About

An introduction

This is a collection of often witty, insightful and informative musings, ponderings and epic grumbles. Each piece comes in at a snappy 1500 words or less and will, I think you’ll find, make your overall experience of life a little warmer, a little fuzzier and a tad more interesting. Recent results, carried out by professional result finders, have proven that individuals subjected to this blog, over long periods of time, are more likely to cry in public.

Is your life just one meaningless thread of associations, skipping from one random link to another? Do you search the net for quick thrills, for that two second buzz or for that funny photo of a dog smoking a pipe that you can share with your ‘friend’?  So why not take a break from your non-lineal, sensationalist, perhaps even lurid internet experience, it’s not too late, find sanctuary here in the temple of the Cage Writer.

Well I think that went well, punchy, to the point and the kind of tongue in cheek condescension people love.

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A Rat Catcher’s Tale

 

My Grandfather, like countless grandfathers before him, told many stories.  What makes a good story well-told is perhaps the unseen legwork behind the delivery.  After all, grandfathers have had plenty of time to hone their skills.  They have told that same story countless times to various people receiving equally varied responses.  They know when to pause, when to reach out and grab you suddenly in a brief but terrifying grip, and when to add warmth with dewy-eyed reminiscence.  

Their stories are as much a part of their legacy as the Toby jugs and tortoiseshell combs.  And so it comes as no surprise that my Grandfather had spent his entire lifetime refining his story legacy.  Often he would just look up from whatever it was he was doing, fix you with a twinkling eye and say, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time…?’  and then he, with little encouragement, would take you on a short journey situated somewhere between the truth and wistful recollection.  What one got was the polished, well-rehearsed delivery of a tale that may have started life as a loosely held together concept.

He was in many ways a very self-deprecating man; he never boasted about his accomplishments during the war and his modesty and humility lent weight to his stories.  Often he portrayed himself as the butt on which the joke hinged.  Even in old age he had the ability to mock his own fragility and, at times, his foolhardy courage or ‘pluck’.  There was never any doubt about how brave he was but, to him, he was only ever treading the boards, doing what anyone else would do in those times, in that situation.  On occasion, if he played his part well enough, he got through it and other times, despite his best efforts there were consequences.  Of course, that is life but for him and so many others during the war the stakes were far greater.

Toward the end of his life he was living alone in a small cottage, in a small village in North Cornwall. He had mobility problems due, in no small measure, to the shrapnel lodged in his back. To picture what I’m about to tell you, you must first see the terraced cottage, painted white with its grey slate roof leaning sharply into a garden which was small in size but big on colour.  With your back to the garden you see the stoic old church with its graveyard and further along the road, the clock tower engraved around the base with the names of fallen sons.  

Through the low cottage front door, under the blackened oak lintel that, even as a teenager I would have to duck under, you are greeted by a steep stairway leading up to the only bedroom. Running along the staircase wall is a grab rail to aid my grandfather on the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs stands his Zimmer frame. 

To the left of the front door is his stuffy little front room (heated like a furnace) big enough to fit one comfortable chair and a tiny two-seater sofa that sags so much in the middle that getting out is not an option.  There is a chunky old television set in one corner and a curious cookie jar shaped like a new York cop sitting on a side table.  To the right of the staircase is his rudimentary kitchen with the old cast iron Rayburn in the fireplace, like an antiquated steam engine, kettle always atop, quivering and simmering away.  The kitchen table is piled with a multitude of detritus: unopened letters, bills and newspapers in amongst photographs, calendars and keys.  Smell the too-hot-to-eat pasty’s cooling by the sash window and taste the bitter tannin of tea left to brew for too long.

The place was, for want of a better word, comfortable but had its difficulties too, not least of all the laborious task of having to drag himself up and down the narrow stairs.

So when, according to Granddad, one night the police woke him from his sleep by banging nosily on the front door, it was a bit of an effort to get dressed and go downstairs.

He starts the story with information he gleaned after the event. 

‘You hear about that madman that escaped from Bodmin Hospital?’

Hooked from the start I say, ’Erm… no Granddad, what about him?’

‘Well it was last week, he took off during the night, he apparently scaled the wall like a cat and disappeared into the night.  The authorities reckoned he would show up here, in this village sooner or later. They said he was dangerous but that he had family here, so he might stop off to seek refuge and sustenance.’

I pictured an Abel Magwitch type convict, slipping into the village at night and then sitting opposite his grandmother sipping tea and eating bread and jam.

 ‘Of course I didn’t know anything about that: I go to bed early these days.  Anyhow first I know is that someone is banging on my door, shouting for me to open it!  I don’t know how long they were banging on the door, I didn’t have my hearing aid in, see?  Anyway never mind that, I heard it in the end.  Thought at first it was gunfire!  First I have to struggle to get out of bed and then getting down the stairs isn’t easy either. I get down eventually but all the while they are shouting and hollering and banging on the door. 

“Who is it?” I say through the door, standing there in my dressing gown leaning on my Zimmer frame. 

“Police open up!” they shout back.

“How do I know you are the police?” I said, because they could be anyone.  I’d seen it on ‘Crime Watch’, these rouges going around impersonating people of authority and taking advantage of elderly folks.  It’s not right is it?  Some of these people can be very persuasive.’

He pauses for a moment and then says.

‘I get six bottle of wine from the Times wine club every month, you know?  I don’t even drink wine. Karen phoned me up and we started chatting about one thing and another and before you know it I’ve agreed to what is, if you like that sort of thing, a very good deal.’

“Sir this is the police and if you don’t open the door we will be forced to knock it down!” hollered the policeman, getting all uppity at me.

Well that got my goose up to be honest with you. They are supposed to give you some form of identity. 

So I said, “Sir, if you knock down this door I will fight you.”

Of course that fellow, who, as it turns out was a policeman looking for the runaway madman, didn’t know I was leaning on a Zimmer frame.  But, he just mumbled something incoherent and left me in peace.’

I can picture what’s happening on both sides of the door and I know full well that despite his invalidity he would have, if he thought it necessary, put up a fight.  The police officer may have decided that one madman was enough for one night.

As a young boy, from the age of six, during the summer holidays I would join my Grandfather on his rounds.  My Granddad, at that point, was in the pest control business and travelled around North Cornwall in his beaten up old van visiting local farmers.  His army days were long gone, discharged due to injury he’d wound up working with the local council exterminating rats, moles and other pests.  For him, I believe, this new career was a far cry from his previous occupation and, with hindsight, I can see that he resented his change in fortune.  But, as far as I was concerned, we had the best job in the world.  Travelling the narrow winding roads, trundling past miles of hedgerow with occasional glimpses of the sea and listening to his stories, we answered to no one, but met a lot of colourful and often strange people, all of whom harboured a fondness for my grandfather and therefore, by association, me. 

The interior of that old van had a particular smell, not repugnant or offensive in any way, not like one might imagine the inside of a rat-catchers van to smell but comfortingly musty like clothes made damp by the rain but with undertones of ambrosial sweetness.  Granddad always had a bag of boiled sweets on the cluttered dashboard in amongst the invoices and appointment slips. He’d ‘kicked the habit of smoking’ after nearly forty years and these boiled sweets were all that stood between him and starting up again. 

He warned me about the hazards of smoking by way of one of his typical self-deprecating yarns.

‘I was on leave, just before the war started.  Of course everyone knew something big was about to happen that’s why we were given leave, to go home and spend time with our loved ones. Before war broke out I’d been working in Buckingham Palace you know?  Everyone was a Nazi spy so the army were brought in to do a lot of the work.  I was responsible for delivering the King his mail in the morning.  I had a problem saying ‘Majesty’, it never came out right, but the King, who had a stutter, felt sorry for me and said after a couple of days, “Just call me George.”  Well after that we got on famously.

Anyway, one night I was in the Arscott Arms, I’m not much of a drinker, not like some of the other lads, but I liked to dance, so if there was music I’d go and look for a pretty girl to dance with. Now, as I said I didn’t drink but you should know that I did like a smoke.  In fact I’d started on the Woodbines by the time I was your age!  Anyway, on this particular evening I’d met a maid, this is before I knew your grandmother of course.  I can’t remember her name but I remember that she was handsome and that she could dance really well.  We were having a good time, dancing and joking around when all of a sudden this big fellow comes into the pub and squares up to me.

“That’s my girl!” he said.

I looked at the girl and she shock her head and rolled her eyes in a fashion that said to me, “This fellow’s got delusions.”  Now I’ve come across deluded men before as it happens, the army is full of them.  I might have been deluded myself at times too.  It’s like a contagious decease that sweeps through the ranks.  There is no reckoning with a delusional man, there is nothing you can say to help them see sense. The only thing you can do is to fight them, if its worth the effort, and I thought this young girl was worth the effort.

So me and this big fellow go outside to fight, that’s just protocol you see.  No one in those days would dream of fighting inside the pub: everyone embarking on a fight took it outside, as did we. The rest of the revellers came out too; no-one wanted to miss out on seeing a good scrap.  It all started well, Queensbury rules and all that.  I landed the first punch right on his jaw and followed with a left hook.  ‘This,’ I thought, ‘was going to be easy.’  Not so son, not at all.  You see despite the fact that I started off well, this fellow had something I lacked, he had stamina!  He had what the sergeant major called, ‘staying power’.  Where I started to tire, to run out of puff due to all those Woodbines, this fellow just kept getting up and coming at me like a tank!  In the end he beat me black and blue.  I watched him leave with his arm around the girl and that was that.’

While listening to this story I had made the fatal mistake of predicting the outcome: Granddad would win the fight along with the girl and everyone would celebrate his victory.  So, to realise that he had actually lost came as a bit of a blow.  I glanced at him to see whether his expression betrayed any self-pity but all I could see in his face was a sort of wry joy in his own misfortune. 

One morning we set off for a farm near Bodmin.  Here, on this farm Granddad explained, was where he met the Beast of Bodmin, although it was not known as the Beast of Bodmin then, that came later, thanks to him.  He had, the previous year, dropped in on the farmer and his wife to see if they needed anything. 

‘A courtesy call was all it was.  I thought, as I was passing I’d pop in and see how the rat population was doing over at the Stevens’ place.  I pulled up outside the farmhouse and Mr Stevens came out immediately, flapping his hands and looking very concerned, “Charlie thank God you are here, I was just about to call you,” he said. 

‘What’s the problem?’ I said getting out of the van, thinking it might be moles again.  Of all the rodents, moles is the worst.  I have tried all sorts of ways to exterminate them, including small charges of dynamite and yet the buggers just keep on keeping body and soul together.  You got to hand it to them really.  If there is such a thing as reincarnation then coming back as a mole would be a pretty safe option I reckon.  Well if not a mole then a cockroach, cockroaches are pretty tough too you know…not least of all when they are all you have to eat.

Mr. Stevens said, all flustered, “In the end barn Charlie, go and have a look, I don’t know what to do about it really.  It’s left us in a bit of a jam to be honest.  Mrs. Stevens won’t come out of the house for hell or high water, she’s afraid it will eat her.”

Well I didn’t know what to expect to be honest with you boy, but of all the things a bloody great Puma was not one of them. 

I walked over to the end barn, pulled back the door and peered straight into the eyes of a killer. Well I damn near died on the spot.  Luckily we were trained in the army to deal with any situation but I think I must have missed the class on dangerous, feral cats.  Anyway instinct kicked in pretty quick and I closed that barn door very carefully; it was like trying to put a pin back in a hand grenade, and then I marched over to Mr. Stevens.

‘There’s a bloody Puma in your barn!’ I said.

“I know that but what are you going to do about it Charlie?” he said.

‘Me?’

“Well you are pest control and that, by anyone’s standards, is a pest Charlie,” said Mr. Stevens with his hands on his hips, all determined like.

‘Well how did it get in there anyway?’ I asked.

“It just wondered in I guess.  Must have been released from a zoo or something.  Luckily no one was in there at the time.  Mrs. Stevens was shelling peas under the elm and I was repairing the tractor.  I got up and walked over to the barn to fetch a number twelve spanner and there it was.  I closed the door and bolted it.  I was just looking for your phone number when you turned up. Which is a good thing, because you are just the man for the job Charlie.”

‘Well’ I said seeing that Mr. Stevens was adamant, ‘Do you have a shotgun in the house?’

“That’s the spirit Charlie, I’ll go get it for you.”

Mr. Stevens fetched his shotgun and I grabbed a length of rope from the back of the van.  I tied the rope to the handle of the barn door and walked backwards for as far as the rope would allow. Stevens handed me the gun. ‘It’s loaded Charlie. I’ll wait inside if that’s alright, Mrs. Stevens is all tied up in knots: you know what women are like.’ 

Yes I did, I thought, and they are a damned sight more courageous than you.

So old Stevens makes his valiant retreat and I’m left with the job of tackling a Puma.  I gathered my nerve, dug my heels into the ground and yanked on the rope.  The door flew open and I raised the gun and…nothing, no Puma in sight.  I walked tentatively toward the barn with my finger poised over the trigger and…nothing.  It was then that I noticed that the doors to the back of the barn were wide open!  It was also then that I heard a low growling noise coming from behind me.  I turned slowly, shaking now, like a puppy having a poo, and there it was glaring at me.  I pulled the trigger, and gave him both barrels, the force of which threw me onto my back.  I struggled to my feet holding the gun like a club because old Stevens had not given me any more ammunition.  I looked around and the Puma was gone. I don’t know how he got out or where he went from there.

After that there were reports of a wild cat roaming the moor killing farm stock and scaring hikers. Me and old Mr. Stevens just kept mum about it all, in fact we never mention it, and nor should you.’

One of the other stories I wasn’t to mention was the one about the lost watch.

‘You never know who you are telling,’ was Granddad’s reasoning. 

Once again, during leave from the army Granddad went home to Cornwall.  It was summertime and the weather was warm.  He borrowed his father’s motorbike and rode to the beach for a swim. 

‘In those days,’ he explained, ‘no one bothered about thieves; we just used to roll up our valuables in our socks and stuff them into our boots.  So that’s what I did, got undressed, put my valuables in my boots and went for a swim in the sea.  I came back and lay down on the sand for a while to dry off.  I fell asleep and when I woke up I had no idea what time it was!  I sat up and rummaged around in my socks and boots looking for my watch but couldn’t find it.  I never thought for one moment that someone had pinched it.  I thought I must have dropped it in the sand.  So, I start looking for it but still can’t find it.  In a while the lifeguard comes over and asks me if everything is all right. 

I explained rather sheepishly to the lifeguard that I’d lost my watch, it was a gift from my parents and I’d be mortified if I couldn’t find it.

The lifeguard, who was an elderly gentleman, all the young fellows were at war by now, began to organise a search party.  Before too long just about everyone on the beach was involved in the hunt for your Granddad’s watch.  All the children had given up on their various pursuits and joined in the hunt, walking up and down the beach in a line, paying careful attention to the sand beneath their feet.  By this time I’d got dressed and of course joined in with the hunt.  Feeling overwhelmed at the kindness of strangers I put my hands in my trouser pockets, a sort of gesture of contentment, when my fingers closed around the cold metallic contours of my watch.  My goodness, the shame I felt at that moment was immeasurable; it burnt hotter than the mid afternoon sun.  I would rather the sands beneath my feet open up and swallow me whole than have to face that crowd of well-meaning holiday-makers and fess up!  And so for another hour I allowed the search party to continue looking for a watch that didn’t need to be found.  Eventually I thanked everyone, but said it was pointless going on with the search, I feared that the watch was lost forever.  There followed a collection, and an amount of money was raised to go towards a new watch.  I had no choice but to except the money, I was in too deep by then.  I could hardly tell them the truth, not at that point.  What I should have done was to drop the watch in the sand during the search and let someone else find it.  But, truth is I’d lost it once and didn’t want to lose it again.  So, you see, you can never tell that story because you may be telling one of the searchers, and by now they have grown fat off of their own version of events.  They would be very vexed if they ever found out the truth.  

On arriving at the Stevens’ farm, Mr. Stevens and his wife came out to meet us. 

‘Charlie how are you today?’ inquired Stevens in a jovial tone.

‘Very well Mr. Stevens.  Hello Mrs. Stevens how’s the hip?’ 

‘Oh fair to middling,’ said Mrs. Stevens and they all laughed together.

‘Oh and this must be the grandson you told us about, Paul is it?’ said Mrs. Stevens crouching to get a better look at me.

‘That’s him,’ said granddad winking at me.

‘Well if he likes he can have a piece of my homemade apple pie later?’ she said smiling.

‘Well I’m sure we’d all like a piece of pie as soon as we’ve finished.  But the boy’s got work to do first,’ said Granddad.

I didn’t take much notice of what was being said.  I had one ear on the conversation and both eyes on the end barn where Granddad had confronted that Puma.

‘It’s Hercules again Charlie,’ I heard Mr. Stevens say.

‘He’s back is he?’ Said Granddad gravely.

‘Afraid so Charlie, he’s in the hayloft, bigger than ever.’

‘Well this time I’ll get ‘im, I’ve got the boy for bait.’

‘The boy Charlie?’ cried Mrs. Stevens looking very concerned.

I started to pay a little more attention now.  Was Hercules the Puma? I wondered.  If so I had mixed feelings about being bait.  On the one hand I’d get to see it up close but on the other hand I didn’t want to be ‘that’ close.

