Monday, 24 July 2017

They had heard great things about Wales and about work too.

Penkington had been due in to play in Traintown on the Saturday night. This happened often, but when he heard about a free festival in Llantrisant, he was intrigued. Perhaps it would become famous in subcultural folklore. He wouldn’t want to miss out on that, would he now, all those short stories he could write about it in the punk rock nostalgia books in thirty years’ time? So he wondered where Llantrisant was. He called Squirrel, who seemed to know a lot of things. Squirrel also had a little van, he drove to a lot of subcultural gigs. He might be going, or he might be persuaded to. Squirrel had no intention of going to Llantrisant, he’d been up all night, driving back from a visit to Don from Doncaster, and he was skint. Any idea where it is? Penkington asked him. It’s where Leekes is, Squirrel said. You what? Penkington said, thinking of the vegetable. Leekes of Llantrisant, Squirrel said, you know, the advert off the telly. I think it’s in Wales. Oh right, Penkington said, never mind then. You should try Eggy, Squirrel said, he’s always up for an adventure. So Penkington hung up, and then he called Eggy.
           
Eggy was, indeed, up for an adventure, and they arranged to meet at the top of the town, from whence they would walk to the road that led up to the motorway, the A46, and commence hitch-hiking. First, though, he had to call Benny the Baker and cancel his appearance in Traintown. He didn’t think he’d be missed. His act was a sort of crusty Billy Bragg, the tunes largely lifted from a group he’d been in at school, The Beginning, the lyrics amended to suit the mores of the subculture. He generally played first so that he could get drunk enough afterwards to dance to the headlining acts, a handful of people watching and applauding politely. But Benny the Baker seemed peeved, he’d already had two of the main acts cancel on him and he didn’t know what he was going to do. Penkington explained he’d already made arrangements with Eggy, thinking that he’d understand: Benny the Baker and Eggy had been at private school together, along with Squirrel. But Benny the Baker told him he was unbelievable and promptly hung up. Penkington shrugged, packed a small bag, and got the bus into town.
           
Eggy was late, even though he lived close by. Penkington stood waiting outside a pub called The Curfew, looking at his watch, thinking of going inside from time to time, but knowing he probably wouldn’t get out again. Then Eggy turned up, apologizing. They exchanged pleasantries and started walking along the London Road to the A46. As they passed the Longacre Hall at Snowhill, Penkington told Eggy a story about how he’d been to his first proper subcultural gig there at the beginning of 1984, to see the Smart Pils. It was supposed to be their farewell gig, although he’d see them many times after that. Penkington had enjoyed them, and he’d told the bass player he thought they sounded like Crass, which was supposed to be a compliment. The bass player had looked a little bemused, and Penkington’s new compatriots had laughed, one of them, Psychobully, calling him a fucking idiot. That was it, it wasn’t much of a story. Then they were at the bottom of the A46.
           
It didn’t take them long to catch a lift to the motorway. They squeezed into the back of a red wooden jeep, which the driver had built himself, almost from scratch, starting with only the chassis and the engine. What kind of car is this? Penkington asked innocently, as it shook and rattled along at top speed, 45mph. I call it Ye Shed, the driver laughed. Is that what you do then, rebuild old motors? Eggy called out above the engine noise. The driver told him he’d been in the army until last year, he’d been in The Falklands, then he’d broken his leg in County Fermanagh and he had to be invalided out, but he’d got himself a tasty pension. How Does It Feel? Penkington thought, looking down at his shoes; he didn’t know what to say to that. It went against the unwritten rules of the subculture, he was supposed to be against the military and a pacifist. Ah right, Eggy said, good one mate. Then they were at the motorway and the driver pulled over onto a verge and let them out. He was heading further north, to Herefordshire, he couldn’t tell them why. He winked and gave them the thumbs up, wished them luck, then he was gone.
           
The next lift took a little longer to arrive, about 45 minutes, but eventually a BMW stopped. Penkington and Eggy were surprised, they didn’t often get lifts from flash motors, they were too scruffy. Many of the lifts they did get were from ex-military types, because in the subculture they dressed all in black, which from a distance looked a little like a uniform. But they weren’t going to say no to the BMW, they weren’t proud. As they climbed into the back, the driver, a Nigerian, said, I hope you will not be smoking in the car, and they tossed their roll-ups away.
           
