see time in the growing darkness.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mr Fitzgerald's Translation

It was a bitterly cold morning with a reluctant, grey light. Hastings, the housemaid, did not knock at the morning-room door because there was no reason for her to expect any member of the family to be inside at six o'clock. She nearly dropped her coal bucket therefore when she suddenly caught sight of the rear half of Mr Fitzgerald, still clad in evening dress. He was on his hands and knees behind the heavy brocade sofa. His front half rapidly appeared and he explained that he had been up all night searching for his latest manuscript. Hastings listened politely to this and then turned as soon as she could to attend to the grate. As she lifted out her papers to light it, Mr Fitzgerald seized upon them with delight.

How they had found their way into the kindling box was never discovered.

The family took breakfast at eight o'clock as usual, in their customary convivial silence, each immersed in their reading matter of choice. The smells of kidneys, smoked kippers and slightly burned porridge mingled with coal dust, and the only sounds were of silver against china and the crackles from the well-established coal fire. Mr Fitzgerald spread his pages out around his end of the table and nearly but not quite avoided getting marmelade on them. Before he had finished ordering them, Hastings knocked to say that his cab had arrived.

He gathered up the manuscript and his leather attache case, and out in the cold hall shrugged his shoulders into his great-coat. Hastings handed him his umbrella and hat, and opened the door.

The driver lent down to open the hansom cab door for him and he swung himself up into the red padded interior. There was an overwhelming smell of pipe tobacco from a previous occupant, and he lowered the window, but the rain immediately blew in so he hoisted it shut again. The cab rolled across the cobbles with the rhythmic swing of the horse's gait, and very shortly Mr Fitzgerald was sleeping soundly. His papers slipped down from his grasp to lodge behind the upholstery of the seat.

After a quarter of an hour the cab drew to a halt and the driver announced their arrival. It was only when he tapped with his whip against the door that his passenger awoke with a start and hurriedly sprang out, handed him a generous fare and eagerly ascended the steps of his publisher's premises. The cab moved off again down the street, and along with it went the manuscript.

The cab's next passenger, an elderly curate, read the first two pages and declared it to the driver to be a heathen abomination. The driver deduced the identity of the manuscript's owner without difficulty and retraced his route in the confident expectation of a tip that would be very handsome indeed, and in this he was not disappointed.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Alice surveyed the sea of mud around her that would tomorrow become her first show garden, whether it was ready or not. The site was a challenging one, facing north and near the main road, but her design had cleverly turned this to advantage. She thought of the neatly drawn circles on heavy quality cartridge paper and clenched her teeth to stop the tears. The early frown-lines deepened in her forehead and she swallowed hard. She bundled her latest revised timeplan for the final day's work into her portfolio and decided to run on gut instinct in the few hours that remained. First she had to have tea though.

She went into the back of the van and lit the stove. It was a risky business because the table was piled high with a precarious stack of plant labels, unopened envelopes, sweet-wrappers, and parking tickets. Alice turned her back but still felt them looming at her as she rinsed out the least dirty mug she could find. And then she realised it would have to be instant milk. She dug out another Tesco's Finest Belgian chocolate bar from a bag on the floor. There were two more but she was going to be sick of the stuff with nothing else to eat for the rest of the night.

She put the chocolate into the deepest pocket of her Barbour and climbed down from the van, wincing as she realised that yet again, she'd worn her mud-caked boots inside it. Tucked into her boots Alice wore a pair of vintage-style jodhurs with voluminous legs; in daylight hours she crammed an old felt Homburg hat on her head, all year round. She was an American's ideal English eccentric.

All along the front of the garden plot her plants waited in neat rows, tallest at the back, all painfully short of water. She couldn't water them now though because the supply had been turned off at 11pm. Alice put her tea down and tried but failed not to think how much she'd spent on those plants, not to mention the seeds ordered from Kew, the huge deliveries of specialist compost, all unused because she hadn't got round to sowing them herself in time.

She shivered in the cooling night-time air, and then stirred herself to start work again. She picked up two armfuls of pots and walked carefully across the uneven duck-boards that ran along the main bed of the plot. The earth lay in spade-sized clods, shining in the floodlights. Rough brushwood fencing from the adjoining plot formed the rear, and the sides were still open.

Alice felt so sick with nerves, she could hardly taste her tea as more than just scorching hot. From the road came the sound of the commercial bins being emptied, and a rancid smell drifted down on the wind. It was going to be a long night, and by now even Alice had to accept that it wouldn't be long enough.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Street scene, from a child's point of view (an exercise, 500 words)

Mum had gone off with Ed. She'd given me a mint Aero (one of the jumbo ones) and said she'd kill me if I wasn't right there when she came back.

