Men – Hewing

I am five, and I remember the joy of running home from school through the silence of the park, to the quiet sanctuary of my own private room, to escape the frantic volume and din of voices that lasted not all day, of course, but whose incessant clamour grated on my nerves, like a pain growing larger as the hours passed, under the barrage of chatter, under the barrage of just the teacher’s voice, sometimes. My thoughts were derailed, the printed words in my books became just ink on paper that meant nothing, nothing beyond the fact that, now, in this confusion of noise, they would not speak to me, and my eyes skated over the papery surface like a man on stilts who was bound to slip and crash through the icy surface he had been foolish enough to venture onto, down into the freezing embrace of meaninglessness.

An_urban_footpathAfter the park – after the quiet footpath had cut between long, long properties to either side, to take me to that row of houses where I lived – back in my own room, at last, there was not silence, but peace. Through the half-open door, I could hear my mother in the kitchen, clattering quietly with this utensil, then with that, sliding the tray under the grill to make cheese on toast, and I knew that in a minute she would call me, and for the moment I could read about planets, or draw a dinosaur, or make a castle by sticking together bits of cardboard that my father had saved for me. Oh! – and there was such a space in my head, an uncluttered, unencumbered space where I could think, where I could travel in time, wander between the stars, or feel the weight of my armour before the assault on the castle began.

And still I seek such solitude and respite from the troubled and troubling world, where everyone else lives and chatters, where they make such a noise. As I write this, my neighbour is having their backyard cleared out, shrubs cut back, trees cut down (all of them, every single one, where at the bottom of the garden there had stood for at least ninety years a tiny wood as large as a tennis court) and the men have a machine, that pulverises all the waste wood, that makes such a horrid shrieking of destruction that, again, my thoughts are shattered and words break free of their meanings.

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65: All Things – Ending

Almost all my dreams are nightmares, and always have been. The earliest dream I can recol­lect places me in my infant’s perambulator, lying on my back, gazing at a brilliant sky in early sum­mer. Next to me, heard but not seen, were my mother and her friend Sheila, who were talking and talking and talking. I could not follow what they were saying, a feature common to reality that was simply replicated in my dream. I was myself not silent, not any more, for I was wailing in dis­tress and terror, and I was trying to alert my mother to the awful danger that was descending upon us. For high up was flying a squadron of aircraft, painted grey and barely visible against the pale blue of the sky. And from each aircraft had been despatched some piece of ordnance, sus­pended like floating down from two, three or even four giant parachutes – howitzers, heavy mortars, 25–pounders, anti-aircraft guns, armoured cars and even a handful of tanks. Gently, gently, all this menacing metal drifted towards the ground, ready for deployment on the battlefield that must lie all about us. And right above me now, spread­ing out in all directions, was the bottom of a troop carrier, which in only a few moments would crush us to death. And I wailed and wailed my warning, with all my heart I tried to alert my talking moth­er. But she just kept on talking, totally oblivious to the danger that was bearing down upon us.

Some few years later, at about the time I start­ed school, I had a sequence of dreams in which we were being evacuated in an emergency, and I had struggled to find my precious things in time as my parents bundled cases and bags into their shaking arms and headed up the short driveway at the front of the house to the main road beyond, where transportation was waiting. But I could not find quickly enough what I wanted to take,[1] and oh, what a sense of desperate panic came upon me … and which to this day has never really lifted. By the time I got outside, they had gone, everyone had gone, and I was on my own. And then the bright flash, and everything was instantly on fire. All the trees, all the bushes at the front of the house were bathed in an exquisite, incandescent glow of flickering blues and yellows and reds, as if they were made from silver and gold wire, caught in a gentle, undulating breeze that made them sway and shimmer and dance with light. I felt no heat. I was not myself on fire. I was already dead, I sup­pose, and now as a spirit surveyed the ruined world for just a little while longer. Although I was too young to have yet heard about the nuclear menace or understand is mode of operation – to know that flash fires will erupt instantly upon det­onation, well in advance of the mighty and all-consuming shockwave that will follow seconds or minutes later – I nevertheless dreamed it accurate­ly, and there is a mystery indeed.

