My bathwater is staring at me…

So, I finished running my bath and looked down and lo and behold, little pairs of bubble eyes were circulating, and staring at me. Only for a moment, mind you. Then sanity returned. Please do not let me start hearing voices talking to me from my kitchen cupboards next. Please do not let the bubbles develop little sharp teeth and start snapping at me…

Been there, seen that all before.

But really I think I am just very tired. I am not used to being very tired, either. All my life I have been able to do a normal day’s stuff and recover without even thinking about it. Now it takes me two days to get over a long bus journey.

Went to see Mum yesterday. Fortunately Godmother’s little dog has had a stay of execution and Godmother and her trusty little red car are back online, so I didn’t have to do the epic three-bus solo journey, only the much easier one bus, two train and one car journey. I gave Mum a calendar of American Birds, hanging it on her wall with the garden string (and yes, even small pair of scissors) I had taken over specially. Once a Brownie always a Brownie. Mum made that Emu face. Godmother went to make her a fresh cup of tea (we have both recently memorised the key code for the kitchen).

‘Is that better?’ she foolishly asked, as Mum took a sip from her newly-steaming plastic beaker. Emu face again.

For those who are wondering what an Emu face is, not being old enough or British, I would guess it’s something like a ‘Meh’ face only a tad more ominous. This is it:

emu

Then she started growling, a lot, and baring her teeth. A carer came running.

“It’s all right,” we said, waving cheerily. “It’s only Mum having a bit of a growl.”

Thing is, all this stuff takes it out of you. And it doesn’t go away when you go home. That whole visit stays with you and excerpts from it coming back, like cucumber. Memory burps.

And then there was the reverse journey – car, train, train again and bus. And the hour-and-a-bit wait at the bus stop, alone. And the bus arriving being a single decker, and already stuffed with holidaymakers returning to their chalets, though this was only the second stop.

And the more and more people getting crammed in and nobody ever getting out.

And the pain in my knees (I was sitting over one of the back wheels, and I have long legs) as they continually graunched against the back of the seat in front.

And the little girl in that seat, who kept turning round to bellow at her Mama in Spanish through my face, leaning heavily on the seat back at the same time. I desperately needed to stand up and stretch my legs, but I would have lost my seat and been stood hanging on to a pole round sharp bends with a bad hip for the next forty minutes.

And then, having escaped the bus, the fifteen minute uphill climb home. For the first time ever I had to actually stop, like some old lady, and catch my breath for some moments before continuing. My head was swimming although that might have been the several Mars Bars en route, plus the half a bar of chocolate Godmother produced in the car, and which we shared between us! Also, I was loaded down with second hand copies of the Woman’s Weekly. Godmother passes hers on to me and I do enjoy them, even though she’s always done the crossword, but a whole supermarket bag-full is heavy.

And then I got home and next door decided to have one of their Friday parties. Turn Up The Volume It’s Friday. I was going to have a bath but I went to bed instead, grubby, knowing that I could sleep through a lot of loud music, shouting and thundering about,  but not sit through it. Hence the bath this morning, and the bubbles. And those little swirling eyes in the water…

Still on the subject of public transport: Bertie At The Bus Stop tells me he can easily eat 19 potatoes at one sitting. He loves potatoes. Obviously. He went on some kind of summer camp once and ate up all the potatoes in the bowl, thinking they were all meant for him. Next day, he told me, they wouldn’t let him into the dining room until after everyone else had gone in. He didn’t know why.

He tells me his freezer-in-the-shed went off sometime during that power cut, and failed to restart itself automatically when the electrics came back on. He only noticed hours later because the garden fountain had stopped working. I asked him whether the food would be safe to eat, having once defrosted. It was clear that this was a new idea to him. He thought that once in a freezer food would last forever and that occasional lengthy defrosting would make no difference, as long as the freezer eventually got turned back on.

“They” provided him with the freezer but “They” obviously hadn’t taken the time to explain to him in any detail how it worked.

“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “I could always cook it all overnight. I could stay up all night cooking and put it in my fridge and then I could eat it all the next day, like a big feast…

Poor Bertie, he needs his Old Mum but she isn’t here any more. I know the feeling, and I know I can’t do anything. People have their own lives and you can’t take on everybody’s problems, especially when you have a history of well-meaning attempts at helping that did no good. I can’t magically make Bertie less simple-minded or raise his Old Mum from the dead. Sometimes, maybe, it’s enough to listen to their stories – told on purpose or – as in Bertie’s case – in innocence or by accident. Perhaps, on that day, that was what you happened to be at the bus stop for.

To paint the perfect dragon

(First published as ‘Landscape’ in Buddhism Now, June 1991)

What is a landscape? – an innocent sounding question but one which started me off on a train of thought which was to waste most of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. That’s the trouble with being a philosophoholic, one thought is never enough…

My dictionary defines a landscape as ‘picture representing, art reproducing or actual piece of inland scenery’. If only it were that simple I might have hoovered the bathroom carpet, got the washing out before it rained and peeled a sprout or two.

The trouble is you see there is no such thing as a landscape. For a start, the scene you are looking at changes from microsecond to microsecond, or rather from so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant to so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant. Now you see a blue sky and bright sunshine; blink, and there is a wisp of cloud or one of those long-rolling shadows that blight the British summer. Who knows, a rabbit may have popped its head out of a hole while you blinked, a leaf may have fluttered to the ground, and of course the grass is growing.

For another thing, you have selected the landscape. If you are an artist you will no doubt have borne in mind the harmonious pattern, the beautiful balance it would make on the canvas, and even if you are without the artist’s eye you will be looking at that part of the scene which particularly interests and attracts you. An inch to the left here, two inches to the right, and it would be a different landscape. Unlike a painting a landscape has no edges.

Furthermore, the landscape you see depends on the way you see. If like me you are short-sighted what you see will be blurred and Turneresque – only experience and glasses tell you that it is not actually that way. If, on the other hand, your vision is 20-20 you will see every vein in every leaf, every nuance of the light. If you were an animal you would see in a different way again. If you were a frog you might see the Lake District as a series of moving coloured squares, rather like looking through a frosted glass window; if you were a sparrow you would see a range of colours undetectable to man. Who is to say which is the real landscape – a myopic blur or the bird’s kaleidoscope of subtle greens?

And it isn’t just our eyes – we see with our minds. If we didn’t, the landscape would mean nothing: a tree would not be a tree, sunshine would not be sunshine, or even yellow. It would just be. So we reinvent each landscape we see from a compound of personal associations, memories, attitudes and the way we happen to be feeling at the time.

For example, looking out of the window onto my garden at this moment I see a small black tree, leafless but decorated with strings of raindrops. Beneath that, somehow, is a memory-picture of the wire fence running alongside the allotments I used to pass every day on the way to school. After heavy rain the raindrops would be strung out along the wire in just that way and if you tapped it, it vibrated, showering raindrops anew. Now, you wouldn’t see that.

Similarly, if I am in the depths of depression I will see the most picturesque scene as boring, picture-postcard stuff. But if I am in love I may well float through some ruined dockyard marvelling at the glisten and swirl of oil in the puddles, the geometric patterns of cranes against the sky, the fiery colours of rust. We have all experienced such miracles.

A landscape is not a neutral thing – it reacts with the personality of the watcher. I worked once at Dungeness on the Kent coast and loved the bleak landscape out there, the shingle and the sea plants and the lurid skies. But a lady visitor from London hated the place. ‘It’s hideous,’ she said, ‘so empty. It gives me the creeps.’ You may be drawn to a landscape because you sense that it expresses an aspect of your personality, one which you couldn’t put into words. Equally, a landscape can be a threat, a contradiction, even a negation of your personality. It’s like women with perfume, or people with each other.

The Zen way of ‘seeing’ a landscape is different. Instead of there being an ‘I’ to view and an ‘it’ (the landscape) to be viewed, the viewer melts into the landscape. He becomes it, and it he. This is very difficult to understand and in fact cannot be understood, only done… sometimes… maybe. I am remembering here the Zen story about the man who wanted to paint the perfect dragon, and was sent away for years, until he could see dragons, hear them, even smell them. But that wasn’t enough. Before he could paint the perfect dragon he had to become the dragon. But the dragon doesn’t exist… ah, but does the landscape?

And if a landscape is something which cannot be defined because there is no universal standard by which to define it, doesn’t the principle equally apply to reality itself? A madman’s reality may be quite different from mine. Another example: some years ago I was told of a woman who insisted that there was an extra, invisible storey on her house and up there a gang of wicked men were forging money using her electricity – that was why her electricity bill was so high. Well, maybe she was right. How can I be sure?

How can I be sure that time is as it seems? I see a black bird apparently flapping across my chosen landscape, but how do I know that bird has not always been flying and will not always be flying, just so? Supposing all time is really happening in an instant, simultaneously. At one and the same time the bird is on the upstroke, the downstroke, not here yet, long gone.

Time is surely a function of perception. If I were a butterfly with only a two-day lifespan I would surely feel that my two days lasted as long as threescore years and ten. Human beings would move so slowly that they would not appear as living creatures to me at all, but static pieces of scenery, like rocks. So maybe rocks are living creatures too. If we could time-lapse film them over millions of years, would we see them heave, groan, yawn, lumber around a bit?

Perhaps I should just forget about the washing, get into the car and drive to some shady hillside. Yes, I shall reach for the thermos, break into the chocolate biscuits, wind down the window and remark to the nearest rabbit, ‘Nice here, innit?’

THE BIRD OF LIGHT (Angels & Other Occurrences 1)

At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.

The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.

They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.

Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.

He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.

Turn, Zak.

It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.

I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.

He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?

It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.

It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…

It’s about Beth.

And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.

They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.

But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.

And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.

And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.

And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…

He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.

She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.

They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.

It’s about Beth. Good news.

When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?

His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.

The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.

*

Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a  spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.

Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.