Thursday, 11 February 2016

Gone Midnight

Cyndi had lost both her shoes and stolen a bicycle which she was pedalling with bare feet. Cold, frozen feet that kept slipping. The bicycle was the old-fashioned kind, the type you imagine on a country lane with a wicker basket fixed to its handlebars and a rusty bell that gave a hoarse tinny chime like a person deliberately clearing their throat before they spoke in public. It was certainly not the most ideal or the safest transport home after the clock had struck the last stroke of midnight, but she'd missed the first strike and the further ten that followed. The din – the shouted chatter and the live band – in the club had drowned them out until the band had finished a number and then it was like a plug had been pulled. People realised how loud their voices were as other outside noises began to filter through, and that was when she'd heard what was for her the first stroke and had asked a bartender the time. It's just gone midnight, he'd said, and as this truth dawned out she had fled and vanished into the night, or at least that's how the other party attendees later described her sudden flight.
She couldn't believe she was going to miss the last train when she'd so carefully planned her homeward journey: made sure of its departure time from Waterloo Station two weeks before the event, and then re-checked in case of engineering works or unforeseen delays caused by leaves or black ice on the line. It was such a spoiler to the evening, but she only had herself to blame. She should have accepted the invite to sleep over at a girlfriend's and then she would have had none of this bother, but instead she'd promised her employer she would be back to take care of the children: two boys aged five and seven, in spite of it being her weekend off. It wasn't so much of an offer, but more of an expectation since Cyndi lived in, and her employer, ironically a human rights lawyer, always got what she wanted, particularly from au pairs like Cyndi, the naturally good. Her methods were underhanded, and even though Cyndi saw through her tricks it was easier all round if she just agreed and if her employer believed she was manipulable.
So on this very night, when the clock had gone midnight Cyndi's actions were not that of the rational, but that of a girl who is always anxious to please and scared of accusations that she's let others down or done wrong. She is not a role model for the modern or the downtrodden because she turns everything into a duty and doesn't dare speak up for herself, which, of course, sometimes leads to poor decisions. And this was one such occasion.
In her haste to get to Waterloo Station, she kicked off her impulsively-bought, crippling shoes and ran, hoping she might be able to flag a passing black cab if one chanced by. But the wet London streets seemed to be noticeably empty and so when she came to an art installation of bicycles through the ages, she grabbed the least cumbersome, triggering the built-in alarm, yet still jumped on and rode, her red hair flying behind her. She bumped over manhole covers and tried to avoid the gutters and puddles, and made a vain attempt to prevent her grey silk dress becoming caught in the rotation of the pedals.
During those moments of frenzied activity, her brain pondered what she would do when she got to Waterloo for her train was sure to have departed already. Perhaps she would be able to catch a train part of the way...and then what? Walk, find a night bus or taxi? Her brain constantly jabbering dutydutyduty on a continuous loop.
As the station neared in sight, she thrust the bicycle into the hands of a man in a sort of tweed uniform, “Right you are Miss.” He said, touching his flat cap, “I'll take care of it straight away,” wheeling the bicycle off as if he were returning a prized horse to its stables. How odd, she thought, but nevertheless made her way into the concourse to find herself amongst a throng of people – ladies with bustles and gentlemen in top hats with porters attending to their needs. She approached what appeared to be an authority figure, who having glanced at her Travelcard instructed her to “Follow me. Quickly please, Miss. The Gone Midnight Express is about to leave.” The whistle blew as he hurried her to the disused Eurostar platform.