On the motorway, the driver asked them questions and they leaned forward to answer, the sun lowering in the sky as they headed west. No, they weren’t working, yes, unemployment was a terrible thing but what could you do, no, they didn’t have children, yes, they were going to be looking for work in Wales, they had heard great things about Wales and about work too. Hitch-hiking could be quite an adventure if you had an imagination. You could make up all kinds of stuff, you could really reinvent yourself. The driver nodded in agreement and answered occasionally, chuckling. At Aust Cliff Services, just shy of the Severn Bridge, he pulled off the motorway, saying that he needed refreshment. The three of them walked across the asphalt of the car park and into a deserted refectory, where he bought them a cup of tea each. They both took it black. The driver found this curious and Penkington set about explaining veganism and factory farming to him, excitedly. Eggy didn’t join in, only staring down into his cup, he wasn’t a proselytizer. You need fleesh, the driver told them, and Penkington looked at him askance. Fleesh, the driver said again, making to bite a chunk out of his own arm. Ah, flesh! Penkington said, I see. Yes, Fleesh! the driver said, you need fleesh my friend, and they all laughed. Then they drank their tea and they walked back out to the car and got back onto the motorway, and they crossed the bridge over the estuary, its waters headed for the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, all the way from its source at Plynlimon, the highest point of the Cambrian mountains, the River Severn named for Sabrina, a nymph who had drowned there. The driver dropped them a short while later at the junction for Newport East. He didn’t wish them luck.
The next lift took an hour to materialize, and they began to wonder whether they would make the festival. Do you know who’s supposed to be playing? Eggy asked. It didn’t say, Penkington said, I dunno, antisect maybe? Amebix? The Ozrics? Eggy snorted. Yeah, right, he said, haven’t heard that one before. Then Penkington’s mind began to wander. He recalled a trip to the cinema with Eggy and his sister, with Sherwood and his girlfriend, who was called Bet Lynch, to see Back to the Future. Eggy’s sister had one of those dyed-red quiffs that made her look like a lesbian, but after some snuck-in vodka she’d let him snog her and put his hand up her jumper. Then he’d blacked out. How’s your sister? he asked Eggy, apropos of nothing. What the fuck’s that supposed to mean? Eggy said. Then a lift pulled over for them and they both calmed down.
It was a lorry. They climbed up into the cab and explained to the driver where they were headed, and the driver started giving out counter-intuitive directions as to the best route, as drivers do. He said he’d drop them at the most likely spot for getting a lift the rest of the way there. Shouldn’t take you long, boys, he said. They didn’t like to argue, it was almost dusk now. He put them out at a curious junction that looked like a five-points farm crossing where witches had once been hanged. They were surrounded by trees and no passing vehicles seemed evident for some time, not a sound, only the birdsong. They weren’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but, were it not for the trees, they’d surely be able to see it from where they were standing. Eggy began to curse and stamp his feet, saying oh why oh why oh why, over and over. Penkington walked back and forth across the junction, there was something strange about it, it seemed as though all of his short life up to this point had been designed to arrive him here. In his later years, he would have recurring dreams about the place, in which nothing really happened. The isolated and anonymous countryside seemed to somehow represent his long journey home, home being death. A twelve-stepper would later say to him, telling a story about someone who had died, he’s gone home now. Penkington would discuss this repeatedly in psychotherapy sessions, the junction. There was a painting on the wall of just such a spot, the psychotherapist telling him, I don’t know why it’s there, this isn’t my room, I just rent it.

It was all but dark now. Then, from which direction it was not clear, they heard the clatter and rumble of a small engine approaching, and they stood to attention, stuck out their thumbs, painted on their smiles. A Morris Traveller pulled up right in the centre of the junction, a middle-aged woman winding down the window and leaning out.
Where you boys headed then? she asked, as they approached the vehicle. Chickens squawked from wire cages on the back seat. Penkington did the talking, explaining the pop festival to her. Oh, that, she said, that were called off last week, the parish council banned it, you know, after what happened last year. Come on, climb in the back, I’ll take yer back to the motorway. They climbed into the back and she turned the Morris Traveller around and started driving south. Don’t mind Pinky an’ Perky, she said, they don’t bite.
As they headed back to the motorway the woman asked them who they knew locally, was surprised when they both said, nope, no-one. They asked where they were from and when they told her, she said she’d been there once, that it was very nice. Then they were at the motorway, a large deserted roundabout, the sun dipping down below the horizon to the west. Penkington expected Eggy to be angry at their wasted journey, but he was just glad to be on his way back, he seemed to now be taking it all very philosophically. A large van pulled over after about ten minutes, headed for Bristol, and they climbed aboard. The driver looked like Fred West, although they wouldn’t have known as much at the time. He asked them the requisite questions but they couldn’t understand a word he said, and so they just nodded, Penkington saying ah yeh from time to time, which seemed to satisfy him. He dropped them at the top of the M32, which wasn’t strictly legal. It was pitch black now, and they had to stand out in the road and wave their arms about to get themselves noticed. Eventually, a small van pulled over and they climbed into the back, and they rode east in silence after some cursory conversation about football and the miners’ strike, and the driver dropped them at the top of the A46 and wished them well, and they started walking in silence in the darkness, although it was ten miles back to town, not thinking they would get another lift this late. They turned and stuck their thumbs out each time a car passed, then continued walking. Half way to Pennysylvania, a small village with a pub and a church, a beat-up old Datsun pulled over and they climbed inside and thanked the driver, who said he was down from London looking at property, that their hometown wasn’t really a city at all, not like London, it was just too small. Eggy said something about it being to do with cathedrals and abbeys and the driver said, well now, I did not know that, and then they were at the western end of the London Road and Penkington recalled being driven there by his parents when he was small and they lived in a suburb of Trowbridge. They had been visiting his father’s father, and Penkington had asked where they were now, and his father had said the name of the city that wasn’t really a city, but Penkington had seen the sign for London Road and had thought that they were in London, marveling at the tall buildings and thinking, all adults lie, it’s what they do. They were deposited on Walcot Street, outside the Hat and Feather, and they went inside for a farewell pint, just in time for last orders, another Saturday night.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Breakfast.

Not being funny or anythink mate like he says, but ent you got nuffink apart from this old granddad music? I mean, it's cool and all, don't get me wrong an that, but it ain't exactly banging is it? I mean.

