One day. The coat in the cupboard, with a rope of green polythene bags spilling from the left-hand pocket; bags for collecting the dog’s shit at the beginning and end of each day. | A tree, bare against a white sky, like a bony arm. A palm of twenty or so fingers sprawled open; leaves stripped and scattered, savaged once by the wind, then by foot, and then by the wind again. | A pigeon pecking at a pool of vomit in front of a bench: scavenging on the detritus of a story from the night before. | A tap left running; an even flow of water, hitting the steel sink almost without noise. | Lego pieces left on the floor beneath the small wooden table and chair; an empty pink plastic tumbler on the table. | Midnight, and the street in tones of burnt sienna; a compromise between the black blanket of sky and the amber lozenge of the street lamp below. Further on, the muted headlights of a car: life fading as a battery is drained.
His right hand flatirons its way down the front of the coat and he winces as it crawls into his pocket. It’s a slow controlled descent; as a boy, he would reach into garden brambles in the same cautious fashion, to retrieve plastic and rubber balls kicked and batted astray. There is an area of split skin at the knuckle next to the thumb; a stark mix of desiccated white lines, and wicks and fissures of dark red.
Inside, there’s a balled-up pink serviette which partly opens, but its core remains glued tightly together, causing two ribbons to tear away from the mass. Underneath, there is a wrap of toilet tissue; one perforated sheet coiled around another, and he relives an image from that morning, stood in the bathroom and bundling the roll of tissue around a spindle of four stiff fingers. Underneath the tissue, a tube of moisturiser – solely for applying to the abraded skin of his right hand. His left hand gains entry to the corresponding pocket with an ease and comfort which the other hasn’t known for several weeks. He finds a small tin of petroleum jelly and he taps the back of a nail against the lid merely to recall its pleasing chime. He coils fingers around a half-consumed packet of spearmint sweets. He finds the knot of foil at the top, flattened down against the stack.
He doesn’t find the train ticket, which is the very thing he began to search his pockets for. He withdraws both hands; the right one in the manner of a bucket being lifted from a deep well, taking the utmost care when it eventually approaches the surface.
He pats the bulk of the innards of both pockets from the outside: a final tic, and something to secure a few seconds during which he can commiserate his own decline. He asserts a small sense of order by pulling the flap over the front of both pockets to tidy and to cover his store of fixes – his meek defence against the cuts and secretions and the cracking and ageing of his body. His fight against the rigours of the years and the subtle violence of the seasons; a self-apology for his own abuse and neglect.
A small respite, as he looks to the departure boards and sees his train is running late – a scaled-down unexpected victory, granting him time to buy another ticket and catch his train. And a part of him is medicated and the bad becomes balanced by this tiny piece of good fortune.
The white Vauxhall Astra van would pull up outside our house once, maybe twice a week. Jeff delighted in sounding the horn loudly, every bit as much as he enjoyed the noise of wheel-spinning away from the house minutes later. Pete and I would wince and laugh in the same instant, but mostly wince.
We took it in turns to ride in the front passenger seat. The other would climb into the boot, into the space alongside or behind tool bags and boxes and the detritus of Jeff’s day job. I watched the setting of many a sun looking out of that back windscreen, laid out on an off-cut of dust-ridden carpet, amidst ceramic tile cutters, tubs of grout and tubes of silicone sealant. Out of that window, I would watch our terraced street disappear and the connecting run-down houses and shops and the mess of our life retreat into the distance.
In those days of drinking illegally, Jeff’s white van would repeat that journey maybe a couple of hundred times. The pub – our first pub – was The Journey’s End.
Jeff was already 17 years old and carried off 18 with nonchalant ease. Pete and I were 16. Pete, though cursed with the looks of someone years younger, was brazen enough to walk into a pub without any apparent qualms. I looked my age, I guess, but more to the point I rather responsibly felt it, and each of those early visits to the Journey’s End made me squirm with the dishonesty of our enterprise. Sometimes, we would pick Doddy up on the way. Doddy was the youngest of our group but had all the swagger of someone born and raised behind the bar. Along with Jeff, he also had money – they both left school and went straight into work. Pete’s small income came from the YTS-backed job he held down at the Fosters menswear store in the city. Whatever money I had was relative only to the diminishing balance of a maintenance grant that was to support me through two years of art college.
