Subject: Foto Fiction: Herod's Point
Time: 2007 Dec 09 21:52:00
"Martha, you informed that son-of-a-bitch."
"Did, didn’t ah? Face like a mouthful of mashed lime. Where’s the Oldsmobile?" Martha was still shaking, striding on ahead.
"Where we gone an' left it." Denice was right behind. Nobody dug fights, even she.
"Yeah, an' where’d we go leave it, Eisenstein?"
Roberta Coover, much slower than the others, and the last woman to leave the Candlelight Inn, Grill and Motel, raised a hand and faltered, then looked back across her shoulder through a suck of hair. "You reckon he’s a’coming after us?"
"Bullshit." Martha plucked a cigarette from Denice’s pack and stopped advancing, while her friend cracked two matches. The smoke served as a communal calm down, as much as a congratulation.
"Ah need me some booze, Martha." Denice looked at the night sky. The Capital bank colleagues had only just arrived and now they were quitters. "Ah need me a night out and ah need me a man. Ah don’t go home sober. You know that."
"Ah’m aware, Denice." Denice’s home life was more than any girl could be expected to put up with. She preferred the office, these days. She hated going home. Hated it.
Right now, Martha hadn't the faculties for empathy. Still early, a Saturday, but in-town meant heading to Main Street. How did she feel, still buzzing? Like drinking, for sure. Specifically she felt: one bottle Templeton Rye and three six packs. Was that unholy? Heaven on this occasion. Where to soiree?
Pushing up her glasses, the fourth girl circling through the crisp air under the Candlelight awnings, name of Lily, who did not drink and had a tradition of driving her colleagues safely back to the Herods Point suburbs, seemed to be reading Martha’s mind. "Uh-un." She shook her head once. "Torrence house is outta bounds."
"Fucksy." Martha exhaled smoke through her nose and against the air. So where?
Roberta Coover’s family were out of town for a major stretch that weekend, and, as a matter of principle, she hated to see folks down. She knew that down folks weren’t always her fault. Not always. But sometimes a smart person should keep things from getting worse. "Say, for a little while, we can.."
"Martha." It was Garth, felt Stetson in his hands, sidling through the door like a latecomer to his own party.
"Garth, fuck you." Martha turned away while Denice placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Baby, Ah’m sorry."
"They need to be alone." Lily touched Denice’s elbow, but the tall girl just glared at her. Why did the smartest people get human situations so very, very wrong?
Roberta Coover looked across the rough tarmac in the dark, at the way the exterior light gave even the littlest stones a long shadow.
"Babe, Ah need to explain." Garth took a stride closer. "Ah’m a shit."
"She’s done caring, Garth." Denice turned aggressive, looking through him. "It’s the second time. Said you were in Denver. Didn’t dance like Denver. Nice tits for Denver. Sniffing round her like a bitch is Denver."
Silenced, Lily Torrence then popped her fingers deep into her jeans pockets, and departed along the path that ran towards the parking lot. Eventually, Roberta Coover pulled the hair from her mouth and followed. Lily’s Oldsmobile Cruiser was a plum colour when anybody could find it, a deep back seat with a modest choice of after-hours refreshments.
"It’s a nice night, or was. Still is." Roberta said, to break the suspended silence, once she’d caught up. Lily unlocked the driver’s side, looking back at the Candlelight, and she thought of accountancy. Accountancy would never get messy. Not real messy.
"She’s gonna forgive him, Bobby. It's why she waited up." Herods Point, oh Herods Point. Battlefield Folk Park. Capital Life Tower (everybody's home from home from time to time). Majestic floodplain. Why get messy when you can get out? Herods Point sliced and diced up everybody’s business. Messy stuck to messy like a million little magnets.
"Denver fell through. Ah been just drivin'. Ah can’t tell Dad. Ah’m sleeping in a station wagon. Waitin'. Ah’m goin’ special waitin', waitin' fer Monday. You’re the one, Martha. Nothin’ happened tonight. 'cept a crazy man waitin'"
"First time nothin’ happened neither. They do special insurance for kicking hearts around?" First time happened in March, when they used to see one another more than once every while. Now Garth was forever travelling. Now, for the first time in their lives, they were stuck in an irresolvable hinterland. It was a place each to the other promised would not go on. It was a place that nobody warned them about. Sometimes they feared it was simply how adulthood was.
"They do lovin’ arms, girl." Martha’s eyes dropped to watch his thick fingers clasp, as if for prayer, once he had encircled her. "I got credit at the motel." She felt a resolute kiss press into the back of her neck, and she looked for the Oldsmobile, feeling like an animal on show, judged in the flesh and the bone, in bits but helpless. Still the vehicle eluded her.
Inside there, looking on, Roberta unrolled the full-sized bottle of Templeton Rye, agog. "Please don’t hug him." Perhaps Denice was just beyond the awning. Nowhere to be seen. She was never shy to sink a few or several, all by herself. "And they make up." Roberta let a sigh loose.
Lily seemed distracted. "See that shooting star, Bobby? That’s so’s it don’t get lonely. It’d rather die."
"Yeah? Him cosmic an' all. There’s sweeter things I'd try." The cap unscrewed with no warning and warming liquor overran Roberta’s fingers.
They watched a series of protracted, knitted kisses. "Never been scared of death. The man who is is an irreligious little kiss-my-ass. Hurrah for number one and who the hell are you? Puppet Freak like our friend Mr Garth. He’s never here and he’s never gone, and he’s less alive than he knows." Gradually, the watched couple drop back, past the awning and are gone. "Man defaults on promises. He’s abstract. Like a ghost at twenty four." Lily felt like sighing too. "Who better to sell insurance? Ah'd take a ghost sales pitch seriously." What did she know?
Roberta was blowing into her hands after the whiplash of a swing of neat whisky. "Heck, Lily. You got harsh words for a Holy Joe." She began to cough. "Ah'll give you that."
"’Ah need to drive, Martha.’" Lily continued, mimicking Garth. "’Ah drive for the company. It’ll be goddamn difficult till Christmas, Martha.’" Gripping the steering wheel and checking the jade green clock on the dashboard, she reclined her face to fill the mirror. The moonlight gave it an odd, still glow, stiller than any sunshine did. It was a face you could talk to, black eyes in a sea of tranquility, but a face to be smeared in self-raising flour? Lily Torrence couldn’t picture that, here in Herods Point, where an important part of everyone had moved - far, far away, and a long time ago.
Subject: Stardust, stand-up and a new winter coat
Time: 2007 Nov 18 23:20:00
A stand-up finds the stage, twenty steps underground. The other acts, he wasn’t around to catch (a shame, no-one has, for each would see how parallel he is, and wouldn't ask us the same questions). His impotent rage, his pikeys, his unfathomable girlfriend and inevitable, oncoming terrorism - he builds his own Bill Hickery through a web of metaphysics and caged attitude. We are stardust, you see, a terrible battle of heat, light, H20. We return to the cosmic bosom, when the frustration is done or too much, like jets accepting their paths across Highgate, West Side. Jean, un-London, genteel in twin set, pearls like her ice blue eyes, is as courteous and concerned as ever. We tour her delicate crypts for coachmen, long-forgotten bankers, the Dickens family, travelling menagerists (Wombwell began with a pair of ropey boas in a covered barrow, but his Soho zoo advised Prince Albert), bare-knuckle boxers (illegal bouts, the ‘fancy’ would guide ticket-holders to an unpublicised field, and we still go ‘where the fancy takes us’). It takes us shopping: the London Graphic Centre for pure nuts and bolts, the stardust of art; Muji (things fit, they get limbs right) for half-cape, half-duffle coat; my mum’s birthday gift (still girlish, not an old woman for a while); and the NPG’s Photographic Portrait Prize. A multiplicity of eerie pre-teens (so ginger they’re albino, unsmiling siblings in a Belarus housing yard, burlesque things balanced on swings, Korean ice dancers). Frozen stardust, unspilled and adult, prop the champagne bar at the revamped St Pancras, a gothic spaceport in gold and light cornflower blue, where Betjeman welcomes Europe to the British ‘whim of iron’. "Where are the Andes?" The German stand-up almost seemed incredulous. "At the end of your armies!" We cry as one. "You fucking British have a Christmas cracker in your blood!" ("We gave you the highlighter pen! Without us you'd still be underlining. Think about it.") Love cannot be stardust, surely. Love we just make up. Love, like blood, we build uncaged, somewhere nocturnal. British Love can be matter of fact at times (it's cold here) but has a way of accepting the child, shame-dumb or deafening, knee-trembling, that keeps each performance as it is, performance.
Subject: UO08: Operation Handjob
Time: 2007 Dec 06 19:48:00At the core of any effective mayoral campaign should be a ‘back me or sack me’ pledge. A line in the sand, to demonstrate clarity of leadership. And with the 2008 Greater London Assembly elections looming, I’m prepared to go to the wall for a scheme I call ‘Operation Handjob’.
Shootings and gun-enabled crime has increased alarmingly since 1998. For many young people lifting a heater has become a fully legitimate method of boosting a self-esteem damaged by a failure to study information technology, medicine or law; it gives the sick and very desperate a tang of power and a misguided feeling of protection. And there are only two words for the situation as it stands: cock-up. I’ve examined minimum sentencing, tightened import routes, and involving community leaders in a problem which is literally blowing us apart. But I realised that we’ve failed to split the nucleus running through this cap-busting culture: prestige, paranoia, the wayward energy of male youth.
With the involvement of key media providers, ‘Operation Handjob’ drip-feeds imagery specifically designed to associate use of firearms with gay partnerships. Not just through billboard advertising. ‘Handjob’ will infiltrate every avenue of popular culture, with the stark message that “Guns tickled me pink.” In common parlance (“Bent as a shooter”) and through film redubbing (Scarface=Scarf Ace, perhaps). The convicted can expect to plead ‘scene’ or ‘non scene’, before bail and e-tagging (furry wings, micro shorts). Sentences range from curfew within the boundaries of Old Compton Street, to the stiffer incarceration-with-piped-Alan Hollinghurst, effervescent gossip from café society, and a kind of labyrinthine pickiness over the quality of life’s fineries.
UO08: Fighting Fire With Eartha Kitt.
Time: 2007 Nov 28 08:52:00
Prompted by a call for a more constitutionally wary Union Flag, from the Labour MP Ian Lucas, I worked on one last night. The first thing you notice is the dragon, symbolising the previously-omitted Wales, but also suggesting a decentralising UK, where Celtic traditions have an assured future. The Scottish saltire element would be the softer Pantone 300, as chosen by the Scottish Executive. The ‘Cross of St. Patrick’ is gone (invented convenience to begin with, and an omission that Éire should be pleased about, if anything). Instead, a motif from the Ulster Banner, the Red Hand and Star of David (I’m not sure which element would be more controversial). Come any unified Ireland, it could always be removed. I think it’s inclusion prevents the flag from seeming like a re-branding exercise. Overall, I think the result is more relevant, bold but traditional, intriguingly Oriental.
Subject: A Shelley-esque plea for mutual solitude
Time: 2007 Nov 11 19:19:00
A weekend in the Hamptons. Well, Hampton Wick. And a three song recording session with Matt and Sam (now engaged), Fingers (recently commissioned to set poetry by the Archbishop of Canterbury to music), and Ms Feeney. It was supposed to be more organic, but we bypassed nu-folk to watch the video for 'Be My Wife', David Bowie’s jewel from 1977 (which a commenter on YouTube describes as a Shelley-esque plea for mutual solitude) and then used it as springboard for general sound. Slick pop fragments, with a hint of oddity. I played a borrowed 1984 Stratocaster with 1957 pickups and was scrappy at times, too rusty to improvise with any degree of confidence, but there were inspired accidents, which hopefully can be stressed in the final vocal mix. And, much as I dislike the trend that sees music's assumed value approach zero, you’ll be the first to hear them (I mean it's, like, all between friends out in mutual solitude).
Subject: Four Hundred Nine Elevens
Time: 2007 Nov 09 19:19:00
US army fatalities in Iraq: four thousand. Civilian fatalities: one point two million.
That’s four hundred nine elevens. The two things aren’t officially connected, of course, until you peruse the blogs or commentary of average Joe the voter, and realise that just about blue collar everyone sees Iraq as simple and justified revenge. They started it. All of them
. Nothing satiates revenge, for a simple reason. The more non-humanity is subtracted from the equation, the lower the human value each death represents. The more they become stats, the less each stat adds. A pyre that cannot measure up to nine eleven one becomes a limitless hunger, a dry plateau.
And with stats like those the word ‘war’ is hardly even required. It’s farming. Putting a nation through the martial thresher in a kind of world PR, a territorial stamp. The weapons were an illusion, and a man we were never out to depose is hung. And the farming, as a kind of general daily business, goes on.
Sun up, boys. Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, so let’s remember one nine eleven. Nine eleven two hundred and seventy four, to be precise. One mind can't take it all these figures in, so we need to humanise this thing! Nine eleven two hundred and seventy four was a mix of us and them, but then we’re far too grown up for all that, we've been around far too long, and no-one won anything, or got closer to anywhere. Forty eight percent of nine eleven two hundred and seventy four died in gunfire, and only a fraction were something we've called 'insurgents '. There's a lot of shoot-for-nothing going on. A lot of 'private contractors'. Lawless is hardly a necessary word either. Nine eleven two hundred and seventy four was pretty much pre-law, a kind of dark kindergym with Black Hawk and Apache.
The two things aren't connected, of course, only at the level of symbolism. The adversary is pretty much symbolic. Looks like it's all of them, according to the stats. But symbolism, you start to feel, is where things really count.
Subject: Battle, Beyond the Stars
Time: 2007 Nov 05 19:19:00
Good evening, from the studios at Alexandra Palace. A weekend of Antique War Machinery, the neurotic stuff of nightmares lifting the first two Star Wars films onto a more surrealist plane of design; Oedipal symbolism for fatalist memorabilia collectors. It needn’t be literal machinery. Lights, explosions, burning effigies of faux-Hispanic assassins: they can all join the party.
The Imperial War Museum has a Blitz Experience, and a Trench Experience, all using smell-o-vision. You stumble back through Lambeth, honking. So many museums pitch themselves at kids these days, all those animated edu-blobs and multiple choice flip-top fiddle-o-facts can grate. The Children’s War exhibition is mercifully mature. Evacuation, Anderson shelters, Seavacs. German and Austrian kids in the UK being banished to the occupied Channel Islands, UXB avoidance (“This Child Thought She Found A Blind”), how to make a fetching dress from cotton escape maps (handy, but hardly covert) and score Beech Nut from a yank.
The documentary of Jeremy Deller’s miners’ strike reenactment, ‘The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All)’ (2004) is at the Tate as part of The World As A Stage, examining art as staging and performance (another exhibition that uses smell to widen dimension. What is going on? Eyes and ears are so, like, cut it out). Truth as the first casualty: BBC’s use of editing to show miners attacking the police before they charged, media collusion in a long-held plan by Mrs. Thatcher to discredit unions, patriotic folk being labeled ‘enemy within’ for defending the most advanced mining industry in the world, the gradual reduction of work-proud communities into hoodied, cuckoo smack-farms. The whole operation was practically Cold War. The Kingdom, you feel, far from united. Or been around too long for something so naïve.
Well, here under Alexandra Pellece we do our bit, with good humour and something for the children. One nation under Button Moon. One nation under Noggin The Nog. One nation under Konnie Huq, and Balamory!
Subject: A Virgin Mary with Dirty Fingernails
Time: 2007 Nov 01 00:19:00
Happy Halloween. Just purchased the Dirty Fingernails
homespun "Finsbury Park" album. Mine is numbered #1. Fucking yes. Top that, pumpkin.
Subject: The Raven Has Chosen Its Resting Place
Time: 2007 Oct 28 19:19:00
Sheesh, am I grumpy these days. Flatmates get flat smiles and one word responses; the man in the corner shop gets a wince for his how-are-you. Who cares? I don’t. I go to work and go to bed. A taciturn, short-shrift automaton, routine biting hard. I’d raise a voice to youth’s bubble, the golden-child's hormone parade, if I could even be bothered. Everything is shoddy and duplicitious. Broadcasting; representatives pushing their own salaries against the roof of Westminster; high street suicide by sub-contracting. Shoddy. Shoddy and cynical. Overt, ozone-seeking bullshit, happy-slapping right in your face, because you’re a spoon, a wallet, a half-shambling tank of man-chemicals, a channel.
Could be age, or perhaps it is the dark nights drawing in. Traditionally, men in crisis have work-a-day fallbacks. “Guess I’ll never be Neil Armstrong. Hey, Howard Hughes, you know. Or Casanova. But I’ve a lovely wife and a modest, well-run home for a couple of smashing handfuls.” Me, I stopped smoking a while ago, and drinking soon followed it, and then, gradually, the outside world turned bastard. Git Street. Cunt Row. Fucker Grove. I eat fruit, salad and seeds. My pleasure is sleep. Sleep and seeds and Louis MacNeice under the sheets. Together we’ll sleep away this fruitless fucking day.
I’m not sure if grumpy is what Ian Curtis had. Something more acute, with lashings of epilepsy. An office clerk at heart. His joy to index, and dream of Nazi brothels. Retention. Structure. Control. Suicide: young men’s biggest killer. What turns 23-year-olds into extremists, fatalists, suicides? Perhaps one is reading. Not being ‘plugged into’ the world? Your associations not rich or honest enough? Sexual distance feeding a galaxy of existential abandonment? Your crooked role models? Thoughts bent and emptied between poles of desire, turning deaf to mixed signal?
Well, in the Anton Corbijn film of his wife’s biography, women are all mam. Samantha Morton fulfills, very well, the same role as Shelley Winters in ‘A Place In The Sun’, the dowdy, the baby-bearing, domestic mam, and the wife you go off sex with after a while, the one you resent, the one who becomes part of everything you want to escape from. Mams as the everywhere and the always there. If you are.. if you are Montgomery Clift, detached, overly malleable, a man of vacillations, castrated and religiously shamed. Annik Honoré, a Belgian fanzine writer looking for a Joy Division interview, is the distant, foreign/glamorous mam-you-can in the triangle. Mam the fan. Ego-boosting anti-mam: the one who, like the first breath of a deeply fresh air, is an annex off you, instead. Who’d have thought?
A film can’t schizoanalyse heads, though, and doesn’t try to get to the icy hopelessness of Joy Division’s lyrics, contrasting Macclesfield earthiness and comedy. Like all rock biopics (“Hey! That sounds like a number one hit.” “That’ll be the day.” “Wow. Great title!”), the chew and graft is sacrificed to keep some sense of easy momentum and energy. But here the dialogue is brazenly automatic at times. “Let’s have a baby.” “OK.” Fair dos. The lyrics, which convinced hordes of fatalist young men to preserve everything the band touched like a C90 shrine, get some airing. “Let's take a ride out, see what we can find. A valueless collection of hopes and past desires. I never realised the lengths I'd have to go. All the darkest corners of a sense I didn't know. Just for one moment, I heard somebody call. Looked beyond the day in hand. There's nothing there at all.”
It’s hard to find a more nocturnal album than ‘Closer’, but it is somehow not a harrowing record. Finally allowing himself to play mam, Curtis drops the indexed anger and just lactates out his sadness. I think I’ve played it more than any other record in my life, usually under sheets, in the dark and possibly grumpy. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was over-rated, ‘Atmosphere’ annoys, I avoid the Curtis death parade. But do go see the love story. Can we put ‘Dead Souls’ in a Vodaphone advert? “They keep calling me. They keep calling me.” Weary and mourning. I hope so.
Words. Dead souls, and half there at the best of times. And so to bed.
Subject: I Remember California
Time: 2007 Oct 21 19:19:00
An odd and vivid happening in my childhood was the occasion when my dad told us that he’d come into some money, and we’d be doing something ‘once in a lifetime’ and going to California. I’d never been outside a small rural port, cities being fatal places, and so it was very disorientating to be grappled by the heat of L.A., San Francisco (‘Dad, why are those men wearing hairnets and holding hands? Why Dad Why?’) and, crucially, Vegas. Walking around inside the television set for two weeks was fine by me and had dream-world connotations. The heat, the pointless scale of everything felt childs-eye even then, the paradox between the glitz and the self-awareness and pride and a kind of unfinishedness. Seeing the everyday nature of Hollywood the suburb. Lucille Ball’s bathroom. Toy stores and occultists. Real roadrunners.