‘Who’s Hercules?’ I asked as casually as I could.

‘A bloody great rat,’ said Mr. Stevens.

‘The biggest rat you are ever likely to see my boy.  As big as a cat would you say Mr. Stevens?’

‘Bigger.’

‘Oh he’s grown.  Hercules is so big and so fierce he swallows whole chickens.  Any normal amount of poison won’t kill him.  And besides, he’s not tempted by the poisoned bait, he pretty much eats whatever he likes and he likes chickens.

‘And me?’

Granddad laughed, ‘He won’t eat you but he will come out of his hiding place when he catches a whiff of you.  As soon as that happens I’ll brain him with a spade.’

‘My God Charlie; really?’ asked Mrs. Stevens wringing her hands in her apron.

‘Now, now Mrs. Stevens, no need to worry, Charlie knows what he’s doing, don’t you Charlie?  I mean you won’t let him run off this time will you Charlie?’

‘Yes it’s all under control, you both go indoors and we will be with you in no time,’ said Granddad.

‘With a dead rat I hope? said Mr. Stevens.

The plan was simple enough although I did approach it with a degree of trepidation.  Granddad chose a hefty spade from the barn and after a few practice swings thought that it would do the job nicely.  We climbed the ladder to the hayloft as quietly as we could and stood in the middle. ‘Right,’ whispered Granddad, ‘Take off your sandals and roll up your trousers.  Hercules will smell your feet and think that you are a cheese,’ he explained. This, at the age I was, seemed perfectly reasonable.  

‘I’ll hide behind this pile of hay and as soon as he’s close enough I’ll jump out and hit him with the spade.’

I did as I was told and stood on the dusty wooden floorboards with ever mounting terror.  A long period of quiet within which I thought about that apple pie, my parents, my warm comfortable bed and my brother who was probably having a much better time of it than me right now.  Then, as if in a dream the biggest rat I had ever seen, and I’d seen a few, came out of his hiding place. Hercules was a monster; his thick black fur was covered in straw and chicken feathers.  His wiry whiskers bristled.  His large snout sniffed the air as his beady eyes fixed on me, hungrily.  To me he was a savage, almost mythical beast with a black heart and sharp, poisoner’s teeth.  To him I was a bloody great chunk of farmhouse cheddar!  After a moment in which I couldn’t move but only stare, a moment in which I heard three hearts beating at once, Granddad’s from behind the hay, Hercules’ from across the loft and my own thumping out its warning.  Finally my legs found flight and I ran.  I scrabbled back down the ladder and fled towards the van.  Behind me I heard the spade come down with a mighty thwack followed by a horrendous cry.  The scream of the Devil himself pierced the air.  I ran all the way to the van and jumped into the driver’s seat and, not knowing how to drive did the one thing I knew how to do, let the handbrake off!  The van began to move slowly at first but soon picked up speed as I held onto the steering wheel trying, without success, to direct its course.  The old white van rolled down an embankment and came to an abrupt halt when it hit a dry stone wall. 

Later, once Mr. Stevens had pulled the van out of the ditch with his tractor, we all gathered around the kitchen table for a slice of that apple pie.

‘You got him Charlie.’

‘We got him, didn’t we?’ Granddad said to me.

‘I’m sorry I ran, he was pretty scary.’

‘No need to apologise, son; you did your bit, but…’ he hesitated, ‘we must not tell your Grandmother about this; she’ll have my guts for garters.’

Everyone it seems has his Achilles heel, and for Granddad it was his wife.

It has been claimed that animal trainer Mary Chipperfield released three pumas into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth zoo in 1978, and that subsequent sightings of the animals gave rise to rumours of the Beast.

Wikipedia

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Within The World, Without. Or, The Runaways.

Within The World, Without.

As children, we’d spend most of our time gazing out into imagined landscapes, but little time gazing in at the confines of the restrictive world around us, the boundaries of which were defined and limited by adult fears of unimaginable horrors lurking around every corner of suburbia.  

My brother and I would stealthily cross the border, flying high, beyond the grasp of guards who, weighed down with their fearful baggage, couldn’t hope to follow.  Imagination – unconstrained, unfettered, limitless – was our passport to freedom within our world, without.

 So enticing were these worlds to me as a child that, once there, I never wanted to leave, and, to a large extent, these worlds became more real to me than the physical world to which I was tethered.  

Whether I sat in my bedroom, a classroom or at the dining table, I gazed longingly and defiantly outward.  What I saw but couldn’t touch were stories, stories full of excitement within which I was fearless, honourable and, quite often, a dab hand at sword play.

Often, but not always, I’d bring my younger brother, Bugsy, along for company.  We would enact exploits, full of daring deeds, in the garden, before mother called us in to wash our hands or, in the playground before the clanging of the bell tore us rudely from the battle field.  On rainy days the bedroom that we shared became a theatre: our beds were jet planes or ships or cars; the wardrobe a ravine-riddled mountain covered in snow, a time machine or rocket ship about to launch or a craggy cliff face sinking into the sea.  The floor of our bedroom was a turbulent, shark infested sea; the mouth of a volcano about to explode, spewing out red-hot lava; a carnivorous squelching mass of sinking sand.

The outside came to us in the form of books.  To begin with the books were mainly biblical tales: David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Samson and Delilah.  But over time, other books began to jostle for space on the crooked shelves in our bedroom.  Dickens, who was deemed suitable and respectable by mother, arrived first in the form of ‘A Christmas Carol’.  Then, for whatever reason, came ‘The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes’.  Sherlock Holmes and his powers of deduction gave serious fuel to the fires of the imagination as did, Robin Hood, Dick Turpin and my personal favourite, Tom Sawyer.

All these stories were seeds; seeds that blossomed into new and varied strains until, eventually, they grew to become unrecognisable progeny.  The stories were inspiring, they were pathways to new possibilities, they were building blocks from which new characters were formed and new worlds were built. 

I was so involved in these fantasies, in these other worlds, that I no longer felt that I belonged anywhere else.  The real world, the world of my parents, of my school, of all the other people around me felt harsh and brutal by comparison.  In the ‘real’ world I was painfully shy, crippled by self-doubt and as a consequence terribly withdrawn.  I had, in fact, pretty much mastered the art of invisibility or so it seemed.  No one noticed me because I didn’t want to be noticed. 

In the worlds I made for myself I was brave, I was clever, I was charismatic.  I fought courageously and died countless noble deaths fighting noble causes, sacrificing my own life to save that of a dear friend or fair maiden.  

I don’t remember how or when it happened but at some point, in an effort to combine the worlds (both mine and everyone else’s), I invented a character for myself that could easily step between my two realities.  My alter ego was christened ‘David’ after my favourite uncle, whom I deemed to be both a courageous and a handsome solider.  Having an alter ego worked out really well for me, so much so that I encouraged Bugsy to invest in his own.  My brother decided on Steven, after Steve Austin I believe.

David and Steven could achieve just about anything.  If, for example, a fight broke out in the playground that seemed to be unevenly matched or if we spotted a case of unjustified bullying I, as me, could do nothing but watch on in horror.  But, if I summoned up David he could, without fear, wade in and help.  David became the embodiment of bravado.  He transcended play-acting and a new kind of confidence was born so that when faced with difficult and seemingly insurmountable challenges I could, quite literally it seemed, step into another skin.  David and Steven could travel with ease over the bridge that separated our two worlds – linking fantasy to reality.  

It was, as I recall, David’s idea to run away from home. 

 

Bugsy had grown weary of family life, had felt the cruelty of ignorance more acutely than I and wanted to escape the shackles of domesticity.  He believed that he was invisible to everyone, unless, that is, he misbehaved and then he miraculously became very visible. Even his misbehaviour was, to him, misunderstood.  One person’s opinion, frankly argued, was another’s delinquency.  He had become wary of trying to express his thoughts, for, it seemed, this was not something parents encouraged in nine year olds.  What he needed was a new beginning.  It was foolhardy to wish for a new set of parents, or to be snapped up by the secret service and trained in the art of espionage.  No, something all together do-able was called for.

I handed the problem over to David and as always he had the answer…run away from home and start a new life in the forest.  Immediately I presented this idea to my brother it became the obvious thing to do!  Why hadn’t we thought of this sooner?  Neither of us felt that we belonged here, with these people, with this family.  We had tried to fit in but it had become more and more obvious to us both that we were not wanted.  We were and always would be, misunderstood.  We were in no doubt that life would go on without us, that without us the rest of the family would probably prosper.  They would be sad for a day or two, but within a very short while our names, like our faces, would be forgotten. 

As for surviving in the forest – easy!  No need for second thoughts.  The forest in question was The New Forest, a place we had on various occasions explored during family camping trips.  The forest was miles from anywhere and anyone.  We could employ our self-taught skills in deception, travel to civilisation, procure food, comics and other staples and elude recognition or capture.  In the forest we would build detection devices to warn us of approaching danger or intrusion and plant traps to catch both food and busybodies! 

Over the following weeks the gist of the plan was meticulously fleshed out.  In hindsight, I recall now that most of the effort was devoted to the actual escape and not so much to the finer points of actually surviving thereafter, but it was taken for granted by us that these solutions would present themselves as and when needed. 

David and Steven thought, with good reason, that Sunday afternoon was the best opportunity to take to one’s heels.  The reason for this was simple: Sundays had few variables.  On Sunday mornings we would be expected to dress for church, then once washed, combed and polished we would walk the short distance to the Methodist Church on Sedgwick Road.  Outside the church, where the congregation gathered prior to their weekly dose of indoctrination, we would leave David and Steven, for they were not church goers, and we’d enter through the doors without them.  While David and Steven lingered outside, keeping watch, we would attend Sunday school.  For an hour we would receive our lessons in morality, piety, humility, and in the ‘thou shall nots’ along with the ‘thou shalts’ before being released, cleansed and purified, only to be sullied all over again the following week. 

After church it was customary to spend our collection money on sweets at the newsagents nearby, but we had, rather craftily, been saving this pittance for the big escape.  And so, on the day of the running away we passed by the newsagents, tummies rumbling but with unspent coins jingling in our pockets. 

Then came Sunday lunch, whereupon all the family would gather, say grace, and eat to bursting point.  Of course, nobody but us knew it was our last supper.  Once the dishes had been cleared away, Sunday afternoon entertainment choices were limited.  As it was a Holy day we children were not allowed to play, neither indoors nor outside.  We were, however, permitted to watch Sunday afternoon matinees along with everyone else, or read in our room as long as we remained quiet, lest God strike us down with fury.  On the day of our great escape, we opted for reading quietly in our room and, with great personal sacrifice, passed up the chance of watching ‘Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines’, a choice that baffled our parents I’m sure.

Once we were secure in our bedroom, away from prying eyes, we could, as long as we remained quiet, activate ‘operation runaway’.

One masterstroke among many that day was that we had put our ‘church clothes’ on over our regular clothing.  This clever tactic was a ruse.  Once we were a safe distance from the house we would strip off our outer clothing and ditch them.  When we were found to be missing and the alarm went up, the police – because obviously there would be a search party – would be looking for two boys wearing their Sunday Best and not jeans and T-shirts! 

Before descending from our bedroom window by aid of a convenient drainpipe, we left a note, something we felt added a certain drama to the proceedings.  The note had to have emotional punch and yet be devoid of details.  We opted not to write it in lemon juice or our own blood, but to stick to conventional ink. It said…

‘We have run away. 

Because we want to be free, and because everything is always our fault.

Don’t come looking for us you will never find us. 

When we are grown-ups we will visit you…Maybe.

Signed The Boys.

PS. We have stolen Dad’s car keys just incase he tries to come after us. 

PPS. God is probably a bit annoyed with us right now so maybe you should do some prayers.’

Once the note, a subject of much contention, was finally drawn up we grabbed a few essentials. Penknives, catapult, magnifying glass and my best, as yet unbeaten conker from the autumn before.  Bugsy wanted to bring his complete spy kit, but had to agree after much wrangling that it would be too cumbersome to carry, and so, with a heavy heart, he made do with a fake moustache and his deerstalker.

Our bikes were waiting for us at the back of the house.  Over the past few days we had managed to make them escape-ready, and they were now gleaming, well pumped examples of how a boy’s bike should look. Extra reflectors had been attached to the spokes, horns and tassels to the handlebars, dynamo lights and shorter ‘racing’ mudguards over the wheels. 

Now that we were finally on our way David and Steven took control, they steered us along the back streets of our neighbourhood, past all the familiar sights, until we were out of the town and heading strait for the duel carriageway.  In this initial stage of the plan we were in a race against time. A mad scientist by the name of Dr. Mourn had set the clock ticking on a bomb ready to go off at any moment, only we could stop him and save the town from complete annihilation. Saving the town and everyone in it was a parting gift, but also a means to put distance between us and home.

After a while we felt sufficiently far enough away to slow down and take in the first stages of our victorious escape.  We looked at one another and laughed with delight.  Freedom – and on a Sunday too!

That first taste of liberty was incomparable, it was purely sublime, it tasted like nothing had done before.  For the first time we were actually living the dream and no longer play-acting; this was actually happening and we – with the help of our alter egos – had made it happen.  We had stepped out of a life that was ordered and controlled and into one where we made the rules; we were in charge of our own destinies.  What a feeling it is when you realise that the world doesn’t have to be flat and one dimensional that it can be stretched and pulled and moulded in a multitude of ways.   That the shackles are not real – they are an illusion – your spirit is made to feel as though there are shackles by constant reminders of how ‘things should be’ according to those that think they know best.  And those that think they know best, it seems to me, rarely, if ever, really do.  

We boys had always known that excitement and adventure were out there somewhere but until the moment when we tasted our liberty, we had thought it unattainable, thought that it could only be savoured in dreams. 

Until now we had relied on play-acting to evoke a sense of ‘living’, of uncertainty and of danger. Until now we had employed factitious characters such as David and Steven through whom we would live our lives, compensating for our own lack of confidence.  Confidence, I have learned, is hard earned and can only be obtained by putting oneself in the firing line.  Back then I was more than happy to hide behind my stronger more courageous alter ego.

 

The curious thing is, that when we were confronted that evening with real danger it wasn’t David that rescued us – it was I!

After cycling blindly in a random direction, and for quite a while along a duel carriageway, we found ourselves in an unknown back street of an unknown town that was definitely not a forest. Evening seemed to fall like a curtain around us, ‘Show’s over’ it said.  

For the first time that day I began to question the rationality of our plan.  The promise of darkness brought new, as yet unconsidered fears.  Uneasiness settled in my stomach in the form of a pang and the pang grew as the light faded.  The dream, that crazy notion of autonomy, slipped away.  I felt as if I’d fallen through a trap door.  Once out in the real world, it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back.  Reality with all its certitude sunk its teeth into me and held on with grim determination like a mangy, rabid dog.

‘It’s tea time at home,’ Bugsy remarked. 

We both thought about what that meant.  As it was a Sunday, there would be a lavish spread – Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, trifle, cake and junket laid out with the best china on white table linen.  All home-made of course: ‘shop bought’ food was for posh folk, or for our friend Roger whose mum worked at the Mr. Kipling factory and got freebies.  Our mum had a full-time job bringing us up, cooking cleaning, washing, scrubbing.  Well, there would be less for her to do now we weren’t there. 

Here we were, lost and homesick eating chocolate bars acquired, not too honestly, from a Co-op we had passed earlier.  It was then, while idling on a street corner, feeling downcast and hungry that the bearded man approached us.

Immediately, I didn’t like him or trust him.  His dress was disheveled: nondescript grey trousers, a long trench coat which was, I thought, unnecessary in summer and a cap pulled down over his eyes.   His eyes were dark and furtive, switching this way and that without ever resting in one place for more than a second.  He looked dishonest, deceitful and a bit like Uncle Freddy, who was, I had overheard my mother say, a ‘pervert’.  I wasn’t sure what a pervert was exactly but apparently it had something to do with answering the door to the paperboy wearing nothing but a see through mac!  

‘What you boys doing out this time of night?’ he asked, bearing down on us.

‘On our way home from a bike ride,’ I said as Bugsy watched on cautiously.

‘You steal that chocolate?’ he said with a growl.

‘No, we bought it,’ I lied.

‘Got the receipt?’ he asked.

‘Nope, she never gave us a receipt did she?’ I asked my brother.

‘I’m…erm…maybe…I don’t know.’

The man looked at us both fleetingly before saying, ‘You’d better come home with me, so we can sort this out.  Might have to call the police on you.’

Imagination can run wild when unchecked.  It can be both a force for good and for bad; you have to learn how to apply it in just the right way.  Up until that moment, I’d used my imagination like a Gatling gun, firing at will in any direction.  It both soothed me and tormented me in equal measure; it was both the cause of my delight and of my terror.  In this arena of heightened reality, a place I felt was unaccustomed to flights of fancy, I realised that I was alone without my alter ego.  David was nowhere to be seen.  Despite feeling exposed and vulnerable, I found that I was both focused and clear headed.  I also realised that with a little Imagination and a small amount of nerve I could get us out of this.

 ‘We never stole anything,’ I said defiantly.

‘You better come home with me and do everything I say or you might end up getting hurt,’ sneered the man behind his shabby beard.

