Friday, May 26, 2006
Blue, ragged cover, “The Lomond Series”, corners like Labrador ears, pages flapping in a directionless breeze, the jotter sat on a green, crusty and flaking park bench. At first I made a split second decision to ignore it and maintained my pace travelling past the seat. Then a sudden sharp pain of realisation made me stop, turn and without second or third thought pick up the book, curl it and ram it into my inside jacket pocket. It fitted, almost, as I patted the bulge it made and resumed my previous stride pattern, the one that would carry me to through the wrought iron gates and onto the relative safety of the busier streets.
I’m no thief. I’m an opportunist, sometimes a lucky one; there are many of us, and many kinds (of us). The rain started and I reminded myself of that basic truth, timing is everything. A few seconds more and the book would have been an indigo mess of running ink, grey pencil blurs and porridge pages. I looked down past my lapel, into the pocket and shielded the book from the rain like a mother hen would her chick.
I passed a newsagents, a hoarding bore the headline, “American serviceman’s remains found by Holy Loch”, I made a mental note and walked on.
At the greengrocers I bought a bag of peppers, assorted colours, some grapes, some onions, some Mackintosh apples and some garlic. I had no particular meal or recipe in mind but I knew later in the day, probably in the evening I would cook. I could hardy think of anything but the jotter now and it’s contents. A blind man busked on the corner, playing a white violin, the tune was familiar but I couldn’t place its name, I threw a pound in his hat and he ignored me.
In the off-licence I bought a bottle of red wine. I wondered why there were no supermarkets around here, just little shops, both specialising and struggling with an appealing degree of energy, the kind a Sunday supplement journalist would enthuse about in some unreadable piece towards the rear of the weekend section. I now had two bags of things and a jotter so I jumped on a bus, the first that came by, I hoped it was the right one as I asked the driver for a £1.50 fare.
After fifteen minutes on the bus I began to recognise were it was I was, so I alighted at the next stop. The streets were dry, the rain gone and the school run traffic had begun for the afternoon. I walked about a mile turning every second left and every first right. Red brick houses, grey stone houses, concrete flats and offices, mobile homes and caravans, large amounts of miscellaneous street furniture and stubborn trees keeping them all apart. I recognised the final corner, checked the number, opened the green gate, walked up the path, then down the path. A Yale key was at the bottom of my trouser pocket, I picked it out and put it in the lock. It opened. I was home.
Once inside I opened the wine, poured some and sipped it from a crystal clean glass. I reached into my jacket and place the curled up blue jotter onto the flat surface of the coffee table. It was safe.
I went into the kitchen and unpacked the grocery bags, well the fruit and veg. I laid the peppers and onions on the worktop, ran some clean water and plopped them into the basin. I turned the tap on harder and showered each one in white water to remove any surface dirt. There was a red, a yellow, a green and an orange pepper, three small onions and a clove of garlic. I put the garlic to one side and began to clean and chop the peppers and onions with my sharpest vegetable knife. Some I diced to be quite small, mainly the onion, the peppers I kept in larger pieces once I had removed their seeds. When I had finished the chopping board was piled high with all those colourful vegetable pieces. I drank another glass of wine.
I switched on the radio and straight away a voice said “Tailback on the A46 due to an overturned vehicle of the eastbound carriageway”.
In the fridge there were two chicken breasts in a dish, on the lowest shelf. They had been there for twenty-four hours. I thought, “writing is really mostly a mix of application, concentration and unfinished perspiration”. I realised that that thought made no sense and was towards the end disjointed and stupid, this was as I removed the chicken from the fridge. I washed it and chopped it with a different knife, a smaller, sharper knife. I put the pieces in a bowl and looked out of the window. I then began to think of a dish of Buffalo wings being served up to me in a TGI restaurant. I don’t much care for TGI. Once I was working away from home and on Valentine’s Day night ate a meal in a TGI with a male and a female colleague.
After I had eaten the chicken and vegetable stir fry I sat on the couch, just across from the coffee table. The jotter was on the table where I’d left it, slowly uncurling. I looked a long the top edge and could see it widen towards the spine, some pages had been torn out. Each corner was slightly crushed and creased; there were scribbles across part of the front cover. I couldn’t see the back as it was facing the tabletop. I imagined it would be scribbled on also. After all it was very much a used, filled up, written on, scribbled in and torn jotter.
