Strange Pillows

Snatches of conversation from a very long day on an assortment of buses and trains:

After you, ladies! Six of you today. It’s my job to count you. I don’t count because I’m a gentleman, and because I’m the Counter.

There’ll probably be some more gentlemen along in a minute.

I only like ladies.

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It’s really quite warm on this bus. I’m beginning to feel Quite Hot. Good thing I wore my deodorant.

Thinks: So that’s what that smell is!

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So I said to her, I’ll bring along some sunflower seeds but I don’t know whether they’re the sort that’ll grow or the sterilised sort for feeding to the birds.

Some of them grow too. I’ve got a little mountain of weeds under my bird table.

So I said to her, you’ll just have to plant them and see if anything comes up.

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This metal thing is very low, for waiting on.

Yes, but better than nothing.

‘Spose so. Do you think it’s meant to be a bench or a piece of artwork?

Artwork – probably cost thousands.

A bench would have been more useful.

 

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel to shower off the dust

And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust 

I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms

Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms

Joni Mitchell: Amelia

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair…

Apparently, human beings are evolving towards a state of complete hairlessness. This is because being less rather than more hairy is considered attractive, particularly in women. Therefore, by a process of natural selection over many thousands of years, hair is  on the way out – faster in women than in men because quite a few women still rather like the hairy man and continue to select him for a mate.

Apparently, for reasons I have now forgotten, if I ever read that bit, our many, many times great grandchildren may have huge foreheads, great gobstopper eyes like those Manga characters, and teensy-tiny teeth. They are likely to be very tall, but physically rather weak. Etiolated – I seem to remember that word from biology. You put a plant in a dark cupboard and it grows and grows, looking for light, but not finding any light it blanches and weakens and droops. That’s what we’re doing as we sit in the flickering dark catching up on all those box sets. Etiolating.

But that’s in 100,000 years time, and by that time we’ll probably all have long since nuked or poisoned ourselves to extinction. Earth will be crawling with cockroaches and the sea a mass of blind white amoeba type things. Pseudopodium – another word I remember from school biology. It means “false foot” and is a temporary protrusion on the wall of an amoeboid cell for movement or feeding. Irrelevant, of course.

(Why am I suddenly writing about hair? Well, I found this vast list of one word subjects for poems – far better than the usual WordPress prompts – you know the sort of thing – Taxes – Beige – Ant – Cactus – Hat. I thought I would make use of them here from time to time, taking care to cross them off neatly once used, like my mother with her shopping list – Ryvita – Yoghurt – Comb – Comb again – Tinned Peaches – T/paste.)

You may have noticed the picture at the top of La Tour Abolie. I do believe it is of Rapunzel and may have been taken in some open air Grimm’s fairy tales museum. She was the girl who, imprisoned in a tower by a nasty bit of work by the name of Dame Gothel – a tower with no stairs only a very, very high window – learned to let down her long golden hair so that a Prince who happened to be passing could climb up. There are various versions of what happens next. Her skirt becomes mysteriously tight around the waist. She gives the game away to the witch, who cuts her hair and casts her out into the wilderness. Rapunzel’s hair grows back once the Prince touches it. She gives birth to twins. Dame Gothel herself gets trapped in the stairless tower. Who knows?

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair.

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And then there’s poor Sampson, Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves. Foolish man, he (eventually) confided in the prostitute Delilah that his fantastic strength resided in the seven braids of his hair, which were at once shaven off so that his strength left him, and his eyes were gouged out and he was sent to work at the prison mill, grinding grain with slaves. However, the shaven hair at once began to grow back, and…

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A Cabinet of Curiosities

Until a year or two back I imagined an antiquarian to be either a blinkered eccentric of some sort – I think I had read an M R James ghost story in which an antiquarian featured – can’t say I’m keen on M R James, though he was himself an antiquarian – or some old pompous somebody who sold dusty and more or less unreadable books to people who weren’t interested in reading them anyway but just wanted to possess them. That was before I started reading John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.

Basically, it’s the biography Aubrey never got round to writing. He spent a long-ish 17th century lifetime writing but his writings are all over the place – so much to record, so many new things to discover, so many distractions. What Ms Scurr did was to go through all his papers and extract all the autobiographical entries, rearranging them as nearly as possible in chronological order. She does not put words in his mouth, simply extracts a whole life from a lifetime of scattered notes.

