Thursday, 23 February 2017

The State Raffle

The heavy arched door opened and they all began filing in: the old, the young, shuffling tiredly and bowed with their sticks or wheeling infants in pushchairs, all of whom had waited patiently like their poorer or war-worn ancestors might have done queuing for meat rations or bread.
I've never before witnessed such a scene, (and I never hope to again), for it was a depressing sight. One that lingers in your consciousness long after it has passed; even after I knew what they had huddled in the bitter cold for and that it wasn't what I'd imagined.
It wasn't as I thought a matter of survival, although perhaps it was to them. Perhaps it meant more than I realised now or then.
The crowd weren't, as I would have expected if my hunch had been right, exhibiting any signs of being saved, only relief that the wait was over. There was no excited chatter as birds might give when they're disturbed from their roost, just a silent adjustment of hats, scarves and coats which they each did with a deadpan expression, their faces grey and drawn.
A going-through of motions, grown hardened to, not that it helped to keep out the cold or lessen, what I took to be, a humbling act, performed automatically which left me in no doubt that this gathering happened regularly: people representing all socio-economic groups camped outside the same place, the same stone government building, at the same time, around midday until half-past two when the huge cave-like door creaks open and admits them, shuffling snakelike, in.
Although I can't confirm if it was always the same day, a Wednesday, or in what frequency it occurred, it was clear from the scene before me that it was, if not looked forward to, waited for with numb expectation, almost like a last salvation which was by no means guaranteed for each and every one, so that even the air seemed stale, like it had been inhaled and exhaled too many times by these hopeless people.
The body of this snake writhed as if a large mammal had been swallowed, distorting itself into four distinct lines which shuffled forwards and up the entrance steps like a centipede or caterpillar of the Jurassic age. The only audible sounds sniffs and coughs, an odd cry or low groan, and the scrape of shoes, sticks and wheels on paved street.
Curious, I joined the tail. Here, some young men, late to these proceedings, were being more uproarious: jostling each other and kicking the ground, their heads mostly down and their hands entrenched in their trouser pockets. They weren't like the rest, up ahead, subdued. And I wondered why...were they new to whatever awfulness this was? Or being young, were they not disenfranchised enough to either meekly submit or rebel? These were my musings. I would have liked to engage with them, but not being young nor familiar with their particular type of shiftiness or the general pervading atmosphere, it seemed wiser to resist that urge.
Instead, I leant on my wooden walking stick, doing my best to be unobtrusive and yet keep up with the shifting crowd; a few latecomers had joined us, two more young men and an old woman in a headscarf, so the only real feature, I think, which stood out about me was the dull thump of my stick. The young never take much notice of an old person, although officials do and might; that was my sickening dread, yet I'd seen nobody, for any obvious reason, singled out. Actually, I'd seen nobody who'd entered leave. What were they doing in there? Was it some sort of meeting, one that had moved from outside to in, where items of importance were discussed? Was there another, unseen, exit?
Well, I had to black out didn't I?, then and there; it's a condition I'm prone to when my circulation plummets, and when I came round, properly round, I was on laundered sheets in a community hospital. There was a white-coated state official by my bedside, who I mistook for a doctor, who presented with me a cerise raffle ticket on behalf and with the compliments of the council. The first prize he informed me, with a winsome smile, a day in a state-provided chauffeured limousine.

Picture credit: The State Lottery Office, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Trials of Chair Travel

