Backwards

[Braille Face effort no. 12, based on Jot. The last of the set]

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Let’s go backwards. Let’s rewind.

Ten. We’re in the ruins of Babel and your loyalty is my hate-speech and my sublime music is your god-awful satanic racket. I’ve taken the books. You’ve got the house. I sit under the cliff, by the great black wall, and listen to the scream of gulls.

Nine. Here are medications for the cruelty of the world: Xanax, Prozac, Facebook, kittens, knitting, strategic deafness, reality television. We are sealed to our separate devices.

Eight. You’re away a lot now. I say “mm” when you talk and wish you didn’t snore. There’s a fear in my gut I don’t tell you about.

Seven. On holiday we carefully study the phrasebook and memories from past lessons come back to us. We tentatively join hands with a strange place, a brief touch, and are warmed.

Six. The words and the music are one and fit us perfectly. The celestial spheres revolve.

Five. Music teaches a love looking for names. An aching in the chest, blood quickening, a sense of all the space in which you might be waiting.

Four. You throw your shoes over the power line and walk home barefoot. They dangle there, cheerfully unexplained.

Three. As a child I write words in the sand on the beach for the waves to remember.

Two. I learn jokes. Knock knock. Who’s there? Me! And a big hug.

One. The mouth speaks to the milk and the fist to the air, flailing. We have to learn object relations. The world emerges: mama, tree, mine, again.

Zero. Heartbeat and darkness.

Hold me.

Three marches

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 11. I think this story really wants to be longer: this is the skeleton of it. It’s based on Moiety and especially the track ‘Political Monsters’.]

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He first met Jenny at the protest against the Criminal Justice Bill in June 1994. He was eighteen years old, about to go to university (Warwick, History), and he and some mates went up to London because they’d heard The Manic Street Preachers would be playing and also, secretly, because they were hoping to witness a riot. They didn’t witness a riot. They almost missed the protest altogether because they didn’t know London and weren’t sure where to go. It was Jenny who set them right as they walked in the wrong direction with their droopy cardboard KILL THE BILL sign. She wore purple doc martins and a tie-dye dress. He got talking to her as she guided them to Trafalgar Square, or, rather, she got talking to him. She must have liked him because he went home with her address on a slip of paper in his pocket.

They exchanged letters and, when they got to university, emails. She educated him. The world weighed on her: Tibet, the rainforests, Bosnia, underprivileged youth. She was reading Law and Anthropology at LSE. He had always been a kings and battles kind of person, but he grew interested in social history. He joined Young Labour. He and Jenny became a couple: he visited her in London and made love to her nervously in her student room, wanting to please her and unsure how to do so. After a while they split up.

 

In 2003 he was writing a PhD on social mobility in fifteenth-century Warwickshire and he got an email from Jenny: she was organizing a big group to join the march against war in Iraq. He’d been uncertain of his views on the issue, but he wanted to see her again. On a chilly February day he walked beside her in the largest crowd he had ever known. She wore a black coat and red lipstick. She had a training contract with a big legal firm, but planned to go into charity law. He felt provincial and addled with libraries. She was alight with anger at the arrogance of Bush and Blair. He rode the wonderful wave of her conviction all the way to Hyde Park. Afterwards he went back to Warwick and his manor court rolls, and wanted to email her, and didn’t think she would be interested.

In the years that followed he thought of her often. Teaching, he imagined her as an observer in the corner, and tried to show her why history was important, or at least how it was humane. He reminded himself sometimes that he was charged with the shaping of young minds, though they didn’t always seem that malleable. He was teaching about contingency, about the complexity of causes, about the mattering of minor lives; he was trying to get his students to pay proper attention. He did admin. He made submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise. He had girlfriends but did not marry.

 

In 2015 he went on a march entirely by himself. It was the anti-austerity march of 20th June. He had made a cardboard sign, which he carried self-consciously: CUTS KILL. He was thin-skinned to the crowd, a little emotional. It was unlike him to do this, but he finally felt that he had to; everything he’d once taken for granted had eroded so far.

