meaning of life, midlife, screen, sleep, words

Headless Body in a Topless Bar (Part Two)

the shovels are waiting for us


bikes,  trees, religion,  beards, dad jokes, death

 

Kaput took a trip to see the Great Writer in his East Anglian retreat. It was a long first day. A fragmented train ride. A scary local man in a hat. Several pints at the pub. Dinner. Some neck tingling. A storm. And, finally,sleep. 


The next day…

I forgot to take my sleep pills on night one of my sleepover at Strauch’s cottage. In a chaotic dream around 4am, I wrestled the metal reading lamp off the side table and knocked it senseless. 

Strauch says it’s fine, as he surveys the wreckage in the morning. His rictus face indicates otherwise. He twists the lamp back into shape, but the bulb’s bust. He says these bulbs cost a fortune and not all shops stock them, certainly not the village Spar. He then moans about how fiddly these rare, exotic bulbs are to install, an undertaking requiring the use of tissue paper and acute angles. 

Jesus, I say, how many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb? 

Take your pills tonight. 

I pull a face.

What? You’re staying over, right?

Yes. It’s not about that. I feel I’ve just been admonished like a child.

We’re going cycling. Did you bring an anorak as I told you? 

Yes. Will I be using one of your rides?

You rent.

A Mountain Bike off a Mountain
writer on a bike

Several houses down, on the opposite side from Strauch’s cottage, lies the original village railway station. The Edwardian red brick was closed in the early 1960s, replaced by the new light rail service down the hill. The dead track and sleepers were belatedly removed from the disused line, and in recent times the cuttings have become a trail for hikers and off-road cyclists. Lately, the long derelict station has been revived and subdivided into a cafe, pottery shop, and a bike rental store. 

The rental manager matches me up with a mountain bike. It’s  heavy and clunky with too many gears; whereas my London bicycle is light framed, thin-wheeled and no gears. The rental man gives me a helmet. I decline the offer, but he’s pushy. Strauch says just go with it. 

The Great Writer is dressed in full bike regalia: plain black tights with a quilted groin and seat; dimpled overshoes with chevrons; and a pink and grey team jersey. The jersey has a sponsor’s picture of a children’s cereal box with chocolate flakes exploding out the box and across Strauch’s shoulders and chest. 

It’s cloudy as we set off from village and head into the woods. Round the first bend, with the rental out of sight, I stop to remove the helmet. Strauch sighs. He sighs like me. We’re two men on bikes who sigh. 

I lean against a tree and fasten the helmet to the saddle pole. What kind of tree is this? 

Birch. 

Life’s a birch and then we die. I never know trees. There must be an app for it, surely.

You were born on a farm, and you don’t know nature.

William Blake couldn’t decide about trees. ‘A natural object of beauty,’ he wrote, ‘or a green thing in the way.’ Why should I remember the name of stuff from when I was five? Do you?

I once researched a book about children’s games.

I know. Another project that didn’t make it to the printers.

But not a total waste. I go to the local school once a week. I help out with literacy. Last term I read to the class about old playground games. The teachers tried some of the games with the pupils. They didn’t even know the rules for British Bulldog. I’ve now given the same talk in other schools in the area. I’m thinking of making a blog.

You’re such a citizen. If I did something like that, you’d mock me.

Try, let’s see if I do. I think it’s a productive revival of a shared lost culture.

No one knows if you’re being sarcastic.

Least of all me.

We continue our ride, which threads in and out of the woods as the sky begins to open up. The trail is lovely in a subdued way and deserted with it being the middle of the week. Shortly the curtain of trees parts to reveal a widescreen sightline stretching down across the shallow valley to yesterday’s train stop and the factory refinery with the smoke stack. I tell Strauch about Shin Fain. 

As we descend the dip of the land, I insist that we stop to ponder the occasionI make Strauch, who insists on being lead cyclist, pull over to the side of the path, as I point at the church tower and then pan across to the refinery. It seems meaningul. We are between two landmarks, I observe, with a triteness that even surprises me. Think of the longevity of one, almost as old as a millennium, versus the brevity of the second structure, that had an active life of under half a century. 

The church isn’t a thousand years old.

Consider also the simultaneity.

Why should we consider it?

Of the impossibility of being in two places at the same time. I find perspective and movement fascinating. I was there, but now I am here, looking back over to there, which earlier was here.

Strauch stares ruefully at the pedals on his bike. I notice this trip that he often makes his hands into fists when I’m talking. I’m tempted to mirror the gesture as he describes his roster of bikes in extended detail. He has four, which seems extreme. But he insists each ride has a specific job to do. The one he’s using today is a mix – an off-road bike that is also suited to tarmac. He insists that the word is hybrid, but I prefer mix. I tell him two stories over lunch concerning landmarks and perspective. 