I was shocked to discover that, last year, despite the work of the L.A. Conservancy and the Art Deco Society, the municipal owners demolished the 84-year-old Ambassador Hotel, where we stayed. I can honestly say that this place fuelled my imagination. I remember the nods to antiquity and the grace and confusion of Wilshire Boulevard. The vast grounds, wearing down, weeds finding life in white cracks. A kind of efficiency in the lobby, but something loveless, ghostish, something gone. I hid around the frayed and faded Cocoanut Grove, its palms taken from the set of Rudolph Valentino's 1921 ‘The Sheik’, where Mickey Mouse held his 2nd birthday party, and where walls spoke unfussily of heydays: Jean Harlow and Maureen O'Hara and Douglas Fairbanks and Joan Crawford. The first Oscar was awarded right here on the stage. I looked at the documented faces of the performers and now wonder if they knew how much they'd come to represent the focus and envy of the world, or how they’d shape and define a century’s cultural landscape.
Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all stayed at the Ambassador. And, in effect, the hotel died on 5th June 1968, when Bobby Kennedy, after delivering his victory speech for the Californian Primary, received a succinct verdict in the shape of .22 slugs from Sirhan Sirhan, an Arab Palestinian Christian. Despite the best efforts of the owners, the tarnish took them downhill towards tourists like, well, us. Even then the L.A. Ambassador couldn’t pay for itself, and remained a shell since 1989. Staring at the cleared plot, Diane Keaton said it was like losing a lover, lamenting the city’s inability to preserve heritage, although a much-needed school will be built on the site.
Subject: Everything Is Empty (apart from Raoul)
Time: 2007 Oct 13 19:19:00
1. Pay an empty £18.50. As eighteen-fifties go, it is unfathomably empty.
2. Decide to avoid art which looks like art, which is everything. Settle for beauty. Write earnest little things like: “You don’t really have the right to enjoy beauty until you have the maturity to find it anywhere.”
3. Conclude: artists need day jobs. It will be good and political for art. Delegation to technology makes things democratic and quick. Professional is now somehow empty.
4. “No photography please!” Hurrah.
5. Wonder if the micro-climate of magazines suffocate regionality. Madrid could be Moscow could be Milan. You look for something that looks like the artist has been beyond magazines.
6. Get lost in Thomas Struth, whose eerie-pastoral paradise is outside, but also in magazines.
7. Follow a quartet of strutting arseholes, listen to them analysing, unable to pass anything without sizing up and measuring/cutting off and proffering a mouthful of banal fucking hoopla. Fuck opinions, right round Regent’s Park and up a fucking duck.
8. Scream inwardly for intimacy.
9. Follow concerned staff, at any given opportunity, and listen to their clipped phone chatter. “He’s just standing by F14 staring. How long do we give him? No, he’s not working for anyone. He’s being odd.” Suddenly you don’t feel alone.
10. Imagine swinging an angular and anorexic gallery worker around like a pick-axe.
11. Spot a colleague in a film called “Kiss My Nauman”, making up his face as Gene Simmons.
12. Take an illicit photo in the toilets, then another of a woman polishing a car, which is art until it leaves the gallery, and then it becomes a car.
13. Wonder what intimacy looks like, these days. Wonder if it too big or too small for art.
14. Decide to categorise the works very unfairly into five rules: test the presumptions of the space and a spectator (who has no presumptions); partial objects speak the language of the subconscious; new versus newer; juxtapose the sacred and the profane; something else that has you beat.
15. Begin to stare at shoes, mostly. Sit down somewhere, and watch them. White moccasins, loafers, suede grey ruffled boots, Nike Dunks. Stare at your own.
Subject: UberAnal: that'll be yer auld Greek futurism
Time: 2007 Oct 11 19:19:00
Songs of backdoor thoroughness, by strict, unsmiling mistresses: a celebration of almost 30 years since 'Being Boiled'. That'll be the genuinely witty Ms Schmoof supporting Athens' Marsheaux. Their last gig for a while, and more performance art-ish. Marsheaux cover too many bases and have too many covers for me. Balearic Ladyfrapp. Pure synthpop, any retro, can be too busy being faithful to musically walk on the edge. The audience was mostly male - camp older men (think Antony Worrall Thompson with no shirt on, banging his gut into you) who find the sound consoling, skinny lads in high heels and sailor caps (Dr Fingers went adrift, I'll note, though the scene is not really his scene) for whom everything is all new anyway, shifty pale knob and valve officionados. Fake podcast documentaries discussed with Vic Twenty: the pursuit of 'Chaise et Duvet', a 1920s chanson duo originally responsible for 'Snooker Loopy' and 'Rabbit' ('Lapin, lapin, lapinlapinlapin'), both still alive and only moderately bitter, in a Parisian old people's home.
Subject: Attacked by a shit-eating gorilla
Time: 2007 Oct 07 19:19:00
Gorillas, you note, glance only briefly at one another, finding it rude to stare. And so the annual UO trip to London Zoo, introducing Schmookapi to her cousins, and to the new, state-of-art Gorilla Kingdom, was doomed to be a bittersweet affair. Bobby Junior, a Western Lowland illegally captured for a circus in Rome, was obviously well kept but, after eating his own faeces, he began to attack the glass. “He’s 98% you and me.” I felt like approaching the keeper. “Someone is camera-phoned out.” Mulling whether conservation is last straw lip service by a species now brainy to the point of pointlessness, you could be forgiven for turning Earth Firster, and plotting to see mankind off. Much happier was the warm and odorous new biome, where marmosets and tamarins chase around your feet, and a sloth sleeps any commotion through, high in a rainforest canopy. Also this weekend, a trip along the independent fashion designers of Portobello Road market; then tarantellas, polkas and assorted East European folk at Soviet Reunion, to remind us of the missing links between Link Wray, Dick Dale, belly dancing, Greek rebetiko and Jewish klezmer. Interesting dub reverb and John Cale drones buzzing about and beefing things too. Something in this blend of music encourages drinkers to turn mental, which, while we welcome the contribution to authenticity, had me pining for reinforced glass sometimes. Balalaika Kingdom.
Subject: Beautiful Saturday Alone
Time: 2007 Sep 29 19:19:00
Read extracts of ‘The Normal and the Pathological’ by Georges Canguilhem. Published in 1943 and expanded in 1968, this seminal work of medical anthropology influenced Louis Althusser and Foucault. Opposing 18th and 19th century vitalism as a political tool, modern medicine must treat ‘normal’ not as a statistical mean but as normativity, the ability of a organism to adapt with activity and flexibility to changing circumstances. Biology and medicine we think of as finite, it may take years to become a doctor but at least the subject matter is finite. Here, illness is not biological fact as much as a subject’s opposition to their milieu. Subsequently politics is health, and there must be no psychology, the body is the mind. To break someone’s heart is to stab them with endorphins. Such a flattened and ultra-holistic approach can almost see an end to vitalism: no soul, no living energy, no Qi, no aura, no orgone. Organic and inorganic matter entirely the same, new rules for both. Who knows, perhaps a good ground zero for those studying theoretical medicine.
Visited the Yutaka Sone exhibition at the Parasol Unit. LA-based, Japanese-born Sone chisels winter wonderlands from marble, snow-flakes from crystal and builds detailed live indoor jungles. His wonderful ‘Ski Lift’ shows no organic/inorganic distinction at all. The chairs share the same soul, the trees are petrified already. As pointless and gorgeous as the pump of a heart.
Saw the film adaptation of ‘Atonement’. I think this works at the level of poetry. Holistic, looking at knock-on effects through soft, shifting blocks of metaphor, or a diamond cut from Oedipal triangles. The class system, Dunkirk, pride, lust, childhood. The deepest human motivations seemed like backdrops for something else, and the foreground never thrust itself at me. I liked that, I could fit myself into the frame very easily and empathize as much as I wanted and no more. Art as apparatus of capture. I got the sense that, even exercising deepest regret, Briony Tallis, who we see at three stages of her life, was still somehow an absentee in her own skin, an actor, someone who could convince herself of anything she needed to. The absent controller as deposed leading lady, although I’m sure Georges Canguilhem would tell us to ignore psychology and look to the body-milieu.
Subject: The Doug's PhD Party Bottling Incident
Time: 2007 Sep 27 19:19:00
Guests at (now Dr) Doug's PhD party last night found it hard to leave due to our front step being designated a crime scene. Archway is far from crime free, but street violence on Junction Road is rare (considering the boozy culture, although if I were to start uploading my Road Traffic Accident photo collection, I'd be doing it forever). Doug's parents came from Detroit, although Peru, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Finland, Germany, Wales, England and Ireland were represented. Seeing them off wasn't easy. "Excuse me, you're standing on forensic evidence." A policewoman hurried over. I looked down at a not-uncommon kebab and chips, viewing the ketchup in a very different way. It's all hazy, but I do recall discussing the pros and cons of unpasteurised milk with one girl, who swears she used to drink it straight from the cow. "You can't just get on your knees and suck a cow's tit!?" I was protesting loudly, at the precise moment a song ended and the party hushed for an important speech.
Subject: UO08: A Cry For British Shanty Cities
Time: 2007 Aug 28 19:19:00
One billion people, one sixth of humanity, live in squatter cities (Mumbai, Port au Prince, Kibera, Cairo, Dhaka and so on). By 2030, that figure will rise to two billion. Yet, despite the negative image, they enable millions to climb out of rural poverty. All across the world, villages are emptying, countrysides abandoned, and as the earth passes the 50% urban tipping point, squatter cities look set to become organic metropolises. They could defuse the population bomb. Without fail, the birth-rate of urban arrivals drop to replacement level (2.1 children/woman) and keep dropping. As the squatter cities grow, and as new ones develop, the world’s population will level at 8 or 9 billion and then drop, some say rapidly. There is full employment in a squatter city, everyone works. They build undeeded buildings, and create unregistered businesses. A positive thing, then. But design and management are vital to their successful growth. Part of my mayoral campaign will be to envisage strategic ‘key’ shanties for London, which I hope will expand to form a ‘squatter belt’, initially in zones 2 and 3, and then moving inwards.
Subject: Somebody got a new camera, then
Time: 2007 Aug 01 19:19:00
Subject: World Leader Pretend
Time: 2007 Oct 17 14:30:00
Are you a monarchist? A real one or just a symbolist? Want to abolish Parliament and return to the rule of one individual? Most people feel it would be turning back the clock. Sometimes we wonder what turning forward the clock is like. Some things are inevitable. Not if but when, because the alternatives will gradually make less and less common sense. One thing we ignore in its obviousness: we don’t need representatives any more.
The benefits of an Online Parliament and self-representation are overwhelming. No more funding, no more funding scandals, no more career-minded compromise of opinion, no more 'rebels', no more 'whips', no more negative discrimination, no more positive discrimination, no more duplicity, no more standing off, no more accusations, no more spin, no more media influence, no more satire. No more binarism, no more point scoring, no more over-simplification, no more last century left-right blocs, no more regionalism, no more local, no more central, no more bending to perceived agencies be it America, the EU or anyone else; no more 'getting the public involved', no more apathy. Ninety percent of our woes about modern politics boil down to one thing: representation and misrepresentation. A think-tank itself, surplus to requirements within a generation.
Will voting be done by laptop, television, telephone? Anywhere, anytime within the allotted period. Will voting be compulsory? No, but even the most unpopular minor-issue vote will receive far more interest than a packed house in Westminster. As registers of public feeling go, Online Parliament will be instantly more representative.
Of course there are concerns. They might be: quality of debate; populism and demagoguery; that everyone will vote for better conditions for themselves; the belief that peoples natural tendency is towards insularity. Well, these came up centuries ago, as they come up in any country moving towards full democracy. They come up as part of today’s discourse, and they will be a part of daily discourse in the future. They are an inherent part of the parliament, not the reason to hold it up.
I’d offer that Wikipedia-style collaborations have not been the mire and chaos that those in danger of losing their positions predicted. Given the chance of involvement, people direct their energy and tune their expertise where they can do best. They contribute when they can and never snooze on back benches. I’d offer that, far from populism, the discreet nature of online removes the need for bravado and those that have it lose 'social front' very quickly. I’d offer that ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is called ‘agile’ by modern business and if collaborative, non-career ventures have proved surprisingly strong, why can’t the Online Parliament be dynamic and agile too?
I’ve done some (very) high level ideas. After the wiki-collation stage, the actual voting stage looks like this
Subject: Champagne Communism
Time: 2007 Sep 26 22:30:00
The bride arrived to ‘Northern Sky’ by Nick Drake. The service was politely humanist (‘If you believe in being a decent person, without any need for religion or superstition, you’re probably a humanist already’ non-vicar Tim began helpfully). After intros, Jo’s sister and her friend adapted a reading from ‘Under Milk Wood’ and we all sang ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. Stephen and Jo read self-penned dedications, formulating why they love one another. Not the soft option, humanist. Whilst signing the book, Mansfield Traquair, the deconsecrated church in Stockbridge where Arts and Crafts practitioner Phoebe Anna Traquair spent eight years applying mural cycles, lilted softly with the Divine Comedy and ‘Into My Arms’. Champagne
was organic, confetti biodegradable (no rice, please).
Christ’n’kilts: I considered Antrim, Irish tartan is by county, but am glad I didn’t. There are plenty of parallel, relevant lineages to line with. The Kirbys of Lancaster are several generations Revolutionary Communist. Anyone revolting in Lancashire might have run into them
, and even the farthest-flung relatives seem to have social conscience galore. Vegan, grow-your-own, eco-for-eons, when not helping out in Madagascar
they’ll be off to Bolivia
. I assume normal jobs and flopping at the internet is not on their radar, and when you want something you just make it happen. The Brennans are four north Irish sister-matriarchs, all black hair and pale blue eyes, whose kid brother came out blond and talking tangents. I thought they might still hold me as a bad influence on their brother, for an incident forever unmentionable, but we got on fine. I met him with green hair and a Butthole Surfers t-shirt on backwards. The groom wore a suit tailor-made in Vietnam
After champagne, the couple’s favourite café, Hendersons
, laid out some of the best haute vegan I’ve tasted (including the tiers of black forest gateaux). Most weddings see the occasional boho, black sheep or funny uncle. Here they seemed in force, and could be prioritized by: foreignness of partner; multiplicity of former partner (but still invitees); a kind of other-placedness; oddness of diet; and theatricality of attire. Chatting, I wondered if lefties remain sharper in old age, a groundless observation, but they seem to. There was Vincent Price-in-a-pink-cassock and variant Open University prog-rockers. I ate beside a woman who looked like Kristin Scott Thomas in a rough blanket, whose boyfriend doesn’t talk and only eats fruit. I assume the blanket was protest at Oasis-versus-Karen Millen sameness. Soft paranoia at the roots of Sunday-best - “You don’t want anyone talking
There was one problem as I saw it: too much champagne, which I attempted to remedy after a turn around a céilidh. An Alice-in-space-wormhole
moment occurred around the ninth or tenth glass. The photos on my camera document spirals into mindless fixation (microphones, women’s knees) and waywardness. Suddenly, Kristin Scott Thomas-in-a-blanket’s bare feet, somewhere out on the streets. An inexplicable ghostly man in a bow tie (can’t remember him at all, perhaps he was pure Stockbridge apparition, a warning). A care worker called Yvonne demanding I tell her what I’d taken (due to frothing at the mouth), till I snapped her bag strap pretending to bite her neck. Is that humanist? Although the faces on the photos are smiling, I do remember slinking off to a vestibule to tinkle piano by myself, with the meagre ability to form lyrics, ‘Ramadan to Mardi Gras in less than ten seconds, ten glasses.’
Wedding photographer is the happiest job in the world, they say. Free refreshments, fresh and expectant people every day. With all the hellos, goodbyes, setting up and tidying, apologising, I didn’t see a lot of Edinburgh outside Stockbridge and the Lancers Bengali. Speed-shopping on the Royal Mile, hearing parallel childhood Scottish accents: wee weeuns; tattoos and Tennants; Woodbines and Park Drive; chaos on cable cars across Butlins Ayr. Is everything more middle class these days or just where I go? Regency bohemia so different from Glasgow? This year’s boho might be next year’s Cartesian common sense, be it biodegradables, promising God to obey or tiers of compromised representatives. Mr and Mrs Kirby-Brennan will honeymoon by Lake Garda.
Subject: West Wight and Blackgang Chine
Time: 2007 Sep 26 21:44:00
I have a sea view. Through the trees, and just as good for sets as rises. Last night, when the pier didn't close, I walked past workmen, down the planks, with nothing more to do. At the pier end of speech is a stalemate, allayed fears and things that have no place being there, and I have come to prefer the sympathy of silence behind the rides.
"I'd rather die than compromise, and live with nothing to show for it." Still a voice, the sea, confided. "Compromise?" I advised. "They are but dreams, not rock. Could they fear collapse?" The sea said "I am life itself!" And I just said "Perhaps."
"And who are you?" It asked, before I turned to go, for chains on gates were sounding. "For I'd rather not know."
Subject: All That Flesh Is Not (in West Sussex)
Time: 2007 Sep 03 21:20:00
Artist Susie MacMurray has lined the walls of Pallant House, the Queen Anne townhouse belonging to a Chichester wine merchant's loveless family, with 20,000 mussel shells stuffed with a tuck of red velvet.
“The house seemed like a vessel lined with aspirations; a container to express passions unfulfilled in other areas of (the owners’) lives.” They're vaginic, sumptuous and not dark at all. Good idea - there are so many pensioner whites, creams and pastels on the small town streets, even dark clothing begins to look too ‘city', a hide-me shell, defensive.
The South Downs really are beautiful to amble across, curvaceous and welcoming, whatever you wear. You wonder if nature is just a hard shell or metaphor for the unfulfilled passions of DNA. You buy duck wheat, and feel the warmth of the horses' breath. In the town, the faces seemed pinched by worry, over-examining. Preserving, not ambitious. "Goodness knows, there's enough disturbance in life." The curator rubs her neck, as if my presence itself was a problem. You then consider if peoples' opinions are ruled, not by moral viewpoint, but by general health. And recall what it was suburban guitars got noisy about, when everyone knew their business, and waves of obliging standards rubbed outsiderdom smooth. Pass through sheds of drying sage and hyssop. Emerge. But wait! Another shell. The Downland Gridshell (below), the prototype for which served as an entrance canopy at the Pompidou Centre. The real one lies against a forest edge, emulating an armadillo in local wood, a synthesis of seventeenth century barn building and vector-based CAD.
For the Romans, Chichester was spelt Noviomagus and locals can hardly dig a foundation without cracking into an amphitheatre. There’s so much down there that to have a proper sleuth would mean removing the city. Within the ancient walls, everything is quiet and pretty, tightly controlled. And cultured. Finest theatre outside London, they say, and one day London will be this but bigger. Fact: the commonality of Chichester had a right to vote for Parliament members 300 years before the rest of us. The cathedral is a beast: Wren restored by Gilbert Scott, with the grave of Gustav Holst; a commissioned window by Marc Chagall based on Psalm 150; Graham Sutherland and John Piper; and its own poem, for the Arundel tomb, which stopped Philip Larkin in his tracks. Armour, shells, even past death, although the Earl takes his wife’s hand without gauntlet, rare enough. Limestone, timelessness, certainty for eternity - maybe it's all built on ‘all that the flesh is not’, nevertheless Larkin locates a purpose, in love.
After Pallant House, currently exhibiting art where music played a direct role in its visual language (Orphic cubism and der Blaue Reiter group; abstract-pioneer František Kupka; the grubby, death mask paintings by Schönberg; Kandinsky’s visual response to atonal expressionist music), I ended up at the Chichester Film Festival for the UK premiere of something called ‘Mr Brooks’, where a spectacled Kevin Costner serial-murders fucking couples, cuts throats with a spade, secures nudie cadaver snaps and weeps like a baby till stabbed in the neck, in bed with his daughter. Date movie it really isn't. Heroine Demi Moore, the only character not a serial killer, gets her beat-up ass kicked from a moving truck.. why go on? Rocking! Edgy!? The average audience age was about seventy. Maybe it’s all visual ballet to them. Maybe life itself became a sea of metaphor years ago, and every breath, every boiled sweet, is all a bonus. Bring it on.
