An epic fail. England at the football. One naked bottom. The dog that barked. A woman on the verge of disappearing…
IT’S COMING HOME… Sunday July 12, 2021. Eleven months after his demise, finally Dad’s ashes are going under, buried in a Norfolk churchyard.
The burial is at the church where Dad ministered as parish deacon for many years – a familiar robed figure delivering sermons, doing weddings, turning pale slender wafers into the body of Christ. It’s where he buried fellow Catholics for a cash stipend and was the venue for his own send off: a fixed place for a wandering man. In this way, Dad’s coming home.
Coming home on the same weekend that across the country all kinds of folk are singing and chanting the same refrain. Everywhere you go. Saying it, texting it, sharing in expectation the good news that finally It’s Coming Home.
Except there’s a hitch. It’s England’s way. Dad’s ashes have gone missing at the crux moment. It’s just after eleven o’clock mass. A fine rain scatters on the breeze as in the near corner of the churchyard the congregation gather in clusters around a freshly-excavated hole the size of carry-on luggage. They wait patiently as the parish priest gets on the phone to the funeral director asking, where’s Ron’s urn?
In no time an embarrassed man with a downward gaze arrives and respectfully the cask is lowered into the earth with a sash and a prayer. Those who feel an urge are encouraged to sprinkle holy water into the hole. He watches and waits and then steps forward for a last moment of reflection. Loose, vague thoughts flip through his head as he peers at the box of ashes in the turned earth, but nothing substantial materialises as the sun comes out from behind the clouds. Suddenly it’s hot. And time for lunch.
Three hours later he’s on a local train heading cross country. It’s going to need three connecting services and two hundred minutes, but currently he is on schedule to be home for the start of the game with time to spare. He mulls Southgate’s selection options as down carriage, across the other side of the automatic doors, four men dressed as crusaders are singing unlike choristers, It’s Coming Home! It’s Coming Home! Cans aloft. FOOTBALL’S COMING HOME!
At Norwich station, a circle of young women sat cross legged on the marble floor sing It’s Coming Home in rounds as a steady stream of men in England shirts arrive into the station chanting It’s Coming Home.
After a fifteen month embargo on public singing, the whole county’s belting out the same few words. Is this history happening live? Will he only properly appreciate how momentous twenty years from now?
He’s falling for the mood and getting excited, hoping his journey home just flies past. But as he searches for the platform for his next departure, hope starts to crater. His connecting train’s been scrubbed. Cancelled!
Don’t say that! Not again! (Exclamations all over the place!) Really unbelievable! Never on a Sunday. Each time he takes a train at the weekend there’s a problem. Don’t ever plan a train trip on the day that comes between Saturday and Monday; unless you crave an epic obstacle course of broken-down services, failed connections, and the slow grind of the replacement bus.
The main notice board says there is a replacement bus for his binned train and the bus will leave from the station car park in fifteen minutes. He scans for a sympathetic member of staff ushering bothered travellers to the place to queue, or a courteous printed sign, maybe just something hand scribbled but pointing usefully. There is nothing. Harrumphing and huffing, he goes looking for a bus he already hates, moving quite fast for a man with a large blue canvas case.
He needs this bus. The cancelled train’s lost him an hour at a stroke. He requires a bus to be here and gearing up for departure. He finds instead a queue of abandoned passengers next to a vacant bay facing into the sun. He takes his place and starts to bake, looking this way and that, straining for a rescue vehicle to roll into view. Next to him down queue a man with a grey beard is waiting in the searing heat in a dark suit with waistcoat and red wool tie. He asks what’s happened to the bus. The impervious Suit gestures like a lord to the empty space his rue palpable but unspoken.