Not once were we questioned or asked for ID; never truly were we on the uncomfortable end of a circumspect look from landlord, bar staff or local. I think it was quite clear that we were under-age drinkers, but we kept ourselves to ourselves and we put money in the till and yet more in the fruit machine. For a time, we were no less a part of the fabric of that place than the mirror-gloss mahogany tables in the lounge; the 20-piece vending packs of pork scratchings behind the bar; the sole-gripping adhesive tack of the carpets underfoot; and the walnut-shrivelled pink cakes of urinal soap in the gents.
The Journey’s End was a no-frills kind of pub, and, beyond the lie of our age, our visits there were without airs and graces too. The pub served the primary function for us all of not being home. It was somewhere we could begin to measure ourselves against new and different kinds of people – a place to revel in our youth but also our burgeoning, self-proclaimed maturity. It was about embracing a new world that promised many new things. It was about crossing a threshold, from accepting we were kids to thinking of ourselves as young men. All of these things were made possible by being together to order and drink a pint of hitherto unknown liquid.
And it didn’t really matter that we didn’t enjoy drinking. I couldn’t stand the taste of any form of beer and fared only marginally better with cider. Pete was the same. It seemed incomprehensible to me that Jeff and Doddy could actually enjoy the flavour sensations of lager, but the speed and assured swigging of their consumption suggested that they actually might. I never dared question them. I opted for the saccharine sweetness of mass-produced cider, judging it to be slightly less offensive than the lip-puckering bitterness and gym-sock synesthesia of lager. One pint would last me the evening; the same time it took Jeff and Doddy to down two or three. I couldn’t afford to drink any quicker, but nor could I bear to prolong the taste.
Alcohol had never been around us at home when we were growing up. We had never been privileged those specially-dispensed sips from Mum’s glass at the Christmas table; there were never any bottles stashed in a cupboard, concealed in a drawer or stowed in the fridge, from which we might steal a first illicit taste. And so it was that drinking, curiously, seemed the least natural part of going to the pub.
When the time for that first drink arrived, it would predate a first kiss. It would come two whole years before anything close to a first sexual encounter. It would soften some of the other lessons and losses of a hard childhood: a late toast to the passing of a father, to a grandmother and grandfather too; a drowning of sorrows following eviction from our first home. It would mark the end of our school years and ease the haunting guilt of those days and weeks we spent truant.
Of course, the pub was foremost about enjoying friendship. It was about shaping the course that we wanted for our lives; defining the outward appearance of the people we thought it might be possible for us to be. The function of drinking together was something we all needed. For Jeff and Doddy, it was about escaping the confines of nagging family; about having a tale to tell at work the following day, one which would dovetail reassuringly with those from their peers. It was about opting out of one social construct and fitting in with another. The pub was for talking about last night’s television or football, remembering last night’s drinking, and for planning tomorrow night’s television and tomorrow night’s drinking. The pub was for talking about and occasionally daring to ogle the opposite sex. It was for discreetly mocking any easy targets in the near vicinity. For Jeff and Doddy, it was about looking like they understood the algorithms of the fruit machines and sharing their wealth on yet more drinks when they won; it was about firing expletives and a playful boot at the machine when they lost. It was about discovering things for the first time. It was a place to escape to and be secure. It was about feeling slightly high and merry. And on the return journey home, from the back of the van, amidst the dust of grout and the vinegary whiff of sealant, looking out over the shoulders of my twin brother and our best friend, through that front windscreen, as the sodium glow of 20-foot-high lamps swooned in front of us, it was about feeling like we were stretching out into the world.
This is an edited version of a text which first appeared in ‘Gin & It’ magazine.
Each day, there is the death of something once treasured. Each day, a life or function expires; a value or attachment is lost. Each day continues the constant unveiling and passing of all number of ephemeral pleasures.
There are things which we hold onto with no idea of how tightly we should be grasping, which only once they’re gone and against the scale of the mourning that ensues do we come to realise how special they were. There are words which are read, and words which are spoken; things which are heard, and things which are seen: and all of these can one moment shock with their efficacy, but can then never repeat that same sensual assault. They can only be diluted. They can only be the gradual degeneration of that singular original instance of beauty.
