Old Lady Ankle Boots

They were in one of those limp little catalogues that plop through your letter-box on a Monday morning. “Cosy” – a word that nobody under forty-five can think without a flinch. But my feet were so very, very cold that I did think it, and sent for a pair of sheepskin-lined ankle boots.

I worked as a secretary for Messrs Gimp, Stanley & Co, an interesting, eccentric and notoriously parsimonious firm of solicitors. We rented half an eighteenth century building just off the High Street in a road stuffed with solicitors. The other half was taken by our rivals, Messrs Mafford Speers. Maffords were more corporate and less colourful than Gimps. They didn’t like their staff any more, but did see the benefit of central heating.

Equity partners lived on the ground floor, nearest our esteemed and much fawned-over clients. Salaried had offices on the floor above and everyone else, including me, was banished to the floor above that. The higher the floor, the shabbier and colder it got. Whatever the weather, we weren’t permitted to approach the gas fires until November. When November did finally arrive we brought in boxes of cooks’ matches – the ones with the extra-long stems. Failing cooks’ matches we would tape an ordinary match to the end of a metal letter-opener and lean as far back as possible before striking it and turning the gas on full.

The sash windows had been there since the building was new, in 1721. They rattled whenever it was windy. I typed stiff-fingered in a swirling draught, wearing the standard cheap office suit with hand-knitted fingerless gloves. I’d wind a pink woollen scarf tied around my ankles, and sometimes forget to unwind it when I stood up.

The ankle-boots drew disapproving glances from the Partners but they didn’t remark, and I wasn’t that bothered, being next on their list for constructive dismissal. People like me, with a surfeit of inspiration and a deficit in concentration, never tend to last long in offices.

It was winter when I caught sight of him. I was on my lunch break and, of course, wearing the old lady ankle boots with cosy sheepskin lining. There was a long queue in the Post Office and I joined it. My hair was a mess; I felt a bit pasty, with the beginnings of a spot on my forehead. The menopause plays havoc.

He was up the front by the Wait Here sign, next in line for a cashier. He should have been in Scotland, in a sizeable cottage, with small potted trees on either side of the door. Yet here he inexplicably was. Until that moment I had never given much thought to the expression “rooted to the spot”. The queue was closing up and I suppose I was shuffling along with it, but to all intents and purposes, I was rooted. That dear, familiar face, that that bony brow; that strange, masculine-yet-feminine shape that he unfortunately still was. Thirteen years had passed but he genuinely didn’t look any older; neatly turned-out, as always; mid-length camel coat and one of those expensive roll-neck sweaters in pastel blue.

I used to wonder if he was gay, half gay or potentially gay but he proved to be a lusty lover. He told me he had read books on technique – how to caress a woman with only his eyes, how to put her in the mood for love before ever laying hands on her.

He played the church organ, which in retrospect seems quite amusing. He had his piano delivered when we moved into the maisonette. On summer afternoons he would play Yesterday with the windows flung wide open to admit the salt breeze, and local children would drape themselves over the area gates, open-mouthed, to listen. He was good with children. He didn’t want his little girl to be upset by meeting me, so when she came over I would go out. I came to loathe her without ever having met her. Occasionally I had to disappear for a whole weekend.

He introduced me to leisurely breakfasts in the window-seat, with buttered toast, marmalade and the papers. He taught me to cook, a bit, with garlic even. He introduced me to Vivaldi, and Enya, but wasn’t at all keen a cat despite my wheedling: only later did it occur to me why.

Thirteen years since last I saw him; innumerable icy years to come – who knows what the final total will be – during which I will not to set eyes on him again. I should have tapped him on the shoulder, said something or anything to bank a fresh memory of his face that might tide me over. But those old-lady ankle-boots had glued me to the floor and struck me dumb.

He passed quite close to me on the way out. I looked away, sideways. Though my heart was beating like a thing possessed, as it had once been possessed, though I could barely breathe and tears welled up in eyes, I kept on shuffling forwards in my old lady ankle boots. I pictured him, out of the door, off down the street, off down another street, and then another; finding that expensive car in the car park and driving away. Back to Scotland, or wherever it was he now resided.

He told me once that God would always save him a parking space, in any city. God would reward all those who had faith in Him.

