Thursday, 29 January 2015

Gateway to the West

I'm at a cliff's edge when the sun temporarily blinds me, and makes me lose all sense of direction. One foot forward, I think, must be empty space, two steps back firm, dry land. But in the confusion, I must have turned myself ever so slightly so that when I stepped back my left foot found air. For a second, it hovered there like a tightrope walker finding his or her place on a high wire. Has anyone, I wondered, ever completed this act heel-toe and not toe-heel? I wobbled which instantly brought my mind back to my perilous position and sharpened my blinded senses. I carefully drew my left foot towards its companion and heaved a mighty sigh when the pair were once again parallel as they naturally should be.
I remember thinking how I would have undoubtedly fallen if it hadn't been for all those years of flamingo-style yoga poses. Go me! High-five! I wiggled my toes rather too deliciously for in doing so my confidence rose and I took two steps forward without so much as a second thought feeling sure I would find secure ground. Instead I tumbled down the cliff face like a young bird learning how to fly. My arms escaped from my sides, but still I dropped like a stone or how a pebble is thrown to skim the sea's surface. I grazed rocks and bounced off ledges, but luckily due to the speed at which I was falling as well as my blindness I couldn't see the obstacles as they rushed towards me, although the wind was knocked out of with me with surprising regularity. I was pretty much convinced I was a doomed rag doll.
And yet in that dazzling sun, I'd done what we've all done in such circumstances: tempted fate. I'd thought I'd escaped from a close call, but that smugness had only sent me plunging to what I was sure would be my eventual death.
It's funny how the mind focuses on random musings in such situations, and how seconds seem to last for the longest time. I expected to see the life I'd half-lived flash before my inward eyes, but no instead I pondered death; more precisely its purported figure. Was Death hooded and as grim as fables say? If Death had a face, what would it look like? Could Death be the opposite to what we've been led to believe and be a benevolent figure?
Unfortunately, as I was about to form my own answers to these matters, my unplanned dive was put to a sudden end as I ricocheted off a fine strip of sand like an aeroplane making an ungainly landing.
I think I must have blacked out for a couple of minutes, but when I stiffly came to I had remarkably recovered my eyesight. My head pounded with the same rhythm as the surf, and boy was I bruised and aching, but apart from that I was notably intact and alive. The sun was still overhead and painfully bright, yet in the distance I thought I could make out a momentous reddish-brown rock with a gateway through its centre. Even from afar it looked as though it was some majestic sculpture, beautifully crafted from hours of labour.
I pulled myself awkwardly to my feet with many anguished groans and began to hobble towards it. I reasoned that if I was in the vicinity of such a landmark there would be more chance of a rescue, because otherwise day-trippers or bathers were thin on the ground. And as I slowly walked or at one point crawled on my knees, I realised the structure wasn't as far off as I'd estimated, unless it was gravitating towards me and not me to it. At any rate, I reached it sooner than I anticipated and lost my breath all over again for the reddish-brown rock was the face and torso of a man.
And what a man with shoulder-length locks and a beatific expression. Dreaming of who knows what, but it certainly made you think that whatever he might have done in the past he had been pardoned and profusely blessed.
For once, there was no internal debate, I passed through the gateway to the land beyond. Who would have guessed that Death for me was a general of the West with a hole in this chest: Shakespeare's Othello.

