“ …came as soon as I could… the… it was hard to get a taxi… I”
The door bounced off the wall and back into Alex’s side, full of the same fraught energy that had opened it so fast.
His mum was sat in the corner of the darkened room on John’s old chair. Her eyes were red, her body hunched, thin. He’d never seen her looking so old, so frail.
“You didn’t spend too much did you?”
“Oh, I … yeah, I mean it was… at this time of day, the distance…”
“Here, take some money”.
His dad started to take his wallet from his trousers.
“Oh no, please…”
“Go on, you don’t get hardly anything to life off, I know what it’s like being a student”
“I… no really it’s…”
His words were lost already, sucked into the void around his grandfather’s bed. His breath, his voice, his heart. John stared at the ceiling, his eyes shut. His cheeks sagged unnaturally. They were red, mottled at the edges, yet the centres were an awful, awful pale white. His mouth remained open.
“What did…” Alex said after a near endless ten minutes of silence. “what happened?”
“We… we don’t know yet… we’re waiting for the coroners… they should be along any time…”
“where’s…. where’s Jo?”
“She’s… round at a friend’s, we didn’t think that… she didn’t… well, she’s still very young you know?”
“She… she didn’t want to be here?”
Alex’s dad came over and put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. Never before in his life had he felt so connected to his dad. Feelings of sorrow, inevitability and a fear of mortality, both in the real and the abstract, flowed from the body of the old man; through ever inch of Alex and into his father through that slight physical connection. Three generations bound to a single moment.
His mother remained sat in the corner, saying nothing, just staring quietly at the body of the old man. Little quirks and foibles of the building became both deafening and dissipated into insignificance against the silent white noise of grief.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
The three of them turned around to face the door. A man in a suit was already walking through, as if knocking was a formality and not something you had to wait for a response from.
“Oh, er, oh” said the man, before turning back to the care worker who was stood behind him.
“Oh, I thought, er, the, er, family were gone”
“Oh, I didn’t know that they were in here…”
The official looking man, who must have been from the coroner’s office turned back round to the family.
“Uh, well, take as much time as you need. We’ll just be out here or upstairs when you’re ready and we’ll take away the uh, uh gentleman”
The official man said ‘gentleman’ in a way that was clearly a substitute for ‘body’ or ‘it’. Later Alex would be hateful towards this man. Later still, understanding of the separations and objectification that one must have to go through in such a job, for the sake of one’s sanity. Right now, he was just trying not to weep.
The door was shut on them again.
“well…” said Michael, looking up at Lucy.
Lucy nodded and began to get up. She walked slowly over to the same side of the bed as the two men. Her two boys.
She then turned and faced the old man and sighed. Not cried, not stifled tears, just sighed.
“Poor old man” She said. “Poor old gent”
She leaned over and stroked his hair and kissed him on the forehead and walked towards the door without saying anything. Michael stroked his hair as well, before turning around and leaving.
“Come on son, let’s go”
Alex nodded and started to take baby steps to his grandfather’s body. Weights were tied around his ankles and the hands of the dead clawed at his feet, but still he walked. He reached over his grandfather’s body and brought his hand to his head. He looked so real, like he could wake at any moment, yet like nothing he’d ever seen before. Like looking and one of his dad’s digital approximations of a building, it was both real, and so obviously an imitation of what it was supposed to be. Remnants. A memory. Nothing.
He slowly stroked his grandfather’s hair.
Alex shut the door behind him.
Monday, 31 December 2012
Lucy stood at the front of her family and knocked on the door.
“The man you know as John is dead” came the muted reply from inside. Lucy turned to Michael. After a moment of confusion and another bitter reminder that there was little she could do, composed herself and held her finger out. The rest of her family waited at her command. They waited and caught snatches of the conversation that followed.
“….daughter…all the way…to see you”
“…don’t know… daughter”
The conversation dropped below and audible level. The dull roar of the ventilation system took its place, as did the sound of elderly programming on viewing station and the cries of someone upstairs.
“Dad…” asked Joanne, quietly, hesitantly. “Is granddad ok?”
“Um... yes, I’m sure he’s fine. Mum just needs to have a little talk with him on her own. I’m sure it’ll be ok”
“Hello there dad. How you doing.” Michael held his hand out. John, who was lying in bed, hesitantly held his own hand out.
“Oh uh, how do you do”
“This is Joanne, your granddaughter” Helped Lucy.
“And this surly one is your grandson Alex”
Alex stood back and waved. They all took seats facing in towards the bed.
“So… How are you, granddad?” Asked Alex.
“Oh, yes, you know… Can’t complain. They treat me nice here. It’s a nice place. I’ve had a lovely holiday but I can’t wait to get back home”
“Uh.. Do you know what day it is?” Asked Michael, thinking of the first thing off the top of his head.
“It’s a Wednesday.”
“It’s a Saturday. Do you know the date?”
“Is it October?”
“Its… Its June, dad… it’s the middle of summer. Let’s try for a year. Do you know the year?”
“I’d say it was the year… two thousand and… sixty five”
“Uh, no dad, its 2084”
“It is not! No!”
“Ha! It is, look at the calendar”
“So, I’ve had a very nice time here, but I’ll have to leave soon. They need the room for someone else”
“Oh yeah? So where are you going to?”
“Oh, I’m going everywhere”
“Yes. Everywhere. All around the world. All over the world”
Though a stilted and forced question, it was one that Lucy was genuinely interested in.
“Well, it’s got a bit interesting of late. We’ve started work on some areas south of the river, as you know. We’ve got into a place that they’ve recently opened up again, and it’s actually near where John’s from, from where he was born…”
“Did you hear that dad? Michael’s been working near where you were born”
“Oh good. Heh. That’s nice.”
“So, we’re looking at this row of houses near a park- it’s all the usual row housing, you know, but then there’s the remnants of this one on the end and its very unusual for the area. Its… well, it’s an unusual design, very grand- must predate the rest by at least 40 or 50 years… and another thing we’ve noticed is, well its suspected anyway- we won’t know for sure until its fully mapped and simmed, but one thing we- suspect- is that much of the damage took place a long time ago, much further back than the rest of the area… but it was just left there, just remained there… I get the feeling that this place is going to throw up a few surprises when we begin to document it fully. I mean, what I’ve already seen of the ground and basement levels…”
“It’s been very nice staying here, but they’re going to send me back very soon”
“Uh… there are various signifiers to suggest that, old though it is, this isn’t the first…”
“It’s not the sort of holiday I would have chosen”
“Uh… structure to be built…”
“…but you can’t complain can you?”