That had been my first proper meal in twenty-four hours but I was not counting. Then I remembered I was counting after all.
“It must be love, love, love, nothing more, nothing less, love is the best.” The radio interrupts my train of thought again. I sat back on the couch and studied the jotter on the table for a few moments more. Then I drifted away and thought about being in Bristol and walking down the hill from Clifton to the city centre and old docks. I remembered the paving stones, the crossings, the shops and pubs, the cold wind on my face turning a corner. The incongruous mix of old and new that makes up the centre, the never-ending building work. People standing outside offices or in doorways smoking or waiting at bus stops. Bristol.
The food and the wine took effect and I fell asleep. I don’t pay much attention to time, apart from the big 24-hour gaps, as I’ve mentioned, so when I woke up and found it was dark I didn’t care much about it. I got up, toileted and went to the bedroom and slept some more. I had a vague recollection of a dream (from the couch), mainly travelogue and not much action with a generally yellow impression and some perfume smells. Pleasant enough but I couldn’t get back into it so I stayed asleep dreamless.
When I awoke next morning I showered quickly. I dressed and walked down to the local McDonalds and had sausage and egg McMuffin, coffee and a hash brown with ketchup, I read the Independent also. It clearly was some time before 1030 but I wasn’t worried about that I just knew I must remain on the lookout for more jotters. The headline in the paper said, “Name the day”. A long political piece followed, I read it disinterestedly for a few moments but then skipped forward to the editorials, the letters and some pages of reviews. That’s usually how I read that type of newspaper, skip, and then dip. What happened next surprised even me as I looked across the McDonalds car park. The usual array of breakfast vehicles were there, white vans, sales reps Mondeos, 4x4s and Subaru boys. The crows were hoovering up pieces of food and attacking milk shake cups that had fallen short of the bins and making a mess. It was then that I saw it, in a bin, sticking out like a badly broken arm, like a blue distress flare in a green rainforest canopy, like a cry for help. A jotter wedged into the swing bin lid in the far corner of the car park.
As it happened I’d just taken my last gulp of coffee, I rolled the newspaper under my arm and whilst carefully avoiding eye contact with anybody in the place headed over to the bin. I was trying to look innocent, normal if you wish. I became self-conscious, aware on my walk, my gait as I crossed between the parked vehicles, heading for the remote corner, heading for my prize. In seconds it was mine, captured and in my parka pocket, blue, ragged cover, “The Lomond Series”, you know the rest.
A silver Ford transit mini bus full of children pulls into a parking bay that is too small for it and I get a text message tone on my phone. The message says, “You have new voicemail, phone….”
I decide to walk back via a completely different route, strange bus stops pass by, strange passers by and collections of traffic that belong to nobody, homeless traffic. I decide to turn around at eleven thirty but as it happens I’m home by then having lost my bearings. I inspect the jotter and place it beside the other on the coffee table. This one has slightly more aged and weathered than the other, a paler blue, more creases, more promise perhaps. I choose to ignore all daytime TV programming and instead pick up an edition of National Geographic magazine from the bookshelf. I wake up at twelve fifty five, not in the least bit hungry.
The doorbell rang. I ignored it. I could only be some unwanted salesman or some one doing a survey or some minority religious group on a recruitment drive. I sneaked a peek through the curtain; sure enough it was two young men, both in grey suits and carrying large black brief cases, Mormons or JWs on a mission. Quickly I blot this insignificant event from my life and begin to wonder if Van Gough actually looked like any of his self portraits, was he just playing a joke, perhaps other famous artists did the same thing. Perhaps there was a secret rule, a pact made amongst art students and apprentices (prior to photography) that their self portraits would not be “quite right”. Now their non-self self portraits hang in galleries and collections in complete mockery of the medium and only a few are aware of this secret.
My attention turns again to the two jotters, side by side on the coffee table, then it shifts again. On a sudden impulse I go over to the computer with my wallet and decide to book a flight, on line. I scroll through various destinations and finally click on Rennes in Brittany. That will do, I’m booked onto the 1005 flight tomorrow morning. The rest of the afternoon is spent reading tele-text adverts, sipping sweet tea and watching DVDs with the commentary option on. As night falls I pack a bag (a small rucksack) and retire for what I hope will be eight hours of undisturbed sleep.