Picture Credit: Othello Dreaming Venice, Salvador Dali

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Poppy and Barbed Wire

A poppy sprung up, ruby-red, next to some barbed wire. Where am I here? he asked the thistles that grew alongside him. Where are others of my kin?
But thistles of course act as guards and never make intelligent conversation. They waved each day in the golden sunlight or in the light breeze, if there was one. They shooed birds and bees away from his blood-red petals. Don't rest here, they seemed to say, he is protected.
And while the long green grasses were softer, they weren't much better. They whispered nonsense and at times tried to smother him. Tried to conceal that he, in all his loneliness, existed. You're not wanted, they told him. Why did you bloom here? Don't you see the barbed wire?
I had no choice in the matter, the poppy replied every time, I want my mother.
A mother, a father, a home, those times seemed like so long ago. But he was sure that there had been a life before this. How did I come to be here? A lone poppy in an overgrown field or meadow?
Do other poppies think as I do? There was not another to ask, not that he could see.
The soil he was in was a hard brown-red, which to him seemed unusual. The colour didn't seem true to natural earth. Shouldn't it be darker – more of a brown than a red? Did something happen here that as a poppy I can't remember?
The barbed wire remained taut and hostile, almost as if it wanted to prick his memory. Every so often, he tried to communicate: What is it? Tell me. But nothing so far had worked.
Until one day, he pleaded: Please, if you know something, anything, put me out of my misery.
How can I keep returning to this same lonely spot, year after year, if the truth of how I came to be here is clouded?
And this time, it must have touched a raw nerve.
The horror will not be forgot, the barbed wire said, if I told you. Are you sure you want to know? Once you remember, your innocence will again be lost.
But I need to know why I stand here, away from places where I presume many others bloom?
You were a spy here. Working alone against the enemy. You were so scared, you got careless. In your short military career, you'd seen others fallen. But I don't know all the facts, other than that you were young and fell here with no fellow countryman to cradle your head as you took your last dying breath. It was a pitiful death, and I'm supposed to be neutral, but how could I be when you fell almost upon me? War is senseless.
The barbed wire spoke so pragmatically that the poppy did not feel distressed hearing his own story. It had been too long for that, but hazy memories did come back of a war he'd been involved in. A war that had shook him, shook him to his very core, and all those around him. So many lost, wounded, bloody; displaced within their own mind and body. No good came from war, whether at home or abroad.
These cold, hard facts made him feel detached, but thoughtful for there was no going back, what had happened had happened. It was just a fragment of his past. The barbed wire wouldn't tell him how his life had been put to an end: whether he'd been shot or fatally wounded in some other way. In the wrong place at the wrong time was all he would say. A poor lamb who'd lain dead, his blood seeping into the earth, until a deserter had stumbled upon him in his slumber, closed his glassy eyes and quietly buried him.
At least I was given my dignity, the poppy thought, others may not have been as lucky.
The barbed wire in his dry, impersonal tone continued his monologue: There's no need now for you to dwell on this matter. Those living see the beauty of the poppy, but also the colour red and remember the bloodshed. You will never be forgot...
The boy's soul could finally leave.
The poppy was a poppy once more, just a red petalled head gently nodding in the breeze.

Picture Credit: Peter Francis

Thursday, 15 January 2015

General Smart's Grey Squirrel Band

Coincidences happen to me quite a lot. The chronology of these sometimes seems backwards, like a reverse history lesson or being rewound to a preceding time or event. With the story I'm about to narrate, I'm not sure where we are in the present state - whether all the occurrences have happened, are about to, or if they're way off in the future, but what I can tell you is that in this created land they're talked of as if they've passed.
The Balloonist in Enemy Land, which I'd read as part of a short story course and penned a condescending essay about, somehow opened up a window. Persons and details sought me out: a nutty professor or two, radio and television interviews, and newspaper clippings all seeming to confirm that this land actually existed. Sometimes it was just a tenuous link, which another person may have ignored, but I found it hard to believe that a such a small piece of information could find me through all other day-to-day trivia, so foolish as it may yet prove to be I listened. And here is what I've managed to cobble together.
Many, many years ago, a company of grey squirrels nibbled off a section of Surrey parkland and hid it. They painstakingly pulled up the roots of newly-planted trees and transplanted them, the same as hair follicles are to men going thin on top, to a sparse, long-forgotten beauty spot. It grew into a kind of beautiful, elevated wilderness which in certain places had panoramic views of the sort that any landscape photographer would wish to capture. The flattish pasture with its finger-bowl dips would have been pleasing to the human eye, if it was artistically inclined, along with its weird phenomena, but humans, as you've probably guessed, were not permitted.
The few that trespassed saw sights that have never been fully explained. Here, it is said mushrooms grow to towering heights, dwarfing microscopic infect life and other plants or creatures; black cherries thrive underground, turn into a bubbling jam and ooze like a volcano about to erupt; and ordinarily passive song birds turn into spies with warbling cries and hunting knives.
Other than the balloonist, who had inadvertently drifted in, only one small boy, named Jim, purposely stole in and got further without detection. The grey squirrels eventually captured him and released him on the border, where he stumbled home to speak of other strange things to his mother: clockwork robins made of brown sugar and grinning, guitar-playing sunflowers. Jim was put to bed, as the probable cause, his physician said, was eating an hallucinogenic mushroom, but once the fuss had died down the family quite literally disappeared. Packed up and left without a single word to their friends or neighbours.
Humans were indeed the enemy. And why wouldn't we be? After labelling them pests and blaming them for the demise of Reds, for culling and poisoning them. Tired of being persecuted, wouldn't you choose to build a hidden land of your very own?
But they lacked one thing: strong leadership. Grey squirrels only know how to bicker and fist-fight. They needed a general to head their battalion and fast. As chance would have it, a toy car, who'd escaped from the clutches of his boisterous owner, at that time was accosted by a blackbird. Unbelievably, the car spoke English and reasonable Squirrel, which, despite the high-pitched voice and size difference made him perfect for the job.
General Smart immediately instilled order and keeps the peace, to this day, in his squirrel brigade, even between his boys and their spouses. But when it comes to man even he sometimes struggles to control them for this after all is not a land for those seen as enemies. This is grey squirrel territory, and you'd be wise to remember that.