Time: 2007 Jun 08 08:38:00
Big Sister pulls into the car park. Fictions to one day leap off the Excel plots and working titles workbook. Anne X; Murphy Lightburn; The Urban Osprey; Boris Kevorkian: Lovers Rock; Alicia Parish; Gracefully; Hollowy (One Dimensional Woman); Brinkman; nightcleaner.com; and an Ealing-style spy hunt set against the 1948 Olympics. And something set in Belfast. Some bones, some meat, all seeking breath they don't provide on Excel. Application. Raison. Ego. I am not sure, can't fake it and do apologise. The best mojo advice debunks 'fake it till you make it' in favour of 'Believe in something bigger than yourself' (I do, I do), 'Guard your mind' and 'Find a reflector'. Fundamental line in the sand required, perhaps. Whole new country, wedding bells and cult membership. All three plus a tattoo. This week I posted ‘For the Love of God 2’, a gas bill encrusted with 8601 tears, to the White Cube gallery.
Subject: The Trouble With Hallowed Ground #2
Time: 2007 May 25 13:22:00"Lord, would it bother either of us if I called you an interactive whiteboard? It really needn't belittle anything. Interactive whiteboard might be the best thing we can be. Above even the grey beard of law. Even now I'm failing, Lord, giving you human emotions like upset. See the kind of solipsistic creatures we are.
Whiteboard, this is not one of Val's more meditative moments. Not, you'll be pleased, a power prayer ten minutes into a rowing machine. It's an honest thanks, since we are kind enough to ask for her motivation. For your presence and patience, for friends we have known.
Two glasses. I'll be fine. Sure? He didn't say goodbye. Passed back through the car park, where a bodyguard was folding his newspaper. "What's a four letter word for 'strictly business'?" "How about a two finger word for 'mind your own'." And since we ask about his motivations, we'd have to say that people come together to become many things, with many facets, and many cooperative pliers fit for many new machines. Is he a stick-arounder? Get real. Has he heard of the Diocesan Regulations for Consecrated Grounds, Monuments or Ledgers? We'd be surprised.
But beastly things, beastly things. A black nugget of understanding we'll never put a finger on. If it helps, Val, it's got nothing to do with me. And who would you be? Interactive? If you recall? Ah, welcome. Join in. We are Val Parish and a big girl now, with our own motivations. Was guilt one of your ideas? Comes as standard, Val. Frustration? Go Cro-Magnon. "Fuckers." Good, but restrained. And they were sheep! Baa lambs, Val. Try getting to work. Being augmenting and educating the mind, your own and others. But, where the mind divides to watch itself, we find ourselves cursing self-regard even as we need it. Self-regulation? Don't look at me. Only got yourself to blame there. "Fuckers! Stupid fuckers." Better. Why have it in for stupid? "Stupid fucking woolly drop-out bastards." More. "Stupid fucking fence-banging unable-to-see-the-axe-coming.. things. Things." Things.
You've gone silent. I'm thinking, Val. Please go on with that touching reverence of yours. This'll be a prayer for those lost sheep, and for friends we waylay as we rise above or misplace trust or build great cathedrals only to forget our song. Sit within them in silence, capable only of contemplating the breadth of our handsome nave, or planning a rigourous mural for the transept, a gold and marble polish to our iconostasis. Stop! I don't mean driving, I mean reverence. Heard yourself? Handsome, rigourous, then polish. Still in the restaurant? Still half-anticipating rigourous polish?
Now you've gone silent. Damn, I wish I could shout at lost sheep. As a shepherd I should find it second nature but often feel somewhat saddled by the metaphor. Men. They're a black nugget. The beautiful but boring, more ice-covered by their vanity with every date. At sixteen we go for gold, until the appeal wears off, and then we meet Mal and he's more of a friend really. One who goes to university while we dally with a twenty seven year old social researcher, smart and full of stories, but taking a kind of advantage. At Oxford you turn inwards and become the sensible one, sharing a flat with the inexplicably popular Jenni. Okay, too explicable. Straight-ahead sense for the important paper. Beyond, four feet offer the stairs a so-methodical, light-heavy step. Earplugs plumped for tonight's abandon. The 'Ye-es'. The wall-scrape soft as swaying reeds before a storm. The 'Aw, Jenni. Not half!' Not half? What has she reeled in? A comic book mid-fielder? You've never heard anything as dippy and uncomplicated as 'Not half'. Say what you like about 'Not half', it cannot resonate like the dark blurt and navvies la-la deemed relevant to our inner ear. Was that some kind of social research? You never get the guts to ask her. Just how does one become, and stay, a 'Not half!' girl? Then Mal invites himself down for a summer and your personal history just kind of happens.
Now you've gone silent again. Say, when are you going to tell me you love me? I love you, Lord. Love you more than I think I can explain.
I love you too. I'm not stupid, am I? Not at all. But what am I, then? You're a little black nugget my job is to unravel. And you'll never be just a thing to me. Ever.”
As Val Parish takes a slow breath, invigorated more than she would have thought by this sense of the illicit, her junction looms quicker than expected. And what Mr Kenny Stobbart, of Michaels and Stobbart Haulers, does, at precisely the same moment, is to attempt to alter the colour scheme on his SatLad, from Aqua Crystal Vortex to Moon Desert Reds, in anticipation of a football fixture much later that evening.
His lorry is wide coming out from the junction, it is over the line, but it is her car which is forced to test the crash barrier for a second, with a scraping sound resultant along the left hand side.
Shock floodlights everything, even as she steers and brakes. It illuminates our framework, the curtainhood beyond the mind's stage. Black nuggets unravel as white faces, a childhood mouthful of lake water. Images neatly packed away like store for some emotional winter spill forth and prick her vision, while her hands grip tighter, and till the vehicle is at a standstill.
Subject: The Trouble With Hallowed Ground #1
Time: 2007 May 23 12:38:00It came again last night, down long and shadow-filled corridors. It didn't roll, nor did it glide. It entered the air and folded into itself, into a corner. It has many corners, midway up these cold stone steps, under this burgeoning tree. It knows where the motion censors cross, and how they can be stepped through. It watched, nicking at the fray of a glove, knowing that it requires this darkness, to survive.
"In touch with the ground!" Val Parish raises her glass.
"Juices like wine!" Sir Marcus Wells raises his. A converted St Cedma's. Lace and candles at lunchtime. Why not? Put the place to some use. Waiters dressed as vicars, or verging on it. Verging on vergers. When she arrived, he'd been notching himself up to one. Potential supplier. Friend of the owner. No, not him. New, is he? They tend to come and go. High turnover. Not to concern you. The owner's owner. In all honesty, he didn't need to do this sort of thing in Bishop's Evenbridge.
"Actually, I am Hungry Like The Wolf." He says, finding the menu. "And why don't they write them like that any more?"
"All buskers and burglars these days. Hitmen on holiday." She tests the wine and watches him. They do say that your best friend isn't the one you like the best, just the one who got their first. Time provides its own loyalty, and perhaps we could say the same about crushes.
Gradually, she can bare to look up and around. She'd been here before; when Mal was asked to best man at a colleague's wedding. Bricking it about the speech, he was very impressed by the vicar's ease. Perspective, higher love and moral purpose, even eternal life. It's not even opium these days.
"Anyway, the home news."
"Latest is a motorbike and an overland through Africa. Talking himself into seeking documentary-maker interest. I wouldn't put bittersweet realism past the world."
"Tricky business, but I don't see Mal going with a whimper." Marcus clasps his fingers behind his head. "Empathise. Sometimes I just want to throw everything into the air and take to the bushes. Cro-Magnon." He'd had been saying this sort of thing since he was eighteen. As a rule, to partly justify some gambit he had on his mind. "Pack animal. Living on blackberries and pilfered ice lollies." He pauses. "How are you?"
"I'm everywhere, Marcus. Little time to be anything." He considers and smiles again, then enters a silence which makes her think that he is wondering what on earth to say. "But good. If I believed in the stars, I'd say that I was on the cusp of major changes and that they all have a purpose, and we just need perspective. You?"
"Better perspective. Challenged, but lost in work. You're slinking back the prodigal son, then there's no-one to slink back to. Where's the fun in that? You sit at your desk and thank God for Costchopper."
"And you're everywhere I turn these days. No offence."
"Ooh, people love a grumble. If we were gone, they'd miss us."
"Right!" She asks if he has decided.
"Bracing myself for Salmon On The Mount. Disappointingly choice. Not even St John the Bap." He is watching her, she can tell, looking to resonate something. She was Val the Confessor, for her sins. He had once said 'I never underestimate the Oxford rabble. Don't think I really had a personality before you lot. Birth of the real me. That's why people jump in the river. That's why people sing at midnight. Because they're suddenly themselves.' For better or worse, she was there at the birth. Of the rabble, the flock, the pack. There were even spats and canes at one point, as if coming together turned them into something else. Isn't that why people come together? Much easier than doing it on your ownsome. She looks up, and he is looking at her, and then she looks around the restaurant again.
"Work?" He asks, with a smile. "Found a real career?"
"Arf." The waiter returns and they order. "You said you had something in mind."
He picks up a spoon and slowly moves a finger as if to strum it. "The land behind the school is available. Sitting doing nothing in a prime spot I'm fond of. I've put in a Costchopper bid and it'll be hard to beat. All we have to navigate are objections."
"Can I ask what you plan to do with it?"
"You'll be aware from his easygoing pink sheet interrogations that Daveboy doesn't run a thing. The customer runs Costchopper. They demand and he creates, and the less we intervene the better. Aware of farmers markets? Bigger but similar. Forward to basics. Practically an opportunity to source your own fare."
"Social conscience at last." He is glugging wine as Val considers. "We can make use of the forest?"
"God, yes. It'll be an eye opener for the kids. We'll have to set aside times and so forth. Sensitive natural balances will be maintained."
"Sounds too good to be true."
"You're a stakeholder. You'll see the bumpf, the slideshow and so forth. There's some interactive whiteboards in it for you."
Val looks him in the eye. "I need more than whiteboards, Marcus."
"The next league table is going to be a drop in achievements. Highlight discipline issues." She folds her hands.
"Admit it." He advises, with no hesitation. "Never be caught unawares. Admit it now, along with your change plan. I can help. Announce it fifty foot tall. Rebrand with champagne reception. The league table becomes old news."
She nods. "I'd like to bring in my own special measures before anyone else can."
"Mm." He agrees but looks concerned. "Crimewatch. Crackdown. The harder you grip, the more you'll lose them sometimes. Adjudicated, classified and swiped."
"Get at their roots. Something organic. There's a jam at broken lights. Do we crash? We weave in a mutually beneficial way." His hands seek to demonstrate. "Let them invest into something and they'll cheer for both it and Mrs Parish."
She looks around the restaurant like she wants to run with something. "Too much stops with me, but maybe people tell me what I want to hear. I'm shaking up the deputies. Visible pro-activity. Creating a new position. Organic, I'm sure."
He sits back to allow a bread basket onto the table. "I sense we're in the same dinghy. Campaigns for banks, presented by a real member of staff. Who'd present for Bishop's Evenbridge?"
Put like this, Val's first thought is affability, someone like Toby Pierce. "We're not corporate, Marcus."
"Still, my little propeller-heads are at your disposal." He flaps open a linen napkin. "Enough Corporate Modellers to throw Evenbridge upside down. And if we need to tie it into the land sale, that might be wise. Announce yourself the architect of something spectacular. In my humble estimation."
Lunch arrives while they are discussing mutual friends ("Karina was the French girl at the party who said I looked like Rimbaud. I left the room because I'd just seen 'First Blood'. Thought she meant Stallone.") and a short-lived comedy revue they found themselves roped into, Moby Dick's Schooldays, with an unfeasibly camp anthem entitled 'Ooh, It's All Coming Out Now'.
"Max? Left his wife. Gay as a ha'penny. So they say."
Val tests her veal. "I never would have guessed." She then clears her throat. "Moby met a sperm whale. He said 'My wife's a cow. Alleged I stained the ocean bed.'" Marcus joins in for the refrain. "But Ooh, It's All Coming Out Now." A passing vicar asks if their meal is satisfactory and is dispatched for another bottle.
"Don't. Don't." He laughs. "I'm sure people talk about single old me."
"Noo." She says consolingly. "You just can't do beastly things with people you respect. But can't marry anyone you don't. This is where aristocratic remorse differs from gay."
"Daveboy comes re-baptised, in the best of new money." He narrows his eyes. "It just seemed like such a bloody wasteland. Marriage. I could never get that out of my head."
Val doesn't know what to say. "There's always a road not taken. But then you do own a fleet."
It is then that his hand finds hers. His expression, quietly serious, contains a multiplicity of things. "Come back with me. Afternoon off. Brainstorm the propeller-heads."
Ah. "Do you.." God. It has been more than a while and, although her fingers instinctively grip back, and she does manage to create a smile, "Do we? Have any idea? What that would make me?"
"One or two former girlfriends have kindly forwarded me peculiar text messages the groom sent to them, which they saved especially for this, um, moment.." Mal Parish had been bricking it during the best man speech. He really had.
The restaurant is upside down and turning clockwise through the rear window of the SUV, across the car park. Her head rises over the headrest as he moves down to kiss her neck. "We can't just stare at him and wait." He kisses her again, breathing in her perfume, kneeling himself back onto the passenger seat. She didn't ask him to stop, but knew that their circumstances, his bodyguard or was it his driver, had a presence that intervened on his behalf.
"We won't have to." She promises, raising his hand and kissing it.
Subject: The Natural Order Of Things #4
Time: 2007 May 16 23:25:00I'm No Friend
Do you read me, sir and captain?
I whispered to a walkie-talkie, stolen
From a man I killed, who shot me
As I did stoop to finish him.
I'm no friend, sir and captain,
But the men you charge are fodder
For the guns that come behind me.
I just thought I should warn ye!
Fuel ridden, lit with the punch of an erring shell
I curled into sacked concrete, a smoky stock room
Shook in the rush of wing. Breathless helicopters
Cry for a still night when wives are simply sorrowing.
I hear you, lad, eventually a voice
Asked why I should tell him
Such a thing, on such a morning,
After such a forceful sortie.
Why, captain? Look behind ye,
Above the man above ye. All around!
Fodder is their fortune, their low tale of misgiving
We're the full stop in their illiteracy.
Sophie Easterby-Smith turns a pencil through her fingers. The front of the notebook says 'R Rowntree'. Last month, she was selecting the school entries for a regional anti-smoking competition, and found it difficult enough after the first swathe of phlegm allegory. So many goblins, a fistful of fetid emerald. This month, the 'Poetry 4 Peace' entrants: which Val had asked the department not to be too specific about in terms of contemporary events, although she had ignored this request and told her class to go where they felt right.
An afternoon train back home would not normally be so full, and it was a battle just to keep marking at times. "We're on the 2:35." The girl opposite danced between a phone conversation and excited vigil of the people around her. "Ask him to come after the boat club. I'm not sitting outside for half an hour till he's past schmoozing. Or I can stay over?" Sophie examines the girl's outfit, for she has changed from her uniform. A shortish strawberry gold dress shrouded in light grey hoodie. The younger pupils tended to wear an amiable combination of items bought for them, with dazzling errors of judgement brought upon themselves. But some had broken past, defined their own ensembles down to day-glo details. "Yeah right." She continues, after some silence. "I can make her mum do anything." She drops a hand onto the knee of the boy beside. "I can make anyone do anything." Her laughter is a low, adapted whoop. "Oh damnation, dearest, you have to learn the appropriate pressure points. Once achieved we simply turn people off and on. Like that." When she snaps her fingers at the phone, the boy leaves his conversation, and simply frowns. "Yes?"
Sophie examines the two boys next to the girl, who have cardigans tucked into black drainpipes, and swap smileless in-jokes. There is something without a name, Sophie considers. Without it, music is noise and art no more than colour and shape. It makes some people wonder what the fuss is at a rugby match, while some will punch the air. It is appreciation and understanding, to be sure, but it is also gut level, running into social posture. Milieu? Maybe. Soul? Why not call it that? Without it, dukes are still itinerant. It is our root into the world and ourselves. Each of us has this social globe and sextant, this inverse fortune teller's instrument. It makes us here and now, whether we fashion it ourselves or accept a hand-me-down. Put simply, why do some people wear mint green eye shadow? Why do some people chuckle hard at nothing much? You'll either understand these things, or never understand.
"You marking my homework, miss?" One of the boys raises a finger, swallowing something he is chewing.
"No, I'm not. Bribery greeted as though I were."
The girl, Opportunity Newton, twitters in again. "Remember? Her sister had a big piñata at her seventeenth. We bashed it with sticks but it just walked up the drive. Had to pull her car keys out its arse?"
"Anything exciting back home?" The boy's friend offers her a sweet.
Hmm? 'Look, of course I wasn't there. Someone was busy checking perimeters.' Sophie avoided Mrs Parish's look, eyes widened at the ceiling. Quiet reprimand. Talking much as she would do to a child. Lies, mutual lies, and expected lies. Don't we outgrow our passion for things, for example, toys? For example, the only department seeing qualitative betterment in the past year. For example, who really cares? A lot of people, don't you agree, outgrow the object and transfer the attitude? For example, toys become boys. For example, talking to staff like they were deficient dolls, not sitting neatly in a pram. Emotions themselves have the same source, as if we haven't got capacity to change. Peek-a-boo and humiliation, the hidden heights of adult discourse. Googoo versus gaga, the requisite stupidity of women. Sophie folds the notebook back into her bag.
"You got a boyfriend, miss?" She is taken aback, awoken sharply by this question. "Only we're off to get Mongolian food. They've the biggest chocolate fountain in Britain."
She knits her brow and shakes her head. "Those things are gruesome. They -"
"You're very pretty, miss." The boy examines his sweet wrapper.
"What the heck ends up in there? Thank you."
"Nah, I'm serious. Not the type I'd ask out though. Would you?" He wrinkles his nose and turns to consult his friend.
Nah, I'm serious? Cheers. Sophie wonders if asking why would be a step towards some kind of trap. "Why?"
The first boy raises his head and scrutinises. "Deflecting forcefield. Hands Off Annie."
"Some people need that." His mate considers. "Challenge is everything. For me it suggests a life of hard pedaling. They say one person is always pedaling. I'm no dollop. Bang. I want it instant, reciprocated and lasting. Or die trying. Talking off the record. These are exceptional circumstances and I trust we can do away with the conventional mores. Anyway, we'll be at the Mongolian buffet but don't feel obliged. No pressure."
"Thanks. My flatmate away. Place to myself. Obscure DVD. Perfect for me."
The second boy strokes his chin. "He's doing the Neg, miss." Leaning forward, he looks about as if to confess something terrible. "Women don't want a puppy running after them, so the best chat-up is often the put-down. Reveal yourself as the definer of boundaries."
"Oh." She whispers, looking to the first. "Seen much success?"
He sits back, while his friend shrugs against the full sunlight. "Not really. Actually, it beats stand-and-stare. Which used to work a treat."
"Better or worse than voodoo?"
Opportunity Newton finally comes to a close. "Mwah. Love you. Love you." Sophie considers the words, realizing that she never does a familial 'Love you'. Aware that, in this, she was probably a minority. Chirpy, she was 'Friday then!', but more often it became a flat-lined and officious 'Take care.' Parents divorced. No real memories, or just of being the centre of attention. Massively central, central to a battle. Somewhere in there, she managed to keep her head down. Somewhere in the endless focus of curses, mixed signals and lies, and gifts to wrap changed plans, something stepped into the dark. Something fell onto a bed, very ignored.
"Can't beat old fashioned fancying." She smiles quickly. "No strategy required."
"Hi, guys. Back again." Opportunity shuts her phone and looks to her friends. "You wouldn't!? Wouldn't you get the elbow?" Sophie looks down, along the girl's dress, and smiles cautiously. In her experience, 'girl friend' was an oxymoron, for hers had had a waning sense of loyalty. Show them a boyfriend and they become a list of apologetic texts and no-shows. "Anyway, you can't have these two, they're mine."