[1] In those days, my father’s shirts came in cardboard boxes, all of which I kept, for they were so incredibly useful for general storage – ideal for jigsaw puzzles whose original boxes had torn or split, perfect for toy cars, which when stacked anticipated the multi-storey car parks of the future, just the thing for odds and ends such as Sellotape rolls, paper clips, the mirrors from cos­metic products, bits of string, bits of pencils, rulers, rubbers, scissors, staplers, exercise books, watercolour paints, brushes, little pots for water, plastic zoo animals, toy soldiers and their weaponry (ironically). One of these boxes was ideal for taking a few things on our visits to my grandparents or other destina­tions, for I hated, so hated not having something to do, or being cut off from my project of the moment. So in my dream I was desperately trying to select the few things that I wanted, that would fit into one of these boxes, and in my panic I just could not think, could not think at all, and like the panic itself, this procrastination has followed at my side, muddling my thoughts, ever since.

63: Horizon – Narrowing

On distant days in distant years, before the illness and before we had to give up almost every­thing, we walked long paths through dry summer woods, and later spied distant towns from naked hilltops. And before that, on my own, in child­hood, I strode in wellingtons along shallow streams and marvelled at the hovering dragonflies. On our bicycles, I would set off with friends and take half the day to ride right across the Ordnance Survey map, and onto the next one. And when we got home again, we weren’t even exhausted. But then with illness, our horizon, in a moment it seems, drew right in close and fitted tight against the fences and little walls of our little house, here, at the centre of things. We were not unhappy with our new horizon, because we had our conversa­tions, and we had our books, and with the televi­sion especially, we could see to distant places and almost confront our confinement and join the ranks of the unimpeded for just a short while. We didn’t mind. The more confined we were, the more liberated became our thoughts, and that was exhilarating. So many, so many interesting things to wonder at. That we could not go to them, that we could not touch them, that we could not share them with others, but only with each other – well that did not matter in the slightest. We grew accustomed to it. We liked it like that. We did not hate the illness. It became a familiar presence, and that was all right.

But now, alone, nothing seems familiar any more. These old things here, and my new thoughts, seem like unwelcome strangers who come to disrupt the even flow of things, to destroy the steady rhythm that over the decades had set in, which bit by bit had settled to a familiar beat that so quietly, so quietly counted off the peaceful years and rolled out the fabric upon which we laid our conversations, and which the passing time rolled up again, and kept in safe-keeping, for a while, in our memories.

There is now nothing to keep me confined to this narrow horizon, except my terror of the world and the horror is threatens to induce. For alone, I feel so strangely unsafe, as unsafe as my dear wife felt because of the way her illness afflicted her, leaving her feeble and physically incapable of mov­ing without help, for whom the limit was lifting a pen or raising a spoon. But amidst the dismay of that disability there I stood, ready and eager to do all that must be done to carry on. So we carried on, and the world fed our craving for interesting things, for meaning and purpose. But now that has come crashing down, and now I keep breathing, and keep on breathing some more, and I look out beyond my fences and hope that something will come for me. I know not what it may be. And not knowing, I cannot set off to find it, and I cannot ask for help, for there is nothing to ask for, for there is no sense in asking for what I need, when I do not know what it is.

61: Earth – Rising

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On a spring day in 1975, I had come down to this little house – long before it was to become my little house – to pick up my wife, who was not yet my wife, from where she lived with her parents, to take her back on the bus to my parents’ house, where I was still living, to spend the afternoon and evening together, for the first time ever.

The house was very busy and very noisy that day. My parents were there, and my mother’s par­ents had come round from their little maisonette half a mile away; by brother and his friend were there, as were my sister and her friend. So to get some peace, and find a space in which to talk, we stayed in my bedroom, she on the long sofa, and I perched on the edge of the bed with my elbows on my knees, and we talked and talked. For six hours we talked, and when it was time to take her home again, I was in love, and I was addicted to her conversation. From that point, I craved her company for her conversation. Everything else immedi­ately assumed the role of distraction, whose pur­pose it became to tug the seconds and minutes out of the future until, at last, new conversations would arrive, and my addiction was for the mo­ment satisfied once again. At first, we met every day at school, then, once our courses concluded and the exams were upon us, daily contact ended, and on those days when we did not meet, I would always phone her in the evenings, and perhaps for an hour so, there came the conversations that I craved. We would meet once, each weekend when she would visit my parents’ house, and on one day during the week I would visit her parents’ house. The gaps were filled by phone calls, and by wait­ing, by seeking distractions that used up the inter­vening time between where I was and our next meeting.

