He dreamed he sang in front of a live audience but out of tune. Murdered On the Street Where You Live. Dismayed by his abject performance, he gave the crooning a second shot, but without improvement. Sharing dreams is to give yourself up.
He woke with a sore throat and through the day his nose felt blocked. ‘If you are singing badly in your dreams,’ suggests Pleasant Dream dot com, ‘it is an indication problems are headed your way.’ With the symptoms unchanged by late afternoon, he did a test that came back negative.
Online sleep guide Miller’s Guild dot com suggests ‘Dreaming of singing badly in front of an audience signals that you’re likely to suffer a public embarrassment in your waking life.’ He mentally crosses his fingers it’s not at work; recently the office toilet’s maverick soap dispenser sprayed white fluid across his trousers – bubbly white fluid.
It seems there are so many singing dreams that Dreaming and Sleeping dot com broke them down into subsets. There’s even a singing nuns page. Singing nuns, it claims, ‘relate to your love life’. Lately he watched Benedetta, with Virginie Efira playing a sexually adventurous medieval nun. But no singing. He thinks of two nuns he glimpsed years ago. Rewinds to him aged twenty, inter-railing round Europe and staring out the window of a slow train approaching Milan. Passing a level crossing, sat in an old Fiat two nuns were peeling bananas.
At the Lake
On Friday, with a long weekend ahead, they drive to the country and stop at a beauty spot south of the windy city. It’s hot but there’s woods with shade and an oval lake larger than they’d expected. In the lakeside cafe, the woman making their sandwiches says you best head up the slope rising above the lake for the long view. From the top, circle round using the scenic path, she says, all the way down to the water’s edge.
They agree to give it a go. Returning to the car park, Gala crosses to the machine to purchase four hour’s parking while he guards the open car. Hanging back out of the sun, staring at the pines, spruces and white birch, the birds singing into the future, he feels moved at the fading lilacs as a departing blue station wagon with dirty wheels crawls past, crunching up the gravel.
The departed wagon leaves the car park almost empty and suddenly silent under a cloak of absence. The birds have stopped. Beyond the trees the air is textural and the silver lake glitters with the sun slicing through the branches beneath the sky blue sky. In ancient times waterlands – lakes, fens, bogs and marshes – were considered special sites, where untamed powers and spirits loitered. He thinks that objectively this vista is not eerie, simply tranquil and charming. Still a morbid streak draws his thoughts towards Stranger by the Lake, the homicidal French movie with all those young men in trunks slaughtered by a serial killer at an idyllic lake.
Prefigurative thoughts of paradise gone bad foreshadow the arrival into view of two young men at the facing side of the car park. The two lads introduce jeopardy instantly, first leering at Gala – still bent before the Pay and Display, squinting – then swivelling their gaze and tracking across the empty lot, locating him fixed here in his shaded margin. The lads are early twenties and pale and already heading towards where he’s stood.
Both lads amble along, plainly full of stuff, kicking at stones in similar grey tops and large gold chains. In pre-history, gold was a portable embodiment of light and energy – signalling not simply wealth but a personal connection to the power of the sun. He resents these idle thoughts and for not staying in the moment. His cluttered brain needs a clear out but now’s not the time, as exuding a dense funk of weed, the lads get in closer. As time slows, his stomach starts to rotate counterclockwise while their gold pieces blur with the halo of silver coming off the lake.
With our heads in our devices all day long, we don’t look at the physical world as we used to. And so we don’t write about it as we once did. It is hard to say, therefore, as an example, what someone’s face looks like. The taller of the two lads has a brown fringe and clear skin with a crescent scar above his right eye. His lips are full and his stoned brown eyes suggest – more than many peepers – a story to tell. Paused just a few feet to the left, the tall lad stares directly into his face, as finally, he speaks, says, Alright, pal, he does, and winks knowingly. Almost ostentatiously knowingly. Knowingly about what? Centuries of male rivalry, a pair of moose preset to lock horns? The sidekick says the same, Alright, pal, and giggles at his own trainers, which are bright but scuffed, shaking his head in disbelief.
Two dopeheads barely in motion blatantly staring him out. And he returns their gaze; but also the snarky greeting. Waits two beats, then, Yeah, I’m alright, pal. Like he’s gone all the way back to seventeen and it’s East Ham again.
Their direct stare must be returned as that is his programming. Because to look away, or downwards, is arguably weak and potentially inviting further unwanted attention. However, he is careful to return their gaze with soft eyes and only briefly. No long hard eyeballs as a challenge. And so it is that with no deep offence exchanged, the two lads walk on, chuckling, sliding away easily, before disappearing into the trees and the destabilising shadows – their compressed intense cameos concluded as Gala returns to the car smiling, waving a four-hour parking permit.