There is a goodbye kiss that always used to connect mouth with mouth but which now is almost always the meeting of lips upon cheek. Skin acquiescently finding skin. There is a puddle on a flagstone which has been evaporating slowly throughout the day. There is a phone call where words unspoken will never have the chance to be spoken again: the time for sharing them now gone.
There are memories of each small death, which themselves feel all too mortal and prone to one day disappearing forever.
A diary note tells me it was two hundred and ninety days ago that I walked with my wife and daughters along the canal and on that day, during that walk, my youngest daughter lost her mitten. A hand-me-down from her sister, its fit on her hand was loose. It came away in the same motion that she cast forward a torn crust of bread, towards the ducks who were no longer interested in the ends of a stale loaf: blobs of swollen white bobbing on the water. It would be a loss which would ripple to create other sadnesses. What one daughter acknowledged with a mere ‘Oh-oh’, her older sister responded to with screams and a tearful plea that I retrieve the garment immediately. The mitten had already been carried far from reach and would soon be on the blind side of the nearby barge. A couple of bare fingers poked out from under the right sleeve of Bessie’s oversized coat, and a refrain of ‘Oh dear’ chimed in empathy with her sister’s tears. I promised Tilly that I would return to try and recover the mitten and eventually she accepted that promise and we trekked back towards home, across the field; long and dallying, and that end-of-winter afternoon was cold and prematurely dark.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to retrieve it. I now mourned its loss almost as keenly as she did: not because of the possession lost to us, but because of the hollowness of a pledge made to my daughter. Promises can so easily evaporate, like water on the surface of the pavement. The concrete dimples become defined once more and a grey gloss becomes a colour less dark and a finish less shiny. And something else dies.
I went back to the canal, headed towards the barge where I had last seen the mitten, licking at its edge, nearly hidden, nearly not there. I knew it would be gone, but I had made my promise. On the way, I pulled a fallen branch from the undergrowth beside the towpath. I could barely carry it let alone angle it towards the water and hook something already vanished from the water’s grasp. I threw the branch back, only to pause, curse my indecision and then haul it from the tangled vegetation once more. But on arriving at the towpath, with the barge and that long narrow channel of water in front of me, I threw the branch back towards the edge one final time and stood there and felt the full betrayal of my daughter’s trust. Only bloated white carcasses of bread bobbed on the water now. A promise honoured but a young girl’s hopes in her father’s ability to make good were now cracked. The beginning of the erosion of one more thing. Death stubbornly rubbing and erasing once more.
‘Just hold on a minute, Matthew.’ It’s a brusque non sequitur that establishes many of our conversations on the phone. A grammatical anomaly; words that don’t naturally follow as a response to the answer and enquiring inflection of ‘Hello?’ The prolonged double-syllable form of my name has sounded strange to me for all of my adult life, but, as my mother, I understand why she should wish to preserve it. Pete is Peter. Dave is still David. We have each become so many things that she couldn’t have foreseen – that she might not have chosen for us – but by continuing with the names she christened us with, we remain first and foremost her children. I like that she retains that particular privilege.
There is the dull-pitched sound of skin being scraped by plastic – the mouthpiece as it brushes against her cheek or becomes muffled by the cup of her palm – and she puts the phone down. I hear the clunk of the handset against the top of the pine cabinet, then the drag of plastic across the wood as the coiled cable retracts, elastically, back towards the phone. The noise from the television is obscenely loud. She didn’t expect an answer. She rang with no hope of reply or acknowledgement. (The answering machine never did serve as that acknowledgement for her, and she likewise stopped acknowledging it many years ago. Ever since, it fires on and shuts off merely to mock her efforts and accumulate our guilt.) So, indeed, why bother to limit the noise of the television when there will be no one to complain about that noise at the other end of the line? But I answered, which she neither expected nor was prepared for. And so now she moves towards that first noise, to silence that which threatens to drown everything else, in order to return and receive the sound and company of her son.