And that craving, that addiction, that affliction, has never left me. Everything else, for our entire married life, was subordinate to our conversations, and nothing mattered, not really, apart from our conversations.

So now, all these months after having been cleaved so irrevocably from the conversation that I crave, I find that I experience matters just as I did then, all those years ago, when the world was di­vided into the joy of conversations and the barely endurable discomfort of waiting for conversations. So this is what I am waiting for, and this is why everything is nothing but an attempt to find a dis­traction through which time will pass until it is again time for conversation. Except now, no con­versation can ever come again. And that fact makes the distractions useless, makes the waiting pointless. What I await can never come, yet I find that I am waiting all the same. I do not really, not really want to read Orwell’s 1984, but I read it anyway in order to bring closer – according to my old habit – those new conversations that I crave more than any addict has ever craved his fix. Yet they do not come. So I endure a state of perma­nent withdrawal that will never lessen, as the daily routine of sleeplessness, nightmares, pounding heart, abdominal cramps, revulsion at everything, headaches, dizziness and weeping crash together like runners in the field trying all at once to get through a narrow gate.

I would like my new, my new unwanted life, to be wanted, needed by someone, as my dear wife needed and wanted me for all those years yet, trapped in this despair, I see no way of ever find­ing an opening I might squeeze through. That I could ever do this, strikes me as ridiculous as the notion that I might one day live on Mars, and step out from an agreeable little modular dwelling – where I still have some of my old books – under its protective dome, where it quite often gets as warm as I remember it back on Earth, all those years ago, before the illness came, and we would walk across the little field close to her parents’ house, or explore the Roman Museum at Verula­mium … and where under the dome I would sit on an old, familiar chair watching the horizon, because I know that the Earth will rise in a moment, and as the sky darkens on another Martian day, that distant, distant planet where I knew my con­versa­tions, will grow agreeably bright, hinting at a tranquil blue, and for just a second I will fancy that I can hear her voice calling to me, as she used to, from inside, for she has something new to tell me, and now I do so want to hear it, even though we are on Mars. I would want to keep hearing it forever.

But I am not on Mars, I am here, where I have always been, waiting and waiting for nothing.

[The photograph of Mars is a public do­main image originating with NASA and sourced from the Wikimedia Commons website.]

57: Dreams – Recurring

Decent sleep has always eluded me, or so it seems. Before that awful school, did sleep come pleasantly welcomed? I cannot remember. Perhaps it did. But later, and forever, no sleep that is not troubled by terrible dreams has ever come to me.

So it was last night, all night long, as one trial or torment or tribulation after another afflicted my miserable slumbers with dreams and nightmares of troubles and conflicts and perplexities. I do not catalogue these dreams. I do not even look upon them later, when awake, other than to acknowl­edge their mere occurring, for to dwell upon their content and rehearse their narratives and outcomes would etch them upon my memory sufficiently, I fear, to have them reappear at odd moments unbidden and irritating and fearful, later that day and in days to come. Some few dreams that I had years ago, or in childhood, still come back to me, every few days, every few weeks at least, and I am desperate not to add to their stock.

So upon waking with the recollections of new dreams tumbling about me, I turn quickly to some practical matter in the hope of banishing them quickly – getting dressed, boiling the kettle, checking for mail, stalking the message boards for evil to fight. And it works. Ask me now to give examples of my bad dreams, and other than those few old ones just mentioned, I cannot. My night-crumpled memo­ries are all smoothed out by the time I settle down to my reading or writing or lyre playing. I know only their broad brushstrokes. I see no Mona Lisa, but mere portrait. No details of any Guernica, but mayhem… I see now just general descriptions of arguments, frustrations, searchings, fleeings, confrontings … just the topic headings, but no explana­tory content.