I pause momentarily in the demolition of my egg and beans. No sausage. Take a slug from a mug of lukewarm tea, three sugars. You need it, this time of day. I slowly look up at him, giving him the stare. This is not easy with watery supermarket own brand bean juice making a lackadaisical beeline from one corner of my mouth to my chin. I can feel the progress of the rivulet and want to twitch, but don't. Instead, I squint. He steps back. He's gone from being right in my face, leaning in, to a slightly more relaxed stance. For some reason he cups his balls with both hands, as though he's expecting a free kick, or a more obvious assault on his person. He's stood about a foot away now, but I can still smell his breath. It's last night's cider and some kind of rotten meat; or else it's this morning's, the eye-opener. I want to say to him, you should brush your teeth occasionally mate, I can still smell your mother's cunt on your breath from earlier, but I know I probably smell almost as bad. I stop with the squinting, swallow some beans, dab at my chin with the heel of my hand, rub it into my combat kecks. I fold some fried egg into half a piece of soggy white toast, pop it into my mouth, rub my palms over my thighs, yawn. When I open them he's still there. He hasn't moved.

It's 9:45 in the am mate, I tell him. Who the fuck wants banging at 9:45am?

My missus usually mate he says, scratching himself down there. Really, it's more of a fondle, the left hand standing close by in case it's needed. I look away.

Getting a bit old for that these days though, you know what I mean? he says, after a pause. Must be true what they say mate, you know, about women maturing later than men. About them getting much hornier much later on than us lot.

He does the air quotes for maturing. He does everything but wink. I look at him a little more closely, sizing him up. Think, you must be all of seventeen son. Where's your worry lines? I've fucking got 'em.

Gagging for it morning, noon or night she is, he goes on. Can't keep up with her, I can't. What about you? You getting any? You ain't a bender are ya? No offense, like.

On the tape, the granddad music segues from Concrete Jungle into Too Hot.

Andy Sparrow, Fritz and Rupert are there in the corner, eating quietly. You can tell from the civilised way Rupert cuts his sausage into little pieces he's never been to comprehensive school or prison. Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he was a visitor once. Some kind of family bankruptcy and tax haven scandal in the seventies. What do I know? I don't know any of these people. And no-one tells the truth about their past anyway.

Ya aren't though are ya mate? says the fondler. That's how I'll think of him from now on, he's the fondler.

We are at breakfast. I mean, obviously we are at breakfast. Given the time and the food and the tea. But the name of the place we are at is breakfast too, except it isn't really. Let me explain.

Everyone just calls it breakfast. Its actual title is Swindon Daybreak. If you're homeless, or squatting, or sofa-surfing, then five mornings a week, you can just rock up and get fed, take your pick from a variety of clean jumble sale clothes. There's no underwear, but there are toothbrushes, toothpaste, cans of Lynx. I mean, Lynx, fucksake. I even saw some costume jewellery there once. There are no books. No showers either, but there are toilets. In my current squat there's a toilet, but Steve has blocked it up with the old newspapers he uses to wipe his arse. Steve's been described as ESSEX MAN GONE BAD. I've tried to unblock it, the toilet in the squat, I've put on rubber gloves and I've started digging around in there, holding my nose and mouth in the air as best I can, because although it's an old house there's actually nothing wrong with the plumbing. But there's just too much of it down there, and the further in you go, the more compacted it gets. Besides, if I ever got to the end of it, I have this mental picture of a giant rat waiting there to grab a hold of my hand and gnaw it off. Or something worse, an anaconda, or maybe a crocodile. Because you do hear stories. It's not just New York.

But I'm getting off the point here. The main thing about breakfast is the breakfast. It's proper café food, plus cereal: this is way before those cereal cafés in London, the hipster places. This is 1991. There isn't the internet or even mobile phones yet. I did see someone with one in the Rolleston once, a mobile phone. Great place for Friday afternoon drinking, the Rolly was, back in the day, might still be now for all I know. Some things don't change. Ideal lunchtime experience with a nice cold beer, it said in the window. Anyway, the phone. Fucking massive it was, one of the early ones. Like on that Trigger Happy TV. The bloke was wearing a shirt and tie like, not unusual for Swindon in the eighties. Or the post-eighties, I dunno what you'd call it, that hinterland between Rick Astley and Elastica. Hinterland. Fucking wasteland, more like.

Anyway, the bloke only pulled it out because it rang. Fuck knows who was ringing him, there can't have been more than about ten of 'em in the whole of Wiltshire back then. The office, I s'pose. So he pulls it out, he says yeah, hello? like. And immediately everyone's turned around and started staring and braying yuppie at him. This was back when the word actually meant something. It wasn't chanting, more of a low mass jeer, with this weird background groaning hum, like you used to do in school assembly to get on the teachers' nerves. There can't have been all that many people in there, but it sounded like more. Like school assembly all over again. I can't remember what happened after that. I suppose he went outside to take the call.

So that was my first indirect experience of a mobile phone. What the fuck was I talking about that for? Oh yeah. 1991. No hipsters, no phones. That's it.

Anyway, he's moved away now, the fondler has. He's got bored, given up on his enquiries into banging techno versus granddad music, and am I or am I not a bender, and he's sat quietly in the corner, demolishing a massive pile of marmalade on toast, stacked up there like American pancakes. He must have used up half the jar. And sitting quietly is a relative term. The way he's slurping away at his tea, you may as well give him a straw and tell him to blow bubbles, the fucking chimp.