“Oh look dad, it’s almost time for your tea. What are you having today?”
“I don’t know. They’ll tell us later”
“Well… what did you have yesterday?”
“I had… uh… porkchops”
“You… had? Are you sure?”
“You… you’ve been a vegetarian all your life... Since you were born!”
“Don’t be so silly.”
Lucy looked shocked.
Michael interjected with the first thing he could think of to try and paint over the obvious.
“So… uh… we don’t know yet for sure but there is some indication that this house may have been used as some kind of commune or alternative/outsider lifestyle venture in the late 20th/ early 21st century”
“Uh, no not exactly, but in some ways, I mean, well done!”
Alex snorted and muttered “You’re not the only one that can read you know”.
“There were a lot of political communes, but some were political in the sense that they just sought to exist outside of the mainstream, as some kind of alternative, so I suppose there’s a case of similarities to be made… But were not sure how successful it was, how long it lasted, whether it was gone before the house…”
“I remember Paris. I remember going there in my twenties. I just got bored of living here and packed my bags and went to live in Paris for a while.”
They were never quite sure if these stories John would come out with had any basis in reality. The rest of the family looked at Lucy, the closest thing to a family historian. She would normally nod or shake her head. This time she just shrugged.
Monday, 17 December 2012
“Where we going then James?”
“I’m Alex, granddad! James’ nephew?”
“Of course you are”
We’re just gonna pop up the road. I thought since it was your birthday we’d go for a little drink.”
“In a pub”
“Really?” His face lit up.
“Yeah! Why not? Not sure mum would like it, but then…”
“… She’s not here is she?”
Alex put the two pints down on the table. Ale for himself, a dark stout for his grandfather. The liquid lopped down the side of the glass and discoloured the lacquer of the table, making it grey, white, like skin too long in the bath. He dropped the bag of crisps he’d been holding in his mouth and tore them up one side, exposing the contents and placed them in the middle of the table
“There you go!”
“Oh, you’re a good kid aint you? Now you sure you can afford…”
“Look, I told you mum left me some money for shopping and whatever. I think its alright to spend a bit on you, so let’s not hear any more about it”
“God, you’re your mother’s son alright”
“How do you mean?”
John just smiled and shook his head.
“You seem pretty at home in a pub, don’t you?”
“Go there sometimes at lunch in college. We’ve got one near us that doesn’t really care”
“You get served alright here?”
“Yeeeeeah, no problem”
The chatter in the public house got louder. It was about this time that Alex realised that he had no idea he was. The man sitting opposite him. He knew his granddad, he knew his mum’s dad, the old man with a voice like gravel and was the benchmark of everything that was factually and morally right and correct… but he had no idea who this man John was. It was hard to think of him as a man, as someone who had loved and desired
“How’s your pint?”
“Oh lovely, lovely. I haven’t had a nice black stout for year and years”
“So how are you getting on in there granddad?”
“In the home”
“The… oh the home. It’s ok. I have the paper each day. I’ve got my books, the art classes are nice.”
“I dunno. The place… it seems so stilted. Like it’s not your own place…”
“Well, it’s never gonna be like the home I made, is it? Look… Alice used to be a social worker OK. Watchu call them now… social fluidity agent? Social correction officer? Kind of like that type of thing. Less… I dunno. More well meaning. It seemed so anyway. Well, she saw some things. Some real dives. We’re talking about… forty years ago now. It was like a different world in many ways, but even now… you have to understand that this was before all the big ecological reforms, population control… medicines for the body were getting better but there wasn’t much for the mind. Still isn’t really. Hah. Look at me. I just start…”
“You were saying grandma was a social… worker?”
“Oh… yes… oh….”
“Yes… I was just… I don’t think elderly care has ever been a priority in any society. It’s an awful hypocrisy… Look, even with all this technology, the amazing things they can do these days… even with all the energy consumption legislature, even with the… look, we’re still in a society that doesn’t appreciate individual worth… it just makes you believe it does. It’s still a capitalist dictatorship marauding under the guise of some kind of freedom, democracy and… What I’m saying is that passed the age where you’re useful to society, it stops giving a damn about you. Because I was a teacher… it’s a job that directly benefits society, and it’s also a job that no bastard wants to do… especially not in a city… so I was guaranteed care in my older life that was of a certain standard. You read about the teaching crisis of ’48?”
“What, all the marches? And the riots?”
“That’s right. That kind of perk for social sector jobs came as a result. Well, between mine and your gran’s pensions… that place is OK. I’ve heard stories about awful, awful places that are still far about the legal minimum…”
“That’s right. That’s right. So do something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Write a letter, make a phone call, talk to people. If not about this, about something else… I’m not saying fight this cause, just… look further, look deeper, look behind things… I’m sorry, I’m going off. Just don’t think you have to accept things if they’re not right. You’re a good kid you know.”
The babble swelled up again.
“Did I ever tell you about my mum… your grandma”
“Of course, yeah”
“Not really. I didn’t meet her”
“No she died well before you were born. She was an amazing artist, you know. Had me young. Very young, barely 20 years between us. Did it on her own.”
“You didn’t have a dad”
“Not…I mean… no. No.”
“She… she could have been a great artist. She was, but you know what I mean. She worked hard to support me. I never wanted for anything, not attention or anything. She loved to draw and paint, to sculpt. But she loved me more. It was only when I had your uncle and your mother that I appreciated what she had done, how hard it must have been. When I look at you and your sister. It seems so easy now… not to say that it is, but this is the position you’ll find yourself in one day. Able to look back and say everything was either much better or much harder. Heh. But, I mean, you guys are OK. I helped make sure. You’re dad’s got a good old job… Uh what is he?”
“He’s… it’s kind of like archaeology. Preservation, restoration, documentation…
They’re looking at some of the places that they’ve reclaimed after the flooding, working out the structures...”