"Two?" Sophie turns her head, beginning to get the feeling that she should stay aloof in this conversation.
"She won't entertain the concept of chocolate fountain." The first boy bites his nail.
"Come on, miss. It'll be fun."
"I-" Again, Sophie looks along the girl's dress. She said she could make anyone do anything. Pressure points. Come and try. Where were hers? "I'm not.. that hungry." The train slows as it finds a bend, and the next station is announced. "Really.?"
Opportunity Newton gazes down at her compadre, scratching his shoulder but saddened, some theatrical expression fallen to his lap. Then she shrugs. "Your loss." Is that my pressure point? "It's all about networking these days." Try again, dearest. "Look how sad he is. All sad. He's a big jellyfish with no spine and no bones in a sea of his own weep." Opportunity Newton looks up. Well, that's a part of my job. Almost in the spec.
"Don't creep the teacher out." The first boy protests while Opportunity continues talks over him. "Pikey fountain. Sorry, miss." He reaches across the shake Sophie's hand.
"Awkwardish." His friend can only add, raising both of his hands.
Suddenly, they scramble down the train, before it pulls in, leaving Sophie to pack her things and file into the line of departing people. No friend, sir and captain. Pressure points below radar. And definitely no dollop.
"Eat this, you smarmy tramp." Mrs Pierce well and truly AWOL, Toby Pierce manoeuvres the remote of the television around, and tries to find something a bit worth watching. "Not the wedding cake, Marlene!" "..the certain result of greenfly.." "Holmes! To the abbey!"
Bloody awful. Worse on cable. Off it goes as he swaps remote, for the stereo. Coltrane keeping it lazy. He sets down his coffee and considers cleaning. Cleaning would be a treat. The house has some unkemptness to it, but not the unkempt of laziness. On the contrary, the unkempt of an essential double income, with enough on their plates, thank you very much. They got on with it, and they got the finger out when visitors were due. Things went by. Things flew by sometimes. The afternoon sunlight catches his eye. Poor Ray. Poor sod. Could have been anyone. Nice guy, but a bit bold in the language department.
Toby Pierce considers lunchtime and the easy curve of E-Smith's neck and breasts. More to her than meets the eye. No-one had a bad word to say about E-Smith. Beautiful, but some poised animal from another place.
He bites into a biscuit. A man needed a road in, he considers. One man's tarty is another's turnstile. Girl next door sort. Foreign as muck. Miss Mystery, descending the stairs. Noticably different from Mrs Pierce's tier of glossy mags to his right. Beauty most bland. Himself, he needed things over-obvious. Hit with a brick. Mouth broader, confusion apparent, causing a full-blown dose of pout. Hips that command attention. Rougher, but therefore ready. Men's women. Same as the glossies, just sharper in contrast. Genetically speaking, a bond with E-Smith would probably muddy the pool. A genetic endgame as she is. He rolls his head around and bites again on the Driller's Original. He'd do the garden. He'd attempt the edges. Spring and trimmed grass, perhaps a cheeky can in the hammock. Spring's ordinary miracle.
Christ, he was dozing off again. He opens his eyes. He then closes them, thumb in the waistband of his trousers, wondering if he should tinker to John Coltrane. School's out. Even as a grown adult, especially as one, fiddling felt underhand. We should be more in your face about the whole business. Not in your face. Just not underhand. Bloody hell, was there a third way, a third way of the flesh? Somewhere over the rainbow, a new dimension? One eye finds Mrs Pierce's glossies. People you'd never meet and offer a weak hand to. A bonus, to be honest. But something missing from those featureless features, slick wetsuits. And the guttering needed attention. He'd get a ladder out. A job in itself. What the hell was up there?
Fingers waver, then the eye closes. Mrs Pierce. Not guilty. Fantasy beyond the marriage, probably to be expected. Thinking about it: as bad as doing it? Surely you're just some skin away? One sense apart from real crime. Pity the skin, still the beast. While the head is allowed just about anywhere. And so to guttering. And slates. The slates he could try. Rattling all through dinner last night. You've got squirrels, Tobe. Come again? The Wards, from opposite, found the almond and tamarind risotto, the special tandoori kebabs, 'better than good'. The kitchen natter. Fags? Can do. Can do. Can we go outside? Squirrels? Starscapes and half a poxy spliff, knocking him for six. He felt himself slink against the wheelie bin. Squirrels, Wardo? Chatwise, Pierce was happiest as social lubricant. I'd lay a bet on it, Tobe. Bloody squirrels. Listen! Don't mind if I do. The loosener, getting looser by the second. Suddenly a human O, unable to locate his own house. Financially, they were a five times looser, but the Wards had no real stuffiness about them. Kitchen gadget comparisons, going on forever. Who'd have thought it ended here? Up in the attic, playing mums and dads. Time was, we'd run a mile. Nuts.
Slowly, Stabber Warren removes his hand. His fantasies, when they took hold, were predictable enough, bar the sleeping girl. Shh! Running a hand through night shorts and cotton vest, sports white if anyone could ever see. Just to test the crispness of her stir, her ease with brushing kisses nearing her lips. Breast beyond reach. Events beyond good order. Odd, but say no more. They deviate. Whose sexual fantasy is a cold-faced missionary , saluting the mind's eye with "Nothing special going on here. Is there dear?" "No, dear. Nothing weird." There isn't a single person in the world with that fantasy. And if there is they need help. Thoughts deviate. That's their job. But never power. Never power, which seemed in the eye contact. Even ranging around on top of him. Even Mrs Ward. Once. Tables cannot turn. Wrists remained ungrippable, the seam is just unrippable. Eyes, if they meet, never share their power, and nothing actually happens. Of course nothing actually happens. Berk!
Feeling a kind of release, from a kind of mid-wake capture, he opens both eyes again. Focusing hard at an overloaded plug board, he gradually stands and kneads his back, glancing into the emptied sofa. Sure, he wasn't Mrs Pierce's ideal man. Of course not. And she wasn't his ideal woman. Scooping up the mug and biscuits, he tucks his feet into some slippers. Things adhere, we discover, at their penultimate point, never at their limits. And that's just the way of things. Guttering, slates. And things. He passes into the kitchen.
Now, Triton Ward. By all accounts, there was a kid looking for limits. There was a kid breaking rank.
Behind the near pavilion, over the path and up the hill, a mesh of fence serves to separate the sports field from the forest. She is at home now, of course she is, but, for a while, Ruby Rowntree had stood alone, running a finger around one plastic-coated diamond of mesh, from north to south, east to west, considering the bento in her bicycle basket; and considering the height of the fence; the gates adjoining the hill; and the trees and how motionless every leaf was, even in a breeze.
Subject: The Natural Order Of Things #3
Time: 2007 May 08 14:12:00"Can we get a bouquet at his bedside? No wife. Try the file." Val Parish hangs up and turns back to her screen. "Can't look. Worried I'll see myself." She and Bob Beattie are examining CCTV playback in her office, relayed via the local area network.
"It was you, Val. It was you." Bob points at a paused section of playback, on the stand-alone in the corner.
"What?" She glances over. The rota had been run through, tomorrow's science classes rescheduled, and the staff were in the staff-room or gone. Meanwhile, the fire service was supervising the police, who were waiting for someone to take a back up of the CCTV. Banned from even inspecting the damage, Jack's call was forthcoming.
"Feeling guilty?" Bob does his best to smile under the circumstances. "Right steps, wrong day."
Guilty. Never, or never much. Well, a kind of survivor guilt at times. Probably Mal, although it predated him. Surviving what, she didn't know. The past was of little interest to her and never had been. Life began this morning. Maybe guilt can hold ambition's cloak, as the actor feeds on nerves. Or maybe we can't just tear through life without being a survivor of ourselves.
She gives her deputy a stare and continues to examine what looked like a crafty drugs transaction. She zooms to and fro, but suspects she'll never prove anything so late in the day. What was she becoming, the police? Bob scratches his neck. "We didn't dream this would happen when we woke up."
"Don't really dream, Bob." Then, after a while, done with forwarding and rewinding, endless faces or space, and after perusing the What's On at the Evenbridge Playhouse, she asks "Any ambitions, Bob? If I were to leave here, I'd like to think it was in better hands."
His profile freezes imperceptibly. You could sense the calculations, and they usually calculated towards zero, just as Val tended to calculate towards one, binary creatures that we become. Then a rift of anxiety. "Any plans?"
The headmistress doesn't seem to answer his question. "I'm meeting an old friend tomorrow. Oxford. You know, I was the unambitious one. Or maybe I was just a late starter. So I have expanded this place, watched it suffer for it. Big Brother won't shine the shoes, raise an average or sweeten the vinegar. Might be the zeitgeist. I'll see it improve, but to any point of real glory? Still ambitious, you see. The only drug we're paid to take."
Bob tastes his coffee, and chooses his response carefully. "Sunnier shores?" After Mal? A son in prep to consider. But, as a practical person, she had the feelers out. "Superhead?"
"No, public school. Looking for somewhere on the HMC. Suit my background. I'll miss the Evenbridge mums. You betcha."
"Righto." Bob chuckles. "Point taken. Not sure I.. I. Wrong age to start filling shoes to be honest."
Val sighs and stretches. Then she lets herself get distracted by a departing fire engine. She already asked Jack about a new position. Not approved, but any rejigger within budget was always down to her. Someone needed grooming.
Eventually she looks over. "Misplaced motion sensors. Blind spots a bus could do a bootleg turn and back again. Don't you agree?" He looks at her, and she waves her finger around the screen.
"Give me your hand. I've written you a poem, darling." The cold grey respirator will rise and fall, and Val will squint across the white light suffusing everything, and read it to him, finally. It will be fitting, and it will be a surprise. And, who knows, surprise might keep him going.
Well, she would do. If she could write poetry. "A hearty C+" Mal would probably conclude, if that was in any way possible, eyes flickering from side to side, and finally slip away. But she couldn't write poetry, and would therefore have to ask someone who could, to write something fitting for her.
The hammer of the gods is a mashie, a five iron, with Jack attached to it, waiting at the top of the steps. He must have flown here. Emerging from the side door, Val pockets her mobile and waits. White trousers, pink polo shirt, red visor. He has his back to her, one leg folded, observing the roof of the science block like he had just teed off.
"I'm trying to butter them up, Val. Looking for Lurpak." He shields his eyes and scans around. "Good day sunshine. I get a royal bucket of sand up my ass."
"CCTV would suggest accident." She takes to the steps.
"It shouldn't have happened." He smiles politely, watching her approach. "There's always a responsible."
"Minimally Conscious State. I'll check beneath him."
Jack winces. "Whatever dance you do, the rough can just get a bit nastier. Val, if I'm getting it in the ear, you'll get it harder. The fun bus parks somewhere."
"Dress me down, Jack. The whole way. Just leave me the contingency. The ricochet."
"Dress you down? Special measures, Mrs Parish. You know what Britain manufactures these days? Little management consultants with a commando's grip and heads like chessboards. Make that Deep Blue. Deep Shit V, under a big Swiss mountain. What they pull apart and screw back is all the same to them, so long as it whistles like wet nuts in a windtunnel."
Special Measures. Special Measures spelt abroad. "And how foregone are they? As a conclusion. Any room to look at things like people people, or adults?"
"Bring me the fucking Lurpak." Jack hollers, before noticing a special constable emerging from the science block. He immediately hushes, but moves right up to her face. "One bloody month month, I see an effing miracle miracle." He then grasps for the sky. "Golden. So buttery no-one can hold it."
"End of term." She offers.
"Booked out. Replacement interviews. Yours and mine. One month, I show a wrapper. If they nibble, I cut slowly and we might not be toast. And nobody's heard of Jarlsberg."
Val Parish acknowledges another knot of police officers emerging, moving around the back, to the glade and to the fence. She sighs and checks her watch. "Feels like mommie just got the early score from daddy." It was almost relieving to get it out of the way.
Frowning, Jack looks at his five iron, then shakes his head. "Come on. Professional, Val. Look around. Everybody's mommie. Yes? There's just good mommie and bad mommie in Bishop's Evenbridge."
"And I am..?"
"You'll never know. And that's how the world keeps us swinging."
Subject: The Natural Order Of Things #2
Time: 2007 May 05 13:35:00"Anyone hurt?" Val's arrival ended the cheering. Cheering. She was directed from the front gate, into the sports field, by the fire service.
Anyone hurt? Too early to say, they say. Yes, the insurance covers most eventualities. She repeats it, again, to the material trim upholstering the ceiling of her SUV. The smoke had drawn her back down the hill, never as fast as she would like, and never as slowly either. Dread, a parallel place of perpendicular speeds. Her first reaction, too early, too distant to put real meaning to the threat to life, was to rehearse. Question time. Indemnity. Then, nearer the gates, 'Dear Val. Re: hearse. They've asked if they can all file past your prison cell?' The closer she got, the more the excited faces passed her car, the more empathy overtook. But look outside now. From the edge of the hockey pitch the clouds are even more ominous. They have a shape, a twisting hammer keen to come this way.
Too grown-up smart for mess around, too young smart to try to weave any voodoo over this, her fingers are finding the latch when Bob Beattie's loud hailer appears. How many hurt? "Too early to say. Sorry." He drops the megaphone. "Chemistry. Empty but you never know. We just don't kno-" Oh, Bob. Born not of the womb, but of the worry line. Deputy since year dot. Born deputies, a living mystery. Happy on the scaffold, but happier a creep away from the block.
Feet on the ground. If you're not cutting mustard, leave the pot. "Who was on monitoring duty?" Sophie East- "Can I speak to her?" Quick headcount, but not around. Every cloud, even here, has a lining. "What?" Shake the head. "What?! What brand of incomp.." But Bob can never get more startled looking, no matter which tone of voice she gives him. "Do we know what happened?" Bob shrugs. Someone resembling a fire crew captain is there, picking brains with the head of Chemistry. They discuss hazardous storage and halon versus smothering. "Hello. Hello, sorry to bother. Headmistress. Mrs Parish. I saw an ambulance. Just up there." Ray. Smoke inhalation. No trace of anyone else. "Ah good. Not for Ray. He's a good man. He'll be running around after some Vicks?" Coma. "Right you are."
Past the track, and to the pitch, ushering latecomers. A pit of dread in the gut, the grass arrives as a steadier. A slow tonic. Nature's reflexology. For some people it's the sea. Where was Bob Beattie's happy place? "1983, you know. Dropped mercury. Had to split the floorboards and dig. White suits and gas masks. Chernobyl for a day. But nothing like this.."
"It's going to be dandy, Bob." Hammer of the gods, bring it down. The pupils have been gathered as best they can, into houses, each amassed into a corner of the rugby field. Heads of House usher their Prefects, to count and keep a check on vanishers, no shows and horseplay.
She'd let them go, for the p.m. Heads of House shrug. Sure? Sure. Get them on her side at least. Sure.
"Good afternoon." She advances into their midst, swinging Bob's loud hailer. "Attention please."
"Was Ray making ketamine?" Someone chances their arm, and those that aren't gabbling find it funny.
Never should have expanded. Never. "Very good. Yes. Raymond needs an ice pack for a day or so."
"No change there." "Ice pick?" "Nice pack. Lunchbox." A shove. Val leans towards Bob. List of all absentees and latecomers, please. This morning's, and the present headcount. She makes a mental note. Van der Venn.
"Thanks to the kick-in of new safety policies no-one was killed. Now. Cause has yet to be ascertained. Anything Bunsen burning in anyone's conscience let me know. My door is always open."
"No, it's not." "Why doe she say that?" Fair point.
"My door is fully knockable." It's an opportunity, Val. Steer things up. "I'd like to say a prayer for Ray." Sighs. "After we sort out getting you home." Cheers.
Hammer of the gods, hear it coming. "Anyone with travel issues can utilise the pavilion." Bags, being shouldered already. Then turning, she sees the Traynors, poised at the Dead Ball Line. Val tries to ignore their look of abject concern. Mrs Traynor hopping, gawking, mouthing 'Hayley'. Mr Traynor pacing tightly, like he'd quite happily punch the school's lights out. Suddenly, the mother can't take any more of this. "Hayley!? Where is she? You alive, babe?"
"Prayers first, then." Other parental cars appear to be lining the hill beyond the gates.
"She's not here." The girl probably has her mouth full of Aspartizade. "This is an asylum, Parish."
"Lord, we thank you today for our good fortune. Which serves to remind us how we are part of something greater than ourselves."
"Mum." A voice finally swallows and pipes up.
No-one listening. Blazers sit on shoulders. "Oh, babe. Oh, thank you. Thank you." Mr Traynor remains unconvinced, drifts his hips from side to side as if set for a sprint.
"Something humanity feels a need to reach for." Val backs up to the Dead Ball Line, raising a hand to their faces. "But which you show in abundance, in the trees.." You can't put a spin on it, sometimes. Fans to be hit, forces gather. She watches Bob Beattie check a line of fluff from his pockets. You’re only as strong as your inner circle.
"Amen." Bedlam. Exodus in every direction. Colliders, colluders and matinees perused by mobile. Ah! Ms Easterby-Smith. Nice of you to - "Slow and orderly, please. Ties on!"
Face the storm and give what you receive. "Excuse me. Children have been praying. Could you leave the grounds please?"
"This is going to the Ombudsman, Parish."
"You say that, Mrs Traynor, and it never happens. All anything goes to is my office. I'm beginning to think you have a little thing for me. Yes? Possibly?"
Mr Traynor turns his head, looking at the grass, disgusted.
"Because it rests at your door, Parish. It rests at your door. You're the source."
"Of your daughter thumping other girls? I am there, vocal in her ear? 'She's got Chlamydia. Pass it on?' I suppose I'm the source of that too? I suppose I'm guiding her fingers to Wikiplagiara of a morning? I shin your drainpipe, scraping the window. 'Petrify the numpties, Hayley. For me?'"
Mr Traynor looks up quickly, like this has gone too far, and makes a 'Jee-' sound.
His wife smiles weakly into the distance, suddenly finding her demure mode. "You're right. Maybe you're right. Maybe you're not in charge of this place at all. Maybe it's just the wind." She smiles as her daughter approaches. "Babe." She extends her arms, drops them as the group passes. "Going up the river? Don't be late, babe."
Val excuses herself, and Bob joins her as they pass silently back towards the gates.
Subject: The Natural Order Of Things #1
Time: 2007 May 02 14:12:00"Thanks for making me a fighter." Standing this close to it, even the high dressing mirror that has been set into the corner of the parlour takes on a kind of peripheral coffin shape.
"Look into my eyes. Do it. Gently, friend. I am indestructible, son. I was here before you and I come from a place that you'll never find. You can't take me. It is against the natural order. I decide when I go, and the rule of law must be obeyed. Simply must. So buzz off and dance, son. Bag some old bag, or seize her old geezer."
Alone for some time now, Mal Parish tightens his dressing gown, lets go of the mirror's strapping frame, and sits at his desk. He picks up his finest pen and unscrews the top, and lowers himself towards writing paper.
The Natural Order of Things
The natural order of things
Works by breakdown and repair.
Infant flowers of malady,
The cough lupin, a chest of bowing honeycomb.
Sweat petals, sneezing bees.
Our roads must be uneven, we muscles learn.
We cells find out.
That's alright. Find out what? He stops and asks the window. Then "The harder you kick me, the sooner I'm bouncing back, you bollocks." He tells the room. What? What do we find out? To escape where we're going; to be a little bit sure that something happened while we were here? Meanwhile stay stagger-headed on hormones just long enough to not notice that it was all in your head. Mal's body was all in his head, and had been for some time.
He couldn't get to church any more, which was irony where he needed it the least. The Bollocks took the church off him. He turns to the internet, which was far too broad to be a source of real inspiration, either for poetry or for life. The television had Hitler, ghosts and sharks; three subjects on a permanent cable rotation somewhere in the world. The internet, as a general totting up of the human mind, was feline. If the cats met the sharks, somewhere a phantom Führer stood president over the pool, would this be a good enough snapshot of the human condition, for the spacemen to take as their souvenir, when they do? The outer does my inner in. Or something.