He doesn’t understand why the bus isn’t here now parked and ready. The build-up to the game on TV, he’s lost that for sure; but home in time for kick-off is still on – if the bus hurries along. But where’s it gone? He already knows, of course. All of you reading know too. The bus isn’t coming. That’s where it’s gone. He sensed the awful truth soon as he went looking. Because he needed it to be on time, urgent and swift, the bus was only ever going to be late, sluggish, or non-existent. He’s just too fried to admit it as across the high-res screen inside his head rolls a replay from last night’s dream: him as a young man, bare-headed as a snooker ball but for one solitary hair dangling off the top of his head.
Five minutes crawl past as they wait for the bus. Then another twenty minutes drag past slow and hot. How long must they wait? ‘How long have I been here?’ Samuel Beckett. ‘What a question. An-hour-a-month-a-year-a-century, depending on what I meant by here, and me, and being and there.’
He could bail out for today. Go find a hotel room, stay local for the night and travel home in the morning. Or hire a cab maybe, for the two hundred mile return journey. Pay a huge ransom for England. Throw more money at a weekend that’s already killing him. He could do these things, but would actually much prefer to ride out of here aboard the train on which he splurged a fortune.
Wrapped up in tense with a clenched tummy and his chest tight, he should work on maintaining calm but can’t stop fuming in the hot air. A freezing winter’s night from the late nineteen eighties comes back to taunt him – waiting long past an hour for a night bus from Kennington to Clapham. How lost to the world he felt that freezing night the night bus sailed past his stuck-out arm as if he were a ghost. And here he is midlife, the buses still pissing on him. He had years to insulate against their randomness but did nothing. He could hit his head against a hard object, but his phone vibrates and the violent mood disperses. The Annoying Son is texting, checking in from a fast train to London, serenely bound for Liverpool St basking in air con and comfortably on time. ‘It’s Coming Home, Dad!’
He smiles at the phone, not from where I’m standing, and sends back a smiley football.
More vital minutes go past without a bus. They should be long ways down the road as finally he rouses himself and schlepps back inside the station, hunting for an answer he’s not going to like. It’s Coming Home, the cross-legged girls sing as he informs the station information officer his replacement bus appears to have gone missing. The station information officer says what replacement bus and gets on the phone.
Tapping the rim of the bureau counter, waiting for an answer from HQ, the station information officer has the same face as the woman who taught him Shakespeare at uni. She waits and waits on the telephone line, tapping with fingernails painted as flags of St George. Then hangs up with an unwanted newsflash that the replacement bus isn’t coming. The train operator forgot to book a driver.
He hears these words and knows immediately kick-off’s gone. He stares at the station information officer and she stares back. You are about to miss a massive game this big because the stupid shonky rail operator, the inter-city train conglomerate with rapacious share options, forgot to book a driver. (Half time?) Do you know how much I paid for this train ticket? I mean, hundreds. (It’s true.) He recites the exact figure. The station information officer looks genuinely wounded, telling him the next replacement service will depart from the front of the station in thirty minutes. He returns outside, rejoins the long queue, unsure if he should believe anything he’s been told. The girls keep singing It’s Coming Home. He thinks maybe the girls are a cult.
Two conflicting thoughts over and over: You can’t miss the game; You’re missing the game. Meanwhile, the sun burns his cheeks. (Don’t ever leave this face outside on a bright day, his dermatologist warned.) Head shaking, fists clenching, here on desolation row his interior structure’s wobbling. Momentarily life looks like a big mistake. All his early promise as a young man versus what it signifies to be missing kick off – the good and the bad down the years, the hits and misses, all of ‘him’ gets fed through a quick-turnaround accounting machine inside his brain, neurons crunching the data. And the bottom line is – finding your happiness hanging on a replacement bus service represents an epic fail. It means your time on Earth has been mis-spent, that you are not a winner in this life.
