Friday, 28 December 2012

Weighed down with stones.

At my first school I could see the Westbury white horse from my desk. The school was in Southwick near Trowbridge, as our mother taught us to say when making us memorise our address in case we got lost. We moved to Bath in 1973, so this would have been ‘72. The only other thing I remember about the school was pissing myself in class on my first day, that there was an outside toilet without a roof I didn't want to go to. I suppose I could be wrong about being able to see the white horse from my desk, but at this remove, does it matter?

I am sitting in Westbury town centre, it is the late morning of a rainy weekday in the summer of 1985. With me is a man called Slag, a nickname he gained at his school because his surname is Hoare. We are eating from a cold tin of beans and a dry sliced white loaf with a teaspoon, making rudimentary sarnies, food that we have bought from a supermarket for a grand total of less than fifty pence. Along with a couple of hundred other punks and hippies we have spent the previous night up on the white horse. The hippies have been chased all around Wiltshire by the police, thrashed and threatened and thrown from site to site all through June, as they attempt to get to Stonehenge. This is the first year that the ban on the Stonehenge free festival has been rigorously enforced. It began with the battle of the beanfield earlier in the month, the police went berserk and there was a lot of bloodshed. The miners strike came to an official end in March, and Margaret Thatcher has declared the Peace Convoy to be the new enemy within. We are only delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippy convoys, she tells the press. The police, emboldened by astronomical pay rises and the free hand they were given during the great strike, know that they can now get away with anything. The BBC are on their side, as they were at Orgreave and Wapping. Their lies at Orgreave will not be exposed for at least another decade; for now they are still generally seen as impartial, and not what they really are: a propaganda mill that would put TASS to shame, the publicity wing of the conservative party. We are not hippies, we are punks, but really we are all of a piece. We have cadged a ride up to Westbury the night before in the back of Chris Spurrell’s little van; myself, Slag, Bully and Howie. We have been to see a punk band at Walcot village hall. They are the Icons of Filth from Cardiff.

Slag is from South Wales as well, from Briton Ferry, just outside of Swansea. Through mouthfuls of cold beans and dry white bread, he tells me it’s bollocks what people say, you don’t need money to have a good time. I don’t say anything. The previous evening has been a washout, literally and figuratively. There have been no bands – there were the usual rumours of amebix and antisect turning up – but even the promised generator didn’t materialise. Neither was there shelter. We slept in a ditch behind a tree and are both soaked through. Handing me the half finished tin of beans and rubbing tomato sauce into the folds of his crusty parka, sucking the rest of the bean juice from his grimy fingers, Slag wonders aloud where Bully has got to. He walked down across the fields and into the town with us but has since disappeared. I tell him I don’t know, he was with us when we passed the church, and I wonder aloud about Howie. Slag doesn’t seem to know who I’m talking about so I tell him Howie’s life story as best I know it.

I don’t know where Howie is from but he is a Bristol squatter, from the notorious demolition ballroom, an old car showroom that has been made empty along with many other properties in the area, in readiness for a new roundabout and one-way system. There is no electricity there, they have been stealing power by discreetly running cables from nearby lampposts. They also occupy an abandoned café next door, which they have christened the demolition diner. They have made it into a new café, the food all vegan, cooked at no charge, but donations appreciated. They have made up stickers to encourage donations, stickers that read dig deep for the diner!’ These are a pastiche of the ubiquitous NUM stickers that said, dig deep for the miners. Some of the new stickers are the old stickers, adapted with black marker pen. The café has its own power, the electricity not yet cut off, so the supply for the demolition ballroom is supplemented by the café as well. In the ballroom there is also no running water. The toilets are situated down a slimy set of stone steps. You go down them in complete darkness, although candle stubs have been left lying around here and there. Few people bother with the steps unless they are truly desperate, or have dysentery. You stand at the top of the steps and you piss down them, into the void. If you do not have dysentery before you go down the steps you will have it by the time you come back up. There is no door at the top of the steps – it has been removed for firewood and beside the doorspace somebody has helpfully painted an arrow and a trilingual sign: the bog, les bogs, el bogo. Once, made desperate by too much lager consumed in a pub about a mile away, I try to piss down the steps. It takes me a moment to get my flow going and my arc right. But as soon as I am in full flow, I hear a scream from below, then a crazed gurgling and rapid footsteps. I turn on my heel, still pissing, and I push people out of my way to make my escape into the street, trying to put my dick away as I go in order to avoid detection. A drunk punk, named appletree because of his green jumpsuit, spiky green hair and a fondness for scrumpy cider, has been sleeping it off at the bottom of the steps and I have woken him up. Pissing down the steps of el bogo is an acquired skill.