I glanced at Bugsy who stood off to one side with his hands clasped before him and his eyes firmly closed: he was praying for intervention.  Sunday School had really got to him today.  Most of the time we didn’t bother with God, or he with us but occasionally, in times of mortal danger, one or both of us had been known to drop him a line.  Sometimes it actually seemed to work but other times, not so much.  But God, I knew, was not going to save us this time.  We had committed this act on a Sunday, a day of rest: a day when we were expected to be good children and avoid sin.  So far, I counted that we had broken at least four commandments.  Maybe five if we had inadvertently coveted a neighbour’s ox but I didn’t think we had.  It was up to me to get us out of this situation and, with a heavy heart, I realised, back home.

‘Look sir,’ I said, ‘we are not thieves; my father is a policeman,’ I lied twice, breaking another commandment.  I went on, ‘He’d kill us if we did anything like that.’ 

As I was saying this, I reached into my pocket and clasped my hands around a whistle, one of my essential belongings; it was in fact a seaman’s whistle but I doubted the stranger knew the difference.  I produced it.

‘My dad said, if you are ever in danger, just blow the whistle and a policeman will come.’

The stranger cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive Labrador.  I put the whistle to my lips and blew with all my might.  By the time I’d completed my first blow the man had disappeared.   Bugsy, startled by the noise, opened his eyes and on seeing that the spooky man had gone declared that God had come to our rescue…hallelujah. 

Somehow we returned home, although I don’t remember how.  It was late when we finally arrived at the front door.  We were tired, forlorn and in need of a hero’s welcome.  Mother was furious, the police had, as predicted, been out looking for us, and, as predicted, we had fooled them with our ruse.  The hunt was called off, we were hauled over hot coals and privileges I didn’t even know we had, were denied. 

Despite the bruised egos and the oodles of disappointment poured all over us, we were nevertheless, pleased to be back home…at least for a while.

Once the dust had settled we began drawing up a new plan. One in which we would become master thieves, lead a gang of bandits and never be caught.  But, as they say, that’s another story. 

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Watchfield

My brother and I were used to sharing a bedroom; there was the established territory, the personal and shared spaces and the rules of cohabitation which were drawn up and modified almost daily.  

Sharing a bed, on the other hand, presented a whole new conundrum.  For instance, who sleeps on which side?  Is no touching, farting or fighting an unspoken given?  Or do we need to write up a whole new directive?  

The bed in question was in the back room of our great aunt’s house in North Cornwall.  We liked the house: an old cottage with plenty of outside space to roam around which included grazing fields for sheep and an orchard with a brook ambling though it.

We had arrived at lunchtime and immediately descended upon the heaps of homemade food weighing down the old farmhouse table in ‘the parlour’.  Auntie, it was established early on, knew how to put on a spread!  Pasties, quiches, apple pie, something called a ‘blancmange’ and lashings of clotted cream.  Once appetites were sated we boys were encouraged to go out and explore the farm.  Little encouragement was needed and we were practically out of the door before the suggestion had time to settle in the room.

We found a big crumbling barn filled with retired farm machinery in various states of decay. Old tractor carcasses with their guts hanging out, like the remains of a kill, skulked miserably in shafts of filtered sunlight.  There was even evidence of pre-mechanisation: ploughs designed to be pulled by horses along with all the bridles and brasses (covered in dust and pigeon shit) hanging like forlorn, forgotten exhibits in a museum.  Amongst the bales of hay and pitchforks a black cat with one eye watched us with barely-suppressed disdain.  ‘This,’ the cat seemed to say, ‘is my barn’ and we were evidently not welcome there.  Despite the cat’s obvious displeasure we poked around in the barn amusing ourselves for some time until we heard the bleating of sheep.  The barn and its many treasures could wait.

The cat thought to himself that the old one-eyed stare had worked its magic and watched with smug satisfaction as we left and headed for the field behind the house.  

So, a happy hour was spent trying to herd sheep into two distinct armies.  Bugsy and I commanded one army each.  Choosing our generals carefully, we tried pitifully to wage war on one-another.  Of all the animals on earth, sheep are, it seems, the worst of warriors and we were soon forced to concede defeat in the face of such effective, passive resistance.  After berating the flock with much heartfelt criticism, levelled at both armies, we, with great reverence, banished them from either kingdom.  Cursed to roam the land without allegiance to a lord and therefore without protection they were, I’m afraid, at the mercy of bandits and cutthroats.  We left the battlefield without so much as a cursory glance in their direction. 

The rest of our afternoon was spent in the orchards, a place of tranquil serenity which lent itself to meditative thoughts about life, the universe and the existence of aliens.  Finally, we lay by the brook looking for crayfish, without finding any, until hunger overtook us.  Back at Auntie’s we had more food and chatter followed by a few rounds of hangman before being bundled off to bed.  

And there it was: the bed.  The only bed in the room.  And there we stood: pyjamas on, slippers off, regarding this new enforced concept.  

Bugsy’s main concern was his fear of needing to go to the toilet at night.  We had been provided with a chamber pot in case of emergencies but neither of us relished the idea of pissing into it.  So, it was agreed after much deliberation, that I would take the inside position next to the wall leaving my brother to the outside position which offered easier passage to the toilet down the hall. Then, to create some semblance of personal space, we put the big, long, goose feather bolster pillow straight down the middle of the bed, lest our bottoms should touch!

We awoke not to the smell of urine, but to the pungent aroma of apples, which was a relief, if something of a mystery.  Bugsy, following his nose, leaned out over the bed and put his head underneath, ‘Crates and crates of apples under here,’ he said with his head still under the bed and sounding rather nasal.  ‘They’re all covered in newspaper, and look kind of old and wrinkly like Great Granny Hilda.’

“A crate full of Granny’s eh?’ I said.

‘Yep, all just shoved under our bed for some reason, I feel sorry for ’em. We should free ’em.’

‘How?’

‘Chuck ’em at the sheep: sheep make great targets, you know?’

‘That they do,’ I agreed laconically.

‘Rubbish soldiers though,’ he added.

I wasn’t sure I was completely happy with chucking grannies at sheep and wondered if the ammunition couldn’t be something more deserving of the full penalty of complete annihilation?

‘What if they were teachers?’ I hastened.

‘Yeah ok, lets say that they are old teachers, old teachers that hated kids and probably hit them …a lot.’

After breakfast we loaded our pockets with old, villainous teachers and spent a gratifying hour throwing them at sheep, all the while being watched by the one eyed cat.  The sheep didn’t seem to mind and happily ate the teachers that lay in pieces about the field. 

During the lunchtime conversation, Auntie happened to mention to my parents that, under the boys’ bed she had stored several crates of Grannies ready for the press.  We looked at one another in horror.  Bloody hell, they were Grannies after all and, what’s more, they were destined for a fate far worse than the one we had inflicted on a select few! 

After lunch our parents had errands to run and we were given directions to the beach.  We could walk there on our own if we promised to remain vigilant on the road and not talk to strangers.  If we got into any trouble mid-point, we should call into the village post office store and ask for help.  Or, if we were on the beach, go to the cafe. 

This was an unexpected gift of freedom and we took it immediately.  It was a warm early summer’s afternoon, the sun hung high in the clear blue sky and just the slightest breeze coming in off the Atlantic.  We quickly changed into swimmers under shorts fastened with our ever-present snake belts, grabbed a diluted bottle of orange juice and hit the road.  The lanes were narrow and banked with hedges on either side.  Occasionally the hedges would break for a farm gate and we would be offered a vista of green fields stitched together with hedgerows studded with the occasional farmhouse or copse.  Whenever a view of the surrounding countryside presented itself, we’d stop for a while and gaze out at all that lovely open space.  This was not the kind of view we were used to at home and even at that young age one felt a degree of reverence for it, ‘Wow, just look at that!’ one of us would say to the other. 

And so we went, walking along, avoiding oncoming traffic brimming with holidaymakers.  Kids our age passed by, bundled into the back of cars, hot and bothered, probably wondering why these two boys were free to roam unsupervised whilst they were not.  Bugsy and I agreed that we should give off an air of belonging, ‘We are local kids,’ the air around us should say, ‘We live here permanently,’ it should suggest. 

Halfway to the beach, we found the village post office looking less like the familiar corner shop at home and more like someone’s front room.  Outside some real local kids loitered, smoking and spitting and eyeing us with obvious contempt.  We cautiously quickened our pace, trying to give the impression that we were in a hurry to get to the beach, rather than because we felt intimidated.   We thought it was essential to appear nonchalant so that anyone watching would realise we hadn’t given this bunch of country ruffians a second thought.  It worked.

Once past the shop, the road began its descent towards the sea, still hidden from view behind high hedgerows.  What was in view, and becoming more of a concern than the villainy we’d only just left behind was a church and its graveyard. 

Churches were the houses of God and God, I had been led to believe, had the ability to live in all of his houses at the same time.  What’s more, he knew everything one thought even before one thought it, and knew everything you were going to do before you even did it.  

Now, on a normal working day God would probably not bother with the thoughts and actions of a ten year-old boy.  But, should that boy walk right past His front door as bold as brass, well God might just have to interrupt his other important business and pay that boy some attention.  

And if God was distracted from his heavy workload for a second, he might decide to have a poke around and turn over a stone he’d never have normally considered turning over.  Bearing all of this in mind, we boys thought it safest to avoid scrutiny and/or discovery and so we ran as fast as we could until we reached a safe distance beyond the church… and the graveyard.   

For graveyards posed yet another problem: they were a familiar presence in our lives; there was one attached to most churches, but they remained, nevertheless, a place of spookery, of trapped and tortured souls of ghosts and ghouls.  Therefore, as usual, we held our breath while running past which we imagined would prevent the dead from detecting the living…all perfectly rational to young boys with overactive imaginations.

Bent over double, panting and gulping for breath a hundred yards from the church we glanced at one another with concern.

‘You think anything bad when we ran past the church?’ asked Bugsy.  To be totally safe, we knew it was extremely important that we not only held in our breath but our thoughts too.  One bad thought could, during that crucial time, incur God’s wrath and bestow upon us His great vengeance.  We did, of course, have a contingency plan in the making to hoodwink our Maker, should such an occurrence ever happen, but we’d rather not activate it just yet.  For the moment, there were too many wrinkles to be ironed out; in fact our plan had more wrinkles than a crate load of Grannies.  The plan hinged on being able to 1) catch God on a good day and 2) once caught, to convince him that our thoughts were not our own but that we were being controlled by aliens.  As far as plans to deceive a divine being go, it had, we thought, some merit.

‘No, you?’ I said regaining my composure.

‘Well, maybe a little one’ said Bugsy sitting at the side of the road and unscrewing our bottle of orange juice.

He took a big swig and passed the bottle to me.

‘I thought about that time we stole cigarettes from Uncle Wilf and smoked them behind his pigeon shed, and the shed caught fire and we just ran off.  He was really upset about that. We never said nothing about how it was our fault, even when we sat there with him the next day.  Mum said that losing his pigeons like that put him in an early grave.  So basically, we killed him.’

‘You thought all that?’

‘Yep. It just slipped out.’

‘Jesus Christ!’ I said standing up and scanning the view.  ‘Hey, Bugsy, I can see the sea!’ 

‘Really?’ said Bugsy, immediately forgetting our woes and jumping to his feet.

‘Lets go!’ I said, and off we went.

The road snaked down to a pebbly bay, contained by a shallow wall.  The beach was festooned with colour.  Little children pottered about in rock pools with their nets and buckets, while older kids ran in and out of the sea in a rainbow array of swimwear, clutching infinite varieties of inflatables and screaming with delight at the water’s edge.  Others clutched surfboards, dinghies or one another.  Parents, less athletic, slouched in deckchairs behind windbreaks supping tea and munching sandwiches.  Sunbathers looked like hamburgers as they flopped and turned while grilling themselves in the heat. 

Some beach-goers were getting ready to leave and we watched as they clumsily wriggled out of soggy swimwear and into dry clothes behind ill-secured towels.  Parents struggled to collapse wilful beach tents while shouting instructions to reluctant kids to gather their things.  The beach was a circus of noise and colour with its clowns and ringmasters, its bawdy giants and rowdy midgets running amok. 

Behind, and slightly further along the cove piles of boulders lay in the shingle.  After briefly considering the dangerous possibility that these could have fallen from the cliff above, we nevertheless decided that this was the place to explore.  Punctuated only by a couple of quick dips in the sea to cool off and a half hour mulling around the various rock pools, we spent the rest of the afternoon clambering among the boulders, seeking out the nooks and crannies.  The boulders captivated us so much so that we didn’t noticed the passage of time.  We hadn’t seen that the beach was emptying and that most people had packed up and gone home. So engrossed were we in our games that neither of us had looked up to see the leaden sky, heavy with thunderclouds or the sea, steadily rising as the tide came in.  

By the time we felt the first drops of rain we were, it seemed, stranded. 

We looked around us.  The sea was hungrily licking at the rocks below, eyeing us with malicious intent.   Above, the sky looked as if it was about to unleash a downpour of biblical magnitude.  The beach had disappeared under the rushing sea. Climbing down was pointless.   Climbing up would be treacherous – the sheer slate cliff face would be impossible to climb without falling.  Our only option was to go sideways creeping over the boulders for as far as they would take us and then call for help.

‘Bugsy we need to move: we can’t stay here, we have to climb around and see if we can get help,’ I said trying to sound calm.

‘Oh Jesus forgive me!’ cried Bugsy, tears brimming in his eyes.

‘What?’

‘This is my fault. I thought those things about uncle Wilf and his pigeons when we ran past the church!  He heard me! God heard me and now he’s going to kill us both.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!’

‘No, it’s not that, Bugsy.  Don’t be silly!  Children are innocent…I think.’  I said as I struggled to find appeasement – I also had my suspicions that my brother’s loose thoughts had been picked up by God’s big flappy ears. 

‘All we gotta do is promise God that we will be good from now on, that we will not steal anything ever again and that we will go to church every Sunday,’ said I, matter-of-factly.

 ‘Do you think that will work?’ asked Bugsy beginning to quiver.

‘Well, we gotta mean it!  He knows when you are lying.  Obviously.’

‘Ok, let’s do it right now!’ begged Bugsy desperately.  But, ever the pragmatist I hesitated,

‘No, no.  Not yet, in case we don’t NEED to.  If we don’t need to make promises like that we won’t.  Let’s just see how we get on … If we really, really get into trouble then that’s when we call on God…  Ok?’ 

‘OK,’ agreed Bugsy reluctantly, ‘but we better not leave it to long.’ 

The rain came down suddenly, it went from occasional drops – mere scouts – to the whole infantry in a moment. The rain was intensified by an equally sudden wind and it lashed our naked torsos like pellets from a shotgun. The boulders which had offered a good grip until now became slimy underfoot and more treacherous with every step we made. Slowly through the howling of the wind, the near blinding rain, we edged ourselves along the boulders towards the part of the cove we had arrived at. It proved to be a challenging feet made only more nerve-racking when the first thunderclap exploded overhead.

‘Now!’ screamed my brother from behind me. ‘Do it now!’

‘No!’ I yelled back.  ‘It’s just thunder.  Keep going …  And don’t make any deals with God without me…OK?’

‘Well what about Jesus?’  Bugsy was desperate.

‘No, not Jesus either!’ I shouted back over my shoulder.

Lightning flashed overhead and we both gave out a yelp of surprise and quickly crouched down for shelter behind a rock.

‘Mary? Joseph? Noah? Mosses?’ suggested Bugsy.

‘No, they don’t have the authority.  Otherwise I’d risk it,’ I earnestly replied.

‘Muhammad, Buda, Shiva?’

‘We’re not under their jurisdiction Bugsy. I mean you can try but my bet is that those lot won’t want to step into a domestic dispute.’  I stood up, leaning into the lashing rain and peered towards the footpath.

‘What can you see ahead?’ called Bugsy.

‘Lights!  Maybe car lights.  Could be a rescue team!’

‘That means we must be near the car park by the cafe,’ said Bugsy as he stood up beside me.

‘Nearly home then!’ I said optimistically as much for my sake as for Bugsy’s.

Bugsy suddenly gave out a sudden cry and slipped out of sight.  I doubled back frantically shouting out his name and glancing down at the frothing hungry sea.   Had the sea eaten my brother?  Frantically, I yelled his name to the wind and tide.

Floating up through the raging storm, he answered, seemingly from directly beneath me.

‘Bugsy! Where are you?  Bugsy!’ I shouted, scanning the boulders for a sign of him.

‘Down here, in a cave!’ he answered.

‘Where? You hurt’?

‘No, but I’m up to my waist in sea water already.’

I dropped to my knees, looking for an opening in the boulders.

‘Keep talking Bugsy, so I can find you.’

‘Can I sing?’

‘Yes.’

‘What about a prayer? I think this is a good time to make that promise.’

‘No!  Don’t do that!’  I shouted, ‘Wait until it’s really bad.’  So Bugsy began singing,

“There were fleas, fleas, fleas with hairy knees in the store, in the store…”

I followed the sound of Bugsy’s campfire song until, at last I found him.  There he was, wedged below me in a space between two boulders. 

‘Bugsy up here!’ I shouted.

‘“There were rats, rats, rats the size of cats… Yeah! I can see you too!’ he shouted, relieved.  ‘Can you reach in and grab hold of my hand?’

I tried but he was just out of my reach. 

‘Christ!’ I said in frustration.

‘You want to talk to him now?’ asked Bugsy optimistically.