I press my ear to the receiver to hear everything; both the sounds and the images of what she is doing, and the objects she is passing. Left to manage independently, one sense will begin to compensate for all of those others that are missing, and as I listen to her journey across the floor, she triggers a change to the volume setting of each of those images – the images that make up the room in which the medium of phone is but one small part. And so I see her, clearly, turn her back on the cabinet on which the phone sits. The cabinet, with its slender glass doors which slide open and shut, but which are almost forever kept shut – the cabinet will show her reflection. She is stooped forward, into her frame, her shoulders peaking higher than the crown of her head. The cabinet shows me the trodden-down heels of her slippers too. Behind the reflection that lives in those thin, transparent panes, there is yet more glass: glass shelves, upon which sit glass ornaments and glass bottles and sherry glasses; and a menagerie of painted porcelain cats, birds and mice; and china tea cups and saucers; and commemorative plates and decorative vases. An array of breakable trinkets and keepsakes, sat upon breakable shelves, behind breakable doors: a display case of mishmash fragility. It’s a world inhabited by charity-shop bargains, heirloom mementoes and the limited-edition, hand-crafted vulgarities of promised happiness from the Sunday tabloid supplements. The cabinet is perhaps as sad a place as any within her home.
Despite the noise of the TV, I can just about make out the scuffing sound of her slippers across the linoleum. I remember once at her house, as she came to greet me at the door, hearing that same sound and looking down to see not her slippers, but her naked feet instead: the calloused skin carrying out a cruel impersonating percussion upon the floor. Today, the sound is too distinctly that of smooth leather sanding across the tiles. I listen harder and, as I do, that single sense again reminds that it is performing the work of other senses as my eyes shrink and strain to magnify my vision. I begin cursing the ambient sounds at both ends of the phone. I try to count the number of steps I can hear. That is to say that I slide a bead across the abacus of my mind, pushing one after another, but am not able to bear tallying them, not able to accept that each extra step will mark the truth of her decline. Each step is these days accompanied by the release of a sound; little more than the slightest vocal tic or a cleared impediment from the throat. I hear the thud and creak of the walking frame; the frame which wasn’t there a year ago but is now the sole enabler of every step she takes both inside and outside the house.
Suddenly there is quiet. For just a second it’s as though the room has been switched off. At the same time that I lose all sound, I lose all vision too. Then it comes again, and once more I hear the shuffle of her feet, returning towards the phone. And I see it all too, this time not reflected through the glass, but seen as though standing next to the phone and waiting for her to reach me. A noise from my daughter distracts and I lose contact for another second or two; a further break in transmission. I try to concentrate again and when I return I’m back to something more abstract, hearing everything as the reversal of those sounds from fifteen seconds or so ago. I hear each shuffled step become undone. I hear each aching creak of body and frame disappear into the white of a new space in my mind. Each sound becomes none-sound. Each second counts down, not up. Each bead on the abacus retraces its glide across the wire; slides backwards from the right to where it began on the left.
Different sounds begin a new phase of our ‘call’. She begins to mutter, although it’s more the prelude to a conversation than a soliloquy of any consequence: words half intended, half loud enough for me. I hear the screech and thud of her frame again. A year ago, it was the single thump of her stick, but the frame telegraphs her struggle far more brutally and it’s a message received more loudly and clearly with each new reprise. By the time she has nearly arrived back to the phone, I’m almost entirely inside her world – that room, and inside her head – despite not yet having exchanged any words of value. I close my eyes, shutting down one sense, somehow lessening the discomfort. As she picks up the phone, the volume drops on everything. Those glass doors, so brittle and so rarely opened. That assortment of contrasting ugly objects inside. A place where order is lacking. I know there’s not much more now, beyond platitudes and pleasantries, beyond the usual questions and answers – an order of words that never seems to refresh. Everything erased, engulfed by that white space, ready to start hearing and speaking and seeing again.
‘Sorry, Matthew, just had to turn the TV down. How are you, my love?’
‘I’m fine. I’m fine, thanks, Mum. How are you?’
It’s the opening stark sentence of Camus’ The Outsider that comes to mind when I hear or speak the word ‘mother’. It was the most powerful opening sentence of any book I had read. ‘Mother died today.’ So cold and formal, as were the sentences of detached narration which followed. Authors can take such firm command of words and language. If it is true that a photo can tell a thousand words, then it is also true that a word or sentence can conjure a thousand more words and an uncountable number of associated thoughts and images.
Words can be taken hostage by those places and forms where we first came to feel their real potency. They can be stolen from one context and divert our thinking towards something else. They can seem to belong to this other place. They can travel so quickly and forcibly to that place without our bidding. In my head, there are words which I find it impossible to disassociate from these linked places; words patented by the creative consciousness of another.