Howie is on the run from the army. He is rumoured to have seen action in the Falklands. Traumatised and shellshocked, he has signed up for a further five years but has changed his mind. He has gone AWOL and fetched up on the streets of Bristol, so his barracks are probably a long way away, possibly up north, although his accent is more London. Sleeping in the parks and the multi-storey car parks, he has discovered glue sniffing and has learned how to bark at people who get too close. He carries a hunting knife and still wears his army boots. He lives like this for about a year before he is rescued by the big-hearted animal rights people, who take him back to their squat, wean him off solvents and introduce him to lysergic acid and speed. Despite his near pathological hatred of hippies, his best friend is an acid casualty named furniture, an old man who wears a waist length beard threaded with multi coloured beads and who never speaks. Howie is now a vegan and an anarchist punk. The army are still looking for him, they leave no man behind. He has come with us to the Westbury white horse in search of drugs and free love, and now, like Bully, he has disappeared.

As I finish telling Slag all this, he shrugs his shoulders, still unable to place him. He says something about Taf from disorder owing him some money, a reference to the demolition diner, and then he wipes bean juice from his mouth with the sleeve of his parka and belches loudly. He gets up. I hurriedly finish off the beans and hand him back the teaspoon and the bread, telling him that he should keep it because he has further than me to go. I put out my hand and he helps me up. I tell him that I grew up around here, that I was born only eight miles away, in Bradford on Avon. He shrugs his shoulders again. We walk off toward the A4 in hungover silence, preparing to hitch-hike back to Bath and South Wales. Our boots and our clothes are sodden but, high above us, the sun is breaking through the clouds and the day is beginning to warm. In the next week, the local press will be full of stories and irate letters, because they believe that the punks and the hippies have defaced the white horse – that they, we, have dug up the turf around the horse’s head to give it a horn and make it a unicorn. It turns out that they have arranged an assortment of white bin liners and carrier bags, weighed down with stones, into a cone shape; that when they leave they will tidy up much of the mess they have made and take some of the magic away with them, away to the next site and the next battle. To the next patch of earth from which we have all sprung. This earth, our home.

© Ted Curtis 2012 & 2014.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

#makingasmalldentist

While she wasn’t the smallest person I had ever met, she was almost certainly the smallest dentist. Or professional in a white coat of any stripe. That would be good, if dentists, doctors, pharmacists, had to earn their rank and then wear stripes. And pips. The men who work in the hardware shops and builders merchants as well, with the brown coats. I know that’s not really the case these days, that the blokes – did you ever see a woman working in one? – generally wear mufti now, I’m thinking more of the era of the two Ronnies and their celebrated fork handles sketch. You know what I mean.

But getting back to my point, this dentist, the smallest dentist I had ever seen, probably a Lance Corporal to look at her steely blue eyes, couldn’t have been more than 4’10”. If that. I had booked a long overdue appointment to have my remaining two wisdom teeth out. I was wary of the procedure and I thought about bottling it and staying in bed on a Saturday morning, but there was a deposit paid because they have to have someone come in from the outside to do that kind of work. Hence the irregular dentist. The small irregular dentist.

The anaesthetist was the usual one though, I recognised her from the year before and the double crown replacement. A messy business. The gas didn’t quite take and I was spitting blood and yellowed ivory and charging around the room like a rogue elephant, my shirt off and blindfolded with a bandana for reasons I cannot quite recall. Screaming and blubbering through relaxed lips and hanging mandible about my mother, Frank Worthington and Baba Yaga. The gas had relaxed my face but not my brain. A large security man from Tenby had come in and slapped me around a bit to calm me down, then they had knocked me out with ketamine and charged me half price.

The small irregular dentist couldn’t quite reach into my mouth, even with the operating couch right down and me completely horizontal. She had to stand on an orange box. As she prodded around in my mouth with speculum and mirror, trying to get a look at the offending tusks, I tried to tell her the joke about the dentist who goes into Stringfellows and orders a lime soda but she’d already heard it. I followed up with the how-many-dentists-does-it-take-to-change-a-lightbulb one and she groaned audibly. I was starting to like her. There was no pain yet and this was far more response than you usually get for dentist jokes. So I started telling her the true story about the uncle I had never met, the uncle who had died in the battle of Britain, Andrew Howes, shot down and killed by the Luftwaffe over Pewsey on April fools day 1944. They interred what they could find of his remains in Haycombe cemetery.

When Bristol zoo had been closed for the duration of hostilities in 1942, there had been an appeal, and he had adopted a penguin. He built a refrigerated shed for it, powered by the mulch gas from his allotment in Whiteway. It consisted of a tin bath and a lot of ice and frozen fish. Two shelves of books, all the penguin classics. Every afternoon he would take it for a walk through Englishcombe village. When he didn’t come home the penguin was returned to the zoological authority by my grandmother. But every day on his birthday, July 9th, the penguin broke out of the zoo and went to stand next to his grave from dawn until sunset. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. And its descendants still do this today. They bring flowers from the 24 hour garage on the Bristol road.

When I came around from the anaesthetic my tusks had gone and the small irregular dentist was dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a small paper tissue. Was it true she asked me, was it true about your uncle Andy in the war? Was it true she sniffled, was it true about your uncle Andy’s penguin and all of its descendants?

And that’s how I made a small dentist cry.

©Ted Curtis 2012.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

morning

when the end comes
as it surely will
you imagine yourself spending your last
few hundred pounds

on a small van
and driving toward
the Severn bridge
before the Welsh close it off to us
and swathe it in razor wire.

the back of the van filled with:
a small mattress
an arctic sleeping bag
sacks of lentils and potatoes
a small box of books
and some of that good orange juice
that only LIDL sell

you head first to Wiltshire
say a couple of goodbyes
give your copy of Jerusalem
to Paddington

then maybe think twice
about driving through Bristol
the traffic wardens are armed now

you head up through south Cerney
to the forest of Dean
that great wooded hill
where Rosemary West
still roams free

around Monmouth
Brecon
bypassing all towns
now fortified
guarded
24-7

and running out of fuel
three quarters of the way
across the Abergwesyn pass:
you lay down to sleep
awaken at dawn
then walk the hard road
through the morning fog

coming through the mist
a man in a poncho
stained with blood and oil

no arms and a poodle
attached to his waist
with baler twine

you nod
he nods back
not long now, he says

you walk on

Thursday, 21 June 2012

For Ron, Danny Dyer's twin.

I got the call up in 2005
between jobs, between worlds, between wars
neither dead nor living
I’d been a mechanic for the RAF twice
which made me a reservist
which made it time to start giving.

not wanting to live all that badly, true
yet not wanting to die on another’s terms
not for the whims of a medieval monarch
or the corporations
I chose gin
vodka
Caribbean rum
the crack house
thought I’d mull it over.

coming round, noticing that the month had changed
the season too, those leaves now orange and earthbound
then plodding the hill to mother’s like a prodigal foetus;
have you noticed there’s always a hill?
and that it only ever faces the same way?
but finding only boards
on the windows and doors
I left.

on the way to the curfew I was grabbed by my kin
screaming she’s gone now you fucker, where the shit have you been?
we went inside, had a drink or four
he told me about the bathroom
the blood on the floor
the note on the door
“I can’t live in a world without my son”
our Stevie, adopted
which only left one.

I’d missed the cremation, inherited two large
walked down side of the M23
found a barge
at Southampton
that was joining a ship at Plymouth sound
which was bound
for Rio
they needed muscle
I was on
I was in.

I worked 72 hours straight, then couldn’t sleep
at all.
only just out of Europe
into the deep
briny blue.
then
finding the hold
in an insomniac, overcaffeinated haze
and finding these animals there
or so it seemed
for they dressed in skins
their only interest being
a recycled square of tin foil
blackened
like the hope of all times.

and the next thing I knew:
that beach that went on forever, the sky so blue
and sleeping there, shivering
and still quivering
four days later
in the bus station
waiting to go
to Pedra do Bau

off the bus three days, I met Ron
he found me in my room
asked me if I had ever know true peace.
I was nonplussed
he was an absolute deadringer for Danny Dyer, you see
yet his accent
was full on RP
he told about living in the moment
told me about being fishers of men
I was hungry

he showed me a neat trick I’d learnt in boot camp, but forgot:
that simply by sitting there on the spot
for 20 minutes or more
you could end the war
in your head
forget yourself
then he said:
“our whole family comes from this”
then he gave me a kiss
told me, “pass it on son”

for six months, six weeks and six days
we carried on in this vein
negotiating pain
hunger
and disease
with ease

there were almost 144 disciples now
Ron seemed like he was expecting something
to come to pass
soon;
then,
by the light of the moon
on the mountain top
as we cracked open our third bottle of scotch
he slurred
every third
word
and told me of the mass suicide
we’d all be embarking on
in three days
at 19:21
the year of his grandfather’s birth
in Mile End
(he had lapsed into cockney by then)
he sang ‘boiled beef and carrots’
‘roll out the barrel’
‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’
and I sensed trouble

I waited for him to
pass out
pulled a blanket over him
considered closing his account
but no
I thought what must be must be
slid down the scree
threw some crackers and Tartex
into my pack
and like that
again
I was gone.

Really quite perfect for a farewell soiree.

One afternoon we all marched across Regents Circus to a wine bar between two amusement arcades. I had never seen the inside of a wine bar before but there we were, and just for today I could hold court in a comfortable bodega corner in a meaningless English small town, bullshitting away to my heart’s content and outlining these fantasies as reality, not thinking for a minute that anyone could possibly disbelieve my sincerity or my capabilities just so long as I kept on talking. A wine bar, it turned out, was really quite perfect for a farewell soiree. The booze was flowing freely, and when I looked at my watch I saw that it was almost a quarter to five. I made to stand up but my legs were not in agreement with my brain and after three attempts to lever myself upright I took a break from my exertions.

I couldn’t stand up straight but I could feel my bowels beginning to move around themselves like a nest of vipers. I attempted to use my elbows to force myself into a standing position. I was almost halfway there when I heard a guttural wail coming up at me from beneath the floorboards, and as I looked around I noticed that all of the eyes of the amateur imbibers were on me and me only. Why were they all staring at me? I began to open my mouth to set them straight, but when I started to do so I immediately noticed that my mouth was already hanging open and leaking drool, and that I was crying profusely. Instinctively, I flung my left arm around Penfold’s shoulders and leant into him. I managed to croak into his ear, “the bogs, the bogs”. He seemed to understand what I was getting at because he was kicking some recently vacated bar stools aside, whilst Tracey dragged a fashionable coffee table from our path, and then we were halfway across the bar floor and toward the stairs that led to the chromium plated lavatories below us. By the time that we got there I had acquired Ian Leighton on my other side, muttering words of comfort along the lines of “Tedski man, don’t panic, don’t panic, code red is over Tedski, we’ve got ya, we’ve gotcha man”. I remember treading air above the stairs themselves just before a greeny-orange mist descended, and then all of the darkness was with me. Somebody must have put something in my drink.

When I came to everything was still spinning slightly and I was on my side, foetal position engaged, on the floor of one of the restroom cubicles: I was half in and half out of it, so to speak, and Lynne was leaning over me. My combat trousers were around my ankles, my pants had disappeared and she was mopping at my rectum with a wad of soggy paper, cradling my forehead in her bosom. As she ran her fingers through my greasy hair I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra. She sniffed, cleared her throat, and tossed the slimy wad of used bogroll into the pan. Plop! Then she leaned across me to flush the toilet and gather another handful of paper, which she immediately dipped into the bog and began wiping around my anus afresh. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but it’s a really loving thing to do. I felt like a cross between a patient on a cancer ward and a newborn baby, totally helpless, but completely held and cared for, and it wasn’t something that I had ever felt before. She sniffed again and I managed to open my eyes enough to notice that she had been crying. My eyes stung and my throat was dry and sore, and the space behind my forehead was banging. I tried to say something but I found that I couldn’t, and Lynne immediately put her finger to her lips to quiet me up, and then she began to whisper something instead.

“Don’t say anything, Ted” she told me. “Just lie there, please, just try to just be for a moment. I’m so glad that you’re back, I had this idea that you were gone forever. You were ranting and raving and threatening, you were marching up and down, kicking in the doors and shouting, banging your head against the walls, and I thought that the manager was going to come down with his heavies and throw us all out properly. Then you just sort of collapsed. It took me ages to get your trousers cleaned up. I managed to kind of towel-dry them with lots of loo roll. Your pants were finished though, they had to go.” She made a hand gesture that must have been the international sign language for somebody pulling a toilet flush, whilst pinching her nose shut with her other hand and smiling. I liked that.

Again I tried to speak but my lips felt cracked, as though I had been walking through the desert for a week. Lynne put her finger to her lips again and went on.

“It was like an incident of demonic possession. One moment you were raving, really spewing bile and poison and speaking in tongues, and your eyes were completely blank and rolling back up into your head like one of those stupid toy dolls.” I didn’t know what she was talking about now but I let her go on, because I knew that she would make sense again eventually; because she always did, I thought to myself in my new dreamy hyper-reality. Everything was extremely calm and quiet in there and even my headache was beginning to fade.