“Blimey… that’s… its… it’s interesting, it just feels a bit beyond me. But this is what I’m talking about, in as many ways as the world is different, its changed so much. It wasn’t easy back then. The infrastructure of the country was collapsing, the world was changing too quickly and no one really knew how to handle it. The climate. Everyone was saying things and no one was doing anything. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying each day and no one would even talk about it. Famines, floods, earthquakes. There’d be TV appeals, but nothing would really happen. When I think back on it, it seems like it was around the time that Castro stepped down… You know Fidel Castro?”
“Um… he was…”
“He was the leader of the communist party in Cuba”
“Oh right. So why was that then?”
“Timing maybe? The Maybe nothing at all. I don’t know. I think everything was heading to shit anyway, but looking back, when I started to take some kind of interest in it. You have to think I was very young when what I’m talking about happened. For some reason it feels like that was the point of no return”
It pleased Alex that his granddad would swear like that in front of him. So thoughtlessly, not shielding him. It was perhaps the first time he’d been treated as an individual, as a man. He felt proud that this was his grandfather. That they were together at this moment.
“Can I get you another one?”
“What’s the hurry?”
Friday, 23 November 2012
Alex waited at the new security door. The thumb scanner had taken his print and was now awaiting verification for entry on the other side. Thank you granddad! Still, it was probably for the best. John was still having turns.
“Oh, hi!” Alex looked up from signing in.
“I think your granddad is downstairs in his room”
“I’ll... Great, I’ll go see. Thanks”
Alex rapped lightly on the door, right underneath the picture of his granddad smiling.
He walked straight in. His granddad was sat on the chair by his desk, turned around so that he could see out of the window. He was dressed in a dark green linen suit, beautifully pressed. He was freshly shaven and smelled lightly of cologne. Alex was taken aback. In all his 18 years, he’d never seen his granddad look this smart. The room light was off. The dull daylight filtered through the polarising window, masking its true beauty.
“Uh. Hello granddad! How goes it?”
John turned around, pulling himself in from wherever he had gone to.
John responded in a way that indicated he both knew who Alex was, but at the same time had no real idea. A name on the tip of his tongue, a memory surrounded by broken synapses. At the moment Alex was happy that there was at least this level of familiarity.
“Do you know who I am?”
Alex sat on the side of the bed, next to him.
“Yes, yes of course, you’re… my… you’re”
“It’s Alex! I’m your grandson. Your only grandson.”
“Yes, of course you are. I’m sorry. Come here and give me a hug”
The two men embraced. Alex breathed in the smell. Cologne and thick air and moth spray. It smelled of age and memories that were slowly dying.
“Do you know what day it is today?”
“Well, it’s Thursday… but no, that’s not what I meant.”
“Do you know what the date is today?”
“It’s the.. uh…”
“It’s the 26th of April!”
“Yes really! Happy birthday!”
“Look… I got you something….”
Alex handed him over a cellulose bag
“Now look, you’ll have to be careful with these, cos you’re not really supposed to have them but look. I got you a card”
John opened the card. Paper and illustrated with a Cezanne painting.
“Real card! From a tree! To… Grandad… Happy birthday… love… Lucy… Michael… Alex… and Joanne. Oh that’s lovely”
“It’s from before the ban, you know? So you’re not really supposed to have it. I wrote on it with a special pen, so you can rub it out of you don’t like the message or want to use it again.”
“Oh, no no. Thank you!”
“And this… I got you. I was told it was rare. It’s some folk art from Mozambique. Do you remember where that was? When it was?”
John revealed the piece of carved wood, shaped into an almost photorealistic sculpture of a deer.
“I think it’s some kind of African animal. I don’t know what it’s called. There used to be different sorts. It’s not a Monkjack or a Watusi, but I don’t know… I think they might have a few in a conservation centre in London Centre. It was carved out of a parasite wood over a hundred years ago. It’s older than you even!”
The old man had tears in his eyes. He was far too old to be ashamed or embarrassed.
He sniffed and wiped under his eyes.
“Ah, you’re a good boy”
“How’s your mum and dad?”
“They called today. They’re having fun”
“Where… where have they gone?”
“They went to Canada to visit Uncle Graham. Do you remember Uncle Graham?”
“He was at mum and dad’s wedding. Dad’s brother. Quite tall.”
“Does… does he have a lisp?”
“Yeah, a slight one! That’s him! Anyway, they decided to spend a month over there cos they’re not sure when they’d get to go again, and this was the only time they could get. He’s not been well, either.”
“Oh dear. Hope its not too serious…”
“Cancer. He should be OK”
“ You wish they’d taken you too, don’t you?”
Alex shrugged again.
“Well look, don’t be too mad at them- they’ve had a very stressful time of it of late…”
“I guess… I just… why wouldn’t they want to be here for your birthday”
“Maybe they didn’t have much of a choice. Maybe they trusted you”
John stopped talking and looked at the door. He put the carving and card back into the bag and under his bed. Seconds later Juliet walked through the door.
Alex just about held his jaw closed. The old man was Sharp. As. Fuck.
“Hello hello hello!!! Happy Birthday John!!!”
“Happy… uh…Thank you!”
“Don’t you look smart! My word! If I were just a little bit older…”
“Well, you start dressing like this every day, eh? And Alex! Its nice to see you, coming down on you’re granddad’s birthday! Where’s your mummy and daddy?”
“Still in Canada”
“Having a nice time?”
“Yes, I think so”
“I hope you’re not having too many parties! I know what you kids are like!”
“Now John, since you’re all nice and dressed up, I want you to come upstairs into the sitting room. We’ve got a little surprise planned out for you”
John looked round at Alex with an arched eyebrow. Alex shrugged again.
“OK, so come upstairs in a minute OK?”
When they made their way into the front room. All the residents we’re there, herded in. Fred, Lee, Britney, Chantelle, Ramaya… Everybody. Some chatting some locked deeply in their own worlds of confusion and depression. They took seats near the communal viewer, broadcasting images of landscapes from throughout history. Alex’s young eyes and conditioning could make out the slight, slight differences between these sculpted, crafted and generated images and ‘real footage’. It was ‘too’ real, even when the images were as painted and soft as these. A lifetime of looking over his dad’s shoulder as he worked and viewed his own replications had made him able to spot the difference without a second glance. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon faded into the Rainforests of Brazil, which faded into the Tundra of Alaska.