The Salvation Army, South London
god on the Hill

At London’s Open House three years ago, I visited the Salvation Army headquarters in south London. We were taken to the top of the tower with its outsized neon cross and long views across the city. There was also a guided tour of the grounds led by a Salvationist commander. Before he found Christ and joined William Booth’s legion of Jesus, the commander said he worked in civil engineering. The Salvation Army appointed him as plant manager for the headquarters, which is not just one large ugly building, but a residential college with extensive buildings and grounds. 

A few months into his new role, the commander’s staff announced it was time to give the boiler room’s tall brick chimney a fresh coat of linseed oil. We do this every second year, they said. The plant manager agreed and signed off on the purchase of materials. 

But then he thought about it and asked why do we paint the chimney with linseed every two years? Because we always have, was their reply. Is there any other reason? A practical purpose? Does it make the tower shine, more durable perhaps, better rain-proofed? They couldn’t say. All they knew was that this is what had always been done, dating right back to the building’s construction (1929). 

The engineer told the tour party this story and smiled wryly at the peculiarity of tradition.

But he didn’t see the irony?

What is the irony?

That religion itself is adherence without question. 

Like tradition. No, I don’t think he saw that irony. He was quite happy though. With his chimney parable, but also seemingly with life in general. You see it in the eyes of the believers and you think, how does that feel inside? 

And how deep does it last? 

As deep as the early hours of day, as the room takes shape? I wonder.

Strauch goes quiet finishing his last sandwich. We stopped to eat in a pub garden with blue benches and tables and it’s turned cold. The Great Writer wants to smoke and still has his second pint of Foster’s to finish. He says the Foster’s is of the exact same quality as the Foster’s from yesterday. He tells me so after I mention my dissatisfaction with today’s pale ale, which is too sweet, like pudding.

And the other story you wanted to tell? 

I pause. This anecdote concerns perspective and is a bit longer.

Oh boy. Can I just groan for two seconds?

Yes, you may. But I need to share this with someone and I’m afraid it’s going to be you. I recently saw the film Cameraperson. Know it? 

He shakes his head. 

Cameraperson Film Poster


I watched it on demand on TV. But I think I should’ve gone seen it on a big screen at the pictures. It’s a memoir of sorts, comprised of footage taken by the cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Over the last few decades, Johnson has worked on numerous feature-length documentaries, filming all over the world, from, I don’t know, Bosnia to New York, to Yemen to Guantanamo. She’s filmed for Michael Moore and covered civil wars, amateur boxing shows and underground S&M clubs. She has photographed Jacques Derrida, Edward Snowden and many others, and her film Camerperson splices together leftover footage and stray scenes from all these and many other projects.

So, she has something to say about perspective?

It’s a fascinating film that gained a lot of praise at festivals. The narrative shifts around, obviously – it’s a real globetrotter. The way it has been edited seeks to keep the viewer in touch by using inter-titles indicating locations. There’s a key scene in Darfur. The thing is, you see the word Darfur come up on the screen, and you think something terrible is going to happen – otherwise why Darfur?

That’s why we film in Africa.

Well, yeah. You anticipate gunfire or starvation. A long establishing shot opens in a rural space: scrubland under a big blue sky, with some dabs of green, but mostly sparse and dry. It feels like land on the edge of a desert. The camera switches to a close up of a teenage boy reciting a religious text. Arabic script is written on both sides of three pieces of fabric attached to a frame that looks like an embroidery stand. It has hinges and he can swivel the panels of fabric around to read different sections of the text. 

The camera pulls back as you watch him read aloud. The boy is perhaps thirteen or fourteen and he’s dressed all in white and the ground beneath his feet is orange dirt. There are some pale green bushes and a large, fat, dried-out tree branch, cut down and grey brown against the orange scrub. And now that you’ve adjusted to the boy and his soft, incantatory voice, as well as the workings of his crafty reading contraption, you’re waiting for something to happen and in the meantime you explore the screen. You find your eyes follow the limb of the long tree branch as a pivot connecting the front to the back of the composition, but also as a pointer drawing the eye towards the middle distance where an event captures your attention; something interesting is going on: three women in bright garments are apparently attacking a tree.

The camera moves across the orange dirt towards the three women. Each one of them has a small axe. They are cutting into a large tree using the axes and talking lots and laughing lots – although they describe their situation in the middle of an ongoing conflict as dire. Their excited amusement must be due the presence of the cameraperson recording this apparently futile attempt to bring the tree to its knees. They hope to use the timber for kindling and also for barter or sale. One of the women takes a short break from the hacking and hooks the handle of her axe onto her complex weave of hair.