Working a pay and display is always mini triumph of our boring dystopia. Naturally, he smiles at Gala’s success, while also delighted he wasn’t thumped. A different version of this moment is she returns flaunting their parking to find her husband toppled, down on his knees on the dark side of the car, rubbing his suddenly red cheek. Perhaps worse than the pain or shame, as well as the shock of disturbance, is he would need to explain such bizarre male rituals. Account for the inexplicable ways of bloke. Additionally, he’d feel required to inquire after any reputational damage: is he perhaps humiliated in her eyes for being felled? And then the mental effort of believing when she tells him No, of course it’s not humiliating, darling.
As Gala opens the car boot, digging out footwear for a woodland traipse, he tells his wife about what just happened with the two lads, and she listens, perched on the driver’s seat, replacing heels with yellow trainers she calls daps.
He observes while he talks as she unpicks the knots from her shoe laces, and he imagines this moment between moments captured as a lakeside painting by Peter Doig. Echo Lake is one of a series of lakeside artworks Doig completed in the nineteen nineties – all of them based on a still photograph from the original Friday the 13th movie (See also Canoe Lake, Study for Echo Lake (Screaming Cop), Echo Lake (Reflection), Study for Echo Lake, Canoe Lake and so on….)
Echo Lake insinuates a shady unease concerning an ambiguous event. A narrative painting suggesting the after-presence of something just gone wrong, or the presentiment of something bad about to go off, creating a ‘numbness,’ explains Doig, ‘that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words.’
The slow pacing of his thoughts encourages a closer scrutiny of Doig’s work. Horizontal bands of lake shore, then dirt track, then scrubland painted in white and pastels, lead to a tree line in dark greens and black that fills out the top third of the painting. These horizontal tiers are held in place by the verticals of a small cluster of trees on the right side of the canvas matched by a thin street lamp on the left. The bottom half of the painting represents a rippling mirror image of the landscape above the shoreline. ‘Reflections function as entrances to other worlds’ suggests Doig.
In their variation of Echo Lake, he and Gala are suspended in a sunlit noir, with Gala’s red car parked left centre, and the driver’s door slung wide open. (Ideally he’d paint this version as illustration. But readers will just have to imagine it.) Gala’s mouth is O-shaped as she listens to the story of the two lads. She faces towards the viewer from across the lake, in this way opening out the picture into a broader space. Two tiny splashes of canary yellow indicate her daps, with him stood near adjacent as a blurry tall silhouette in blue, slate and pink – rubbing his face and a small blotch of red. Gala’s saying she’s shocked; that just now, on a warm sunny Friday afternoon, in broad daylight, two men simply wandered from out of the bushes and started staring him out. Random. For no reason. Violence hovers, he observes weightily, a downshift to his voice.
That men can be this way, she replies, a mournful shake of the head. Being punched would be horrible, darling, she reassures him. But not demeaning. Though her words are sincere, seeing them both depicted as Doig perceives them in this tense interlude, he discerns a precariousness in time.
Eyeballs, Cassocks, and Thumps
How and when do men learn to eyeball? He doesn’t remember a specific training day, but assumes his masculine rivalry awareness developed around the time he went to secondary school – concurrent with him also quitting the church choir. His was a late but absolute realisation that warbling angelically in a cassock was no longer a viable strategy, and from now on he’d need to lock away his soft feelings from view and perform differently.
As a late developer he was never wholly convincing. Imposter syndrome meant he didn’t perform much serious staring because he felt his limbs hung too loose and floppy for him to pass for hard. However, he never let go of the conviction that the stare possesses a power that toggled subtly – not too fierce, not too direct, but none too docile either – increases the subject’s chances of getting through intact. He believes that just now returning the lads’ gaze was necessary and kept the situation from escalating badly.
But does he sincerely hold to this last assertion? Has his masculine thinking become stuck? He’s surely too mid-life for a game of tough guys. He could perhaps stop with the staring. Simply face away, look down or up, or even, should he unexpectedly find himself faced with an outbreak of agita, simply say loud and proud: ’Lads, I’m not fighting. I’m midlife now. I have a heart condition.’ Bring the curtain down on eyeballs and thumps and the longest implausible performance.
As an adolescent he accepted getting bashed from time to time as how the world’s set up. A spin of the wayback machine reveals several retro-tinted examples from the teen years. Random punches from out of the blue walking past a rockers’ pub on High Street North. Smacked across the face outside Mr Byrite by two irate skins. Lamped from the blindside leaving the youth club disco. Enough occasional clouts in public spaces that in his young adult’s reckoning he fatalistically assumed these clouts would not only continue, but grow harder, intensifying proportionate to age and physical development. And that one day he’d be more than just bashed – but find himself on the receiving end of a real kicking.