The granddad music’s moved on through Monkey Man and into (Dawning of a) New Era. That's what it feels like here sometimes, being out on the edge of civilisation. Like something's about to snap, like, with a big old p-twaaang. It's like we're on the end of a taut length of frayed elastic, old and smelly and half rotten like granddad's braces, about to propelled into the unknown and there's fuck all we, or anyone else, can do about it. It's just coming. Everyone knows, but nobody talks about it. The M4 is just up the road by Chiseldon pit, the travellers site, connecting us to London, which is only about an hour away by train, but the only people I can think of who go up there are the petit-bourgeois goths with their parents' cars on loan, off up to the Slimelight for the night, or to see Fields of the Nephilim at the Kilburn Nash. We're like a gigantic wart that's grown off granddad's rancid nipple and encased half the width of one of the braces, and is slowly, quietly, patiently, eating it away. Something's gotta give man, you know I mean like? Something's gotta give and soon. I can feel it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Valentines Day.

Our mother didn’t believe in romance, not in any meaningful way, not in any hopeful way. I’ll give you an example. You know that song, tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree? Yes you do. It was everywhere in 1973, it was all over the place. It’s supposed to be about the Vietnam war, that was the basis of its astronomical sales, and according to Wikipedia it’s even been linked to the People Power Revolution in the Philippines ten years later, but if you listen to the lyric all it’s really about is a guy coming home from jail who wants to know if his girl’s going to be waiting for him. Or if she’s found somebody else. She mustn’t have written to him for a while, I don’t know. And that’s how she’s supposed to let him know, if she’s still waiting she’s supposed to tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree so’s he can see it from the bus. If it’s not there he’s going to stay on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me. Me being himself. It must have been a small town is all I can think, this ole oak tree must have been in the middle of the village green or the market square or some such place. He says he doesn’t mind either way, but you can tell he’s really hopeful. And our mother hated it, she hated that song. If it came on the radio, which it did a lot, in 1973, she would just turn it right off. Put on some Andy Williams or something. She said it shouldn’t be played in the afternoon, when children could hear it. With its reference to a man coming out of jail and expecting everything to be OK, expecting everything to be just as it was before he went in, three long years before, and we’re not even allowed to know what he’s done. What’s he done, he must have done something, she used to say. She called it morally ambiguous. But that wasn’t the real reason she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it because it was a love story with a happy ending, or at least the potential for one. She preferred songs like killing me softly with his song. Everything lost and lonely and unrequited. He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair. So tie a yellow ribbon was out. I grew up with the Carpenters and Peters and Lee. It fucked me up. It warped me. I can’t listen to that stuff now. I prefer don’t fear the reaper or the logical song.

So you can see from all this that my attitude to romance might be a little misshapen. I’ll say. I hate Valentines Day, always have. It’s a racket for the greeting card companies, but you probably know all that. When I was a kid and I didn’t know what it was about, Valentines Day, when I heard what day it was on the radio, I set about making my friend Jonathan Whiteman and his brother Richard, and their parents, Valentines Day cards all by hand. Red crayons, pink crayons, green crayons, the works. I thought it would be nice, I was that kind of kid. I used to pick our mother flowers from the fields walking home alone from school.

Our mother all but took the roof off. With the Valentines Day cards I mean, I think she quite liked the flowers, although she did seem to get bored with them quite quickly. Well, who wouldn’t? Day after day, buttercups and daisies. We’re not talking the Amazon rainforest or the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve here. But yeah, she all but took the roof off. Just with a look, she could do that. The eyes would flash, then the lids drop two thirds of the way down. A vein on her forehead stood up. The lips would purse. She’d take some breath in through her nostrils and just hold it there. All in an instant. You wished the ground would open up, you really did. She always held her breath for precisely sixty seconds. For as long as I can remember I timed it in my head, and it was always exactly that. Then she spat into the sink. You know, ph-tooh! I had already made the first card and was three quarters the way through the second, fingers all red and pink and green from the crayons. She grabbed the cards up and put them straight into the bin, then she emptied a load of old tea bags over them, in case our father saw. She used to keep all the old tea bags on the side of the draining board in an Ernest Hemingway mug she’d got as a souvenir from his house in Cuba, so’s she could use them twice. This was before recycling, this was 1974. So that was me and Valentines Day done right in, right then, right there.

Years later, and I’m sitting in this café in Islington, up at the Angel. Euphorium it was called, although I used to call it Euphonium as a joke, in order to impress the girls at the meeting next door, only it never caught on. By the time that I’d realised it was never going to, that I was just a lonely old fat bloke that they laughed about when I wasn’t around, or more likely, didn’t even think about at all, I had got into the habit of calling it Euphonium and couldn’t stop. I had created a new pathway for it in my brain. Like with that American malapropism, irregardless. I still say that now, irregardless. Anyway, I’m there in Euphorium. I’m early for the meeting next door so I’m drinking coffee that’s too weak and too hot, and it’s chucking it down outside. It’s February 13th, I remember that much. That’s important, keep it in mind. This old Buddhist guy who calls himself Chief Running Horse is sitting at the table next to me with one of his sponsees, laying down the law about the importance of step eleven and having a daily practice. The radio is advising us all to mind how we go. The new coalition’s cut welfare in half again, they’ve banned trade unions in the prison service, there have been civil disturbances almost daily for about three weeks. There’s talk of a temporary curfew but nobody’s taking it seriously, it would be bad for the recovery. Arsenal are at home tonight, it’s the second round of the Champions League. And as I’m looking up, the coffee still too hot and weak and burning my tongue, as I’m counting down from sixty to one, first once, then three times, then five, seeing how quickly the coffee will cool, I’m also looking out the window and into the rain. When this young guy hurries past in a business suit and a raincoat, head down, collar turned right up, clutching a bunch of flowers, all properly wrapped, you know, but with the heads exposed. With the heads getting battered by the rain. So he’s leaning over them, he’s trying to keep them dry, trying to protect them. And immediately I think, it’s not Valentines Day yet, where are you going with those flowers? He can’t be taking them home to save them for the next day, because by the next day, by Valentines Day, they’re going to be all wilted and shit. So he can’t be going home with the flowers for his one true love. His significant other. Well, maybe he’s going to take them home and hide them in the broom cupboard until midnight I think, maybe he’s going to surprise her at midnight with the flowers, but that doesn’t seem likely, because he’s wearing a business suit, he probably works in the city. The city is just down the road, it’s just down City Road. They’ll be all tucked up in bed and asleep way before midnight I think, he won’t want to wake her, if he wakes her they’ll have a row and the moment will be ruined. Destroyed. Ungetbackable.