Under The Black Flag

Coffee spoons aren’t the only thing you can measure out your life with: there’s shopping trolleys, for instance.

I had a lot of men, but only two that mattered. The first I called my anchor, the second became my sail. I suppose I was a romantic, for I pictured my life as a voyage in a paper boat across an endless ocean. Or I might have the boat itself: one of those origami things my grandfather failed to teach me. I was either bowling along in a stiff breeze, becalmed in some weed-infested sea-within-a-sea, or sinking.

My anchor was a controlling kind of man. In those days a controlling man was a manly man, as long as he didn’t actually break your arm or black your eye. I loved my manly man, but he would keep taking things out of the shopping trolley. I would put something in and he would take it right back out again.

We went food shopping on Thursdays, in his car. At first this was a novelty. My mother had been in charge of the shopping and I’d never been to a supermarket before. Up and down the aisles we went, he with purpose, I with increasing gloom. I would see something I thought we needed; coffee, perhaps, or cheese. He would frown down at it and, without comment, put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I stopped putting things in the basket.

I remained in charge of pushing the trolley, but I didn’t even do that right. I sensed he felt I was dawdling and daydreaming, which I was, mostly of not being married. I steered it crooked. “Goodness knows what sort of driver you’ll make if you ever manage to pass the test.”

We rented a third-floor flat; a grubby, shabby collection of rooms with a hole in the kitchen wall that you could have fallen through if you tried hard enough. Sometimes I wanted to try. We shovelled up the carpet and its rotten underlay. There was a scattering of tiny, multicoloured sweets mixed in with it, I remember. He shoved the mouse-infested furniture down one end and covered it in blankets. I grew a tomato plant in a pot on the balcony but I had planted the seed in August, which was far too late. The tomatoes stuck at green.

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

My sail came along later, and for his sake I cut loose from my anchor. At intervals I wished I hadn’t because the sail, inevitably, was to turn out badly too. He and I were so alike, like mirror images: an Aquarian and an Aquarian, a disastrous collision of star signs. We lived in a place on the seafront – back to rented. The salt spray quickly started to rust my third-hand car.

We also went the supermarket for our groceries, but not necessarily on Thursdays, just when we got round to thinking about it. We had a trolley each and sailed up and down the aisle, side by side, in the whoosh of a following wind. I was not accustomed to fun. I had never scooted a trolley before, or allowed myself to giggle in the company of a man. People gave us looks but it was exhilarating, being young at last.

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

Apparently I should have found myself an Aries, a Gemini, a Libra or a Sagittarius. It’s too late now.

Now I am so old that I cannot tell you how old I am. If I visit the supermarket at all, I go alone. Mostly I order stuff online and it gets delivered after dark by a man in a uniform who’s anxious to get home to his family. When I do go, I’m grateful for the trolley to lean on. Some days this hip’s so bad, it saves me limping.

I navigate the person-littered aisles with quiet skill, being a much better driver than my anchor once predicted. I place in my trolley what I choose to place in it, but I can’t afford much. I don’t attempt the sailing thing because I can’t. I wouldn’t even if I could because they might lock me away somewhere. Old women are always being locked away; fed with plastic spoons, showered by strangers, slid from bed to chair and back again on a board.

Sail under a black flag, that’s my motto. Don’t let the buggers catch you.

(flash fiction: 753 words)

From my bookcase: Less Than Angels: Barbara Pym

Thought I’d go for something less scary this time, so ‘Less Than Angels’ by Barbara Pym, 1955. It’s quite a while since I read this book and so I’ll crib from the back cover:

Catherine Oliphant is a writer and lives with handsome anthropologist Tom Mallow. Their relationship runs into trouble when he begins a romance with Deirdre Swann, so Catherine turns her attention to the reclusive anthropologist Alaric Lydgate, who has a fondness for wearing African masks. Added to this love tangle are the activities of Deirdre’s fellow students and their attempts to win the competition for a research grant.

The course of true love or academia never did run smooth.