Aged nineteen and twenty, he worked summers in a West End record shop with an older guy who had a scar running down his right cheek. The guy said he was walking down Wardour Street late one evening and a total stranger sidled up and glassed him for no reason. Gazing upon his colleague’s defacement he absorbed its graphic lesson: random acts of violence happen. And then stashed this realisation towards the back of his head: one day he’ll get a pasting, like most probably he’ll own a house, or become a parent. Just wait for it and hope the pasting isn’t too nasty.
Britain’s Most Violent
But the pasting never came. Unlike the mortgage and the Annoying Son. And he supposes it never will. His view of himself as a man at risk is old and in need of review. There can be no moving on, however, without a door or windows.
At this, he breaks from the typing. But the thoughts stay with him through the day and into the early hours of the following morning – when he has some words with his dad, who is dead. The brief exchange occurs during a dream of a conversation where he asks his ghost father to do something about the violence. But he wakes before Dad can get back to him and comes down here to start typing carrying a sense of regret. He types away the regret by tracing the outline of a violent man he once knew. They worked together on a book.
Terry was an ex-criminal and the book was his version of his brutal story. By this time Terry – not his real name – had white hair and dressed like a mid-century bohemian. But as a young man Terry was deeply into gangs, crime, and violence: a debt collector in a ‘sharp suit’ who was ‘good with a knife’ he said. Terry wound up in prison for murder. But says he wasn’t the killer. He claims he was framed, but also repeats how he was ‘good with a knife’ and was once branded Britain’s most violent man. Terry told him this and other crimtales from a misspent youth, as they sat together in an upscale hotel bar in Knightsbridge, drinking Champagne, which Terry claimed was medicinal – being the only thing that soothed a rare eye condition.
Terry as an older man appeared happy and calm. He had money and charisma and joked and laughed flamboyantly and palpably enjoyed people and telling stories. Younger Terry was in jail for murder for fifteen years. By the time he came out, he had found art and was no longer a villain. Terry put violence firmly behind him. His last act perhaps was writing his book. And now they were working together to complete the edit.
And then one night close to publication day, they went for a meal in Bloomsbury with some press and booksellers. At the end of a cheerful boozy evening, out on the street in the cold misty night, the ex-villain turned author took his time as he lingered over saying goodnight to each and every person.
Their large party was lively and took up a lot of pavement. Suddenly a young bruiser in a hurry emerged from out of the shadows. The bruiser didn’t have time for going round their group but instead, head down, barged straight through the middle, banging into Terry’s left flank as he passed. Terry swung round in surprise.
He remembers how his detectors immediately switched to red alert. How he zoomed in on Terry, watching the ex-villain react. Wearing a French beret with a red silk scarf wrapped across the collar of his luxury navy peacoat, Terry turned from the gregarious party, and for a moment, formerly Britain’s most violent’s stare followed the back of the bruiser heading for Southampton Row. From side-on he scanned Terry’s gaze, searching for something darkening, the atavistic return of an urge that can never be wholly subdued, the drive that still wants to fight. But there was nothing to see. Shortly, Terry turned back to the dinner guests without a flicker, laughing as he continued to wish everyone good night.
When do men stop fighting? He reckons the last bloke he punched was a mugger on a Paris commuter train in the late nineteen eighties. He didn’t know this punch was his last strike. (You won’t realise it’s your last orgasm either.) He does however know for sure – is very clear about this – how he doesn’t want his head banged again. He has read and is prepared to believe that you can take only so many blows to the skull. Being tall, he’s already cracked his head too many times and is reluctant to become a caution proving long range damage from too many hits – another case study who forgets basic info due to a discontinuous sense of self.
And then a few days later he clouts his head during a visit to London. Bashes his forehead on a piece of the The Annoying Son’s work-out equipment, hooked over the doorway. He takes down the pull-up bar. But getting on his return train the next day, leaving sweet London again, and rushing to be seated, he cracks his head against the flange of the luggage rack. And he thinks, neurotically, that not only does this hurt, and that he’s bleeding slightly, but quite possibly, incrementally, he just edged a little nearer to decrepitude.
At the lakeside car park, Gala’s daps are on and knotted, and the birds are back again, singing into the future, as the couple head up the slope through the trees and the intermittent sunlight. It flits across his brain that the two lads with the gold chains were slow walkers and might only have progressed a short way along the trail. He supposes it’s possible him and Gala could catch them up. Although plainly we wouldn’t want that, he decides not to dwell in pessimism. There are calm contented people somewhere, he thinks, or has he understood nothing?