“Is it alright to set up here love?”
A chubby, seedy looking middle aged man carrying a couple of bags stood near the entrance of the sitting room, facing where John and Alex were sat. He was joined moments later by his equally seedy looking and middle-aged wife, dressed in trousers and a top, which were unbefitting of both her age and the environment.
“Yes, please do,” replied Pearline.
He pulled out a small bag, about the size of a large fist, and unzipped it, pulling out a compact mess of metal, looking somewhat like a squashed spider. He pushed a button on its underside.
“Stand back ladies, this things gonna go off! Heh, heh”
Legs unimpressively extended out and found the floor, adjusting to a preset height. A flat panel then extended out widthways, resplendent with keys like a piano.
“ooooohhh!” went everyone who was paying attention, barring Alex.
A holder extended out of the back, in which the man placed his motherbox, which promptly chimed its tinny chime. He then connected small metal pads to the walls at various points around the room, just were his ‘box indicated. Two large, flat ones and six semi-circular. Alex had seen this before. The large pads turned the walls into speakers. The communicated directly with the keyboard. The smaller pads were autonomous speakers, which handled both the high end, and also filled in and embellished on the sound from the wall. It was a showier, flashier version of one that Alex had had, aged 7 when he first learned to play keyboards. Alex hoped this wasn’t going to be what he already knew it was.
“Where can we change my love?”
Pearline pointed to a large disabled toilet near the entrance to the common room. The pair bounded off together with a bag and locked the door behind them.
Ten minutes of tea delivery and chattered conversation passed. Though subtle, the atmosphere of excitement was noticeable.
“What do you think they’ve got planned then granddad?”
“Oh, god knows”
Suddenly a drum roll cracked through the air. A fanfare of horns. Lights from the front of the keyboard cutting through the mid days sun. And in burst the couple. Him in a pink, sequined dinner jacket and silver bow tie, her in matching coat and ill-fitting sliver sequined leotard. Their skin was tighter and shinier than a few moments ago, and their smiles look painted on. They danced their sequenced dance over to the keyboard, with the man standing behind the keyboard, and the woman grabbing a cordless mic.
“Hiya folks!” the man screamed. “what’s the rub?”
“Hiya folks!” joined in the woman, waving around the room.
“We’re Sandy and Dee and we’ve come to sing you a few songs you might remember!”
“And he’s Dee!”
“Or is it the other way round?”
“Oh, you! One, two three, four…”
The music started up. Lush, cheap, overpriced syntheses of a hundred instruments at once.
“Baby, can't you see, I'm calling…”
”A guy like you should wear a warnin'”
”A guy like you should wear a warnin'”
“That’s what the police said!”
”It's dangerous, I'm fallin'”
”It's dangerous, I'm fallin'”
Their well-rehearsed voices swam round each other, as soulless and unreal as the instruments that accompanied them.
“With a taste of your lips, I'm on a ride,
You're toxic, I'm slippin' under,
taste of a poison paradise,
I'm addicted to you,
Don't you know that you're toxic?”
You're toxic, I'm slippin' under,
taste of a poison paradise,
I'm addicted to you,
Don't you know that you're toxic?”
“Oh no! Stand back folks! She toxic!!!”
It was all Alex could do for his eyes to not melt out of his head.
Sandy (or was it Dee?) kept the music going with an alternating on/off hand pattern, so beloved by Cockney musicians. Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
“Do’ncha wish you’re girlfriend was raw like me… do’ncha? Don’cha?”
“I bet you do folks, I bet you do! Come on now!”
“Don’t wanna be an American Idiot…”
Song after song, all unknown to Alex, flowed over him, as he tried to properly conceive of these two people… what were they like at home? He started to think and couldn’t help but get flashes of their disgusting sex life.
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
“Now I believe we have a birthday here today. Am I right?”
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
“Now I think it might be… Jonathan! John! Where are you Johnny boy?”
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
Pearline lead the woman over to John’s seat. She perched on the arm.
John was sitting with a smile on his face, his hands on his knees, his knees rocking in time to the music. Alex felt angry and betrayed for a split second and then embarrassed by such feelings.
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
“Hiya John! Happy birthday”
She held out the mic in front of his mouth.
“Is this your grandson? Come to see granddad on his special day?”
His embarrassed response echoed around the room.
“And what’s the big number today?”
“Um… ei…ei… eighty…?”
Alex held up his first finger.
“Aww, in’t he sweet ladies and gentlemen?”
The pandered crowed ‘awwed’.
“You’re so sweet in fact, I might let you take me home”
“You can have her mate!”
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
Another song stared up.
“Oh take me home… tonight… I’ll bet you’ll remember this one!
Where there’s music and there’s people
And they’re young and alive
Driving in your car”
And they’re young and alive
Driving in your car”
“Aw, look at that! He’s embarrassed! Don’t be shy son! Hold you’re granddad’s hand! Hold on to granddad’s hand!”
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
“Now, taking you back to one of the greatest tragedies that the world has known. I’m sure you all remember this one”
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
“Where were you when the world stopped tuning,
that September day?”
Dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah, dum-bah.
That was just about it. Alex got up, awkwardly smiled, grabbed his granddad by the hand and then got out as quickly as he could.
“Meet me by the door; I’ll grab your coat.”
Alex ran downstairs to his room and grabbed a coat and scarf. Harris tweed. When he got back, Janine was standing in John’s way.
“Now John, you know you’re not supposed to be going out, not after all the trouble you’ve put me through recently.”
“No, I don’t want to hear about no lawyer, no solicitor, no mystery woman… You be good and go in there and enjoy the music”
“Ah, sorry. Look this is my fault. I promised him I’d take him out for a walk today and I’m busy later”
“Hmmm, well… I don’t know”
“It’s OK, we’ll only stroll about”
“I’m not sure you know”
“Look, I’m 18 and I can call if anything goes wrong. We won’t be far away at all. I promise”
“OK, as it’s his birthday. You go, have fun, but I don’t want to hear nothing bad about this, OK?”
