Thursday, 25 February 2016

Hall of Mirrors

The eye is a false mirror. The ear is an unfaithful receiver of sound. The lips when moved in speech don't always utter the words you intended to speak. All senses can lie. To you, their attentive host.
Even my facial expressions don't always match what I feel, think or say. Sometimes they give my unvocalised thoughts and feelings away; sometimes they add depth to what I say so no convoluted explanation is needed. Often, they help. Often, they cause confusion and give a false reading. I have no idea what face I'm pulling and it's not polite to stare into another's eyes just to see yourself reflected back. That boundary can only be crossed if you share a close bond. I, myself, have never reached that intimate level or felt comfortable enough to cross it. Frightened, I guess, of what might be revealed.
Look into my eyes. No, I say. I will look away time after time. Angle my body in a certain way to deflect that intrusive gaze. Consciously lower my lids.
What is it that I run from? Purposely avoid? What I'll see or what the person staring into me will learn?
Most certainly the latter, but nor would I want to intrude. Sneak in like a robber, force a window to gain access to somebody else's personal property. Even when it's consensual I find it difficult. I almost immediately break it, assert that the moment has passed. Time's up, a brisk wind has slammed the window shut! You'll have to be quicker about it.
Anybody slipping in, asked or unasked, is for me a violation. I equate it to taking a photograph: some part of you is captured, forever contained in that black and white or full colour image. A trace of you always remains in the developed picture, whereas the eye, unguarded, gives too many people ready admittance to a deeper part of you where words, gestures or expressions are unneeded. A part of you that should be, in my view, held sacred, and not shared with any public figure. Such lax distribution splinters your soul. And a splintered soul can be extremely hard to piece back together. Too many connections made, too many links to be cut, too many fragments floating somewhere out there like dust motes. The particles too small, the distance too vast.
I'm too resolute in my approach to this matter: unbending, defending, distrustful. I should relax a little, find a middle ground and not draw the black-out down quite so much. But when it's become hard-wired (in habit and in character) it's not so straightforward to undo. Frankly, who would have the patience to try?
The eye is a deceiver, a false mirror, as I said at the beginning. There's nothing to see here. There are no mysteries to unravel. No answers to universal questions. Yet because I use my eye as a shield people invariably think under these half-closed lids there are. There's always more to a person than you imagine, but the realities and truths unconcealed are disappointing because you've already assumed something other about their personality or way of life; then the real test comes. Do you persist with the optical illusion or attempt to plunge under the lens into the pupil's liquid depths? Or do you just simply forget, move on?
A reserved person requires persistent efforts. The workings of their mind can frequently be seen ticking over, yet still they hold back. Suppress how they'd sometimes like to behave because their privacy means more to them than your average person, especially if they deem their life is uninteresting or don't consider anything they do to have value. They don't offer because there's nothing they feel of any note, and yet every chance encounter with someone of that vein is different. Exciting because they conceal so much and give away little; the occasional crumb when it unexpectedly comes opens up a whole new vista. I never knew that about you. How could I not know that?
Beguiled people new to this dance realise late that this dropped crumb is only one of a series of looking-glasses in an immense Hall of Mirrors.

As printed in Shadowplay: Memoirs of Light and Shade. For further details, visit my I Live to Read page.

Picture Credit: The False Mirror, Rene Magritte

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Guitar Player

Once upon a time, (I will never tire of using that beginning), in the late 1980s a young girl chose the acoustic guitar above instruments still considered more feminine: the flute, the clarinet, the piano, singing. The only girl amongst boys, it was a more difficult task than it would have been if more girls had been encouraged to learn how to play. But for a few years she persevered, zealously attended lessons at an all boys' school and practised, practised, practised. After school, at weekends, and during the holidays; the guitar and sheet music travelling with her if she went to stay by the seaside, where because of her, her cousins had also taken up the guitar and so some mornings they'd sit tuning and twanging with frowns of concentration etched on their faces. She, the more seriously dedicated of the two; for the others it was a passing whim, an imitation of the first grandchild.
Music exams came and new levels were attained, group recitals were played with stumbled success, yet lone performances, most notably one, were overcome with failure. The tutor who was meant to accompany his pupil on a piece didn't show and the result was an humiliating mess. In front of the whole school. And its attending parents. Every wrong note echoed, every fumble observed, as Mr Rynn, the teacher drafted in, patiently played the absent tutor's part. The pupil crushed, a new tutor was found, but a lone performance would never again be attempted, at least not if it wasn't in the confines of home. The confidence to pull it off gone in a single tick of the metronome.
A girl in a male-dominated-guitar-world needed nourishment, not just from tutors, but from society. An extra belief that girls if taught well and with firm encouragement can play equally as well as boys. Sometimes, to such girls, the impression is that of pandering: a female child will have her fancies. Let her try for it won't be a long-lasting experiment, and when that attitude becomes apparent, a girl quickly loses interest. Spurns the 'hobby' completely regardless of aptitude or talent because they have felt themselves to be rejected, informed non-verbally that they cannot compete at the same level or to the same standard as boys. Guitars are male; woodwind, female, unless it's an oboe.
That's how it was then. Attitudes, I believe, have changed, but I can't be sure because I've been following this girl and she left that scene. Gave it up, as she has done since with other things. Her ability to read music dimmed, yet her fingers still remember the feeling of strings. And how the curved body rested on her knee as she bent her head studiously over its long neck, and the muscle fatigue after. The placement of hands and the callouses that developed for her skin was fleshy and soft. None of which mattered because she always had a strong sense of discipline, a determination. A need to perfect. Anger arose if she fluffed it, missed a note or got the pace of the rhythm wrong. Try again, start over. Which she did, over and over.
And it was always boys she waited for in the corridor to finish their lesson, and always boys that waited for her. She listened behind the closed door to them as they must have done to her if they were early or she was late finishing, and she blushed with that knowledge. Simply for being a girl as boys were better. She never saw another girl pupil or a female tutor to make her think otherwise, so that gradually as time moved on, as it does, and she saw no outward sign that a female could pursue this, she abandoned the lessons but not the guitar.
The guitar, she clung to for a number of years. Even after it was little more than an adornment which she could no longer play, until one day she met a young girl who, like her at that age, wanted to learn. And so the guitar got a new home, a new beginning, a possible more hopeful more used future.
The original owner, grown, relinquished because although she has never been lucky enough to possess the same womanly shape as the instrument, her nerves when twanged have the same effect. They reverberate through her being long after each individual note has been plucked.

As published in Shadowplay: Memoirs of Light and Shade
Picture Credit: The Old Guitarist, 1903, Picasso

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