‘No, not yet, save it for when things are really, really bad; when we have no other options left.  If we rush into making a whole bunch of promises prematurely we will regret it for the rest of our lives,’ I said, searching for an idea.

‘Well the rest of our lives might not be that long.’ 

‘Take off your belt and throw it up,’ I said.

‘Good idea, Tonto.’

I took off my snake belt and hooked it to Sean’s then lowered it back down the crevice.  He grabbed hold of his end and I pulled with all my might until, flopping like a landed fish, Bugsy slumped onto the rock before me.

‘OK?” I asked.

‘OK,’ he confirmed breathlessly.

We both stood up shakily, ready to face the last stretch of the treacherous climb over the boulders, edging closer to the lights and the car park. 

‘Hey there! Is that you boys?’  My father’s familiar voice reached us above the noise of the storm.

‘YES!’  we hollered in unison.

In the back of the car going back up the hill we passed the churchyard.

We looked at each other and held our breath – and our thoughts.

‘That was a close one,’ said Bugsy quietly as we drove on.

‘Yeah, too close,’ I whispered.  ‘We nearly ended up having to go to church every Sunday for the rest of our lives.’

‘Yeah. I think God was feeling lenient today,’ said Bugsy staring out at the lashing rain, ‘This is where he spends his holidays after all.’ 

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Bicycle Race

 

A bird flying overhead, should it take the time to consider the lay of the land below, would see a grid made up of streets and back alleys. Between each street and its respective alleyway are red brick houses lined up in perfect rows. The higher the bird flies the more the pattern is replicated until, that is, the houses meet the railway line in the north for which they had been built and the allotments to the south.

In the centre of that grid, in one of the back alleys, a gathering of young boys would be seen, each astride his bicycle.

The bird, had it given the scene a second thought, may have wondered what they were up to. He may have, given the time of day, been curious as to why these notoriously late risers were up so early. Had the bird been lacking in any other gainful pursuit he may have flown down to make a closer inspection. I can’t tell you whether or not there was such a bird, though we can’t rule it out, but I can tell you what he would have witnessed.

The summer of ’76 was long and hot. None of the boys, with the exception of Darren, had slept well at all. Darren, were he allowed to, would sleep all the time; he slept in class, he slept on the playing fields while the other kids ran enthusiastically after a ball.

For Darren, to even be there at that time on a holiday was a miracle. The fact that he had entered himself into the race as a competitor was nothing short of a cosmic shift in the space-time continuum. Darren was the kid the others had to wait for – to either turn up or to catch up: a lethargic, sloth-like dawdler of the first order. Despite his tardiness and his lack of enthusiasm when it came to anything physical, including actually being awake, he was, at least, knowledgeable on many matters. How and when he gained this knowledge was a topic of constant debate among the others. After all, as Clifford was wont to point out, Darren slept though most classes and when he wasn’t in class he rested. Some speculated that his knowledge was gained though osmosis and he didn’t actually need to be ‘there’ for the process to work. Others, like me, thought that Darren only played the part of harmless, sleepy, devil-may-care genius, and in fact (although I hadn’t thought it through completely), he was a spy of some sort.

My younger brother and I were training to be spies ourselves when we weren’t living the life of heroic, misunderstood, transient kung-foo experts. So we knew a thing or two about espionage, cloak and dagger politics: the dark arts. The first thing you need to know about the spy game is, quiet simply, ‘Tell no one you are a spy’. Once you can tether the burning desire to inform everyone of your new career, you must furnish yourself with the basic equipment. This includes such staples as a set of binoculars, a magnifying glass, notebook with invisible ink, a selection of disguises and a briefcase in which to keep it all safely. Most importantly, to be a spy one needed to have defence strategies in case of detection from other spies or the spied upon. Our arsenal, to date, included ball bearings, itching powder, lemon juice (it had more than one use), a catapult and our aforementioned kung-foo skills. Once fully equipped it only remained to find somebody or somebodies on which to practice our craft but despite several abortive attempts on neighbours, we had not, as yet, found a really worthy candidate.

The heat of the night and the anticipation of the following day’s big race had combined to make sleep elusive. The boys amused themselves during their sleepless hours by playing tricks, mostly on younger siblings. Mike had admitted to telling his younger sister, Julia, ghost stories in a brutal attempt to make Julia pee herself but only succeeded in sending her to sleep, and scaring the b’Jesus out of himself. We, I think, had all been in his situation but would never admit to it and his honesty only brought him unsympathetic mocking.

There had been one camping trip organised by Peter’s parents earlier that summer where we boys and some of the girls had gathered with torches in the woods at night with the sole intention of scaring each other half to death. The operation came close to achieving its objective. Once safely entombed in our sleeping bags thoughts of vampires, werewolves and murderous, soul eating zombies scattered the night air, so much so that every sniff and snivel of one frightened child gave fuel to the fears of others.

As we boys, Peter, Clifford, Darren, Mike, his younger brother Stevie, my brother Bugsy and I chewed over our morning topics the girls came out of their various hiding places and surrounded us, intrigued.

The girls were made up of sisters and neighbours, ranging in age from five to twelve.

‘What’s you doing?’ asked Lisa, Clifford’s older sister and ringleader of this motley crew.

‘Bike race,’ we said in unison with disdain and wariness in equal measure.

The bike race had been discussed and planned for weeks, the girls had been present during these discussions but only by the strength of their combined will rather than by invitation. We had wrongly assumed that they would show an interest in competing and had, rather cleverly, devised a counter plan. They would insist on taking part, we would agree and then on the day of the big event, to foil their involvement, we’d switch location. But we’d misjudged them: from the beginning they’d demonstrated a singular lack of interest in participating whilst irritatingly managing to constantly interfere in our planning. Now the day had arrived and here they were, acting as though they had no idea what was afoot!

‘You gonna use the alley?’ asked Lisa.

‘Yes, we are; it was planned weeks ago. You were there, weren’t you?’

‘No, first we heard of it,’ said Lisa belligerently looking at her crew.

This was a typical scenario, one we had all lived through many times before and yet, each time, we responded like novices.

‘You can’t play in the alley today, less you want to get run over,’ said Clifford, his hackles on the rise.

‘Yes we can! And you will have to take your silly race some place else, won’t you?’ retorted Lisa taking a step closer to her brother.

Clifford flinched. I suspected he wasn’t yet confident enough to win a fight with his older sister. Luckily, Peter took up the debate. Peter was the peacemaker in the group, the son of a Methodist preacher, and from an early age his father had groomed him in diplomacy. Peter was also the one boy from whom Lisa would take council, probably due to his good looks and killer smile.

‘Lisa, here’s our route,’ said Peter producing the map he had painstakingly drawn. ‘We intend to leave here in…’ he looked at his watch. ‘…about ten minutes time. We’ll snake in and out of these alleyways and side roads until we reach the allotments, then we turn around and make our way back here via the rec. With all best intentions even the fastest amongst us won’t be back here for, let’s say forty minutes. Once here, we refuel, drink water to rehydrate and take off again. So, basically, use the alley by all means but just make sure that when you see one of us returning you keep the younger ones out of the way. We were also thinking that, if you want, you can give the prize to the winner?’

‘What prize?’ asked Lisa melting under the influence of Peter’s dazzling smile.

‘Well that’s the problem, you see. We neglected to make one; couldn’t decide on anything.’

Lisa hesitated, ‘Well I could make you something,’ she volunteered.

‘What a great idea! Yes please,’ enthused Peter. ‘I think you would make something any of us would love to win.’
The Minister’s son had done it again. He’d only been with us for a year but had proved himself to be a great asset. He possessed wisdom beyond his years and a sly cunning that mesmerised us all: almost as if he were the Devil himself!

At that age, in those times, religion was an unquestioned truth. Nobody doubted the existence of God, the surety of Heaven, the existence of hell. All the muddled mythology, its characters, its monsters, its threats and promises swam alongside ghosts and vampires in one confusing, terrifying soup. Whether to go to church or not on a Sunday was not the question. Rather the question was, which church did you go to? Most of us, with the exception of Darren, went to the Methodist church where Peter’s father preached. Darren, apparently, was a ‘Catholic’ whatever that was; to us it made Darren ‘different’, unfathomable, an exotic amongst the mainstream faithful.

On Sundays, we Methodist kids would be gathered together in a little flock at the back of the church to listen to the obligatory twenty minute sermon; time enough to feel the full weight of boredom settle upon our young shoulders. After Peter’s father (whose title was simply ‘Mr.’ in and out of church), had droned on about the ‘good book’ and ‘’Ethiopia’ we were herded out in single file by the Sunday school teachers and led to a room put aside for our continued indoctrination.

Sunday school was marginally less boring than church. Even so, it took me years to realise that the incredible sense of elation I felt on getting out of the building was not the result of having God’s love descend upon me, so much as the utter relief of knowing that it was all over for another week.

Outside, we would make our way to the newsagent (the only shop allowed to open on a Sunday morning because of archaic Christian trading laws), and, without so much as a second thought for the poor starving kids in Ethiopia, spent our collection money on half penny sweets.

Once Peter had ironed out the Lisa shaped crease in our day, we boys went about inspecting our bikes. This was all for show of course. With the possible exception of Darren the narcoleptic spy boy, most of us had been tinkering well into the night; oiling, pumping, cleaning and tightening various nuts and bolts. Darren’s bike was a sight to behold: he out of all of us (and beyond) was the only kid to have a new bike.

The rest of us had secondhand or hand-me-down bikes that had been cannibalised, adapted and modified out of recognition. Darren’s bike was new in the sense that it had never been used, rather than recently bought: it looked like a king amongst peasants. Its gleaming paintwork, its alloy wheels sparkling in the early morning sun, the padded (no doubt comfortable) seat, gave it the air of a superior being from another planet…. or, I speculated, payment from the spy agency for some dastardly deed he’d committed.

The farce of inspection finally over, we took our places at the starting point, a line drawn in the dust, and waited for the signal to go. The plan was simple: the winner was the first one to complete three laps of the circuit.

‘Good luck!’ said Lisa, more to Peter than anyone else as she raised a red tea towel borrowed from her mother’s kitchen and dropped it with all the coquetry available to her at that time.

I gave one quick glance over my shoulder to see the girls disappearing behind a cloud of dust and emerging from within that dust cloud, like a knight on his shimmering steed, came Sir Darren the Sleepy. He had, in fact been dozing during the lengthy preamble and only woke as we took off from the starting line.

Now, should that observant bird hovering overhead get weary of children’s games and decide to fly off somewhere else, he might not miss a great deal… unless, that is, he had a wager on one of the riders to win, in which case he’d be a fool not to follow their progress. But, let’s assume that the bird took off (had he been there at all), and settled on the sill of Mr. Bodmin’s bedroom window and glared in.

 

If you can imagine the antithesis of childhood, the direct opposite of what it is to be a child with all it’s magic, it’s wonder, it’s delight in being alive, then you can picture Mr. Bodmin. Mr. Bodmin had had all his wonder and delight drained from him by life itself.

Through the bedroom window, beyond the gap in the tattered old curtain, the keen eyes of the bird would see the old man sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed as if going to church (although he never did), with his head buried in his hands.

Mr. Bodmin was a man that prized his vegetable plot over everything, including people, and especially the troublesome neighbourhood boys. Our only interaction with Mr. Bodmin up until then had been the not so rare occasions when a ball went over his garden fence. If he was in his vegetable plot, which was often the case, his head would appear over the fence, a brutal snarl spread across his face as he raised his pitch fork with the lost ball sagging limp and lifeless over one of its teeth.

‘Lost something?’ he’d sneer.

Now, on this, his last day, he had nothing left to live for. His garden had wilted and collapsed in the heat. ‘A drought’ they called it on the TV. There had been water bans followed by standpipes from which the council eked out water sparingly into our buckets. We had enough to drink and take a bath once a week but not to waste on lawns and prize marrows.

For Mr. Bodmin, the very purpose of his life had been eroded as the drought slowly took hold. From ambitious beginnings in the spring, through the promise of early summer he’d been optimistic of a bumper harvest. But by July his optimism had been drained as surely as the hosepipe until now, not a drop of hope remained. He, like his garden, had nothing left to give. From the sill the bird peers in and watches Mr. Bodmin carefully and painstakingly making a noose from the rope he’d bought to tie back his tomato plants; plants that had all preceded him to the grave.

 

Oblivious to Mr. Bodmin and his plight, the cycle race wore on. One by one, boys’ resolve faded and ambition waned. Predictably, the younger competitors dropped out first, fell off or simply found something better to do.

Mr. Bodmin made his preparations.

By the time of the final lap only Peter and I remained in the race and it was turning out to be a battle of wills.

Sheer determination drove me on now. Close to victory, I could only hope that Peter flagged. We were neck and neck, my throat was dry, sweat poured off my brow blurring my vision and my calves protested with every downward push on the pedals. Suddenly, as we grew ever closer to the finish line I felt a rush of joy surging through my youthful veins and I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry out – to shout like a warrior going into battle. Never had I pushed so hard, never had I been so hell-bent on winning, so focused on the goal and yet so in the moment. This, I decided, was where true happiness lay – here, in the right now!

As Peter and I turned into the alleyway for the last time, heading side by side for the finishing line, Mr. Bodmin reached up for the noose. Perhaps he felt, as I did, that right now was all that mattered and right now was all he had? His moment, like mine, would bring an end to suffering, and perhaps like me, he was elated by that prospect?

I beat Peter by a nose, much to Lisa’s obvious disappointment. As Lisa graciously hung her homemade medal over my neck, Mr. Bodmin kicked away the stool.

When I look back on that day, I see it differently now. Although I had no idea at that time, the concluding moments of our race coincided with the concluding moments of Mr. Bodmin’s life. As I gave one last push down on the pedal to cross the finish line, Mr. Bodmin twitched and kicked in his death throes.

What I see now is my sweaty young self, full of life, elated with the taste of victory in my mouth and, by contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, I picture a defeated Mr. Bodmin, his life wrung out, his body limply swaying from a homemade noose, his trousers darkening as his bladder empties onto the threadbare carpet below. The release of his soul coincided with the release of my spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mud…for Jean.

058 2

Mud

Within the faux oak panelled walls of the funeral director’s inner sanctum, Adele could hear the faint sound of weeping. This place, she thought, was a terminus for grief; journey’s end. For many it was where they got off, having made the long trek from apprehending a loss to the enforced acceptance of that loss. For some, it signalled release; a cathartic moment, the realisation that life goes on and that broken hearts can mend. But her journey was not this journey.
Her journey had barely left the station. The shuffling and the stifled sobs of mourners adorned in black today were not from those grieving for her husband; those mourners had been and gone, that was yesterday; they had come out of respect or love or to be supportive or to be nosey but now they were back in their own lives grateful not to have to carry the burden of grief any longer.

‘Yes well, normally people choose one of our urns you see, something dignified, tasteful to … erm… store the remains in,’ said the undertaker.

‘Will this biscuit tin do, do you think?’ asked Adele innocently.

‘Well its a little unorthodox but yes – it will suffice in practicality where it lacks in erm …shall we say, elegance?’

‘I think it’s very elegant,’ said Adele stiffly, inwardly agreeing with the funeral director. She didn’t like his pompous manner and nor would John have. She had no intention of hanging onto the ashes any longer than need be and, therefor, saw no reason to spend money on a fancy container.

The official placed John’s remains, already in a plastic bag, in the biscuit tin with as much reverence as he could muster and closed the lid.

‘Once again I’d like to extend my condolences to you and your family and thank you for choosing Cuthbert, Cuthbert and Young.’

‘And which one are you?’ asked Adele clutching her biscuit tin to her breast.

‘Cuthbert, Madam.’

‘Of course, well thank you for everything you’ve done … and I’ll be sure to recommend you.’

‘Thank you, we try to do our best and with the upmost discretion.’

Adele left the crematorium and drove, taking the back roads home, winding through country lanes, past cosy cottages where, she imagined, lovers were having the life now denied her. Eventually she stopped at a pub and pulled up outside. She had been here before with John an eternity ago.
Since John’s death ten days ago, every moment seemed like an eternity; a gaping hollow eternity. Like a dissipating dream, cherished moments of the past fluttered silently away and her future turned to dust, sifting through her fingers. She felt abandoned, numb, directionless.

The pub was quiet. Polished brasses and tankards hung from dark beams and an open fire was crackling and spitting out its welcome. Adele ordered a glass of red wine and placed it next to the biscuit tin on the table near the fire. She sat down and gazed blindly at the flames licking hungrily at the half eaten logs. Not the same flames but a relative, an older brother or fierce uncle had consumed her husband, had returned him to ash, and now left her with the problem of what to do with those ashes exactly?

John had grown up locally, but hated it here: too many bad memories, too much bad blood. So they had been making plans to move, to start a new life somewhere else but couldn’t decide where that new life should be. They were also planning to have a family but there was no hurry; they were young and had plenty of time. Best get all their ducks in a row first.
No, there was no justice, no such thing as fair.

John argued that life was exciting exactly because there was no ‘right time’ to die. You could die at any time; you simply didn’t know when that would be. He liked to live on the edge, enjoy every moment and do crazy, potentially dangerous things like racing motorbikes. She could, she thought, scatter some ashes at the racetrack if it weren’t for the fact that the idea of returning there filled her with dread and sorrow to deep to bear.