Next morning I pay the taxi driver and find the check in line. I’m about fifteenth but I’m not counting. The line is made up of an odd collection of student types, a couple who look to be on a business trip, some older folks dressed in pale greens and browns and a small group of animated and excited schoolgirls chattering French. When my turn comes I hand over the rucksack, even though it could go as hand luggage, pick a seat, a window seat and then wander past more chrome and glass and shiftless people to the security checking area. In the lounge I buy a medium latte and a pastry at Costa and find a quiet spot to bide my time until boarding starts - in about forty-five minutes. People in airports are distracting, I should be reading but I can’t concentrate, every few seconds I lift my eyes and take in the latest group of passengers or individuals passing by.
A woman sits across from me, middle aged, she has on blue business suit and her hair is over dyed and permed rather unfashionably, she is hurriedly reading notes from a plastic folder. She crosses and uncrosses her legs at regular intervals as if needing the toilet. She is agitated about something, possibly the meeting that she is headed for; perhaps she has not done enough homework. Our eyes do not meet. I try to decide if she is attractive or not, on a scale of one to ten she’d be four. Her water bottle is almost empty as she stops reading to take a mouthful and then continue with her reading. I think she is possibly Welsh.
There are the older folks that wee in line with me; they are studying their boarding cards, almost in a kind of disbelief as if they don’t trust the airline or the information provided. One of the men (there are two couples) gets up from his seat every few minutes to gaze at the departures on the TV screen. When he returns to the others he says nothing. Perhaps he dislikes flying or needs a cigarette. The women are chatting and holding glossy magazines they have brought to read on the plane. They look like sisters. The other man is detached, staring into space and bored with the holiday experience so far, this holiday is another of their habitual breaks that he tags along on while the sister’s enjoy each others company. They have reached the stage in life where their circle of friends and family is steadily reducing, falling in on its self as their world shrinks.
No football teams, stag night parties, religious groups looking for healing time or 19 –30 holidaymakers. This airport isn’t so bad after all. Outside on the tarmac a monsoon has begun, agitated think clumps of people are queuing in the open rainstorm to get onto narrow aircraft, papers are on heads, bags and briefcases are used as temporary shields against the rain. The baggage handlers carry on in their bright yellow jackets carelessly tossing the luggage as the rain soaks the suitcases. Amber lights flash meaninglessly on while Landrovers and Ford Fiestas as they buzz under the aircraft wings. In the distance a 737 lazily climbs into the sky through and into the grey murky weather just as another Tannoy message cuts across the lounge somewhere above my head. It’s for me this time.
I find my seat on the aircraft and pretend to sleep. I secretly squint up and down the passenger compartment as the safety brief drones on, the plane is three quarters full but nobody sits beside me. Joy.
The clouds roll below like unfinished white carpets, blue horizons are strangely dull and a slow boredom sets in even on this hour and forty five minute flight. I don’t bother with a drink or a snack; there will be plenty of time for that in France. A country that I know to be full of decent food and drink of all kinds, why waste time and money on the airline food? I prefer to arrive hungry and then seek out something interesting.
The in-flight magazine extols the virtues of everywhere; there are no bad, tedious or unglamorous destinations. At least not as far as this airline is concerned. Everywhere is worth visiting and when you get there everything will run like clockwork, locals will greet you with flowers and smiles, the weather will be perfect, hire cars will gleam and have 10 miles on the clock, taxi drivers tell you of all the best places and are honest in how they charge you, hotels will roll out red carpets and pick up your baggage from the car, waiters serve you the best wine whilst grinning under their moustaches, swimming pools and old castles cry out for dips and visits, markets promise fun and fantastic bargains, hotel beds are king size and a blonde woman (of uncertain age) sits in the corner reading a magazine wearing only a clean white robe. Even before you get there the kindly airline will sell you gifts, alcohol, perfume and cigarettes all at give away better than high street (who shops on a high street?) prices, you hardly need to shop at all from now on. This perfection wearies me no end, but eventually I get to the maps part of the magazine and study the many places that this airline does not bother to fly to. They all seem a lot more exciting but it’s far too late for that by now.