The word ‘spiral’ brings Pessoa’s beautiful multiple definition to mind, which begins as ‘a circle that rises without ever closing’. Pessoa takes words and thoughts and feelings apart and puts them back together unlike anyone else I know, but spiral is the word which belongs to him the most. The phrase ‘go on’ will forever reroute my thinking to Beckett. And to be taken back to Beckett is always a joy: I know of no-one else who reduced language into so concentrated a form, so utterly black against white. Only two days ago, I wrote the word ‘ceiling’ and was paralysed into recalling the only line of Paul Eluard’s poetry that will not budge from my memory. Eluard wrote of sadness, ‘You are inscribed in the lines of the ceiling,’ and his description has haunted me for more than a decade.
In life as in literature, there are words in which we invest meaning or memories and these too can hijack us unawares. The word ‘expectorate’, for instance. An ugly word, onomatopoeic even. It’s a word I recall reading for the first time about 15 years ago. On finding its definition, an image formed immediately of being with my father, as a young boy, and watching him cough and ball phlegm and then shoot it onto the pavement as we walked: three of my steps to every two of his. Frothed green, grey and white pools of his spit marked every walk we ever went on together. Returning home once, along Bosworth Road, I recall him spitting before climbing into a skip at the side of the kerb, to remove sticks of wood to chop for the morning’s fire. Back home, he had an orange cup stationed at the side of the settee into which he would fire those same filthy pellets. My father was tall and very thin. He owned a grey suit made up of a dull trouser half – the fabric shining at the knees through wear – and a jacket top half that was in better condition but slightly too big for his skeletal frame. Yellow and grey streaked through his white and thinning hair; yellow tinged the ends of his fingers too.
Yellow would always remain the most sickly of colours to me. Whenever I notice the jaundiced fingers on a smoker, or that same awful colour streaked through ageing hair, I see my father. Images, after all just like words, can be abducted by memory. That yellow will remind me of him, prone, on the settee, with the orange cup on the floor below. It will return a memory of me perched at the opposite end of that settee, watching snooker on the black-and-white television with him. And when I read the word ‘expectorate’ I am back there, at his side, looking up to him as we walk, his gaze and focus forward, or shifting towards the road and finding kindling for the fire.
For all the transporting and transcending strength of such words, it’s only a small sadness that the word ‘dad’ doesn’t return his image to me. His purchase on that word was too short and too slender. Instead, I rely on yellowed fingers, on watching snooker, and always an orange cup, to bring bits of him back.
‘Most people are afflicted with an inability to say what they see or think. They say there’s nothing more difficult than to define a spiral in words; they claim it is necessary to use the unliterary hand, twirling it in a steadily upward direction, so that human eyes will perceive the abstract figure immanent in wire spring and a certain type of staircase. But if we remember that to say is to renew, we will have no trouble defining a spiral; it’s a circle that rises without ever closing. I realize that most people would never dare to define it this way, for they suppose that defining is to say what others want us to say rather than what’s required for the definition. I’ll say it more accurately: a spiral is a potential circle that winds round as it rises, without ever completing itself. But no, the definition is still abstract. I’ll resort to the concrete, and all will become clear: a spiral is a snake without a snake, vertically wound around nothing.’
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Awake at the second attempt, no less drowsy than the first time, but the room much brighter for the extra hour that must have elapsed. Earlier, everything remained dressed in the heavy charcoal tones of night. Only a few tall, thin gaps of colour leaked into the room. That breakthrough orange was the hue of lamplight – not sunrise. It barely defined the edge of the chair, nor the near upright of the wardrobe. Now, the chair and all the other elements of the room are going through that gradual transformation of dawn: the chair turning cerise from the dirty purple of an hour or so ago; the warm tones of the wood of the wardrobe seeping through; the white of the chest of drawers becoming less grey. All is less grey. I turn to face Charlotte. The light from the window isn’t yet strong enough to see her as clearly as I do those objects at the end of the room, so I let my eyes perch on her form for a few seconds longer. Our flesh, mine and hers: still grey. Only the barest trace of pink and brown and red showing through and beginning to restore that truth we call the familiar. Her arms obscure her face; a censoring cross of limbs around which I can make out only her chin and forehead. Her head is sunken deep into the pillow. The elbow nearest to me polices and eventually makes me retreat across the surface of my own pillow. I turn towards the door and lift myself from bed in the same movement – finding the first aches of the day, in my shoulder and neck, as I do. I illuminate the phone display and it reads 06.00, which troubles by its very vulgarity: the elements of the day – this light and shade; this flesh; these aches – already chronometrically being rounded down.