Adele sipped her wine, sensed its warmth first then its intoxication. She hadn’t eaten for days and so, she deduced, a single glass of Merlot would put her over the limit. ‘Fuck it’ she whispered to the fire and took a bigger sip, more of a swig this time.

No, she thought, there was only one place to scatter his ashes (save a pinch she intended to keep and have set in a ring), and that was Ink-pen Long Barrow. Certainly macabre enough in essence but in truth is was a startlingly beautiful place with majestic views over Berkshire, Wilshire and Hampshire. On top Long Barrow stood a gibbet; a replica of the original gibbet built to hang two lovers condemned of murdering the spouse of one and the children of another. It was on top of this hill, under the gibbet, in typical John style, that he knelt down and proposed marriage.
‘Yes,’ Adele murmured pensively to the fire, as if it was the fire to whom she owed the inspiration, ‘The perfect spot for a scattering.’

Once the wine was drained from its glass Adele gathered her husband’s remains and drove home. By the time she got home it was two in the afternoon. More letters of condolence lay on the doormat and the answer machine bleeped with unread massages from well wishers and worriers in equal measure. Then the phone began its ominous trill and Adele decided that she could not bear to stay here a moment longer. She rushed upstairs and found her wedding dress: a simple, cream coloured, cocktail dress with some decorative beading. She hadn’t seen the point of buying a dress that would never be worn again. She hadn’t anticipated this occasion.
Adele slipped into the dress, put on her Doc Martins, grabbed a banana and a bottle of unfinished wine from the kitchen and headed back out to the car. Curtains twitched nosily from across the street, which would, in turn, set the tongues of bored housewives wagging no doubt. Adele didn’t care. With her biscuit tin and her supplies she reversed out of the drive and headed for the long barrow.

It was autumn, mid October, and the leaves on the trees had turned to yellow and rust. Those that had fallen, those that had died, lay like a carpet on the road. A wind picked up as she drove: more leaves fell, floating weightlessly in the air, blown this way and that in an intricate dance before joining the others on the ground. The wind brought dark clouds, laden with rain that hovered, poised for attack like an invading Armada. Adele drove on absently. Her thoughts were mainly of the past, the present too unbearable to contemplate and the future inconceivable. In her mind, she revisited the haven of their love; that secluded, intimate cocoon only they had access to and, although she found comfort there, surrounded by their memories, his absence now was like a dagger in her heart. Her stomach knotted.

His absence felt like a betrayal: all those promises, sealed with kisses deep and warm, were gone, never to be realised, never to be given life and like the leaves on the trees they would fall away and eventually rot.

By the time Adele reached the small parking area near the gibbet the rain had begun to fall. She parked and watched the last of the hardy ramblers make their way home. Back to their warm homes and hot showers, back to friends and loved ones full of buoyant accounts of the day. Back to less painful futures than hers, or so she imagined, for there was not a more wretched soul alive.

Adele took a long swig from the bottle of wine. She was tired, exhausted, having slept fitfully and eaten next to nothing for days. Never had her life looked more bleak than this. Outside, the night came in early, the clouds blocked out the setting sun and driving rain came down hard and relentless. She fell asleep.

She was woken by the thunderous noise of rain on the roof of the car. Groggy from sleep and wine, Adele drained the bottle with a thirst that could never be quenched. Grabbing the tin containing John’s ashes, she stepped out into the night. The path leading to the gibbet was sodden and muddy under foot and made muddier with each step. By the time she had covered the short distance from the car to the ghoulish monument her boots were heavy with brown cloggy mud.

At the base of the gibbet Adele stopped and gazed up at the wooden construction through the bars of falling rain. Two lovers, two lovers that could never be together in life, were hung from these monstrous gallows in death. He was married and she widowed: together they plotted to kill his wife so that they could be together. Passion drove them to a murderous end, brought them to the edge of sanity. Adele too was at the limits of her sanity and would do literally anything to wind back the clock. To be back in her husbands arms, to continue on their journey with no knowledge of this living hell, was worth any price. Whatever or whoever plotted out our lives had made some grievous mistake, she thought. Fate had messed up somehow and just needed to unpick the weave and reset because obviously it wasn’t meant to go like this, there should be no loose ends, and that’s what Adele thought she was, a loose end.

Through the fog of rain and low cloud Adele could make out twinkling lights burning like beacons below, amber jewels in the night: isolated farm or cottage windows lit with congenial warmth. Inside, she imagined laughing children, a dog curled up by the fire, dad winking at mum, mum laughing gaily as she beheld her good fortune.

To Adele, this all seemed so foreign now – a country she could never visit. All these people, all these lives were outside her existence, beyond her grasp. A door had been closed: she would always be on the outside, isolated, staring in through the windows, with no hope of ever entering.

She was alone on a journey she had not planned for, not foreseen?

‘Why?’ she cried but her cry was swallowed up by the night.
‘Why?’ She screamed and still no answer came.
‘Come on, show yourself. Tell me why? Why?’ She fell to her knees, pulling at her hair in frustration, sobs rose up from deep in the earth, below the mud and dirt, below the burrow, from the core of the earth. Tears born from sorrow were cradled by the rain and washed away to join other sorrows spilt from long-dead, long-forgotten eyes. She clawed at the lid of the biscuit tin, ripped open the bag and tipped out her husband’s ashes, spreading them into the mud. Adele was angry now, white hot rage blinded her as she pounded the ground with her fist, pummelling the ash with the dirt until, finally, the rage burnt out and fatigue claimed her. With nothing left, her energies spent, her hopes and dreams reduced to clay she wallowed in her misery muttering, ‘Why?’ and, ‘Sorry!’ and, ‘I love you!’ Her face in the mud, her wedding dress sopping and spoiled Adele lay sobbing quietly until sleep arrived and calmly held her head in its lap, stroking, soothing, singing songs from the cradle.

She felt strong arms, trusting, loving arms scoop her up out of the mud and carry her through the night. Whenever she looked up she could only make out a glint of light, like a star shinning bright in the night sky. Whenever she reached out to touch the arms that bore her or the face that looked down upon her she felt only wet, viscous mud. Even so she felt herself being carried, she felt the determined steps of her porter as he manoeuvred the rocky, slippery slope of the barrow. Beneath them lay the buried corpses of long dead ancestors, quietly waiting for deliverance, to be granted access to a now forgotten afterlife. There they lay, undisturbed but not without their influence; she felt them reaching up from the depths, bony hands guiding her saviour’s every step until, at last he found solid ground.
‘John?’ she whispered. The rain had stopped, the wind dropped and the night was still.

Adele awoke. It was morning. She stretched and felt the clean cotton sheets on her skin. For a second, a waking moment, she knew nothing other than the pleasure of waking in her own bed. Her memories were bottlenecked, each one vying to be first through the gate.
The moment of blissful ignorance passed. She remembered John then recalled the night. She sat up, threw back the bedding and saw that she was clean: no mud, no dirt between her toes, or under her nails. Adele hurried out of bed and stood before the mirror, she’d been cleaned. She ran to the bathroom. Spotlessly clean! No dirty towels, clothes or boots. Through the window she saw her clean car sitting on the driveway. Had it all been a dream then? Had she never driven to the burrow after all? Maybe she got home from the pub, drank a bottle of wine and fell asleep?

She dressed, made coffee and felt hungry for the first time in ages. She searched the bare cupboards for food. Eating dry cereal from the box, and drinking black coffee she felt almost normal, and certainly better than she had since John had died. What the hell had happened?
She’d already searched the car for the tin of cremains, but it was gone. And she’d discovered her wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe upstairs: clean! Puzzled, she reached into the box for another handful of cereal and felt something in the bottom of the box, one of those toys maybe? She pulled out a silver ring! Set in a stone of blue she could see tiny fragments of ash.
‘John,’ she whispered.

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The Spectrum of incredulity. Part two. Maya.

Maya

‘What happened?’ Maya asked, groggily through a misty veil of uncertainty.
Everything was behind her. She’d been pulled along by distant tides, bobbing on the waves, helpless, too tired to fight the inevitable pull. She saw her memories disappear, like jewels, glittering on the vanishing horizon. Faded memories turned to dust with nothing to nurture but a sense of loss. She wanted to hold tight to the loss, painful as it was, it was the only souvenir she had. The loss was significant, a marker in the sand, a means to help find her way back. The loss had a name and it was ‘Peter’ and if nothing else had ever been real or meaningful in her life she knew that this loss was real, was meaningful. She would find her way back, somehow, but for now she had to adapt to a new ebb and flow. A new reality awaited her, another story was about to unfold and she arrived like a newborn child into the world with nothing; no past, no hopes or dreams only her loss.

‘Well…’ began the woman answering Maya’s question while fussing over the blinds in the room,
‘You had another one of your turns girl. You was sitting in this old chair by the window, looking out into the garden… I say ‘looking’ – your eyes is open but I’m not sure you is seeing anything, least not what’s outta that window. The marching band from my church just down the road make a real noise when they get going and, when the spirit of Jesus is on them, they could bring down the walls of Jericho! But you girl…? You wouldn’t have noticed if they had come marching right in through that door.’

Maya looked toward the open door, even though the binding straps had been loosened her movement remained restrained. She could see a white corridor: someone shuffled past in slippers and a gown followed by two burly men in orderly uniforms.
‘Hospital,’ Maya thought to herself.

‘That’s how ‘not here’ you get sometimes,’ said the women trying to find something else in need of a fuss. She couldn’t find anything; the room was sparsely furnished and regular cleaned. So, rather than have idle hands, she went through the contents of her handbag as if she were looking for something.

She continued, ‘But we are used to you going off to wherever you go, in your head like that; it’s calm and its quiet and it doesn’t bother any of us.’

Maya looked at the chair by the window and tried to picture herself sitting in it. The old chair looked cosy, looked like the sort of chair one could get used to. The kind of chair one could comfortably sit in and ponder for hours. A chair like that was a kind of portal. You sat in it, you opened your mind and off you went. Beyond this room, beyond the hospital building into the town and beyond: beyond this world and it’s myriad stars, its myriad notions, of accepted truths, its lies, its narrow knowledge, and onto new places, new vistas, new visions and new possibilities.

The woman continued as she dug deeper into her handbag, mining for humbugs, ‘…Only sometimes you get what I call ‘possessed’ you know? Like the Devil himself is in you!’

The woman gave Maya a sideways glance.

‘Possessed,’ said Maya, more as an affirmation than a question. She was open to all potentialities. She lay quietly considering this possibility, ‘Maybe I am possessed as this woman suggests? Maybe we all are? After all, how much control do any of us really have over our actions? I’d like to believe that I am master of my own destiny but how much of that is true? How conditioned am I to believe I have free will? If we factor in inherited behaviour, whether it is genetic or environmental, inherited attitudes and beliefs, even memes, then what’s really left of ‘me’? If I’m really not in charge of myself then it’s arguably true that I am indeed possessed, if only by what’s gone before!

The woman, from the depths of her handbag, said hastily but quietly, ‘We ain’t allowed to call it ‘possession’ in here. The doctors won’t stand for it; they is people of science and blinded by their faith in it. They have other explanations for your ‘condition’ and I’m sure they’ll soon be telling you all about it girl.’ The woman leaned in close to Maya and lowered her voice, conspiratorially, ‘Now you listen to me girl. Last night I sat by your bed all night and prayed for your soul! But the doctor…? All the doctor did was stick another needle in you and disappeared again! You hear what I’m trying to say?’

Maya felt a pang of resentment, and wasn’t sure if it was because someone had prayed for her or because someone had stuck a needle in her.

‘Are you my nurse?’ Maya asked.

‘Heaven’s child, no. I’m your carer, I volunteer to come and sit with you: to pray for you and to …’ her sentence trailed off. ‘It’s all thanks to Pastor Joseph Henry at my church just down the road. He said God wants us to not only pray for the sick but help them too; he’s revolutionary like that! Praying is good: praying is the only way to redemption but I have to agree with Pastor Joseph Henry. We gotta act too! He’s a smart man and more pious then Moses. God Almighty speaks through him! I have to say to myself, “Who am I but a lowly sinner to disagree with a man like that?”’

Maya now thought that it was the praying for her that she resented more than the needle.

‘Anyhow… as I was saying before… You had one of your turns.’
‘Turns?’ Maya was puzzled, ‘What do you mean… one of my turns? I don’t remember anything!’
‘Well girl…’ the woman replied, ‘First you start to shake, like from a shiver, like someone has just walked over your grave but then it gets worse until you’re having a full-blown electrocution type shake! Your eyes roll up into your head so we can only see the whites and then, this is where it gets really scary, you start talking in a strange, diabolical language! It’s a lot of babbling, a nonsense jibber jabbering but it all means something – something to you anyway. I can see in your face that it means something but it’s like we’re only hearing one side of a conversation. It gives me the heebie-jeebies! I ain’t no coward girl but I don’t want to listen: I just want to cover my ears in case I get possessed too, but I can’t because by then, the room is full of people yelling instructions and I’m sent here to help: Pastor Joseph Henry asked it of me.’

‘I don’t remember anything, I don’t even know who I am or why I’m here.’ Maya lamented more to herself than to her carer.

‘It will come back to you,’ said a new voice.

Maya looked toward the open door and saw a small man in a white coat. The man smiled and walked to her bedside.

‘What’s your name?’ the man asked the carer.

‘Adaolisa, but everyone calls me Lisa. It’s easier thank you Doctor Watchfield,’ said Adaolisa.

‘Daughter of God?’ asked the doctor.

‘Well we are all God’s children doctor, ain’t that the truth? But after what happened to my older sister, my parents thought it best to brand me, case there was any confusion farther down the line.’

‘Well Lisa thank you for your time but you have been here all night and, as a doctor, I prescribe a rest.’

‘Yes doctor I was just waiting for someone to arrive; didn’t want to leave Maya on her own.’

‘Maya?’ said Maya.

‘That’s your name,’ replied Dr. Watchfield.

‘Maya,’ she repeated.

‘Goodbye Lisa,’

‘Goodbye doctor,’ said Lisa and promptly left the room.

‘Now,’ said the doctor, ‘the first thing is to remove these straps, no need to have you tied to the bed now. Makes us look like heartless overseers. The storm has passed – for now at least.’

‘What’s wrong with me doctor? Where am I? I don’t remember anything.’

‘Ah, well not remembering is normal: things usually come back. You just have to give it a few days. Take it easy, drink plenty of fluids, try to get some food in you,’ the doctor smiled.

Maya tried to smile but gave up half way through; it wasn’t sincere. If a smile starts off that way there seemed little point in seeing it through to the end. She concluded that this was just the sort of person she was.

‘That carer, Lisa. She means well, wants to help out, but if you are uncomfortable with her for any reason then let me know. I’ll have her reassigned.’

‘Yes,’ said Maya and added, ‘What did she mean about her older sister?’

‘Oh I think she was possibly referring to witchcraft,’ said the doctor.

‘Witchcraft?’

‘Yes, some people believe in witches: believe that the devil turns people, and increasingly children, into witches. Sadly, the children are persecuted, often beaten, burnt and tortured by their own parents. Some are abandoned and some are killed.’

‘You mean that the parents believe that their children are possessed by evil spirits they call witches?’

‘Yes, something like that. Often it’s a preacher or pastor who condemns the children … and nobody argues with them! After all, they are believed to have great power, a mystical knowledge passed down to them from God. The flock shows enormous reverence toward their spiritual leaders. Then the same preacher will magnanimously offer to rid the child of the witch… for fee of course.’

‘Do you believe in witchcraft, doctor?’

The doctor laughed softly, ‘No I don’t but more people these days are starting to. People need to point the finger at something for all the wrong in their lives. Governments are too remote, too far beyond the hinterlands of comprehension. Good and evil are concepts anyone can grasp; they help simplify things in a world in which everything is becoming increasingly complicated.
Look, most people are sensible – well, about half of them are. Witches and witchcraft are not officially recognised and it’s illegal to publicly accuse anyone of being a witch. It’s also illegal to extract money from anyone in order to relieve a person of possession and it’s illegal to perform any ritual meant to rid a person of an evil spirit, whether that be a witch, a wizard or anything else. All major churches have denounced the notion, although, secretly I fear, some are only toeing the line. Unfortunately, making it illegal or denouncing it is not enough: several people, children included, are found dumped on waste sites every day. They have been stigmatised, beaten, blamed and cast out by their own families.’

‘Lisa thinks I’m possessed!’ Maya said.

‘Does she now? Do you believe her?’

‘No. I might have forgotten who I am and where I am, but I feel as if I’m the sort of person who doesn’t believe in much at all. I’m not sure I believe that I am actually here! Is this just a dream? Are my words my own or do they flow from the nib of an author’s pen?
Am I an existentialist? No, probably not. Am I a nihilist then? No, probably not. Maybe I’m an absurdist, then? Everything does seem rather absurd doesn’t it doctor? I mean when you look at it from my perspective?

I have just entered this world for the first time. I have no prior knowledge of a life before, here or anywhere else. But I do have this nagging feeling that there is a ‘somewhere else’, somewhere. I just can’t remember where I put it! I wake up here, so I’m led to believe by your behaviour that this ‘here’, is the ‘here’ I belong to. It’s where I’m meant to be found, meant to be. Only of course I might not actually be here here but here someplace else… or nowhere at all. I might not be Maya! But… I know that I AM Maya. Somehow that’s the only thing that makes sense and when something makes sense, I tend to put my faith in that sense…’
The doctor looked at Maya. ‘Considering you were unconscious less than an hour ago, your observations on your own position are unusually cogent. But then again your are a remarkable patient Maya.’