I sat down on the step and looked under the red blanket at the back of it but there wasn't anything there and it smelled of wee. Then I took my phone out and texted Kaz but he didn't answer. People kept kicking into my feet which was really annoying so I sat back against the door.

I closed my eyes and went to look for Hawkwind. He was sitting by the river, fishing. He put a rod up for me too. All around us there were big high reeds, and crocodiles in the water, and buffaloes on the other bank. Then one of the crocodiles got hold of the end of Hawkwind's rod and pulled him in.

A woman was talking to me so I had to open my eyes, even though Hawkwind was shouting out for me. She had glasses on that made her look like she had two sets of eyes. I could tell she didn't know how to do her lipstick like Mum's and Nan's, and her ear-rings were really teensy little ones, just white.

"Are you alright, dear?" she was asking.

"Yes thanks".

"Is your Mummy with you?"

Well that was a pretty dumb question. You could see it was just me there, and the red blanket. I knew she couldn't see Hawkwind.

"Mum's going to be back soon, I'm waiting for her."

The woman stood up again, so I shut my eyes and went to rescue Hawkwind. He was thrashing about and screaming because the crocodile had his jaws round his middle. I waded out and climbed onto the crocodile's back, and reached down to grab his nose, but I had to stop again because the woman was asking me what my name was.

"Felix", I said. It was the first name I could think of, because our cat's called Felix.

She took a phone out. It was really old, with no camera or anything. She called someone up and said the person had to come really quickly. She looked at me and said she'd found something delektable. I was sure she was talking to the police and Mum would go ape if she found out. But I couldn't go back to the flat, because Nan would be seeing her visitors still.

I closed my eyes again and forgot about the crocodile. I could feel Hawkwind really close to me, and I tried to make really real. I tried with my brain to make him come into our world so he could help me this time.

The woman started to sit down with me. She was just finishing cleaning off her side of the step when Mum turned up, with no Ed this time, but looking all happy so I knew she was all right again. She gave the woman a funny look and we went back home again.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I walk down onto the beach, as far as the edge of the hard sand. Nobody else is here - the narrow strand edges a steep drop and families stay safely away. I take off my watch, wrap my towel around it and put them down out of reach of the waves. Then I walk out to the sea.

At each step my feet puddle the sand and the water inches up my calves. It feels colder against the warm skin on the inside of my thighs, tickling and starting to soak into my swimsuit. I turn round to face the beach and slide backwards into the water, my hair floating out around me. I arch my back tightly to wet the top of my head.

And then I turn back out to sea, pause to steady myself, and dive into the next wave. From under the water I hear the wave break, and then the sound of millions of particles of sand scurrying back. The back-flow pulls me forward and I make my first stroke into it, the movement deeply familiar. Idly I cover the next few meters, as the beach drops away beneath me.

I tilt upright and start to tread water, legs tucked up under me and arms circling to the front. I breathe deeply, gently, for a minute or two.

Then I duck my head under the water and pull smoothly downwards. The water closes in above me, and the sounds of the world beneath the surface take over. I count my stokes, down, further down. The water grows first colder, and then darker, and my skin starts to press tightly to my face. Something unseen glances past me to the right, and my ears start to buzz. Then through the gloom I see a deeper darkness approaching, and my finger tips reach out to touch the bottom. It was 14 strokes down.

My heartbeat sounds and feels together all through me. I move in slow motion, resisting the growing urge to swallow. Time is scrambled, racing and standing still, and I feel a moment of confusion. I shake it off, and corkscrew round onto my back, to look up towards the shafts of light tinted green by the water. I count to seven.

Then I kick down behind me and begin to rise. It feels as though a cord through my centre is pulling me upwards. The water rushes past my face, my legs tingle, and my lungs seem to have negative air in them. I burst through the surface, to the feeling that the warm air and light have been waiting for me.

I turn over onto my back and start to kick my legs gently, making luxuriantly slow back-and-forth progress to the shoreline. The water gets warmer around me, foam catches in my swimsuit, and finally my bottom touches the ground and I sit up. I sit and look at the grey horizon for a moment, then I get up gradually, kneeling first, then stooped over, to avoid blacking out.

My steps feel heavy and the ground more solid than ever as I walk back to my towel. I retrieve my watch, spread out the towel and lie down, front downwards. I turn my head to one side, and my lower ear hears the sound of the waves carried through the sand. A trickle of water runs down my inner thigh.

Before my thoughts start to torture me again, I send my mind's eye up above me. I look down, at my hair turning to salty cardboard ringlets, at my back covered in rounded droplets, and at my toes burrowing into the sand. I go higher up and see the narrow beach, the empty road beside it, and the parallel lines of the waves moving towards the shore.

The sun warms my back, and all my mind is full of my breathing, in and out, in and out.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Night Demons

The night before last was more than usually full of doubts and worries. They seemed to come from a part of me so distant as to feel like a different person, taunting me by painting luridly convincing scenery around my mind. In the morning I felt the same emotions of self-pity and helplessness, but when I looked for what caused them it was immediately clear that I had been scared by cardboard cut-outs.