He buried his father to discover he’s a loser. In this dire car park the scales fall from the eyes. It appears everything in his life so far was leading to this moment of clarity. How did it come to pass, stuck in a hot queue missing England’s BIG moment? He had so many summers to get his ducks into line. When England played West Germany in the World Cup semis of 1990, he wasn’t late for the game. When there was potential – with so much of his life still ahead of him, rather than rising tides of regrets – he wasn’t held up in car park, he was in his seat in a pub in Walworth well ahead of kick-off, a beer and a fag on the go. Thirty one years later – he can’t even get a ride.
He needs to sit for his bitter moment. But the pavement’s too hot and anyway he’s wearing his good linen trousers. The good linen trousers go with the jacket he bought from Folk for getting married to Gala; who at this moment in time is somewhere in the Fenlands, taking the slow scenic route home in her shiny red car.
In no hurry to be back for the football, it’s possible his wife has pulled over to stretch her legs and eat an apple. Maybe she’s stopped again at Bicker; like yesterday on the drive down. She took that picture of a wrecked building on Bicker’s Cemetery Lane. He could be there with her rather than having a lonely catastrophe. They could be discussing the village ruins set against a spooky hill-less landscape, concepts of the weird and the eerie. The newlyweds together and football put in its place. But here he is, midlife, stranded and solitary in a sun-blasted car park. In this low moment, what the hero’s narrative requires is an unexpected saviour to ride into view.
We assume that through our lives, across this existence, we inhabit a world that is really indubitably out there. But this is actually false, writes neuro scientist Anil Seth. It’s the mind that generates ‘reality’, according to Seth: an hallucination based on what you expect to see generated by the ‘prediction machine’ that is our brain. In which case, Imagine me a bus.
And lo, here it comes. A white minivan arrives into his Sunday story, stopping just five metres to his left. (Good work!) The minivan is headed for Peterborough station where he’s due to board his next train. A minivan sent to revive his flagging fortunes. Just so long as he moves quickly. Already a large mob’s gathering at the front end of the van. High numbers, but he’s not missing on this. He has elbows. A working brain. Engaging the rear door of the white Transit, he slips inside and grabs the best seat with the extra leg room. (Gala often tells him he’s a survivor.)
They’re getting out of Norwich. He’s coming home. Flash existential calamity cancelled as the van crawls through the city streets, picking up speed across the long beige flatlands. It’s back on again. Kick-off’s going to be a stretch, but he’s decided all this uncertainty is actually exciting. He’s not another time loser, just a man riding through history – from minivan to local service to fast train – galloping up the eastern flatlands, chasing time as the fields whip past the window.
THE REAL CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE 2021
It is on the dot of seven forty five Sunday July 12 that his concluding train rolls into the windy northern town. First and fast out the carriage he hits the ground running. Charging down the platform, as it was written, weaving through travellers, this a way, that a way, cradling the canvas case in his arms, ploughing through the ticket barrier, picking up pace across the station concourse, his long legs are going their fastest in a long time.
He has committed himself to being first man to the cab rank, and though his heart pointedly aches, he meets his target. Advising the taxi driver of the intense state of urgency, they take off immediately and speed east across the city under a peach sky. Up, up along streets lined with bars with big screen TVs blaring today’s one and only song, they swing north towards the windy hill. At the lights by the fork junction, up past the hospital, his cab surges through on amber as a Deliveroo cyclist swings across their line of acceleration. Inches from being upended, the cyclist doesn’t flinch, just keeps pedalling, ascending the clear stretch of tarmac at its steepest.
He’s paying off the cab with his keys in the front door at seven fifty nine. As the TV screen comes alive, just as the game begins, he glances through the front window for no sensible reason.
An airborne insect drifts past the pane of glass as a visual micro-event while he gazes into the dark and wet eyes of his opposite neighbour’s dog. Slumped across the stoop on the other side of the road and takin’ it slowly in the warm air, the old mutt eyeballs him back, unruffled at the conjucture of hype and fuss, just the same serene canine as any given Sunday. ‘Human beings live artificially,’ wrote Diogenes of Sinope (360 BC), ‘and would do well to study the dog.’ From inside a nest of temporalities he surmises the wisdom of dogs could well be fathomless, as he exhales what feels like his first breath in hours. And then Kieran Trippier crosses for Luke Shaw to score and England’s slow slide towards defeat has begun.