Maya continued, barely stopping to breath as the thoughts, that came rushing in, jostled to get out.

‘Now where should I put my faith? Should I invest it in you? I mean, you might not even exist, right? You, rather than tell me who I am, tell me that it will all come back to me. Which could suggest that YOU don’t know who I am. This whole experience could be the dream within the dream scenario right? Or do I put my faith in God, or, just to be safe, the Gods? What of destiny? Am I the sort of person to rule out destiny? I think that depends on how one defines destiny. If by destiny we mean that God or some other supreme being is dictating our lives, then probably not but if we mean pre-determined by the laws of nature, causal determinism, then possibly! Oh but then I’d be the sort of person who believes I am just an automaton, a wind up toy with no will of my own. I’d be a would-be self-deceiver; there is no self! No I’m not that person, am I doctor?
Faith in me, myself and I, then? I’m the sort of person that is open to any possibility, an explorer, a traveller and a survivor. To have got this far I must have good instincts; I should trust my instincts. For example, I believe I am Maya. I believe I must find my way back to my ‘here’ of choice.
I think, if it’s me that’s thinking at all, then I’m an optimist.’

Maya stopped and looked at the doctor openly, not expecting a response.

‘Well I’m glad you have it all figured out Maya,’ said Doctor Watchfield patiently. ‘It’s true that no one knows where you came from, where your ‘here’ is exactly. But here is where you have been for the past two years. You were found back then, wandering the streets and suffering acute amnesia. Since that time we have come to recognise that you follow a pattern of recovery and then relapse, which has kept you here. During your remission periods, you begin to build a picture of who you are or might be. You do this in the same way that you have just demonstrated, through deduction and reasoning. Then you begin to remember things, events, people, places. But we believe that your memories are, at the very least, confused with delusions. Some may be true whilst others just … well delusions. Then when you are stronger, you pretend to play along with us, make out you are well on the way to recovery. But it’s a ruse; a deception intended to hoodwink us into a false sense of security, Maya. Once you have us fooled you try to escape. But your escape attempt is not a physical one – you don’t try to leave the hospital. Instead, you go into a state akin to a fit or, as Lisa puts it, a state of ‘possession’. It looks to us as though you are trying to get to another realm, some other dimension that you believe exists.’

Maya frowned. Was she the sort of person to believe in other dimensions?

‘No need to worry now. You need rest. Plenty of time to work on your recovery. Don’t worry, we will fix you Maya,’ said the doctor as he left the room.

‘I’m the sort of person that needs to be fixed,’ whispered Maya to herself.

‘No, I am not that person!’ said her instinct.

 

Lisa walked out of the hospital grounds and made her way toward the church. Sometimes in life you just had to make things happen. She knew that her opinion would be met with disdain, even mockery but she was certain that hers was the only way. She was sorely tempted to say nothing at all, to carry on as if nothing had happened but she couldn’t, not with all this righteousness just bursting to get out. Did Jesus give up at the first hurdle? No he did not. Jesus, hungry, isolated and in the company of Lucifer himself did not yield to temptation and nor would Lisa. She stopped outside the church and looked up at the crucifix. ‘God give me strength,’ she muttered and went in through the doors.

 

Peter woke with a start. He heard a crash at the front door and something dropped to the floor from the letterbox. He was back! What the hell had happened? He remembered being on the spaceship, talking to Maya, her declaration of love and then…he, she, everything sort of vanished.
He’d woken up from a dream, nothing more. A vivid, somewhat incredible dream with a beautiful woman, some aliens and a ragged old chair that was supposed to be some sort of portal. It was quite a dream though, especially the bits with Maya in it. Well at least now he was sure, it was only a dream, probably brought on by stress and junk food. Peter stood up and stared at the chair. The other pieces of furniture in the room looked at him, pensively.

Over by the front door Peter picked the flyer up from the doormat. It read, ‘Bring your unwanted furniture to the Good Samaritan church on Lacklustre Lane, Saturday 3rd. Your unwanted items can make a real difference to the poor and the needy.’

‘Right!’ said Peter striding back into the living room, ‘You lot are going to church.’

The coffee table cowered by the lamp and the bookcase groaned inwardly; he didn’t like change. The armchair knew everything, always had, it’d lived it all before. ‘Still,’ it thought, ‘be good to get out.’

 

Joseph Henry was a busy man, he had a healthy congregation and it was growing: God was back on the agenda and, as a minister, he himself was in high demand. For years people had spurned religion, demonstrated an active contempt for the word of God, but now, now belief was in the ascendance. . God tapped into the spiritual vacuum created by an ever-growing disenchantment with consumerism and its empty promises. In short, God is something people can believe in. God gives hope. God gives forgiveness. God gives holidays.

Joseph Henry’s faith was stronger now then ever before, it radiated from him and it was not only infectious but propagated optimism amongst the flock. Even so, when
Lisa walked into his office his own optimism waned just a notch. She was a well-meaning, active member of his church but, at times, her fire and brimstone could be exasperating, ‘Too God for God,’ he thought.

‘Lisa! What a pleasant surprise. How is it going at the hospital? Everything ok?’

Lisa took a deep breath, weighing up her options, she was convinced of her assessment of Maya right up to this moment but now, standing in front of the great man, she felt her resolve wane, quite a lot. But that was to be expected, she must not fall at the first hurdle, doubt was the Devil at work. There was nothing for it, she must say what she had to say and let the dice fall wherever they fell.

‘The patient is a witch,’ blurted Lisa.

‘Unpleasant?’ asked Joseph Henry.

‘No, I mean that she is possessed by Satan. She’s a REAL witch’

Joseph Henry groaned inwardly.
‘Now Lisa, you know that we left all that behind; it’s just superstition. And it’s dangerous! It will not do to talk of such things. We have an ever-growing, multi race congregation today and talk of witches will do nothing but cause suspicion and contempt. My goodness people would up and go someplace else, like the Baptists down the road. The Baptists are always looking for a way to recruit my members. If this kind of mumbo-jumbo got out, well, my followers would go there of their own accord.’

‘But reverend, I seen it with my own eyes! She’s got the Devil in her and if we don’t intervene then there will be hell to pay. God only knows what spells that witch is weaving. She could spell the end of me, she could spell the end of us all, but not before raining pain and despair down upon us!’

‘So what exactly do you expect me to do about it, Lisa?’

‘You got to exorcise her Pastor Joseph! Saint Peter himself said: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” That witch is going to devour me first: I can tell it, pastor!’

‘Yes, the Devil is a powerful force it’s true and you are correct: we must be forever watchful, but a witch? Come on, that’s just superstitious hocus-pocus gathering way too much credence. Lisa, many people, children even, have been condemned by unscrupulous, immoral men to boost their power and for monetary gain. People are beaten, burned, starved half to death, even abandoned by their families or killed because some fool says they are witches! I can’t be a part it Lisa. I have my reputation to consider,’ said Joseph Henry.

‘Just come and see her with your own eyes, is all I’m asking,’ pleaded Lisa. ‘Just come… and bring some of that holy water, just in case?’

Joseph Henry sighed, he had a busy day a head of him: people were already turning up with their unwanted items for the poor. He had to oversee the operation, get his volunteers organised, meet some of the more distinguished donors and talk to the reporter from the local paper.

‘Ok, ok,’ Joseph Henry relented, ‘if only to set your mind at rest. As it happens I have had some experience with this sort of thing. But, even though the Devil does, I admit, get through, it’s very rare, very rare indeed. It’s more likely that the poor women is deranged.’

‘Oh thank you Pastor!’ Lisa gushed.

‘What’s her name?’ he asked.

‘Her name is Maya,’ replied Lisa.

‘Maya?’ queried a voice from the door.

Both Joseph Henry and Lisa were caught off guard and turned nervously to face the voice.

‘Oh I’m sorry sir; I didn’t see you standing there. How can I help you this fine day?’ said Joseph Henry, hoping that the man had not been standing there long, or, if he had, that he was not the reporter from the Evening Echo.

Peter took a couple of steps closer to the Evangelist, ‘Yes, sorry to intrude. I have some old furniture for you. I needed to know where you wanted me to put it so I came looking. Then, as I found you, I heard this lady say the name Maya! It’s an unusual name. I, um, knew a women called Maya once but I … I lost her.’

‘You mean she’s dead?’ blurted Lisa.

‘No, no I don’t think so. Do you mind me asking, who is your Maya?’

Joseph Henry and Lisa looked at each other, eyes wide. Lisa’s eyes said, ‘What do I say?’

And Joseph Henry’s eyes said, ‘Don’t say she’s a witch.’ There was a long hesitation before Joseph Henry turned to Lisa,

‘Why don’t you explain? You know more about …Maya,’ he suggested.

Peter came closer, his heart racing at a thousand beats a minute. Despite his internal anxiety he stayed calm, interested but casual on the outside.

‘Well she’s a patient at the Princess Fiona hospital. I sit with her sometimes, mainly during the night,’ reported Lisa in her best, clipped, official voice.

‘Do you know anything else about her?’

‘No, nobody does, least of all her. The doctor said she was found wandering the streets with severe err forgetfulness.’

‘Well what does she look like? Is she, would you say, young, like me, about forty years old, slim build and of Indian extraction?’ asked Peter.

‘Yes I’d say so,’ said Lisa.

‘My goodness! Well, I wonder if it could be her? What are the chances? Can I visit her? I mean would that be allowed?’ said Peter.

Peter was beginning to feel more and more detached, as if he was looking down on this scene from a gallery up in the gods. There was his body, down on the stage, footlights blazing, acting in a play, lines rehearsed, delivery impeccable, so totally convincing that the other players were without suspicion. And yet his mind, his fluttering birdlike conscience hovered high above it all, barely aware now of his body’s actions, of the words that slipped from his mouth like polished pearls. Up here in the gods, Peter faced clambering mania in one corner and hope in the other. He had to quell them both, at least for now. He had to find out if Maya was alive. Then, even if he did find her, he had to figure out if she, or anything else, was real.

Reality had become, to him, a slippery fish; every time he tried to lay his hands on it, the fish slithered away, back into the murky, elusive waters of irresolution. He worked on the premise that everything that had happened to him before his divorce was real, whereas pretty much everything since was of a dubious nature, to say the least.
This morning he’d woken up in the armchair satisfied that all the recent, inexplicable occurrences in his life were (he didn’t want to use the word ‘crazy’) stress-related. They had been just dreams – fantastic, beautiful, breathless dreams. ‘Acceptance’ was textbook step one to recovery.
But now? Now he found himself actively chasing after those dreams!

‘I’m sure if you speak to the doctors they’d be interested in letting you see her. I mean nobody knows anything about her: you could maybe shed some light. And God knows we need some light right now.’

‘Hallelujah!’ said Joseph Henry.

‘Indeed,’ said Peter.

‘Oh…’ said Joseph Henry, ‘You can leave the furniture in the community hall and God bless you.’

‘Yes I will. Thank you both,’ replied Peter and left.

‘That was an unexpected development,’ said Joseph Henry, gaily.

‘Indeed,’ Lisa replied, not entirely without sarcasm.

Later that evening, Lisa returned to the church. She wanted to do her bit, help to sort out all the donated items ready for dispatch. The following day the items were going to be dished out to the needy, desperate and destitute. But before that happened Lisa wanted to see if there was anything she particularly needed. Not that she was depriving the less fortunate. No, she would never do that, but there was just so much stuff that it was like Aladdin’s cave, nobody would go without …not even herself because, ‘The Good Lord has provided for us all, ain’t that the truth?’

 

Peter walked up the steps to the hospital entrance, hands shoved deep in his pockets against the biting cold, head bowed against the wind. Someone ran down the steps to meet him.

‘Peter?’

‘Yes,’

‘I’m Doctor Watchfield; we spoke on the ‘phone…’

‘Yes, thanks for seeing me so soon…’

‘Not a problem; this is quite a breakthrough for us … Lets get inside where it’s warm.’

As Peter walked through the door and into the lobby of The Princess Fiona Psychiatric Hospital, he had an uneasy feeling. He was, after all, walking straight into the cuckoo’s nest – exposing himself to scrutiny, and his scrutineers were trained to spot signs of mental irregularity. He was, he thought, undoubtedly experiencing some sort of reality impairment; one foot in and one foot out, but which foot was in and which foot was out? He had no way of telling. That very uncertainty, should it leech out during his conversation with Doctor Watchfield, could have him put straight into a padded cell.
He concluded that the best course of action was to play along with whatever reality he found himself in. This reality all seemed very normal to Peter: nothing otherworldly or too alien about it.
Peter was ushered into a small office on the ground floor where he was offered tea and a chair.

 

Lisa was alone now, all the other helpers having trickled home to their families leaving her to finish up. She cruised amongst the donated items laid out in the community hall, running her hands over polished table tops and the moulded carvings on backs of chairs. Piles of linen, cotton sheets, and polyester pillowslips, woollen blankets, gingham cloths. Rows of steam irons lined up like soldiers, microwaves, toasters, kettles and teapots – a field of wild teapots of every type, colour, shape and size.
Lisa took her time wading through the massive teapot gathering: she was looking for the Holy Grail of tea pots, the tea pot from which Christ could be served, should he come to tea. And there it was: simple, yet elegant. Bone white and standing in the classic pose, with one hand on its hip and the other pointing skyward like a pudgy fencer getting ready to fight. Bone white except for a dainty row of buttercups around the base and the lid. Yes, this was indeed the Holy Grail.

Lisa made her way into the familiar church hall kitchen and made herself tea in the new teapot. While it was brewing she spent some time looking for a throne on which to sit and drink her tea. Like Goldilocks, she tried out more than a few of the donated chairs; some looked comfortable but were not – deceivers, using any means to trap their prey. Lisa soon became wary of any good-looking chairs and sought out a chair that was nothing at all to look at but which comfortably accommodated her ample proportions, a rare occurrence in Lisa’s life.

The tea stayed in the Grail, stewed and cold and forgotten. Lisa, weightless, free of any of her normal bodily aches and pains, free of any of her normal fears and resentments, free of sin, free of virtue, floated. Like a baby in the womb Lisa felt that overwhelming sense of contentment, safety and freedom that comes only to the blameless, to the ‘yet to be born.’
She closed her eyes and gave herself over to the chair.

 

‘Yes indeed this could be quite a breakthrough,’ reiterated Doctor Watchfield. ‘Maya has been with us for two years and so far, we are no closer to knowing anything about her. We have her on the missing persons list. Her face and story, what there is of it, gets circulated around the media, social and otherwise but well…’ he threw his hands in the air, ’Nothing. Until now that is.’

‘Well…’ started Peter cautiously, ‘we’re not sure that we are talking about the same woman yet, doctor. Maybe we should pay her visit? Would she mind?’

‘Yes, yes you are correct of course, but I’m afraid a visit may not be possible yet; we don’t want to alarm her. She’s prone to … um, episodes.’

‘Episodes?’

‘Yes, indeed. But I do have a recent picture here with me. On my phone; isn’t technology something else? Yes here it is. Is that ‘your’ Maya?’

Peter looked at the picture. What he saw was without a doubt the Maya of his dreams, but she had none of the spark and lustre of the woman on the spaceship. This version was, it seemed from the picture, dead inside.

‘My God, what happened to her?’

‘We don’t know. I have to say that this picture has caught her in a pensive mood. She is usually very bright, very challenging, and very deep. But, you know, she can be funny too. She has a lighter side. Maybe you can tell me where you met her, how you know her …um … something about her life before she wound up here?’

‘Well I don’t know her that well, doctor but I can tell you that she is a doctor too.’
Doctor Watchfield leapt up, banged the table with his hand and exclaimed ‘I knew it! Not a medical doctor I’ll wager. A scientist or philosopher… is it?’

‘Well yes, and both, I believe.’

‘Well, that’ll be easy then. She must have been published! We just need her full name and poof.’ Doctor Watchfield made an upward motion with his hands, a mini nuclear explosion, ‘Everything will become clear!’

Peter was treading a thin line between giving the impression that he knew Maya better than he actually did and not knowing her that well at all.

‘Perhaps I can explain what happened with me and…um…Maya? Put things in perspective and all that.’

‘Yes, please do: mustn’t jump the gun.’

‘Indeed,’ said Peter, not for the first time that day.

Peter tidied up his actual experience with Maya. He cut out the armchair and its magical portal properties. Cut out the alien space ship and the aliens themselves, replacing them with a top-secret research station and lab technicians respectively. After that the story he told was a plausible, if unusual, one of research into consciousness and belief mechanisms, probably (although he couldn’t say for sure), for military use. He’d been picked to participate in the project after replying to a cryptic ad in the local paper. He never knew Maya’s full name but over several sessions, the content of which was and still is top secret, they formed what he’d like to believe was a romantic bond. Then, one day, it was over. He was shipped out at night and brought back to his home.
He’d thought about her over the years, tried to track her down, but due to the nature of her work she, like the research, was classified …untraceable. Which, he speculated, was why the hospital was still in the dark now.

‘So you see doctor, I’m not much use to you. Other than, perhaps, acting as a catalyst? Maybe seeing me will jog something in her subconscious?’