I remember thoroughly enjoying this book.  The African mask thing: the wonderfully-named Alaric Lydgate, who wears the masks (in the privacy of his back garden, if I remember) is a true eccentric, seen in snatches through the eyes of his very ‘normal’ neighbours. A troubled man, but things turn out all right for him in the end. Pym’s knowledge of Africa and anthropology came from seventeen years working at the International African Institute in London, from 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa. I think she felt herself to be a kind of anthropologist – observing the ‘tribal customs’ of suburban post-war Britain with a quiet fascination, from the outside.

Two things about Barbara Pym.

First: she is much underrated and only now being rediscovered. She has been described (by Alexander McCall Smith of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame) as a modern Jane Austen, and you can see it there – the very small canvas – a gathering of essentially good or well-meaning, if rather restrained, muddled and emotionally inexpert – characters – English, in other words – and the overall female tone to the book.

This is not to say that her stories are dull, or bland. She can be witty, and very sharp. Her characters may not indulge in explicit sex (this was 1955, after all) but it is there in the background. Barbara Pym herself had quite a number of love affairs, though these  seem to have ended in unhappiness. She was at one point involved with a much younger man, as is Catherine Oliphant in the book. Barbara Pym was reticent about her private life and inner world but you might see a partial self-portrait in Catherine.

One of the things I like about the book is the sense that men and women in those days actually did expect to ‘court’ one another, and were hoping for romance even if they did not always find it – or find it with the person the expected to find it with – followed by marriage and children. These were – how would you put it – quieter times, and kinder.

Second: when you have read one Barbara Pym book you are almost certain to want to read them all. That’s another reason I can’t recall the plot in detail – because at the time I was working through the whole of her oeuvre (such a pretentious word, whyever did I use it?) one after another. Every now and then I put my books back into alphabetical order and am always surprised and pleased at the sight of all those colourful long-lost Pym paperbacks sitting neatly in a row. Sad, yes.

Barbara Pym’s books tend to contain lots of little bits of poetry – her characters, being academics, tend to toss quotes back and forth quite naturally. This leaves you with the delightful task (if interested enough, as I always am) of discovering where the stray lines came from. To give you a head start, at the end of Chapter 4 a character refers to a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti beginning: When do I see the most, beloved one? I notice I have even glued the sonnet into the back cover:

Lovesight, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

When do I see thee most, beloved one?

When in the light the spirits of mine eyes

Before thy face, their alter, solemnize

The worship of that Love through thee made known?

Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone)

Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies

Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,

And my soul only sees thy soul its own?

O love – my love! if I no more should see Thyself,

Nor on the earth the shadow of thee,

Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,

How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope

The groundwhirl of the perished leaves of Hope

The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

I used to feel guilty about ‘customising’ my paperbacks but nowadays book customisation is all the rage – a sub-category of scrapbooking, apparently – and anyway, to slightly paraphrase Lesley Gore (1963-ish) and many others:

It’s my paperback and I’ll glue if I want to…

 

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.

Should you, because you can?

I often start off thinking no, I couldn’t possibly write that…

Next thing I know, I’ve written it.

This post may be one of those.

Sometimes I have moments of enlightenment. It’s probably a myth, you know, that enlightenment happens all at once, a blinding flash in the dark, sunlight on the road to Damascus. It’s more a tantalising chink before the door creaks shut again, sometimes for millennia.

Last night it occurred to me, not for the first time, but every time I forget – which is another way in which the door creaks shut – that I may not even be here to write. Or rather, just because I can write doesn’t mean I should, or that I absolutely have to. Maybe I’m not meant to be doing it at all at this point.

I don’t mean this sort of writing – this blogging pastime – which to me is more like chatting on the telephone, or writing a longish letter to a friend.  I mean the sort that requires the participation of your entire being, that drains every drop from the glass, that scrapes the last baked-bean from the saucepan, that… well, you know.

It just reminded me. When I was younger I had a friend. He was more than a friend, in fact (and then considerably less, but that’s another story).  My friend had a guru, except that, being a Christian he referred to him as something else – my Mentor, my Guide – can’t exactly remember now. This Guide was revered among Christians of a certain hue – those who drawn to the paranormal, out-of-body and near-death-experiences. He wrote a whole series of books; I read one or two of them but found them a bit chewy. Perhaps I should have another go at them now.