And by chance he saw Jenny. Somehow in the mass of people they encountered each other. She looked tired and plump now, but so, he knew, did he. They fell into step and exchanged the summaries of their lives. Hers was not as he expected: a daughter, a divorce, an illness, and now she was running a community centre, struggling for funding.

“It’s wonderful to see you again,” she said. “Remember the Criminal Justice Bill march? They passed that bill, of course. Sometimes I think we only march so we’ll feel better when the government goes ahead and ignores us.”

“Ah, but think of the chartists,” he said. “They didn’t get what they wanted in the short term, but it came good in the end. Think of the suffragettes.” He couldn’t help also thinking of the Luddites, the Britons petitioning Rome for protection against the Picts and Scots, and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sometimes terms were very long.

“You must come and see me,” she said, “for old times’ sake. And maybe some new times too.” And he went home that day with her number in his phone.

Mind the Gap

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 10, based on We Were Alive Once.]

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On the train, got a seat, settling back and looking round. Mentally ordering the day: meeting with US clients at ten, calls to make, people to email, report to finish. Checking my phone I wish happy birthday twice, make a great retort to a stupid political comment, view a quick think piece about the future of banking. Posters in the station tell me to read Paul O’Connell’s autobiography. I buy coffee. It’s part of the uniform.

The meeting goes well. I’m full of ideas and the sentences don’t stumble. I can see my boss is impressed with me. I sit forward, sit wide, take up space. I’m on a roll. I note action points and agree dates.

Back at the desk, feeling efficient, I pitch into the emails. It’s sunny out but I sit with my back to the window.

Ticking things off the list, five minutes later I can’t remember what any of them were. What matters is I’m speaking the language: I’m actioning decisions, I’m outlining strategies, I’m identifying stakeholders. There’s a vacancy coming up for a head of section and I plan to apply.

My boss stops by my desk – he’s taking the US visitors out for dinner, would I like to come? I ring my wife to tell her. Yes, of course, she says, stay out, what an opportunity. I can hear the toddler shouting at her in the background. I’m working hard, being the provider, on the way up.

Dinner is at 6.30. I work till six, then go out for fresh air. It’s good to clear the head and be ready for the next test; I rehearse phrases and review the key points of our business connection. It’s a fine late summer evening, shadows starting to lengthen. I wander down towards the river, looking back at the office buildings, the tall glassy blocks all shiny with money, the money that’s started to roll in again, and I think about my shiny future and

 

***

 

“feckin’ culchies feckin’ going off, wrecking the place,” he concludes, bitterly, chucking down his cigarette butt on the pavement next to a dog turd and a drifting plastic bag. “Too right,” I say, not wanting a fight, and draw back from his stubbly face too close to mine, and turn away with a sorry grin to walk back to the main road, where am I, it’s dark, oh yes this is North Strand, there’s the canal and the hill up to the railway crossing, why am I here? There’s a pain over my eye and soreness in my knees as though I’ve fallen, and my throat feels full of knives. The lights of passing taxis confuse me. I take out my phone, fumbling, it’s in the wrong pocket. Ten text messages.

– Hi, in lobby, see you soon.

– Waiting for you.

– Off to restaurant, see you there I hope, would appreciate explanation, hope all well.

– Have not heard from you. Get in touch ASAP.

And more like those. And from the wife. And I haven’t got my wallet, even though I’ve still got my phone. And I see that the time is 11.26pm, just as the phone battery gives out.

What do I do. Start walking. Legs move mechanically, no money for a taxi. The shouts of the night-time druggies and the pub-goers go right through me. It’s a beautiful night, completely clear and despite the streetlights I can see the moon. It shines brilliantly. It catches an answering glint at my feet. I crouch down wincing and pick up an old one punt coin. Someone must have treasured it, because it’s very shiny too.

I leave you in the corner

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 9, based on Becase.]