Picture Credit: Peter Francis

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Balloonist in Enemy Land

The balloon's buoyant red and yellow stripes began to slowly wilt, whereas only moments ago it had cast a pleasing shade over the terrain beneath. A flock of blackbirds with talons as razor-sharp as hunting knives had attacked with warbled cries, leaving small puncture wounds and a defeated balloonist. Here was a guy who considered himself a friend to all nature, but the nature here had made their feelings quite clear.
It was only right that he should feel dejected. How easy and quick it was to make enemies here, to be unwanted. In other lands, he'd always been welcomed; the sight of a hot air balloon brought peoples out and there would be dancing in traditional costumes, but the likelihood of that happening here was remote.
He searched the basket's floor for his telescope, extended it as far as he could and put it to his favoured eye. He must try to steer the balloon to a spot where it could land. The scenery was lush and reminded him very much of the Surrey Hills in all its spring glory, except the lay of the land was a little flatter and not as craggy. He spied what appeared to be a some sort of viewing platform, which was overhung by a clump of umbrella-shaped trees; he couldn't see any branches or leaves, just a smooth capped top, but as the injured balloon was sliding gracefully in this direction, he decided it would be the best place to touch down.
He adjusted the solid-fuel brazier, still helping to keep the balloon somewhat afloat, to aid the emergency landing. The balloon dropped even more from the position it held in the white cloud-filled sky, steadily lowering until it dangled above what turned out to be gigantic fungi trees. The basket bounced off their velvety domes, swung a little wide like a clock's pendulum and landed with a bump on what looked to be tarmacked ground, whereupon it toppled over and the balloonist found himself sprawled on a surprisingly firm, yet squishy surface. The cracks oozed a gooey blackness like how you expect to find the inside of a chocolate fondant if done perfectly, but it didn't smell of tar; he sniffed his palm and licked it – it was cherry with just a hint of sourness - which sent the receptors on his tongue into overdrive.
Now wild for cherry jam, he turned into a jabbering man and hunted for a tool to dig with, halting only when he heard an orchestra of car alarms and the rhythmic march of feet. This army, if indeed that was what was coming, sounded terrifying; the boots and alarms pierced his skull like nails being drilled into his head.
He sprang into a different sort of action: he righted the basket, climbed in, scrunched himself up and peered over its edge, but to his horror he saw the spongelike ground had betrayed him and it was far too late to cover his hand, knee, foot, and body prints or dive behind a mushroom for the green foliage ahead was visibly shaking.
A hundred-plus grey squirrels wearing spiky black helmets marched as a disciplined band; their eyes flashing a dangerous red, their front and hind legs keeping time with the ringing alarms. They lined up on their hind legs ten to a row – five on the right, five on the left, leaving a centre aisle – and awaited further instructions; unmoving, their flashing eyes died and the alarms were silenced. The balloonist by this point had broken out in a cold sweat, and the eerie calm that now descended did nothing to alleviate his fears.
There was a toot of a horn and a tiny car rolled up the centre aisle as smooth as a marble or metal ball bearing. It locked its wheels by braking too late and pulled up with a screech to face the grey squirrel army. Unperturbed, they shuffled to the left, then to the right and twice saluted their general. The car driver's window slid down and a high-pitched voice like that of a flea boomed out, “Okay boys, let him have it!” About eighty squirrels charged, snipped the deflated balloon from its basket with their pointed teeth and fastened it to an enormous sycamore propeller which they wound with fifteen quick twists and let go. The basket shot up and across the foreign sky with the cherry-stained flyer's last ever cry: GERONIMO!