Mal chooses a tablet and checks his order. Parallel twin-cylinder engine, throttle position sensor and electric carburetor heaters, customised to 790cc. The customer services portal has no status change, but the guy did say between six and three. And mail from Mr Zafy in Madagascar. "Malcolm, thank you so much for your latest contributions. These days, you're a regular church bulletin. Could you knock up our Spot-The-Ball while you're at it? Listen, we are praying for you both. If you need Adopt-A-People again, pray in this direction! God Bless."
Mal missed Fara. Words could not describe it. There was such a joy in watching her grow, being some manner of guardian from afar. But even text books and yellow boxes full of silly things come up against the starker teenage order. "I think this is sometimes odd." She looked briefly into the church web-camera but didn't smile. What did she mean? "I'm grown up now. I don't need toffees and t-shirts, from anyone." Even there. Even there. "Please.." He felt like tears when she looked back at him, and he feels like that a lot these days, and still sends money and still wonders where she is, and prays for her. And, late in the night, still wonders if he caught what he caught to stop her getting, Lord knows, HIV or something. Drew some hazard across the planet, as a friendly exorcist might do, a catching hand that passed unseen over coastal sheets, between summer-warm peaks of towned-in shanty tyre, to a slightly open door and on again. He thinks he would have done that.
What else? Unopened 'Re:Probate'. Accumulation or Maintenance Trusts? 'Your Executors'. Your Executors. For the first time in his life, finance actually made him sick. No metaphor. Lose lunch.
What else else? Shut the whirlpool, Parish. Shut the junk. 'Things Pulled Together', he thinks. I assemble my dustpan and brush. Hunt a Fleur de Lis glass that completes this borrowed set. I pull things together. As I come apart. Pen down. Dreary, hellish and dreary. And not exactly him. Not really. If there was any sort of upside to this condition, though, it would be that pulling together. The awful focus. The chasm certainly has drive. Boy does it. Mal is ten miles high in there. So fast and so nowhere. He turns through sleep cycles like a hollered-at hamster on a wheel. We stop suddenly, minds taken, to look for our boats, to bud-find and gather in. Emotionally, we wait for wood and a fresh morning. Look for a kinder order in things.
At this point, poking through his own thoughts, the doorbell goes, and Mal Parish finds his feet, and then raises one beech Venetian slat by a finger or two. The world outside, he thought, had lost its heroes. All the kids knew were faces. Faces and score charts.
He tries the peephole. Suit, fair and neatly shaven. "The homeowner?" Squatter actually. Not the bike. Maybe there's been a problem.
He opens up. "Yes?" If the man on the step had a hat he would pull it to his chest and cower a little. Instead he raises some kind of hand-held data capture device and bends his head up and around the roof with a cheery smile. He introduces himself, and his assets management firm.
"Thinking of selling at all?"
"No." Did Mal know that he lived in a freshly-linked commuter girdle? "Yes." And that city bulls were hungry to plant their annual bonuses somewhere friendly. Perfect time of year for your windfall sale. Price-driving. "No, thanks." Whatever happened to clothes pegs? Look into my eyes. Gently, friend, so gently. Some school kids pass along the street, as if they're bunking off early, sent home or something. As the chap prints an estimate off his hand-held and onto his business card - "How much?" - a van pulls into the street. This was more like it.
Standing so long, pain threatens to return to his left side. Nevertheless, he thought, Val was just. going. to. love. this.
Subject: The Girl In The High Castle #4
Time: 2007 Apr 30 23:41:00"When she is good she is very good, but when she is bad she is wicked."
Oddly, Ruby's most vivid memory, of a stage in her personal history that Bishop's Evenbridge often reminds her should be departed, is not of the Bosnian naturists, but of the Italians. She is in a bakery, looking up at her mother discussing her daughter with an encountered friend. She examines the lowest shelf in the display case, at the Panettone and Torta Claudia, and then looks back up again, now at some flies circling a square box of flypaper hanging from the ceiling. See-sawing forward and around, they are probing their comrades, adhered indiscriminately over this motionless little box, perhaps wondering if they should attempt to rescue one or two, or perhaps filled with an awful fascination to see what The End looked like. Who isn't? Ruby's horror stories didn't bring her nightmares. If anything, her sleep was more agreeable for having read 'Feasts From The Threshold'. Simple scenes with a sensation of fresh air on legs, where a lady in a flowing white dress hangs amid the munificent grounds of a castle.
"Wicked." Ruby's mother and her encountered friend lower their watchful stare at the girl. So, if countries were people, and they probably are not, Italy was a madman, Ruby recalled. But tempered by a love for its own madness, regarding it as special. Special and 'Fantastico!' The brother would point to the father licking clean his plate, who, in turn, indicates his tomato-sauced-up nose. Ruby's tears, scratches, the long nights in a wet bed, were greeted with no kind of amusement, just as the cool subterfuge of an invasive force.
"Ah told ya. Out, man." Ray closes one classroom door and slips down the corridor to another. "Anybody at home?" Ray she pictured standing at every grassy bend or blind corner, unexpectedly there and always blind to pupils, a regular eventuality picking its ear with a key and scrutinizing the results, then swapping the phone across to work the other. "A'm up to ma pal's hat in child maintenance. You're squeezing tha pips, man." He had once chuckled, into his phone, as she passed.
The corridor smells and has a green haze to it, but there is no visible smoke at the moment. Upon reaching the last door, the point of no further, the stringy caretaker hops and lowers towards the cracked, grey window of the chemistry lab. "Right." He yells, unhooking an extinguisher from the wall. "A'm goin' in." He opens the door with a fist and a foot, allowing billows to run over each other to reach him, then along the corridor ceiling.
Ruby found herself walking forward, and had no intention of stopping. "If it's chemical, tell Janice A'll see 'er down below. Do us a favour and double-check them rooms, pet. Then get yerself over tha road." Fire didn’t sound very wrathful, Ruby thought. More like cleansing. Without actually seeing it, well, it was just something to live on in the imagination. Something that would live in the school consciousness. She does stop at one point, imagining what she imagined she could achieve here. Wrath had something to do with it. The others - it wasn't real bullying, nothing was taken, just a response as dumb as anything that provoked it. "Dingbrain." "Wab." What was a wab, in any case? Just raising themselves up, above something. Often her, although more often Cockle-Picker Colin Parker, who lived on a barge. "You're alright saying dumb stuff. You just have to write a few poems to prove them wrong. I have to lose three stone." "I have to find a mum." Futures dreamt themselves fore and aft, sleek arenas built on impossible revenge. "I'll be a retail queenpin. Bankrupt Sluts R Us."
Ruby turns the ring, too big for any finger, in her pocket. Not that Ruby was proving rebellious. She was already thinking things like 'We call our parents tyrants because we're ashamed they are our slaves'. Suddenly, then, the alarms sound, gradually and all over, transforming the premises. She remembers Destiny Mackenzie, who, faced with another of Ruby's sudden silences, which, like her sudden and silent disappearances, she had grown accustomed to, had gone to spring the system. Destiny should go first, of course, but, if there was someone Ruby could send to the end of the corridor, to keep guard, it would be the kid who follows her in a kind of eerie silence. What good was she at all? If anyone should get burnt to death it should really be her. "Go on." "Me?" "Have a look."
This girl advances, catching a taste of the first roll of smoke as it searches overhead. Ruby checks, as if over her shoulder, into the emptied room. Something weighty but glassless crashes in Chemistry, "Nah, fanny". And then the silent girl glides quickly to the open door of Biology, a shining wire cage sitting by the window. Three chinchillas suck water, seemingly oblivious. The room is hazing fast, but clear of people.
"What's happening?" Summons the cage, somewhere in Italian. "Terrible kerfuffle." A second gargles. "Appalling chap just blanked us. I'm driven to drink." The third turns a plastic ball against a cage corner. "Suspect his head is a zoo already." Through the window, a glade with pots for rainfall and then a mesh fence, beyond which lay sparse forest belonging to an ex-governor of the school, but which they were permitted into, for its ferns and saplings and a lost multiplicity of moth.
Ruby swings across the room, amid fumes, a new treble-filled combustion and a crash as Ray drops the extinguisher into the corridor. She undoes the cage door as someone calls her name, possibly Destiny, to empty the containers from her bento and begin to load them in. Her head feels like a rubber band ball, suddenly balanced, dense and seeking the floor. And there was definitely someone, out beyond the mesh and the glade. Maybe more than one someone, passing through trees, or disappearing in front of them.
"Ruby?" Again, just as a third explosion is emphasising the second, the rip of glass fills the corridor and grounds. Ray isn't moving in the corridor, and Destiny is trying to slide closer through the smoke and glass.
"Aye, it's not so bad, y'know." Ruby does her best to slap him, and they try to pull him further along the corridor, until the smoke insists they leave.
Subject: The Girl In The High Castle #3
Time: 2007 Apr 24 18:54:00"Sorry, schmoo. I didn't mean to dumbfound. I'm in that kind of mood." He leans back and fixes his fringe with the bend of a wrist.
Ruby turns her head. "Okapiman blushes them to death?"
"We wait and see. We leave them slipping in a special kind of fear vom."
He turns away, facing the new camera, caressing his chin, although an eye travels back to Ruby, inviting a mutual intrigue. "What's that?" She points to his ring.
"The Both Hands Congregation? It's an oath." He removes it, passes it to her. "The ultimate give. No shake. No wave. No V. Grabbing the world by Both Hands. They're a co-operative, refusing to co-operate with me. I used to be the keeper of the keys."
Ruby recognises this. "Weren't the locks all changed?"
"Mostly. But there is more to Bishop's Evenbridge than meets the eye. The Okap-eye. Anyway welcome to the gang. Sort their heads out for me."
Ruby tries it on as he resumes his gaze at the new camera. "Whose is that?” Ruby smiles and points to a love bite on his neck. "Ms. Opportunity?"
He laughs out loud. "How do I explain? Um. See. There's a woman in every man and a man in every woman. And a man falls in love with the man in a woman. And a woman falls in love with the woman in a man. Which means everything is as glamourous as it needs to be. Every minute. Every day."
Ruby guesses. "You're into boys?"
"Oh." He looks dismayed by this, and pulls up his shirt sleeve to expose a forearm. "I just set my she-wolf free. She's in charge. Touch her. She's right there." Ruby looks down at the tubular exposure of skin. "Careful."
She reaches out to touch, then recoils when he emits a strong whistle. "Whoo. Feeding cubs or something." He smiles and leans around until his fringe topples to his nose. "Do unchain your inner boy. Both hands. Had a boyfriend yet? Don't! Men only. Twenty one plus. Boys talk Horlicks. Stirrers. Plastic, including me. Current status: call it love. Call it constellations." His hand travels to one side of his neck.
After a brief time examining Ruby's eyes, he leans back to examine the ceiling. "The stars put our feet on the ground and our heads somewhere special. They make the time now." He closes his eyes and brings his hands into a prayer. "When in love, don't you find love all around? The stars take care of that. Do you know what a world is like with no enchantment? Little girls just aren't even here." Both hands drop past his knees quite suddenly. "They just aren't anywhere."
The two girls opposite have finished, and have turned around and are listening. "Here, Galileo." Opportunity Newton jumps to her feet and extends a hand towards him. From under the table, Ruby quickly reaches out something she has been fashioning without thought, from the nori that wrapped her easter eggs, although she suddenly becomes undecided about it. A ring, slate green, which he slips onto his finger.
"Aw, schmoo. Delectable." His eyes hang across the crumbs on the table. "This might be the last one I receive. I'm officially the wrong type of boy, you see."
He fans the comic, preparing to go. "Is there more?" Ruby asks. He looks confused. "Stars." She adds. "Of course there is." Triton Ward puts an arm on her shoulder and looks to the back of the canteen, the teacher's table, then the camera's little red light. Opportunity waves her hand away in frustration, resigned but smiling as she turns to run through the doors.
"In the stars, there are a thousand Rubys and you can choose whichever one you want to be." He gently scoops her hair to one side. "Tomorrow choose another. A thousand Tritons too, so we might never meet twice. And every day we dance till our calves ache. And words stop standing for the things we see, and we start seeing the things we say. And everything is beautiful if we say it should be. And I am in you, and you are in me."
He slips off the seat, eventually, correcting his tie. Singing, this time a little louder. "Black heart, white leather. Where to start, to find forever? In the star charts?" He curls a finger at his lip and holds out a hand as if looking for rain. "It's stormy weather."
Suddenly, Ruby's hand is raised and kissed. "A dark art, I rest you in feathers. Prize you apart. In the altogether." Then, passing two Okay signs to and fro across one another, he lopes off through the door. "Black heart.. white leather.."
Destiny shakes her head. "He's on form today. Chloroform. I mean, what?"
"Eeee." Ruby's eyes widen, and she fixes on the canteen doorway for some time. They pick up their things and examine the sunshine. "What happened to him? One year he's all chin-picking and stammer, and the next September he walked in.. that. Allegedly." They pass down the steps. "The shoes are fearful. Lose the shoes."
They aren't the first to spot the fire, for it is only a line of smoke when Ruby notices it - a black, dissipating veil lifting from the right hand side of the Science, Design and Technology block, which hugs the crest of long steps, high and beyond the main building. It looks like a crack in the sky up there, widening. A rip on baby blue.
"Uz-!" They skip more than gallop towards it. A fattish gulp of smoke snakes its way up the veil, and then another. "Meteor? Great shot, God!" They pause to hear the fighting grumble of the first interior burst, right at the back of the block, and then the smoke evolves into something black and spinning.
Destiny finds her phone. "I'll 999. You scout around for Ray?" No need. As they take to the steps, they join the caretaker, a ball of keys and a phone in hand. He tells them to stay where they are, or to try the alarm in the main building.
Ruby is very unsure if he should go into the block itself, sensing that dead wood would be too apt today, but it is too late.
Subject: The Girl In The High Castle #2
Time: 2007 Apr 24 12:18:00Badness must follow you in a way that goodness does not. "Maybe your dog died. Do you have a dog?" Ruby shakes her head. "Maybe they're moving. Maybe someone's been arrested?" Lunch in hand, Ruby had watched her parents' Volvo navigate slowly back through the school gates, with a perfectly counter-balanced mix of elation and dread, a white pit forming in her stomach.
Watching the expression change on her friend's face, Destiny Mackenzie decides to redirect the line of enquiry. "My uncle was arrested. Identity theft. Securing loans for a health spa. All he can think about is that spa, my aunt said. Did you know, Zara Phillips stayed near the spa? Bev, they're mentioning eucalyptus wraps on the television. We've got those. We've got those already, Bev. When she arrived at our house she was white, like she had recently puked, and she sat on the sofa for two days."
Ruby is very lost in her bento. Destiny watches. "Maybe they're arranging a hidden TV stunt where you come to school one day and everyone is a beach ball or something."
"They are?" Ruby asks.
"No." Destiny Mackenzie examines the chunky thoroughfare running into her salmon and spinach wrap. "Disturbing. If you haven't done anything. Maybe you blanked it out." She decides to postpone the next bite in favour of gooseberry smoothie, after which she picks at her tooth.
"My parents went off for the weekend, to a party with my dad's boss. Dylan's mates appear. Quelle surprise. They're such a pack of eugh. Drinking. Smoking. Doomed out music. And they decide to take mum's Renault on a joyride around the block. He has yet to pass his test, by the way. I told them the whole thing wasn't wise. Then they come home, long past midnight, with a dent in the near side. Dylan is bawling and his friends have gone silent and I'm lying in bed with a pleasant 'told you so' on my face."
Ruby, finishing her rice, manages to open her concord grape juice container on the first attempt.
"Anyway. I am about to go back to sleep when I hear more noise in the drive. Dylan etcetera, bending the aerial, twisting the wipers and scraping the bonnet with sharp stones and a bottle opener. To make it look like vandals did it. This is their plan."
Destiny sighs, looking to the ceiling. "Anyway I get out of bed to tell them. But mum and dad have got there before me. This party had been cancelled, by the way. Now all three of us are standing in a dark porch watching Dylan whimper about dad killing him as he lets down a tyre."
Ruby needs to belch and does so. "Meanwhile someone is pulling off the bumper and sitting on the drive going 'We left the front door open'." Destiny shrugs and makes a gently disinterested face. "My weekend. Tears. A packed suitcase. One death threat while I take my head rollerblading."
Ruby had nothing of that nature happen at the weekend. She'd spent most of her time drawing, if the truth be told. Her parents had moved to a bigger house, again, and she was just getting to know the kids on her street. The location was amazing but the nearest she had to a friend was four years younger and followed her around in an eerie kind of silence.
Their canteen table had emptied, and knots of pupils were filing past on their way to the good weather, when someone breaks from the pack. "Destiny, thanks for the essay, hon." Opportunity Newton draws over from the throng, to plop herself beside her classmate. "Broadband is a housecleaning issue in our house. Cruelty. Can I put it on the slate?" They begin to discuss while Ruby closes her box and tidies the table. Ruby wasn't bad, she had times when.. wires crossed. Boom.
Finished and looking up, she notices a little finger clamped into Ms. Opportunity's grip. She was more than aware of the fellow standing there, for he is very difficult not to notice, and from several years above them. He is standing with his weight fully on one leg, singing to himself, rolling an eye under a tinted fringe pulled in a line. As he turns to collect his hand from Ms. Opportunity, Ruby notices a comic book swinging languidly in a pinch.
"'Okapiman'." He slips it onto the table. "Bitten by a radioactive okapi, a mild-mannered unemployee saves the world with profound backwardness." He lowers himself into the empty seat beside her, while the others discuss test answers, and turns a ring on his finger as he checks Ruby's face, a soft attempt at hauteur. "Runs into a phone box and stays there, shooting rays of shyness from his head." He illustrates. Ruby is wondering if he is tints his eyebrows when he reaches for the comic. "This is delectable. Two hoods are in a car, waiting for a yokel bank to open." He flaps it open, purses his lips on one side and then begins to read. "Do you know, I only just realised what we have in common. Ethnically? Do you know what that is?"
He glances over as if reading a bedtime story. "Not sure. Shoot."
"Brazil and Thailand? What do they have in common? Think about it. She-males. Rest of the world they're rare as ninepins but in our respective old-countries they pop up left, right, not to mention centre. Why is that?"
"She-males? Something in the water."
"You'd date a she-male?"
"Yes, I would."
"It wouldn't compromise your masculinity?"
"No. I'd do my best to make her feel a whole woman and we'd workaround the handicap."
"What if her bit was bigger than yours?"
"Nevertheless, I feel I would find the strength to rise above those kind of workaday doubts."
Ruby half-grasps the concept of illicit but half-can't classify the contents while it remained such a foreign language. Triton Ward is utterly undistracted when Ms. Opportunity Newton turns to give him a sour face. "Triton, pur-lease."
"You wouldn't feel like a mutt? What if she had a great job, a palatial home and a loving and supportive network of friends and family? A glowing future, as well as a monster weasel."
"Another workaround. We'd be in love."
"Would you speak to the mike?"
"No." He glances again, turning the page. Then his voice turns huffy.
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This golden angel has come home, she's flopping on the bed exhausted going 'Honey, it's been a nightmare day being Chairwoman of Consolidated frickin' Petroleum, come and relieve the stress, kitten. I need it.' You're saying you wouldn't do that for her?"
"I couldn't do that.”
"The girl you love. The girl with whom you found an inner strength to rise above every narrow piece of ignorance society threw at the two of you? You wouldn't bring her to orgasm orally? She's there. Pining. She's yearning. Her eyes are pleading. 'Please, baby, please.'"
"Maybe for Christmas. Maybe for her birthday."
"Would you kiss her balls for Christmas?" He pauses at another page turn, while Ruby's eyes are left to travel down his shoulder, then along the far wall.
Subject: The Girl In The High Castle #1
Time: 2007 Apr 19 22:28:00Early in 1994, some United States F-16 pilots shot down four Serbian fighter aircraft over Bosnia-Herzegovina, for their violation of Operation Deny Flight. One of these aircraft rolled into and carved a profound trench through the main street of a mountain village called Jaćanska, just as Ruby Rowntree was preparing for this world, on a mattress protected with boiled and disinfected potato sacks, there in the little bedroom above the local inn, which had been closed by her father, the inn-keeper, for this special occasion.