I wake up, my eyes finding the form of things and my mind finding the meaning of those forms slowly. I locate the vaguest print of morning across the wall. I follow it back towards the window, across the corner of the mattress and the chest of drawers, to the vertical shaft of white-grey light where the curtains never quite meet. I turn around to look at my wife, still sleeping, almost always still sleeping. I watch her for no more than a few seconds; her back fully exposed, her skin monochrome. Her hair is spread across the pillow and her hands ball together softly underneath her left cheek. Every morning, there’s an echo, however distant and quiet, of that much stronger feeling that I have for her. These echoes are really the manifestation of how we love, in reality – the soft, reflecting repetition of a thing that starts so loudly. I get out of bed, picking up the phone from the cabinet as I do, and look back to Charlotte before leaving the room. Her eyes, her mouth, that pallor to her skin – not yet ready to be woken, to find colour and be brought back to life.
When my eyes open for the first time, it’s to the unrelenting dark of those morning hours which night still has more claim to than day. Charlotte’s there in front of me immediately. She is beautiful. Hand resting gently against her mouth as though painted there. Shoulder and breast lit by the skinny streak of lamplight from the window. I push down the corner of the pillow between us, away from the blurring corners of my view, and fall back to sleep with my gaze resting there on her skin; resting with the light.
It’s only marginally more bright the next time. She has turned around completely. The duvet is hunched tightly around the shoulder nearest to me. Her hair is tucked neatly into that warmth too. She is almost hidden. I turn around and reach for the phone, but the cabinet top is empty. I root around under the pillow and find it in the divide between the two pillows that hold her head and the two that hold mine. I press the button and send a weak torch-beam of light towards the cracked and stubbled surface of the ceiling. 05.34. It’s too early to rise and too late to try once more for sleep. Bessie coughs from her room at the other end of the hallway, which jolts me into a far more sober condition. From downstairs, I can hear the patter of the dog’s paws across the floorboards: acknowledging the creaking springs of the mattress from this room above her. I grab the tumbler of water from the floor, taking care not to chink my wedding band against the side as I do, and drink enough to pull myself decisively from sleep. I pick up the socks, jeans and shirt from where I dropped them several hours ago and walk over to the basket near the window to deposit them there. I find the gap between the curtain and the wall. Outside, everything is bathed in orange. Nothing moves. Nothing is yet awake.
Downstairs, I can hear the dog once more; a repetition of sounds in response to what she can hear from this room, above. Piece by piece, and via the undoing of peace after peace, the day begins to reverberate and unfold.
The red diode at the front of the television and the orange one on the satellite box next to it: the last two embers of the day. The last two lights. My eyes are tired. The red spot flares and doubles momentarily; the other light burns and softening rings of orange recede from the centre and out into the black. Across the room, on the bookshelf, the glowing green circles of the baby monitor unit arc and multiply as the machine conducts its static hum. On the undertow of that electric drone is the whistle of my daughter’s nose. Each whistle, four seconds apart, produces an extra green circle on the monitor’s display that disappears a second later. The last sounds of the day. I stoop to reach the socket and push the switch back towards the wall. Now, there is only quiet, experienced not as the absence of noise, but as the limit to which it can be reduced. Now, only two lights in the room, not three. I open the door and a shock of white-yellow brightness floods in from the bulb in the hall. I quickly reach for the switch and push that back to the wall, too. What was light becomes dark once more; what was quiet now seems yet more quiet still. The orange and red burr at the edges. My eyes ache: I need sleep. I close the door, with the after-image of their glare slowly fading as I climb the stairs, and extinguished completely once I reach the top.
It’s a single drop of rain that lands on my lower lip: a cold smack that wakes me from reverie and from the crowd that spills from the train. I dip the edge of my tongue out and draw the water droplet inside. In the same movement, teeth scrape flesh and my mouth is dry again. I shuffle forward, inching along the platform, deferring and conceding ground to those more keen, less passive, than me. I find a rhythm at the steps from the platform. At the foot of those steps, my stride lengthens as I pass under the subway and out to the front of the station. I overtake a dozen or more people, side-step wheeled suitcases, dodge shoulder bags and limbs which jut and obstruct. Bit by bit, I seek to detach myself from this group of people as quickly as I can.
