12 October 2012

The Secretary

The secretary sat back from her desk and rubbed her eyes. She couldn't concentrate. The words the Party leader had spoken the day before kept appearing in her mind, cutting her thoughts like gulls in cloud.

She walked to the window and gazed out beyond the city. Large clouds rolled in from the sea, lit up bright yellow-white by the late afternoon sun. She bit her lip nervously.

The Party leader had made it clear that he did not expect her to turn the offer down. And it was a wonderful offer. Her heart raced at the thought of the advantages it could afford. But there was a tightness in her stomach, a feeling unfamiliar to someone so capable. The bad feeling grew.

She had no idea what Charles looked like- the city was good at hiding those things that shouldn't be seen- but she'd heard the rumours like everyone else. The enormous physical prospect of him was unbelievable enough, but there was so much more. He didn't belong in the city, amongst them here; he just didn't belong anywhere. She thought about his parents and how embarrassed and dissapointed they must be in him.  Her mind started to construct an image of him without his clothes and a bitter taste caught the back of her throat. She closed her eyes and rested a hand against the window, breathing heavily.

Could she really do it? The sickness could be controlled through medication, as could the lack of physical desire, but could she keep the act up, all the way to the end? The idea of being intimate with him... And what if she accidentally let the truth slip out? The whole matter demanded the utmost discretion; the Party leader had explained that very carefully. And she knew very well that he detested loose ends.

A call came through on her screen, the metallic sound bringing her back from her thoughts. She walked back over to her desk and answered the call, her voice friendly but with a measured calm, just as prescribed by her role. Back in familiar territory she felt comfortable again, in control. The Party leader was out, and the man hung on, flirting with her as she had come to expect. She smiled and laughed lightly at his jokes. An act, perfectly performed.

She walked back to the window, this time noting the fine view of the city and the sea beyond. Gulls caught the autumn wind and wheeled through the rolling clouds. There were planes.

This was a good job. One of the best she could hope to find outside of the Ultra class. If she turned the offer down, this would be it; a job for life, answering calls, scheduling, translation, speech-writing. She knew she could do so much more. She rested her head against the window, feeling the warmth of the sun and the dead cold of the glass. Balance. She slowed her breathing.

The offer meant things she would otherwise never have. Wealth, fame, maximised opportunity. A place among the Ultra.

She turned back to her desk, catching her reflection from the long mirror on the far side of the room. She was staggeringly beautiful. Even here in the city, even amongst the countless beautiful women she stood out. She touched her face and played absently with her hair. There had always been something, a feeling that she was destined for something more. She imagined families watching reports about her on their screens at home, people reading articles about her, discussing photographs of her over their morning coffee in caf├ęs all over the city. Men, talking about her in bars, thinking of her as they went about their work.

She sat back down at her desk, and smiled.

18 March 2011

Lost Inside

My girlfriend has one of those bags.

She's sat on the edge of the bed right now, searching through it for her glasses.

A lot of girls have bags like that nowadays; it is nine feet wide, a hundred and twelve feet long, and sixty three thousand five hundred and seven feet deep. On the outside it looks like any other brown leather bag.

It’s the kind of bag that absorbs normal everyday items, the kind that makes you question your own sanity. It gets you looking in the back of the freezer or under the rug in the living room for a glasses case that otherwise might take a generation to find.

I lie there staring at her naked back with the morning sunlight glinting off her shoulder. She's making quiet exploration sounds. I think about offering her a compass, a stout pair of boots, a flask of coffee and sandwiches wrapped in paper so she can get to the search seriously.

She stands up looking like you wouldn't believe and gives a faintly exasperated, but quite delicious sound. She walks over to the bedroom door and wraps a robe around her cool white body. Without her glasses she looks like a librarian on her day off who intends to get drunk and sleep with strangers.

I hear her go into the bathroom and start looking for her glasses under the toilet seat.

Then I hear sounds downstairs and I know that she's looking for her glasses in the kitchen cupboards. Right now she's looking in the tin that holds the sugar from the top shelf of the cupboard by the refrigerator, like the glasses are a hidden treasure in a desert of white crystal sand.

I hear birds singing and my immediate reaction is to look down at the bag. There could be birds down there.

She comes into the bedroom carrying two cups of coffee and a pair of glasses on the bridge of her nose. I ask her where she found them and she tells me that these are her spare pair, and that the other pair must still be in her bag and will turn up sooner or later.

I swear, sometimes she opens that bag and the smell that comes out of it is like someone just lit a camp fire. I remember the day we bought it from a second-hand shop, and lie there wondering about all the people that might already be lost inside.