We visited him together, just once. His house was quite a long way away, and so bare. I never saw a house so devoid of everything except its occupant. It was as if stuff no longer had any meaning for him. There was a piano, but it was locked. There was a big old table but no cloth, no books, nothing on it. Ladies brought him food – home-made cakes and such, my friend said, and he lived mostly on what people brought him. Food didn’t matter.

I can’t remember much more about that meeting, except that he looked at us both, very carefully, and for an uncomfortably long time, and told us we were old souls. I think I knew this already, as did my friend: I had known him since the earth was molten metal, since we were blades of grass side by side in some prehistoric meadow, since… but then people in love tend to reckon in geological time. How can there ever have been a time when we were not together? How can there ever come a time when we will be apart? And maybe they are right. Maybe we’re the deluded ones.

And I couldn’t help thinking, well, what else would you expect a guru to say? Just as you’d expect a fortune-teller to tell you that you would cross water and meet a tall, dark gentleman. A gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête once told me I’d have four children. That didn’t come to pass, in fact no children came to pass. But then she was the vicar’s wife in boot-polish and a fancy shawl. What would she know?

I asked about the locked piano. My friend told me that his Guide once played the piano. He had so loved to listen to a certain piece music that he could close his eyes and be transported by it onto another spiritual plane. But music had to be given up in order that he could become what he needed to become. It was the price he had had to pay. There is always a price to pay. It seemed very shabby to me then – all of it – the house with the empty table, the donated cakes, the locked piano, the absent gramophone, the being alone in the dark most of time, the occasional cup of tea, a visitor.

spider4.jpg

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was on an upper level of a railway station, looking down at the scurrying figures in the concourse beneath. Between them and me was a plate-glass window so wide and so thick that there was no way they could ever hear me, even if I thumped on the glass. And they would never look up. They were fixed on their destinations, whereas I had no destination – or at least none that I knew of.

Writing was always a kind of thumping on the glass or – a later analogy – the weaving of an elaborate web. I couldn’t get into their world but maybe, just maybe, I could entice them into mine. With the benefit of hindsight and old (well, medium) age, I see this would never have worked. Had the spider’s web been encrusted with precious gems and its strands laced with the finest of nectars – had they crawled in in their little wingèd millions to worship me, the Great Writing Spider – it wouldn’t have worked. They would have been deceived, bewitched, enticed. They wouldn’t have come otherwise, wouldn’t have entered willingly. And that great windy nothingness at the centre of everything would still be there.

So what’s an old soul to do, apart from a bit of blogging now and again?

I think maybe nothing. I think just Be.

I think open a channel.

I think wait.

Golden Apple Earrings

“Pretty,” he said, brushing the golden apples absently.

I kissed him – but not the way I did before –

Being pierced through the heart by the one who gave them to me.

Never play word-games with Christians, they’re superstitious,

Truly believing in Serpents and Souls and Apples,

In sunlight stippling Eden’s long-ago leaves

And Jehovah’s moon asleep in the fork of the Tree.

Between my husband’s heart and mine stretches a silver chain;

I left him easily enough, but it pulls and pulls sometimes.

The links that make our chain are dainty fine:

A break in any one and the pain may end me.

“I am the serpent in your Eden,” I said

– so much throw-away imagery –

But my lover stared at me and stepped away.

moon

earrings

Lucifer

I picture him in winter, mostly:

A half-forgotten face, uncommon man-shape

In southern cities where he could not be. 

I hear him playing to an empty church,

Notes ricocheting round a birdless sky:

He, who could have made a new religion.

He goes by fields, crossing sour northern ditches,

Clutches the rail, the rust flaking off in his hand:

A stranger in a green, wind-bitten land.

 Why does my Lucifer fold away

His fiery wings? Why does he hide

With the blameless and the earthen?

 

He, who had such a talent for destruction.

sky

NaPoWriMo 15/4/16: Writing By Lightning

Writing by lightning, I’m

Wishing that we could share

Smell of paraffin,

Heat of the flame.

 

Beloved, is your garden

Incandescent green

And is the rainfall

Drowning your roses too?

 

Are you alone, or is she with you?

Do your fingers drift along that icy arm,

Hiroshima blue, then white,

Then blind again?

 

Whisper and I will hear you.

Lamplight will relay you.