With this lull, the camera slowly, almost imperceptibly, circles around and shifts to being in front of the women, who continue to discuss what they’re doing. Plainly the scene has been staged to some extent. They must be offering this summary as a request from the film crew and you look at the cheery animation in their faces and eyes, and watch the axes go haphazardly into the yellow innards of the tree stripped of its bark, and follow the axe heads as they go back over their heads preparing for the next swing, and you think is this a representation of hope or despair? 

And then behind them in the middle distance is the boy. You’d forgotten about him. He’s still there, reciting from the prayer pulled taut on its stretcher. The stand swivels again, but the adjustment seems tiny from this distance. 

The perspective has changed. It seems like a parable, a message about the specific situation, but also about what we see and don’t see, how the visual is constructed and the way perspective is fundamental to meaning.

You thought about all this while you were watching the film?

I was fascinated by the contrast between the two points of view in this one continuous scene. I have never before in my life experienced such a moment through all the hundreds of films I’ve watched. I thought about the scene later. I’ve returned to it often in my head. It’s stayed with me and I don’t fully understand why. It is as if all that I have read down the years about constructed reality, meant little or nothing until I tuned into this particular cinematic moment and the way the cameraperson directed and structured her material.

Circles Shot, from Camerperson Film
circle within circle within circle

I don’t follow films closely in this way.

Neither do I – not always. Sometimes I let it wash over me, and often I just fall asleep.

I watch Strauch build a roll-up and wait for further comment concerning my cinematic epiphany. He lights up and the smoke is rank and sweet. There follows a long, considered swig of more lager. And a scratch of the head and a stifled yawn. I could prompt him for a response, but choose to be patient. And then I realise that he’s not going to say anything. He stares up at the thatched roof and then at me, and slowly licks his lips and opens his mouth. 

Do you fall asleep watching the football on TV?

I sigh. Of course. The whole nation does, surely.

Match of the Day. Approximately after the fourth game.

Highlights can do that. The word highlight suggests a state of close attention, but don’t bank on it.

It’s drinking wine while watching TV that sends me off.

I wonder if Match of the Day just stopped broadcasting by the fifth game would anyone notice. 

Lineker could just go home.

It’s the dark secret of the show. The nation snoozes as the goals are action-replayed from every possible angle.

Not the whole nation. The Hull and Swansea fans stay awake ‘cause their team’s highlights usually come last. 

Maybe they set an alarm.

and in case I don’t see ya, goodnight

I don’t have anything to offer on your movie revelation, says Strauch. But as lunch break has turned into film club, I saw The Truman Show again recently. 

Ok.

It’s still pretty good. 

Pretty, pretty good.

But it seems to me that the film’s true meaning has been missed. Yes, the narrative has much to relate on loss of privacy and surveillance, the intrusion of media, the numbing of the spectacle, TV’s theatre of cruelty… blah, blah. But this is merely the thematic topsoil.

The film always reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life. And Groundhog Day.

The film always reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life. And Groundhog Day.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a good comparison, because the actual meaning of Truman….

Since I hadn’t asked

Since you didn’t allow me to finish. The true message is that this is a film about death. As, of course, are many art works and narratives. 

Consciousness of death distinguishes us from all the other beasts in the animal kingdom.

Truman realises he’s living in a bubble. (It’s actually a sealed dome, but I’m not using bubble literally.) Something’s not right, not quite real, he knows this. His life hasn’t properly started and Truman intuits this stalled quality, experiencing this terrible, crazy itch as a result. The repeating itch is existential. Life is going on and Truman knows that he’s not living it, not truly – like most everybody else at some point realises about their own existence. His situation may be unique, but his complaint is universal. He reaches a crisis point – knowing that he better start living, actually really living, because this mad thing we’re experiencing, it isn’t forever. We all gotta die. Even the star of a TV reality show.

Strauch discards his spent rollie. All this tobacco isn’t helping with my own personal longevity. Increasingly a lot of art appears to be a metaphor for death.

What men of good cheer we are, I say. Mostly I agree with your thinking. However, quite a lot of art seemingly preoccupied with death, is actually using the final curtain as an allegory on other matters.

Strauch winks at me. Clever switcharound. But I’m going to need to see some evidence.

Well, consider the band Vampire Weekend. 

He shrugs. Preppy boys with clever-clog lyrics. The whitest band in America. Don’t look for five feet on a cat.

What does that mean?

It’s the kind of obscure lyric they’d write. Don’t look for five feet on a cat means be always the realist.

Now I shrug, still not getting what Strauch’s trying to say.

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City Album Cover

A lot of Vampire Weekend’s ‘clever clog’ content references death. It’s a preoccupation. For example the chorus to Don’t Lie: ‘I want to know, does it bother you?/the low click of a ticking clock.’ 

Yes. It does bother me. 