Father's regulars, well, those he wished to keep sweet, although in empathy with his desire for a reduction in noise, cigar smoke and general to-do, had come to a compromise with the offer of tankards of beer and snifters of a thing or two stronger, through the side window, when he had the chance and not before. These they tasted in the sun, against a pleasant and cooling breeze.
"Shh!" One of them brought a wavering finger to his lips, then drew it up a ruddy cheek, before accepting a hopeful-looking measure of brandy, when it happened. Wings eventually flung free, the fuselage and cone of the MiG-29 cork-screwed, advancing through curtains of cast-off cobble and sand, as if keen for a good snifter itself, they agreed, until it spun into a jeep and a horse box, and pushed a old white broodmare through a dry-clean and mend tailor's window.
The pilot, who failed to eject, was not dead, and produced a pistol, with which he shot Ruby's father in the neck, as he was trying to help him from the burning aircraft. Ruby's mother, who watched the event from the bedroom window, entered long-term contractions without adequate cervical dilation, and was treated with intravenous and synthetic oxytocin preparations. She had a successful birth, however a weakened health, post-natal depression and mourning, resentment and a wretched poverty forced her to give her daughter up for swift adoption.
"This is a lovely time of year." Mrs Parish had announced, that morning, in assembly. "We are leaving behind the cold, dark winter and moving towards spring. New things grow and everything is changing. Lambs are being born. Buds on the trees. Birds singing, and we can now play outside."
As usual, Ruby had led the line-up into assembly. She was, herself, on the small side, and the line-up worked from smaller to taller; but she was on the bright side when it came to results and always had been; but on the unlucky side when she opened her mouth. She ended up at the front of the assembly, watching every pass of Mrs Parish's hand, and every turn of her head, and every held chin and solemn nod of the deputies.
Ruby was adopted, first by an Italian couple, who, after two years, tried to give her back. "She is not how we imagined." Despite protestations by the Italian social services that Ruby was now Italian, the Bosnia-Herzegovinan orphanage refused to put her on a plane back to Milan.
"Everything is changing." Val went on. "Traditionally, we may try to give something up at this time of year, like sweets or comics. If we have been bad, now is the time to turn over a new leaf, to renew our friendship with God. A new chance is being offered, offered to us all."
Ruby lived with a succession of Bosnian foster parents for the next three years, the first of whom slapped her legs when she used an Italian word, and second of whom were committed naturists. The naturists failed to declare this practice to the fostering agency and it was only discovered by a gas meter reader, who passed through an ajar side door without permission. Despite their protestations that there was nothing harmful with the practice, their failure to declare it lead to Ruby being taken from them. No-one, not even the gas meter reader, mentioned the fact that the mother of this family had, on occasion, a habit of applying a form of homemade lemon curd to her toes, for the enjoyment of the pet schnauzer and any friends that he had pursuaded home.
"Following an incident, security has been extended into the dining areas. To make sure we don't forget to say grace." Mrs Parish had smiled. "The first of many changes to come. Out with the dead wood, and in with the new. New living wood. Not new dead wood. That would be quite flawed." And then they sang.
Ruby looks up at the lens, poised as it was, over the darker corner of the canteen, and the collected shoulders of the lunchbox group. "Hello."
Hello. Lacquered blue box. Lid. Destiny Mackenzie was the only person in any way positive about Ruby's lunchbox, or bento, and she had yet to arrive at the table. And so, Ruby checks around, very used to new faces. New faces had been her life. New faces and no-one understanding, for a while. Two of the less-than-new faces were now looking back. "Go on." Someone says.
Onigiri rice easter eggs with a plum filling. Mixed sprout salad with mandarin dressing. Carrot crudités cut like bunnies.
"Oh. Sweet. Nevermind." One of them leans across, to pick out a bunny carrot, as Ruby's glance takes her from foiled-folded sandwiches to Trippple Fitz bars. A Trippple Choc trumped a Crème de Menthe or Melony Felon Fitz. A Driller's Dutch Original crowned a Nut Mumble or anything of that nature. The biscuit hierarchy was rigid and merciless, and bottom of the heap came no biscuit at all. Bunny crudités came even lower than that, if there was any mathematical way that this was achievable using standard organic root legumes.
Miloska Dermin, at some point 'Ruby', was deemed young enough to be adopted, yet again. This time an English couple, the Rowntrees, proved successful. "You told them that you lived in the sad castle." Ruby explained to them, sitting up in bed one night. "You told them all that, to have me."
"What are you talking about, Ruby?" Her father would take her hand and ask.
"They wouldn't give me to anyone. They had to be very - very - careful. But we persuaded them, with drowned dragons and a crest. Showed them footage. And that was a lie. You entered an active war zone, and then lied for me." She hugged her father, for he was a very good man. And then she hugged her mother, for she was a very good woman.
The new camera blinks. Little red light. Perhaps a focal length was varying. Focusing hard on the crudité. Frisking its silhouette, assessing for the possibility of misuse. Any other rabbit snatcher (potato and leek beetle thief, or pomegranate spaceman bandit) would often, at this juncture, bite the head off the item and return it to the bento. But, today, they seemed reluctant to do even that. "What are you? What exactly are you?"
"He loves his curdy foot." Ruby smiles and announces, plainly, into the bento box, in Bosnian. "Give him curdy ankle, Ruby." She makes a claw, and grasps the carrot back from the one who failed to bite it, who tuts and screws up her face.
Subject: Paris Au Printemps
Time: 2007 Apr 17 22:44:00
MissX's first visit to Paris, a chance to show her some of my favourite things and revisit the tourist sights at an angle. We stayed by the Canal St Martin, north of Belleville, where Corbeau ended his days. The warehouses have been converted into apartments, and Hoxton-type dens like Bar Ourcq have sprung up along the Quai de la Loire. The north Paris fire station is there and les Nathans de Barley try and fail to avoid hollering truckfuls of pompiers. On the opposite side of the water, a red tent city set up for the homeless by 'The Children of Don Quixote' campaigning group, which inspired Chirac to call for an enforceable right to housing to be written into the law. Many of these people work, they just can't reach any form of rent on their wages. And here we are, as tourists, contributing to the draw, the prestige and therefore the price. Oh irony, get thy 21st century culture-butt to Paraguay. The heatwave forced people outside, to sit along the canal with a bottle, and into parks for picnics. A good thing, on a budget, scoffing breakfast at the hotel buffet and filling a swag bag with compote and baguettes with Cantal or Tomme for later. There was something kinda Parisian about eating thieved picnic in the sun, on the quiet grass south of the Eiffel Tower, or lying in Buttes-Chaumont or Place des Vosges. Le Marais has changed but only subtly. Chez Marianne on Rue des Rosiers now has three or four competitors for takeaway Israeli delicacies, and my favourite bar, le Pick-Clops, is just the same, bar the bar staff.
Sacré-Cœur Basilica and Père-Lachaise cemetery don't change, although Oscar Wilde's grave is now festooned in lipstick kisses, and the elections are everywhere - the superb Bastille street market on Boulevard Richard Lenoir ripe with discussion on whether voting Sarkozy is a way of keeping Le Pen out of the second round. Tactical voting and asparagus - en garde! Beaubourg had kids offering Free Hugs ('Because people are cold nowadays' when I asked why, over someone's shoulder. As opposed to.. Philippe Pétain.. Victor Hugo backstreets.. rickets?) and an exhibition of Samuel Beckett manuscripts, photos and doodles had Bruce Nauman works to illustrate. My first visit to the Palais de Tokyo, rough-house art-swell where skateboarders knock over your Orangina and a model in a gold monokini poses on piss-soaked steps, a shoot for Nylon or somesuch. The art was great - Michel Blazy's blue mould art, live birds circling wheelie bins that ooze real foam in impossible arcs - histories and artefacts from self-proclaimed 'micronations', absolute deterritorialization in a bedroom principality of one - prehistoric campervans and room-sized playing pan pipes - hurry past the graffiti funk, overpriced t-shirts and 'collection-worthy multiples' (i.e. UNKLE toys), consoling yourself with the thought that beyond-the-edge artistes would do the same, drinking as they do in the least fashionable Asunción dives, beyond the reach of magazines and wearing whatever is universally 'out', saying things like "When the world zigs, zag." and "Let's go to a wrestling match." "With a tank of live scallops." "To cheer for the bad guy and boo the good. Hurrah!" What they do without proletarian-isms to appropriate, je ne sais pas.
MissX found Paris more child-friendly, socially responsible and less pretentious than she thought it would be. That bijouxed woman feeding her toy dog titbits of entrecôte in Saint-Germain might have a glint of Cruella de Ville, but sexuality and a story to tell isn't so far from the surface, and this sixty-year old is too old for his bouffant of black hair dye and gingham pedal pushers - but it somehow feels like a communal aesthetic being offered and sought more than hierarchy, disgust, taking-seriously. Even the macho has camp to it. Still the parklife stays innocent, more 'The Girl At The Monceau Bakery' than 'Subway'. The mystery continues: how does the home of éclairs and fondue Savoyarde terminally bypass British pear-shapes and Barbapapa abdomen?
Subject: The Chimes Of Big Sister #4
Time: 2007 Apr 06 12:10:00With the parents departed, Val shifts the plastic sack of shreddings to the table, intrigued by her own concept. Email. Eight twelve. 'J tried early. Can you mobile?' The Board, wanting words. Shredder Buddha, usher in good fortune and golfing weather. "Jack! Lucky character. How's par on the back nine?"
Her relationship with the Board we could descibe as healthy. Dynamic. Rigourous. Boards, thank Buddha, were people, and people she could usually do. A light wind buffets the receiver. "Par is sayonara. The quickest slip in the south-east bar none. Whoops. We're having words, but no lessons learnt and a narrow window for contingency. P45s, Val."
Shredder Buddha gazes impassively, knowing all, transversing thought, a lucid brainful of Dharma where the omniverse finds its perspective. "I'm hearing you." It was P45s last year. They should be onto P46s and 7s. Sometimes she wishes Jack didn't talk such tosh.
"It's a two-footer, Terry! No conceding till lunch! Listen, Val, we need movement before the Board has a collective headstagger. I need good news. Do we have good news?"
Detention up. Staff turnover turning over. A missing sports cup. "I persuaded someone to keep their daughter till term's end."
Silence but for the fairway breeze.
The breeze feels like it has passed across the Head's office, as Val hangs up. Was she being sensed out of a grammar school? She preferred to think that she put the pupils first. In truth she blamed expansion, for you get all sorts, but would a regime change change anything she couldn't? Buddha ruthlessly under her arm, she sets off to see Ray about the maintenance horrors, but is made to pause at a quiet corner.
Further along the corridor, Toby Pierce is waiting, watching through a classroom window. He swings his jacket over one shoulder and walks on, waving and, finally, cupping a hand in a drinking motion. Out of class. Never a good indicator. Unless an emergency. Certainly didn’t resemble that. Geography, though. Field trip round the Near Pavilion? Val kept a soft spot for her core subject. Madagascar had nothing but geography. Even the people were geography there. Although, back in those days, she had bottle-fed lemurs crying out to sit in for conversational English, and she was using French, and games and songs. Sunshine. Hunger-struck but halcyon. What we measure we cut off, they say, and the statistics and value-adds put their tourniquet on everything. This is the modern world.
Pierce pauses, to barge back into class, and she continues down an adjacent corridor.
"Oof. Fu-" Scampering around a swing door, a quick figure collides hard into the headmistress, splitting the sack about the nether-department.
"Careful, Ray." A girl's voice says, until she unhooks some earphones and looks up from the avalanche of ticker-taping slices.
"Name?" Val's response is gut, for she wanted the f-word herself.
The girl freezes. "Susie, miss."
"It's my parents, miss. They're lazy ba- bag-handlers."
"Have you seen the inside of a Pupil Referral Unit, Susie?"
"Perhaps you've seen artwork created by sequential killers and the like? It's that but it moves and grunts and grabs at your ankle."
"Have you ever met an Education Welfare Officer?"
Susie looks Val in the eye, turning serious. "He's.. funny."
Val drops the void Buddha and steps forward, although her voice turns a notch. "What's funny is tricks-for-truckers on the hard shoulder. Weekends at Costchopper for sweet f.a. plus perks. Being surreptitious Starbursts under your bra, if you haven't left it swinging round Rubber Duck's rubber doo-dah. Tales of which will tickle ribs at the Edinburgh fringe, starring Susie.."
"Van der Venn."
She places a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Van Der-tention."
Susie screws up her face. "Aw, miss. I-"
Val whispers, so as to be inaudible. "Van Der-tention."
"Miss Parish, I've got-"
Val smiles a little rhapsodically, seeing lemurs. "..an Der-ten.."
"Do you have any idea what you are doing?" Immediately, Val is shocked from her position by a hasty turn in the girl's voice.
"I really give two f's about dare. Really."
Val had always seen a certain degree of humour in the pupil-teacher relationship, taken it as read. Life itself needed levity, even the darker corners, but Susie's face showed no capacity for that. "Do you give one about another side to the story? You think you're acting tough but you're pedalling water with these rules. You want us passing grades and passing through but never actually smart. Never thinking. Not much."
As the girl turns, throwing herself back through the swing door and down the steps, she raises a hand. "I just wanted to get to. fucking. school." She chokes out the final word, then wolfs in some air, before bursting into sobs which accelerate as fast as her feet.
Val watches her flee across the yard. "Come back!" She demands.
"Please?" She adds, after a while, to herself. Her words lose criticism as she sweeps the shreds into one corner with an instep. "We don't approve of textured tights."
Subject: The Chimes Of Big Sister #3
Time: 2007 Apr 06 11:30:00"A change of school is often not the best solution, nor the only option. I can assure you."
Val Parish leans forward and holds her head in her hands, something she has done since childhood. A primary school teacher had, in fact, scolded her for it, assuming it to be an indication of idleness or disinterestedness. Val imagines that the incident fixed in her mind because it was the first time that an adult beyond her family had told her what to do, or perhaps it was the first time she realised that people could be so cold, or perhaps it was the first time she saw her own power surrendered in public.
What is frustrating is that Mr and Mrs Rowntree seem like a pleasant, sensible enough couple. If only they could be like the Traynors, who were a slicked-back rat dad and a mouthy, king-sized mum perennially in her face for a verbal spar. If only some underground tables were turnable.
"We've tried everything else, Mrs Parish." Mr Rowntree seems a bit frustrated by the lean.
"For example, she plugs holes. Give her a hole and she'll plug it. Sometimes." Mrs Rowntree looks to her husband. "Fissures. Splits. Knots in wood. Paper. Chewy laces. Anything."
"But she cuts too? Curtains?" Val maintains her posture.
"Anything. Tear steel if her mind was made up." Mr Rowntree, Ruby's father, is more convinced on the matter of his daughter's transfer.
The third in two months. "There. is. no. gang. culture." Val told the last pair. We take every measure to ensure that.. We'll happily provide a report.. We have a list of recommended.. But no-one seemed to believe her. Was Evenbridge's reputation being ruptured? Out there, beyond reach or control - was someone picking Val Parish apart?
"Wouldn't we all? A former life as Queen's seamstress perhaps? Wouldn't we be a young Napoleon, clearing the streets with a whiff of grapeshot? Sudden fame and a fawning Josephine? So, does she complain of being bullied? Is the work too much? Too little?"
No, Ruby sensed things. Menace, fret, or the tang of neglect, they seemed to suggest. Who gives a bat's arse? Val almost came out with it. Sensing. Then she reminded herself that not everyone visiting her office without an appointment was a Traynor.
"Well, I sincerely wish you'd stick with the counselling." The problem with so much sensing, as with the Rowntrees' impassive gaze, is there is little development to be had in arguing around it. Perhaps they were Buddhists. Val felt a calling at times. Middle way, beyond craving or aversion, although she couldn't do without a decent bed.
As she leans back her concentration strays to some clear plastic sacks, stuffed solid with paper shreddings. "Ray, what is going on with maintenance? That thing has been watching me since Domesday." And still it watched, till it had become, in its own way, a surrogate work of art. Why not? Just leave it there, Ray. I disclose to it, it reveals to me. Put it on my desk, Ray. We'll bullet point budgetary shortfalls for the Audit Commission.
"Mrs Parish, the Evenbridge Echo?" Mr Rowntree again indicates a feature in the local paper, as if this represented their deepest fear, as well as their opening gambit.
Val's look darkens as she examines her watch. "I'm aware of the author. Dicey." The article expanded on the theft of spare keys (although not the media and technology block), meaning they had had to renew twenty seven locks. "Can I tell you about the author? Failed solicitor. Hypochondriac. Determined to spread the torment, never the love. Lives for the off-colour thrill of giving corner shop trolls the laughing gas of publicity they live for. Do you know what her last scoop was? Bouncy Castle Snatch Leaves Blamebathed Aftermath. She'd shift April-one to nine-eleven if it got her to the next box of bennies."
Mrs Rowntree adjusts her bag further up her shoulder as Val Parish stands. "What do I read into this? Stir. Stir is story. Trying to relive the Bouncy Castle glory days, when the prose itself appeared to fold like a dying swan. And now she is upping the ante. Why a modest, decent school doing its business finds her ire and wrangle is worth anyone's two bob." Val suspects it may be last summer, as independent town councillor, and her shot at mayor. All political.
Crossing to the window, she picks up a box of Parrot Crumble and makes a kissing sound at Billie Holloway and Ella FitzPentonville, two Rainbow Lorikeets teetering to and fro in a large blue cage. Ella, poking at sugar cane, turns to examine the fresh seed and dried fruit slip down the feeder. Not having been hand-reared, they proved fussy, and Val had tempted them with everything from Bill's Finch Feast to a deli seed-bell glazed with honey. Tongue clicking, Billie Holloway slips up a rope towards lunch. "Box of b-bennies." He stutters.
Mr Rowntree takes the opportunity to stand, and places his hands into his pockets. "Headmistress, I'm just looking for some degree of confidence."
What is frustrating is that Mr and Mrs Rowntree appeal to the core and never the outer walls. Such is earnestness and educated classes. Val turns her head a little. Confidence was a tricky business. Sometimes you had to be it, in order to offer it. Which was, Val considered, the thing that turns an adult into an adult. "Hold in for the league tables. We're eight miles above benchmark and pride ourselves on keeping open dialogue."
When Mr Rowntree approaches the cage, she goes on. "I sense we can turn this situation around. Harness all our pupils' hidden talents; release any economy of mental effort."
He begins to tongue-click, coaxing Ella FitzPentonville with the corner of a TweetTreet. "I do sometimes wonder if we are all underachievers, in our own small way." She turns her head some more. "Such notions are a beast that a headmistress must keep beyond her gates. You understand?"
"Of course." Mr Rowntree appears to empathise, and finally smiles.
Subject: O Holy Velvet #4
Time: 2007 Mar 19 20:34:00
The moonshine arrives. I mix and stir. "You said you were in a bit of a thing."
"I am, darlin'. I am. Heat transfers from a hotter object. Straight up yours truly. Emitting plenty. Ain't photons. Mister Pulver might be able to assist us both."
"Care to illuminate?" Stuff like this gets under your skin (possibly why people read slave chronicles).
"You're not yourself, darlin'. I shouldn't trouble you."
"I'm fine. What's up?"
"More rumour." She scratches her chin with the thick end of a chopstick. "Who taught you presentation? Who taught you air transport and defence, shipping, events?"
"Who taught you airborne dispersion and disease?"
"Voila. Big Sister has something in mind. She's in with Stability almost every day. Something is bubbling. Rumour is they want a meteorologist located inside Stability."
"Oh, it won't be me, darlin'. I was just wondering if the rising star had caught anything?"
"Nothing. Why the hell do they want that?"
She shrugs. "All I know is, I'm not just worried for me. Those ghosts have taken over the whole station. Meanwhile, nothing I do is right. And it's a bit-fascist position when you go from golden girl to whipping boy."