Tonight the very air

Is charged with you.

NaPoWriMo 8/4/16: In the Memorial Gardens

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

She’s lost his face but recalls that he sang, and was thin.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

Or was it some other garden or century?

Too early for wasps, but the chestnuts are in their green.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

 

Too early for wasps, too old for virginity.

Soon the paths will be white with feather-down.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

The blackbird prospects for worms with a beady eye.

How pleasant to see, how nice to be or have been.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the chestnut tree.

How odd to be old when you feel like seventeen.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

A sparrow that feeds from your hand can be company,

And many’s the song to be heard from singers unseen.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

NaPoWriMo 7/4/16: Kenny

Kenny was a funny kind of brother

Spent most of the time on his back

Watching sky go over

Or crouched in the dust with the ants

To hear them whisper.

 Kenny lives in Canada now

In a heated apartment block

But I always imagine him out in the snow

And walking off into the dark.

His songs come over the radio

Beautiful fractured lines

For women he’s seen in the subway

Or in glossy magazines

He sings them sweet and sad and low

For ladies who can’t insist

That he love in a foreign language, or give

What he never has possessed.

 

The pig that walked away

He was unpredictable, my Dad. Most of the time I was afraid of his footsteps, homecoming; the sudden vicious swoop of his right hand; the stinging slaps; the turn of the key in some lock, with me on one side and him on the other. But I was even more afraid of the hectoring, the badgering, the elaborate sarcasm and the winding up. I had no defence to those.

He had a way with words, my Dad: he didn’t have to stop and think about them, they just came out. That’s where I got it from, this little gift, this way with words. He used them sometimes to write, more often to bully. I use them most often to write but I too, on the half-handful of occasions when rage has got the better of me, have unleashed that river of abuse at some cringeing offender and have failed to stop, when enough would have been enough. I felt that same joy, you see, the same joy he did. If you’re capable of doing something that well, however much you hate yourself, you long to let it rip. It’s a beautiful verbal violence; it’s like magic all bottled up and fizzing; you’ve become the box Pandora foolishly opened; you are what she unleashed upon the world.

But he wasn’t always Bad Daddy, and he did love us. He even loved me though I didn’t know that until he was far too old to tell me and I was far too old for it to matter much any more. I have happy memories of him too, and now that he is gone, I miss him more and more.

I prefer to recall his endless stock of “ditties”, and how he loved to sing foolish songs and recite nonsensical verses. Words for words’ sake, for their sound as much as their meaning: he was my first teacher in this regard. His material was drawn from a variety of sources, all before my time – music-hall, popular music, the military, in which he had so recently been an unwilling conscript. Nellie The Elephant was one of his favourites. We all used to sing that one:

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and waved goodbye to the circus…

Elephants also featured in a little poem:

A wonderful bird is the elephant/ It flits from bough to bough / It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree/ And whistles like a cow.

Then there were the peas and honey:

I eat my peas with honey/ I’ve done so all my life/ It makes the peas taste funny/ But it keeps them on the knife.

There was Jemima’s Uncle, forever swimming in circles:

Oh Jemima, look at your Uncle Jim/ He’s in the duckpond learning how to swim/ First he does the back-stroke and then he does the side/ And now he’s under the water swimming against the tide.

There was the monologue about the Little Yellow God:

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu/ There’s a little marble cross below the town/ There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew/ And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

There was Stanley Holloway’s lugubrious tale of The Lion and Albert:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool/ That’s noted for fresh air and fun/ And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom/ Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert/ All dressed in his best; quite a swell/ With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle/ The finest that Woolworth’s could sell…

There’s the song about the pudding:

All of a sudden a blooming great pudding came flying through the air/ It missed me Ma and hit me Pa/ And knocked him off his chair.

But our joint favourite was the poem about the pig that walked away:

One evening in October/ When I was about one-third sober/ And was taking home a load with manly pride/ My poor feet began to stutter/ So I lay down in the gutter/ And a pig came up and lay down by my side. Then we sang “It’s All Fair Weather”/ And “Good Fellows Get Together”/ Till a lady passing by was heard to say/ She says, “You can tell a man who boozes/ By the company he chooses”/ And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

I remember visiting Dad in hospital for what turned out to be the last time, and making myself take his hand. My hands are a mirror-image of his, as it happens – veins and knobbles in the same places, odd flattened fingertips, even the same size. I had never voluntarily touched him before.

