Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

Zanzibar the story, Zanzibar the poem

Years ago I won a short story competition with an entry entitled ‘Zanzibar’. The competition was in aid of the local comprehensive school library, so not exactly the World Cup of short story competitions, but it was judged by a Proper Lady Novelist and there were over 200 entrants. Beneath it, for interest, I’ll post a poem, Zanzibar, based on the same experience /observations.

(Pssst!) Truth to tell I won first, second and third prize in that competition, which doesn’t say much for the other 197 entries. Entries were anonymous and Proper Lady Novelist had taken it for granted that because Zanzibar was written through the eyes of a man the author must be male, and therefore couldn’t possibly be the same person who’d written at least one of the other two winning stories. This leaves one story unaccounted for, gender-wise. I just wonder how she ‘did’ her heroes when composing her heart-warming historical sagas? Perhaps her husband wrote them.

The prize was a day at her house. She’s no longer with us, but I remember she was very kind. I remember being worried that I had left the electric iron switched on, and having to phone my husband, also that I got cauliflower cheese for lunch, and we both got photographed perched on the edge of her fishpond by a journalist from the county newspaper. The article was mostly about her latest novel, just published, which was fair enough. I remember being pleased I had worn my heavy, dangly, star-shaped earrings. I had some like moons too. This must have been the eighties. I was also disappointed that in the photo I looked as if I had great rabbit teeth, like my paternal aunt, and I don’t. Really I don’t have great rabbit teeth…

ZANZIBAR: the prize-winning, but also somewhat puzzling, short story

A tannoyed announcement drifted across the gravel on a warm breeze, mixed with sparrow song and the rustling of leaves. ‘The train now approaching is the two forty-five for Hastings, Brighton, Bexhill and Zanzibar.’ The rails began to jingle as they always did when a train was on its way, followed by the metallic click of the crossing gates going down. The girl was sliding off her stool, picking up the carpet bag, throwing back her hair. ‘So long, Joe,’ she was saying. Something like that.

She was going. Misery hit him. By way of an instant antidote he began to rehearse his Last Request. He always said the same thing, very slowly and carefully so that the words didn’t fuzz. ‘Well, Joe, think I’ve got time for another?’ And when he had drunk his Last Request he would walk towards the door, also very carefully, and Joe, who was a tactful fellow, would keep his eyes on his polishing.

He opened his mouth but the words didn’t come because the girl was standing right in front of him, looking into his eyes. There was no condemnation in her gaze, only friendship and a kind of recognition. It was as if the two of them had always known each other, and not just in this life, in life before life, going back and back and back. ‘Come with me,’ was all she said, in a low but perfectly clear voice. Then she was walking away, her sandals tap-tapping away on the bare floorboards.

A tidal wave of hope, anger and indecision rose in Zak’s throat. She hadn’t spoken. He’d imagined it. Girls like that just didn’t say ‘Come with me’ to men like him. She probably hadn’t been here at all; he’d imagined the whole episode. It was a cruel mirage, another trick of the drink.

They say there are certain moments when your life flashes before your eyes. In this moment Zak saw the old brick shed at the weedy, forgotten end of the sidings, hired from British Rail. He saw stacks of warped pine doors leaning against the walls waiting to be stripped, smelt the cocktail of acids he used to do the work. He looked down at the holes the stuff had eaten into his jeans, the scars it had left on his hands. He saw Andrea, his wife of fifteen long years. Sour, skinny Andrea who paid most of the bills out of the earnings from her job at the Co-op and reminded him of the fact every day. Andrea, who preferred what she called ‘Light Classical’.

He heard the train doors slamming. He heard a sort of screaming coming from somewhere inside his body, felt tears welling up in his eyes, brimming over and pouring down his cheeks. The table went down with a crash. The whiskey glass bounced once only and then broke, shards going everywhere. He aimed himself at the familiar oblongs of frosted glass in the door, not being careful now, not caring what Joe thought. Wrenching it open by its cold brass handle he ran, ran, ran towards the train.

ZANZIBAR: the poem

‘After the eighth whiskey there is no other’.

Zak’s mind plays tricks, turning all into poetry

And he’s on the border, somewhere between

A little drunk and very, and he’s very

Sad, but in a sleepy way. Seven trains a day

On this little line, where the weeds grow thick

And the sidings trail away

Into poppies and nettles,

Old cats and dusty rail.

He’s in the Station Hotel at his usual table.

Through high Victorian windows

Sunlight’s falling on the landlord’s beloved

Railway collection. Zak sees his reflection

In dented brass, watches the sunshine bathing

Brown photographs, turning the lamp-glass green,

Making the Station Master’s cap,

Already faded, fade a little more. Time shudders

To a stop – he likes this effect.

Joe behind the bar is embalmed in the act

Of polishing a glass and a train door slams, maybe now

Or an hour ago. Footsteps come across the car-park gravel

But somehow never get here.

People materialise all the same, bar-stools fill and empty.

The more he sits the less surprised he is

By this. Like the girl, who is suddenly here

With her back to him, drinking Coca Cola, a carpet bag

Forgotten at her feet. She acts like she’s been here always,

Treats Joe like a friend, and yet

He could swear he’s never set eyes on her

Before.

He needs another whiskey but he doesn’t trust his legs.

For a minute he sees her, quite clearly,

In some African market or other, gold bangles

A-glitter at her wrist. She’s throwing her hair back

And beckoning, and laughing. The sky’s so blue

It hurts to look up, and the ground’s so hot

It hurts to stand. And Zak remembers, quite clearly,

What it was to be young. Which hurts

Most of all.

Her train’s arriving and she’s sliding

Down off the stool and coming over to him. She’s

Standing right in front of him now and my God

She’s so beautiful and saying Come with me,

Just like that, but of course

She couldn’t be. And she’s gone.

And he’s trying not to think

It could have been real, simultaneously

Rehearsing his Last Request, Time for another one, Joe?

He knows Joe will look the other way as he makes it

The chair-strewn mile to the bar, and pretend not to see

How desperate he is for that golden oblivion, hear

How slurred he’s sounding. Joe’s a good bloke, Joe is.

Doors are slamming. Suddenly

Zak’s howling like a dog, the glass is shattering,

He’s up and staggering

Full tilt, longing beyond all longing

For bangles and hope, hejira

And the train to

Zanzibar.

The poem’s better, isn’t it? It’s got some of the actual pain in it. I am guessing it was written first.