“Oh, sure. Thank you. Thanks”
She went into the office and hit the door release. The cold, bright air wrapped around them. Birds and cars created a bio-mechanical, cacophonous hello. They were in the world and happy.
Friday, 16 November 2012
“Granddad? Granddad? What the hell is going on? What’re you doing out here?”
“I’m going to meet my lawyer”
“I was told I had to meet my Lawyer. I was told to wait here to meet my lawyer.”
“You don’t have to see a lawyer. You don’t even have one”
The wind was bitter, cutting through meagre clothing. It had started to spit dirty, gritty rain.
“He called me up. He called me up”
“Come on granddad.”
“Come on. I had to rush over here. Just… come on!”
Alex took his arm and attempted to guide the old man inside, but he stayed fast. His thin flannel trousers and cardigan began to dampen and grey from the rain.
“No! Who… who are you? I have to wait here”
“It’s me. It’s Alex.” His eyes moistened in the rain. He refused to cry. He was the only one who could deal with this situation. John refused to look at the boy.
“Look. If you stay out here, you’ll catch your death. Come inside with me and I promise that when he comes he’ll ring the bell and I’ll let you know.”
John stopped, looked at Alex, then gruffly nodded, allowing the young man to lead him back inside.
“Alex!” Marianne, the Sunday manager, was in tears. When she had called him up, she had been barely able to speak. Alex hadn't wanted to leave- he didn't feel like he should be dealing with this kind of thing, or in fact know what he would be dealing with. Joanne was staying at a friend’s. He’d sent her a message, no reply. She had started ‘that age’. The age he was just seeing the end of. Marianne had almost broken down on the phone. Her voice had wavered and just about held as she said ‘please’. This couldn't have happened two days ago, when his parents were still in the country, of course. Barely a child, Alex knew better than to let his parents know until he had to. His mum was so highly strung about everything since his grandma had died and granddad John had become more and more distant. He held his tongue. He didn't desperately or ask what had happened. Too much high emotion already. Be a man. He didn't demand to know why trained healthcare professionals couldn't handle one old man, or why he had just suddenly started acting like this after two years. Just get on. Be a man.
“Thank you for coming! He was… He went…I couldn't stop him”
“I’m going to take him downstairs and… make him change his clothes. Uh, do you think you could get him a hot drink or something? Sorry to ask”
Marianne smiled and nodded and Alex led his granddad downstairs to his room. The old man muttered indecipherable words as Alex sat him on a seat next to his bed. John wasn't too badly soaked. He didn't think he’d have to have a bath or anything. Alex looked through the cupboard and pulled out a pair of green cords and an ancient grey cotton shirt. The collar and cuffs had been darned. Probably by his grandma. Alex lightly ran his finger over the stitching, over the label, before roughly folding the shirt and placing it with the trousers and a change of underwear on John’s bed.
“Now granddad. Granddad?”
“I’m going to turn my back and let you change, OK? I want you to let me know if you need any help.”
“Don’t need bloody…”
Alex stared at the wall, at the photograph of an old landscape that looked like a painting. A giant tree growing in some kind of desert. He’d always been fascinated by it. It was like a surrealist painting. Trees didn’t grow in the desert now. Nothing grew there any more.
He could hear the sound of fabric and rustling. Heavy breathing and frustration. He turned round to see his grandfather tangled up in the clothes, one arm caught at the elbow, two legs in one trouser leg.
“Oh Jesus Christ”
Alex knew how patronising and dangerous it was to think of old people as children. They were helpless at times, but after two years of visiting his granddad here he knew this not to be true. He could still see the flashes of brilliance that had always been there, the wit, the dry humour, the knowledge, the things he was only now beginning to appreciate, the things that were more and more scarce.
“Come here. Look. Sit on the bed.”
John sat on the bed. Alex put on his shirt properly, then his trousers and picked some shoes. Brown. Soft leather. John’s breathing had calmed, but he hadn't begun talking again. It seemed at least that this episode had passed.
“Where’s Alice? Is she coming to get me?”
“Granddad… Alice is… Gran’s dead. She passed away.”
“What??? No!!! When???”
“About three years ago”
John held in a dry, desperate sob.
“Where… where is she? Where’s Alice?”
“She’s… She passed on granddad. She died.”
“Uh… uh… James”
“James is my uncle, granddad.”
“Uh… sorry… It’s just… where’s Alice?”
“She’s… She’ll be here soon”
Marianne brought in some tea. They sat and drank it in silence.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
“Oh hello kids!”
John put down his paper as Alex and Joanne entered. Joanne ran in loudly and greeted him with a hug. Alex propped himself against the wall nearest the door and waved, muttering something.
“Go and say hello to your granddad properly”
Alex was nudged and shuffled forward. He held his hand out, which John took with both hands.
“Hello young man”. John smiled at his progeny. Alex went back to trying to drown in the paintwork. Joanne sat down and fidgeted.
“Hello dad” said Lucy, hugging him and drawing him in close. Michael stood behind her and waved.
“How you getting on then?”
“Oh, you know…”
“We saw your art teacher upstairs. She says you're doing really well.”
“She said you were the most eager one there”
“Well, it’s been such a long time since I've drawn anything. I was never really much of an artist”
“ I'm sure there’s something in you. Remember the drawings that gran used to do? Do you still have those?”
“Oh I don't know. Maybe. They might have got chucked out with everything else when I got moved”
“Dad, you know there wasn't any option…”
“I know, I know”
“So kids, how are you doing in school? Jo?”
“Yes, really well thank you! I’m in the top set of advanced math-er-mat-ics and we had a test last week and I came top, but maths isn't my favourite, I like science the best because last week we got to see what happens when you put magnesium in water can you guess what happens?”
“It EXPLODES! And that’s why I like science the best.”
“Well, my! And how are you getting on… erh…erh…?”
Alex just shrugged.
“Go on Alex…”
“No, leave the lad Luce. He'll talk if he wants to.”
The clinking of a tea trolley.
The ever present humming.
The dry electrical air.
“So how are you getting on with your new neighbour? Francis is it?”
“Him? Oh he’s ok. Good bloke. Doesn't talk much.”
“Oh, well you should get on well with him!”