At the last penalty he sighs a regretful sigh. His days of extreme cursing a shootout failure are over. And anyway, whatever Italy may think just happened, the truth is Chelsea are champions of Europe 2021.
He has the poster for proof. It is a fine, fine thing he did getting the Subbuteo tribute bought, framed and pinned on the wall. (He should Tweet about it.) Once a day, at least once a day, he sees the poster and smiles. He’s doing it now as he heads for the bedroom and across to the large window.
Down in the street, all is dark and quiet and tranquil with no obvious signs of a nation in despair. As he starts to close the curtains, the woman diagonally opposite gets up off the toilet in her bright-lit bathroom and flashes her bare bum at the street.
She doesn’t realise she just flashed although she does it all the time. She and her boyfriend seem oblivious that the opacity of the bathroom glazing isn’t adequate: that if you stand up from the toilet, turning your back on the window, you expose your butt. You either roll down a blind or publicly display buttocks.
As he swivels away from the closed curtains, he imagines an anonymous note through their letterbox, Use Your Blind. But as he types ‘bare bum’ he wonders if it belongs on the page, must everything be shared? ‘There are things we do all the time in real life that we don’t put in our stories,’ writes Sigrid Nunez in The Friend. The Nunez novel concerns a New York teacher who inherits a giant dog off a dead colleague. At one of the creative writing classes she teaches, a grown-up student has a five-year-old preoccupied by the real-life stuff missing from bedtime stories. ‘When do they go to the bathroom? Mommy,’ he asks, confused, interrupting their reading often. ‘When do they go to the bathroom?
Each time he looks out his window and sees the woman with the bottom busy in the bathroom, like we all of us at times are busy in the bathroom, he turns his eyes downwards or shifts his head to face away, wishing this wasn’t happening. Some mornings around eight he notices the woman with the bottom coming out the house with her boyfriend. There they are now, the boyfriend getting in the car. The woman with the bottom waving goodbye as her bloke takes off down the hill.
She watches his car disappear and rapidly steps back onto the pavement as another auto arrives outside her door. It’s the new neighbour’s white Audi pulling into the newly-vacated space, dispersing damp hedge cuttings off the tarmac, details that sting the spectator.
It was roughly a week ago that Newbie moved into the house across the way. He thinks maybe the day after the football. She immediately drew attention because her mini schnauzer yaps loads, long and loudly. So far some days it feels like barking is all the schnauzer does. Barks and barks, putting the neighbourhood on edge.
The Newbie’s moved into the house where the old hound lived. He already misses the seasoned pooch’s old-timer face. An absence made worse by the replacement schnauzer’s persistent complaints. Each day he hears the schnauzer as he works. Whenever Newbie goes out for a drive, her put-out ball of grey fur takes up a position at the first floor window and shouts out his objections, howling through the glass. Don’t go! I love you! he barks. Bring snacks! he yaps. The chewy ones!
The schnauzer spends long lonely hours on guard, observing the street, protesting at anything that moves. People walk by, delivery vans arrive and depart, the postie, builders, various cats out strolling for the afternoon – Woof! Woof! Woof! ‘How puzzling human unhappiness must be to them,’ writes Nunez on dogs versus humans. ‘We who can fill our dishes any time and with as much food as we like, who can go outside whenever we wish, and run free’.
Does the Newbie realise what happens when she drives off? She probably doesn’t want to know. It seems we make our dogs devoted pets then disappear – breaking their hearts daily. How well do we understand our animals? ‘We’re finding out that dogs are a lot more mysterious and complicated than we ever thought,’ suggests Nunez. A barking schnauzer is a cartoon of canine distress surely. Unless our projections have got dogs all wrong. What if the yapping schnauzer deploys an efficient emotional management system humans can only dream of with his barking the expulsion of affect, not its compound.