Then two other things occur to me, almost in tandem. That’s how my thinking goes, in tandem. Sometimes even in triplicate, like the forms. The first thought is that maybe he’s married young and realised too late that it’s all been a terrible mistake, and in order to compensate for this he’s taken a lover. Not somebody from work though, that would be too risky, too much of a cliché, and anyway, if that were the case they’d be out somewhere together now. But maybe that’s where he’s going, to meet his lover. To give her the grand romantic gesture, with the flowers. But because of his domestic situation, she has to take second best. She has to take February 13th and not February 14th. She draws the short straw. There’ll be a quiet restaurant where nobody knows him, and afterwards a cheap hotel for some romantic sex. He’s knocked off work early but told his wife he’s working late on the Shanghai deal. But maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s something else. Nothing to do with February 14th. I take a sip at the still too hot coffee and almost burn the tip of my tongue. I wince. The counting hasn’t worked. And that’s when the other thought comes in, almost in tandem. The only other possible explanation is that he’s going to visit his mother, who is dying of inoperable cancer. Hence the flowers, and his desire to keep them from getting battered by the rain. He wants to give her something that’s alive, that’s not been destroyed by life, he’s not even thinking forward to the connotations of that. He hasn’t thought it through. I’m very excited now. I’m putting together the pieces of the puzzle. It all fits. And just like that, I’m on my feet. I’m out of there and I’m following him down the street. I’ll skip the meeting, I’ve been to one already today, the lunchtime one in Dalston. The Mildmay we used to call it, on account of its street address. I don’t go there anymore. I had a run-in with Loopy Liz. She never forgave me for that business with the carrots. I’m not allowed within two miles.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Norah.

Your auntie Norah he said, your auntie Norah’s so tight, you know what she does?
No dad I said, tell me.
You know those pop a point pencils I got given a job lot of?
Yeh.
And you know how she likes the crossword puzzles?
Yeh.
Well, what she does is she…
I think I can guess what’s coming next, dad.

So he told me how his sister only had one book of crossword puzzles, and that when
she had finished it, instead of putting it in the recycling bin and buying a new one she
would go through it with an eraser and then start over, trusting that at her age
memory would fail her and it would all seem fresh. And I thought that while being

tight with money was hardly an endearing character trait, she had probably suffered
enough in her seventy years, her equally tightfisted husband George the postman dead
from leukaemia the previous year, and that she should be allowed this one minor
and amusing eccentricity. Then I thought how she had seemed while I was growing up

in the 1970s, an indestructible chainsmoking sentinel, the 20 no 6 never far from her hand,
a deadringer for Elsie Tanner in Coronation street, the character probably modelled
on her, her beehive like a lighthouse to deter errant men, her cigarette smoke like
jungles burning.

Antimacassars were invented to defend against Norah Curtis,
and her beehive, and her lipstick, and her fags.
And her still going strong in 2014.
She had survived cancer, she would outlive all of us, she would bury all of us.
And I thought: crosswords, pencils, meh.

Friday, 7 February 2014

The darkening light.

My novella, "the darkening light", is now out on Smashwords and Kindle, priced at $4:99US or equivalent. It's about 25,000 words. A print version is available here. Below is a synopsis and the first few pages.

In the spring of 1986 nine young punks travelled from Swindon to Wood Green in a beat up old van, to see atavistic, eat shit, heresy and others blow the socks off the London borough of Harringey. In the 24 hours that followed their lives would be forever changed. What was going to happen? Would it be the vegan revolution? A declaration of world peace? Or something more sinister? This cavort through the anarcho punk and hardcore scene of the mid 1980s pulls no punches. From the very first page, once you start reading this coruscating tale you won’t be able to stop, and by the time you finish your life will be changed too. If you think you were there, you weren’t. Whatever you think happened, whatever you remember, this wasn’t it. This is something else entirely, a perfect snapshot, a disheveled stream of consciousness yielding a surprisingly moving and unabridged account of blackouts, nightmare bogs, and hardcore corrosion. It is an invaluable addition to the canon. Chaos with a heart.