John Aubrey was an English gentleman, comfortably off as a young man, desperately impoverished in later life when, his father having died, his inheritance was discovered to be ‘encumbered with debts’. He lived through all sorts of dangerous history, recording, amongst other things, the execution of the King. A kindly enthusiast, he was a man who made friends easily and kept them. He was naïve, imaginative and somewhat disorganised.

Things never seemed to turn out quite the way he expected. He suffered from recurrent bouts of ‘love-sickness’ which he describes in a matter of fact way, like a kind of indigestion – falling for young ladies who, on the whole, did not fall for him in return. Towards the end of his life he begins to feel the cold greatly. His eyes failing, he continues to record spells (To Cure the Thrush; To Cure the Tooth-ache; For the Jaundice), omens and dreams. He complains about the slowness of printers and fears he will not live to see his Monumenta Britannica in print.

He recorded everything, was interested in anything and everything. He travelled backwards and forwards from Wiltshire into Wales, to Oxford, over to France, and wherever he went he sketched what he saw. Every story he heard, he wrote down. He was elected to the Royal Society, and proposed to them his idea for moving blood between chickens, which was laughed at, causing his natural stammer to become worse from sheer embarrassment. But a short while later he was proposing to them a new idea – for a cart with legs instead of wheels.

He commissioned drawings of ancient ruins, so that they should not be lost to history. He collected things, including a turquoise ring, which fascinates him. He records where spots have appeared on the ring, and how they have moved. He corresponds with others about the ideas of fluidity in stones.

He loved Stonehenge, and realised it was far older than Roman times. He was even more deeply impressed by Avebury ring. He was anxious about the damage being done to these monuments – ancient stones being carried away to make house lintels, for instance, or ground up for medicine. The King asked him to make a sketch of Avebury and present it to him.

It seems that antiquarians have been around since ancient Greek and Roman times. They have been in China, in India – all over the world. Often mocked as narrow obsessives who recorded trivia in ridiculous detail for no obvious purpose – today’s equivalent would be nerds, train-spotters, anoraks – they have often turned out to be more accurate original sources than the ‘historians’ of the day. Their interests included customs, religious rituals, political institutions, genealogy, topography and landmarks, and etymology.

The reason they have proven unexpectedly useful is this – they believed in empirical evidence. They did not allow themselves to assume anything – ‘We speak from facts not theory’ (Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 18th Century antiquary). Neither did they presume to interpret what they recorded. They left interpretation to later generations but in the meantime saw themselves as saving what was left lying around after a shipwreck – the passage of time, history itself, being the shipwreck. They saved things – curious physical objects (often displayed in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’), stories, data, words, facts, rarities. They often collected books, borrowed books from each other, corresponded at length about passages in those books, or things they had discovered. They drew, they wrote, they thought, they shared information, they asked questions, they wondered.

In those days, gentlemen had the time to dream. They had a reverence and a fascination for the past. They were curious, longing to know anything they might know. They had opportunities to travel – slowly – and collect – indiscriminately – and were humble enough to ask the questions their contemporaries dismissed as foolish.

Time for Plan B, concluded

Early morning in Splott High Street, and Gethyn was taking Toto for his walk. What breed of dog Toto might be and why he was called Toto, Gethyn didn’t know. Old Tom had been muttering something about shiny red shoes and Kansas – or it might have been Texas – when that last ambulance came and scraped him up. Totes was kind of small and kind of white, and his left eye was missing. Gethyn didn’t like to think overmuch about that eye and how, or for what purpose, it might have been sacrificed. Toto began to pull on his improvised rope lead, and snuffle.

‘Yes, it’s your old place, Totes.’ Marks and Spencer’s doorway was where Old Tom would always sit, muffled up in charity clothes, old bedspreads and various bits of rag. They made a good team. Tom would spread a brown raincoat in front of him, and a greasy, upturned cap. Toto would curl up on the mac looking scruffy and sad, casting the occasional wistful one-eyed glance towards the cap and the four two-penny pieces it always contained at the beginning of the day. Toto’s task was to look as if he was really, really, really needed some food, which wasn’t difficult. Gethyn wasn’t the only one who had lost his job recently.

‘Well, doglet, our little bit of luck ran out.’