But now, today, after less than four hours sleep riddled by nightmares now thankfully beyond re­call, I am tired and sleepy, and my concentration flaps about my intellectual efforts like a wet sheet tied at one corner thrashing in the wind, and hope of engaging with interesting books or writing something cannot be awakened. If this account makes any sense, that is because I have worked at it over the days, struggling to capture the sense of what I want to convey, struggling to find interest­ing words and a way to make agreeable phrases, to congeal these confused thoughts into some kind of self-supporting structure that shelters this tiny aspect of what populates my lifelong despair. Not for sympathy, not for any clear reason at all, really. I would like to put a few nails through the human condition, to pin it down so that others may say, ‘Yes. That is how it is. That is what happens to me. Here is something familiar, though loathsome…’

I do not want to be on my own.

56: Silence – Looming

Dear God, please bring me some distraction, something that can draw my awareness away from this insistent, heavy, despair. I had one friend I could talk to, and she has gone now, so I am bereft of guidance, support, and even the rhythms of everyday life are ended now. So I sit hunched in my ramshackle hut whilst the storm rages, as still, as still as I can. I am waiting, waiting, but I do not know why, or what I am waiting for. For help, perhaps, for the distraction that I crave, for the storm to end. But I cannot even picture that new day, when the gentle waves will lap upon a quieter shore, and the sun will shine down and warm the wet shingle, and I will leave this little hut to venture out for new things, a sight I have not seen before, a fruit I have not tasted. I write these words, yet there is no picture for me of what they describe. They are as yet a foreign tongue that I do not know, and they will not divulge their mean­ing, like hard words, they adhere stubbornly to the page and will not affect the workings of my mind, they will not awaken the new thoughts that I would like to have.

This despair, then, is a static thing, a thing that holds down and restricts all possibilities, that de­nies the possibility of change. But I do strain against it, I do. I am not some fool who lies supine under his assailant without even a tremor of struggle. I have invented some tunes for my lyre, though there is no one here to hear them, but I have done that, and I even wrote them down so as not to forget them, and to have them ready for that sunny day I want so much. Is that all? The constricting power of this despair is so very powerful. There are books, and I try to read, and I write my notes in their margins as a substitute for my lost con­versations, yet nothing really comes of it, for that tiredness takes over, and it sends me into fitful bad-dreaming sleep at all hours, and I forget so very quickly what I have read and written. So many times do I open books to find with some sur­prise that I have already read them, for there is writing all over their pages, and it is my writing, and I have been here before, and I have forgot­ten.

If I live to the age attained by my grandfather, the years I have yet to live following the ending of my marriage will exceed the years of the marriage itself, and oh dear, that is a dreadful thought. For all those future years, no conversations. It is such a silent thing, this despair, for the crashing break­ers are not real, and there is no sound. I have tried to recall past conversations, but I cannot do it. Memory fails and shudders to a halt with perhaps the knowledge that yes, we watched that film … but I cannot remember what we said about it. We must have said something … but what was it? It has gone, like tricycles and orchards, and days in the park, or in my great grandmother’s garden, or being in the company of my dear wife … all gone. And all that is left is the effort to keep breathing, to make this body stay alive for another minute, and then for the minute after that, and so on it goes, hour after hour, week after week. And still it seems, and always has seemed, that she died last week, that perhaps it is all a terrible mistake, and I will awaken from this nightmare. And now I am back in my little hut again, and that other world that seemed so real, that world of tricycles and books and conversations, that must be the dream, that trying to stay there, that must be where the madness lies.

Despair is the absence of all hope, when time will no longer permit a perception of past and future, where nothing is allowed to happen any more. It is like lying under a pile of rocks that makes breathing so very difficult, yet still I must try to breathe. But I do not know why. I would like to know what this effort is for. But no, it is a complete mystery. I would like to be of use, to have a mission, to have a purpose, as I did before, but no one wants me for anything. It seems rather odd … but that is the truth of it. It’s the way of things. It’s the way of things.