It is a Saturday morning, early, it is April 1st 1986 and you are hungover to hell. You have recently discovered how to make homebrewed lager but you are not very good at it. You are not very good at drinking either, but neither is anybody else that you know, and so you have no reference point. You are an anarchist punk. You have been an anarchist punk for about three years, and in that short time – really, since the time that you saw Crass on their last ever tour – the anarchist punk scene seems to have gone to hell. Where once there were an infinite variety of identikit cardboard cutout vegan black clad revolutionaries, everyone either in a band or making a fanzine or both, now there is the infusion and the corrosive influence of metal. Metal is eating anarchist punk from the inside out, shitting everywhere and on everyone as it goes, poisoning everything that it touches. You are in Swindon, once a small market town, then the hub of the national rail system, but by the time that you get there the railway works has gone, shut down in an orgy of monetarist restructuring, and it is now the fastest growing industrial town in western Europe. Companies have moved here from London, attracted by favourable business rates and other sweeteners, and it is becoming a mecca for both the yuppies and for transient workers from Scotland and the north of England, desperate for temporary employment, their own communities decimated and laid waste by that same monetarist restructuring. You do not want to work. This is why you need to make homebrew. You are waiting for the vegan revolution. You are waiting for anarchy. You have moved here from the most beautiful city on earth, you think for love, or perhaps because there are more anarchist vegans here than in your home town, but really you are just running.

You take a hefty swig from an unlabeled two litre plastic bottle of homebrewed lager to propel you into the day. The sediment moves around in the bottle mercilessly, the scum swimming to the top, and, catching the stench of rotting yeast through your nostrils, you swallow a dry heave. You put the bottle down, cough, you take another pull at the bottle, you put the bottle down. You put your face into your hands, knead at your eye sockets, take another pull at the bottle and you begin to come alive. You screw the cap back onto the bottle, pick up your glasses, squint at the lenses. You used to say to Green Hat Eddie that you could gauge how good a time you had had the night before by seeing how misted up and dirtied the lenses of your glasses are in the morning. By all accounts it must have been a pretty good night, the lenses are filthy and one of the arms is bent right back, but you can remember only small sections of the night before, and soon they will be gone too. There is a yelling from the bottom of the stairs, come on Frank, get your fucking shit together, it’s past ten o’clock. Come on you drunken fucker. It is Sarah, the love that you thought you had moved here for, one of the anarchist vegans. There is no need for you to dress because you have slept in your clothes. You get out from under the single filthy blanket, pull on your wellies, and you try to arrange your glasses about your head after first wiping the lenses on your dirty black T-shirt. The T-shirt is metallica, master of puppets, the sleeves roughly removed with a pair of jagged edged scissors, the kind used for cutting out the tags for Christmas presents from old cards from the year before. You shoplifted them from Superdrug. You don’t really like metallica, they are metal, but it was a cheap black T-shirt, one from a job lot that fell off the back of a lorry. You stand, look around for carrier bags, you find some and then you put four two litre bottles of the homebrew into them and you check for your keys, leave your room and go downstairs. You are all going to a squat gig in Wood Green, north London.

There is nobody downstairs but the front door is open, and so you go out onto the street, pulling the door shut behind you. Across the street next to the new community centre a group of people who dress just like you in the metallica T-shirts that fell off the back of a lorry are standing around a battered old Leyland Sherpa van, bought for £120 from the proceeds of anarchist punk benefit gigs for the hunt saboteurs, smoking roll ups. They are waiting for you, you have been making them late. They are, in no particular order, Steve and Sarah who live in the house with you, number 13 church street; Mark Dooley; Pete & Mary; Hop; Neil; Gogs; Graham. Only Gogs has a silly punk name. You can remember when almost everybody you knew had a silly punk name. Not Stan Bastardly or anything stagey like that, just names that had no relation to anyone’s given names. It was a break from the past, the end of history. Now Hop is only called Hop not because he dances the pogo very badly, which he does, but because his given name is Hopkins. Green Hat Eddie might have come but Green Hat Eddie is dead from methadone. Opiates were once frowned upon by your subgroup but even that is falling by the wayside now. You mutter helloes at one another and you all pile into the back of the van. Steve is the driver, and Mary gets to sit up front with him. Mary is something of a princess. You think that this is a class thing. She is from Shrivenham. Shrivenham has its own beagle hunt.

You leave Gorse Hill and head out through Ferndale and toward the M4. There is nothing happening in Gorse Hill. There never is. On Wednesday afternoons the shops are all shut for a half day, it’s like Wootton Bassett without the funerals. Soon you are past the new industrial estates, Readers Digest, Thorn EMI, metal box, and onto the motorway. Metal box used to make you laugh, you thought that it was an industrial estate that had been named after a punk rock album, but you found out that it was only the name of a company that manufactures paint tins. Now things are making you laugh less and less all the time.

Packages of roll ups are passed around and the chatter begins. The content of the chatter is not even worth mentioning. After the nicotine has woken you up a little bit, you pull out a bottle of homebrewed lager and you take three or four pulls in rapid succession, swallowing hard. You offer it around but there are few takers, they have all either heard about your homebrew or they have experienced it directly, briefly. Some of the others pull out tins of red stripe and breaker lager from their own carrier bags, one or two bottles of cider. You think about asking for some cider to mix with your homebrew and make snakebites but you know that you will be refused so you stick with what you know. The stench of your rotten yeasty brew fills the van and, turning his head, Steve calls out melodramatically from the drivers seat, oh for fucks sake Frank, not the homebrew, and he turns around and grins at you. Everybody laughs. Steve is a popular man, he saw Crass many times, he knows Chumbawamba and he is the one of only two people among you who knows how to drive. Mary admonishes him and tells him to watch the road.