Picture credit: Peter Francis

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Map of Self

Inspired by a line from a JG Ballard novel, I decided to draw a map of myself, but of course to do that I first needed a little help. I called an old friend and was deliberately cryptic, asking her if she could possibly spare me some time on this murky Sunday morning. Intrigued she agreed and was at my front door within the hour. I ushered her in and being enthused by my pet project showed her none of my usual hospitality. She wasn't permitted to throw her handbag down or take her coat off, although I had insisted she removed her shoes before I shoved her through to the living room. There was no time to lose!
The room, I admit, was in a bit of disarray, which my friend would tell you was highly unusual as I'm scrupulously clean. The sink was piled with dirty dishes from Saturday's dinner and this morning's hurried breakfast; the air smelt faintly of spices and banana porridge. The table was littered with debris: more dirty crockery, salt and pepper shakers, a smear of dried tomato sauce, along with a carelessly flung-down pair of large scissors and tiny screwed up balls of sellotape. The carpeted floor was strewn with blank A3 sheets of paper, some of torn or trampled.
Luckily, my good friend has seen worse, so said not a word, although I have to say that being in the 'moment' I wasn't too shamed by how it must have looked. That happened in the next couple of days once my creative-manic phase was well and truly over.
So what's the emergency?” She enquired, standing in her outer wear and pink socked feet.
Draw round me!” I barked, flinging myself down on sheets of A3 sellotaped together.
Thank god my friend has the patience of a saint!
She knelt, handbag still clamped on her shoulder and picked up the green felt tip I'd selected earlier, as I stretched fully-clothed, lying face up, on my paper rug.
Where was the best place, she said, to begin? Head or feet? I personally thought the left side of my neck, so that's what I told her, and then the pen's tickle began.
She was cautious at first, but grew bolder as she got used to being inches away from my physical frame. Her grip on the pen more sure as her mind let go and entered the flow of tracing my contours. I wanted it to be exact, no half measures. My friend knew all too well my perfectionist streak so I hadn't needed to tell her, and besides from my vantage point I could easily see the concentration etched on her sweet face.
The pen tickled my ribs so that I bit the inside of my lip and tasted my own iron-rich blood. Its nib caressed in-between my long fingers and I inwardly squirmed. Don't move, I soundlessly commanded myself, you'll spoil the art.
Done.” She said, sitting back on her heels and capping the felt tip with a satisfied click.
I slowly got up from my prostate position, being careful not to crease the paper, and stood over our joint creation. The bird's eye view was just as I hoped. It was like a looped coastal path that started and ended at the same location, but the landscape it contained was empty.
My friend had left me admiring the outline of myself to pour herself a lukewarm mug of coffee. She returned to my awestruck side, mug in hand, “Anything else, your Ladyship?”
No ta”, I replied giving her a quick sidelong glance and a half crescent smile. “Right then, I'll be off.” She said, padding unobtrusively again to the kitchen and then the front door, letting herself softly out.
Afterwards, I felt bad for dragging her to my place on a Sunday, but at the time I was on a creative roll, at the peak of a very high mountain. Pursuing art can be like that sometimes; the map of myself far more important than anything else, including others plans.
The coloured pencils had gone to work before the front door had even lightly touched its frame. My stomach became the sea with white crests and sail boats; my heart was a Museum with Grecian pillars, and my head was crammed with rows of books. Mapping my body with the places I've seen and things that I loved was an all-consuming art.