2 December 2010

November Sunday

1. Gentle

We sat
Watching the snow come down
On the roofs of the town

She ran her hands through my hair
And kissed my shoulders

I wondered if that
Was how the rooftops felt

2. Piss

I was enjoying
a nice
With my girlfriend next to me
In the shower

She looked amazing there
Behind a curtain of tropical fish
Like an oyster diver
In warm tropical waters

I thought of what I might look like
From the other side

3. Armageddon

The snow fell all morning
Then suddenly
(And so quietly)
It stopped

Everything was a smooth white colour
Like an art gallery
With nothing put up
On the walls

We didn’t want to ruin
The quiet smoothness outside
So we went back to bed
And ignored the messages from my mother
Telling me she was right
About Armageddon

4 August 2010

And each of us had a place in that old yellow streetlamp light, and the days of aimless rain

At dinner recently a man started talking about how he had lost his faith in God. He’d been quiet for the whole meal and started telling people about it right in the middle of desert.

We put our spoons down and listened to him. He had a strange way of talking like he was explaining the whole thing to himself. He looked down at his desert the whole time he spoke.

When he had done we picked up our spoons and finished desert in silence. No one said anything to the man about him losing his faith in God. It was a sad story and not one I really wanted to talk about more.

I wondered why the desert had made him decide to talk about it.

After dinner we said our goodbyes and I shook the man’s hand for a good while. Looking back it seems a pointless thing to have done but I couldn’t think of anything better at the time.

Outside the house it was dark and a fine rain was blowing aimlessly about the front yard. There was that old yellow streetlamp light.

As we walked away I looked at the cars parked on the driveway. The man had arrived last and his small car was squeezed in right at the end. I noticed on the back of his car the place where a chromed fish emblem had recently been. It’s the sort of thing you see everywhere.

The man had pried the fish away but the glue was stubborn and had set hard. I scratched at it with my fingernail to check; it was as much apart of the car as the paintwork.

We both stood there in the near rain and old yellow light looking down at the shadow of that fish on the man’s car. I imagined him uselessly scraping away at it and it seemed the saddest thing in the world right then. My wife squeezed my hand and said that maybe God wasn’t ready to let the man go quite yet.

9 February 2010

The Somnambulist and the Song

It starts with a man sitting up in bed. He’s dreaming but has done like this for a long time. The woman lying beside him used to wake up, years ago.

In the dream the man is looking out of the eyes of someone else. He can’t see himself in the dream, but he feels convincingly old. His breath is heavy and sounds like a far away carpenter’s workshop.

The old man in the dream is looking down at the tracks of a railway from the edge of the platform. He looks down for a good while, studying the lustrous surface of the steel. Eventually he looks up, turning his head in unison with the man in the bedroom and staring down the tunnel where the train will go. The old man considers its quiet, calm blackness.

Then there is the sound of a train coming from the opposite direction. Both men turn their head to look. The man sitting in bed feels his pulse begin to rise. On his left hand, his thumb starts to twitch. The men look down at it and frown. It’s got a lot worse recently and the old man knows what it means. He brings his hands to his open mouth to try to calm the tremor. All the man in the bedroom can think is that his hands feel so cold. Then the man in the bedroom starts to pull at something at the side of his finger. The old man is pulling his tatty fingerless gloves over his second knuckle. Both of them shiver.

The train comes into the platform and once again the man in the bedroom feels his pulse begin to race. He can feel his heart beat at the tips of his fingers. Just as the train is about to pass, both men can hear and see nothing else and the man in the bedroom feels the legs of the old man twitch. The man’s heart stops momentarily as he looks up to see the train pass. He feels the cold again, creeping through the old man’s anxious state.

The old man turns around and walks back to a blanket on the floor by the wall of the platform. He sits down like a rusty box of tools.

They both sit still for a while, catching their breath.

At this point, the man in the bedroom becomes aware of something in the old mans’ arms. He can’t see it because the old man has his own eyes closed. Instead the man in the bedroom just feels and hears the object. First the old man runs a fingertip along a wire. It gives a distant squeal. Then the old man runs his finger along a thin piece of something, counting small hard protrusions. Both men count nineteen and the man in the bedroom is suddenly aware of how warm the object feels in his arms. There is a pleasing wooden grain to its surface. Finally the old man looks down and it is a small guitar that the man in the bedroom does not know the name for.

Just before the old man starts to play, the man in the room notices how much calmer he feels. His breath is soft and relaxed. Then the old man starts to play and the quiet beauty of the song surprises him.