Some time passes amid the chatter and then you are at Membury services and Steve announces that this will be your only stop before London, that you had better get any crisps and anything else that you want and make use of the facilities while you can. He adds that he doesn’t think there will be much in the way of facilities at the squat gig. Nobody but Steve is sure which part of London you are going to and Hop asks him where it is, this squat, and he tells everybody as he is carefully reversing into a parking space that it is an old dole office in Wood Green, which is in north London. You have never heard of Wood Green, this is many years before the ricin plot. Hop asks Steve whether Wood Green is anywhere near the Clarendon hotel and Steve tells him that no, that’s in Hammersmith, Hammersmith is in west London and the Clarendon hotel was never a squat anyway. As he finishes parking and turns the engine off he turns around, and he asks everyone if they would prefer that he find a car park in west London so that you can get onto the tube, or if he should try to find parking closer to the Wood Green dole house. The response is unanimous. Nobody wants the added expense of tube fares, which have gone through the roof since the demise of the GLC, and there is some chatter about the confusion of the tube system with all its different coloured lines. Gogs, who has spent some time in east London with the angry art house punk band the apostles, begins explaining where the different coloured tube lines go to, north south east west, the major connective hubs, and how it’s really quite simple once you get used to it, but the back doors of the van have opened and everybody is piling out toward the main concourse of the service station. Nobody is interested in coloured tube lines and the four cardinal directions, everybody needs to piss, and anyway there is also the matter that later, somebody will inevitably get lost down there. You are certain to get split up and London is a very big place. It’s fourteen miles across and nine miles deep you think that you once read somewhere, and you have no idea at what time the different coloured tube lines stop working for the night, or when they start up again in the morning, especially a Sunday morning, or at what time the squat gig might finish. So you pile out after them, still clutching your second bottle of homebrewed lager, and you follow them towards the main concourse of the motorway service station as you hear Steve calling after you, fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes and I’m gone, fifteen minutes and I’m leaving you all behind!

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Some oblique reference to the Bermuda triangle.

Four walls, I had once read somewhere. As long as you had four walls, you had a chance.

Somebody had been in here, although not recently. There was a threadbare sofa, onto the arm of which had been placed, neatly folded, a set of pyjamas. The adjacent cushion had a depression, as though one person had been sitting there for a long time. Further along, on another cushion, a newspaper. On the floor in front of the hearth, a pair of slippers and a whisky bottle. And in the hearth itself, a pyramid of distended firelighters, balled up paper, kindling. Suspended over the pyre by means of a purpose-built tripod, and depending from a short chain, a rusty old kettle. I stepped into the room in silence, the others close behind. Picked up the newspaper, waved it around in the air to shake off dust. Paddington gave a little cough, and then a sharp wheeze as Franklin elbowed him in the ribs to shut him up. I unfolded it, it was the Cambrian News. There was a photograph of a crashed military jet, half buried in a moon bog, alongside the headline, ‘HARRIER II DOWNED NEAR CAPTAIN’S HOUSE: MOD cites guidance systems mystery.’ The Captain’s house was a ruined farmhouse sitting atop a promontory, overlooking several lakes. It looked as though it dated back to the time of King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. There was a dirt road that ran around it, but no access point. When you drove past at night, the moon picked out the ruins and they shimmered and seemed to move around themselves, and you couldn’t stand to look at them. The local folklore stated that it was haunted, but by what or whom, nobody could say. The identity of the Captain was a mystery. There had been hippie traveller attempts to colonise the ruins, as though they were Mount Everest or K2, but all had failed to last a single night, and none of the returnees would speak of their experience.

I scanned the article. It didn’t say much, other than some oblique reference to the Bermuda triangle. I looked at the date: April 9th 1984. I put it down and moved toward the fireplace. Paddington and Franklin were close behind me. I picked up the whisky bottle and saw a price tag on the cap: co-op, £1:20. It was a full size bottle. I passed it back to Franklin and he put it into the pocket of his greatcoat, then I moved toward the stairs.

They creaked as we walked slowly up them, and at their summit lay a tiny landing leading off to two small bedrooms. The farmhouse had looked bigger from the outside and I began to wonder again about the Captain’s house, and rumours of hauntings. West Wales was a mystical place, full of shimmering ruins, moon bogs, déjà vu experiences that made sense one moment and not the next. The house was a modern-day Mary Celeste. Somebody had walked out of here one morning and never returned. While deserted buildings were not uncommon in Ceredigion, most of them were ruins. This was a whole new mystery in and of itself.

The smaller of the two rooms was a storage space for moribund tools: scythes, a lawnmower, a couple of brashing saws, a splitting maul, a rusted chainsaw. The chainsaw was the most modern thing there, but even that looked as though it dated back to the 1950s. The ceiling had come in, and pieces of rotten plaster and bits of plywood sat atop this mausoleum for agricultural hardware. There were pigeon corpses strewn hither and thither. The room stank of age and death. We all backed out in silence and went to investigate the other room.

It was bigger, but to gain access we had to all but smash through the door, warped and swollen with the rain. Once inside, I looked up and saw that the ceiling had come in here too, and yet there were no signs of wildlife nor the sounds of birdsong in the attic space above us. It was like Auschwitz. Inside the room was a huge iron bedframe next to another broken window, a single filthy rug on bare floorboards beneath our feet. On the bed a thin mattress, and piled on top of it any number of blankets and overcoats, towering almost to the rafters. There was a desk pushed up against the wall to our left, a candle in a bottle, and a battered old typewriter, a single mouldering sheet of A4 paper protruding from the platen.