On the same album, Modern Vampires of the City, there’s the track Diane Young. Dying Young. Get it?

Strauch assents.

Diane Young is a song which ponders the risk of premature demise, questioning the listener’s assumption they’ll last ‘as far as the 18th hole’. Although the tempo of the band is often upbeat, there are also several plaintive melodies and chord changes. The theme of demise is a wellspring irrigating their flow. You wonder what would remain if this dried up. Until, that is, you look more closely… 

To discover what?

To find out that the angst part-fuelling the band’s work concerns something other than decline. Mostly young people are not obsessed with mortality and this is why they drive so fast. How could these young indie gods be so gripped by life’s terminus? The answer is they’re not. The passing being mourned is actually innocence and irresolution. The fear encapsulated is not morbid, but the fear of adulthood – the end of youth and the narrowing of possibilities as we finally ditch the skinny jeans. 

It’s like the code has been cracked and the allusions which litter the songs – ‘The doors closing behind us,’ The ‘headstone right in front of you.’ These symbols take on a new meaning, acquiring a different valence. Their corpus concerns a dread of maturity. Now I see clearly. Don’t Lie is supposed to be a love song, but it is also a procrastinator’s lament: I want to commit to my love, but can’t commit to my love without growing up, which brings the death of youth. 

Perfect close reading, barks Strauch. He loudly slaps his thigh. A couple sitting on the other side of the pub terrace look across. 

I have listened to your enlightening analysis of Vampire Weekend’s lyrical content with interest, but they’re still not my pill. Can I change the subject now? I’ve been wanting to ask: what is with the beard?

Reflexively I rub my chin. I prefer to think of it as stubble. Thick stubble. 

Incredibly thick, bushy stubble.

Silba likes it. But I’m also bored sick with shaving. And with cooking dinner.

I grew a beard once. 

Men of a certain age often do. People assume it’s a cry for help or a last tilt at hip. But I think it’s exhaustion.

Strauch shakes his head. Not just exhaustion. Your flesh, the male outer coating, gets stretched and thin as you pass fifty and you start to cut easily. Every time I shaved, my face was nicked here and slashed there. I staggered out the bathroom with my neck and cheeks festooned with blobs of tissue. I looked deranged. I thought why am I so shit at this suddenly? The skin degrades. I put away the razor. But the beard that sprouted was almost completely white. I turned into grand-dad in a fortnight.

I’m surprised at this much vanity.

Why shouldn’t I care?

I plan to ditch the beard when I get back to London.

You have to teach yourself to shave again. You can’t hack away at your cheeks like in your twenties. You must go easy on yourself. This isn’t a metaphor or a lesson. 

There is probably a named psychological condition for seeing metaphors in everything. 

A Cut Throat Razor

Lunch is done. We resume with the bikes, joining a bridleway that descends between fields of acid yellow and pale green, taking the long route down the valley and across its eastern flank and finally back up again. 

My arse is saddle sore. Strauch makes a crack about chaffinches and chaffing that doesn’t work. As we begin the return climb, we cycle along an empty road bounded both sides by lines of tall skinny trees planted at regular intervals. My sister told me once repetitive trunks can hypnotise drivers. But we seem fine rising up into the dense cover of woodland as heavy black clouds start to gather above. 

The light thickens and darkens in notches as we conclude the circuit, getting back to Strauch’s village just as the rain starts to fall. The spitting turns to pelting it down as we hand back the bike and helmet at the rental shop. The owner looks inside my headgear. He glances my way and is about to say something but walks off in silence.

Although it’s only fifty metres from the bike shop to home, it’s too far now the rain’s turned to stair-rods. We go into the cafe for coffee and biscuits and fruit salad. The young man behind the counter has a Pepe the Frog T shirt and no customers. He smiles at Strauch, who starts to sneeze. The sneezes are small and muted and quite amusing. The Great Writer sneezes like a cat. But so frequently, the small eruptions almost merge into one continuous but under-powered complaint.

The young man hands Strauch a wad of napkins. Strauch says it’s an allergy and nothing to do with the rain or cold. He wipes his nose and eyes and tells me that he started a new book over Christmas.

It’s called Headless Body in Topless Bar. 

Good title, Great Writer, I say.

It’s a story of a man who is broken and fixes himself. I want a happy ending.

Happy ending is not a phrase I’m comfortable with any more.

What’s that supposed to mean?

I pull a pained face. I wrote a book about pornography, as you know, and ever since, whenever I walk past a beauty shop advertising facials, I just remember all my porn research. It just lodges there, one has little control over such responses. In the same way, I mentally associate happy ending with something that occurs not in fairytales, but in massage parlours. It’s ruined the concept for me.