‘My goodness! Well all of this seems to make sense somehow. She has an acute knowledge of psychiatry… of philosophy too, and can at times run rings around us. My goodness, what a shame: what a loss to the world. What do you think happened to her? Do you think she acted as a guinea pig; you know, some experiment that went wrong?’

Peter shock his head, ‘I don’t know, but anything is possible doctor.’

 

Joseph Henry peered down upon the sleeping form of Maya. He’d taken Lisa’s shift, the night-watch, and nobody seemed to mind: a dog collar got you a long way in this world. He picked up a pillow from the chair by the window.

‘With the power vested in me by almighty God I denounce you a witch and I command you to leave this body immediately,’ he said gravely and with as much authority as he could muster.

‘You’re a minister?’ said Maya groggily. She’d been hovering around in that ethereal, woolly place between wakefulness and sleep where dreams collide and intertwine with consciousness. Half awake, half asleep: part lost in a tumbling, graceful city, made more compelling, more beautiful by the wisdom of its decay, and partly in her hospital bed. She slipped seamlessly from one to the other, alternately running through a maze of crumbled columns, past grand openings into impoverished courtyards overgrown with vines, their fruits lying in abundance upon the crazed floor… and then …listening to the deep, quiet, but righteous voice, mumbling mystical incantations by her side.

‘Yes,’ answered the sonorous voice. The voice’s affirmation brought her swimming back from a dusty, elm-lined promenade where, just seconds before, a black, cancerous, form like Lucifer had slithered on it’s belly, from behind a tree, beckoning with a bony, arthritic finger.

Maya opened her eyes, sad to leave the tumbling city behind but intrigued enough by a minister mumbling spells over her supine body.

‘Am I the sort of person who requires a clergyman?’ asked Maya sitting up and looking at Joseph Henry with her usual speculative eye. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think that I am the sort of person who puts a lot of stock in superstition. So why are you here? Am I dying? What’s all this nonsense about witches anyway?’

Joseph Henry bristled at the assumption that he and his brethren peddled superstition but he tried to hide his bristling; didn’t want to be seen to bristle. He said nothing. He considered himself a master of chaste emotion: keeping all the bubbling and seething on the back burner, out of plain view.
‘Ah…! exclaimed Maya suddenly, ‘I get it! You were sent by Lisa.’

Joseph Henry believed in giving nothing away so that people saw a good, patient, God-fearing Minister and none of the pride or irritation or anger that blazed like sporadic fires within him. Maya saw a dark, brooding shadow cross his brow, like a petulant storm cloud on an otherwise sunny day. She smiled.

‘My name is Joseph Henry. And yes, you are right, Lisa did send me. She wanted me to watch over you.’

‘Like the Good Shepherd?’ asked Maya.

‘Well like a good Christian helping out in his community, let’s put it like that?’

‘I don’t believe I’m the sort of person who disapproves of ‘good deeds’: on the contrary, I think we should all be charitable. The world, I suspect, would then be a better place. But the Christian thing? No, I think I disapprove of organised religion. You shouldn’t think in terms of being a good Christian – you should always be a good person. Religion, like witchcraft is superstition – more elaborate, more organised – but still superstition.
Please feel free to be defensive. I think I’m the kind of person who likes an argument.’

Joseph Henry put the cushion back and pulled the chair closer to the bed. He sat down, leaned back and gathered a sermon, ‘You’re right in one respect: religion is organised whereas superstition rarely is. Superstition offers nothing but fear, fear that if you do this thing then that bad thing will happen. Religion, on the other hand, offers a sense of community, belonging and purpose.’

‘You mean religion is organised superstition?’

Joseph Henry dampened the fires within him. He suddenly recalled receiving his first bible: it was a gift from his father, faux leather binding and tissue thin pages tinged with red. He’d opened it randomly and smelt the new print leap up off the page like the breath of God. Young Joseph Henry, already captivated by the magnitude of the Bible could now read it for himself. On that random page he read, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ He knew, absolutely then and there, that he would believe forever, he would uphold his end of the bargain and in return he’d spend eternity in the presence of God.

‘Religion centres around a belief in God,’ Joseph Henry retorted to Maya. ‘Superstition has no centre: it attaches unnecessary credos to the supernatural. Old wives tales do not have a heart; they do not rain judgment down upon us! Believers in old wives tales do not have a shared consciousness and a belief in the betterment of mankind. There is no nucleus, no ‘modus operandi’, no morality, just caution designed to inhibit, not broaden; not at all like the Church. When people are hungry, when they are sick, when the devil turns them out of their homes and onto the streets in mid-winter do they find solace in God or do they turn to a rabbit’s foot for comfort? There is only one choice surely? Only God can light the way!’

Maya blinked, ‘Religion is the opium of the people. Dulls the pain and numbs the senses. Gives hope where otherwise there is nothing but despair. But I would rather see a world where spiritual anaesthetics were not needed. A world in which all people can breathe without a mask, walk without a cane, think without fear! Raise their heads above the parapet, climb out of this fortress, this mental prison and pursue knowledge without consternation or fear of retribution. There is no need for constraints if we employ the best of our humanity. No one should be in a position where they need to pray for anything, we can solve our own problems.’

‘You underestimate the power of prayer,’ said Joseph Henry leaning back in his chair feigning confidence but sensing he was being deliberately wrong-footed. He was used to preaching to the converted, they came to him in droves, all wanting nothing but soothing confirmation of their chosen belief.

‘Ah yes, prayer – about prayer?’ Maya asked. ‘Rather than call upon knowledge and medicine to cure the sick you ask an imagined superior being for intervention. How is that reasonable?’

‘Well now you are getting into the murky waters of metaphysics and faith. You don’t know for sure that there is no such being. It’s a question no one can answer outside of faith alone. So the odds are, quite literally fifty, fifty. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe not, so why not pray?’

‘Do you believe in evil spirits? You just tried to exorcise me, so I think the answer must be yes.’
‘The devil walks amongst us everyday and he is sly and full of cunning. A master of disguise, if you will. My job is not only to preach the goodness of God but also to warn of the perils that lie in the undergrowth. The Devil presents himself as temptation, as fear, as pride, jealousy and as lust. But also he can be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding in the weak, in the sick and in our children. We have to be wary, ever vigilant and never slip into complacency.’

‘So I’m the sheep and the Devil lies within me?’

‘I believe so.’

‘And that’s not superstition? Your religion is built on fear, on reprisals and guilt. You preach damnation. You pounce on mankind’s frailties; turn them into sin. Your religion, has devised an omnipotent, unknowable God and we, mere mortals, can never truly comprehend Him because he is beyond our comprehension. In ancient religions, their gods were knowable. They worked hard to know them, to reach the gods in the heavens. Those gods were fallible but more perfect than us and man aspired to be like them.

Your God ‘works in mysterious ways’ yet, plenty of mortals have testified to knowing what he wants of us and it’s those very testimonies that make up the backbone of your religion. It’s flawed by design! ‘God wants this’ and ‘God wants that’. No one knows what God wants, if anything at all!
If I were God I would not leave the moral health of mankind in the hands of sanctimonious men. If I were God I’d encourage discovery and exploration of our world and the worlds beyond what we are accustomed to. I would say, ‘Keep an open mind, never assume anything and don’t succumb to fear of the unknown or superstitious gibberish’. If I were God I’d say, ‘Come and find me, but pack for all weathers’.
I would not attempt to thwart discovery, hinder progress or blind mankind to finding knowledge by gouging out his eyes! What sort of God is that? A jealous God? A God that abhors our very nature? The very nature that he himself ordained?
No Pastor, I don’t think I’m the sort of person that needs a priest or organised religion to offer me false succour.
If YOU want to muddle one dangerous, unfounded belief with another that’s your business Joseph Henry but don’t dare to rain your judgment down on me!’

Maya stiffened as Joseph Henry stood up and paced to the window staring blankly out into the rainy sky. Inside he was incandescent with virtuous rage. What the hell was he doing? What had possessed him to come here tonight in the first place? Hubris? Did he believe that, confronted with this woman, this woman that Lisa had already denounced, he would receive some celestial wisdom: that God would show him the way?
Yes! He had believed that God would point to the Devil in the room. As God’s conduit, he alone could channel the divine. Nevertheless, as soon as he had glanced down upon the sleeping form of Maya he had been shocked by the malevolent, sinister, energy seeping from her very core.
Lisa had been right: Maya was possessed! She was the Devil’s concubine – a witch doing the Devil’s bidding.

‘I can see right through you!’ Joseph Henry turned and glared at Maya. ‘I can see your lurking, twisted, darkened form peering out at me Satan! Get thee behind me!’

The door to Maya’s room opened and Peter stood aside as Joseph Henry strode out in a furious temper. He had time to recognise Peter but said nothing. His words had turned to dust in his mouth.

‘Maya?’

‘Peter?’

 

Adaolisa woke to a hard slap to her face. Shocked and unaccustomed to physical violence she screamed out. Then came another slap, followed by a third. Lisa tried to stand but her legs were not her own. She carefully wiped the hair from her eyes, noticing that this hair was not her hair. She peered upward, a long way up into the desperate, frightened eyes of her father.

‘Witch!’ he screamed exchanging hand for foot, a slap in the face for a kick in the stomach. Lisa bought her knees up to her chest, they were not her knees; it was not her chest.

‘No,’ whispered Lisa through gritted teeth that felt to small, past swollen lips still too thin to be her own.

A woman’s scream, her mother’s raised and rattled voice rose through layers of panic to place her own condemnations at Lisa’s feet.

‘Witch!’ she screamed and with a violence Lisa had never witnessed in her mother before her mother brought a heavy club down upon her leg. Snap went the bone.

Blackness. Oblivion. But, not for long.

Now sprawled out in the yard, the morning sun rising out of the sea, the air thick with acrid smoke belched from cooking fires, she sensed the apprehension of the village. She saw her hands that were not her hands, and knew that somehow that she had become a child. Not the child of her youth, but another child. Another child who had lived in her parents’ home. Her older sister, the one condemned a witch by the community. The one nobody ever spoke of.

How could this be? It had to be a dream, a lucid dream or, and now she felt real fear, was it a spell placed upon her by Maya? Yes, that was a real possibility and if this were true then her only hope was that Joseph Henry would break the spell. Then another thought, as cold as ice crept into her mind and closed the door. What if the life she remembered, her life, her memories, had never really happened at all? What if a trickster had placed all of that in her head, maybe the Devil himself? What if she’d been taken over by evil forces? What if she WAS a witch after all? She began to pray.

Living as they did in a small fishing village, cut off from the rest of the world her parents were part of a tight community that policed itself. Villagers fished with nets and small boats and sold their catch for a pittance. Times were hard and ever since their first child had turned three, things just went from bad to worse for Lisa’s parents. First the fish dried up, then her father had to sell his boat to put food on the table and then came the fever. Everyone in the village caught it: everyone except this three-year old child. That’s when all eyes fell on her. That’s when the people of her village realised that they had a witch in their midst.

A priest was summoned: a man known for his courageous, ceaseless battle with the Devil. The priest, a small, well-fed man with round cheeks and good shoes was sympathetic and reassured them that he could cure the girl; rid them of the witch that had come to dwell in her body and, in doing so, save the villagers from more misery. Sadly though, redemption came at a price. The villagers, poverty stricken through illness and ill fortune, tried to barter but the priest could not help – surely they understood this? He must charge a fee to support his ministry; there were so many who needed his help. The country was big and riddled with witches: without his aid evil would prevail. His price was too high.

It was decided in a meeting of elders that the girl must be taken to the city and abandoned there. Some protested, said she should be hacked to death or drowned or tied to a stake and burnt, but it was argued, sagely, that even her ashes could muster up some tribulation and they had all the tribulation they could handle. The witch child would be driven to the city and dumped on wasteland, but not before crippling her, they didn’t want her to return.

 

‘Maya?’ Peter reached for Maya’s hand. She looked up at him,

‘Yes Peter?’

‘What do you remember?’

‘I remember you, Peter… and … and I think we may be in love. Are we in love Peter?’ Peter smiled, relieved,
Oh yes, we are deeply in love: you love me and I love you …absolutely.’
Maya beamed.

‘Maya?’

‘Yes Peter?’

‘We need to get out of here.’

‘Where should we go?’

‘Not sure, but I have to get my chair back!’

‘Is it important?’

‘Very,’ said Peter.

A silent ship, out in the universe, far beyond human knowledge and far beyond the reach of human gods waited for its course to be decided. The craft was home to all that remained of an ancient species, their original planet long gone. A new planet was currently under construction but, in the meantime, its people were exploring the universe.

The inhabitants of the silent ship acted as one, with one voice, one consciousness and one ambition: exploration of the universe and the unravelling of mystery.
Maya, one of their guides, had disappeared during a routine mind probe on another of her species. This, everyone agreed, constituted a mystery and warranted a full investigation. The problem of locating her was less ‘Where on earth was she?’ and more, ‘Which earth was she on?’

The course was finally set for Earth Parallel Octillion 42, a neighbouring earth to her original Parallel Septillion 1, which is where they had first recruited her.

To be continued…

 

 

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The spectrum of incredulity – part one – The abduction of truth.

The abduction of truth.

The armchair, Peter thought, reflected his present condition, tired, threadbare, unfashionable, unwanted and difficult to match with anything else. Not that he had much else to match it with other than a coffee table that seemed ashamed of its own existence. The coffee table loitered by the chair in a desperate attempt to fit in… it didn’t work. He also had, in the same poorly lit room, an empty aquarium (his wife had flushed the last inhabitants down the toilet: easier, she explained, to move the tank); a rug he hated; a poor excuse for a bookcase; a geriatric lamp that had developed a symbiotic relationship with the armchair. It would be, he thought, teetering on the edge of cruelty to separate them now as they were all so obviously advanced in their infirmity.

‘So this is what divorce looks like,’ Peter muttered to his roommates. Excusing himself he glanced momentarily at the crumpled spread sheet in his hand. When separation was the only option left on the table (not the coffee table, another table, pure oak, the one his wife still has), Peter made a list of their belongings and, by using a points based system, divided these belongings equitably. It now seemed quite apparent that this exercise was a complete waste of time as, slowly but surely, Annette got everything. She had it all, other than the few items that had, until now, spent the best part of their lives rotting away in the basement.

Peter and Annette had already independently accumulated some stuff of their own before they met. Then, over the course of twenty years, they got a lot of other stuff, nice stuff, together. Peter didn’t recognise any of the shambolic furniture in this room as his or Annette’s from before. It certainly wasn’t anything they had bought together. He surmised therefore, that this junk had been left in their house by the previous owners!

‘So to summarise,’ Peter said loudly addressing his new companions.

‘I have been well and truly shafted!’

The bookcase, never good with noise, lost a shelf and the lamp blew her bulb.

And then, in a more apologetic tone, ‘Nothing personal.’

Peter made his way up the narrow creaking stairs to his bedroom, with its promises of flannel pyjamas and maybe a little Geoffrey Archer to wrap up the fun.

The following day brought with it a bleak sense of foreboding. Gloom within and gloom without: his body heavy, due to the heavy heart he now carried with him. His heavy heart somehow felt heavier when it rained.

With resignation Peter crawled out of bed and drew the curtains back on another day. The curtains were apparently ‘Geranium Pale Floral’ and the antithesis to the shambolic collection gathered elsewhere in this two-up, two-down hovel he now called home. These curtains were shamelessly garish and he hated them, he’d always hated them and now, as some sort of final kick in the teeth Annette had, with a great show of charity, handed them to him as a house warming gift. He’d had half a mind not to hang the damn things up but, in the end he couldn’t be bothered with the consequences.

Peter had a chat with himself, ‘You can’t go on like this; you need to rebuild your life.’

‘Huh… life? What’s the point?’ he replied.

‘Come on, festering in self pity won’t get us anywhere Peter. We need to do something, anything, as long as it’s positive.’

And so it was that Peter came back several hours later with a nice throw for the chair, a new shelf for the bookcase, a light bulb, a handful of self-help books and a microwave lasagna for one.

After supper Peter lowered himself into the ragged armchair. The new throw smiled the false smile of an actor resigned to the role. The chair was surprisingly comfortable, sort of enveloped him in a warm embrace. It wasn’t long before ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’ slipped from his hands as Peter fell asleep.

All he could see to begin with was a bright white light. He sensed that he was in an operating theatre and had woken prematurely. Then the light split, dividing into several smaller lights. Now he felt like he was standing in a vast space and the lights were further away. One of the, until now stationary lights, began to move towards him, growing bigger as it approached until it was the size of a small family car: it hovered just above eye level. Its brightness intensified, so that Peter had to shield his eyes.

A clunking noise, footsteps, a tug on his shirtsleeve and someone pressed a pair of sunglasses into his hand. He put them on and looked into the almond shaped eyes of…what? The creature before him stood at about five feet tall, humanoid, biped, the right amount of heads and limbs and yet there was something alien about it. Peter couldn’t tell whether the creature was male or female, it was hairless, lithe, naked and without genitals. The creature’s head was large for its body, big forehead, two tiny holes for nostrils and a slice for a mouth.

When the creature spoke it did so without using its mouth; it used telepathy. Peter heard a voice in his head, it wasn’t deep but softly spoken, androgynous, neither male nor female.

‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow.’

Feeling a little prickly Peter said, ‘Well where I come from introductions are generally made first.’

‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow,’ repeated the creature’

Peter concluded that this ‘chap’ was merely the messenger and that the message was, ‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow’. He wasn’t going to get anymore out of it. The messenger raised its thin, long-fingered hand and beckoned for Peter to follow.

Peter followed the creature into what he could now see was a spherical, floating vehicle made of light. Once inside, the creature appeared to navigate the craft with its mind, weaving seamlessly amidst other vehicles.

The sphere had a transparent quality that was both off putting and fascinating at the same time. With the sunglasses on Peter could see out of the vehicle in all directions, with the sunglasses off he was just whizzing through space in a family-sized ball of bright light. He opted to keep them on.

Other than the countless similar spheres whizzing past, Peter could see much larger objects, stationary buildings in fact, and it was toward one of these buildings that the messenger now steered his craft. Peter concentrated on the building and as they grew ever closer he could make out a landing bay, then other creatures, just like his chauffeur, came into view. The craft landed, or rather came to a hover, and Peter was encouraged to walk down the steps onto the landing bay floor. Several of the figures approached him, but one in particular stood out from the rest, a woman, a real woman, and not from Venus. The woman extended a delicate hand and smiled at him with yearning lips. His heart lost a beat; his mouth went dry…

‘We were expecting you,’ said the woman.

‘You were?’ he managed meekly.

Peter felt himself recede, as if standing on the shoreline watching the tide go out.

The new light bulb atop the old lamp confirmed he was indeed awake. Pity, he thought the dream had seemed so real. Peter pulled himself up out of the chair and shuffled into the little kitchen where he poured himself a glass of water then looked accusingly at the empty plate of lasagna for one: he’d have salad tomorrow.

The following day was a workday. Peter went into the office and drank tea, looked at spreadsheets and dodged human interaction if at all possible. Peter sat on a bench in the park at lunchtime and fed the pigeons. Peter went back to his new home on the number 22 bus. The routine was the same: watching him as one would watch a rat in a lab, one would merely conclude that his behaviour was predictable, in keeping with previous assessments, ‘Nothing new to report’. But, despite this rat’s obvious physical presence, he wasn’t really there. Just as he had done for every day in the months following the separation, Peter went through the motions. But today was different: rather than be pre-occupied with his miserable life, his divorce, his loneliness he was thinking about the dream he’d had the night before, or more specifically the women in the dream he had the night before.

When he reached home, Peter’s routine continued its predictable pattern: shower, check for messages (none), microwave a meal for one (salad was never his thing), slump in the armchair and pretend to read how men and women are from different planets. Maybe, he thought, someone could write a book called, ‘Peter is from an isolated system and everyone else is from an open system’. He soon fell asleep…

Someone handed him his sunglasses and Peter put them on. He was no longer standing on the landing bay but sitting in a room, a white room with no windows. Two naked, androgynous creatures flanked the women.

‘Do you feel alarmed?’ she said, moving her lips, which was reassuring and pleasant.

‘Not at all,’ replied Peter.

‘Do you think this is a dream?’

‘Not sure… logically, it must be but it feels real.’

‘Logic and reason are often at odds with one another don’t you think?’

‘Yes, quite.’

‘We are currently sitting in a very large craft, it’s exact coordinates are classified. The craft is home to all that remains of an ancient species whose home planet became uninhabitable eons ago. A new planet is currently under construction but in the meantime its people are exploring the universe.’

‘Ok,’ said Peter. Simultaneously thinking that, if this was a dream, a product of his own imagination, then it was an imagination he was previously unacquainted with.

‘These people have evolved beyond human capabilities, but maintain certain constructs such as social order, language, obedience to the law and so forth. The technology that these people have is immense, they don’t need to work or strive for survival. They operate as a team and they strive only for knowledge. Isn’t it beautiful?’ asked the object of Peter’s desire.

‘Yes, very attractive indeed. But, if you don’t mind me asking, what do they want with me?’

‘Well Peter, they would like to carry out some tests, totally non-intrusive – forget turkey basters or latex gloves; none of that nonsense! They just want to observe you, and… erm… take a look inside your head. Your mind to be exact.’

‘My mind?’ Said Peter eying the two alien flanks with renewed interest.

‘Yes, you see humans are a long way behind in terms of evolution. These beings want to know how humans function, how we perceive the world and how belief maps our existence? Why we believe what we believe?’

‘You said we…’

‘Yes, I’m human. I have been helping these beings with their research, maybe you will too. I mean permanently one day?’

Peter thought that being the only two humans on a spacecraft, situated somewhere in the vastness of the universe, upped his chances of getting laid considerably. However attractive this thought may be, Peter was also aware that he might be going slightly mad. He pictured himself slumped in a chair, dribbling and shouting incoherent obscenities to no one in particular as the nurse rushed over to him with a loaded syringe. Other patients, more alert than he, shouted,
‘Its the spaceman, its the spaceman!’

‘I need to think about all of this. Can I go home?’

‘Yes, you take off the glasses and you’ll wake up in the portal.’

‘Portal?’

‘Yes the chair. It’s a kind of gateway. We had to use something unremarkable, something that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but is ultimately inviting.’

‘Oh,’ said Peter.

The women leaned over, her face close to his, her cleavage ever so slightly visible in his periphery vision, ‘You just have to go with the flow, it’ll be worth it Peter, you will never look back.’

‘Well, ok. Thanks for everything; I’ll be in touch,’ he removed his glasses.

He awoke in his chair.

Peter leapt up, startled and paraded the sunglasses around the room.

‘Bloody hell, I mean… well… bloody hell.’

He looked from the chair to the glasses in his hand and back again. How could this be true?

‘Well you all saw that didn’t you? You all saw me wake up with these sunglasses in my hand?’ Peter shouted to his inanimate roommates. The coffee table looked at its feet; the old lamp was hesitant to commit to anything, never sure if what it saw was real or not. The bookcase tried desperately to hold onto its new shelf and the chair whispered, ‘Yes’.

‘Ah hah!’ said Peter and left the living room. He stood in the kitchen staring at the fridge. He placed the sunglasses down on the small Formica table and poured a glass of water.

‘I’m going mad,’ he muttered, ‘Mad.’

The fridge, which was new to the job, decided to refrain from comment and maintained, what it hoped was, a frigid exterior.

The next morning Peter called in sick. He had never in his entire working life taken a sick day without actually being sick. His mind seemed, and indeed was, divided. Two Peters now: not one holistic, homogenous gloop as before, but two distinct versions of himself. One version, the skeptic, questioned his own sanity; the other wanted to desperately believe in what he’d seen, what he’d experienced. One part of him wanted to believe, based on empirical evidence but the other, more skeptical self, remained steadfast in his rationalism.
Peter avoided going into the living room for quite some time. He’d hurry past the open door on his way to the kitchen then hurry back again; loitering was out of the question. He made cups of tea and put them down, un-sipped in various places until he ran out of cups. He couldn’t sit still, he had to think, and like many a thinking man he had to pace out a problem. Walking from one room to the next and back again, all the while consciously avoiding the lure of the living room and the chair that beckoned from within.

Rationally none of what he’d experienced had actually happened. There was no evidence in the world to support the notion that aliens were among us. He conceded that statistically other intelligent life forms must exist somewhere in the universe, after all it was mind-bogglingly vast! But that is not to say that these life forms were more advanced than humankind or that they were anything like us.

Rationally wasn’t it more plausible to assume that he had been under an enormous amount of pressure recently? That his mental health was just a little bit strained? That the stress of separation and divorce combined with negative introspection had culminated in delusional dreams?

On the other hand why was it that these delusional episodes only ever happened whilst in that chair? He never had such dreams when asleep in his bed, or when occasionally he nodded off on the park bench at lunchtime. What’s more both Peters had to agree that the experience seemed pretty real. Normally in his dreams, which were always low budget affairs, there was a sense of detachment, a sense of… well… dreaming. The armchair experience was like an I-Max blockbuster in comparison! Total immersion. It was also difficult for either Peter to accept that he was even capable of such flights of fancy – he just didn’t have an imagination.

Eventually, after talking and walking himself in circles everyone agreed he should sit in the chair and see what happened. Now at least, if anything did happen, Peter had his inner rationalist on board. Together they could figure this whole thing out, get to the bottom of it and return to normal. Because if Peter liked anything, it was normality.

With the sunglasses clasped in one hand Peter lowered himself into the armchair. The tension caused by his predicament quickly drained. The chair was so comfortable, so soothing that his body and mind relaxed and before long Peter felt his eyes grow heavy and he did nothing to stop it.

He opened his eyes to bright light. He heard a door open and close, then soft footsteps approached.

‘Put your glasses on Peter,’ said a familiar voice, husky, seductive, feminine. Peter hastened to obey. And there she was, as before, flanked by her naked, intellectually advanced employers.

‘How are you Peter? We are so pleased that you decided to return.’

‘I’m ok, I guess.’

‘Having a little trouble with reality?’

‘I’m struggling to know what’s real anymore, if that’s what you mean. I don’t know what to believe.’

‘Excellent’ said the woman.

‘Excellent?’

‘Yes, you see the state you are in now, this indecision, this opposition between rationality and empiricism is exactly the human condition my colleagues wish to explore. What we would like to do, if you permit, is to analyse your mind during our conversation.’

‘How?’

‘You remember how the life form you first encountered here spoke to you using telepathy? Well with your permission my colleagues here would like to take it one stage further and telepathically analyse your thought patterns. They can un-intrusively collect data and relay it all back to a semi-organic quantum computer.’

‘I’m not sure I want anyone to know everything I’m thinking: some things are private,’ said Peter desperately trying to suppress an image of his interviewer writhing naked beneath him.

‘It’s not so much the thoughts themselves Peter… more the connections that are made and where they originate from. Sex, for example is a very complicated phenomenon. Your attitude, your likes and dislikes, your preferences, your guilty pleasures, your turn-ons and turn-offs are all products of your experience. How you were brought up, early sexual experiences, whether they were good or bad: it’s a minefield. How you feel about it has a lot to do with what you think you already know, what you believe. Millions of connections are being made, ultimately informing you on how you should respond to new developments.’

‘Are you going to ask me questions about sex?’ said Peter, a little hot under the collar.

‘No, at least not today. That was just an example. We are more interested in how you are dealing with this experience. You want to rationalise it, want to explain it in a way that makes sense to you and ultimately to others.’

‘Oh… ok. I guess as I’m here, and it’s probably only a lucid dream anyway…’

‘Is that a ‘yes’, Peter?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then we can start.’

‘My name is Maya. I was named after a Hindu Goddess. Maya keeps the illusion of the material world alive, preventing, or at least inhibiting us from seeing deeper spiritual truths. I was given the name to remind me that I must always look for those truths. It’s a kind of antitheses. We must, I believe, keep an open mind, gather information as we go, and challenge what we think we know… always challenge, keep asking questions. So Peter, you are, I’m guessing, in two minds as to what to believe right now. Can you tell us what you believe and why?’

Peter shifted in his chair, he felt like he’d been singled out in class to explain his thoughts on Beowulf. His thoughts on that topic were, simply put, that it was utter nonsense. Bloodthirsty Danes going around decapitating hags in swamps and butchering demons! What was there to say? None of it was forged in sense and he hated poetry at the best of times. Even so he was expected to give a constructive critique. Then, as now, the option of muttering ‘I don’t know miss,’ was not going to do him any favours.

‘Well there is a big part of me that thinks all of this…’ he waved his hands in an all encompassing manner, ‘… is not real. I mean it can’t be, can it?’

‘You are asking me?’

‘No, not really. Look I don’t have much of an imagination, I’m limited in that respect: it’s one of the reasons my wife became frustrated with me. For a while it was that very lack of imagination that led me to believe that this whole thing must be true, however bizarre that may (rationally) be. Of course there is a small part of me that wants it to be true – how incredible, how utterly fascinating! The fact that I couldn’t imagine my way out of a paper bag and yet here I am, in this richly layered reality. If it’s not of my doing and therefore it must, whatever I tell myself, be true.’

‘And now?’

‘Now I think that, as brilliant as this is…’ said Peter sounding a little deflated, ‘there is nothing that I don’t recognise.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, you are human and everyone else here is of human form. I’m sitting on something that I recognise as a chair. Ok, I’m on a space station, although I haven’t seen it – only parts of the interior – the concept is still familiar to me. When we explain the world to ourselves or to others we use similes right? When more creative similes are employed they become fables, tales or fantasies but the point is we can only draw from what we already know. A fantasy is just an extension of reality, an extrapolation of the truth as we perceive it. Everything here is within the scope of human experience. Surely a truly alien encounter would be, or could be impossible to comprehend. A truly alien encounter may, for example, be only possible to experience though the employment of senses we humans do not posses.’

’So despite the clarity of your experience here, you believe it to be nothing more than an illusion? And your explanation for this illusion is that you are obviously having some kind of what?Breakdown?’

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘How do you know for sure that your whole life has not been part of the same illusion? That everything is an illusion? That in reality – whatever that might be – you are only a thought, one of billions of thoughts whizzing about in space? Or the only thought? One lonely thought generated by the universe. You are everything, you are nothing. You are clinging to a tiny raft bobbing about on a sea of doubt, saying, ‘Only this raft is real.’ Then one day you spot an island that bears such bountiful fruits and has space to roam and opportunity to learn and, ultimately be truly happy. Yet you pass it by; clinging to what you think you ‘know’ you watch it disappear over the horizon and you say to yourself, ‘That was a lucky escape.’

Reality is what you think you know and historically that can be very flawed. Rather than assume you know, why not assume you don’t?’

‘Anything is possible?

‘Anything is possible, yes.’

‘So, it is possible that I’m going completely mad and if I leave this madness untreated I’ll end my days jabbering nonsense, whilst having my food spoon fed and my arse wiped by a overbearing Nigerian nurse? But it is also possible that I’m not going mad at all, that all of this is as real as the tuna and egg sandwich I had for lunch; the fact that I could actually be that sandwich is neither here nor there. No brainer then?’

‘No, not when you think that whatever the objective reality might be, your subjective reality will be whatever you want it to be. Right now, for example, you may be slouched in an armchair having celery soup wiped from your chin by aforementioned Nigerian nurse. The nurse talks to you about her life but you don’t respond, you just gaze with glassy eyes into space. The doctors can detect brain activity but conclude that due to your acute misery in life you have entered a catatonic state. You may eventually return from Catatonia, have no memory of what happened during that period ‘the dream within a dream’ and build a new life from the relics of the old one… or not.
If I snap my fingers you can wake up and return to your previous reality, whatever it is, or you could stay here with me. Which one would you choose?’

‘Well I would like to chose this reality… I think. But I still want to know whether or not its actually happening.’

‘You want to have a belief to cling to?’

‘Yes, for my own sanity! Don’t you?’

Maya stood and leaned over the desk between them and said quietly, ‘I believe that anything is possible, I believe in you and I believe that one day you will believe in me too. And I believe in our love. I believe that we belong together.’

Peter stared in disbelief. Was this all part of his delusion or was it really happening? Because either way, his delusion or not, it was… unexpected. He could just about swallow everything else: the aliens, the ship, the portal but this? This was beyond his grasp.

Perhaps, conversely, it was all part of the alien experiment; the mind probe was presumably still operational. It was a test, a way of setting his belief mechanisms into over drive. How should he react to this? If this was self-delusion then presumably he could leap across the desk and gather her in his arms, kiss her, make love with her? It was his dream after all. On the other hand, instinct told him to just stay put. As crazy as it all seemed, Peter wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t actually happening and if so, he didn’t want to totally blow his chances of a possible romantic liaison with Maya in the future.

While Peter weighed up his options (a position of default for him, never really sure what to do in life or even how to go about it), he began to feel rather light-headed, even euphoric. He noticed fleetingly, but without concern, that the alien mind probers were becoming increasingly transparent until only a trace of their form remained. The room, with its white walls and bright light, disappeared slowly, like a dream on waking.

The weightlessness extended from head to body and gradually, without a care, Peter lost his sense of self. His past, the life he had lived, faded from view. Rather than mourning its loss, he felt as though he was emerging from the darkness and into the light. He’d leapt from the raft! Meanwhile all traces of his life vanished too, so that they had never existed. Annette, the coffee table, fish tank, lamp and bookcase had all disappeared. The armchair however merely stepped sideways, it benefited from having multiverse status.

Peter no longer had a physical presence in space, he was all things and nothing. He felt more like a concept, an idea, a thought. Floating freely without the constraints of body, of ego, of belief, he felt only hope.

 

‘Maya, Maya!’

And then, ‘Maya you done creeping me out for one night?’

 

Maya opened her eyes. The room was dim, the curtains drawn, the old shambolic armchair lurked in the shadows. The Nigerian nurse lent over the bed, studying her closely.

‘Peter?’ Said Maya in a whisper.

‘Peter who darling? There is no Peter, unless you talking about the Saint? He don’t want nothing to do with you dear, no nothing. Now listen up, if you promise not to pull any stunts I’m going to loosen the straps on the bed, just a little, just enough to let you feel more comfortable. Now, you going to be a good patient Maya?’

Maya nodded her agreement.

‘You got the devil in you young lady, but I’m going to get you fixed, don’t you worry about that, not a jot.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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