54: Window – Breaking

I am five, in my classroom at school, and I have been trying to read for two or three months. It seems apparent that pretty much everyone else in the class is progressing more satisfactorily than I am. They are advancing to books that aren’t even in the series I am still struggling with. The girls especially, I can tell from their chatter, are enjoy­ing their reading. They actually understand the texts that they read, whereas all I can do is lurch from word to word, essentially unaware of any meaningful narrative behind this tortuous mystery.

We had started with the Janet and John series of books, and I had coped after a fashion. These books were designed to be taught using the ‘look-and-say’ method where, on first encountering the text, the teacher simply tells the child what the word says, so that they will henceforth always rec­ognise that word when it reappears in the future … for it will reappear, immediately, like a thing de­mented, over the next few pages. And when you have that experience, you will forever know that word. The earliest stages of this enterprise had not been too bad, and I was now competent in a basic vocabulary of perhaps sixty or seventy words, com­prising essentials such as

Words for Window--Breaking

We sit at our desks for these reading lessons – and there I am, almost certainly stuck on a hard word that I do not know. My fellow pupils are actually turning pages as they read their books … but not I. It is the same sentence for minute after minute, as I stare at it, hoping that its meaning will burst through the typography and mystically acti­vate my brain into understanding what it says.

One by one, the teacher summons us to her desk at the front of the class, where we are put through our paces as she opens our books to both pages that we have already mastered, and those we have not yet even glimpsed, and she listens as we read them aloud to her. The best I can do, when things go very well is, as it were, read out a list of words, the words of the sentence revealed above the card the teacher places on the page to deliber­ately obscure the text lower down. I seem to recall that a second card would often as not be placed over the text higher up, compelling the reader’s eye to attend to only the words being read and spoken at that very moment. Does she even block out the text to the right, and move her bit of card in time for our arriving at the next word?

Oh dear … here is a hard word I do not know.

‘Try to say it,’ she tells me. How? How do you even make the attempt? The context of the sentence, which probably I am not aware of, does not help me. Now, she covers up the letters of the word to reveal only its syllables, one at a time. She tells me to ‘sound the letters’ … she shouldn’t be doing this, because she is supposed to be teaching by the look-and-say method, and not by using this phonic approach. I recognise the end of the word, because it is the same as the word ‘down’, which I already know, but the final letter is missing. Well, that’s something. I struggle with the first part, though. I have not seen it before, and I cannot relate it to any words that I already know. I think she helps me, and tells me this syllable is ‘wind’. She presses me to say the letters aloud… I do my best, and I pronounce the word ‘window’, but rhyme it with the made-up word ‘wind-how’. I do not know the difference between ‘how’ and ‘doe’, nor that in this word, the ‘dow’ bit is pronounced ‘doe’. The teacher is exasperated. Goodness, she has been trying so patiently, but now she has about had it with this silly boy who gives every appearance of playing up. She raises her voice, and behind me I can hear the scraping of chairs as the rest of the class looks up from their reading to stare at me. I have been humiliated again, and I did not want that. I tried so hard to read that word – she has by now told me how to pronounce ‘win­dow’ – and I feel utterly baffled that the word ‘down’ was of no use to me, a traitor complicit in my humiliation. I do not think she meant to be unkind, but she was, and the way she handled my inability to read that word was a disgrace. I viewed her with a suspicion that veered into contempt for the remaining months that she was to be my teach­er.

 

 

Window

 

 

That is why, ever after, whenever I read any­thing, that teacher is always right beside me, ready to catch me out, ready to call upon the rest of the world to take a good look at my shame, and that is the larger part of why I would for the rest of my life feel a disturbing awkwardness attend every act of reading. It was forever to be something danger­ous that could bite me quite unexpectedly, like a rabid dog that looks quite friendly at first. I view with a sort of suspicion every book that I do not yet know.

The little house that I came to fifteen years lat­er, upon getting married, the little house that my wife’s grandfather had arranged to have built in 1925, was named by him Vind-Auga, the Icelandic for window. We had a new enamel plaque bearing that name fixed to the new garden gate in 2009, the year that we had new paths put down in the garden so that my dear wife could get outside in her wheelchair. The little plaque is still there, and every time I see it, I am reminded of that fateful day I could not read the word window.