My happy ending will NOT take place in a massage parlour, declares Strauch. Nothing will occur in a knocking shop. That’s not everybody’s happy ending. Mine is, was, inspired by the misery of Christmas. 

Christmas was never your kind of cheer.

I thought there must be a better way to grapple with how shit the festive period makes me feel and decided to create something. In my life there have been occasions where I have felt broken down. Sometimes there are reasons to feel wretched. But I think also you get into bad habits, while time passes, and later this pessimism is revealed as a dumb way to have spent your time on Earth. Kafka wrote as a young man: ‘I could live and I do not live.’ Because he was too neurotic. It’s in his letters and journals. He just… He just worried and fixated and sucked the joy out of existence.

The years flick by, Kafka cleaves to angst, his loyal companion. And then one day the original Great Writer learns that he’s actually going to die and he’s appalled: ‘I died my whole life long and now I will really die.’ The regret. Who wants to be a cartoon misery from a cheap popular print.

You? Me? Anybody?

Seriously. Listen. The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. You may dislike like him. But I think he’s a great artist and inspiration. For me, he’s the man. Bernhard was sick from an early age. He was a grump with good reason, but appreciated and clung on to life. He wrote poetry and plays and fiction. But some of his best writing is the memoirs. You ought to give him a second try. Maybe it’s time for you. 

You think I’m ready?

One of his volume of memoirs has a brilliant title, Breath: A Decision. 

Chose life.

Bernhard describes a traumatic night he spent in a sanatorium surrounded by the nearly dead. He was only eighteen. All through his childhood he suffered from respiratory disease. During the winter of 1949, Bernhard got the flu, which grew into a serious lung infection and he was expected to die. He was given twenty four hours. They wheeled his bed into the death ward for his final night, parked alongside other beds with elderly patients quietly slipping away. 

Every half hour through the night a nurse came and lifted Bernhard’s hand, then dropped it again. At some point in the early hours, Bernhard woke at the sound of a pair of porters dressed in grey who had arrived with a tin coffin, into which they lifted the corpse of the man in the next bed. As the cadaver was being removed, the nurse checked Bernhard’s pulse: ‘she lifts my hand again, as though waiting for me to die. Now I want to live.’

I’m writing an opening scene like that for Headless. A man decides to stay alive and get fixed. That’s what The Singing Detective was all about, getting fixed. I keep going back to The Singing Detective when I write – that kind of complex narrative with a simple story arc. 

So, the story is going well?

No, Badly! I can’t match the title to the story and the words won’t come. It’s like peddaling through treacle.  

Change the title.

No. It’s the best one of my whole career. You tell me a better one.

My Wife’s a Cunt. 

He raises an eyebrow. You should’ve let me have that. Titles matter.

They do, you’re right. The sales reps were adamant. The print shop baulked. We couldn’t do it. Today, maybe yes. Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich the title Paper Moon guaranteed his film would be a hit.

Here Comes the Bogeyman. 

Where? I turn around in mock surprise. What Bogeyman? I look back at Strauch and laugh. But Strauch almost squirms. He refuses even to grin just a fraction. I feel stupid. 

I’ve always fancied a single word title, says the Great Writer. Never could find the right one. What about Joke? I just thought of it.

I realise that wasn’t funny of me.

We all need an edit button. Even the Editor needs an edit button.

The Annoying Son says I make a lot of ‘dad jokes’. 

He means bad jokes?

I think that’s often his opinion. Why is that specifically a dad joke though? The cracks I make are not consistently of the same character, or lameness. They are not always embarrassing. But lately they are uniformly rejected as such. It’s like having your humour Visa cancelled. 

He just hates you for being old. 

I think that his larger point is how could this senior generation, who know nothing of any interest, ever be funny? Is there any crime in Headless Torso?

Sort of. 

Is there a headless torso?

No.

A topless bar?

He shakes his head. 

So what is it?

It starts out when a man takes on a risky loan. He needs the money for his four-year-old son’s clown and balloon birthday party. He deliberates and deliberates and then acts suddenly and impulsively. He of course struggles to pay back the money. He then acts unwisely a second time to raise more funds to settle the original arrears. His debt is only deferred and now it is larger. Things spiral. Unlike you or me, he doesn’t hope it will just be okay somehow. He knows he has made a big mistake and realises the future won’t just fix itself. He will suffer. 

It’s like waiting for a bomb to drop. There appears to be no escape. This is imperative. I want the present to be filled with a dread of what may come next. The experience of living in the moment because the next moment your whole world may blow up. That’s what I want the reader to go through. It’s very hard to construct imminence.

I don’t get why you refuse to write crime?

It’s not for me. He gets hurt, he fixes himself. No decapitation, no stripper bar. Why should I cater for a market? 

To get sales. It’s a small tweak for a much higher yield.