Yesterday was a bit of a blur, what with starting his job at the supermarket, failing a test he didn’t even know he was taking, then being dismissed from his job at the supermarket. The only bright side – Gethyn always tried to find the bright side – was the tin of Good Boy dog-food he had accidentally acquired. They had let him come home in his uniform – they had no choice, really, since he’d left his other clothes back at the boarding-house room the charity had found for him – which he was shortly to lose, he supposed. There was one very small window, a kitchenette the size of a cupboard behind a pull-across plastic curtain, and an extensive fungus-formation in the upper corner. Gethyn sometimes awoke in the middle of the night and imagined he could see a face in that fungus.

Human Resources had threatened to get the law on him if he didn’t return the itchy, too-tight uniform. They had even handed him a medium-size supermarket plastic bag to put it in. P45 to follow in the post, they said. End of the month. No mention of a pay packet for his single day of employment. When he got home he realised the tin he had confiscated from the bogus old lady, was still crammed into the pocket. Technically, he supposed, he had shoplifted the dog-food, or re-shoplifted it.

That was it, then. Second chances were hard to come by. You could only become a very, very lucky young man once: after that it was shop doorways for you. Perhaps he could claim the Marks and Spencer spot now Old Tom had gone. Might get it without a fight if he moved a bit quick, like, since there was only that woman in the hijab selling The Big Issue to compete with, and she wasn’t there all the time; moved around a lot, he’d heard; town to town on the railway. Maybe he and Toto could do that, except unlike Mrs Big Issue he didn’t have the fare. ‘We could be hobos, Totes.’ Except that it might be difficult to get onto a moving train with a one-eyed dog and he couldn’t remember which rail was the electrocuting one.

Marks’s was a good spot for begging. People had usually got a fair bit of money if they shopped in here. Money to squander, you might say. That generously overhanging façade kept off the rain and best of all in winter they had this hot-air feature which was meant to put customers in just the right sort of mood for wasting money. As they crossed the threshold a gust of cosy warmth enveloped them from above. Occasionally a little waft of it might also extend to a man and his dog in the doorway, if they’d positioned themselves just right.

They made a detour round the cobbled bit by the church, squeezed through a gap in the churchyard railings and sat on smallish tomb right at the edge to share the pre-packed sandwich lunch Gethyn had found in a bin outside Marks’s. Ham and pickle. Maybe someone bought it and then didn’t fancy it. Toto slurped some water from a puddle by the church wall. Gethyn had refilled his water bottle from the tap before leaving home. It was starting to rain again. When was it ever not, in Splott? ‘We’re poets who don’t know it, Totesie.’

Gethyn always sat on this same tomb. Street people had their favourite places – favourite parks, favourite benches, favourite doorways. It made them feel safe, or relatively. This one was special because it had got a dog on it; not one like Toto but a long, smooth dog with a smug and devious expression, some kind of hound. It had this really weird inscription, and on the stone you could just make out, long-faded and half-obscured by moss, an engraving of a broken gun – not like kaput broken, but like when they deliberately disengaged one half from the other for safety. Gethyn liked to make up stories about the people inside the tombs. He had decided that this man – Henry Marland Mistletoe – or Miftletoe, if you read it the way it looked – must have been a gamekeeper.

He got up and walked around the tomb. The grass at the edge was bumpy, and full of rabbit droppings. He thought he had read everything there was to read on it, but now he spotted something else, a single line engraved along the base of the stone at the back. It said

The Lord helpf thofe who help themfelves

Not so much a gamekeeper as a poacher, then. That might why they’d stuck him out at the edge here. Disreputable, but not exactly hated. Someone – the stonemason, perhaps – had had a sense of humour and been fond of Henry Mistletoe. Growing on the grave were some odd-looking blue flowers – some sort of weeds. Gethyn wondered why he had hadn’t noticed them before, and why they had only decided to grow on this particular grave.

The rain was coming down faster now. He picked Totes up and thrust him inside his jacket for warmth. ‘Let’s get ourselves off home, doglet. I’ve got an idea. A cunning plan, even.’

That evening, curled up on his single mattress with Totes as starlight streamed through the one small window and the giant fungus cast eerie patterns on the walls, Gethyn finished re-reading all the handouts in the beautiful bright blue file they had given him on the training course. He got up stiffly and made himself a cup of cocoa, came back to the mattress and thought for a bit. Toto was chasing rabbits in his dreams, paws twitching.

