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.