To me it’s not a small tweak. It’s the whole world. Strauch starts pulling back fingers to count: Hammett, Jim Thompson, Elroy, Thomas Harris…. Agatha Christie… 

I interrupt. I know, heard it before, anyone who writes crime rides second class. 

He nods. The rain is stopping. Let’s go for a walk. I’ll show you the church. There’s also a moody graveyard with lots of dead souls.

They keep calling me.

The air is refreshed and the light has been revived by the storm. But the church is locked and we can only stand and admire from the outside.

It’s ancient. Anglo Saxon, I suggest.

Strauch shakes his head. Not that ancient. Some of the chancel dates back to the thirteenth century, but most of it’s fourteenth.

I thought it was much older. Now I’m disappointed.  

Fourteenth century is still pretty old. 

I wanted to feel awe.

The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Does that help with the awe?

I tilt my head. Really? 

In 1085, the Domesday Book notes the presence of a village called —— A slightly different spelling to how we have it today. The settlement’s population at that time was four villagers with smallholdings. One of them was called Bigot. 

There’s always been that side to East Anglia.

Also itemised in the Domesday Book is the village meadow, which we now call the Green, and some acreage of land and ploughs of various value.

A Norman Church with a Round Tower, in East Anglia
a Norman church, round tower, no battlements

You memorised Wikipedia. Shame, I was certain a round tower denotes Anglo Saxon.

But Strauch shakes his head. Norman. 

The tower is fat and topped with small battlements. Strauch explains that these may have been defensive, but more likely just decorative. I’m not sure whether to look bored or fascinated by The Great Writer’s history lecture. And then his phone makes a sound and the monologue ends. 

Strauch has five missed calls all popped up at once. But his signal flips again, leaving him unable to reply or retrieve any voice mail. He’s suddenly very cross. It sets his cheeks afire. 

The graveyard is as expected – serene, heavy, pea green, with the usual mossy, faded tablets tilting and subsiding. But Strauch is angry with his phone and doesn’t want to read the dates on the gravestones.

He says we should go. We leave by a different exit and walk in the wrong direction for home, down a steep cobbled path that leads onto the back of the workers cottages. A rook is sitting on a dry stone wall. I think it’s a rook. I stare at its malevolent face and get an ASMR frit, with the bird pecking at my finger, breaking the skin and chewing the flesh. 

I nearly ran over a seagull the other day, I tell Strauch. In a park near the river. 

I don’t even want these five calls. And yet I’m fuming. Which river?

The Thames, of course. The river in the middle of London. I was on my bike trying to get home and the seagull just stopped in front of me.

It’s moronic to be angry over a phone signal.

The stupid gull wouldn’t budge. At least a pigeon knows when to clear off. Pigeons respect the code.

I want to destroy my phone.

Maybe it was its first day in the big city. I dislike birds, but I don’t want to run them over. So I had to wait for it to waddle on.

You once told me you had a phobia for birds. And loose buttons. I thought you made it up to sound interesting. 

It’s not really a phobia with the birds – not any longer. I got over it through watching them fly. You have to admire a creature that flies. The Annoying Son used to chase pigeons when he was little and I didn’t stop him. I allowed it because I don’t like them, they make me sick. I told a woman on a date at the time that my son chased pigeons and she was horrified that I permitted such meanness, as she described it. I said, fuck the pigeons, and the temperature between us froze over. We were getting along and there was something romantic in the air, and then I had to go and malign the flying rats, and she recoiled – like I’d revealed to her a dark heart that she could never, ever love. The date did not end well. 

I watch Strauch clench his fists. I don’t want to look too closely and make a thing of it, but obviously I’m curious if the fists will just get tighter and tighter if I don’t stop talking.

He mutters grimly. He says, I sometimes fantasise about dismantling my phone and disposing of the dismembered parts. The battery, then the chassis, the sim, the cover… each component dumped down different sewer holes by the side of the road. Do you?

Do I have your fantasies? No. I love my smartphone. Are you ok?

You tell long stories. 

They’re getting longer. I realise that. I don’t know which ones suit, and are interesting, or when to keep it shut.

Shut probably 

Harsh

If you find you’re asking the question, then the answer’s likely to be shut. I genuinely don’t think that is harsh. He bears his teeth when he speaks in earnest. I’m obviously distressed about my phone, he exclaims.

Yes, but why?

I don’t know!

I suffer from dilated thoughts. It’s not always that simple to figure them out on the spot. I often listen to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast and he talks and talks and presumably this is how he is off air and it’s far too much. But he also has interesting things to say.

There’s the difference. Key word interesting.

More harsh. Some of what I say is worth it. I know this is true, whatever your digs and impatience. When you spend a lot of time by yourself, as, Great Writer, you currently do, then it’s possible for a person’s listening skills to deteriorate. 