“Warm,” he said. “Warm.”

 

 

Harlequin Dancers

 

They were harlequin dancers,

treading a gracious measure;

music-less, delicate, each of them being

the obverse of the other.

A fortunate conjunction, a synchronicity:

this side of time you may not see again

such symmetry.

α

 They were black and white to each other

snowfall on winter trees.

They were light and dark to each other; now

their days are pitiless, their nights are ice.

She lies bone-bare under desert sun; he

whirls in cold space.

 Masked and bespangled, androgyne,

they spiralled down the years;

but now the aeons weigh them down,

seconds are centuries.

The elegance is broken, the fine pattern gone,

and each is half of each again,

and all of none.

Ω

The Perfect Roar: a love story

IT ISN’T easy in the Jungle. Things get eaten, things get hurt. Rain falls, dislodging the tiny beetles from their homes in the river bank and washes them away. Sun shines and the drinking pools dry out. Nothing is safe from Time, that creeping predator. All the same, sometimes there is kindness. Sometimes even love.

At the centre of the Jungle was a great yellow mountain, rearing up out of the glossy green trees. The forest creatures were afraid of the mountain. They didn’t know why, exactly, except that the mountain always seemed to have been there, whilst their own lives were fleeting. And the mountain made a continuous, ominous creaking and groaning. ‘I may decide to fall down on top of you,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Just because I haven’t, doesn’t mean I won’t.

Only one creature was not afraid of the mountain, and that was the lion. Maybe this was because he lived half way up the great yellow mountain, in a cave, and kind of felt he owned it. Or maybe it was because he roared so loud and so long that he scarcely heard the groaning.

The mouth of the lion’s cave was littered with bleached bones, also chewed skulls of various shapes and sizes. The lion never needed to go out hunting; indeed, he liked the cave so well he never left it at all. The forest creatures brought his food to him, live and sometimes kicking. They accomplished this by drawing lots amongst themselves as to who should be sacrificed each day. Mothers fed their offspring heartily, and hastened to beget more, knowing how many of their plump, furry darlings were likely to end up inside the lion.

For they reasoned that it was better to keep the lion in his cave by this means, for if he ever did take it into his head to come out he would surely start slaughtering at random, and with great enthusiasm, reaching up his long golden arms to tip the monkeys out of the trees; reaching down his long golden arms to pull the harmless rabbits from their burrows. He would delve into the river with his scimitar claws to disturb the goggle-eyed fish in their dreaming. He would snatch the many-coloured birds from the air to serve as mid-morning snacks.

All this time the lion had believed himself to be alone. Occasionally, drowsing in the midday heat, he reviewed such memories as he had, hoping to find one that contained a mother, a sister or a father. But supposing such kin had ever existed, why had they gone away and left him in the cave?

Occasionally he paused in his roaring and listened, imagining for a second that he heard an answering roar from some distant cave or forest, but it was only ever an echo. The lion, of course, was lonely, but he didn’t know it. It didn’t do to know that kind of thing.

In amongst the thick brown fur of the lion’s mane, all this time had lived a mouse. The lion, as we have seen, did not possess a good memory. If he had ever known the mouse was there he had forgotten, and the mouse took great pains to keep it that way. Safe and still she lay in his tangled coat, only climbing down in the hottest part of the day when he was sleeping. Then she would skip into the forest to look for berries and seeds.

She enjoyed these little excursions into the real world. Occasionally she even allowed herself to admit how stuffy and confining it could be to live in a lion, one’s eyes seeing nothing but coarse lion hair, one’s nostrils filled with the rank smell of lion. Over the years she had learned her Beloved’s roars by heart; she knew their complex patterns and their various meanings. She knew the angry roar, the threatening roar, the hungry roar. She even knew the sad roar he sometimes made at the end of his day, very quietly, to himself, believing that no one could hear. For yes, she had grown to love the lion and she knew it, though it doesn’t do to know that kind of thing.