“Noticed a copy of Capital in his room. Must be alright”
Lucy nodded approvingly.
“Ha! Is he another old lefty like you?” chimed in Michael.
“Well, certainly seems that way. I tend to give it a bit of time before I talk politics you know.
“Very wise dad”
“ I don’t need the rows. I’ve had enough over my life. Mind you, don't need the friends especially, either.”
“ You'll never guess who he is dad”
“Well, probably not. Don't keep me in suspense”
“It’s Alex’s old music teacher’s dad”
“Oh… Small world… Nah, he’s fine enough. It’s that Fred that I can't bloody stand. He marches around, bold as anything, ranting away, firing out questions. ‘What are the five greatest rivers in Germany?’, ‘name the capital cities of all 50 American states’. He’s an absolute nut!”
“Well, you know people can go a bit funny when they're old”
“Age as nothing to do with it! He’s a nut! He thinks he’s a reincarnation of Richard The 3rd! Why is it that every reincarnation nutter not only thinks that they were someone famous and not a bloody privy cleaner but they're always the most worthless, wretched people”
“He was ranting on at me the other day, talking about reincarnation. I asked him how it was possible that people could be reincarnated and there could be a finite number of souls when the population of the earth is increasing. You know what he said? ‘Yes that’s right! That’s right! The population of the earth IS increasing’ It’s just bloody impossible. If he can't even engage in some...”
“He’s an arse!”
“Well, look, we better be off” Michael attempted to break the silence.
“Yeah, look at the time. It’ll be your tea soon”
“We could probably stay a bit longer” Stated Lucy.
“No, I think we should go, give your dad some rest”
“ I'm really not…”
“ We'll see you soon, OK dad?”
“Alright. Take care. Mind how you go”
Goodbyes were said and the door was shut. The sound of an angry and suppressed row muttered down the corridor, until there was nothing more but the sound of humming.
Wednesday, 31 October 2012
John felt the slight pressure on his shoulders. Slight movement. He opened his eyes slowly, timidly. Light began to seep into the cracks painfully and obtrusively and he began again. Every time it was like being reborn, but with a little more left on the other side.
A woman stood over him. She was pretty. That was his first thought. She was pretty but looked tired. Sad, slightly. But he knew her. A wave of familiarity flooded over him. He knew her.
Lucy. His little girl. He smiled and held her hand.
She leaned in and hugged him before sitting back down on the chair facing his armchair. He smiled at her again and looked around the room. There was a man sat in the corner. He was well dressed as if he’d come straight from work. Lovely imitation suede brogues, smart black trousers and a dark blue crushed cotton shirt. Left leg at a right angle over the other holding something in the palm of his hand. Staring at it, touching it. Looking out of the window. Looking anywhere but in his direction. That must be… it’s Michael. It is him! He looks… different.
“Hello Lucy” He smiled. “Hello Michael”
“Hello dad” replied his daughter, smiling with a beauty and a sadness that ripped right through him.
Michael turned to face him. “Hello John, how you doing?”
“Well, I'm almost finished on my autobiography. Then I’ll think about climbing Everest.”
“And how’s the.. uh… the”
“I’m a digital archaeologist, dad. Remember? We make simulations…”
“Yes, that’s right… sort of anyway”
“Of course… I forget. I’m sorry. I keep forgetting things. It’s the heat. This place…”
“I know dad”
“They keep the heat up so high. I can't think! It’s… uh… it’s a little bit frustrating” He let out a laugh that, had he been on his own, would have probably developed into tears.
“Oh dad…” Lucy put her hand on his and rubbed it. His skin was like soft, fleshy paper.
“How has the writing been going?” Asked Michael.
“Ahhh” said John and waved his hand dismissively, pulling a face as if tasting lemons for the first time.
“No really, I think it could be fascinating, an account of the past 80 years from the perspective of a normal person”
“I don't know. What have I got to write about? 40 years as a teacher. Love of my life dies of cancer. Slowly losing my mind. Nothing, no one wants to read that.”
Michael got up and started talking in an impassioned manner. “Really, this is what archaeology, what history is. Every major event gets covered every which way by the news media, but there’s no really impression of what it was like for ordinary people. Not really”
“Oh, I don't know Michael, I’m old. I've no flair for writing. Every time I try and recount something from my past it sounds like I'm describing a commuting route or reading train times.”
“No, no I really think…”
“Michael…” said Lucy, sternly.
Michael sat back down again.
“So how are you getting on with the computer we got you?”
“Yes, very well. It’s very good you know. Quite like the old Apples we used in school”
“Yeah, we hunted one down with the closest interface to those old ones. It’s got the old QWERTY keyboard if you like and it does everything just fine. You can get your films on it ok?”
A silence descended over the room, as was so frequent in these mostly stilted and forced conversations. They could hear the distant roar of the building’s humidifier and heating system, always set far too high for anyone without the terrible circulation of old people. Someone was watching a film or a show on a screen in one of the rooms nearby. Muffled American accents seeped through the walls. Someone shouting. English. A resident.
Knock knock knock.
They all turned to face the door, slightly startled.
It was Pearline, one of the carers. She opened the door slightly and stuck her head and hand in. She was holding a water jug.
“Come to change your water.”
“Yes, please come in.” said Michael, presumptuously. Lucy looked at the ground.
Pearline came in and smiled and changed the water, pouring the old jug away and taking a new one from its disinfected, cellulose wrapping. She smiled again and left. She was an intensely shy woman. She had been one of the few thousand to make it from the Côte d'Ivoire when she was a child. Like most people hearing about atrocities, natural or otherwise, Lucy had tried to be as supportive as possible but there was nothing she could say or do. She tilted her head and furrowed her brow, rubbing her arm supportively in the way many English people would, caught up in the guilt of their indirect involvement. Lifestyles. Taxes. Governments. These things all lead to misery somewhere else. It was that simple. With a father like Lucy had, there was no way she couldn’t be aware of this, even if she was at a loss to know what exactly to do about it.
There just weren’t words.
“Perhaps you'd like to see if you can get us three cups of tea?”
“ Can't I just ask Pearline?”
“Its not her job and you know it”
“Sorry, yes. I’ll be back in a tick”
Lucy once again turned her attention to her dad.