You could be right. I once did a reading with Ellis. 

I know. I was there. 

This was in Australia.

Okay, perhaps I mis-remembered.

American Psycho was a novel I could’ve written. That’s how I felt at the time. I resented that he wrote what he did. I had planned out a story concerning a middle class mugger using a small blade – an existentially-glazed banker in a designer suit robbing ordinary  people after dark. But then I had to bin it because of Ellis.

He’s an odd mix. I like some of Ellis’s books, but he’s kinda bland and LA. You feel me? This man’s all-time most totally awesome band is The Eagles. 

Back to birds again. Is that you’re attempt at southern Californian?

Ellis claims he’s made himself into an optimist when he used to be a pessimist. That one must switch sides to grow old well.

Just press a button labelled Optimism – that’s all it takes? 

He says prepare for trouble if you don’t.

I can’t see that working for me. It only takes a bad phone signal to send me round the loop, thoughts in the basement.

Strauch looks up through the trees at the clear sky above – not angry, but sad. I suspect that’s why I don’t see my sons so often. They find me depressing. The eldest complains of problems with dark moods and ‘negative conceptualising’. Last time, he said did I think maybe it was because of me.

The moment we learn we can’t go back in time and change things. Are you miserable? 

Strauch’s eyes pop at the question. Seriously? 

I’ve seen worse. You’ve always had jaded tendencies. We both have that style of being.

I have tried to fix it. I hoped getting married and leaving London. Yoga and pilates and helping with literacy in the village school. Doing the weekly shop for the old guy who lives next door. Lifts to the clinic, pool tournaments at the pub… And on and on. But, fuck! Still. 

You’re better off than you were in London. I mean, for sure we all wish we could rub out or forget the past. Or even just come to terms with it.

It’s not the past. Now is what counts. Is it mindfulness? Is that what it’s going to take – I’ve got to meditate now? 

I shake my head. I hear ECT is making a comeback.

You’re mocking my cry for help?

Okay. Sorry. Here is what you must do: Take your thoughts. Put them in a box. Remove the box from your brain and lock it away in the cellar. Bury the key.

Strauch’s mouth swings open. 

It’s the box solution. I heard it on a podcast. It’s a popular trick in China. Seriously. And for back-up, I recommend to you the power of the sigh. 

Is that also big in China?

We should all sigh more. I do it a lot. People at work must wonder. It’s my quietism and I find it soothing. The Annoying Son thinks the sigh is a judgment. Vela (Ex No2) was also suspicious of the sigh. But then, she didn’t like me tapping on my coffee mug. She considered finger tapping a hostile gesture, a sign that I was thinking critical thoughts – all of them, of course, were sure to be about her. 

Vela was not an easy person. 

She was also mistaken. I was just having a morning reverie. That’s the thing, what we all need to remember, that largely speaking, most of the time, we’re thinking about ourselves – Not you, Stupid!

Arguments with my Wife. That’s a book I wanted to write. And Five-a-Side Nights. You know, middle aged blokes on Astroturf after work. 

It’s the knees that go first.

But you can’t just plunder your life, your friends and exes all the time.

In life we all must make experiences.

It’s not an honourable way to earn a living.

TS Eliot said just do it.

TS Eliot did not say Just Do It. He wasn’t flogging trainers. He wrote something lyrical as self justification for lowly theft. 

A Lost Shopping Trolley Falls Over
a lost shopping trolley falls over

Our alternative tour of the village’s back end concludes with a trudge across a saturated patch of wasteland, with mud, gravel and puddles. It’s the place where the community’s lost shopping trolleys come to pasture. There’s also an abandoned tractor. I think of my last cast-off tractor – in a large green bush last summer, on a hot island half way down Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. 

I tell Strauch about my holiday on the island with no cars and no bikes. He says Rebecca wants to go walking in Mallorca in the  summer. I should be happy for this but I just don’t understand holidays. 

That’s because you’re permanently on one.

I’m the busy homemaker. 

Great Writers folding towels. Could be a photo series. They did authors and their cats

Some conversation is so banal, it doesn’t deserve to be dialogue. 

I don’t know about that. I think it’s a miracle we even manage Hello. We’re the only species to have come so far.

Strauch looks puzzled. I like a disrupted face. 

There’s an anti-loneliness initiative in Vancouver called the Say Hello Project.

Now he sighs. He says, we only ever get each other wrong. There’s a space between us and the sucker won’t budge. Not you and me specifically. Everyone.

Even with your partner?

He shrugs and toe-pokes a stone, which skittles a bit and plops into a brown puddle. 

