Friday, 23 November 2012

Woodhouse: Part Four

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. 

“Hi there”
“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.”
“Oh, right”
“Do you know what the date is today?”
“It’s the.. uh…”
“It’s the 26th of April!”
“Your birthday!”
“Yes really!  Happy birthday!”
“Thank you!”
“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?”
“Yes… yes…”
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”
Alex shrugged.
“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”
“Oh. Good”
“ 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?”
He shrugged
“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!”
“I’m Sandy”
“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…”
“Are ya?”
”A guy like you should wear a warnin'”
“That’s what the police said!”
”It's dangerous, I'm fallin'”
“Oh no!”

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?”
“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.

Oh god.

“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.
“Eighty one”
“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”

“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

Woodhouse: Part Three

“Granddad? Granddad? What the hell is going on? What’re you doing out here?”
“I’m going to meet my lawyer”
“You’re… what?”
“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?”
“Huh? What?”
“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.”
“no…. no…”

“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

Woodhouse: Part Two

“Granddad! Granddad!!!”
“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?”
“Tell me!”
“It EXPLODES! And that’s why I like science the best.”
“Well, my! And how are you getting on… erh…erh…?”
“Yes, Alex”
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.”
Alex sniggered.
“ 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...”
“Alright dad”
“He’s an arse!”

“Well, look, we better be off” Michael attempted to break the silence.
“Oh, really?”
“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.