And so the years passed by. The lion grew a little louder and a little lonelier; the mouse remained content to hide in Beloved’s fur and only occasionally to indulge in wistful daydreams of the big wide world and what her life might have been like had she chosen to live on the forest floor amongst the other creatures. Mostly, though, she was grateful to be a Lion’s Mouse, for she was a timid and reclusive creature, ill-suited to the seething life below.

But then the lion grew sick, which changed everything. First he lost his appetite. The Sacrifices that appeared at the mouth of the cave remained there for a while, trembling but uneaten, and eventually crept away. Then, apart from the occasional whimper, the lion fell silent, his vast golden head lolling on the dusty floor, his great golden paws limp and useless. For the first time he heard the sound of blood roaring in his ears and throbbing in his veins; heard too the terrible groaning of the mountain and began to be afraid, for he sensed he was going to die.

After a while the creatures on the forest floor began to remark amongst themselves upon the unfamiliar silence, and upon the Sacrifices that had begun to return, not even chewed or licked. They confirmed that the lion was no longer so fearsome, but rather a moth-eaten old thing really. For several days the creatures waited in case the roaring should start up again. When it didn’t, they called a council meeting around the water hole. The fishes awoke reluctantly and, between deep breaths of water, lifted their spiny heads out of the water. Foxes slunk in through the undergrowth and sat yellow-eyed, their terracotta tails disposed around their paws, contemplating rabbits. The rabbits endeavoured to become invisible. Elephants pushed a path through the trees disturbing, briefly, the birds that had come down in great rainbow-coloured clouds to perch amongst the branches. Monkeys pirouetted in from the canopy on ropes of liana, looping up again at intervals to report to others what they had heard.

The meeting took a very long time, for the languages of the animals, like the languages of men, are many and various, but unlike men the animals have never acquired the skill of taking turns to speak. Nevertheless, by the end of their long and loud conferrings they had formed a plan of action. Together, they would creep up the mountain, to the very mouth of the lion’s cave, and peer inside. If the lion merely slept they could creep away. Should he be dead, on the other hand, they could leave rejoicing, for they would no longer have the inconvenience of sacrificing themselves and their children to assuage his hunger. And should they discover him alive, but sick, they would fall upon him, with the courage of the multitude, and rid themselves of the old tyrant while they had the chance.

The mouse heard them approaching. Scattered amongst the mountain’s creakings and groanings she heard their miscellaneous chatterings and twitterings, she discerned the snapping of twigs underpaw. She heard the sly slithering of the snake and the crouched creeping of the fox, and the sideways shuffle of the monkeys, who were furtive and ill at ease when down from the canopy. She knew, too, what was in their heart, for such a knowing is the particular talent of mice.

Now the mouse had long ago understood that the lion’s roar was not so very loud. The cave magnified the roar, rolling it around from wall to wall, bouncing it off the roof until it emerged as a great wave of sound. If he had ever left his cave and tried roaring in the open the lion would have realised this for himself. Or perhaps he did realise it, a little. Now the mouse understood that she would have to save her beloved.

As the creatures approached she clambered out of the lion’s brown and tangled mane, hid herself behind one of his great golden ears and began to breathe deeply. She thought of Beloved’s most splendid and terrifying roar as she breathed in the searing air of a jungle noon. She breathed in and breathed in and breathed in until one by one her tiny ribs began to crack beneath her thin, grey fur.

And then she began to roar. She roared Beloved’s angriest, most terrifying roar, the one that contained ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ and ‘HOW DARE YOU APPROACH!’ and the sound came rolling and swelling and echoing out of that mountain cave, louder, more fearsome and more perfect than anything the lion himself had ever produced.

And the mouse breathed in again, and roared again, though now the blood ran from her mouth and burst from her ears and the roar-cracked ribs began to burst through her sides one by broken one and the roar became, although by then she didn’t know it, a scream of agony.

Upon hearing this, the creatures of the forest beat a hasty retreat to their homes in tree and in sky and in burrow, and it was many, many months before the boldest of them ventured up the mountain again. This was, of course, the fox, who discovered what was left of the lion stretched out inside the mouth of the cave, dead of old age, sickness and loneliness, although he had never known it. And concealed in the lion’s mane, although the fox was never to know it, was a long-dead mouse, whose tiny broken body concealed a large, and broken, heart.