From station to station, over the last fifteen minutes, I watched familiar looks dart from one face to another, one or two of them alighting on me. These are looks which dare not show themselves as too friendly or affectionate: just acknowledging glances from the numerous same people I make this journey with every day. Looks that say no more and no less than, ‘you are the image of the man I remember from yesterday’. That image means no more to them than the one of the cobblestones they walk over each day to exit Bath station. That image is no more interesting than the leaves which adorn the tree at the station platform we started our journey from. The leaves will change colour soon and fall; they will momentarily transfix and capture the imagination of all who pass by them for a few seconds. That’s longer than my own image will live in their thoughts for, but I’m perfectly content to exist so plainly in their world.
I cross the road and see the dust and litter stuck in the gutter. These are items that the wind and rain and the rogue and unknowing interventions of people and traffic have brought together. Another drop of rain falls to turn the muddied grey cigarette butt at my feet to black. As the black soaks in, it’s like a light turning on, a bud becoming blossom. The first captivating image of the day.
I near the office, passing the newsagent on my right as I do, and cast my eyes down, again, to the grey flagstones. It was here, several months ago, that an old man with white hair fell to the ground with a loud and sickening thud. I rushed to him, together with another passer-by. She reached the man first and lifted him from the ground and managed to perch him onto the thick wooden ledge of the shop window. I stood there in front of them both and couldn’t quite sound the words I wanted to. The frame of his glasses had been pushed into the top of his nose and a bloodied flap of skin hung over their tortoiseshell bridge. One lens was smashed, but through the other I could see his left eye and a look that was so utterly displaced and forlorn that I instantly felt like I had suffered his fall and injuries with him. I rushed into the shop and asked for a tissue or cloth to take back to the man. When I returned, several others had gathered around to help. One man had placed a hand on his shoulder; the woman who had reached him first was knelt on one side with her hands wrapped around four of the old man’s long, bony fingers. On the other side, a man seated on his heels held forward a large swab of blue tissue, pressed into the old man’s forehead and nose to stem the flow of blood. I stood there, vague and slightly lost, for twenty or thirty seconds. I turned towards the office and then back to the small crowd. I placed the roll of tissue paper onto the wooden ledge, turned again and started to walk, frustrated and sad. When I reached the crossroads I looked back one last time to see the same people, as they were, the old man at the centre of three other forms bent in towards him.
The next day, I stopped at the same point and saw a rust-coloured circle and several smaller dots around it on the grey stone floor. His blood – the iron within it and the air all around it – and now these dark orange spots were all that was left of yesterday’s sorrow. Two or three days later, I passed him again, at almost precisely the same place. There was a bandage taped around the top of his nose and the right lens had been fixed. The sadness in his eyes was now less fierce. I found the raised edge of the flagstone that day too. It should have sat flush with its neighbour, but I placed my own foot against it to confirm the likely possibility of a fall that I had already witnessed and a shudder passed through me as I did.
A day or two later and the blood was gone from the ground. The broken glasses, his eye through the one working lens, the blood, the tissue: I’ll forever see these things for every day that I continue to go by here. This old man, who I have never spoken to, who could not hear the words that my mouth tried to shape that day, this part of a story within my life, this series of indelible images. And yet I, for him, will continue to be just an image that might register and then instantly disappear within a second of one of several, perhaps many more, of the remaining days in his life.
I reach the office and my head starts to clear all of these things: an emptying out of one lot of information, ready for another.
The rain never did really start, despite the promise of those earlier drops.
Memory cruelly flashes the very distant past back at me. Moments and scenes from then resonate with meaning so loudly just now. I hardly had an idea of how beautiful that life was. I fret that I chose just to exist in too much of it; and to live, truly, in too little. I can’t decide whether these current glimpses haunt because of this. I can’t decide if I’m remembering or romanticizing or retouching. Maybe it’s the poverty that was there, in each day, that warps my thinking; that continues to transport things which were felt so keenly back then forever onwards to the present day. The present commiserating the past. Maybe it’s the loss of a simplicity that haunts me: the simplicity of childhood, of having others make decisions for you, of not having to agonise over choice, because there was so little choice. Maybe this noise of the past is here again because it must carry from the past to the present and be there in my future too: the inevitable ‘forever’ destination of something never quite resolved.