There is no one around of course; it is winter and late and there is never anyone here. Nobody walks past to hear the song. The only person who hears it is the man in the bedroom from somewhere inside, as it travels down and across his spine. A part of the song briefly makes him tingle as it becomes ever so slightly faster. Like the dream, the song is a minor lament and the sound of it is beautiful in their arms. The song is played so quietly by the old man it would be completely drowned out, were it not for the place being so utterly deserted.

After the song is finished they both look down and see an upside-down hat on the floor. It is as empty as ever. Both men reach out and pick it up, placing it carefully on their heads.

From somewhere far away, there is the sound of another train. The old man says, “I think this is mine.” He says it with a grainy lilt to his voice. The man in the bedroom speaks the words silently.

The old man stands up painfully; but both men expect this by now. The sound of the train comes in louder than the previous one, because of the quietness of the song.

Suddenly the old man breaks into an uneven run. This hurts both of them right down their spine and into their knees but by now it is too late and both men have smiles on their faces now. The train meets the men with its sudden light and noise and just as sudden blackness. The only thing the driver saw was a man in a dark coat, and the head of what looked like a guitar poking up over his shoulder.

The man in the bedroom wakes. He lets out a small shout.

The woman sits up and reaches around him. His body is cold and damp. She has seen this so many times before.

“Bad dream?” She says, softly into his ear.


27 January 2010

The Train

I witnessed something recently on an overnight train; it was a small thing that happened quietly in the middle of the night whilst other people were somehow managing to sleep. It wasn’t a thing to wake the others for, just a moment of humanity to sit and watch from the silent darkness of my own bed.

I’d woken gradually to a full bladder and one of those slow-formed questions about holding out until morning. Realising that the answer was of course no, I sat up and looked around in the gloom of the carriage, at the dark-coloured limbs hanging over the edges of the other bunks. I wondered at their effortless sleep. Meanwhile my bladder truly needed emptying but the silence and unfamiliarity pinned me hard to the bed, and I could feel sleep-inertia wrapping itself warmly around my shoulders. So I ended up sitting there, dumb and foreign and inert and needing-to-piss, for quite some time.

Then from up at the end of the carriage I heard the cough of a child. I looked over. In the lighted section by the carriage doors, a man with a moustache was sat leaning against a partition wall. Next to him, curled into a ball comprised mostly of limbs, a young boy was trying to sleep on the metal floor of the train. He was restless and clearly unwell. His cough was frequent and the sound of it rattled through the body of the carriage and blended with a metallic noise that was the background to all other things. The man by the boy’s side looked down at him with love, occasionally running a hand across his back or through his hair. The man’s other arm was around the boy like the walls of a castle.

I don’t know how long I watched the two of them for, but at some point another man appeared from the doorway to the adjoining carriage. He was carrying a huge pile of cardboard and other things that I couldn’t make out. He stopped and looked down at the man and said something to him too quietly for me to hear. This new man had a moustache too. Eventually a bright smile came over the face of the seated man; he gathered the young boy in his arms and stood up, holding him closely. It was then that I realised what was happening. The other man laid down the material he had brought from the cargo carriage; plastic sheeting, bubble wrap, layers of cardboard, until he had a single plastic sheet in his hands. I wondered how long it had taken him to collect it, to carry it through the umpteen carriages of sleeping bodies, and to convince the man guarding the cargo to hand it all over. I wondered if the guard had taken any money.

The man laid his boy down gently, then took the final plastic sheet and laid it over his small frame. Slowly, slowly, the boy’s head disappeared under the cover as he curled himself away into a warm and comfortable place. Then the two men, they were strangers I believe, shook each other's hand for a very, very long time.

I finally came to my senses and wandered to the toilet, nodding to the men as I passed. I emptied my bladder whilst smiling to myself and wondering if things like that happened all the time when hardly anyone else was watching.

26 October 2009

Sunday, Raining, Chinatown

the lady in
Ho’s bakery
tells me
there are no
sweet melon cakes left
but she offers me
a beautiful smile instead
(the best of the day)
and three roast pork buns
the whole lot
for a celestial bargain
of a pound and
so I take all four
and sit under some
pagoda arrangement
amongst the hurried
Chinese voices
and the sound of rain
on the red lacquered roof
and in the warmth there
I’m glad that
the thousand things you want
are not always
the things you really need
and it's all the same as it was before
(Sunday, Raining, Chinatown)
but for now
at least
it's a great deal better

[O: Go there]