These are the work of the Worry Gods' relatives. Like many people, I fret assiduously in an attempt at to appease these malicious little spirits, who without due reverence would otherwise jeopardise my projects in a fit of pique. As soon as I feel secure about something, they suggest to me that I am dependent on it, and therefore susceptible to sabotage from it. I deduce there to be a wider pantheon: there are jealousy gods and loneliness gods too.

It's as though I have a compulsive need to try out various emotions, perhaps to check they are all still working. My brain furnishes scenarios suitable to stimulate them, using characters who really exist but twisting and tweaking how relations are with them to fool me in whatever way fits the requirements. It tends to happen at night, and perhaps it's a circadian rhythm thing - I know most people are less rational in the small hours, especially in the dark. I wonder if it is linked to dreams and sleep: people say you need to dream to sort out the impressions and thoughts of the day; perhaps my mind has waking nightmares to try to sort out my emotions: dress-rehearsals designed to prevent the performance ever becoming real.

The strength of my imagination powers me for good and ill - it can dream up lovely things to send me to sleep, or scare me out of my wits. Stuck inside myself a bit more than average, I forget that most other people don't spend part of their time seeing phantasmagoria rather than reality.

As I make another cup of tea during the morning, I look down into the running tap, and then look out of the window as I rinse the mug. The securely familiar actions comfort me somehow. My mind relaxes a little more and this makes me realise how bad the emotional cramp had been. It does get bad, and the words I spit out at the time are my demon's, not mine. Except of course that it's my demon, and so they are still of me.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Staring at the moon

A few minutes ago I saw the new moon, a tiny silver paring reclining on her back, straight out over the garden. Since then the clouds have thickened and the rain is now lashing the window. The new moon represents good luck to me, although perhaps luck is a mistaken word for it - luck doesn't draw the tides in and out. For all the power associated with a full moon, it's the perennial renewal of the bare sliver that inspires me.

Of course technically the moon was new on Friday night, only then there was nothing to see. Perhaps if I could never see the moon, if I weren't aware of the cyclical dance in the sky, I would feel no effect from it. I don't really think it matters whether I would or not: she's there as my point of reference, an exterior anchor in my overly-internalised world, humbling but affirming. Sometimes my thoughts feel like narration in a book, and what I see seems like the view through the windows of my eyes. I'm half asleep, a ghost haunting my body rather than living in it. The new moon catches my wandering mind: along with the energy to start afresh comes the realisation that a lifetime's moons are numbered. They are not infinite, and this gives them their value and their power.

The skull and the hourglass that have been emblems of fear to me for so long should really be friends, helping to count out the hours and thereby provide them with their energy. I have always privileged the universal, the timeless and the general, but all they consist of is massed ranks of the personal, the present and the individual. It is impossible and unnecessary to run away into immortal abstractions: the everyday present, and the usual two-legged human existence that everybody else thrives in, is more real. Shivers and sighs and yelps underpin the most elegant metaphor. The comfort of a full stomach, a good night's sleep and a shared bed are as much to be prized as any intellectual achievement. It's just yet another oddness of mine that I have to stare at the moon to work all this out.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

At last, a stylish fly swat!

I ate my lunch today in the company of one of those catalogues that remind you why you want to live in a mud hut.

The list of things you can buy from such an emporium of good taste and necessities is inspiring: battery powered tea lights; the name of a star; a bag of luck (shamrock seeds in a brown paper bag - for £9); £96 worth of silver plated bucket (for cooling Champagne, obviously); and a wooden sign consisting of letters to spell out the word "think"... just in case you need a little reminder.

This company is very keen on soaps. A deep pink, heart-shaped offering, hand made in France, is suggested as ideal for a girlfriend or a mother-in-law(??) Even more telling is the rationale proposed for purchasing a boxed set of soaps made to look like birds' eggs: "It's the smallest details which linger in visitors' minds. These ravishing soaps... make a memorable impact." Did you know that the warmth of your hospitality was gauged by the quality of the toiletries you provide? Brown sugar cubes shaped so as to perch on the rim of a coffee cup will afford "your chance to be the hostess with the mostest" and are "perfect for baby showers" - I had a feeling the luxurious lifestyles of our American cousins might have had an impact here somehow.

A thing is never quite what it might be until somebody sells it to you. A tablecloth is jubilantly described as being "from Cabbages and Roses, a brand that is very well established and sought after." So that's all right then. A casserole, which I notice is free from such encumbrances as handles, is of undisclosed materials, but it's OK because we know both who designed it and that it will arrive "exquisitely wrapped".

All this from a firm which proudly declaims William Morris's dictum, "have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful".