Shepherd by night – Reuben

Skant left of Reuben and it’s a relief

A fishbone of picked ribs and the horned Luciferan skull

 

I feel the guilt of not doing everything

Everything I could for him if

Had time not been pressing

And school

Family

My other lives had not shouted their rich demands

 

Perhaps, I think I should have wormed him when he looked poor,

But then he picked up

 

But then he died. One fading evening alone

 

He hadn’t long been dead when

Eyes flattening

I found him

And dragged him

Still sighing away his life

Over

Out of the way

 

There he rested

Night after passing night

No carrion finding him

Night

After night

 

Lying as if in life

Fuelling my guilt

 

Seemingly breathing as his gasses burst decaying organs

Squatting at his head I spoke to his unconvincingly dead

Of sorrow

When finally the crows picked his arse and eyes

What a relief

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Seven tennis balls, a float, a mop and an alligator – part two

Days slip into predictability. The ghost of the hurricane finally erodes at the summer’s warmth, making chill mornings slow to warm.
Occasionally the rain looks to set into unrelentingly grey, but the strong westerly wind clears each raincloud, storm or drizzle, and replaces it with bright skies. Titus becomes adroit at predicting the weather. Sometimes it rains on the other side of the bridge, but not on us, yet… Waterproofs on; waterproofs off.
Thursday morning Titus is particularly hard to rouse, he moves with considerably less alacrity than the pale, mini-slugs that invade our belongings.
Hungerford too looks its best from the water. We encounter ducks and swans. Swans imperious, showing off their beautiful sons and daughters, ruffling their plumage in mock displeasure at our passing. Ducks are more variable; some try to extort crumbs with beguiling looks, others scatter in hard-to-believe panic, quacking their retreat, lifting their tail feathers like bustling ladies showing their legs in their haste. Once we startled two resting mallards into a firework of duck frenzy. Other times they watch our progress sagely from their linear roosts. Herons seem few here, we’ve seen no kingfishers. The first night we heard a male tawny, the second a female. Each night some owl hoots in harmony with the soft watery noises of the still canal, or the run of a rill, or the hum of a not-so-distant A road, or the ripping roar of a passing train. We inhabit a backwater wilderness alongside the arteries of road and rail; the canal, the all-but forgotten trendsetter of modern transport. The new railways followed the old canal, as does the A4; there’s a favour in forgetfulness.
There’s a beautiful common beyond Hungerford, Hungerford Marsh, where we longed to camp, but it felt too overlooked by townies, too walked by the wrong sort of dogs. The locks became more hostile and awkward, cranky and heavy-doored as we tired of our journey. A derelict lock cottage by Cobblers lock eyed us mournfully in a way that scared us to move along, move along. Private, Keep Out signs confined us into our linear world that seemed not a refuge, but a treadmill. Eventually we stop by Picketfield lock.
The night was peaceful, supper good, we had nothing of which to complain.

I become uncertain about the exact order of things; whether this was the morn which dawned cold, in which I shivered and stiffly teeth chattered my way over cold metal lock, the metal balance beam the antithesis of the sun-warmed wood of early days. Nearly hypothermic, I have to put on my dry clothes to paddle in. Titus is again kind and attentive; a great companion when life gets hard. Or was this the day we made it to Kintbury to a lunch of well-received ham sandwiches in the Dundas Arms to top up our phones and our shopping in the picture postcard village that actually sold no postcards; was this was the day we made it to the top?
Locks came thick and fast, each wide pound ending in the next. Just before the tall, banded chimney of Crofton pumping station came into view, just as we finally bade goodbye to the Kennet, Titus found a swimming pond. He stood shivering in his farmers’ tan and dipped his bottom half in the fresh cold water. The pond was fed by a little stream of cold rain, passing dogs declined to swim in the chill waters and Titus concluded that discretion was the better part of valour.
We paddled on ploddingly. Lock after lock. Winding, cranking, walking, paddling our way to the summit, to our rendezvous with Peter and Iggy who planned to join us at the top. Lock 50, five to go and there they were walking down the towpath towards us, familiar silhouettes in an unfamiliar land. Titus gave Iggy a crash course in locks; Iggy complaining that Titus “should not torment him with prior knowledge.”
There were friendly boat-dwellers, some comings and goings. Peter chose our camping stop that evening – near a bridge he could get the car and Iggy’s boat to. I pitched my tent nearly over the edge of the canal, but I was used to that now, that brinkmanship. Peter stayed for supper. Titus moved in with Iggy. Iggy complained that we went to bed too early and that he would never sleep. Then there was peace, save the hoot of an owl and the gentle restlessness of the water.
Packing on Saturday morning was quite succinct; Iggy helped. Just under one K to the tunnel. We read the subscription and marveled at canal-builders’ attention to detail and sympathy for the landscape; a recurring theme that grew to a crescendo with the canal’s entrance to Bath, but that is yet a long way off. A boat came towards us through the tunnel; haunting voices preceded the boat’s light. When the holidaymakers phutted their way clear of the tunnel we heard their relief and it was our turn. Iggy had our light and went ahead. Within 20 metres there was darkness. Titus and I sang ‘a bog down in the valley oh’ from bog to deck and those of you who know the song will guess the length of the tunnel. There was some clashing of paddles in the darkness. When images formed of the shadows we knew we would soon paddle into daylight.
Having Iggy lightened our boat by one tent and, alarmingly, our larder by a exponential quantity of crisps and snacks. It upped the pace too. On the long pond we counted bridges not locks.
That night we camped by a bridge and looked at the map and the distance yet to travel with some despair. It might be downhill from now, but the wind was against us and the distance considerable. We decided, in a practical moment, that we would call on Peter and vehicle support to bypass the whole of the Devises flight.
In the long pound Titus swam a couple of times. I did some much needed throw-line practice. Iggy seal-launched his kayak successfully twice and disastrously once. We all plucked tennis balls from the river and in a memorable moment, approaching something strangely poking out of the water, Titus, the chosen one, pulled the mop Excalibur from the arms of the lady of the canal.
Iggy’s predictions of sleeplessness proved unfounded and one night, leaving Iggy snoozing, T and took a turn around a newly-harvested wheat field and watched a barn owl slide soundlessly overhead. There were strange inexplicable lights on the Neolithic hills of Wiltshire, a stranger malfunction of my torch, an ancient byway nearly lost in time that whispered of boggarts at Lammastide, and for a moment we thought we might lose our way…
A good morning’s paddle the next day bought us to the East of Devises and our meeting point with Peter. We emerged from the canal hungry and chilly at Coate bridge. Emerged to townish censorship and unfriendliness. However, we ate lunch on the warmth of the pavement and disregarded the dark looks of respectable folk, changed into warmer clothes behind town bushes and pulled our stuff from the water. When Peter arrived we loaded the whole shebango into the car, boats on top and Peter and the boys set to walk the six K length of the whole Devises flight and I to take the car round. Except that Peter went off with the car key and by the time he’d returned them to me the supermarkets were shut, it being Sunday, and soon I had got somewhat lost.
Rivers are easy, they work with the topography, they are always in the valleys, but a manmade canal might be anywhere. I saw the Caen flight in my travels; it looked like a tourist attraction. To travel it might make you feel like an exhibit; I felt quite glad to miss it. I asked some women who were carrying shopping bags, who turned out to be Polish, where there was a shop open and they directed in smilingly beautiful pidgin. I fell on my feet. The shop was well stocked, the locals friendly, I was soon on my (rather convoluted) way back to the canal. I’d been directed to the perfect bridge for unloading and getting back onto the water, but it was not the bridge at which I’d planned to meet the others. A further period of misdirection followed until I found them, and they had not been waiting long. Back on the water, goodbyes said to Peter, we travelled on and made camp by a swing bridge.
This could have been a disaster. My first choice of camping stop was right within the bridge’s workings. Titus, who applies brain to these situations, pointed out my error so we decamped to a gorgeous rectangle of well-manicured turf close to the canal and with an obliging piece of rough to lose teabags into. We had a distant view of some alpacas.
A nice night. A nice morning with many travellers, dog walkers, bridge swingers to chat to. Possibly the friendliest spot on the canal. Boats moved early, keen to get a run on the flight. In between Titus did parkour tricks on the bridge bars, we videoed his routine. I’d charged my phone in the car the day before, so spent a few moments making contact with the outside world. Once on the water, we felt a bit pulled by Iggy’s haste to cover the distance. By-passed nice lunch stopping places as Iggy was ahead and ended up eating on a busy, rather grubby bit of tow path. The number of hire boats increased and their crews were very variable. Those just starting were earnest, though muddled around locks. Generally they dismissed Titus’s would-be expertise due to his smallness of stature, dismissed us as below their consideration due to Marvin’s basic inadequacies. More seasoned travellers were less preoccupied and greeted us with a relaxed familiarity more like that of the boat-dwellers.
The number of moored craft had been increasing since below Kintbury, (their names an on-going source of entertainment) and more craft were on the move. Sometimes their chummy camaraderie included us and sometimes it excluded us. As we approached Bath our presence in our tiny craft was questioned more frequently, not by the jolly enquiry of before, but an inquisition, a “should we be allowed?” We were closer to home; but feeling less ‘at home’.
Still, we saw our first kingfisher, several herons and some alluring ducks.
One duck trying hard to swallow a sizeable fish!
The Avoncliff aqueduct was a spectacle. We should have pushed on till passed Dundas, but the sun was falling and I was tiring and we opted for the only available bit of rather grubby tow path we could find between the moored boats. After supper the three of us walked to the Dundas aqueduct. It was a pleasing walk in the warm evening’s duskiness, checking out the start of the Somersetshire Coal Canal. We planned an early morning get-up-and-go that was not to be…
Sadly, just before first light, Iggy came to my tent in immediate need of the trowel and bog roll. He returned after a while consumed by stomach racking queasiness and proceeded to vomit several times. Abandoning the early start, I nursed him along, getting T and I up and the kayaks packed, keeping sicky stuff separate from everything else as best I could. Our rather shabby bit of verge became less and less desirable. Titus paddled the single and with Iggy as a passenger in Marvin, we paddled to get a phone signal, the gentle rocking of the boat not improving Iggy’s lot!
We alerted Peter to our needs and arranged to meet at either Bathampton or Bath Top Lock depending on our progress. In the end it was Bath Top Lock. We’d made stately progress into Bath through the chaotic business of Bathampton, the elegant sweep of the canal, culverting, tunnels and the city’s regency architecture. On the way Titus finally managed to get his comeuppance and walk off the edge of the bank! He claims he was paying the utmost attention, but whether he was being blasé or not, he ended up in the drink. Pulled out of the water by a passer-by, he then left his buoyancy aid on the bank, which was not noticed for some time, necessitating my returning for it. This was actually quite fun as I look the little kayak, which veritably flew across the canal with the same expenditure on my part usually needed to propel Marvin at slug-speed!
At Top Lock Titus changed into dry clothes, Iggy left us (poor fellow) and having decided we would not camp another night, Peter also took most of our belongings. T and I had lunch before the flight and pulled a drowned alligator from the lock and made him our figurehead.
Taking to the water again, Titus found the lighter kayak harder to maneuver in the wind. Some rather posh woman from a hire craft took it upon herself to dissuade us from using the locks, calling me dangerous and irresponsible in strident tones. I explained that we’d come from the Thames and were somewhat seasoned in locks, but then aware that T was having a bit more difficultly than previously and that one of the locks was a double depth lock, and thinking that, with Marvin a fraction of his previous weight, we could finally press our borrowed trolley into good service and save ourselves an hour.
Trolleying was fun! At one point we had to pretend to be a car and enter the stream of traffic where the tow path changed sides at some roadworks. Folks caught up in the busy, city manner of bustle, hurry and impatience found us entertaining. We peeped a look into the ultra-deep lock and I was glad Titus wasn’t sitting alone in an empty Marvin down in the dank pothole of the lock chamber.
There was a tremendous sense of achievement as we launched onto the river Avon and in the next few hours, Titus and I regained the plodding, paddling intimacy of our early days. Bath is a mucky town from the river and it seemed to stretch forever, past clogged drain outlets and cloacal backwaters. We sent a huge scale-tailed rat heaving its big brown body up a bridge pile to disappear into a hole in the brickwork.

From the great stone arched bridge where the Upper Bristol Road crosses to the ‘jumping bridge’ on the cycle track we paddled on, and on. My hands were hurting now and I was pleased to see the rowing markers announcing 3K to Saltford, though 3K seemed an awful long way still.

We’d arranged to meet Mary at Saltford. We heard her Coo-whoop! as we paddled on down the straight. She sat like an imp, folded up against the rain and chill at the end of a jetty. A good meeting; it took T and I a while to get Marvin down the weir and moor by the customary willow where we’ve put the boats on the water before. A brief interlude of decision making and we decided that Saltford was close enough, so we stowed our belongings and retired to the pub for a celebratory curry and burger! Peter joined us, it was just a shame Iggy was too ill.
Through seventy-one locks mechanical warts-and-all, we bypassed a further thirty-six by wheels or ingenuity. We should thank Peter for his support and Berts Bees hand cream for its lubrication: Marvin for his steadfastness and FSC for the loan of the kayak. We met the cycling friends going in our direction and another cycling family, a father and son in a canoe and a single chap on an inflatable heading towards London; so we were not entirely alone in our madness.
THE END

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Seven tennis balls, a float, a mop and an alligator – part one

To go home by kayak – that was our inspiration. The tantalizing knowledge that it was possible to connect Hardwick on the Thames and Bristol by boat, padding over the chalk hills betwixt, had fascinated me for years. We left from the Chestnut Field at Hardwick, after the EECC summer gathering, after Supernormal at Braziers Park, after the storm. We camped one night alone, after the revelries, before setting out.

 

That night’s moon was a treat. Looking out from a promontory of river bank, bats flitted across the shone path of moonlight reflected on the fast and flushed water. The river, swollen by the storm and drunk in the aftermath, had reclaimed the little beach that was a feature of our bay, with its lapping tongues.

We had delayed to see the storm over, but the squalls and gusts seemed never to end and we had waited long enough; tomorrow we would set sail.

 

The morning was bright and ambitious. Titus and I woke earlyish and feasted on biscuits in bed while the Trangia sang itself to the boil. The moans of turtle doves and raucous calls of distant geese hovered on the air whilst the sounds of passing trains bound for London cut the pseudo-silence like unseen cleavers. A lacing chill that held the  promise of a fine morning kept us in our cozy bags, each enjoying our morning tipple.

 

There’s a strange pleasure in being thrust into the undiluted company of one’s children. Sleeping closely, paddling together, forced into a reality of functional consciousness undiluted by chores or screens or any diversion grown-up or childish. Rapidly I conclude that Titus’s work ethic lacks, I will be the dog’s body of this ship despite my ‘Captain’ title. Titus can do nothing without playfulness, diversion, what ifs! Oh well!

 

Breakfasted, dipped in the cold river and packed, Titus reined from log-hopping, we are ready to launch from the shady bay into the sun-dappled swell of old father Thames. One hundred meters, some rearrangement and launch take two, we settle into a pattern of paddling and make fair time to Mapledurham watched by lazy flocks of preening geese, gaggling on the bank and routing the occasional heron. We approach the first lock with some doubt of our reception; our open cockpit, double kayak (by name of Marvin), laden to the gunnels, built for stability, posed us a problem rather akin to landing a whale with a fishing net. Titus and I simply could not wrestle it from the water loaded; portage was not an option, we would have to use the locks.

 

However, with the merest passing glance at our B.C.U. membership tags (of our fishes as Titus dubbed  them, as they confer official-ness) the lock keeper saw us through without derogatory murmur. We need not have worried that a kayak, even one of whale-like proportions called Marvin, would be considered too lowly.

 

We made good and happy progress into Tilehurst. Shopped for a windlass, an additional drybag, a buoyancy aid for Titus in a colour scheme he thought preferable to the perfectly serviceable one he’s had for years, but now eschewed, and two free useful bags from the chandlers there, which is good value and stocks canoeing stuff – I recommend it. Here we had elevenses. Titus stopped for a wee and a wander on a feather-dotted goose island a while further along, the trains and preparations for the Reading Festival entertained us as we passed into Caversham. Another cheerful lock keeper, past Tesco’s warm riverfront welcome (we didn’t need to stop tho’) and whilst Titus was agitating for his lunch, we happened upon the Kennet. Personally I thought it rather understated in an unmissable kind of way; I’d expected a large sign of motorway ilk, but no. Anyway, having reached our turn off, I figured we ought to travel a little along it and stop when we could. The change in effort required was instantaneous once we’d turned against the flow; Marvin lumbered.

 

I’ve never seen anything quite like the first lock on the Kennet. Forests of vegetation grew from it and it looked so derelict I searched for another way; lock, passage, by-pass, whatever, because that can’t be it. Poor little lock, the least of the Thames Authority’s ; not actually a K&A lock, unloved, neglected, an appalling, inhuman no man’s land. We ate our lunch on the mooring and wondered if we would ever get any further.

 

Neither Titus nor I had ever operated a lock. In my mind, there would always be other boats busying too and fro to which we would tag ourselves, never needing to wield our windlass, but although Reading went about its business around us, we sat alone on our island, lingering over our peanut butter sandwiches, wondering. When it came to it, we coped. There were big wheely things to turn that didn’t need a winder and with a fairly logical approach to trial and error Marvin and we passed through.

 

We sort of pootled along before being hailed by a lady from the bank. “My son’s dropped his scooter in the water, can you reach it for him?” But alas, it was to deep to fathom and we couldn’t help. Then we came to the traffic lights. A passing cyclist offered to push the button for us, though Titus would have quite liked to have done it; we waited on the green light. There was Dinosaur Crazy Golf and a fast food place called Mission Burrito that took T’s fancy as we paddled into the relentless wind that was blowing away the sun, threatening rain and stirring up the water. A line of brilliance crossed the river and baffled us somewhat. It turned out to be a weir beside the tiny 1’ 8” lock. It looked almost surmountable till you were close, when the two foot wall of water was clearly as daunting as Niagara in its way. Here we needed our trusty windlass and just as we were in and about to close the gate, a light, white riverboat came into view and we waited as it was tossed about by the crosswind and slid unsteadily into the lock behind us. This was our fist encounter with a crew of grandparents and their grandsons who we came to know as our ‘motor friends’ for a while, sharing locks and learning from their seasoned operation. Aquarius V, their boat was called, a small valiant craft with a blue hood and matching rubbery, balloony things that dangle down the side of boats to stop them rubbing against things.

 

The rain started in that lock and peppered the river with raindrops so hard it resembled pebbledash. Paddling into the lashing, Titus was stoic and the storm blew over, but left us cold. We stopped for a brew by the nicest of fields, in a little shallow cove – a river feature that canals, we found, lack. We would have liked to have stayed, but three in the afternoon was too soon to stop with nothing to do but get cold till bedtime and so we paddled on.

 

At Fobney lock Titus discovered that if you stand sideways to a weir and wave your far finger around your ear it makes a strange noise, a tinny whoop. Not very useful, but it pleased us and we repeated the trick at several locations in the following days. Fobney lock was picturesque and countrified. The presence of some hooded youths reminded us that we were less that a mile from Calcot, though it felt worlds away.

 

We caught up the motor friends at the next lock and Titus’s expertise increased as he assumed a windlass waving chic that was to exasperate me in its complacency around deep locks and churning water in the days to come. Longer pounds meant the motor friends pulled away from us till we passed Aquarius V again moored at a pub a while later. After another lock and a pitiless rain shower we ground to a halt before Burghfield lock in need of rest and sustenance. For the first time we pitched our tent on a small triangle of mown grass betwixt canal and tow-path, rationalizing that we would not mysteriously end up in the canal overnight, despite a temptation to think we might.

 

 

Tuesday I woke to the still cool sun shining directly into our tent, climbing and warming. We had finished yesterday with three inches of water in the bottom of the kayak, rain water, water guttered from waterproofs and dripped from paddles. Soon I would rise and begin to sort wet stuff to dry in the morning sun. Despite the tail of the hurricane sporting regular dousings, the sun was tropical when it came and the air still warm from the previous month’s heat wave.

 

The little lawn in front of our tent faced east; Titus sat on our barrel and fried pancakes while the washing dried and we tarried, passing the time with dog walkers. The dogs were inquisitive for pancakes and their walkers inquisitive about us. Cyclists made us a rapid hello and were gone again. The pancakes were delicious. I swam, for the last time as the weather turned chill the next day and thereafter I was content with a wash.

 

Some ducks watched us. (Titus writes… One duck was white though the other was brown. White duck got pissed off and left, so brown duck got her other brown friend.) The pancakes, by the way, were delicious with toffee sauce.

 

We had just slipped Marvin back into the canal and were stowing the last of our things when our motor friends came along, so we shared the next few locks with them. They were quicker, but with the locks set against them, we had time to catch up on the short pounds and they always let us paddle on while they reset the locks.

 

We had a goal to make Aldermaston by lunch. Well lunch is a moveable feast and we arrived about three. The motor friends had moored for lunch a while back. We needed to get a key to the taps etc. which we got at Aldermaston along with short shift from the lady in the chandlery, who was actually pretty foul.

 

We’d passed a cycling family some while back, also destined for Bristol. We met them again at Aldermaston and compared travel notes. They watched us work out how the taps worked, then the motor friends caught up and directed us to the public convenience.

 

Alone again, we finally lunched by the tow path and by the time we had finished and were ready to set off, we were a lock behind the motor friends, so we lost them. It was lucky that we had the key as the lift bridge at Aldermaston was the one and only low bridge that we couldn’t slide under. Some were tight, but all were possible save that one. It was rush hour, though I was oblivious to the disruption caused as I followed the instructed steps through the bridge swing; alarms and barriers, bells, knobs and all.

 

We paddled on through some uneventful pounds and tricky locks; Titus was splendid at the locks, coping determinably with heavy paddles and stiff mechanisms, slippy windlasses and poorly-balanced gates. The motor friends had taught him well; taught him to wait for the last remnant of up-surging to settle before putting his weight to the balance beam. In the last deep lock the rain beset us cruelly. Caught in the lock we got drenched and stopped as soon as we were in the top pound, taking refuge in the umbrella of a big tree, warm dry clothes, tent up to dry and noodles simmering. I was shivery and Titus was kind.

 

Our site for that night felt entirely surrounded by water, between a sluice, that might have intrigued me as a caving venture on a warm afternoon, and the stream-like vestige of the Kennet, not subverted into the canal. The perpetual rush of hurrying water and the intermittent rush of hurrying trains punctuated our night.

 

Not on the tow path side, our interaction with the morning’s walkers was more distant, cyclists whooshed by with a wave, but joggers were too self consumed to acknowledge us. I hung our wet stuff on the balance beam of the opposite lock gate in the sun, Titus  sat there too looking chilled (in the cool not cold sense) and very much at home till a passing fly of reportedly enormous proportions (nicknamed a ‘pig-fly’) sent him, complainingly, back to camp.

 

Pig-flies haunted us for the morning and Titus decided that today we would meet a friend call Giuseppe. On the river by ten thirty, six locks till Newbury and shopping, we made a shopping list.

 

The promised Giuseppe turned up in the guise of a tennis ball, the first of seven collected en-route. A boater gave us water and directions to Tesco where we dragged ourselves from the flow like life from the primordial soup, feeling damp, primitive and anachronistic in the superstore. As we were returning to our craft, considering packing and lunch, our motor friends passed going down stream. We call ‘goodbye’, they heard us and returned the greeting. Goodbye motor friends.

 

Newbury is possibly at its best from the water; the river threading its way between timber-framed buildings dividing into intriguing creeks and channels, which we deigned to explore keeping to the straight and broad. Signs for delicious ice-creams and play parks called to Titus yet we paddled on, denying their attraction. Progress was counted in locks. Canalized sections were easier, river sections more likely to catch the wind and we hugged the inside of bends to find the slower water in the storm heavy stream-way. It was undisputedly hard work and made me impatient of Titus grabbing at passing weeds and being too tired to paddle. Periodically he sulked and I slogged against the current and the wind. We found a glass fishing float caught in a tree and rescued it. We chose a small triangle of green below a lock as our night’s resting place, spotted a tiny speckled frog who sat (deluded that we couldn’t we see it) by our washing-up wall for a comfortingly long time. Titus spotted two deer.

 

Up to this point we had met surprisingly few other craft, even on the Thames; after Newbury it became a bit busier, a few hire craft but mostly owner-occupied boats crewed with certainty, greeting us with smiles and “How far are you going?”

“Bristol” we called to replies of encouragement.

 

There’s an anarchy to canal life, a way of life that escapes the mores of normality existing within that thin strip of canal and towpath carving an improbable course over the chalk hill. Repeatedly my mind ponders how it escapes regulation or interference from the powers that be and the nanny state, with its nineteenth century H&S, slippy winders and escaping paddles threatening trapped fingers on the locks, the long drops from the narrow lock gate walkways, the churning water. No wonder boat children grow up capable and responsible, it’s a fast learning curve of unfettered education. Repeatedly I wonder how it continues to exist and am glad that it does.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wasteland

Old age is like a wasteland.

A life, once so busy, fallen into uselessness, strewn about with pieces of broken memory.

 

I don’t mind being old. I have lived the fullest life, but I mind the wasteland; you never know what you might find.

 

Once I found something on the wasteland.

The land behind our house where the factories once stood, and where our granddads had once worked. Land that had become ‘brownfield’ and up for development when our mum’s were in infant school. Where an industrial estate sprouted and briefly flourished before becoming down-market and eventually dying.

 

When my brother’s gang had first pushed their way through the rotting fence the barn-like buildings had still stood. But, by the time I was superseded as ‘baby’ by a pair of snotty twins and permitted to wander, the buildings had been recycled by bulldozers and cranes and carried off in dumper trucks.

 

I liked bulldozers, cranes and dumper trucks and was sad to see them go. Creeping into the void they had left like a small criminal, I turned over the remnants and collected oddments. I had a stash of stuff in an old freezer unit in a hollow by the fence.

 

I also had a place where I collected the turds that I made when I couldn’t be bothered to return to the house to the toilet. I poked them into lines with a stick and compared them as they steadily returned to the soil.

 

I was invariably alone. A misfit. Saved from much indignity and pestering by having an older brother in a key position in an influential gang, I also benefitted from appearing too small-fry to be bothered with. There were boys of my own age but I was not allowed out the front and they had to keep to their gardens so our paths never crossed. Not, that is, until we all went to school and by then the die had cast me as a loner.

 

I was five when I went to school. My mother failed to notice that she should have enrolled me till the welfare woman came round and reminded her. After that I attended, turning up late, scruffy and under-fed but regular as clockwork. I would have gone at the weekends too, if that were allowed, just out of habit and the luxury of not having to think. I ticked my way through primary school, like some small, un-noticed bomb. I don’t believe I learnt a thing, save to keep out of trouble. My stash grew. My turd collection waxed and waned and I watched the wasteland change again.

 

It happened very slowly.  The first seeds to blow by, the first water to turn greenish began the steady pioneering creep of life. Plants followed by animals; a veritable recreation of Genesis had I then known it. But I remained sorely ignorant, despite my so-called education, and it was just weeds and critters to me. Nevertheless, I loved to worry the newts and frogs and relished in the goat willow and birch saplings that screened me from the other wasteland users.

 

For there were others. My regimentally ordered shit kept them away from my stash hollow and earned me the title of ‘disgusting’, lumping me into a category along with old women’s tits, warm lager, and the bits of birds that the cat left behind. But I never minded the price of peace, the almost certainty of non-molestation.

 

It was only ever an almost certainty though. Sometimes they decided to involve themselves with me, those other users. Like the snoggers who sent me on errands to buy fags. In those days, before the government had poked its nose into every aspect of our lives, anyone could buy cigarettes that had the money. Anyone could smoke cigarettes who had their own money. I had to give them up, of course, to the purchasers and think myself lucky to get a heady drag for my trouble. The girl snoggers usually said, “thank you”.

 

“Now fuck off out of it.”

I was happy to oblige.

 

Other wasteland users were less genial. When they wanted something of me, they wanted more than errands and verbal abuse. They wanted someone to hone their torture skills upon. Someone who wouldn’t squeal or tell tales. Someone too thick to care. Too thick to get screwed up.  Mostly I kept out of the way.

 

The general opinion of me, beyond that I was disgusting, was that I was thick. Looking back, I see that I never did anything to dispel this idea. By the time I had found the thing, I was eleven years old and had transferred to the local secondary school. I couldn’t read; I’d never seen the point. I couldn’t do maths. I was streamed in ‘remedial’; next stop the special school, if I didn’t buck my ideas up.

 

I find it hard to explain how passive I was back then. Maybe you have to be there to know just how bad things were. There was the wasteland and my stinky hollow. There was school, which seemed like more wasteland, but without my stinky hollow. I wandered through school life picking up some things and keeping them and dropping others. Sometimes teachers asked me questions and sometimes I answered correctly, and other times I didn’t.

 

Home was the place at the other edge of the wasteland to my hollow, beyond the fence. There lived my mother. I had a father once, for an afternoon, he took me to the pictures. I can’t remember what we saw. He was quite nice.

 

My brushes with the outside world had taught me that some children were loved and wanted and nurtured and well fed but these things didn’t happen to me. When the fancy took her, my mum might say that I was a ‘good kid’ at heart, indicating, as I already knew, that I was otherwise unsatisfactory.

 

Certainly I looked it. I was lank, hungry, grimy with sunken eyes, sticking out ears and see-through skin. I was taller than on my first day at school but otherwise un-improved.

 

My twin sisters had grown and in turn been replaced in their babyhood by a string of others who also had fathers for a day or two. They meant nothing to me. My brother liked the babies and the sisters feigned motherliness and made a fuss but I never engaged on a family level. Call me retarded.

 

The day that I found the thing that I found in the wasteland, I’d been lobbing things.

 

Occasionally I lobbed things. Things I didn’t much want from the stash or things of so little value they never made it there. Didn’t matter anyhow if I lobbed something good. Chances were I could pick it up again after. Not many other kids collected things. I liked lobbing.  The day that I found the thing that I found in the wasteland, I’d got into a humdinger of a lobbing battle with a band of marauders from the other estate. There were four of them and one of me but I had more ammo.

 

But as fast as I chucked it out they chucked it back and one of them was deadly accurate and clipped my ear with a welly and came too close for comfort with a piece of old iron, even with me being a moving target. The hollow was becoming too hot, so I left by one of my rabbit tunnels up the back slope by the fence and skirted round behind the gang. I had a mind to slope off home and be done with them, when I found it.

 

It was a shiny goldish colour, which was in itself unusual in the wasteland where most things were knocked about and tarnished. Cylindrical, about a foot long and pointed on one end like a great big bullet or a tiny spaceship. It was smooth yet patterned at the same time, like the pattern was formed in the making, not added afterwards. I clearly remember thinking, “this is not of this world” which is very strange because I don’t clearly remember thinking anything at all before that. Ever.

 

Then a fairly large piece of metal hit me on the head.

“What you got, Retard?” called the deadly accurate marauder. Even at a distance he could see it was more than junk.

“A bit of a spaceship.” I answered.

“Don’t be a prat and give it here.”

The other three appeared around me, creeping in for the kill.

“I found it.” I said.

“We only want to look. You can have it back.”

I hugged it to myself, not believing them.

They came forward, tightening their knot around me.

“Give it here.”

“No.”

“Grab him!”

 

There was a scuffle and a scream and what-ever-it-was was snatched from me and I was knocked, or fell, to the ground. Some foot kicked me in passing, deliberate but not brutal. Then the thing fell beside me, dropped, like a hot potato.

“It fucking burned me.” said one of them.

“Don’t be a prat, how could it.”

“Well you pick it up then…”

No one seemed to want to.

 

I got to my feet.

“He was holding it alright.”

They turned on me. What right had I to hold it if they could not.

Then they were looking at me. Starring. Gobsmacked.

“Jesus!”

They had seen what I was just seeing. My hands. My fingers and my palms were glowing; with a goldish glow just the same colour as the thing. Like some of the paint had rubbed off.

I rubbed my hands. Together. Then on my sweater. The glow did not come off.

I held up my hands. Glowing palms.

They ran.

I stood there, a small piece of space-rubbish at my feet.

 

I picked it up and took it home. This was too precious to leave in the hollow. I hid it in the garage under some old newspapers.

I watched some television and had some tea.

 

I kept my hands in my pockets as much as I could and palms down. Luckily, as every one was used to ignoring me, they didn’t notice.

I checked the thing from time to time, and in between times I found it hard to settle to anything. I felt like it was calling me. I took to sitting in the garage with it on my knee.

 

It called other people too. Strangers in white vans. Vans with U.A.S.S. sign-written on the side. Strangely dressed strangers, in gauzes and veils like beekeepers. Like nothing we had ever seem before on our estate. It caused a stir.

 

Caused crowds to gather and gossip, to eddy around the estate. Talk. Rocking in my garage, I heard the name ‘You-ass’ and felt less and less inclined to leave. It would have felt wanton to have wandered in the wasteland. Let the stash go hang; the turds turn to dust. Needs must.

 

And so it was they found me. Homing in street by street on some silent signal. My brother shouted, “You silly fucker, what you playing at?” as the tape and the cordons went up across our drive.

 

Please understand that I had very little expectation of the people who should have cared for me, so when the strangers stood in their veiled suits at the garage door talking on their radio for ‘someone to deal with the child’, the eyes I turned on my mother were empty of hope.

She stood with a fag on her lip and a babe on her hip. She had always known I’d come to no good and so accepted the assurances that what was to be was for the best, that I couldn’t stay…

 

It took them five, maybe ten minutes to find a woman police officer. Five, maybe ten minutes sitting in the garage with the thing on my lap wishing for something I had never had and could not name. They would take it I knew; but I felt that someone ought to prevent them taking me. A tiny nugget of knowledge nagged at me. A sense of self, which had lain dormant within me, woke up and looked around and was unimpressed by what it saw.

 

The woman who called herself my mother should have protested.

 

“Come on, deary,” the police woman put her arm around me, “give that to the nice man. There, that’s better. Now, you just come along with me.”

She was a pro. Seen it all.  She didn’t shy from my shiny hands but my mum gasped and swore and one of the U.A.S.S. men said, “Be careful!” and stayed her hand from touching mine.

“Can you pack him some things?” the policewoman asked of my mother. “He needs to go for a check-up. Will a family member be coming with him?”

“Oh no!” said the man, “best not.”

“But he’s only a child…”

The policewoman, who was clearly someone’s mother, protested to no effect. They took me, alone, but for a co-op carrier of spare pants, a tee shirt and my unwashed pyjamas. My mother forgot my toothbrush. They had my piece of spaceship, if that was what it was.

 

They took me in an ambulance. It had no windows. I sat on the side of the bed and looked at my hands.

“You assholes. You assholes. You assholes.” I repeated beneath my breath slowing and slurring to “You are souls. You are souls. You are souls,” as the sedative set in.

A nurse relieved the policewoman.

“Zzzu‘re souls. Zzzu‘re souls. Zzzu‘re souls.”

 

I lay on a bed in what they called the ‘unit’.

 

I had dreams where I looked down upon my bed at the skinny lump in the over-washed cotton blankets that was me.  They lay me with my palms uppermost by my side. They came and went. They talked in calm voices as they monitored the lump that was me, like I was a machine.

 

I had dreams where I looked down on another bed at the over-skinny, over-long lump beneath the cotton blankets. It lay with its palms uppermost by its side and the same calm gowned figures came and went. Its skin was green. Its eyes were closed but their slanted slits flickered sometimes. In my dreams.

 

They made my mind like jelly with their drugs. Worm jelly. Slug jelly. Drug jelly.

 

Sometimes they would bring me round to the brink of lucidity and ask questions. The same questions over and over again.

 

“Where did you find the object?”

“How long have you had it in your possession?”

“Did you show it to anyone?”

“Why do you think you could hold it when the other boys couldn’t?”

“Did you ever hear it make a noise? No! Yet you say it called to you?”

 

I answer those questions truthfully.

Although when they played me a recording of hisses and blips…

“Can you understand this?” they demanded.

“No, course not, it’s rubbish,” I lied.

 

“Don’t tell them anymore,” it said to me. “They know enough. Don’t tell them anymore.”

 

One night I woke and my mind was clear.

Zzzu‘re souls, you are souls, you assholes, you ass. U.A.S.S.

Never been so clear before. Sitting up. I felt spacey and incomplete. Standing up even more so. Moving risky.

Hindered by a drip-needle feeding into me, I watched my forearm for some seconds before removing the catheter cleanly. The hole oozed and bled but there was tissue to mop with.

 

Un-anchored now.

 

Un-fettered now.

 

Un-limited now. I did not feel like me, yet who else could I be?

 

I had a wish to get into the next room. It did not feel like my wish, yet who else’s could it be? The doors were not locked and the corridor was empty. There was a figure in the bed in the next room. It too was awake, its mind was clear.

 

Later in my life, I would see for sale, blow-up aliens with elongated bodies and triangular heads and I would know their inspiration. I would know that the Un-identified Alien Search and Secrecy department were taking the piss.

 

When I looked into the clear slanting eyes of the alien in the bed, clocked the snake-slit nostrils and small lipless mouth and listened to the completely comprehensible hiss of space-speak, I knew I could never be the same person again.

 

Gone was the little git with the shit and the stash of worthless flotsam. Gone.

 

I went back to bed. I wondered if the nurse who forgot my sedative would be in trouble when they found my trailing drip pumping saline onto the floor. I lay back against my pillows and arranged my hands palm up.  They glowed gently in the pseudo-blackness of my room and I thought of the alien in next bed. He too glowed.

 

They tried to make me forget but brainwashing doesn’t work when your hands glow; they serve as a constant reminder. In the end they had to let me go.

 

They put me in a car with darkened glass windows and drove for hours. Round and round for all I knew. They had given me back my own clothes. Un-recognisably clean, they hung on my wasted frame and chaffed my skin. My underwear and pyjamas I never saw again but they did supply me with a toothbrush.

 

Later, when I was ‘well to do’ and frequented hotels, I always liked to be supplied with a toothbrush. Though of course I had my own, still, there was comfort in a packaged, brand new toothbrush on the glass, bathroom shelf. Gratis.

 

They left me at a police station close to my mother’s house. The police took me home, like a stray dog.

 

My brother’s friend was asleep where I had slept. “How were we to know?” my brother shouted at my grief.

“You sleep on the settee for tonight, boy.” Said my mother, “We’ll work something out in the morning.”

Lacking assurance that she would, I slept in the garage, beneath the very paper that had covered my spaceship. I slept very well.

 

I had passed a whole season in that institutional bed.  The leaves on the wasteland trees whispered of autumn now when they had sung of spring, and the frogs were gregarious, having no cares, spawning over and winter still a distant idea in their little froggy heads. School had reopened and I was not on roll. Everything, everyone had forgotten me during that summer.

My mother shrugged when I asked how she had so easily let me go, “leave it she told me; you’re back aren’t you,” and my brother shouted with exponential anger, “how the fuck were we to know?”

 

And I knew then the meaning of powerless because… how the fuck was the world to know that a small green alien lay in a bed in the ‘unit’. A small green alien who’s only crime was smallness and green-ness which gave the Un-identified Alien Search and Secrecy department licence to imprison it, drug it, poke it, prod it, cut it, record its sounds and rhythms. But I knew, and I knew that its people knew and that no brother’s friend slept in its vacant bed.

 

And I used words like gregarious and exponential. It was Christmas come early in my cerebellum; gifts galore abounded. A whole alien language full of beautiful words made of hisses and blips instantly translatable into my mother tongue. Words never before uttered by a brat of my station suffused me and, like an avalanche of Lego, constructed a new world in my head.

 

I could never be the same person again. I had numbers too. Tens to the power of infinity dancing; and theology, philosophy, every ‘ology and ‘osophy of possibility.

 

Yet outwardly I was the same little gormless shit with sticking-out ears. Raised in the gutter, weaned on wiliness and now touched by an alien. I collected two hatreds (one for my mother and one for UASS, an international body with secrecy in its name) and stored them in a stash-hollow in my soul.

 

I lay beneath a blanket of the ‘News of the World’ in the oily, dull morning of the garage and made plans.

 

Plans that I soon concluded could not be realised with my paltry level of education. My alien induction had gifted me with vocabulary but no literacy. After all, my words were translated from a hiss. Ideas but no strategy, no framework of understanding on which to pin my new knowledge. So to school I went.

 

Re-enrolling was routine but when I knocked on the staff room door and asked to speak to the science master I was beheld with incredulity.

He passed me a text. “Read it.” I couldn’t.

“Well come back when you can.”

 

With stoic resolution I streamed back to ‘remedial’ and bucked my ideas up. Within a week I returned to the staff room, a stolen New Scientist tucked in the crook of my arm and read.  When he had got over it, he said.

“Period five, room 38. You’ll have to start with the first years.”

I was really quite impressed by his composure.

 

Needless to say, my renaissance caused excitement, teachers nudged other teachers and pupils jeered and pointed but I chose to ignore them, not allowing myself to be led or goaded into the verbosity and posturing of celebrity, although the UASS business of earlier in the year and my ‘arrest’ and the weirdness of my shiny hands were all briefly public property again until I was relegated to ‘boring nerd’. Which, naturally, I preferred to ‘disgusting retard’ and equally afforded me the anonymity I desired.

 

Then came the day that my heart told me that the little green alien had died. I was at school at the time but did not remain and went to the wasteland for the first, and only, time since my return. I stood on the spot where I had first found the thing. It rained unrelentingly and I cried, and cried, and cried. After that day the glow on my palms dulled until it was completely unremarkable.

 

Apart from that afternoon spent in the rain, I didn’t allow myself to become distracted by the alien’s death, although it took some considerable focus and restraint. Though nor did I try to quell the waves of hatred and anger that burnt hot beneath my heartless skin at the knowledge of the alien’s murder, but rather let the feelings marinade and mature, so better to revenge.

 

Meanwhile I had discovered the library. I had a large information void to fill. A capacious, vivacious hunger for the stuff and matter of society; that which makes us who we are as a people. I found much of it wanting in morality and depth, but then I was comparing against a society that was light years ahead… and I realised the unfairness of comparison.

 

All my classes moved too slowly. I was shifted from stream to stream and onward up the school in a time span measured in weeks not terms or years. And hence, I remained a curiosity but still I doggedly resisted the fame they tried to push upon me.

 

Maths, it seems, is a truly Universal language for I found that I needed no tutoring at all beyond the tools the alien had passed to me. Then one day, I discovered computers whose simple little minds laid out the whole of human knowledge like cherries for the picking.

 

There was some kerfuffle, the police visited and talked of ‘hacking’ into sensitive sites. N.A.S.A. U.A.S.S., Number 10 but nobody really believed it could have originated from our noisome, sink-comprehensive; it was just a clever illusion of some real mastermind. The Nation remained on high alert until I worked out how to hack and leave no trace.

 

By the time I was fourteen I began to accumulate qualifications. I often got 100% in exams, partly because I was very clever and very knowledgeable but also because I thought it prudent to use my digital talents to read the exam papers from the exam board computer network a few days before and hence be properly prepared.

 

None of this endeared me to my family, although I continued to reside in their garage during my time at school. Interaction with my mother rarely went beyond signing permission slips and my siblings didn’t seem to like the new me any better than they had the old. I fed myself by selling homework solutions and stock essays to my thick or lazy peers and I don’t think I had a hot meal outside school until I went to Cambridge.

 

I went up when I was seventeen to read politics. You might have thought I would have veered towards the sciences, or computer studies but I believed then that politics would open the most doors, and I think I was right.

 

It was in Cambridge that I allowed myself to shine, but not before I had re-modelled myself by careful mimicry and re-written my personal history so as to obscure my beginnings. I was careful with dressing, careful with my language, my vowel sounds and aitches, my guttural stops.

 

They were cold years at first. Not meteorologically of course, but my world was a cold, methodical chronology of knowledge acquisition, attention to detail and long term planning. Exactly what I planned for, I didn’t then know. It would have an element of retribution, I knew that much, but I doubted, even whilst I fermented my enmities, that it would be ruthless. No, it had to be about power; my power and hence the powerlessness of others.

 

I kept an association with my brother. This was a loose affiliation with a ‘may come in useful’ theme working both ways. My brother still had a group of testosterone fuelled brutes with knives and threats in their pockets, who drove shiny motors with love-handled, foul mouthed tarts in their passenger seats. He still called them his gang. Needless to say I detested them and they detested me. They insulted my student status with a verve that was fed by jealousy and ignorance and it occurred to me more than once to cut my links with them, but a gut feeling, that some thugs in low places might, in time, serve me equally well as some friends in high places, stayed my hand.

 

The thawing of the cold years came gradually as I became confident in my invented self. Student life was a reasonable leveller. There were the toffs and the public school kids, but connections and the advantages of family money were waning in the ‘Oxbridge varsities’ as they strove to prove their street cred. to a governmental funding system, increasingly at pains to demonstrate its own correctness. So with grant and loan funding, and a little moonlighting, for the first time in my life I walked an economic even footing with my generation.

 

I joined the NUS. Became a ‘bit of a mover’ but not enough to draw media attention; nothing that might lead anyone to connect me with the ‘golden hands boy’. I worked on the University newspaper and played in the footlights. My involvement bought me friendships and a popularity that felt rosy, though unfamiliar, and I basked in the local notoriety whilst careful not to overstep, keeping just a little overshadowed by those who more readily courted stardom.

 

Through these extra curricular exploits my personality budded and slowly blossomed. I had been so dreadfully retarded as a child, like an ill-drawn character in a poor fiction and even after the alien encounter I was a mere sponge for knowledge and culture; scorched earth hungry for moisture. But now, quenched and refreshed, the seeds of a pioneering persona that was uniquely me, rather than a sum of my poverties, germinated.

 

And steadily grew.

 

And attracted the attentions and flatteries of some females which precipitated a bit of accelerated learning in the practicalities and realities of the girl/boy thing that had previously passed me by.  I am frankly embarrassed, even now, to recall some of my early blunders in the coital field, I had my ego singed by several belles who found me wanting. But I was used to knocks and my ever eager ‘friend in my trousers’ was convinced that ‘practice makes perfect’, and though modesty prevents my claiming perfection, a degree of competence was swiftly achieved.

 

I met Stella at a June Ball. Lured by her smile and a perceived approachability, that might have had something to do with the Pimms, I was determined to charm her. She looked like Titania veiled by the milk parsley and the meadowsweet that grew by the curl of the river as it passed through the college garden. Whether she was drugged by some love charm I know or care not but as we strolled on the water meadows on that long summer night it felt as much a renaissance as the night I talked with the alien. Although the contrast with the water meadow, alive with a diverse cacophony of buzzing, bleating, quacking things, and the silent, sterility of the ‘unit’ was almost beyond bearing, I felt I could’ never be the same person again’.

 

In truth I never have been. Never, from that moment have I been alone. My first life-changing event left me alien words in my head and a mainline to some distant galaxy, which only served to reinforce the loneliness that I had felt since birth. The second cured me of insularity and taught me the meaning of love. There was never a doubt in my mind that this was my soul mate; my love mate; my life’s mate. She has reflected my certainty and my love. Now, sixty years on, even as she sets my tea down beside me as I type these words, I feel her love.

 

What bliss it is to be loved so.  More so for a ‘little shit’ or a ‘nerdy git’; I don’t know? Maybe so little love at my beginning makes me more grateful; I don’t know.

 

We were married, after graduation, from her parent’s house. They thought it strange that I had so little family, just a brother who didn’t quite fit the mould, but they are polite people who made no fuss, my father-in-law joked that it kept down the bill, “Fewer guests you know”.  On my last night of bachelorhood, as I lay alone on her mother’s insistence, feeling the quaintness of it all, I received a message from outer space saying they were pleased for me. From the Home Counties to the crab nebula; I nearly astral planed into insanity. Pulling myself back to the gorgeous reality of my future life, I settled my head on the crisp, Egyptian cotton of her mother’s sheets and slept, dreaming wondrous dreams.

 

I had secured an internship in Brussels with the EU, which was planned to lead to a doctoral thesis. She was planning to teach TEFL. We talked about having a family. Once, because I had to know, I asked her if she would ever let a child of hers be taken by men in white coats?

 

Well I didn’t phrase it quite like that, I give it hypothetical context, but the result was incredulity. “No one would let that happen to a child!”

 

I said no more. I did not burst her bubble. In her world children were wanted, loved, nurtured, bought safely to adulthood and released, with the greatest reluctance, to fly the nest. That was the world I wanted too for our children. I said no more.

 

Fiction talks of parallel universes, yet little do they know the light years that separate the haves from the have-nots; the love-children from the children that are just sexual by products. The universe of my childhood lies so close to the leafy suburbs of her universe. Separated by an ‘A’ road; light years wide. I was inwardly battling to locate the wasteland, the real wasteland, the land of waste, littered with the corpses of ideas, animals, aliens and babes who failed to survive our immoral curiosity, acceptance of inequality and down-right neglect. For even in my in-laws’ genial ignorance there was neglect, built into our survival was neglect. The human brain is just too small to care about everything.  “I’m alright Jack.”

 

So between the crisp cotton sheets of my pre-nuptial bed I devise my philosophy, the platform on which I will campaign and win elections to the corridors of power. A manifesto to ‘Build a Moral Society; One Step at a Time’.

 

And because I am not trapped in my just too small human brain, I did not neglect my wife and growing family, but had it all, and did it all…

 

Some plans look so beautiful in the planning, an intertwining of possibilities that all go ’textbook’, smoothly avoiding the thorns on the stems to bloom in clean, powdery cream like the roses in Stella’s wedding bouquet and her smile as she came down the aisle. I turned to watch her, I could not resist. Like a digital image imprinted in the software of my mind I recall, even now, how the church was bourgeoning on her side and seemingly void on mine, save for the brother I cannot call ‘best’ and the whole of the unknown universe gunning for me.

 

At that time, the serendipitous coalition of all that could be good in my life and my world hung like ripe fruit and I was acutely aware, so acutely aware of the possibility of failure and the height of the stakes. Less confident in my success than any time since I set out alone on my alien tutored quest for… for what? What seemed like revenge then, now unfolded in more magnanimous emotions. Covert philanthropy seemed a harder flag to fly than moral outrage. Harder to fight to stop the other guys winning than on my own account, but the beauty of the vision still held me and my luck held. The beautiful plans never lost their lustre, the twining strands never snagged or lost direction. My luck held.

 

My career developed like an escalator ride, carrying me, seemingly effortlessly, upwards and onwards. Brussels, Paris, London, Berlin, a stint in New York. Attaché, Aid, Advisor. Always shadowing a front man, back-seat driving.

 

Of course no gravity-defying feat is effortless and I put in the work. The hours crammed into crowded commuter trains beneath international cities, inverting umbrellas and leaking brogues in the winter, sweltering summers and rude cab drivers were the same for me as any other suited city gent. Missing my child’s first steps and making love by telephone from a hotel bed were problems that I juggled like many a working father. Superiors bent on curbing my ambition, and inferiors too to think of it, were niggling thorns in my flank, but there was so much made easy for me by my alien mind which translated any language like a native speaker and spoke to hard-drives like old friends.

 

And the constant anchor of rightness of my track held me steadfast. Everything was checked against the ethical morality of a higher than human order and made me, quite possibly, incorruptible. Although I sound my own trumpet, I did get it right, and I did do right by my loved ones; and I did improve the lot of many in the have not half of the universe; and I did not salve my own ego, nor take more than what was owed to me. My family lived comfortably though my riches went to charity.

 

Oh God! I sound like such a goody goody.

 

There was much more heart to it than that. Stella and I had such good times, loving times, simple pleasures of candlelight dining and Internet shopping for household items. We took walks in the highlands, skinny-dipped in cold rivers, graced diplomatic functions in cocktail dresses, well Stella that is. We made babies and bolognaise with equal passion and love for each other, and life.

 

And Hey! I was listed in ‘Heat’ mag’s top one hundred sexiest men. Coming in at 94 wasn’t bad for a ‘nerdy git’ such as I, though I think they were scraping the barrel quite honestly. By the nineties just looking like you could get it up was surely enough, judging by the others. Stella got a laugh from it, and possibly our third child from the frivolous sacking that followed.

 

That third child, a third boy child because not everything goes to plan, gave me another pivotal moment, when the work of life is balancing on a tight rope of emotion.

 

We were in Berlin. I had work with the consulate constructing aid criteria to second world families. It was at the tail end of winter when the thaw had begun to attack the beauty of the snow, but the skies remained leaden leaking hope like melt water. Her labour was long, the babe ill-presented. German care too perfunctory for our mood at that time, we felt too far from home. The little fellow they finally dragged from her body was listless and suckless and while Stella phoned home to her mother and cried, I stood by the window watching the street sweepers start work in the first morning light, holding my waxen baby, swaddled in my arms as long abandoned loneliness engulfed me again.

 

There was no fag in the corner of her mouth, no telly blaring, no smell of old curries and beer, yet something in my wife’s consuming fatigue reminded me of my mother and for the first time ever, I consciously saw mother love as a two way thing. Sexual love I had always seen that way, always known it to be a sum of two parts, even when I was too amateur at my part to pass muster, I had never assumed that I could only take.

 

Yet, had I ever loved my mother? More so had I ever been loveable? Stella, who had bounced into glowing motherhood with the births of our two first children, had responded to their gusto, their verve for the oxygen of life, turned now to the stronger link with her own mother when faced with this unlovable child. Of course, it was time made of tiredness, confusion and pain. Of course she rallied, dried her tears and took back our son. Of course she made me feel wanted, gesturing me back to her bedside, but not before I had seen enough to offer me some explanation of why my mother had never loved me. I had just not been loveable.

 

So when Stella slipped into sleep I took my son and held him till my palms glowed gold with the love I gave him. Then he slept before waking his mother with vivacious, hungry cries.

 

That night I told her about my childhood. That night we understood.

 

 

Of course I made it to Westminster.

 

In a funny way, that realisation in the Berlin maternity ward cured me, at last, of the need for vengeance both against my mother and, strangely, U.A.S.S. It was gorgeously liberating. Knowing too that I had no secrets anymore from my wife allowed me to step from the shadowland of spin-doctor and strategist and take my place as the front-runner. Exposure as the ‘Golden Hands Boy’ held no fear for me now.

 

We campaigned on the ‘One step at a Time’ manifesto, and won.

 

At the same time I began to hack into the U.A.S.S. mainframe again. I didn’t have to hack into No. 10 as I could just walk through the door.

 

At the same time I set up a correspondence with U.A.S.S. All up front, nothing hidden. I wasn’t greatly surprised when they asked me to become their patron. I accepted with no guilt: one step at a time, remember.

 

At much the same time I recruited some bodyguards. Well, every one else had them and I had been being nagged about it for sometime. Thugs in low places. Remember?

 

 

Now  ‘One Step at a Time’ is not just political rhetoric, but a real movement for social change. The spirit level at work. The fact that I was moonlighting with U.A.S.S. didn’t mean I had lost the plot. Far from it, this was a sub plot.

 

Stella and I returned to my childhood home on a sight seeing tour. The wasteland had been born-again as a business park. On the site of my stash hollow was a landscaped bank planted with small maples. I had told Stella every detail of my collecting, even the turds, which she had thought funny. None of it computed with the ‘me ‘ she knew: it was just a funny story. We cruised around in our too smart car, drove past my house though did not linger. Saw the primary school, now with a new wing, fashioned in wood and recycled materials, with a sloping roof angled towards the sun, bedecked with solar panels and painted panels with murals of happy multi-ethnic children. The old school still sulked behind the facelift of the new, but the hall had gone. I wondered what had happened to the parquet flooring, thinking of my bare knees, chilly in the draft of morning assembly as I sat and traced the rectangular blocks with my finger. Funny what you remember.

 

The comp. was now an academy. Not my doing, the regime before. Though I did feel a sense of pride at the signs for the youth club, the breakfast club, theatre club, O.A.P.s aerobics, signs of a social network not made of electrons. That seems a success I would be proud to claim, like the latter-day Robin Hood of re-distribution politics, that is I.

 

I did visit my mother, though not with Stella and the babes in tow. She’s tough is Stella, broad minded, but I couldn’t see her clearing a space between the empties to perch on the edge of the filthy settee, nor settling the baby on the carpet of fag butts to cruise around the coffee table exploring crack-wrappers and Rizlas. My return coincided with the loss of the T.V. remote and was somewhat overshadowed by the tragedy of that event. I did not linger. Verbal abuse ranging from curious through levels of hostility showered me from my mother and resident siblings and the jaws of my nieces and nephews hung loose, with hunger or awe I did not choose to consider? She wanted nothing from me and my schmancy politics, “Never had and never would”. I concluded that, in her eyes, I remained unlovable.

 

 

 

Making free with U.A.S.S.s hyperspace informed me that the remnants of a small dead alien still lay in a freezer in a basement labelled specimen 401/11AA.

Making free with U.A.S.S.s eagerness the court the interest of a man in my position confirmed this. Of course they weren’t surprised at my interest; they were fascinated and gleefully shared their data. Clearly, there were far too many rats in that place for anyone to smell a new one.

 

The countdown began then.  I did fear for my psyche during the next years as the sub plot unfolded. Whilst outwardly remaining the solid patriarch to both family and country, another family began to make their needs clear. The aliens wanted their child back, wanted what I understood then as the chance to keen last rites over his dead body according to their customs. They wanted me to get him for them. They were planning a visit.

 

I struggled again with the feelings of unwantedness that the alien’s parents’ devotion to their child created within me. I did battle with that demon but have never won. It is a sadness that I will take to my grave. I often court the idea that it should have been I that died, but I know that I was the less interesting specimen. I know, from the records I had hacked, that they concluded that I had ‘incidental contamination’ and was of no further interest.

 

Into this melting pot of unrewarding feelings I had now to let my brother. My bodyguard and henchman, that uncouth and un-trainable Rottweiler had now to be brought to heel, to bend his undoubted talents for lawlessness to the requirements of intergalactic espionage. In short we were become body snatchers; traceless, print-less, soundless, ripple-less body snatchers.  I would control the airwaves, create an information curtain but the sneak thief work could not be mine, nor his in fact, but “Brother mine, I know a man who can…”

 

 

 

 

A ratty little man to penetrate the nest of rats that is U.A.S.S. But, not yet a while, we run too fast. There are yet more steps to climb.

 

As I said, when U.A.S.S. invited me to be a patron I was not surprised. I had, in fact, suggested myself, but they were not to know that. “It’s a shame you’re not a crim,” said Bro one morning over a plotters fag and coffee, “you’re a fucking mastermind! You have it all summed-up!”

“Not quite,” I remind him. There is one more coup I have to clinch; one more cat to bag.

 

There is always one person, in every administration, whose task it is to talk to aliens. It is always a bit of a joke to all and sundry, those whose neck is not on the line should security fail and we wake one morning subservient to eight legged creatures with assumed mining rights.

Paragraph 24.1.a of the International Security Protocol dictates that there should be one appointed spokesperson ready to step up should the little green men come to call.

Not written but generally known is that the person, no! Let’s call him a man, for they always have been men… The man should be relatively unassuming, well spoken, not a threat. He should be average height and average build, Caucasian (though we dare not write that), Christian, possibly? Trustworthy too? Trustworthy on the outside.

Trustworthy enough to appear to the man in the street a worthy ambassador, yet to know well enough where his allegiance ought to lie, to sell out a life form to U.A.S.S.

So not trustworthy at all actually.

 

This is my last cat. I need to be the man who talks to aliens and I don’t quite meet the person spec. I need to deal a little dodgier. A little wining and dining with men in white coats; dope the moggy?

 

 

When that last piece fell into place. We were ready to boogie. I took a long distance call from the alien’s parents and invited them to send their calling card. Small worries of the grave robber haunted me, like what would happen when are quarry thawed? But alien mama and papa said, “no big deal. “ They would hold him a state of suspended animation, or that is what I understood it to translate to or more literally ‘little death’ and I began to wonder… if I had understood correctly about their customs and their rites, what to sing the song of little death might mean?

 

 

Then things began to happen. Stella and I and the big Bro followed the action on the telly with the kids, and other developments on the laptop where we filled in the voids of public information and filled in the gaps of political need to know. The aliens were coming…

 

As our rat chewed his way into the U.A.S.S. basement, the Met, the Government, M.I.5, the S.I.S. and the S.A.S. were preparing a landing pad, the red carpet, our reception committee, the laser barriers, the snipers on high buildings. In short, a trap and we three, in conference, planned to spring the trap.

 

Of course outwardly I had to appear normal, to get on with the business of government, to take my briefing, learn my cues.

 

By Alien Encounter minus 20 hours, we had a corpse in our spare room, thawing.

By Alien Encounter minus 15 hours, we had a corpse in our spare room, dripping.

We had thugs on tall buildings waiting to take out snipers, electricians and others ready to pull plugs, slip red carpets from under our feet, short out lasers, let hell loose.

By Alien Encounter minus 10 hours, the alien in our spare room started breathing and Mama and Papa alien’s ambiguities finally made sense to me. My hands began to glow oh so slightly. I sent out for gloves.

 

There were sound tests and lighting tests, make-up and dressers. I slipped back as often as I could, always the family man.

 

By Alien Encounter minus 5 hours, the alien in our spare room asked for something to eat.

Alien Encounter minus 4 hours forty saw the alien eating avocados in front of our telly. Stella and the children were enthralled. I sent out for more avocados.

 

Minus 3 hours, Big Bro slips out the back and the plan has changed. My youngest son is mortified, Stella enraged. An Aid texts me, ‘time 2 go’.

 

Minus 2 hours fifty and I leave the house by the front steps amidst the flashes and clicking of cameras and three boys leave by the back. They are dressed in black hoodies and jeans. Inside the house Stella and my youngest son watch the telly. I only have three children. The boys rendezvous with big Bro on a corner as planned. Big Bro has greased some palms and his purse (my purse) is somewhat lighter.

 

The waiting was outwardly boring, standing on ceremony in the threatening rain. More galling though for those condemned to follow the inane commentary of the television coverage, I felt for Stella. I watched for the three hooded figures in the crowd and spotted them to the left of me. I gave them a wave.

 

The commentator noticed my action, as I knew he would. “Look, there are the Minister’s sons. Can’t see the small one properly but that is definitely them.” Camera pans. “I wonder if he is going to introduce them to the aliens?” Guffaw.

 

A bodyguard to my right gave me a nod.

 

And an excited little voice inside my head clicked feverishly, “mummy’s coming, mummy’s coming”. It was the cutest thing! I caught myself smiling.

 

They were early! Suddenly the sky lit up and a glowing shape descended. “It’s just like Chicken Little,” said some guy on my flank. It was going to be so much more like Chicken Little than he could know.

 

There was noise we couldn’t hear but only feel, a smell of a fuel we didn’t recognise, a light we couldn’t find the source of. “Everything feels alien, like it is not of this world! Oh, which of course it isn’t!” blabbed the commentator stupidly. “Mummy’s coming, mummy’s coming,” clicked and blipped inside my head.

 

“You alright Sir?” said an Aid as I held my hands to my head, forgetting briefly my public countenance. I felt a doorway open on the craft. This is it… a meeting of old friends, a family reunion, a trap. “We know,” said a softer blip, “but we had to come, you’ll do your best, we are not defenceless.”

 

We met as old friends with blips and clicks and hugs (for the record they felt warm, thin skinned and a bit like I might imagine a Naked Mole Rat to feel) and around us all hell, almost, let loose. “What is going on? What has got into the Minister? Has he gone crazy? That’s not in the script?”

 

I held up my gloved hands to still the crowds. “Ladies and gentlemen, these are my good friends (HEADLINE: MINISTER MADNESS!) whom I have known since child hood (HEADLINE: MINISTER DELUDED). They are family people and are looking for their lost child (HEADLINE: THEY ARE FAMILY PEOPLE SAYS MINISTER) I would like to introduce them to my children…”

I gesture to the children, across the line of the crowd-containing boundary. They wait for the inevitable nods and shrugs and opening of the barrier, and unseen the switching off of the laser trap, before they step up. The smallest one is still hooded held by both hands between the others. He squirms and jumps squeaking crazily and escapes them, as his hood falls back…

Quite suddenly the enemy smell the rat and all hell does let loose.

 

In the darkness of the shorted lights, my brother grabs my children and they run, he felling an S.A.S. officer with a deft blow to the chin as he passes. The aliens grab their child and they… (move fast?) taking out the few who tried to stop them in a manner that defies description. The magic of their family reunion is lost in the madness (MINISTER DOUBLE CROSSES U.A.S.S.).

I take off my gloves.

The light from my hands stills everything. I hold them out, palms facing out, like some Jesus figure in renaissance gilt and by their light we watch the alien’s departure. No one can stop them. No one can act against my compelling hands.

 

 

My sons creep back. It seems the light will let them in. Together we watch the alien ship fade. Then the sound we can only feel is gone, though a smell of fuel still lingers. Loudspeakers blare instructions, walkie-talkies and swift glances transfer meaning…

“You were great Dad,” said my eldest child, gripping my arm as they pull me away and into a blacked-out car. Big Bro steps up to claim the children. I accept my son’s rare praise and my Rottweiler’s faithfulness, knowing them both to be true.

There would be hell to pay…

But I am great! Let them bundle me.

 

“Cameras stay trained”.

In press rooms all over the world… “Find that old copy about the Golden Hands Boy!”

 

 

It was very minor hell. I was arrested briefly, but on what pretext? I had done no wrong. The right thinking world could see that, and years of my right thinking politics meant that there was more right thinking in the world, right?

 

The worst were the endless interviews and questioning, both, latterly, from the media and also the S.I.S. The secret intelligence bloodhounds got me first and tried to run tests on me, but happily I am no longer an unwanted child from a sink estate so they didn’t get away with it. They tried too to make my life an official secret, but I would not let that wash. They wanted to push me around, get their own way like the usually did, but they couldn’t not treat me with deference. At some level they were scared of me. Was it my international statesmanship, my day-glo hands or my mainline to an alien consciousness that freaked them out? Uncharitable though it is, I loved watching them squirm. In the end we hatched an unhappy compromise that my life was mine, but U.A.S.S.’s part in it was a secret. I went with that. It was a pile of shit, but I went with that.

 

The media machine then processed us. It transpired that Stella had photographed the kids with the alien so her photos were front page global. The boys enjoyed their brief fame, which lasted till Bangladesh got flooded again. Sorry to make light of that, but frankly it was a relief. I salved my conscience with a significant donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee.

 

I lost my job over it. Got a golden handshake! Get it!! Golden Hand Shake! I didn’t mind at all, that job had lost its purpose now, I didn’t need power and influence; I had celebrity and that opened enough doors for a middle-aged do-gooder. Stella and I joked that I might make it into ‘Heat’ magazine’s top twenty, but I think not. Glowing hands are just creepy, not sexy. “Hey, let me be the judge of that!” said Stella.

 

We travelled widely, lectured widely, made a lot of money on film and book rights. We gave a lot of money to good causes. Became good friends with big Bro. Saw our boys through Uni, heading out on their own trajectories and received Christmas cards from outer space.

 

When my mother died. Stella and I went together to her funeral. Big Bro introduced us to our family. It was okay.

 

We have grandchildren now. Sleek, well cared-for, bright children with a zest for life. They like me to help them with their homework; coz Granddad is so clever! I don’t even charge then in crisps and pasties like I used to, to get by. Though I’m partial to an apple, if they’re feeling grateful!

We have finally embraced my wider family too. My sibling’s children are less sleek and well cared for, but bright children and quite rewarding company for an old man. I tell them tales about aliens and they almost believe me.

 

So we have slipped together into old age. A wasteland, strewn about with beautiful memories.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dust and heat, dust and heat

My friend dies of cancer, during lambing time. I took his place in the lambing shed, disentangling the limbs of in-utero twins whilst his mutant cells poisoned him and every night he said, “I want to go home.” It was bitter cold, lambs were born into the deep, deep freeze… such a struggle.

 

My friend died at lambing time. Now we work all hours to get the hay in. Dust and heat, dust and heat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jesus

Jesus

An unblurred version

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Diesel

Diesel

I then altered it, so posting for posterity as this no longer exists

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment