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.”


“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.

Monday, 8 April 2013

slummin' in Swinetown with Scootskin

There were five of us: Scootskin, Austin, 'Nam, Andy and me, Frank Smith from Huddersfield. We all slept in about two rooms of an old ruined house on Fort William Avenue, Swinetown. We inhabited that district of existence where the line between life and death is very finely drawn and forever shifting, where people become simultaneously both a little more and a little less than desperate. We were just desperate. Desperate and, occasionally, desperately happy, although you might not have believed this from appearances. And we did not want to die; we didn't want to live all that badly either, but we did not want to die.

We had come across the house through a broken window out the back; Scootskin was about the right size and shape and therefore up for it, and he performed his task with all the ease and finesse of a circus tumbler. I think he must have been the veteran of at least a couple of burglaries and for a person of his dubious habits he was in pretty good shape: bulges in all the right places and lean as a bean. Then we bodged the electricity on with a screwed-up old beer can, and away we went: in our company, even the old beer cans were screwed-up. Scootskin lived in the cupboard under the stairs, like the bogeyman or something from a kids' pop-up storybook. He owned a shelf, a candle, a machete and one foul stinking blanket, enough to cover both his modesty and his needs. The rest of us did what we could.

Some evenings we would go panhandling outside the Burger King on Regent Street. This is something that I have not done too often, and it is an acquired skill: that is to say, it is a skill acquired through drink. You cannot do it sober, which only gives the passers-by the excuse they feel they need to say:
“Oh, you'll only spend it on a bottle!”
Well, I never said no.

But many people have feeling and the little dog who was my companion at the time helped me to draw it out of them, sitting there and wagging her tail more earnestly than I ever could. And after the drop:
“Gawd bless yer, guvnor/lady!”
Real Dickensian street-urchin stuff.

Eventually we would make enough for, say, a 12-pack of Special Brew and some food and then we would make off for home at around 9 or 10pm. I was only surprised that the Burger King manager didn't call the cops on us more often. I don't know, it seemed a very decent time. I can't say that we were comfortably off, or unremittingly and relentlessly ecstatic or anything; but we seemed to have attained this air of almost-contentment - it was almost as if we knew something, and this seemed to me to be a state of enlightenment that precious few people ever managed to attain. Occasionally, very occasionally, some fool would stroll up and offer us all jobs. I didn't want a job. I didn't want to do anything other than sit around and wait on something. I felt as though something were about to happen. I had no way of knowing just exactly what it was, but I felt that I ought to be ready for whatever it was when it arrived, so I just sat there waiting for I don't know what, anticipating the unknown. I just wanted to sit and drink wine and talk and laugh, if possible. And when we got home we would do just that, and argue, and sniff glue and gas, and pass out in various uncompromising shapes and positions. What we had, we shared, and this among other things put us outside of the big society thing and we weren't sorry at all; and of course, we shared our madness too.

One evening I was walking down toward the west end of Fort William avenue in a stricken and deranged state, not knowing whether or not to carry on, my stomach in turmoil over a woman and dying for a drink. It happened. All of a sudden I came across Scootskin and Andy; they had been hanging around outside chip shops all evening, standing next to the bins and whistling into the air with their hands in their pockets - if they had pockets - looking for cold chips and bits of battered fish.

“Any good, boys?” I asked them. “Nah man, fucking useless!” Scootskin told me. “We're fucking starving!” “Never mind, here's a drink, let's go home and sleep,” I said, tapping the tops of the cans in my carrier bag.

We strolled on in and passed the cans and some dog-end roll-ups around for a while, nattering and giggling away, making drunken grandiose plans that would invariably come to nothing. The less you believed in life the less you had to lose. I didn't have much to lose, me and my stricken and deranged stomach.

'Nam had been out making a little too. She had this flageolet which she called her 'penny whistle', and she would adopt the lotus position on the corner outside Halfords and wait for the spare change to come falling into her lap. She wasn't anything much out of the ordinary but she had a handsome vigour and flair and you either loved it or you hated, so of course some people loved it and I suppose a few people even took pity on her. Most of us had these paltry little schemes for getting by. There wasn't much else that we could do.

The chatter and banter began to run out with the beer, and the resolved sighs and yawns replaced it all and Scootskin made for his cupboard beneath the stairs, about two feet to my left. About ten minutes had passed when I noticed another tin of Special Brew that I had apparently forgotten: I opened the thing with its characteristic click and after-hiss. Then, just to my side, there was a noise like a large bookcase collapsing in a reference library, or perhaps the urban freeway coming in on itself during the Los Angeles earthquake. I had involuntarily triggered Scootskin's inbuilt alarm system. We all collapsed into fits of giggles that lasted for some time. These were our joys, small and tiny things that were bigger and greater than the whole damned world.

Scootskin had done a deal with a few of the crowd that he had used to run with; they were in the business of burgling off-licenses, and the deal was minimal amounts of pot for large bottles of Rum, Gin and Whisky. This led to much dancing around our communal room at lunchtime, mostly to the sounds of Fugazi, Santana, Jimi Hendrix and, incredibly, the theme tune from 'Neighbours' on the TV. It was around this time, November 1990, that Margaret Thatcher was driven from power with a wet tea towel, or something. We decided that an extra party was in order. It was organised along the lines of Special Brew, Captain Morgan's Navy Rum, the Ozric Tentacles and 'Home & Away'. Scootskin became annoyed that not enough people were joining in with the festivities. He threw open the front door.

“What's wrong with you people?” he screamed into the street. “It's a PAAAARTEEEEY!!!!”

Then he went and flounced down on the sofa in front of the TV, folded his arms, adopted a despotic expression about his face and waited for the masses to come streaming through the doorway. When after a full ten minutes this still hadn't happened, he decided that he must take matters into his own hands: if the people wouldn't come to the party then the party must go to the people! He lurched his way, head down like a prize fighter, into the street.

I was just beginning to get interested in 'A Country Practice' when there came the blaring of a car horn and not a little shouting from outside. It appeared that Scootskin, in his enthusiastic zeal that maybe people ought to enjoy themselves a little more, had leapt into the middle of the road waving his arms over his head and flagged down the first motorist who happened along. He threw himself across the car's bonnet and windscreen.

“IT'S A PAAARTEY!” he told the car's occupant. “COME ON IN AND HAVE SOME BEEER!”

He was waving a half-emptied bottle of Captain Morgan's about his head. The motorist concerned was clearly not amused: he probably had a plane to catch, a train to rob, or something similarly dull. In order to avoid an altercation, Austin and myself were forced to haul Scootskin bodily into the house, apologising to the by-now giggling motorist as we went. Then he and his Austin Allegro were gone too.

The party went on…

Thursday, 4 April 2013

the gatekeepers of the afterlife.

I am the householder, I am the owner of this shelter. There was a previous resident but she is gone now. I buried her in the forest and it fair took it out of me. She was only ten years old. I didn’t want to kill her but in the end, one of us had to go. She seemed to be alright at first, very wise for her tender years, practical even, but she couldn’t keep the place clean and she spent a lot of time outside. She was drawing attention to us and I couldn’t take that risk. So one of us had to go, and it wasn’t going to be me.

My father was an eminent psychiatrist. You won’t have heard of him, but he was very well respected in his field, and he was away at conferences a lot. He also liked to play the stock market, and he was a drinker. So I mostly grew up with my mother and an au pair, but when I was ten my mother developed cancer. The end came pretty quickly. I mean really quickly, about six weeks. My father came home to make arrangements – he had a friend in Harley street, he sent her there, but it was apparent from the get go that she didn’t have long. He hired a nurse to care for her at home and then he was off again, but not before he had arranged to have me sent to a preparatory school on the Yorkshire moors. Deepvale. I was there for two years. I came home when I was informed that mother had days left. She hung on for a week and I watched her die. My father came to the funeral, said a few words, and then he was off again.

I finished at Deepvale. I didn’t have much a time there. My father wanted me to go to Eton but I failed the entrance examination. I don’t think that he could have afforded the fees anyway. He had lost rather a lot of money when the dot com bubble burst. And despite his connections at Harley street, he didn’t really know the right people. So instead, I was sent to Abbotsholme in Staffordshire. He looked at a list of minor public schools and he picked the most expensive. When school was out for the summer I used to stay with him and his new wife, a former mistress, in Genoa. He knew how to get the ladies, with his in depth knowledge of the mind. For Christmas we went to Chile. The lake district. Lots of fish. It’s summer at Christmas in Chile. The southern hemisphere, you see. I don’t know how he afforded it. He had almost given up his profession by then, he was seventy. I think that his new wife must have inherited something.

Back at school, I kept my head down, and I did very well. My father decided that I should study medicine, like him. So, after my A levels, I went to UCL. I continued to work hard. I got a double first and my father threw a party for me in Italy, but I didn’t make it because of the volcano going off in Iceland. Eyjafjallajökull. I used to think that I knew how to pronounce that but a Finn in a bar on the Tottenham Court Road told me that I was wrong and there was a fight. I lost the fight. That’s when the headaches began. After the Icelandic volcano and the party that never was my father didn’t speak to me for some time, but he kept paying my school fees and some maintenance. Then, after eleven months, he sent me a brief email asking how I was doing, and advising me to keep in touch.

Partly to spite him, I chose surgery for my speciality over psychiatry. I had seen in him how easy it was to manipulate people with a bit of in depth knowledge of the mind, and I didn’t want to be like that. I attended Imperial College for a four year MBBS programme, After a couple of years there was an invitation to Genoa for Christmas. My father wasn’t working, he wasn’t getting along with his new wife, there was talk of the affairs with younger women starting up again. They had separate rooms. He was drunk the whole time and there was an argument on Christmas night over my refusal to take up psychiatry. He had this idea that surgery would soon be done by robots and computers, and he was screaming at me that the future lay inside of people’s heads. He told me that he didn’t really want me in his house and that there was a shed about a mile way, in the grounds. He said that I could sleep there until I could arrange to get away. There were spiders. I didn’t know whether spiders in Italy were venomous, and I didn’t want to find out. I didn’t sleep much. I flew back Boxing day. I never saw him again.

I knuckled down, determined to confound my father and become a top surgeon and beat the robots and the computers at their own game. After the third year I was moved to a training position in Hackney. The Homerton. They had quite a big mental health unit there, it didn’t seem ironic. After six months the shit hit the fan. Whole groups of species were disappearing at an alarming rate. The welfare state was gone by then and the workload was incredible. Most of the hospitals were closing and I don’t know how we hung on for as long as we did. There were rumours that pop stars who lived abroad were keeping it afloat. Little by little the staff stopped coming in and we were reduced to a skeleton crew, I think that there were about ten of us left in the end. People sleeping and screaming and dying in the hallways, I was doing most of the scrubbing and cleaning all by myself, living there, sleeping in the chief psychiatrist’s residence – the mental health unit was deserted. I began to carry scalpels about my person at all times. My father’s vision of all surgery being done by robots and computers hadn’t come to pass. When it seemed as though I were the only one left, one morning after a night attempting to keep the one operating theatre left clean, administering fatal does of diamorphine to dying men, women and children, I telephoned out for a pizza, I went out into the hospital car park to meet the delivery boy. I waited for him to remove his crash helmet and then I went for him with a scalpel. I knew just where to cut and it was soon over for him. I took the pizza and the moped, some drugs and a change of clothes, and I headed out along Homerton high street and down Marsh Hill. I easily found the river Lee and I headed north. I kept on going until I ran out of fuel somewhere in Hertfordshire. I pushed the moped into a ditch and climbed over a fence onto a railway embankment. I looked across fields and I saw an old farmhouse in the near distance, with a thin column of smoke rising toward the sky, just to the side of it it. I crossed the railway tracks and I began to move toward the farmhouse.

It took me nearly an hour to get there and when I arrived my progress had been observed, and there were three or four people out by the gate to meet me. I didn’t much like the look of them but they looked a darn site better than most of the people at the hospital had done. They were very friendly and they invited me in and fed me. As we ate they got a little of my story out of me. When we had finished they told me that I must be tired and I agreed that I was, and then they showed me to an upstairs room where I could sleep. I did worry a little about rats, out there in the country, but I slept for about fourteen hours and then it was dawn and a new day.

They put me to work in the grounds, digging and tending vegetables, and at lunch we talked some more. I asked them what their plans for the place were and they didn’t seem to have any. Now that I had had a full nights sleep I could see that they weren’t keeping the place very clean. I didn’t say anything at first. I was just glad to be away from the city. It turned out that there were six of them in all, plus a baby. It didn’t seem to cry much and they asked me to look it over, and I had to explain to them that I was a trainee surgeon and not a pediatrician. They didn’t seem to be satisfied with my answer and they told me that I must know something about infants from my general training and I had to tell them again that no, I really didn’t. I told them that I could excise a diseased appendix but not even change a nappy, and that surely the mother must know more than me. They didn’t like that much either and I sensed that lunch was over and I went back out to work.

Things continued in this vein for about a week, working, eating, sleeping. I was becoming more and more conscious of their lack of even a basic level of hygiene. Pots and pans and plates were left unscrubbed in the sink for days, there was a kind of an impromptu washing line strung across the kitchen, drying smalls and half cleaned nappies that were supposed to be disposable and they never seemed to bathe. Work surfaces were covered with vegetable peelings and breadcrumbs, over which hung the dripping washing line. There was access to reasonably clean water from the river Lee, but when I spent an exhausting three hours ferrying jerry cans of it back to the farmhouse, one of them actually asked me why I had bothered, saying that there was more important work to do in the grounds. For essential water they had a few plastic dustbins scattered around the outside of the house, and they seemed to be praying for rain. They had a preoccupation with food, which of course I can understand, but you still have to have standards. Finally, flummoxed and exhausted, I flew into a rage. This brought most of the others into the kitchen. I told them that it was impossible to live like this and survive for very long, that while they seemed to have their act together regarding cooking and the growing of vegetables, sooner or later if they didn’t start cleaning their floors and their work surfaces properly, everybody was going to get ill and there could be deaths. I raised the matter of their living exclusively off vegetables – I said that they should have some kind of a roster organised for the hunting of small mammals, that I knew that they had hurricane lamps and a ready supply of paraffin, and that they could easily go lamping for rabbits during the hours of darkness. They seemed to have some kind of a moral objection to this - they just stood there, on the other side of the dining table, stunned and gawping at me. Then I made a mistake. I told them that the baby would probably be the first to die, and that it was probably down to their lack of hygiene that it was ill in the first place. Then I said that it was frankly uncivilised that a baby of six or seven months didn’t even have a name yet. I told them again that you have to have standards.

The one who had been in the kitchen when I had come in from my work, before the others had arrived in the kitchen in response to our shouting, this Bob came around the table at me, slowly, bringing his filthy dreadlocks with him. Half of them had these dreadlocks, and half of them had shaved heads. There seemed to be nothing in between. And then, I don’t know what made me do it, it seemed to come out of nowhere, I lifted my finger and I pointed at him and I said one word to him. Lice, I said, and his eyes lit up. He began to growl and then he came at me properly, quickly, and he punched me.

It wasn’t much of a blow, it didn’t even draw any blood, but it surprised me and I fell over backward, onto the floor. Immediately he was on top of me, flailing away with both arms, slapping at my face, and I pushed myself across the dirty floor, using my ankles to propel me, and I soon found myself pinned against the base of the kitchen sink. It juddered and some potato peelings fell down onto my head but he kept flailing away, he kept slapping at my face like a girl, and I raised my haunches slightly up into the air and I reached into my back pocket for my scalpel in order to defend myself. There was nothing at all sinister about my having it on me, there was no premeditation in this, I had been using it to cut twine outside while I had been working on the runner beans. At first I was just going to show it to him, to show that I meant business; but he was on top of me by now, and still flailing away. So it was then that I lost my temper with him again, but this time in a very cold and calculating way. I don’t know how it happened. It seems strange to characterise it as even a loss of temper, but there was a definite change in me, a sudden roaring silence, and I thrust the scalpel into his carotid artery at the base of his neck, I gave it a little twist and I pulled it out again, thrusting downward as I did so.

The effect was immediate. He stopped in his girlish flailings and I instinctively felt the space open between us. I curled myself up into a ball and I rolled away from under him in order to avoid the spray of blood. I stood up, and as I looked down at him I saw that he was now on all fours, clutching at his wounded neck and making animal gurgling sounds as he bled out. The others had been silent and staring all through the course of events. Now, of the remaining five, one of them – Jane, a girl with a shaved head – began screaming. It was loud and piercing and it just wouldn’t stop, and I felt as if the windows would shatter spontaneously at any moment. Then, the mother of the baby – Mary, also wearing dreadlocks – ran out of the room and upstairs. Two of the others looked around at the space she had vacated, then they looked at each other briefly, and they were off too, out into the yard and down towards the barn. That left only bald headed Jane the screamer, Derek with the dreadlocks, and me. Bob had stopped moving. He was clearly dead. Nobody dared look at him.

Still screaming, Jane picked up a chair and she threw it at me. I moved to my right and it sailed past me and broke the kitchen window just above the sink and it came to rest there, half in and half out of the house. Next Derek came at me with another chair, pushing me back into a corner, having at me with it like a lion tamer. Somehow I managed to climb up onto the kitchen table and then he was up there too, it would have been comedic were it not so intense, like something from a Marx brothers film; but in doing so he managed to let go of the chair and it went clattering onto the floor and Jane began screaming again. Now we danced around each other atop the table as best we could, carefully at first but then becoming more confident – it was a big table, wide as well as long, and we managed it quite nicely for a while but he had nothing to fight me with and I had the scalpel. He put up his fists into an antiquated boxing stance – I was half expecting him to call out “Queensberry rules!” - and he moved toward me and then away again, but he had left one his wrists exposed and I went for it in a downward stabbing motion, managing to cut into it; I twisted it out again and he began to bleed profusely as Jane ratcheted up the volume of her shrieking. He looked at me accusingly, and he stared at the wound as he grabbed it in a vain attempt to staunch the flow, and he put his head back and he howled. I saw my chance and my scalpel arm described a wide arc in the air as I went for his exposed throat. I got it in one sweeping thrust and the blood poured out of him as he fell off the kitchen table and onto the floor. Knowing that he was finished, I jumped down towards Jane and pushed her up against the wall with my free arm. She cranked up the screaming again and I stabbed her three times in her left eye and she collapsed. I got down on top of her and I methodically cut her throat.

When it was done I went to the kitchen window, pushed the chair the rest of the way through it, and stuck my head out. I could neither see nor hear any evidence of the others. I didn’t want to go upstairs because Mary was up there with the baby, and she had possibly had the chance to locate something to brain me with, and so I went quickly outside and ran across the fields towards the river Lee.

I was badly shaken and I hadn’t had time to bring any supplies with me, but I wanted to put as much distance between myself and the farmhouse as quickly as possible, so I ran for as long as I could bear it, and then I just kept walking. I walked for two or three days, running whenever I was able, but I could feel my body weakening and I needed food and water and a bed. I sat down in the middle of nowhere on a log that was next to a tree. It was nearly dusk and it had been a hot day, the first sunshine that I had seen since the previous autumn. I looked around myself, drifting in and out of consciousness, and when the girl came up and out of the trap door in the ground I thought that I must have been dreaming. I was laying down in the shade of the log by now and she didn’t see me at first. She had a cat in her arms and she was managing to take down washing from a line I hadn’t noticed before. I sat up and cleared my throat and she turned around with a start, dropping her washing and the cat. Oh, she said, you’ve frightened Derek. I must have looked at her strangely then, and she backed up a couple of steps and asked me who I was, and I told her my name. I asked if she knew of anywhere close by where I could get some water, and she told me that there was a stream that ran through a forest about a mile away and she told me that I looked awful. I put my head into my hands and I began to cry and she left me alone for a few minutes while she gathered the remainder of her washing, and then we went down into the hole.

I had thought that it must be some kind of an old cellar, perhaps designed for the storage of wine or perishables, but she told that it was a fallout shelter dating back to the time of the Cuban missile crisis. She seemed very young, so I asked her whether she lived here with her parents. She said no, that she had grown up in care in London, that her mother had committed suicide when she was six and she had never met her father. She said that when the care system had broken down she had lived on the streets and in squatted warehouses for a while with other children and a few young adults. They were pickpockets, sneak thieves, beggars and con artists. It all sounded very Dickensian. She said that she had done that for about a year, but that she had grown progressievly tired of the urban filth, and she had taken to the road. I liked what she was saying about the urban filth and I tried to chip into the conversation, I was going to tell her about my last few months at the hospital, but she was talking up a blue streak. I looked around the place and saw that she kept it very tidy, it was old but the cooker and some of the work surfaces were almost sparkling and she seemed to be very organised – there were tins of food neatly arranged on shelves, a few books on another, the cooker connected to its gas bottle. The floor was swept clean. Down at the far wall there were tools hanging from hooks, as though they were being displayed for retail in a hardware store. She kept talking as I looked around, and she told me that she had walked here as I had, all of the way up the river Lee and then across the fields. When she stopped to pause for breath I asked her whether she had brought any of the food or tools here with her but she said no, only the clothes on my back she said, there were some people here when I arrived but they were already dead. She seemed to think that they had wanted to be found, that if they hadn’t wanted that and to be given a half decent burial then they would have chopped down the tree and disposed of the log, that was what had drawn the both of us to the trap door, to the entrance to the shelter. She said that they had suicided together, that they were laying in one another’s arms on a thin mattress down by the tools at the far wall, and she indicated to me the wheelbarrow, the shovel, and the roll of plastic sheeting that were still leaning there now. It seemed very set up she said to me, it seemed to be arranged, the bodies there where the eye would be drawn to them as you first looked around when you got inside, with the wheelbarrow and the sheeting and the shovel sitting there next to them, just saying to the first person who came in, please bury us. I asked her how they had done it, where she had buried them, and what she had done with the mattress. She said that it looked very much as if they had cut one another’s wrists, that from their positioning they had had done it together and then intermingled their blood and waited for the end to come. For the big sleep, she said. She said that there had been a Stanley knife caked in blood stuck to the woman’s shirt, and that she had buried it with them so that the gatekeepers of the afterlife might know that they were suicides. I shrugged at this and then she told me that the mattress had been soaked in their blood and that she hadn’t wanted it, that after she had buried them in the forest she had burned the mattress down by the river Lee, she had watched it burn in the early hours of the morning and when it was only embers and springs she had kicked it into the river and watched until it sank, and then she had walked back here and cleaned the place up. There were maggots she had said, but they were all gone now, like the people. I asked her could she not have just turned the mattress and slept on it but she said no, she hadn’t wanted it, and she indicated to me a large piece of foam beneath a writing desk and some blankets and she said, that’s where I sleep, under there is where I sleep, if you want to rest here a while you’re very welcome but you’ll have to sleep on the floor, and don’t come too close, don’t get any ideas, there was another Stanley knife and I always keep it with me. Then she made black tea and she warmed up some gruel on the stove, and we ate and drank that, and she read for a while by candlelight from a book about survival and after an hour we turned in, her under the desk and me on the floor between two fishing chairs.

We carried on like that for a few days, her cooking and reading and washing clothes occasionally, and me not doing much of anything. I didn’t want to go back outside but I didn’t want to tell her why. It was the people from the farmhouse. I felt sure that the survivors of the kitchen massacre would come looking for me soon. The only way for them to go was north, along the river. East or west would take them into the unknown and south would only take them to the burning hell that was London. When I needed to make my toilet, which I did as infrequently as possible, I did it at dusk or in the very early morning and I always took a spare saw blade with me for protection. I walked east toward the forest but I didn’t want to go in there, or to walk too far from the shelter, and so I just walked until I found a ditch and I did it there, I made sure to cover my leavings. But the resident, as I had come to think of her, wasn’t as clean as I had first thought. It became clear to me that following her initial clean up after the corpses, she had done very little to keep on top of the household maintenance. There was a smell lingering. She was also spending rather a lot of time outside in the daytime, and I was fearful that this might draw attention to us. When I finally confronted her regarding this most essential and elementary matter, the hygiene matter, she became very defensive. It’s not me it’s you she said, you don’t wipe your arse properly, you need to go down by the river, not over towards the forest. It would be fine if you went all of the way to the forest and found the stream she said, but you don’t do you, you fall short of that, you need running water to clean yourself properly. I became suspicious that she knew my exact movements. When she said you fall short, I immediately thought of my father and his gambling on the stock market, his mistresses, his drinking and his ridiculous mind games and expectations, and the awful roaring silence descended upon me again. I had just come in from my toilet, it was shortly after nightfall, and I still had the saw blade in my hand. I took a couple of steps toward her, pursing my lips but saying nothing. She was close to the sink and she stepped backwards as far as she could but she was soon wedged up against it. She looked very small and I felt a moment of pity, of rapprochement, but immediately this happened I saw her reaching into her pocket for the Stanley knife and before I knew what was happening her throat was cut. I lifted her up onto the draining board and I put the saw blade down onto it next to her. I heard her gurgle and rather a lot of blood came out of her mouth, and then I put one hand on her forehead and I held her hand with the other, and then she gurgled out some more blood and then she said, I am done, and then she was gone too.

I wrapped her body in some of the plastic sheeting and I stowed it under the writing desk, and I waited until the morning. I didn’t sleep very much, partly because of the turn of events and partly because I didn’t want to miss the dawn, and when it came I brought the wheelbarrow and her body up to the surface and I took her away and into the forest and I buried her away from the stream, where nobody might find her. I saw that she had planted a little wooden cross where she had interred the original occupants of the shelter, the first residents, and I buried her away from them too. I didn’t want the gatekeepers of the afterlife to get her mixed up with the suicides.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

have you ever read that book that not many people have read?

When your mother and I got together, well… I had known her for a while, I had seen her around, at the church, you know. We always got along fine, we were nodding acquaintances you might say, we had had a couple of conversations, nothing too heavy. But then I stopped going to the church and I didn’t see her for a while. Then one day, I believe it was a Saturday afternoon, I bumped into her outside the off license. It was embarrassing at first, but then we really hit it off. We got talking and I invited her back to my flat for some coffee. It was snowing out you see, it was very cold, and I had an espresso machine. We drank the coffee, she told me that it was good coffee and we talked some more. I showed her my plastic fiver from Northern Ireland but she wasn’t all that impressed, so I just came out with it: do you fancy a shag, I said. I’ve always kind of liked you, I said. I was hoping you’d say that she said, I kind of like you too. And then we went into the bedroom.

When we got in there I explained that the sheets on the bed might not be all that clean, and she said oh I don’t mind, just so long as your cock is. She took off her top and she had hundreds of little white scars all the way up and down both arms and across the front of her tits. I told her that I had had a wank the night before and that I hadn’t showered yet that day, but that I had had a long bath the night before too, a couple of hours prior to the wank. She said oh, I see, well I suppose that this calls for the taste test then.

I came all over her belly and her tits but she must have got some of it on her hand, because she had a wank afterwards while I was having a dump and that’s how you were made. Then we had some more coffee and a couple of cigarettes, you could get cigarettes easily back then. Her tits were bigger than I had expected, despite the scars, it was like she had been cutting away at them to make herself look more anorexic but they hadn’t wanted to die. She told me that while my cock wasn’t the biggest she had seen, it was pretty good, and we both lay there satisfied, just breathing. After that I didn’t see her for more than three years, and when I did it was outside the off license again and she had a toddler with her and that was you. I was interested to see more of you once I had worked out what had gone on, but everything was changing by then, and we lost contact again.

The birds were the first to go. ‘The real bird flu’, they called it. Scarlet macaws were sneezing. Canaries were coughing. Chaffinches had chest infections. Nightingales had pneumonia. Soon it was all over. And no birds do sing. Everyone thought it would be the fish first but no, it was the birds. People used to say that the seas were overfished, that soon there would be no more cod.

That’s one of the last things that I remember of the civil society. People about to panic but not quite there yet. It’s amazing what people will put up with if it’s inflicted on them by degrees. It’s like that old story of how to boil a frog. First you put a pan of water onto the stove on a very low heat. After a few moments you test the temperature with your little finger. I suppose you could test it with your elbow, but that would be bothersome, akin to a series of unnecessary contortions, getting your elbow into a pot of water that’s simmering on the top of a stove. Or perhaps not. It would depend upon the height of the stove. Or upon the type of stove. I was thinking of a kitchen stove, a proper cooker. Anyway, I digress.

When the water is lukewarm, tepid shall we say, then you introduce the frog to the water – now, frogs like water… it’s a habitat you see! Now the frog thinks that it’s getting a bath. Or perhaps a jacuzzi! But the frog isn’t getting a bath. Oh, no! Oh, no no no. No it isn’t. Because gradually you increase the heat. Just a little bit …a little bit at a time. Electric or gas, it makes no difference. Just a notch every few minutes or so. Now the frog thinks that it’s getting a really nice bath, or even a jacuzzi. But it isn’t, and before the frog knows it, his goose is cooked. And that’s what happened. Metaphorically, I mean. I could eat a frog now.

People used to say that soon there would be no more cod. But they went too, after the birds. I’m not sure about the frogs. Maybe there are still frogs. It’s funny when you think of all the millennia of interspecies struggle between the birds and the fish, and now all of them gone. The birds, direct descendants of the dinosaurs; and the fish, surely even older. Usually it was bird on fish. But not always. I once saw a characin eat a hummingbird: it leapt straight out of the water and got it in one gulp. Straight down… just like that! In Brazil, this was. You don’t often see hummingbirds above salt water, but around the outlets of the Amazon you sometimes do. Did. A piranha is a characin but not all characins are piranhas. And of course, penguins were often eaten by killer whales. I don’t like to think about that. Yes, I know that killer whales are mammals and not fish, there’s no need for pedantry. And there were sharks too. Sharks are fish. The point is seafaring and skyfaring. Seafaring and skyfaring is my point. That and the fact that they are all gone now. We were once seafaring and skyfaring too. Not any more.

Next it was the grass. Did you ever read that book that not many people have read, ‘the death of grass’? It was an English science fiction novel from the 1950s. John Christopher. The author, John Christopher. In it, all of the grass dies off – just like that! I think it was just like that. Pretty quickly anyway. Some sort of a virus it was, a pathogen, or perhaps a blight, a global blight. Yes, a pan-global blight! And civilisation crashes, just like that. Because wheat is a grass, and rice is a grass as well. So the grass went too, as in the book, it was like life imitating art. But humanity adjusted. Like you do. Like we do. Did. Incrementally. Like the frog being boiled alive, thinking that it’s in the Jacuzzi and that the party is about to begin when the party is all but over, that the waitresses in their glittery bikinis and their chunky plastic heels will be bringing the cocktails across at any moment. We really believed that life on this earth was all about the cocktails.

Really, how bad do things have to get?

Monday, 14 January 2013

garden flat.

I’m around at my friend Janet’s and she’s talking about death because her father’s been ill, and it’s appropriate because she’s teaching me how to cook a chicken, something that I never learned because I was a vegan for many years. Death is on the menu you might say. I never ordinarily get invited out to people’s homes because I’m unpopular, but today’s butchery lesson is the exception that proves the rule, and it’s also apparently the precursor for morbid ruminations. We are drinking coffee in the sunshine, and she says to me, closing her eyes: so Fred, what happens when we die? What do you think?

When I was younger I used to love talking about death. That’s why I was a vegan for so long. Death death death. The slaughterhouses, the factory farms, the foxhunting, I loved it. A friend thought that vegans were people who really hated animals and wanted nothing to do with them, it was funny. Now that I’m older I try not to think about death so much. I’m a bit closer to it now. Janet is three years younger than me and she looks younger than that so she doesn’t find it disturbing yet. I sense though, that some empathy is called for here, because of her dad being ill. So I try to practice some empathy.

“The Buddhists appear to believe in reincarnation, in the eternal cycle of life, in the immutability of constant change, moment by moment, if you will Janet,” I tell her. “But not in the self or the ego. They’re also quite big on science, more than the average westerner unfamiliar with Buddhism might think.”

Janet raises one eyebrow, slowly, for effect, a la Roger Moore. “Are you a Buddhist then, Fred?” she asks me.

“No, I’m not a Buddhist Janet,” I tell her without so much as a pause. “But I once looked into it.” She raises the other eyebrow: her eyebrows are now more or less level. Level but very much raised, like she’s surprised a burglar. Or has been surprised by one, I suppose. Or maybe the surprise was mutual. I wonder where that expression originated, to surprise a burglar. One would assume that, as most burglars are junkies, or at least fairly desperate people, that nothing much surprises them. They just want to steal your telly, sell it and get their gear. When they come across incest on a Hampstead kitchen table I see them as being really quite blasé about it: yeah, sniff, seen that before, cough, sniff. But now I’m curious as to whether they stop off at home first, plug the telly in and watch a bit of Eastenders and Coronation Street, and when the daily cliffhanger moment comes up at bang on two minutes to eight, and Lewis is doing something evil or Phil is having another moan and another alcoholic relapse, they fall sideways off their milk crate, exclaiming as they go, “fucking hell, I wasn’t expecting that at all!” Just how easy is it to surprise a burglar?

“So what does happen when you die then Fred?” Janet asks me again, seeing that I have been sat there for three minutes with my mouth open, catching flies. “I didn’t know that the Buddhists were big on science”.

She’s always saying things like that: pretending that she doesn’t know stuff in a not quite patronising way. It’s supposed to put you at your ease. But I haven’t got an ease.

“Well,” I tell her, “Buddhist scholars were talking about atoms around the time of birth of the christ, but they might have got that from the ancient Greeks, I’m not sure. I’m a little fuzzy around classical civilisations.” At this point I really want to shoe-horn in a joke that I’ve had for years but have never quite found the right opening for, about the ancient Greeks and science but the moment isn’t right, and so I keep my counsel. “Didn’t you do classical civilisations at university, Janet?” I ask her. “Or at that posh school in Kensington?” I’m bordering on the offensive now. I know that, despite all appearances, she didn’t go to a posh school. But I am unsure of myself, and so I stray onto dangerous ground; I’m also being contentious as a delaying tactic. So that I can have an extra minute or two to ponder on whether ancient Greece and Buddhist India ever mixed, if they ever crossed paths culturally, if they were even in the same time frame at all. But according to Buddhism everything is connected anyway, and time is either an illusion or a physical property of mass at the event horizon. Bingo. I’m all set. But as I look at Janet I can see that she has indeed begun to take offence. So I let her speak.

“I didn’t go to university, Fred” she tells me. I knew that as well, but I allow her to continue. “And I most certainly didn’t go to a posh school. It was a school that was quite near to Harley Street, but it wasn’t a posh school.” I attempt to make eye contact with her. She glances across at me momentarily but she isn’t having any of it. In a final gambit I say to her, “but it was an all girls school wasn’t it, Janet? With school uniforms and that?”

At this she laughs openly and I sense that my gamble has partly paid off. Some of the tension is resolved and I am relieved that I might live to bullshit for another day. After all, she has a garden that she could quite easily bury me in. Or under. You know what these posh people are like, with their drawing rooms and their dark secrets and their skeletons in closets. They didn’t get there just by smiling and being nice. I am working class and I know exactly where garden flats come from.

“Fred, you can’t possibly think that having a school uniform or going to a single sex school makes you posh. Tell me more about the Buddhists and their fundamental grasp of science. I’m slightly curious now… do we not all just come back as carrots or something?” She flashes me a mischievous grin so that I know she’s not being serious. We have this codex and signals thing going on now. I feel privileged, slightly accepted, if only for the most impermanent of moments.

“Well Janet, as I see it, they seemed to believe that we’re all made up out of atoms and the fact that we are, all fits in very well with their hypothesis that everything is connected, and that everything is part of everything else. So when you die the atoms and molecules that make up you don’t die, they go on to make up parts of other people, and of other creatures and compounds, or trees and rocks. They recombine and the cycle of life goes on. Even when they are broken down and processed and excreted by bacteria and whatnot, they still remain as atoms and molecules and they join up with other atoms and molecules and they become part of something much bigger or smaller than themselves all over again, which after a while will die and be broken down again too; except that nothing ever really dies in the accepted sense, and that paradoxically everything is in a constant state of death and rebirth. If we wait seven years, then we find that every single cell in our bodies has died and that we are, physically speaking, completely different people. Except to our own constantly changing eyes we look broadly the same. This is also a proof that the self is an illusion. ‘I’ have to feed ‘myself’ and get ‘myself’ the wherewithal to do that, but if I don’t as an individual do it then it doesn’t matter too much overall: if I die I just become something else. Or maybe even someone else. We are all interconnected, in constant flux, in perpetual birth, decay, respawning, evolution. That’s reincarnation. In the sense that you often hear of each and every one of us breathing in a few molecules in our lifetime that were once part of the body of Julius Caesar, none of us ever dies. We won’t come back as a rat or a dog or even a pantomime horse, somehow thinking at the back of our brains, ‘ooh, I was once Janet in Kensal Green the aspiring novelist and relative of the world’s worst Tory stand up comedian, I wonder what that was like, if only I could remember it better but it’s too blurry!’; but we have all lived before, and we will all live again, because we never really die.”

I’ve finished. I’ve finished for now. Like a disappointing stranger fuck, I have built up my game, then got going really fast, talked too much, said a few of the wrong things, and now I am spent and you are strangely empty… and I lie there naked on the rug, curled into a ball, farting intermittently, absent-mindedly stroking my distended belly, pregnant with the disturbing promise of perhaps more to come in half an hour if you don’t get me out of your house while you can. I have explained Buddhism and I am philosophically spent. I’m knackered.

With tired eyes I look across at Janet. I am waiting for her response. She cautiously meets my eye. “So … Fred,” she tells me slowly. Again I can’t quite tell whether she’s playing with me or not. “Is that it? Is that all there is? Because I’ve asked other people about this and they can’t give me a fucking straight answer either. You’re all like computer salesmen or car mechanics! There just has to be more to it than that.”

I hear her sniff and I look up at her, and for the first time I see her red eyes and I see that this isn’t a joke; that this isn’t just a tuppenny halfpenny philosophical conversation on a spring afternoon in a small garden. That this is all very real for her. Her father is dying and she wants answers, she wants those impossible answers for the questions for which there are none. Some day soon the man who 40 years ago, on a summers day in the summer of love, lent her half of her zygote, will disappear forever and there will be no way around that and no way back from that, and her life will never be the same again. He will never really die and his atoms and his molecules will live on, but she won’t be able to speak to him anymore and whatever kind of a relationship they have today, there will always be something that she never asked him and something that he never said back. And the best that she can do today is to be present, to get on the bus. To make him a cup of tea and cook him a chicken, and feed it to him, and to accept that no relationship can ever be perfect. That we all make mistakes, and that the perfect love that runs through everything encompasses both life and death and every clean and dirty thing that’s in between. And that when she’s on holiday somewhere nice in ten or twenty years and she’s walking through the woods and she hears a babbling brook that’ll be him talking to her through the ether, and the interference from the radio just before the government turned off the last analogue signal, that was him too, and the music from the ice cream van, and the foxes that bark by the bins at 3:45am. But I don’t tell her any of this. I’m afraid that it might sound lame, or that she won’t understand. So instead I say to her…

“Janet, did you know that the ancient Greeks invented science and developed the world’s first ever rudimentary computer, the abacus, and that they were actually the ancient geeks?”

© Ted Curtis 2013

Monday, 7 January 2013

coming home all sweaty

Annie was an art student from Scarborough who had been lucky enough to end up on an illustration course in Swindon. She was very slight, had long blonde hair and skid marks in her knickers. She wore a dirty brown mac. At home she was engaged to be married, but in Swindon she went wild. What I mostly remember is the craziness, and the misery. She liked to drink to blackout and then punch windows through with her fists. She got me banned from the George because she smashed all the windows in the houses opposite, on Eastcott Hill. Not that it took much to get you banned from the George. I was once banned from there for almost a year for smelling of garlic. She knew the butterfly flick but she would never tell me how it was done. She once told me, when I asked her, that my spunk tasted of peanut butter. I didn’t think to ask whether she meant smooth or chunky. She lived with another art student on a house on Dryden street, having fallen out with her last set of housemates. We were both desperate, insane, and destined to be together, if only for a short time.

I was living in a house rented from a former Jamaican policeman who was a local property tycoon, with Hazel Springett, Paddington, and Sarah. It was on Westcott Place, about half way along, on the way to the M4, opposite a school playing field. On Sunday mornings there were always men in donkey jackets digging holes and filling them in again at the edge of the football pitches. Those of us who could not sleep would sit in the front room drinking tea and making up stories about how they were bank robbers looking for their loot, or serial killers checking out the stoniness of the ground for the interment of future victims. Our weekends were madness and by Sunday there was never any money left for food or rent, but there was a quiet there, punctuated only by the soporific drone of the occasional passing car, that was hard to beat. We didn’t last very long in that house. I was working part time and cashing the rent cheques for beer and food, and our landlord didn’t think much of tenants who couldn’t pay their rent.

We had returned from Wales the previous year, and Hazel had put the house together in an attempt to domesticate Paddington. She was a dance student at the town hall studios, a Smiths fan and a lapsed vegetarian. I have no idea how she ended up hanging around with us, other than the pub where we drank, the Castle on north street, seemed to be a beacon for those young women, a little bit alternative but not too much, who wanted a shot at rebellion before they either settled down or went off to university. She was not without her own madness of course. She and Paddington had some pretty fierce arguments.

We still had the hippy traveller bug, and there was a large back alley where Paddington kept his Cortina and a caravan. We were all saving up for trucks that we would buy at auction, but come Friday night all thoughts of saving went out the window. One afternoon Cadwallader and Green Hat Eddie turned up with a couple of tins of Evo Stik and some freezer bags. Freezer bags are very good for solvent abuse, they don’t soak up any of the glue, they keep it fresh. Then Annie came through the back door with a bottle of cider. We had broken up but with a drink inside me I was being very pleasant to her, thinking that maybe I might get lucky again later on. We sat around drinking the cider and it didn’t last long. Finally, Cadwallader brought up the subject of the glue. Hazel was at dance class and Paddington explained to him that she would not take kindly to coming home all sweaty and needing a shower at six o’clock, and finding four or five zombies all over her sitting room floor, bags stuck to the carpet and the house reeking of glue. So we retired to the caravan.

Annie had never done glue before and she had to ask how it worked. Not, you know, how the fumes condensed on your brain and fucked up your synapses, but what you had to do in order to get there. Cadwallader handed her a bag and told her to hold it open. Then he unscrewed the cap of one of the tins and poured a little of the viscous fluid into the bottom of it for her. The caravan immediately filled with noxious fumes. The rest of us, myself, Paddington and Green Hat Eddie, gathered around in rapt attention, our mouths open, keen to see this glue virgin getting a deflowering. Annie was looking right into Cadwallader’s eyes as he poured the glue into the bottom of the bag for her and explained how she should go about getting the best results from it.

"You have to shape the top of the bag into a mouthpiece", he told her, "try to make it as smooth as possible, pull out all of the wrinkles as quickly as you can so that they don’t harden into creases, that way you stand a better chance of not cutting your lips on them later, when you are tripping out of your fucking mind. Then you should pull the bag down lengthwise to get the best channel, the best channel for the fumes, for the glue fumes to travel to your lungs and your brain. You see? That look, the scabs around the mouth, the little spots, that oral herpes look you see on young, inexperienced glueheads, most of that comes from not shaping a proper mouthpiece in the bag. It’s mostly unnecessary. Then, when you are up and running, try to remember to move the bag around as much as possible. That keeps the glue from hardening too quickly, it keeps it nice and fluid for as long as possible. This isn’t Time Bond."

Time Bond was another type of glue, also manufactured by Evo Stik, that came in a smaller black tin. I seem to recall that it had a little skull and crossbones design on the screw cap but I am probably remembering it wrong, romanticizing it. It was slow to harden, hence the name, and you could trip out for maybe ten hours on a single tin. The hallucinations were also smoother, more vivid, and often less frightening. As I looked at Annie I saw that her gaze had not left Cadwallader’s eyes the entire time that he had been talking and that she was now licking her lips. I could feel her heart beating faster through the ether. Without looking at it, she had managed to shape the neck of her bag into a perfectly smooth little o. There is something about young women sniffing glue. I think that it must be the idea of a beautiful thing corrupted, of the dirty teenager doing something that she shouldn’t be doing, reveling in the corruption, and wanting it more and more as she loses control. I noticed that Annie was now holding the bag only in her left hand and that she had her right hand placed on her knee, and I put my hand on top of hers, but she immediately shook me off. Then her face was in the bag and she was away, huffing like a maniac. Her eyes began to bulge, she fell backwards onto the floor, and we all laughed in unison at her despoilment. Then the remaining three of us gathered around Cadwallader to receive our glue. There was something of the religious ceremony about this, like the blessing and the passing around of a chillum. There was complete silence, only the muted sounds of our quickened breathing, as Cadwallader handed the bags out. The slight crinkling noise of the bags being opened to receive the sacrament. And then the slow and silent pouring of the glue. I gave my bag ten rapid lungfuls and then I fell over backwards as well.

I lasted about an hour in the caravan before a fierce headache consumed me, making my ears scream and my eyeballs throb. Annie was now laying on her front, almost onto her knees but not quite, humming a northern folk song into her bag. She looked prone and very sexy, but all thoughts of fucking her again had left me. At one point, she grew two heads which spoke to one another in ancient Hebrew before morphing into a large black anvil that spouted tiny jet engines all along its base. It then blasted off into the sky in an almighty roar. I looked up to follow its ascent and I saw that the caravan now had no roof. The sky was bright purple and I saw god in the background, and he winked at me as he juggled most of the planets, at first clockwise and then counter clockwise, smiling broadly. He had three missing teeth. When I looked back down at Annie to check whether she still had her head, or if she had grown another one, she was in the same position but she had turned into an enormous chicken, still wearing her dirty mac. The chicken wiggled its arse suggestively at me and I stood up, shaking my head rapidly from side to side. This was a mistake: I immediately became very nauseous as I felt my swollen brain banging around against the inside of my skull. I looked down at the others and I saw that they were all sitting cross legged on the caravan floor, huffing away, still human, not too foul. I managed to croak out Green Hat Eddie’s name through the roaring silence and he miraculously heard me, took his mouth away from his bag and looked up. He was drooling. I passed my bag to him and I stepped over the three of them and made my way to the caravan door, opening it and stepping out into the day.

When I was outside I shut the door again and collapsed onto the ground, holding my head in my hands, massaging my temples and breathing rapidly. After a few minutes had passed I began to come to myself again, gradually moving back into my body. My breathing slowed and I noticed that there was a long shadow over me. I looked up and I saw Hazel Springett standing there, her hands on her hips, her thin lips pursed. She was back from her dance class. We must have been in the caravan for longer than I had thought.

"You fucking wasters", she told me. "It’s a spring afternoon and you’re glue sniffing in the fucking caravan. What the fuck do you think you’re playing at? This is a busy thoroughfare. It’s a weekday. Kids walk along here on their way home from school. Kids! Kids with fucking parents! We’re hardly making the rent as it is. I want to keep this house. This isn’t a fucking squat. Who else is in there with you?"

Hazel had something of the savage matron about her and I was powerless to stand up to her interrogation. It took a couple of minutes, but I managed to deliver to her an accurate list of my accomplices. My glue trip had receded by now but the headache was still there, more fierce than ever in the early evening sunshine.

"Annie? What, your Annie? I didn’t know she was a fucking glue sniffer! Jesus!"

I started to mumble something to her about badly needing to clean my teeth and get on the outside of some Nurofen, but when I looked up she had already turned on her heels and gone back into the house.

By the time that it was dark I had managed to sweet talk Hazel into lending me a couple of pounds for some aspirin and beer. We got on very well when it was just the two of us together, we would talk quietly of mighty things, but I could see that she was still very pissed off. Paddington had gone upstairs to sleep it off in the box room and the others had shambled down the alley, toward Farringdon road park. Hazel and myself and Sarah sat watching a documentary about the greenhouse effect on a small black and white television. They were drinking tea, I was slowly sipping at a tin of White Ace cider, my hands shaking. Then, suddenly, between something about the Greenland ice sheet and something else about the plight of the polar bears, there came some enormous crashing and breaking sounds from the direction of the kitchen. Hazel and Sarah immediately sprang up and ran toward the back of the house. I was slow to react and I only turned my head, then I heard Hazel screaming out “oh, for fucks sake!” and suddenly Sarah was back in the room. She moved slowly across it and back to her seat, head down, and when she had gotten out of the way I saw behind her, swaying in the doorway, Annie. She was completely naked apart from her shit stained knickers, which were partway down her legs. One side of them had stuck fast onto the front of her thigh. In her left hand she still held her glue bag. She made to huff at it but it had completely dried up and had stuck to her hand. Then she tried to pull it away, only succeeding in tearing it into several pieces, none of which she seemed able to discard to the floor. While all of this was going on I could hear Hazel in the kitchen sweeping up broken glass, and it was only then that I noticed that Annie was bleeding all of the way down her left forearm and dripping onto the carpet. The next thing that happened was an almighty roar from the kitchen, rapidly coming closer, as Hazel Springett made a sound rarely heard outside of a Mexican bullring, enraged, incensed, and approaching us at the exact speed of light, about 186,000 miles per second. But Einstein must have been wrong, because by the time that she reached us, Annie had already collapsed, face down onto the carpet, her arms splayed out at her sides, unconscious.