I sleep for about fifty minutes and then wake up hoping I haven’t snored or dribbled, I read a paper and stare blankly at that blurry space that seems to be neither sky nor land. Then after the usual 10-minute announcement and some wet weather forecasts the runway hits the plane and we judder and slow up all along the tarmac. Remember the days when the whole cabin would burst into spontaneous applause on landing safely, wonder what they did when the other thing happened?
No baggage to collect, just a quick passport check and I’m through the glass doors and into a drizzly grey taxi rank. Renaults and Merc taxis whiz past splashing and flashing in the dull afternoon. I stop walking and get my bearings. The airport is not large but at the moment it’s busy, I look around a few times and decide a taxi is the best and quickest way out and into Rennes itself.
The taxi is a roller coaster ride. I hand a print of the hotel detail to the driver, he nods and heads out onto the dual carriageway that clears the airport traffic, the rain now getting really heavy. The rain masks dull units and factories by the road, sickly trees and forests of odd signs that seem to be about tyres or furniture, it’s hard to tell things apart. I stop trying to look and think about a massive divorce settlement I read about in the paper, a huge income split between the two warring partners, it doesn’t seem quite like the full story, more lies beneath, but the papers like good copy in the big numbers.
25 Euros pays the fare. I run up the hotel steps. It’s an IBIS on the edge of the town, a Travelodge moved up half a notch. I have room, a bed, there is a bar.
The TV turns onto a French news channel; I sit on the bed and watch it. The newscast is like that blurry space that seems to be neither sky nor land I saw for the aeroplane window. Not quite true or real or fathomable. An idea or expression of some editorial vision, clamped together by a body of what has happened today. While all the while, all the while, a billion far more interesting thing go on unreported and unseen. I know where they are, hidden now and forever in that blurry space that seems to be neither sky nor land. The planet’s history kept safe from prying eyes.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Every day is a journey to somewhere
Moving across the golf ball glass house
Searching for the exit and entrance
Standing in the queues,
Standing in the standing traffic
Pay the toll, jump the queue
Then find yourself back at the start
Power up the windows
Turn on the AC
Drown out your neighbour’s music
Who is he anyway?
Far too many questions.
Who is in there?
Where are the emergency services?
Who can rescue the likes of me?
Time traveller with nowhere to go
Time traveller with the clock unwound
Ticking on a dead man’s wrist.
One more cup before we start
Today’s migration, embark
Puzzle the day away in this cocoon
But you will be released soon.
Saturday, May 06, 2006
The chances of food poisoning (while travelling).
The fear of dying from crayfish poisoning
Paralyses the heart, stills the gut,
Freezes the brain more quickly than gulped ice cream.
But those textures, colours and aromas
Are so damn attractive
Hold yourself back
It’s just your juices are active.
While travelling to the ends of the earth
Tedious but riveting
Airports, cheap food, staff emptying buckets
While other consumers fill them relentlessly.
Rustling sandwich packs that resist being opened,
With all their artificial might.
I can’t wait for some more legroom in this.
And the toileting arrangements are unfamiliar to me.
Like Chernobyl’s deadly footprint
A social revolution
Without my inclusion
The chattering classless on annual migration
Pass me by,
Like the love dance of the dragonfly
They fly, those people fly, over and under
Without wings or consequences
For no particular reason.
Strange love but worth a suck
And we don’t hold anything against anybody.
A repeat prescription please
Or maybe something to tease
Just some slow release
For my ongoing crayfish poisoning.
Some of the life from some of the heart
Turn it over
See if it will start.
I suppose I will eventually die of it,
Perhaps with a view of palm trees
From the hospital window.
A fashionable drug,
An accessory in this life,
An added piece that I somehow ingested
Like smoking, liver failure or overdosed amphetamines,
Traffic accidents or falling down unfamiliar stairs,
Cancer of the bone, brain or anywhere,
Older but unaware.
After so many years, the young doctor will be amazed,
Remove her glasses, shake her head
Toss her head back and pull her fingers through her hair
And stare at my deathbed results
On a clipboard or pda.
“Poisoned by crayfish”,
It will say.
(Accompanied by rocket), all from the past,
But he’s certainly dead at last.
I guess we must all die of something.
Dirty living things
Getting increasingly drunk
Waiting on the rain
And the football results
Weeding the flowerbeds
Hour by hour by deadheads
This is the window
Here is the door
I am recalcitrant
This is how it pours
Even with something blocked.