Picture Credit: Cinderella, Edmund Dulac

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Lost Jockey

The jockey was lost in a forest, a forest deep in winter. A minimalist forest which also seemed as if it had recently been touched by a wild fire. A fire that had spread indiscriminately, torched the foliage on the ground and left some blackened stumps which pristine snow now covered, but the evidence was there for the trees were bare and brittle. A light wind might cause them to snap or disintegrate into wood chips, and yet they were still standing. Still rooted where they'd probably been for hundreds of years. In the exact same location. With no branching out for they grew up not outwards. Stretching for the sun with its jaundiced light, all of them perfectly shaped as if pruned by nature's hands to a standard regulation.
The jockey nor the horse noticed this detail in their present surroundings; both too consumed with seeking a way out, praying for a sudden clearing and a return to a landscape they recognised. Otherwise, from a cursory glance, onwards or backwards, it all looked much the same. Perpetual. White under eye and hoof with parallel lines of naked trees. The few leaves suspended here and there unobserved, as the combination of the black on white and the eerie light was deeply unsettling. Discomfiting to their accustomed steely verve, which in itself was strange, because had the jockey been in full command he would have seen that him and his racehorse complemented the backdrop beautifully. Their colours echoing the black and white forest like a game of backgammon, draughts or chess and they were the pieces in play.
But the jockey was unused to feeling this lost and the dark racehorse was sensitive to the increased slashes of his rider's whip and his ever-tighter squeezed thighs around his sides. The displacement that both felt was uncommon. And although they appeared to move as one, they were not as one. Man and beast were separate, not joined together as would normally be the case. Their forward motion and rhythm was not fluid. It was disjointed, irregular, one a fraction out of sync with the other, except that neither knew which one was at fault or who should adjust to correct it.
The jockey, despite being a Grand National winner, had no experience of this kind of affair, and the racehorse had long-forgotten his experiences in the hands of a novice. There was no situation that compared nor could alleviate their alarm. The ground they found themselves travelling was more punishing than a manicured racecourse. Even at their great speed, which the jockey enforced, the horse was wary of unseen obstacles and the jockey was irritated by this minuscule hesitation, hunched as he was over the horse's back. The horse yearned for his trainer and a dirt track, an amble in arable countryside, and not the torture of the jockey's never-ending pumped adrenaline. But onwards they rode. And rode. Pushed to and through the limits of their own fatigue.
Until the same thought occurred to both of them as one, horse and rider, man and beast: were they missing magical openings in this unchanging forest? If they both slowed, what would they see?
The horse decelerated to a trot and the jockey relaxed and sat back in the saddle, his grip on the reins and the whip loosened. Their breath and sweat mingling, rising together like mist in the cold air. Weariness making itself felt as each gradually returned to their rested rhythm; man and beast entirely spent in their own manner. And as they calmed, the silence of the forest made itself known, seeped in like a chill and made both of them shiver for they had come to a complete stop too quickly and so the quietude that was natural to the forest to them seemed supernatural. There were no sounds, or at least none that man and beast could discern even though they both listened intently. Neither was there any presence of animal, bird, or plant life, except the mostly leafless trees.
Now at ease the jockey surveyed the winter, almost burnt to a cinder, landscape and realised the picture was not at all how it appeared. Like wallpaper there were places where the pattern didn't quite match and it took on a 3D effect. He realised these were exits, openings to God knows where, which had escaped him and yet always been there.

Picture Credit: The Lost Jockey, 1948, Rene Magritte

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Prince and the Bell Pepper

There was once a princess and she wanted a prince, but then he must be a vegetarian prince. A real vegetarian, not a flexitarian, a pescetarian or a meat reducer, but a full-time abstainer of meat, which yes, includes fish, molluscs and crustaceans. And to be a real prince he must be a decent cook for in this enlightened day and age there were no kitchen slaves, and princesses although trained did not want to be held responsible for every repast and every growling palace stomach.
Unfortunately, real vegetarian princes were thin on the ground, as rare as the jewels on the King's crown: not to be found just anywhere. But then this particular princess hated dating. Any dating, even organised dates conducted at a royal speed where she would be obliged to pass down a line of prospective suitors proffering to each a gloved hand and a few strained polite words as her mother, the Queen, looked on.
The Princess, in the past, had been accused of coolness because she failed to react to romantic gestures. In fact, any gestures with romantic overtones made her uneasy: she refused to accept them for what they were and questioned their authenticity. Why? What's the agenda? And despite being a princess she disliked any light being shed on her. But then she detested those that planned adventurous, supposedly fun, dates where she would have to participate, have her sportsmanship assessed. What was wrong with a cup of tea, a walk, a talk, an art gallery? She would really rather skip what everyone else thought was the good bit, so she could be herself instead of feeling as if she might descend into clumsiness at any given moment. Therefore, her attempts, at best, had been half-hearted: agreed to, but not altogether enjoyed, and the few frogs she'd kissed had been eventually dismissed for their carnivorous or all- consuming nature.
She considered it her duty, as did her parents and their diminishing kingdom, to marry a prince, but she had no intention of losing who she was in that negotiation. The very idea of marriage seemed like a form of decay, a whittling away until perhaps one day the person before the mirror was unidentifiable. An imposter, with the soulful light that used to play imprisoned in the glazed irises. Along with fearing this outcome for herself she feared inflicting it on someone else, yet brushed aside these dreads as her pre-any-commitment jitters for if she found a prince who shared her principles she was sure these concerns would clear. 
So she beseeched the few palace retainers to cast an ever-wider net but there was always something wrong. Some irritating habit the princess couldn't possibly live with or a disparity in opinions or interests. The princess was on the verge of giving up when disaster struck in a distant province. There'd been an sudden outbreak of influenza which meant the Head of State was too unwell to welcome a foreign prince who was due to visit their shores any day. Could the King possibly help? Being a benevolent King, he agreed, to which the Head of State's PA replied that the prince, on arrival, would be conveyed to the palace. As an afterthought, he added, oh, and he's vegetarian. My apologies again for the inconvenience.
Two days and three nights later, during a wild storm, there was a knock at the town gate which the old King answered to find a rain-soaked, yet debonair prince behind. He heartily greeted the traveller, ushered him in and then left him in the Queen's capable hands who was convinced he was not a vegetarian prince and needed to be tested.
The Queen took the prince on a tour which ended in the kitchen where she laid out their stores: meat, fish, vegetables and grains, remarking to the prince that even guests prepared their shared evening meals. The prince upon hearing this instantly rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands, then ignoring all other foodstuffs on the table chose a red bell pepper to roast over an open flame. A carnivorous prince would never have done that.
The princess was persuaded to make him her husband. And the roasted pepper, in case you were wondering, was eaten and enjoyed.
Now this is a true story.

Picture Credit: Peasant Burning Weeds, Vincent Van Gogh