Playing Elvis to the Buttercups

There’s something very sad about a rusty car; sadder than a tiny teddy bear growing soggy in the gutter; sadder even than a child’s cheap bracelet glittering in the hedge. To me, things are people and I grieve for them in their lost, forgotten and discarded endings.

I think maybe the sadness of a rusty car is that a car is made to shine and made to move. Its great purpose in life is to whizz round corners, to gleam in the sunlight. It is speed made manifest, distance, travel. A car is A to B. It is not A, year after year after forgotten year, whilst its tyres deflate and the weeds grow up around it and mice make a home in its upholstery. It is not this view, this rain, this snow, this burning sun. It was meant to be there, always there, eating up the miles, heading for the horizon. It was never meant to be here. I suppose I see me in rusting cars. I see the future vanishing, without me.

But enough of the rusty gloom. Something very strange has just happened. The rusty car in Krusher’s front garden has been taken away. A low-loader came, two days running. Its strenuous efforts to execute a three-point turn into various unsuitable driveways were worth the risk of a peer round the edges of the net curtains. The first day it got sent away: maybe Krusher couldn’t quite bring himself to let his beloved go. The second day the wreck got loaded onto the low-loader – they had to use the crane – whilst Krusher circled around, wringing his pasty hands, zipping and unzipping his windcheater. It was a torment to him, this final goodbye, the sight of those two bare forever gashes in the mud of his front lawn.

The car was there when I moved in, abandoned at an illogical angle as if someone had just screeched in home one boozy 1980s night, maybe a few pints worse for the wear, and left it where it happened to end up, not even bothering to lock it. ‘Shtraighten it up in the morning, maybe.’ And there it sat forever after, already orange going more orange, its go-faster stripes barely distinguishable from their background. There it sat, annoying all the neighbours, decade after decade.

Something had happened to Krusher. Something had gone wrong with him which meant he could no longer drive his car. He was in a lot of pain. It was his back, some said. His lungs, others said, or maybe it was his heart. On morphine for the pain, someone said. Sits up all night playing on the computer, someone else said. Can’t sleep for it. Krusher became small and bitter and wispy. He shrunk, but then don’t we all? Krusher, you might say, was krushed, but his car was not. They suffered together, he indoors in the dark illuminated only by the lonely blue flash of his computer screen, it outdoors come wind and storm.

It’s strange the things we grow to love, supposedly inanimate objects we just can’t let go of, that have become an integral part of us. Sometimes, driving along, I pat my little car’s steering wheel. “Good girl,” I whisper. “I had you from new and I’ll look after you, don’t you worry. Whatever it costs we’re going to see each other out.” Each time I renew my secret vows to her and put aside those treacherous, ever-present fantasies of a massive olive green four-by-four, a capacious white van or even a slick black Cadillac for cruising down quiet spring lanes or under the lush green canopies of summer trees, playing Elvis to the buttercups or Motown classics to the cows.

ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? (Angels & Other Occurrences 6.2)

Raj takes out the Genuine Elvis Jacket for the last time, though he is trying not to admit it is the last. This is his one and only treasure and he keeps it on top of his wardrobe, wrapped in many layers of tissue paper, and the whole inside a heavy-duty supermarket bag. Every so often he brings the Jacket down, unpacks it, dusts it with a soft cloth and checks it for moths and spiders. He does the same now, trying not to know it is the last time. But the trying isn’t working, and tears run down his cheeks. He holds his face away from the jacket as he cries. There must be no salty marks. That would lessen its value.

The jacket is in the softest of leather and a rich and variable pink that exactly matches the wondrous sari of Lakshmi. Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, prosperity, fertility and power – none of which has come to Raj in his middle-aged lifetime. Lakshmi, who is greatly loved, and whose picture remains on his bedroom room wall. A rare beauty, she is seated upon a lotus flower; two of her four hands hold up smaller lotus flowers, the remaining two shower coins into a bowl. To her right and to her left are elephants, their mighty trunk raising a golden pitcher, showering water down. No need to worry, he tells her, I shall take you with me. I shall keep you in the picture at all times. This is what I know: the day after tomorrow some men will arrive, and they will take away the house. This is because I have no money left in the bank. I told you, didn’t I, that my taxi was hurt in an accident? She was so badly hurt that I could not drive her again. It is my fault for picking the wrong insurance company. They would not replace my vehicle and I have lost my livelihood.

I have lost our home. And now I have no money and the mortgage persons are coming to claim back the part of my house which is theirs – which is most of it. But I promise you will be coming with me, my lady, wherever I am going. Raj did not elaborate on this, because the truth was that he had no idea where that might be. For all he knew, in a day or two’s time he and Lakshmi might be sheltering together in shop doorways.

He had purchased the Genuine Elvis Jacket from a place on the internet, with an inheritance from his father. It was the largest sum of money Raj had ever had and he’d spent every last rupee of it, and more, on the Genuine Elvis. One single, mad, foolish press of the button and it was his. It had come with a folded paper, something called a Provenance. The Provenance was signed by the King himself, or so it claimed, to confirm that this was, genuinely, his own jacket. Raj’s English had not been good enough at the time for deciphering the convoluted legal English it was written in, and had hesitated to ask an English person for fear of being rebuffed or looking a fool. A small part of him feared the jacket might not be Genuine after all, but he had never let himself dwell on that.

Nowadays his English is greatly improved but he continues to resist the temptation to unfold the Provenance. Instead, he plays and re-plays his collection of Elvis Long-Players on the ancient record player he found in a second-hand shop soon after he arrived in this country. He knows the words of all the songs by heart. He combs his hair back into a passable Elvis quiff. He copies the way the great man used to curl his upper lip into a snarl and the way he did the ah-ha-ha in the middle of some of the lines. He grasps and imaginary microphone and serenades his mirror image, and Lakshmi, and when he does so he escapes for a while. He is no longer an impoverished Asian taxi driver in a shabby Norfolk town, with persons coming to repossess his property. He is The King himself. Glamorous. Rhinestoney. Revered.