Then Gethyn took up the brand new black Bic pen they had given him on the Psychology of Theft course; also what was left of his beautiful pad of file-paper with the pale blue ruling and four holes that exactly matched the silver rings in the bright blue plastic file, and set to work, writing Modus Operandi across the top and underlining it. Everything he could possibly need to know, do and avoid doing had been here all the time. He and Toto were about to become the best shoplifters ever.

My name is Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

Ozymandias: Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

We live on the borders

We live on the borders, some of us,

Between the other world and this.

Further out than all of you,

Still we can only peer at distant hills,

Catching whispers in the wind sometimes,

Channelling darkness drifting through,

Weaving the two.

Strange stars appear in our skies.

 

We’d give our breath to breathe that other air,

And sanity to hear the singing truly.

For it is joy and madness both

To be so close

To all that’s dark and dreaming

And yet to have

No hope of homecoming.

When you approach the boundary between This and Other words bleach right out: they lose their relevancy. But words are a shield against the dark and dreaming, and for the moment we do need that shield.

I can only say that this concept of the border is what keeps me going. It’s not so much a reason to believe as a sense that I need to keep to my own internal faith. I keep the channel open so that the music – and the darkness – can drift through.

Mad Dogs and Englishwomen

It’s so hot here at the moment, it’s…

Outside my gate I bump into the woman next door. She is gazing down my driveway at the side of her garage which now has obscene, fungus-like, coffee-coloured excrescences growing from it. Oh my God, she says. Look what he’s done. Her Significant Other was attempting to fill the gaps in the corrugated iron roof of her garage yesterday, with that stuff they fill houses with. I could hear him cough, cough, coughing. This morning I sneaked out and tried to pick some of the solidified fungus globules off my driveway. I felt that I might have wandered into an old episode of Doctor Who.

I’ll have to come round some time and tidy that up, she says. She won’t.

Maybe it’ll weather, I say. It won’t.

Yes, she says. In the winter it might go a bit black. Thank you for taking in the new phone for me, by the way.  It wasn’t supposed to be here till lunchtime. Thought I’d got time to go out and come back. I dropped my other one in the sea.

Phones seem to be attracted to water, I say. They don’t, but it’s something to say.

I walk up the hill to post some letters. Up at the post box I bump into She-of-the-illegal-Scotsman, except the Scotsman isn’t with her – he’s out selling solar panels – Big Puppy is. Big Puppy’s stubby black and grey-speckled fur glistens in the heat. She mists him with water every few minutes from one of those plant-spray bottles.

Well, he will insist on going out at the same time every day. Big Puppy’s tongue lolls out as he stands by the post-box in full one o’clock sun and I find myself singing (not aloud, of course) Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun… Even got the Noel Coward intonations.

‘Ow did the caring job go?

It didn’t… really.

Nah, she says, didn’t think it would. You need to be a Certain Type and you’re not. Used to do The Dying, myself. It wasn’t at all pretty sometimes but I got on well with The Dying. This I can imagine.

I used to say to her You can have as much hot chocolate and digestive biscuits as you like, missus, but only if you start getting your jim-jams on. Moved quick enough after that, she did. Liked them digestives. Well, I better move on. He’s baking up.

I imagine Big Puppy encased in tinfoil and stretched out on a barbecue. Poor Big Puppy. He’s a nice old dog.

Yes, you carry on.

It’s shadier down by the sea.

I drop my letters into the box. I can tell from the sound they make that the box is empty. People round here don’t write that many letters. If it wasn’t for me I expect they’d have rooted up the little post-box long ago and then I’d have had to trudge all the way down to the Shop. It was going rusty when I discovered it. Now they’ve had to repaint it.

Dust has turned my beach shoes brown. The soles are thin for this terrain. I can feel the stones and brickbats of our unmade road through them. Have to pick a careful course.

Post Lady sails down the hill in a Postman Pat van, being driven by a post man. She flashes us a big grin and waves. Post Lady is the only other person round here who knows my name, apart from the immediate neighbours. Gets it off the letters, of course, but it’s nice of her to make the effort. I wonder whereabouts she lives and whether the Post Office drop her off at the bottom of the village first thing in the morning and collect her from its far-flung upper reaches in the early afternoon, and whether she has to wander around in between times with her heavy sack and no refreshments, and always at the back of her mind Will they ever come back for me? But she doesn’t look the type to worry about people ever coming back for her.

That would be me.