“Now pop. I want you to tell me how you're doing.”
“Oh me… don't worry about me petal. I'm fine. I’ll be fine.”
“And you're settling in alright, are you?”
“I think so. How long have I been here now?”
“About three months dad”
“Of course, of course. Time just seems to… It’s odd. Before I had a routine. I’d go out and get the paper, go for a little walk, come home and fix a bit of lunch. Tuesdays and Thursdays it was the seniors club. Wednesdays I’d do a class… I just…”
“But you still have a routine. You still get the paper. Are they not giving you enough to do here?”
“Oh no, that’s fine. I'm taking minutes at the meetings you know? And there are the art classes. And they've asked me to pick a film for this week…”
John let out a sigh.
“Dad. You miss her don't you? You miss mum.”
“Look dad, I'm an adult now. I've got my own kids. You can talk to me.”
“I just feel like… It… It should have been me, not her.”
“But then she’d be just as miserable without you, you know?”
“I know. What I mean is, without her, I may as well be dead. I haven’t got anything left. It all left with her. All I’m doing is waiting.”
Tears began rolling down Lucy’s face and she brought a sleeved fist up to her mouth, just like she used to when she was little. When James would bully her or when she didn’t get what she wanted.
“Here we are”
Michael entered the room backwards, pushing the door open with his arse. He spun round to try and retain some dignity as quickly as the tray would allow him.
“three lovely cups of… is everything alright?”
Lucy sniffed and wiped her eyes with the corner of her sleeve.
“Yes, yes. Everything’s fine. Thank you for the tea.”
“I got some biscuits too. I thought we could use something sweet.”
Lucy smiled and patted the seat next to her. Michael smiled back.
“There you go dad. Milk, no sugar and a couple of hob nobs”
“I like black earl grey with lemon.”
“But thanks anyway, its lovely”
Michael smiled awkwardly and suddenly thought back to when he first met John. He'd felt like a teenager. They'd certainly both slipped into roles well, though marriage and children went some way to proving he wasn't a ‘love-em-and-leave-em’ type.
They all finished their tea in near silence.
“Well… we should probably get going…” Michael put his cup down on a bedside cabinet. It was the one that Lucy had run into when she was 5. She still had the vague scar, a slight dent in her forehead. It was a Johaanas design. One of the first wave of affordable furniture that was guaranteed a minimum of thirty years. Some kind of sustainable resin. This guarantee was a legal requirement- part of a tokenistic gesture towards the backlash against the ‘wasteful west’, but one that had worked remarkably well.
Lucy looked at her watch and sighed.
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
She leaned forward and hugged John, kissing him on the cheek.
“See you really soon dad”
Michael shook his hand.
“Let me know how you get on with that computer. If it starts giving you problems, you call me up or message me. Anytime. I can always pick it up on this thing.”
Michael waved his ‘mother box’ and strapped it back on its belt holster. The kind of thing a father would wear.
“Heh. Ok. Ok. See you soon. See you.”
They shut the door behind them and left John to slowly fall asleep again.
Sunday, 30 September 2012
Dave walked past the old park, near his old primary school, near where his parents still live. Up and over the hill, remembering the big snowstorm of 1990. The broken boiler. The week off school. Sledding on tea trays and an old road sign that someone’s older brother had pulled down, arriving just in time to see Ally ‘Pally’ Paisley carried off to an ambulance weeping with his foot all crooked, only making the experience more exciting and wondering if his life was ever that innocent and Beano-like or it was all just a nostalgic myth caught up in semi-autobiographical storytelling. Did any of it really happen? Had it snowed that year at all? Had it been so magical? Wasn't he just forgetting all the times of bullying and being desperately unhappy? The quiet sobbing outside of the headmasters office?
As he tried to peer through the haze of his now seemingly lost youth, Dave walked over the hill, down through the gate and without thinking slapped at where a loose metal gatepost used to be. He wandered down roads, over a hill, past houses, past the allotments, following invisible spots of blood nearly two decades old. It was ten minutes before he realised where he was, where he’d been walking to. It was already too late. He was already there.
At first Dave just looked at the notice board, outside of the main door. Weathered signs advertising Kundulini Yoga, life drawing and bicycle repair classes, gigs and parties, some upcoming, some long gone, remained static in the air like a neon signpost to a life he was not a part of, scarring green into his retinas. As he read through each one intently like postcards in a langue not entirely unfamiliar to him, he picked at the flaking blue paint. Looking beyond the notice board, he gazed at the front, trying to remember the old door with the panel missing. Now it looked like a reinforced security affair, like the fire exit at a community centre. Not welcoming or mysterious or foreboding, Just a door. A definite ‘no’. His eyes traced up the side, past murals and windows filled with colourful Hindi emblazoned cloth and little figurines and posters advertising anti-war protests and further still to the roof, still dominant but softened somehow. Tempered against the sky. Smaller and more real. Just, now, a roof. A real, functional thing stripped of personality and character and intrigue. And up and up still his eyes travelled, past the clouds and approaching rain and the vapour trails fading into the bright blue and all of the mystery they used to hold and resting, fixed on the outside of the sun. His eyes began to water against the brilliance, against the wind and his lost youth, a bygone time in which he had convinced himself he was truly happy.
“Can I help you?”
A man with Mediterranean skin and dreads on the back of his head stood at the door holding a bag of recycling.
“Uh, I was...”
“Are you looking for someone?”
“Well, no, I, not really, I...”
“You want to start a class? They’re cheap and everyone is welcome”
Dave noticed a shadow behind one of the thin Indian wall hangings that covered a window. At first walking passed, it stopped and looked at him. Dave stopped floundering for a moment and looked straight up at it. They both paused. The shadow remained static, as if mesmerised by him. Dave remained transfixed. Acting in direct opposition to his usually timid nature, he stared not at the floor or his hands or the bottom seam of his coat but directly into the eyes of the figure. Straight into the black heart of the howling abyss, the spiralling unknown that locked eyes with him and demanded personal justification of his being. As Dave stared, questions tried to form, floating just outside of his conscious mind as their lines of intrigue met each other head on. His breath became short and he began to feel cold. His skin prickled at the back of his neck, under his arms and in his groin like they were both dying and becoming alive and he could feel the big nothing moving in his belly. Then the shadow moved. It’s head. It put something down on the floor, disappearing from view, before becoming visible again. Then it’s arm moved towards the wall covering. Grabbing the bottom right corner, it began to move it away from the window. Dave did not look away.
Dave did not look away. A flash of yellow. An arm. A man’s?
“Hello? Hello, excuse me. Can I help you?”
Dave did not...
“Oh, uh. Hi. Yeah. Hello”
“Yeah, can I help you or what?”
“Sorry, I was just passing. I used to... I thought. No. No, I’m fine. Sorry to bother you”
The door shut and Dave carried on walking.
Friday, 31 August 2012
Author's note: This is an extract from something I'm working on at the moment. It serves as a preview, if it remains unchanged, an insight into the process if it develops or a relic if it gets the cut.
The wind blew gently enough still, but it was beginning to bite. You could begin to smell the cold on the air. Taste the ozone and anticipate the air, thick with gunsmoke, as it would be in a month or so. A hoof idly circled at the grass, the greenery subjugated by the sky. Overcast. A few dots of blue where the sun burns through.
Four horses grazed. Chewing grass. Trotting. Beautiful, all of them the colour of a rich man’s coat. Uniform circles of cream on their backs. Their nostrils flared and one rubbed its head against another in a way that could be perceived as loving. As it was by George Barnes, who sat watching them. He sat on the grass eating penny chews instead of the non-existent breakfast no one had prepared for him. Annie was meant to make sure he was fed and walked into school, but Annie had gone off to the woods with Steve Parsons so they could kiss and he could touch her boobs. She had given him 50p to get something to eat and made him promise to get there on time on his own, but he didn’t care. He hated his sister and he hated Steve Parsons and everyone called him Steve Parsnips and said he had a Parsnip dick. But never to his face. He was an ugly boy with red hair and boils on his back. You could see them where his shirt collar ended and his freckled skin began. White and red and looking like they would burst. But he was big and angrier than his skin and would punch other boys and that’s why Annie liked him.
He wondered at first if it would mean that people would leave him alone, but Parsnip’s interest in his sister hadn’t extended to her kith and kin. Or probably even her face.
George put a UFO in his mouth and waited for the sherbet to seep through the rice paper sludge. It made him smile as he wondered if the horses were really as happy as they seemed. Even behind the wire fence. He wondered what it would be like to be a horse and what ‘Palomino’ meant and read the word over and over out loud from the giant sign.
George looked at the funfair under construction. At all the static roller coasters and dead ghost trains and at all the men milling about, lifting and carrying and screwing and bolting. He always thought that circuses would be exciting, run by clowns and bearded women and big fat men and knife throwers. But instead it was just men in caps and tracksuits and with denim jackets with the sleeves cut off and with hair all long at the back, smoking cigarettes even though it was only 8.30am.
They shouted to each other and it sounded like Irish and London and northern and a complete other language. They laughed and cackled and shouted and George couldn’t tell if they liked each other or not. One man seemed to be shouting the most, pointing at the others and telling them where to go. Even from far away, he could see that the man had arms like the trunks of trees. He was either wearing a loud shirt or was heavily tattooed. George smiled as he thought he had finally seen a real-life circus man at last. A real tattooed man. He reached into his bag and groped around at the bottom, hoping he hadn’t left his detective kit at home. Among pencil shavings, bits of tissue and furry boiled sweets he found a three year old diary (with attached pencil) and a pair of opera glasses (property of the Royal Opera House he had bought for 25p in a jumble sale.
George looked through an attempted to find the man, to see if his tattoos were real. At first, looking through the glasses was wobbly and out of focus, like when his eyes would water on a cold day. His vision swung and he felt a little bit sick, so he lay flat to try and steady his vision.
Tower of death.
The man flicked a cigarette butt and then put his thumb to one nostril, sending an ark of mucus out of the other. George tried to see his arms, but couldn’t hold steady enough.
He could see other men, heads turning quickly. It looked like a commotion. Suddenly people began running towards what looked like a tilt-o-whirl. George tried keeping track of the tattoo man, wishing his hands were steadier and he had a real pair of binoculars.
He could see someone trying to get over the rear fence, into the main part of the park. Clambering up with only one foot hanging, he was nearly at the top. One of the circus men ran and leapt, grabbing onto his shoe and pulled him to the floor.
The scruffy man fell, but did not cry out, not that George could have heard. He was far too far away and could barely make out much more than blurs. The scruffy man didn’t look like he was in pain. As more men came closer, he didn’t hurry to move or try and scrabble away. But it didn’t look like he’d been injured. He scarcely looked like he even knew he had fallen. George could just about make out the tattoo man shoving his way to the front, to where the scruffy man lay. He followed his red bandanna and his blue and green arms through the crowd. The tattoo man leaned forward and disappeared behind a sea of thuggery and vicious movement. He raised again. George tried to focus, but the intense concentration made his eyes water. He thought he saw the top of the scruffy man’s head, lolling among the crowd. He thought he saw something else. He thought he saw blood.
His watch beeped. It was 9. Assembly had started.
George wiped the tears from his eyes and looked back up again. He had lost his position. Disorientated, he veered from side-to-side of the circus, trying to find the men, wondering if he had imagined it all. But he could see no signs of life, other than the horses who had returned to grazing. Oblivious and uncaring.
There was nothing there.
After waiting a few more minutes, he packed away his spy kit and began the slow trudge to school. He picked at a stale iced bun and dragged his feet along the grit on the pavement that surrounded the common.
Sunday, 29 July 2012
Saturday, 30 June 2012
Apparently just in time for the appropriate month, straight from 4,000 miles away and apologetically story-less, here's something special for June. The amazing Ms. Francesca Allen designed some things based around sections of my writing for inclusion in givaway bags for the 2012 PRFBBQ. My humble contribution to a shiteload of awesome. Check out more of her work here: http://francesca-allen.co.uk/PRF BBQ website here: http://www.prfbbq.com/
I'm thinking about doing a run of these on different colour card. Get at me if this would interest you.
Tom/ Born Frowning
Design © Francesca Allen
Words © Born Frowning