An efficient emotional management system would help a lot now that his left-hand neighbours have started drilling and banging again: daytime, evenings and weekends with their never-ending house fix. Such a quiet street yet so much disturbance. He can mostly blank the drill while writing. But today’s Sunday, mid afternoon, and so so hot again. Struggling to stay mindful, he finds he is drawn to the first floor window as Newbie drives off and a volley of fresh yapping explodes. He imagines the schnauzer dead.
Today is breaking point. Today’s the day the schnauzer just won’t quit. And something brittle cracks and soon there are residents come out onto the street. One is palpably fried at all the yapping. He sees the Artist at Number 15, ordinarily the cheeriest neighbour on the block, as she remonstrates to the young guy from No17 about the racket while as the young guy from No17 pegs a chain of white underpants to the washing line in his front yard. No17 smiles sympathetically. But even from this far away, on the other side of the street, it’s plain to see the Artist’s half cracked with stress. Un-boundaried, she strides up the hill and through the Newbie’s front gate. Getting up close to the schnauzer’s residence she shakes a fist then shouts through the window: Shush!
Bark! says the schnauzer
Bark! Shush! Louder. Bark! Shush! Louder. Bark! Shuuuush!
‘People think dogs are simple,’ writes Nunez, ‘and we like to believe we know what goes on in their heads. Unless they develop our language we’ll never know them at all.’ Tell this to the Artist as she goes verbal to verbal – Shush! Bark! Shush! Bark!.
With the Artist raving on like this, he realises it is time to go outside, just as the woman with the bottom also arrives on the scene. She emerges round the hedge and out of her front garden as he descends the steps outside his house and into the front yard. Although he doesn’t see himself as an ‘agent of change’ in the unfolding drama, he thinks some input is necessary, crossing the street in long strides. He contemplates the offending schnauzer and scratches his beard. The woman with the bottom looks up at the schnauzer and wiggling her nose says she thinks the dog is a He. The young guy from No17 says he thinks so too. The Artist tells the group the dog’s giving her a migraine. He looks at her closely. This is the nearest they’ve stood since he moved into the street. The eyes of the Artist reveal hard times from years ago. When he remarks that the poor dog is distressed, he is equally speaking of his neighbour.
By floating the idea of canine angst he hopes to open their collective perspective to each and every life being but a tiny part of a huge entanglement. He supposes this neighbourhood event could make it onto Nextdoor. Possibly already someone on the street has ‘e-moaned’ about the untended dog that barked. Could be one of today’s Top Posts by dinnertime. Of course, he’d prefer not to be on Nextdoor, as it doesn’t fit his self-image, but the Artist needs support as she shrilly declares that either the dog stops or her head might explode.
The woman with the bottom looks concerned at the escalation and changes the subject.
‘And another thing,’ she says. ‘To be fair, I don’t see why “She” can’t park outside her own house.’ [She being the Newbie]
Shush! says the Artist.
‘Fine. If she doesn’t want to stare out the window and see her Audi, I get that. But why does she think I want to look at her car?
Everybody needs good neighbours.
TOXIC SPACE DUST
A late summer release on Curzon Home Cinema, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is a little-big movie from Argentina; a dreamlike drift only seventy minutes long featuring a young man in Buenos Aries who lives by himself with his dog. Although the hero’s dog is silent, his close neighbours claim the dog barks loudly and too often. It’s raining on the evening they gather on the hero’s doorstep for an awkward dog discussion under a range of umbrellas. There’s no heat to the conference as people are unable to argue while sharing an umbrella.