Back then. The kitchen wall. Huge swathes of orange and green and blue and white and yellow chalk. Sticks that scratched and glided across that half-polished, half-porous surface. That large wall which took your gaze towards the semi-glazed back door, and out to the shed into which coal was delivered fortnightly, and to the cherry tree, opposite, where pools of amber sap spilled from the trunk, hardened, hanging like jewels. An unloved garden beyond, where grass grew wild, up as tall as the shoulders of the children who played and trampled and hid there.
It’s always when struggling with the present that the past returns to distract, but then the present is only that most forward point of the past’s continual accumulation of itself. The present is forever being made sense of via recourse to the past.
And on my mind goes, dissecting and recalibrating – procrastinating. The past offers me all these return glimpses of the only person I feel I might comprehensively know. I ask questions of that person – of that past self – already knowing the answers. How would he act? How would he respond? I know what he would do, and it’s like a steer from someone I trust. An affinity which guides the actions of this present struggling self.
Fogs of purple dust on the wall. Yellow lines streaking through the polished areas and the divets of broken plaster. Through that doorway – that glass top panel with its thick, cracked putty edges. Outside, a small rickety stone step up to a square patch of lawn. The ground there uneven, the grass unkempt: Pete and I would sometimes trim it with nail scissors and sometimes we’d just bunch and tear it with our hands. In the top-left corner of the lawn: the cherry tree. In summer, we pulled fruit from the lower-hanging branches, rarely to eat it, but often merely for something to do – for the pleasure of that snap as the branch yielded to the twist and pull of our fingers. We pulled them when they were yellow and green too; toughened fruits which we would throw to the top of the garden where they would hit the lap-panel fencing with bullet-like dinks. Ricochet sounds were a particular pleasure of that garden. We would torpedo stones at the steel washing-line posts. For every twenty that flew past their target, the one which made contact would bring us intense pleasure. We used the same posts to play football: one of us attacking the post at the top of the garden path, the other attacking the post at the bottom. Each slap of leather against those posts brought the same joy as the hardened cherries and the stones and pebbles. When the football disappeared into a neighbour’s garden, we would endeavour to carry on with any other ball. And when there was no other ball, it felt like the sudden death of a small joy.
It all returns. I see the same scene from the garden, from the back door and from the double window of the upstairs back bedroom. I can hear the rebounding balls and stones. I can see Pete crawling near the neighbour’s fence, lowering, onto his stomach, extending an arm through the wooden railings and brambles, prodding at the ball with a garden hoe or rake, desperately trying to reclaim our happiness.
Through that back door, through the vertical ribs of that frosted glass panel, where my brothers and friends would press their faces, refracting into scores of mouths and eyes and nostrils, through which multiple faces revealed the simple pleasures of life outside of that house. On the wall, all those bright colours. On the lip of the skirting, below, a million particles of brightly coloured chalk dust. When Mum cooked, with the door and windows closed, the wall become one great shining wet surface. The colours would begin to run into one another. Drawings would lose their definition; a boy would lose his drawings.
Outside. We spent time clearing the lawn of the cherry stones and the half-rotting fruit that the birds had dropped. We set up two deckchairs, keeping them in their folded-flat state, stood lengthways on the grass, parallel, with about four or five feet in between, and with their frames half-opened and perpendicular at one end to create a ‘U’ shape. We draped sheets and blankets across the top, folding them into the frame. We lay inside the den, cushions and quilts on the floor. We lay back and looked up at the orange squares, picked out through the weave of the fabric as the sun came through the double canopy of the tree branches and the blankets. I remember those constellations of daylight so well. Those shimmering squares are one of my earliest recollections of a world that wasn’t people, but was warmth and light, was sensation; was contentment that came at no cost.
The past. Those simple pleasures.
There was a cloth which we would dunk into the stagnant water of the bowl in the sink, or run under the tap. With it, we wiped the wall clean and removed the pictures. We erased the lines and the colours, ready to start afresh, ready to create new images with the sticks and stubs of the various coloured chalks, the dust collecting on the lip of skirting below, as we marked the plaster.