Dumpling Hut is moderately busy. The music, I have noticed, is sad and lilting, plucked strings and zithers, slow bells. Mr We-Know-Who is drumming two fingers, waiting for his friend to finish. We joke about him, but an innocent joke. There was a boy in my block in Kiev, when I was a kid, whom my mother used to refer to as 'your boyfriend', simply for the embarrassment. We-Know-Who seems to fulfill the same function. I watch him in the same way, lightly amused, curious but preferring pure innocence. Why him? Why pick him? Happenstance or suggesting something monumental? Every sighting is now a refresher, each passing or playing at date moles raises a smile. Because, in all honesty, twosomes are curiously terrestrial. Many people in the station become poly, orgiastic. No-one knows why, but twosomes don't seem to make a great deal of sense here.
Nevertheless, straightening his suit, Mister Pulver returns to the table. "My apologies. What's the verdict?" He takes a seat, this time beside me. Smiling, I feel his hip against mine, as his arm settles along the back of the chair.
"Dearest Mister Pulver. Your photons are therapy with cascade laser knobs on. I guess I am more - deer and antelope play."
He seems dismayed. A wisp of breath falls between us. "Story of Pulver's life. Too soft. Women want a man who just.. sticks it in and.. twists it like a.. goddamn knife."
I look at Arlene, raising my eyebrows. "This is not true, Mister Pulver. So untrue."
But he seems on a roll. "A goddamn lunatic is what they want." He picks up the gift and appears to speak to it. "You say 'I'll show them'. Yes, I'll show them, alright. I'll bring heaven to earth and make the seas turn. I'll put poetry at their door and cure a neighbours' ills. But everything we do, everything we.. say is.. just a pansy's glint in the blade." As he looks over the tip of the flower, one eye appearing to focus with a somewhat perilous twinkle.
Arlene's chopsticks have been poised in her mouth throughout. "Mister Pulver, the girl said deer, not a slap of rare venison. Sheath yourself this instant or I holler Jay Chow."
He wipes his face and smiles. "Forgive me. Zen, Pulver. Zen, boy. I am in You, You are in Me. No distance or distinction. Why separate for.. mere amour?"
At last! Time, please. Cut glass, transparent and having him on, the boy had no faith in himself at all, or felt that he was merely a product of outside forces. Everything was fashioning him. When I resembled that something, he resented it, for I ceased to be an insider, on his side. Be yourself, I said. We'll set aside some time, time when you can be you - one hundred percent. And all he could really become was something akin to Mister Pulver's bayonet. "I'm going into teacher training." He blurted, looking at me a little haughtily, as if my science degree was too removed from the real world.
"You're good with kids." I agreed. For once, he looked like he didn't gave a fuck what I thought. Why did he save that sexy look until the farewell drink? It was a civilized business. We need to talk. Talking is all we do. We're word-heavy. Talking, texting, mailing, thought-call. The whole thing drowned in bloody words. Bloody words. And so we sat, in a mixed-look hush, him glancing from my two folded hands to my face, thinking - why did she save this until the farewell drink? We learn more at points of failure than success, I guess. But, when the learning is done and all is decided, it is done. Laughter can raise its head again. I say this wishfully, for I haven't spoken to him since. In a way, he got what he wanted, and he was the nearest I got to.. source. Places where photons stay put and wavefunctions integrate. Places where magnets coil. You might think that I miss him, but you'd be surprised how much I need this stuff for my work.
As we treat Mister Pulver to moonshine, we lean forward to watch the shadow of the station bite into the rim of Mother Earth. Time, please. Time. Sometimes we forget we're all doing it now.
Subject: O Holy Velvet #1
Time: 2007 Mar 14 14:26:00
Never the love story, as you might have guessed. Why might you have guessed this? Search me. But you are there, Mother Earth, top of the league tables, the best there is for light-years. You don't have anyone coming to visit, we tend to visit them. You're still, it always seems, the friend finder.
No, this will be your war chronicle, your prison break, your heady revolution. Cold snow falling on split steel, for a fistful of forgotten heart. We love them, you see, nostalgias. Down there, we're new enough to love old ways. We try very hard to frame those emotions but it all seems too foreign to us, like a menu for obsolete cuisines, waiting in a museum vitrine. It gives us a softly illicit thrill, where nothing is banned, all is trusted, nothing owned, nothing taken. I'd better get going, though - you wouldn't believe how quickly the modification tier occurs. It sweeps like the wind and seas, it is almost imperceptible.
Mother, I'm a weathergirl and I do more than report. We do the flowers (how's that for romance?) and harvests, we turn your offshore turbines, open the gates for the emissions garbage men, side-steer and disperse hurricanes on everyone's behalf. I am, as yet, the only Russian-speaking broadcaster, and they tend to see me as a little cold. (We still have emotions, they're just different. They are, from what I have read in the nostalgias, a little broader, communal rather than personal. You'll see.)
And why? Why the war chronicle? If I knew.. I suppose it's discovery. There is no loneliness any more. The shifts out here are more than bearable but I often.. I sometimes.. guess I like nostalgia too and I want to be a part of it. I got promoted recently and that's another odd feeling. Suddenly and somehow I'm at a distance from the other broadcasters. It's all in their heads, all in mine, it won't last - but I know I do need my war chronicle, just for a bit. Need is all I can offer you, for 'why?'
From my desk, I look beyond you, into your friend-finder velvet, where everyone is always hopeful. I try this for inspiration, like giving myself the blankest canvas. But there is a certain expectation in the frame, on canvas, while the holy level lies beyond that even. Right.. I'm not a fool, this is a story about the emancipation of slaves (hot at the moment and I'm sure I can find a spin. My name is already a name.) Fingers. Always fingers. Right to left and back again. Pummel the legs lightly (somebody missed the gym). "A-"
"Valentina! Need any help?" Someone forgot to shush The'taurus.
"No. Thank you." He pauses for a moment. His persona, let me explain, is much less the cliché in Russian, a language not built for camp, picky or persuasive. Someone had fun with those intonations.
"Sure?" All knowledge, every answer, he is your solution. Things that aren't questions, things that don't require solving, they have almost become so precious, so quietly revolutionary, that they have even been given a name.
"Valentina!" I chide him.
"Well, the pause after 'A'. I smelt a pencil-chewer." He sniffs.
"No, it's not a production, or a test, or a report. Actually, yes, could you find me any testimonies of slaves? Testimonies or.. something first-hand. Something real. I don't know."
"If you don't know, how can-" I mute him. He is a little too nostalgic for comfort. He'll probably congratulate me for rejecting knowledge capital, an important part of any creative process. I need to version this thing. Dum-de-dum. They let the butterflies out on Friday. Skippers in my hair, Admirals at my shoulder and a Queen of Spain Fritillary dancing patterns on my hand. Standing in a yellow sowester doesn't make sense at all. Brollies, through bikinis, befuddle. I cover too much ground. Even a business suit turns the regions off. So I pace the hothouse dressed down, pretty much as any gardener would do, undulating my index finger across to Siberia, then a viciously swift cupped hand that takes in the Black Sea and appears to move it northwest. I also explain why we're doing what we are doing. Sunshine and showers become political, and require a skillful form of earnestness. Perhaps people feel more a part of the landscape these days. I turn him back up. "..what I can." And he is gone.
Somewhere, down there, Mother, he'll be sleeping. The sun is in my eyes, my blinds lowered. Really, this thing can't be a love story, not while he is around. He enjoys hurting. He still enjoys hurting.. I can't believe that I'm giving him such a restless night. I can't believe that I'm helping to create an innovative condition of global equilibrium, just for him.
"Hey, V. In there on your ownsome? Watchya doin', darling? They got Double Your Trouble at Dumpling Hut."
"Get your face on, girl. Get your eyes in. Get your legs on, goddamn it. And get your ass down!"
"Mister We-Know-Who is here. And if I know body talk, and I feel I do, one lil ole engineer from Nitrous Oxide won't be getting her fair-is-fair of the dipping selection."
"Eyes everyplace, 'cept the two steamed buns that count. And if her arms cross any tighter she'll be choking the sommelier."
"Between you and me, darlin', there's something I need to talk to somebody about. Somebody with a modicum of sense, you know?"
"I.. I’d love to. Of course."
"Somebody on my side, but can see the total picture for what it is. I'm in a bit of a.. thing."
"Of course, Arlene." War Chronicle, we can wait. Risen fists and rifles, cutting the warm sea breezes of Haiti, reversed and parked. Lynchers on divert, manacles on ice.
Before she goes, she adds - "Do you think we're destined to repeat the same mistakes? You know, over and again, darlin'?" I don't think this is true at all. Just look out the windows. Look down there. I ask her to do the same. That is why we are here! Goddamn it!
Subject: A Brief History Of Carpathian And Bukovinan Churches
Time: 2007 Feb 17 20:29:00
Sweet, aren't they? Are they Asian or Nordic, Christian or Zen? Ukraine - the Borderlands - can resemble the centre of the world at times, or at least its Northern Hemisphere. They're in the Pirogova Heritage Park (where real people live, or is it a working village some people are charged entry to?), between beehives and snug cottages with heavy straw roofs, under a crest of windmills. Our final day in Kiev is also spent looking for one of Eric's bars, which are always hidden. (Eric falls somewhere between the Peter Stringfellow of Kiev and a small town big lad, happy to be a reference point for local gossip. "Eric has split up with Viola," say people who've never encountered either.) Viola's rival bar, which we found off the far end of the Kreshchatyk, is aimed at the laydeez (the ever-present Fashion TV plays mutely on four televisions, customers draw on long, feminine, cigarettes).
One of the kids in School 143 asked me "And what are you thinking of Kiev?" Well, there is a stark contrast between the gruffness with which people treat each other in the street (they can be serious with one another) and the warmth at home. Hyper-inflation, like Chernobyl, broods at the door. In a World Bank survey, 'Doing Business 2007', Ukraine was ranked 174th out of 175 countries, for its attractiveness to foreign investors. The gross national income per person is less than Morocco, Guatemala and Namibia. Ukraine is still fucked. Yushchenko, pock-marked by the second highest dioxin poisoning level ever measured in a human (something going round?), remains popular in the west and the best hope of uniting the country, but even School 143 thought that politicians were a dream that has to fade, a flare of hope to grab when they are new and good and pointing in the right direction.
"You must come back. When it's warm," implored Rita. True, I will. It will be very different when it's warm. It feels a feminine city. Kiev will be beautiful. Now, the centre is kind of exciting where it is, forever becoming.
Subject: Adult Friend Finders
Time: 2007 Feb 17 20:26:00
Modern art, like tourism, is but recently understood in Kiev. The girl at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Kyiv-Mohyla Akademy, shook her head in the empty corridor, wondering what the hell we were talking about. It has moved on. Summer? Summer, maybe? However, the Pinchuk has just opened. 'Generations.ua' is a group show by the obligatory young Ukrainian artists (some foreign guests), and is only this gallery's second show.
Clinical (going cartoon) warfare, pixels/internet, fun science and the Far East seem popular. Zhanna Kadyrova explores relativity and beauty, or a post-Soviet beauty that doesn’t need to emulate the west. "Having stirred sugar into coffee, we throw away the stirrer." She sees disposability as beauty's nemesis, in a place where pasts still need to be moved on from. Time-saving, for her, is the robbing of time, and therefore life's quality. Is a sugar stirrer stealing souls, or is it metaphorical ju-ju for something else? Self-expression by a back door, over the draining troughs of context - is it her art talking or mere conscience?
It's nice when a nation ribs itself: Masha Shubina places her artwork on husband-finder websites like natashaclub.com, stepping degrees of fakery through posture and lip gloss, via the tentative use of Photoshop, to full reinvention and self-vanishing to stress the surface as a two way place. Fuck authenticity, where we cut our surfaces is the key. And important - Shubina's 'inordinate, universal love towards oneself' would be a civilizing force, if vanity could sit an inch behind the glass or torn curtain, she seems to suggest. (Yulia's sister bagged a Spaniard the natashaclub way. The attitude remains "If you can do it, do." Not for money, or for money tangentially: a broader quality of life, a 'good man' being only as good as his context.) I wondered if Shubina's thoughts parallel religious debate, whose schisms can tend to icon versus non-icon. "Pagan! You worship an image but the image is (pause, wry smile) not God" versus "Like, duh. But I can't exactly kiss a theory, can I? Riddle me that, Mr oh-so-Immaterial."
The Pinchuk has the best toilet in the world: a labyrinth of mirrors and candy stripes, the gents can see the ladies between the mirrors and vice versa (not the can itself, bright boxes like dentists' lamps), and square taps illuminate the water blue for cold and red for hot, which one adjusts by a gentle finger wavering.
Subject: All I Want For Christmas Is A Thyroid
Time: 2007 Feb 17 20:22:00
Why I didn't visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone. 1) It is ridiculously expensive (the mafia-run taxi business rips you off anyway, but the cost of a shared Lada about 60km north of Kiev comes to more than your flight). 2) It is, allegedly, full of hardened runaways (let's face it, who'd be tracking you down up there, neither bobbies nor Bratva). 3) Despite being told it is safe to visit for short periods, I'd forever be thinking 'Reactor 4', should I come a cancerous cropper one day. And, in a town where eating mushrooms (nature's radiation absorbers) is often ill-advised, who needs a main course avoiding touching moss? 4) The Chernobyl Museum film showed me everything I'd actually see: a large (and crumbling) concrete/steel sarcophagus tentatively housing 180 tonnes of the rottenest hellfire this side of a black hole, tumbleweed blowing through deserted streets, rusting helicopters and fire trucks, and a broken dolly staring forlornly against a dirty window (for the next 48,000 years). Not a banging weekend in Ibiza, then.
It was an unnecessary safety check that took the roof off Reactor 4. Or didn't, until some Swedish scientists started wondering why needles were popping off their scales and bouncing down the steps to the nearest bunker. While a cloud resultant to the levels of ninety Hiroshimas began its drift, the 1986 May Day parades in Kiev went ahead. At the museum (beautifully laid out, designed by artists rather than historians), one can see the pathetically inadequate clean-up protection provided to firemen and military personnel (wipe out), read the stories of Prypyat families and the 600,000 liquidators brought in to clean the site - a veritable text book of fatal diseases, birth defects, alcoholism and suicide. Thyroid cancer in children is still a firm favourite. But! Clean up in a bona fide decontamination chamber, and say hi to the preserved dog born with (I counted) eight legs and a head like a hammered knob (useful to, say, impregnate anything half way up a wall.)
Subject: Everything Is Illumination
Time: 2007 Feb 17 20:20:00
The Kreshchatyk, the massive main boulevard running from Kiev's Independence Square to the Bessarabska market, is like a Regent Street peopled by dwarves, and perfect for people watching as you stroll - the right length, definable regions, flower stalls and alcoves. More importantly, people look proud to be there. A walk along the Kreshchatyk is still something. Still a promenade, never a chore. It has changed, they say - the unending underground warren that lies beneath is full of malls, like Globus. The warrens themselves become an open bar at night (everyone has a bottle of beer in their hand here, all the time) when the maze of tiny shop units close (maybe they were just hiding
their capitalism). It is therefore possible to navigate much of the CCCP's third city without seeing daylight.
People watch. The snow brings out the fur ('Venus In Furs' author Sacher-Masoch, was a Lviv man). For women, there is no middle age. You are Snejana Onopka, with a boy's hips and a fifteen year old's tits, Asiatic eyes watching from a hood of mink, across a snow that shimmers like a Chanel commercial. Strike forty-five, however, and you're Bella Emberg chewing a wasp, sitting in a cardboard box and shaking a fist full of parsnips. The lack of middle ground is astonishing. Red is popular: so much so that a burgundy leather jacket, crimson sweater, tight maroon combat trousers and scarlet boots are deemed an ensemble to match your auburn hair. Mixing of checks is fine (the Christian Aid relief box look, but new). Boots are totally essential (I saw one woman, in ten days, wearing sneakers, and wasn't surprised to hear her Aussie accent), as is female grooming in general. Men get off lighter (if being unobjectified is lighter), sexually more tool than symbol, and go puffa, three-quarter leather, Elmer Fudd or Fiddy Cent considering a ski trip. Faces range from Slav-u-like, through Kazakh, kinda-Turk or Causasian, to cuddly John Goodman Russian bear men. The men who look like Pakistani tourists might simply have Romany gypsy roots. I saw one black guy, in ten days, and so did the rest of Kreshchatyk.
Male bonding is rife. A gentleman out with his wife and his best buddy will have his arm around the buddy. The blacked-off SUVs tend to be new money and usually mafia. Virtually everything here gorged, to some degree, on illegal money, to the point where the 'Bratva' will probably come to represent the creation of the new business class. Even the beggars, they say, give them 10%. Their sleeping baby, the one still dozing two hours later, is probably happy on Temazepam.
As well as known brands, the Kreshchatyk has a massive TSUM, the 'Central Universal Magazine'. Every city had one. No brands, just cookers. No advertising, no questions, just take one. It still stocks very generic items, the Soviet 'orange and white polka dot' cooking pots being upgraded, ironically, to more old-fashioned farm scenes, the 'Home Sweet Home' look. You can try on lined hats (it's going minus ten, they say) and Homburgs. (There were Hassidic Jews at the airport, making an off-season pilgrimage to Uman, perhaps. They looked oddly swaggering, thumbs tucked into their belt, chewing a toothpick, till they resembled cowboys more than scholars. You wonder if Rabbi Nakhman wanted a slice of Oklahoma in Western Ukraine).
We spent a lot of time in a small chain called 'Double Coffee', which is oddly both chic and cheap, and open twenty four hours. It does a decent mix of Ukrainian food and drinks (restaurants here are international and heavily themed, Ukrainian food humbly takes to the lunchtime or the homeground). It turned out to be the Duff Beer of Kiev - the popular show 'Karaoke on Kreshchatyk' (Sundays, when the boulevard goes car-free), seems to feature the logo in every other shot. The branch off Independence Square is fun, to guess who is a hooker working the hotels, or who is a mafia daughter sinking coloured shots or pretending to be Rachel from Friends.
"Have you got enough vitamin C?" Alyona, the boisterous and friendly apartment owner, was concerned. She handed us the keys and counted the cash. "There's something going round."
Time: 2007 Feb 05 10:40:00
Wanderlust again, equals extended travelog. Been learning the Cyrillic alphabet for a trip to Киев/Kyiv/Kiev (where MissX does orphanages, and one can take a day trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone! Did you know that alchohol 'speeds up the body's metabolism, including the secretion of radio-nuclides, especially iodine', and that some people affected by the explosion were advised to 'get drunk and stay drunk'? Every cloud/silver lining, I guess.) Been writing fiction off line, a more sedate process. (Names are important: was it E. Leonard who said that a character with the wrong name keeps schtum, once you find the right one 'you can't shut them bastards up'?) Been Munching, including the last at the Princess Louise. Deviants were out in force and good nature. Learnt how to walk on someone's back without rendering them tetraplegic (at least one and a half inches either side of the spine, apparently) courtesy of Mistress Phoenix. In other news, 'Naughty By Nietzsche' won (I repeat, won) the Boogaloo Music Quiz = Black Velvets, as a Chernobylic Shane MacGowan looked on. Finally, bedroom vaudeville with Singing Sadie, a lady with a pack of chutzpah, a forty piece orchestra-in-a-can, and a volatile, between-the-wars potty mouth. Who needs ambition when you've got wildly inverted joy
? (Here's her riotous ‘bedroom talent quest’ in Newcastle, New South Wales.)
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:34:00
A trip to an endangered species - an old commie Milk Bar, where the food on an unchanged billboard menu is sold (by weight) to workers on long benches. The food is fresh and tasty and you can fill for two quid. They were dreaming McDonalds as we were cooking up Wagamama - we could have just swapped. “But we want choice and individuality” we announce in Ikea-same flats and mixed-utilitarian chic, berating Footballer’s Wives bling, till eventually skating on capito-communism (some style, less queues and secret police) is what we’re all doing.
Then a trip over the Wisla to a Russian suitcase-market in the grimy Praga district. (Praga, which according to various guides is ‘increasingly bohemian’ or ‘still best crossed by taxi’, is where the Soviet tanks parked to watch the Nazis turn Warsaw into la-la bricks, leaving an afterglow of ‘with friends like these’ that never fully dissipated). The stalls are mostly run by puffa-built blokes selling fake DVDs and perfume, babushkas with suitcases full of caviar tins hoping to make a little profit to take back to Ukraine, endless cheap-looking tracksuits, Soviet watches and samovars. There was some sense of ‘cultural ferment in waiting’ in Praga, although poverty itself probably doesn’t birth it as much as the rub of poverty-money, like an early nineties artist-heavy Hackney howling of an acquaintance “They paid you how much?”