“Do you think that you could manage to stand?” she asked as I zoned back into the moment. The walls breathed in and out for a second and I shook my head rapidly from side to side. My brain rattled about in its pod, clackety-clack, and then I was OK. “Well, I can try” I told her. I rolled slowly over onto my ass and hunched myself forward, reached for my breeks, slid their dampness up over my knees. My stomach cramped slightly and it made a little noise and Lynne caught my eye, smiled, beautifully concerned, and then it was gone and I was up on my heels and fastening the buttons. As she edged out of the cubicle I grabbed a hold of her hand and I squeezed it and she squeezed back. Then we made our way through the dull metal and porcelain of the empty space of the washroom, back toward the staircase.

When we got to the top of the stairs and into the bar there was sound again and then a sudden hush, like in that film about the werewolf, and the bar manager came out from behind his bar and he folded his arms and he stared at us. I looked past him and at the staff, three of them standing close to the till in their uniform turquoise polo shirts like slightly out of condition personal trainers from a downmarket gym, and they were frozen in the moment, two of them clutching a handful of change, and it was pretty clear that it was time for us to leave. Then he said into the silence, “just get out, all of you, and never come back here. You’re disgusting, you’re animals and you’re all barred!” I actually physically flinched at that. He was obviously playing to the galley, and speaking in a mockney accent that was before its time, although cardboard cockneys were ten a penny in Swindon all the time that I lived there. But that was Swindon in a nutshell. A small place where mediocrities could act out their impotent power fantasies, a cattle market town for hill-dwelling smock-wearing pig fuckers. I took a step toward him but Lynne gave my chest a gentle shove and I realised that I was done. Done for the night, and done with this whole damned place.

I slept better that night than I had for quite a while; partly it was the early night, and the cool air on the short walk home, but mostly it was the pure loving kindness that Lynne had shown me in that deserted subterranean bathroom – a pub toilet – while she cleaned me up and whispered soothing things into my sleeping ears and didn’t care what would happen had somebody walked in on us. When I woke the sun was streaming into the room around the tattered edges of the dirty pink blanket draped across the window, and it was 8:15 and a beautiful day. I didn’t feel sick and I didn’t have to go to work either. I crawled from under the sticky sheets and I made my way down the stairs through the languid flies for the instant coffee.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The cab driver has no change and I will have nothing to give to the soldiers as I walk through. I’ve been through military checkpoints before, but never alone at 3am on xmas eve. I don’t begrudge him the extra, these people have nothing, their children are shot for walking to school and their grandparents cut down picking olives from their orchards at dawn. It’s not the money, it’s the fear manifesting itself as petty rage. I haven’t learned all about my rage yet, that comes later. But I manage to suppress it and I leave the cab and begin walking.

It’s a large one; broad, deserted like a Tesco car park at this hour on a Monday morning. I am carrying two bags, a holdall in my left hand and a daypack worn back to front, across my chest like a papoose so that I can quickly get to my documents. Tucked inside it is a cassette Walkman with the headphone wires stretching out to the buds in my ears, where Johnny Cash is telling me that he saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth. I see the two conscripts moving quickly toward me through the light mist, their rifles trained on me at shoulder height, yelling something in warp speed Hebrew. It sounds like German gone bad, with all of its aggression and some consumptive throat-clearing thrown in.

I stop immediately, conscious of how I look, I put down the holdall, stretch out my arms to the sides. I call out ‘Anglit’ as loudly as I think is sensible without actually screaming. As they get closer and see that I am white, their bodies relax and they lower their rifles. I pull the buds out of my ears.

“You are English?” the one on the left asks. He is grinning inanely. He seems stupefied. “God bless the English. God bless Balfour, who gave us this land! I see it all now!”

My eyes roll right to his partner. ‘Acid,’ he whispers to me. ‘Strong acid.’

I look back at conscript A. There are tears in his eyes. “God bless you, man!” he says. “And merry xmas!”

He pulls my face in and kisses me full on the lips. The kiss lasts for two or three seconds and our teeth clash but there are no tongues. Finally he breaks, puts his hand between my shoulder blades and points out the checkpoint exit to me. He gives me a gentle shove. “England,” he sniffles.

From the trailing buds, Johnny has moved on. You can run on for a long time, he says now, but sooner or later god’ll cut you down.