And now he is about to give away the Genuine Elvis because Lakshmi has instructed him to do so. She appeared to him in a dream last night and was most beautiful, and most insistent that this be accomplished. He is to give the Genuine Elvis to a baby, just born in some sort of gypsy trailer in a field, over Thetford way. It sounds most unlikely, but if Lakshmi commands it, it will be his privelege to do it. Delicately he unpeels her poster from the tacky stuff holding it to the wall. Gently he rolls her and places her into a cardboard cylinder. “I must trust you to show me the way, my lady.”

It is a longer journey than he imagined. It takes him all day. He has not really planned how he will get there, perhaps not caring much whether he arrives or not. He sets off as he is, unshaven, in trainers and thick socks, a puffy anorak and a woolly hat. He catches a train, then a bus, then another bus. He stops people and asks them when he gets confused, no longer discouraged by these grim, white English faces; their foreignness to him, his own to them.

He has brought no food, but someone on the first bus feels sorry for him and hands him their sandwiches. Someone else gives him a cup of tea from their flask, and a small bottle of water. They seem to know he is on a journey of some importance, and what he needs. At last the bus sets him down at the edge of a smallish wood, snaking up the side a small hill. And now, he senses, it is time to walk. He does not know which way to go but Lakshmi, in her cardboard tube, feels confident; she urges him this way and that and he obeys her. He keeps his mind empty so as not to interfere. With increasing frequency he shifts the carrier bag from one hand to another. The Genuine Elvis has been getting heavier and heavier the nearer he gets to his destination, and now is beginning to feel like it weighs more than the world itself. The plastic handles cut into the palms of his hands.

As Raj follows, his feet become sore, his lungs become short of breath and his ribs hurt, but something like peace has entered his heart. Lakshmi is with him, showing him the way. He has no idea at all where they are heading, the pair of them. Yet it feels like coming home.

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts

There are almost as many ‘explanations’ of ghosts as there are ghosts themselves. One day, all ghostly phenomena may be explicable in scientific terms or, one day, we may become aware of a parallel or interfused reality in which they, and other such inexplicable things, have their existence. Here are just some of the possible explanations:

  • A ghost could be a folk memory of an ancient tragedy. For example the crying child ghost heard at the Roman fortress of Reculver, in Kent. In 1966 the skeletons of several babies were discovered beneath the foundations. Could the crying ghosts be ‘memories’ of a ritual child sacrifice some 2000 years ago? At Richborough, sixteen or seventeen miles from Reculver, a ghostly Roman cohort is sometimes seen, its phantom soldiers marching into the sea.
  • Ghosts are not even always human beings. Phantom ships have been seen sailing towards shore, leaving the water and continuing to ‘sail’ for a considerable distance overland. In Cornwall ‘corpse candles’ were said to foretell a death. These small blobs of yellow light would process along the street and stop over the house where a death was imminent. This is a strange, parallel – Cornish lights hovering over a house of death; the Star of Bethlehem hovering over a house of birth.
  • In some parts of Britain there have been reports of spectral coaches drawn by headless horses. This could be a ‘memory’ of the Norse invaders and their god Odin/Woden – whose Wild Hunt was said to cross the night sky in Winter followed by baying hounds. To witness the Wild Hunt was to be carried off to a distant land. To speak with the Huntsman meant certain death. Spectral dogs could be a folk-memory of Odin’s fearsome hounds.
  • Many ghosts are said to be those of famous or royal personages. It may be that we just cannot let go of the idea of these individuals – that they are so vividly alive in our imaginations that we cannot accept the mundane fact of their deaths. Think of Elvis Presley and all the rumours that he did not die, that he has been sighted walking past a window at Gracelands and so forth.
  • And then there is the legion of Grey Ladies, Brown Ladies and other nameless ghosts, whose original purpose for remaining has faded with time, but who still walk the corridors of country houses, or haunt the cellars of castles, apparently manifesting some long-ago instense emotion – love, hate, fear, the need for revenge or a final farewell – leaving some kind of pattern in the fabric of time for sensitives to pick up on.
  • Animals react to ghosts in different ways. Horses sweat and shy, and dogs bark in the presence of a ghost, but cats enjoy the company of ghosts and are said to purr when they are around. The farmyard cockerel could banish ghosts and avert the evil eye, at least in the Hebrides. A cock crowing at dawn told the farmer it was safe to rise and begin his day’s work, for the spirits of darkness had all been banished. It was said that a cockerel could frighten away the Devil himself – one reason cockerels appear so often in church weathervanes.
  • Many of the old customs around the time of death and in connection with funerals, were not so much to honour the dead as to make sure they could not come back and haunt their fearful relatives. Touching the dead person, gently and respectfully, prevented the toucher from being haunted by the ghost of the corpse. It was also a way of proving that goodwill existed between toucher and corpse. A murdered man’s body was said to bleed if touched by his murderer.
  • Fairies were once believed to be the ghosts of those that had died before Christianity came to Britian, and of the stillborn and the unbaptised.
  • The festival of Samain or Samhain (pronounced sahwin or sowin), the Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter (31 October/1 November – the origin of our Halloween) was a time when natural laws were suspended and ghosts and demons were free to roam. Samain was the beginning of the celtic calendar and signified both death and new life. This was the time for animals to be slaughtered to provide food for winter, and for sheep to be mated for next year’s flock.