After an outstanding new media collection from the Goetz collection down the Contemporary Art Centre, and something called '1,2,3 Awangarda' (archival footage of seventies neo-avant-garde and featuring scenes of Solidarność hacking into television frequencies to display propaganda over various regional programmes. I’m sure we’ve all dreamt of television hacking) I’m glad we ended our trip to Poland with my first ballet, at the stately National Theatre's Opera Naradowa. Tickets were nothing much and we couldn’t be choosy due to time but I came away reeling. A triptych of post-modernist pieces called ‘Taniec Według Mężczyzn’, Polish through and through, set to Marin Marais, soft electro, Mozart, quotes from TS Elliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ and a live swing band. There was a comedy routine (four solemn businessmen gradually getting plastered around a table, then using their chairs to jeté across, till some Jake the Peg character arrives to fouetté on his extra leg), a deftly structured piece about mortality and desire featuring a devil figure who leaps around seducing, then killing, women (his wife also seems to get guilty kicks from it) but it was the very first section that lingers more than man-the-hunter.
Two couples, one in basic black shorts/t-shirt/mini dress, one in white - the upper body movements became symbolised versions of everyday lovers’ signals - hand holds, cheek caresses, approach to play - while the legs swooped and toppled under criss-crossed beams of light. Bare black stage with a single path of white fur, Jacek Przybyłowicz’s ‘A Few Brief Sequences’ erupted somewhere not-quite-erotic, more a waltz of territorialisation. Yin’n’Peppa. Salt-on-Yang. Lying in bed at night, trying to forget Birkenau, at least there’s a memory to counter it with. Amid the worship and wail, fear-of-living, hammer-wielders and limit-seekers, simple ebb-flow moves under the skin’s surface, older than old and newer than new, and like a secret joy of living we’d actually burst of if we dared let it out. The dance was a word too often a synonym for sorrow and bare branches: beautiful. The truth of beauty at the ballet, as in any art or creativity, is probably more the collective fantasy. Allowing your mind to roam, filling you with all manner of connections, before snapping back to the reality that all they are is four bodies skipping around a stage. No expert, unable to read the programme, I guess ballet to be in lightness. Forms, each with our own gravity, suddenly seem to have none of it. I’m not sure if it was Anna Nowak or (check the programme) Katarzyna Lewandowska but I swear someone actually flew. If the back row puffed half-hard, she’d have curled through the door and settled in the cloakroom.
Subject: Brand New Old Town
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:26:00
Warsaw’s Old Town is the same age as the New Town, both having been kicked to the four winds in return for the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, but it was rebuilt using baroque-era drawings by Canaletto’s nephew rather than photographs, leaving it older than the old Old Town in many ways, undoing any C19th or 20th pokery. So Stare Miastro is pretty, but no more so than the elegant houses of the Netherlands or Prague, and it teems with tourists and the ‘I Heart’ trinket shops and charicaturists that fill their wake, like a Polish Montmartre. There is a great poster shop there, the Polish making their own odd advertising for films and events rather than using the traditional marketing. It is peculiar to see the poster for ‘Face Off’ looking as subterranean and unnerving as the one advertising a Tarkovsky retrospective. I’m sure artists like Leszek Zebrowski could make ‘Legally Blonde 2’ look like Walerian Borowczyk.
Passing memorials to those killed in the escalating riots against martial law in December 1981 (there is so much to honour here, the flowers are real and heartfelt, and the political struggle and Jesus and WWII and Mary begin to bleed - it’s the gone and the what got you here) we head for an exhibition called ‘Polish Painting in the XXI Century’ at the Galerie Zacheta and finish the evening in tiny box-room hippy restaurant called Vega, off Nowy Swiat. Kind of Indian-Polish fusion with a kooky and charming proprietor who fell in love in Birmingham and plans to go back there. I wish that we had talked to more locals, for Unknowns seem to be, surely and not in a naïve way, the root of many problems here.
Subject: Bath Drift In A Minor Oligarch’s Pimp Pagoda
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:23:00
"Hey, Uri, what’s new? Say, why don’t we rent out your Warsaw place to Brit touristas when you're not around? Classic ‘abrasive orange’, lit glass floors, round two-person tub with a built in sound system, five-point massage shower, mirrors on the ceiling, floor and mezzanine to watch yourself and some fifteen year-old arm candy flicking through four hundred cable channels - from Kurdistan finger-raising to Saddam’s last twitch and retro kiddy chuckles, then slip up the precarious wall steps to conclude business. Pour yourself a drink in that heavy square tumbler. Outside it’s a desperate place. In here you’re King, Uri. You’re the King of Shit, big guy. Four remotes for the King Of Shit. You only have to look on BBC World, Aljazeera or France 24. Screwing up peace-talks, washing their nuts in the Ganges, blowing a rhino’s head off for horn, scurrying into prohibition beauty parlours in Kabul. People are mapping their madness and calling it sane. That’s culture. Any place with a few skyscrapers and a stock exchange is centre. People don’t buy products, they buy a dream, a baroque externalisation of their energy and its issues. Eventually those dreams and the resulting goods and services will trade on the open floor of a rasping new world market, where conflict is a commodity like any other. Oil-less in a generation, young Dubai is angling for a post-fun kind of ‘playground’, but there’s a reason for cultural difference - the pumps need friction to grip. That’s why difference started in the first place. A new language will help. “The radical president was slammed by determined clerics who take tough but necessary decisions”. See. Everything is reversible, Uri. Watch the world, watch the box. Everything will reverse."
Subject: 3 - 5 - 0 - 1 - 2 - 5 - Go! (Warsaw)
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:19:00
After a lot of monging around, we train it to the grey, broad and featureless Soviet-rebuild streets of downtown Warsaw. It reminds me of New York, with a bit of the attitude and plazas, and less of the flourish. More beggars. Seriousness now accompanied by aloofness. The Palace of Culture even looks like the Empire State Building’s chubby cousin, just off the Orient Express and wanting a hug. A mixed-feelings gift from Joe Stalin, an acerbic but funny woman with a book of puzzles on her knee whisks you up to the thirtieth floor and the observation deck. You can get lost in the office floors on the way down. More space. Corridors galore. Big ‘uns too. Important. Important big ‘uns and hell is buying tickets. Questions galore to find a train ticket somewhere in a confuse-a-cat warren that might be a station. You can’t buy Metro tickets at the Metro station. Sigh. You need a tobacconist. Trams you get at the dry cleaners and bus passes from any bike shop painted green. You might wonder what you are doing here, after the elegance of Kraków, and at night you stroll around wondering that, with such a multiplicity of apartment blocks, left and right across the downtown, then where exactly are all the people? Does anyone leave the house, for anything at all, in the evening?
Subject: In Seven, Everything Is Fine
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:16:00
The largest market square in medieval Europe is packed tight. Up there in showtime, an old chap in a cocked hat puffs a trademark cigar through a litany of hits, pursued by an aged blonde stalwart in peek-a-boo leathers. TV cameras on the kind of mega-boom-cranes that can swoop a dizzying circumference of the moon do just that. Meanwhile, New Year’s Eve is pretty universal. People who don’t really drink are over-drinking. People who don’t party are partying. Spotty stag-males get shirty when someone accuses them of accusing someone else of accusing a third party of something everyone is too drunk to actually remember. Bug-eyed gropers reconoitre with a sense that this is their real Christmas. The crunch of bottle after bottle; police check their watches and phones for a painless clear-out. But somewhere in it all, and often around about the first hint of fireworks, communality emerges. Strained necks and phone-photos that never quite live up to the skyline. ‘Sure we might go to hell in a go-kart but what odds? I ask you, what odds?’ Pokey kisses with strangers. Group shot with a can-collecting OAP while stag-males cross their arms in ‘It’s just a number’ detachment, till the superiority of cold logic eventually begins to look a little dumb. It’s not about brains, stoopid! The endless hunt for a kebab with less queue. MissX and I took the Sovietski to the quieter side streets and then walked down to the banks of the Wisla, where families with the very young converge to let off their own private rockets-from-bottles.
Subject: The Worst Place On Earth, Ever
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:14:00
The good folk of Oświęcim have tried to rebrand but it sounds like the kind of ploy an advertising agency could plunge a promotion-seeker (one they didn’t want) into the deep end and out again. Nevertheless, Auschwitz, as the Nazis called it, seems to have crept around, all business park and edge-of-town supermarket. Initially the neat, red-brick buildings were a punk-nasty barracks to house political prisoners (even if the term was used extremely loosely). Soon it could take ten thousand, then it began its throughput. Once you’ve been around the standing-room-only cells, the starvation cells, the hung-by-arms-round-back bit, hang-a-dozen row, the shooting gallery, you can pass numbly up the road to the country residence. And you’ll look around for the thing that is Auschwitz II - Birkenau, until you realise that that is kind of the point. It isn’t really a thing, a place, at all. It’s a limit. A human limit. Physically it is a railway terminal, with row upon row of draughty, cheap cattle sheds to house slave labour enjoyed by I.G.Farben. For one and a half to two million people, it meant the widest exit door possible, from railway track to chimney. Fast-tracked reprocessing, top-gear extinction. By Auschwitz II, people weren't worth harrowing architecture and arches. By Auschwitz II, people weren't even worth a light switch. At the memorial museum you’ll walk through a ceiling-high peak of suitcases that remained on the platform while another two thousand packed into a shower arena. You see a swimming pool stuffed with hair shorn for use as fabric, vitrines of pan and spectacles, and all the merest wisp of the sum reduction. You check the furnaces and the (smaller) gas chamber that still stands in Auschwitz I, and you try to not let the images in and try to consider what factors, beyond some sheer love of murder, could motivate the perpetrators. You leave with so much grand (mis)academia (mis)filing in your head that it goes an awful kind of blank. It wasn’t mad-eyed Darwinism at all, it was Promethean futurism killing off mother sentimentality. Devotion envy. If people were just following orders, and if fear, ultimately, oils the machine, how could a rare handful of crackpots take charge of it? Aren't people in the military people too? More than fear oils this, or fear needs something else to form its atoms. It could have happened anywhere, you say. Then you get angry and decide that Germany as an entity should have lost borders, its language, something remotely on the same scale as this. Eventually it becomes a memorial nothing will ever adequate, the sky itself is the only tombstone that seems to fit, for subject versus object, other against other, shadow on shadow, all hopeless of light. “There is no poetry after Auschwitz”, yarned Adorno. Then everything is poetry.
Subject: From The Wawel, With Chakra
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:11:00
The ancient high seat of Polish power is a day’s wandering in itself. That said, there is only so much one can take of treasuries, armouries and state rooms, and the long, interlinking crypts for Polish kings deep beneath the massive cathedral. However, the north-west corner of the inner Royal Courtyard is reputedly built on one of five points where the earth’s chakra energy is strongest. Some visitors come simply to stand against the wall, to recharge their New Age spiritual batteries for a few minutes. I did this, although the administration does not approve of or promote it, and even has applied some rope one must slip under. One woman, eyes closed, was standing very upright in the furthest corner, a peaceful smile on her face. I waited for her to leave but she didn’t. I wondered if it was okay to cough and sigh at a Chakra Hog. Suddenly I felt very whole, enriched and with a warm sense of wellbeing, but this could have been vodka much later.
Subject: A Ballroom Made Of Salt, 135 Metres Underground
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:09:00
Even his salt’n’pepper hair seemed to be giving up the black stuff. “And this particular wall is really pure.” He runs a wetted finger along a crack in one of the tunnel walls and brings it to his mouth. “You can taste it,” he enthuses, eyes closing with delight. Every time he turns around I am half expecting him to be stroking a salt cat (Dr Saxo in ‘Condiments Are Forever’. He loves salt, he loves only salt. He loves sa-aa-aalt.) But salt is no small matter, he interjects. Did you know, for instance, that the word ‘salary’ comes from former times - when people were paid allowances for salt? And that the air here, deep down in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a World Cultural Heritage site, was believed to be so purified that it could cure respiratory maladies?
As we pass miner-chiseled chapels, each with a salt Jesus, salt gnomes and a salt Virgin Mary praying in solitude on an island of white brine, then Copernicus and Goethe (a keen visitor, along with Balzac and Emperor Franz Josef) and a host of Polish war heroes sparkling for eternity, he presses his torch against one effigy, which immediately appears to glow green. It is not a divine miracle, he chuckles. You see, salt rock is translucent! (‘He’s got a licence to spill..’) And we’re off again. “And no fear of a sudden collapse. Unlike coal, salt rock is very pliable.” (‘For your fries only..’) By the time we wend our way to the palatial lake of brine, pitch black but for ravine spotlights which dance in time to Chopin, I can almost hear Saxo’s sour-faced henchman, Sarson, hitting the water. “His chips are down.”
Blessed Kinga’s Chapel itself is a weird enough spectacle, salt banisters and salt chandeliers over the obligatory salt shrine; it is fifty metres long and was completed in the early nineteenth century. The back-breaking work involved is documented, while it is pointed out that, during World War II, slave labour was used to manufacture German aircraft parts in some chambers. Little in Poland comes without a Nazi horror background. Pick a flower and it will probably ‘Achtung!’ After the endless and genuinely claustrophobic walk down, rickety lifts are on hand to whisk you to the surface. Shaken, not stirred.
Subject: Old Songs Of Devotion
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:04:00
Oi darling, why is it called Kraków? If anyone cracks a smile, do they go ‘Ow’? A little unfair, perhaps, for it is near-zero and London doesn’t exactly walk around beaming either, but they do seem to ooze that central and east European conviction that ‘smiling is a sign of madness’. Tones are clipped, stupidity, draughts and madness feared. Frivolity equates to going off-guard and Work Makes Freedom. But, as countries with the greatest alcoholism also have the strictest temperance movements, such seriousness surely counters a ready-to-surface absurdism? We all have layers.
The funeral of a local scientist was taking place when we visited Kościól Mariachi (St Mary’s basilica, with its gorgeously unsymmetrical twin towers and a majestic late-Gothic altar by Veit Stoss). Very much a working place of worship, I genuflected with the wrong knee and forgot to take my hat off, but found myself ushered into the side aisles to watch Catholicism speak its essential resonance. Beside me about twenty nuns gently hummed a rosary, priests donned cassocks for the service proper, while a lad at the back, possibly a student of the deceased, turned his worried face to a confession box (‘Father, I’m no closer to verifying Intelligent Design’). Even on normal days, there are many young attendees, and very little cynicism about religion. Kraków, like Catholicism itself, is a symbol of continuity for Poland. When Left and Right, Tatars and Teutonic Knights have let you down badly (to put it mildly), the church was there. And the home turf of the kindly-looking John Paul II remains fiercely proud of him, and his picture still seems to outsell the sleepless-looking Papa Ratzinger.
Observing the basilica’s stained-glass windows by Stanislaw Wyspiański, lead us to the Wyspiański Museum and the Młoda Polska movement, a kind of melancholy Belle Epoque answer to Art Nouveau. Very fond of pastels, which one associates with O-levels and huffing fixer, but perhaps they’ll be the new New Painting. All the galleries and museums here employ people in each room whose job it is to follow you around in a disconcerting way. They watch you watching. When the floorboards creak as much as the Wyspianski, you can play comedy games, leaning-to-go, leaning back, watching them twitch. Eyes fail to contact but you know, deep in the corner of that unconcerned-looking pupil-in-profile, they are poised for the next creak. You wait, wait for the optimum point, then eek eek eek eek eek very quickly out of the room, then back in again, then right around a glass case, completing a circle until you are eventually following them following you, eek-eek eek-eek eek-eek, just to brighten everyone’s day.
For six centuries, the Kazimierz district, south-side and over the tracks, provided refuge for Jews from all over Europe and beyond. There are still some synagogues and cemeteries, and restaurants playing Klezmer music to tourists at the museums or the now-trendy Plac Nowy, where we drank in the dark and artsy Alchemia, and there is outside financial assistance to preserve the buildings, but, in real terms, Judaism is history here. Even post-Holocaust, semi-official anti-Semitic campaigns were run in the late sixties, until an introverted group of pensioners were all that remained.
Heading home through the snow to the tiny, split-level apartment (decked with a crucifix and a stark contrast to the Warsaw apartment. Renting apartments is a common central/east European thing to do, and at five pounds a night more than a cheap hotel further out, usually worth it), I watched an old lady climb to her knees in the frost to pray before a wooden nativity scene. Devotion is all around, it is inner unshakability and rise-above. It is often in objects, in a torn Black Madonna painting that seeps blood and then repairs itself. It is, essentially, the unknown, magic - the only thing that lasts forever. For even when you take it away, it lives by definition.
Subject: Prince Boresław The Shy
Time: 2007 Jan 07 10:01:00
Kraków’s layout was designed in the thirteenth century by one Prince Boresław the Shy. Largely car-free at its centre, it remains the best preserved medieval city in Europe. MissX spoke with Russian to the taxi driver (visiting Ukranians are never deemed worth ripping off, although it doesn’t seem as much an issue as in Ukraine itself), and we unpacked for a quick exploration in the Shy One’s behind-the-door dreamscape.
The largest market square in medieval Europe, the Rynek Glówny, is still an impressive expanse, lined as it is by spires and tall houses. At it’s heart, maybe Kraków is saying ‘Don’t look at me. Nothing to see here.’ But with Christmas lights and a stage being constructed for pop acts and celebrities to count down the year change, there was plenty going on. The square is surrounded by a neat grid of narrow and pretty streets (‘See, I told you. Only logic here. Nothing maverick going on’), which spread out to a belt of parks (‘Let me breathe. Why can’t you just. let. me. breathe?’) At the northern end, an impressive barbican arch (‘I. need. out of here.’) and, due south, a rapidly-rising hill for the silhouetted castle and cathedral (‘Not shy due south. Eh? EH?’) The girls have swan necks, little sapphire eyes and pointer noses. The palest blue flares, pastel sweatshirts and a convex fringe that might be fashionable again, ‘Emo in Furs’. The boys resemble squaddies but there are few of them around. The older men don’t have moustaches, much, while the ladies go Soviet ‘electric red’ or bouffant blonde. Again, pelts reign.
Some field mushroom pierogi (Polish dumplings, nicer baked crisp like samosas, laced in a rosemary-infused śmietana) and a cup of blood-coloured barszcz, we stocked up on snacks, herbaceous vodka variants and ‘Sovietski’, a Crimean champagne that’s as friendly as its price tag, then headed to Café Szafé, an absurdist/sci-fi bar you can imagine in Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. Here, even the counterculture-y places seem to keep the classic Catholic lace-and-candle look.
Time: 2007 Jan 06 14:44:00 “Hey, Uri, why don’ts ya write another travelog? Say, a diverse New Year week out in urban Polska. You gotta lotta things to say, big guy. It’ll take your mind off those resolutions. They take a tipsy minute to free up and a goddamn year to work on, so best avoided at these still-delicate stages. Question: why is it when UK-leavers go to Central Europe they seem to sit in bars and talk broken English full of stage or film Americanisms? Why do home counties PhD students with sons-of-vicar accents turn Brooklynite to shoot da King's shat with Ukranians? East-on-west cajollery, fusion of entirely-perceived oppos-ites? “Sorry, but civilization as we know it started with the industrial revolution.” “Thank you for being so very British, my friend.” “Fuck it, let’s talk pussy.” “Pussy is more trouble than it's worth.” “For sure. I’ll drink to that.” "For sure." Look at them, Uri. Look. Say, Uri, if you was to do a PhD like those there guys, what would it be? The effect of internet nudes on daft people? The human need for worship (there’s your BDSM angle - and a Polska one - all in one)? Polska, see, is sandwiched, and sandwiches need a thick crust if they’re gonna make it home. It’s a beautiful place of contrasts. But then so's will your face be if ya don’t write, ya goddamn muddy-funster. Only joshing, big guy. Jeez."