The hero listens to his neighbour’s objections. Befuddled, he nonetheless agrees to act, to take his good-natured dog into work, which promptly gets him fired. A scarcity of replacement jobs causes the hero to move out to the country to house-sit for an acquaintance. But his dog is run over and dies and the hero drifts into casual employment picking vegetables out in the fields. As grey clouds and stray insects momentarily seize the viewer’s attention, an ostensibly quirky movie subtly coalesces into a contemplation of alienated labour. The hero explains to a guy he meets at a party how he worries capitalism’s bad for your health. All those urban cyclists, for example, rushing pizzas through the city streets, jumping red lights at breakneck speed, risking death for a boxed meal ordered off an app.
Shortly a comet flies across the Argentinian sky releasing an invisible spray of toxic space dust. Every time they try to stand up, the fruit pickers collapse in a heap due to the alien contaminant. The toxic space dust exposes dramatic social disparities as only wealthy citizens can afford glass-bubble protector helmets. The less wealthy simply have to crouch if they want to stay well. As the rich walk tall up and down the avenue, the broke scrabble by on all fours. (Like dogs.) The hero scrapes together funds for his own bubble helmet, but soon after he is mugged.
The following weekend, with lots of free time with Gala, opportunities to talk proliferate and he shares the story of The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet. On a rare trip into the city by bus, and crossing a quiet civic centre on foot, he explains about the sci-fi dust from outer space. Gala says maybe she’ll watch the film so don’t give too much away.
As they arrive at the city’s lead art gallery, they go sit inside a dark room to watch an art film about a woman who vanishes inside a magic tree. They are the only two people in the room watching. The magic tree is a portal leading to a parallel multiverse of tarot and illusion, where young women are inducted into a mysterious collective somehow located inside the brain of a giant woman learning to speak.
Georgina Starr’s art film, though called Quarantaine, is not about a pandemic, but the folkloric forty days of spring when occult forces rise up on Earth. Afterwards, over coffee, he tells Gala the film’s opening scenes reminded him of movies by Rivette and Antonioni. Sitting in the gallery’s tiled cafe, where the light is bright with beams of yellow, sharing their interpretations, Gala suggests that Quarantaine’s primary theme is the formation of identity. As the missing woman acquires speech she is admitted into the symbolic order. ‘A film, if psychoanalysed, will not straight out confess its preoccupations,’ wrote film critic Judith Williamson back in the nineteen eighties. ‘Finding out what a film desires means listening, reading between the lines, and looking for secret concerns.’
THE DISAPPEARING WIFE
He ponders over Gala’s thoughts and anecdotes and what is to be read between the lines of the things she tells him and whatever he says in reply. Perhaps this is something they could discuss after the gallery as they wend their way through the shopping district.
It’s early lunchtime and by now the streets are filled with shoppers and the city is wildly busy compared with the last fifteen months. At several traffic intersections ongoing road improvements make the pavements tight and too narrow for so many pedestrians with far fewer face masks than just a month ago. The best Covid-secure option is to step into the road and be run over by a bus.
To help get through this difficult transitional moment he points Gala to a ghost sign at the side of a building and the traces of an ad for Double Diamond, probably from the nineteen seventies, and next up a dead graphic for Lil’s Cafe. He smiles, says ghost signs are definitely ‘eerie’. Gala says can we get a cab?
From the taxi cab, Gala returns to her house; while he spends the rest of Saturday bunkered at his place on the other side of the hill. On Monday his wife next door comes to his home for a short visit, bringing him flowers picked from her garden, some blooms while he’s working. After a glass of water, Gala sets off again. As her walk progresses, she sends photos of pavement pointers chalked on the large stone slabs, leading somewhere still to be revealed.
She says she’ll report back on the pointer trail’s final destination but her texting ceases. He thinks back to Saturday’s art film. Discontinuous narratives and disappearing characters are central to the Modernist story. And yet according to the ancients almost the first act of representation, etched on stone walls long ago, was the tracing of the shadow of a lover about to depart, ‘on the threshold of vanishing’, wrote Pliny.