We put up fences for a reason, don’t you think? To coral some space. I think it’s possible these protected margins are a good thing for many people. In my twenties and thirties I often had this feeling of being suspended behind a kind of membrane, stuck in a bubble, like Truman, waiting for life to begin. Really begin. Of course, life had actually started, life was flowing past in fact. But I hadn’t plunged in. Or, been swept away. It took me some while to recognise the space as protective and beneficial.

But that’s depressing. It’s too tantalising and simply wearisome – the misunderstandings, having to keep explaining yourself.

Think about you and me and everyone else you know or have ever met as a huge, ongoing comedy of human misunderstanding. That not getting each other is the juice of life. 

How benign you make it sound.

Frost, Thomas Bernhard
Austria on ice

In the evening we cook a meal together and drink a lot and wake the next morning with hangovers. But no broken lamps.  It’s time for me to return to London. The Great Writer drives me to the station.

Why Strauch?

Why must you know?

You’re so reluctant to explain. It makes me curious.

Well, it’s no great revelation. It’s a silly in-joke for my own pleasure. You won’t like the explanation. I’m not saying it’s true of us in any way. Okay?

I nod. I say, Fine – but I’m suspicious.

In Frost, Thomas Bernhard’s first novel.

Him again.

A work of fiction which distills everything Bernhard would ever write about or communicate to the world – an unnamed apprentice describes a visit he makes to see an famous older painter. The artist is an eccentric misanthrope buried in a small hotel in the mountains. 

So, it’s not just me seeking cultural comparisons for this trip.

The apprentice insists on keeping his own identity and purpose secret. He accompanies the great artist on his daily walks. The apprentice captures the painter’s chatter about the world and life and the minutiae of his daily habits. The apprentice tries to be a witness. But this is misguided and self deceiving, as in truth the younger male is using the time with the artist to learn how to be a writer, and gradually comes to recognise that merely faithfully representing the painter’s elusive ideas and deeply pessimistic worldview – the painter has spoiled several of his canvases as ‘worthless’ and is preoccupied by thoughts of his own suicide – is a nugatory venture. That language isn’t enough to convey the way of the artist. That the apprentice must take on some of his subject’s identity if he hopes to create something plausible and of lasting value. The painter is grim because he is in pain and the apprentice also starts to feel hurt. 

Stockholm Syndrome?

The painter keeps walking – because ‘stasis is death.’ It’s winter and biting cold and the painter dreads the ‘iron frost’ that will cover everything.

Now it’s Game of Thrones.

It often snows on their walks. But they continue nonetheless. The painter complains of feeling pain from the cold and yet insists that they keep walking. But then at the end of the story, one morning the apprentice over-sleeps. He wakes and goes looking for the painter, but the painter has left already, even though it’s snowing very heavily. The painter disappears into the blizzard and never comes back. The conclusion is suicide. 

The painter’s name is Strauch?

Yes.

But you…?

No. Not at all. I’m just messing around. Mainly it’s an annoying name for you to have to type. I think it’s Strauch like crouch. But feel free to use a hard K if you prefer.

We talk about Game of Thrones. Strauch argues the show is really not about ancient civilisations, origin myths and dragons, but simply politics, which means the story will never end. 

I’m addicted to politics at the moment. 

Same.

At the station, Obey is waiting in the same place as two days ago,  standing with his arms crossed as before. Has he come to see me off?

Who is that man? 

Clint?

He’s a bit odd, no?

He likes the morning train. Think of him as our version of the Log Lady from Twin Peaks. 

Strauch walks with me to the train platform. The train arrives and we do an awkward handshake embrace. 

The shovels are waiting for us, says Strauch, with a final cackle. He taps the side of nose, old Romanian proverb.

The carriage doors close but the train doesn’t move. Strauch waits for a bit, then gets bored and abandons the platform. The Romanian proverb means we’re all going to die. I get my book out to read. 

The train still won’t start. I stand up and look out the window seeking enlightenment. Strauch is stood outside the station, talking to Obey. They’re both laughing. Perhaps Strauch has joined a rural cult. Maybe Strauch has become evil.

The train slowly moves out. As it crawls past the derelict buildings, I take aone last picture of the Shin Fain engraving. And then it’s fields. 

I flick through the Goya book and the cartoons of barbarity and shake my head. I retrieve my tablet to resume with a novel I started reading in Spain. It’s called First Love, by Gwendoline Riley. The narrative plots the end of a marriage in small pieces. The emotionally fragile husband crumbles as the couple’s relationship falters. He stops blaming his wife, turning his anger inwards: ‘That’s how I am. Because how I am, now, is I’m an arsehole and a fucking cunt. OK? I didn’t used to be an arsehole and a fucking cunt but it’s how I’ve ended up, OK?”

I sigh. Self-laceration. Not now, not with my hangover. So I wrote this instead.

An East Anglian Train
get me out of here

 

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