Somebody had been attempting a memoir, only he hadn’t got far. I tried a couple of the keys and found that they had rusted together, ASDF coming up together in a clump, then HJKL too. I tried to pull the sheet out, but it had stuck fast. I leaned into it, trying to make out what he had written. There wasn’t that much of it, but it was legible. I wondered how this could be so after years of damp and foul weather.

“Chapter one, this being the late memorandums of Captain George E Custard, of the parish of Lledrod and the kingdom of Ceredigion, in the year of our lord AD1981. I came into this world one the eve of the world war, being at first still borne, and then somehow revived an hour later, a fact which hadst never been explained to mee. I had no brothers nor sisters, only a cousin who left for America when I was of but ten yeares. I was too young for the war, but my fathere was a mere youth when he conceived of me and he had to go. He did not return. When I was but thirteen, and having hearde of this tragedy in a communication from the king of England, my mother took a hot bucket od soapy water and a washrag, and she walked over to Lllagybi forest, some ten miles hence from this here place in which you now stand, and she did at first make herself naked, then she did wash herself, she did dress herself once more and then she took a sturdy horse-pulling rope which she had also brunged with her, and she did hang herself until very dead from a tree which is still some ten paces into that same forest, to the left of the old footpath and the kissing gate. After the funereals had ended, and after a decent interval of some mourning, I did wander myself back into that forest and I did see that place for my own self. Overcome then with a fresh assault of grievance, I did collapse at the foot of that tree and I did stay in such as that position for quite some time. But when I had rested, and when I had once more opened my eyes, I did see before me some berries, and remembering then that I had not partaken of sustenance for some many days, I did eat them, and then immediately I stood and I walked further into the forest. In almnost no time at all there was a sudden darkness which did overcome me, and I saw through a shimmering haze a door set into a doorframe and yet standing alone in the forest, and on the door were emblazered upon it many strange symbols, which I knew from the tales that my cousin, who was well-read, to be from the east of this world. Walking toward the door, which still shimmered madly, I…”

I jumped up suddenly then, startled by sounds from downstairs – there were animal noises, and a crashing of something being overturned, followed by an eerie silence. I turned and rushed past the others, out of the room and towards the stairs, then flew down them. But when I got down there nothing had changed. I looked around at the other two.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” said Franklin. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m starting to get the heeby-jeebies!”

We walked across the fields in silence, and when we were almost at the road we noticed a tractor coming towards us. We stood at the side of the path as it drew level with us. The farmer turned off his engine and leaned out of the cab.

“We were wondering whether you knew who owns that farmhouse,” Franklin said, pointing. “And if he’d be willing to rent it to us.”

“No I don’t,” he said. “And if I did, I wouldn’t be telling you.”

Then he turned the engine on and went back to ploughing the field, leaving us to choke on his fumes.

Back at Lledrod, in Paddington’s bender, we made soup. After it had gone down we started into the whisky. It tasted like it had been watered down but there was still three quarters of a bottle left. It was three days until our next giro, and we thought that we might have to steal some farm diesel to make it into Aberystwyth. We poured ourselves half a mug each and went outside to watch the sun set over Llangwyryfon.

“I need a new stove,” Franklin said.

“What’s wrong with the old one?” This was Paddington.

“It’s fucked. It’s leaking smoke and there’s something I can’t quite identify burning at the back of it. It’s fucking noxious man. I could die in my sleep.”

“We all could,” I said.

They both turned and looked at me. There was a silence.

“What was in that letter?” Franklin asked me.

“I didn’t have time to read much of it” I lied.

“But you read some of it. What did it say?”

“I’m not sure I want to talk about it.”

“That man…” Paddington said.

“What man?” Franklin asked. “The farmer? The farmer on the tractor?”

“No.” Paddington spat out some foreign body that had been lurking in his mug. “Whoever lived in the farmhouse. He must have walked out of there one morning and just never come back.”

“What was in the letter?” Franklin asked again.

“It was some kind of memoir. Something about the first world war. He hadn’t got very far with it.”

“Why didn’t you pull it out?”

“It was old. It had stuck to the platen with the damp.”

“To the what?” Paddington asked.

“To the platen,” Franklin said. “It’s the typewriter roll.”

“Oh.”

“So… ?” Franklin asked again.

“Do you remember a story that was going around Llangybi a while back? About a door in the forest, standing alone?”

“Vaguely. With Om symbols all over it?”

“I don’t think they were Om symbols. But yes, that’s the one.”

“And that’s what this… that’s what this memoir was about? The door in the forest, the one with the squiggles all over it?”

I looked at him.

“You never saw it yourself, Franklin?”

“No,” he said. “No I didn’t. It was Shuteye on a mushroom trip. That’s all.” But he grimaced as he said it.

“So what was in the letter? The memoir?” Paddington asked me. “The door with the squiggles on? Was the old man some kind of triphead?”

“He ate some berries but I don’t think that was it, “ I said. “Did you ever see it, Pad?”

“See what?”

“The door in the forest.”

“Nope, me neither” he said, looking down at his boots.

“Is that all there was?” Franklin asked.

“Mostly it was… his father died in the first world war. In the Somme, something like that. Then his mother hanged herself. After that he was alone.”

Franklin gave a shudder. Paddington laughed. It sounded forced. The sun was down now. We drained our cups and climbed back into the bender to get warm. In three days everything would be alright again, for a little while.