Once I got beyond the mania what I wanted came and so, here I am sitting in glorious sun. In February? Well, the chances of that are slim in a British Winter but in Spain the sun shines almost every day, at least that's what My Fair Lady has had me believe: The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plane, but what percentage of that phrase is true or false isn't in my powers to say for I'm not, at present, in the country of Tapas. I haven't travelled that way, to Spain, or in that way, by boat or plane, for a good few years, and it wouldn't be sensible to judge Spain's weather on past experiences. 
When I was last there, the Euro wasn't born or even in the making, though it's also quite possible that I've blanked things or have chosen to remember them differently, which is all the more likely in this instance because I have a acrimonious relationship with this currency. Frankly, Europe was and is less appealing without the variety of coins and notes. Yes, it could be confusing but at least you knew you were in another country! What about language? you ask. Well, yes, the mother tongue is a give-away but it's not the same as scrutinising the sides of a crisp note or shiny coin.
And now, mentally, I find myself in a winding, cobbled street when I started out just leisurely sitting in the sun on a deckchair. And I still haven't told you where I am, exactly. Or even confirmed that I'm not, in fact, in February. No, this is August. The one gone and not the one coming, and no, I haven't become a time traveller, or at least not in the sense it usually means.
To be more precise, my mind has, with practice and time, acquired the ability to travel, but my physical body hasn't caught on. It's always been a bit slow in the being active department, but then you don't need a body when the mind can take you, all of you, spiritually anywhere, and the beauty of it is that just like that, I can be back in the deckchair; not always, however, the same one.
I've lost my spot. Again! This isn't where my bottom was comfortably sat; I should have marked it with a towel like those surrounding me would be if they weren't already filled with the bulk of people, most with their faces turned to the sun, and all, I might add, with their bodies clothed. Fully. The men in business suits as if they were about to go to the office or into an important meeting; the women, also classically turned-out with many different blouses (which in England we would call a Thatcherism), and in heels or flats with the addition of a coloured scarf or wide-brimmed sun hat, and so, in my current attire, I stick out like a sore thumb, for while I'm respectfully dressed there's more pale flesh on show. Not a lot, just a few inches, and yet enough to cause foreheads to crinkle and eyebrows to raise: my forearms are bare and my head is uncovered, revealing its coppery shades, which has, I confess, again made me someone to avoid, and which is why I'm sent to the naughty chair, although, of course, being without a bath-size towel is a significant factor. And yes, apparently, it does have to be bath-sized. Hand-size has another purpose entirely.
A bath towel would be a simple item to remember if I was going swimming, but there's no chemically-treated pool, polluted ocean or river in which to take a dip or practise my frog-stroke in; all there is for miles around, in whatever direction you face, is waving genetically-modified corn. My forgetfulness, then, is not deliberate, it's just not a habit I'm used to employing in an agricultural landscape. I have read, anecdotally however, that this towel trick works wonders if placed underneath you like a bed-sheet or cushion; there is one business man who habitually places a folded towel, just so, beneath his balding head, whose smirk I've caught when, to my obvious surprise, I've switched seats on my return, and so, I think there might be some marginal truth in this legend.
It is a bit disconcerting, to say the least, to find yourself back in the room, so to speak, facing west when originally like everyone else you were facing south-east, in a chair that's seen better days and at some distance away from your compatriots.

Picture credit: People in the Sun, 1963, Edward Hopper

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A Kind of Mania

Is it possible to feel tired, yet impatient? Actually, do I really care if you, the reader, think it's possible or unlikely because if that's how I feel aren't I the best judge? And I can't think, right now, of a more appropriate way to describe this stale, frustrated, conjoined feeling.
Tired of waiting, waiting, waiting as if the train I was due to catch has been delayed and nobody can tell me, irrefutably, when it might come, or even if it will come at all. And so I wait because what else can I do? For in this scenario there's no alternative, and no way to make the wait pass quicker.
I can't be sure that it will ever end: this scenario might but the waiting itself might not. For don't you find that when you get the thing you've been impatient for the anticipatory effect doesn't stop? It transfers its affections elsewhere with far more speed than it took to acquire the previous whatever. The egg (the whatever) gets flipped, fried both sides (over-easy as the Americans say), served with its sunny side-up and whisked away by a fifties candy-striped waitress to be laid in front of the customer to be partook of; however, for the short-order cook there's no let-up, his spatula must continue to flip patties, bacon, tomatoes and eggs. The orders come in fast but aren't always served a) as expected, or b) at all, as if the candy-striped, possibly bubblegum-chewing, coke-drinking waitress has downed tools (her hands and feet) or got lost somewhere between the serving hatch and the dining floor, and yet the majority of patrons sit there in hope, rather than angrily stand, hitch up their trousers and with a cow-boyish swagger, exit.
Why? you might well ask. Because when the ordered how-you-like-it egg or whatever finally puts in an appearance, it still tastes oh-so-good. The trouble is, as I said, you then want more: more of the same or perhaps an occasional change from your usual, and yet although you now know you might be in for a bit of a wait your impatience grows.
You underestimate how long it might take; you overestimate how long it's actually been. You fidget. Chew your lips. Bounce your legs up and down, up and down. Fiddle with your hair. Pinch the lopes of your ears. Scratch that itchy patch on your elbow. Think about complaining but don't, which is very English of you, in spite of your mind being aligned with one track of thought: Whereisitwhereisitwhereisit. WHEREISIT??!!! Cartoon steam or a disco smoke machine (and now I'm showing my age!), non-visible, of course, except in your internal combustible engine.
The dirty smoke clears, leaving a stinging throat and watery eyes. The fire, inside, dies, yet the head pounds. The wait, calmer now, recommences. You're not as edgy as you were before for the nervous energy you exuded then was pointless, and caused you more harm than good for it only made you cross, then crosser still, and nothing, even after that release, occurred to change the outer state of things. There you were, still waiting for your order to be fulfilled in a diner by the side of a rail-road or in a parked restaurant-car that hasn't yet been coupled with its train, although hundreds of trains, in need of a restaurant-car, seemed to have passed through this very station.
You're not content, but you're not discontent either. Still frustrated, yes, but there's very little you can do, so read the paper, have a cup of coffee, sit and watch the rest of the world go by, although where you are residents or fellow travellers might be few. If you decide to take a nap, it's highly improbable you'd miss anything new or anything pertaining to you, and if you do, so what? You've waited so long, would it matter?
The food might arrive, grow cold and congeal; the train might leave without you. Or you might wake up and find, at last!, you're moving. You might not know where to, but finally you're on the move, you're going somewhere; God knows where, but somewhere. And although the destination might not be apparent for some time it's good to watch the landscape rolling by in-between averting your eyes to the laden plate, now set before you to replace the empty setting.

Picture credit: Compartment C Car, 1938 Edward Hopper

Thursday, 2 February 2017


A hotel room in disarray. A tan suitcase unlocked and lying, with its lid open, on the unused hospital-cornered and turned-down bed; its carefully packed and now lightly creased clothes escaping in a crawl across the dark carpeted floor.
The underwear, which had already been unpacked, spills from a hastily stuffed drawer as if refusing to be confined, so soon, to another unlit cramped space; a thirties-style hat rakishly placed on the dressing table looks ill-at-ease in-between the TV and the hospitality tray with its cup and saucer, plastic kettle, sachets of instant coffee, Breakfast tea, brown and white sugar and UHT milks; a floral scarf and black corduroy jacket trail over and across the back of an upholstered chair which even unadorned would not suggest comfort; and shoes, singly or in mismatched pairs, are dotted everywhere, arrogantly upright or placidly on their sides, their heels and toes at all conceivable angles, which to a maid or porter, should such a figure happen to enter this picture, would understandably be a hazard for him or her to pick through, though possibly less so to the occupant.
The female occupant, newly arrived, is however preoccupied, and appears, like the room, in a mild state of disorder. The tempest, if there was one, now over, although the evidence seeming to relate to that could just as easily be the usual way she unpacks after a tiring journey; a tedious task, no matter how it's achieved, that at present looks as though it's been stopped mid-flow, as if she simply couldn't be bothered or needed a quick rest and a few minutes to survey the mess to galvanise herself once again into purposeful action.
Her shapely form is seated trance-like on the made bed, her torso hunched over as if her head is a weight she can no longer carry. Her face is drawn and pale, framed with wispy blonde hairs, and her light blue-grey eyes though they stare are not fixed on anything in particular.
At some point, she has peeled off the outer clothes she was attired in, feeling, perhaps, they harboured germs from travel or that her delicate skin needed to breathe like a wine that is best served at room temperature, and so she sits in an all-in-one dusky pink undergarment, which is not unbecoming but not becoming either. It neutralises her English rose tone, whereas a bolder colour might have enhanced it, but then she had dressed for comfort not vanity. And of course it's possible, before this lapse occurred, that a hot shower was next on the agenda.
But maybe the thought of that had been too much: too weary to stand, to put one foot in front of the other and walk the short distance to the bathroom, and this had quite literally stopped her in her tracks so that she just threw herself down and sat. And sat, staring at nothing. Her eyes and mind suddenly turned vacuous; the battle to stay alert gone now her destination had been reached and she once again had the privacy of her own space, her own paid-for room.
Who can guess, from looking alone, how far away this lone woman is from home, how many miles she's travelled? What's brought her here, and where from here she might go? Is she a habitual traveller or was this a rash decision, in so much as decisions can be rash without advance planning if you have responsibilities?
That she is alone, and seeming somewhat pensive about it, makes one looking in assume that she is the type, in looks and manner, to be overly anxious or flighty, even perhaps resentful of the mood in which she acted: what was it for? what was it about? why is she here?
How will she spend her time? Will she dine alone? The adventure worn thin now that the consequences of doing so have begun to set in and solidify.
Anonymous people surround her, just outside these neutral walls, upon which at least one is hung a bland landscape; just across the corridor or in a room a floor above or two below, other occupants in a not too dissimilar position, are, with glazed eyes, as is the woman described, reaching for their handbag or briefcase to delve inside and bring out a yellowed piece of paper on which a faded bus or train timetable is printed. For to each of them the point is the journey, and not, as they are doing now, sitting still.

Picture credit: Hotel Room, 1931, Edward Hopper