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When he left me I talked to him more than I ever had before. He had gone, vanished, left not just me but the country, translated himself into Japanese so I didn’t even understand the characters, but he was there in my head all the time, or not so much in my head as standing a little distance away, slightly turned away from me, bodiless but present. And I wanted to explain myself to him, to justify myself. I wanted him to see my worth, which he had so deeply wounded. I still felt that if only he understood me I would be, at last, truly understood; that being known by him was somehow better than being known by anyone else.

“You’re well rid of him,” said my friends, who wanted to comfort me. “Wash your hands of that arsehole. He didn’t deserve you.”

But I wasn’t angry with him – I couldn’t be. That would be to lose all of him, not just the man himself, but the idea of him too. So I shared with him what I was seeing and thinking. I tried not to talk over the quarrels too much. They had been so petty – little disagreements about whether or not to join a dinner party or take a taxi.

We had shared, always, a delight in air and light, and as I walked up the hill I told him silently of the exhilarating blue of the sky and the crisp November cold. I wanted to paint it and I was already planning how I would choose my colours, mixing as little as I could because the intensity seemed more essential than the exact hue. “This I have,” I told him, “this capacity for delight. This ability to be open. And maybe I was awkward with your scientific friends sometimes, but I feel – you know I feel the beauty you feel.”

Then I stopped for a moment by a tree and saw on its bark a moth. If he’d been there he would have been able to tell me the name, and its habits, and why it was there so late in the year with its wings spread, quite still, on the bark of a tree. But I looked closely and I saw the filigree of its pattern, its delicate antennae and legs, the segments of its body. I knew this was the kind of thing he’d taught me to notice, because I’d never been one for insects – I liked grand things, bright colours, but he was the master of detail, knowing all the parts, and this was in any case his field of expertise. I took a picture of the moth on my phone.

Back home I decided to paint the moth. “Look at this,” I told him. “I’m giving it my spin. See, the detail, the accuracy, no distortion – you could call it obsessive. But I am putting in the sky colours. I’m putting in the green the hill wanted to be and the blinding gold of the sun. I’m doing something that talks about how bright life is even in small creatures like this one. I’m seeing it as hard as I can.”

When I’d finished I didn’t know who to show it to. It wasn’t the kind of work I normally did and gave to my friends (I’m not a professional artist, just an amateur, but it gets the best of me, I think); they would see it was good, but they wouldn’t be excited by it or realise how zoologically precise it was. So I put it in an envelope and I posted it to him in Osaka, to the real, physical him.

Two weeks later I got a letter from him, an actual physical letter. He always had that knack for an old-fashioned courtesy. The letter said thankyou for the beautiful gift. It said that he knew how much he had hurt me, that he was terribly sorry. That it was kind of me to send this but that I was only hurting myself now. That I should know he had met someone else and that he hoped, though he knew how hard it would be, that I could move on.

I felt, for the first time, real anger. And shame, bitter shame. Because he was right – and yet completely wrong. Why had he said nothing about my work, or nothing substantial? It wasn’t enough to call it beautiful – it was good, it was maybe the first really good thing I had ever done, it had taken what he had given me and made something new. And he thought it was all about him. Which it was, but also, it wasn’t.

I raised up the puppet of him I had been talking to all those weeks. I walked it to the corner. I laid it down there. And I turned my back.

Rescue

[Remember I’m writing my Braille Face pieces a day behind the album releases? Rescue came out on the 8th and Braille Face commented it was appropriate because it was the most political of the albums he wrote in 2015. Coming up with this story, I fixated on a line from the first track, ‘Lever’: ‘I can’t believe what you see’.]

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Once there was a village that was taken over by a band of trolls, cruel-eyed monsters with rock-hard muscles and a lust for gold. One half of the village watched aghast as the trolls smashed down the beautiful new chapel to dig a rough cave in the rubble, ate up the whole harvest and amused themselves by throwing some of the villagers into the river to drown. “How can you do nothing while these trolls destroy our village and kill our neighbours? If we banded together we could drive them out!” But the other half of the village cheered the trolls on. “Protectors at last!” they cried. “They’ll set this place to rights!”

As the sad villagers stood wringing their hands a strange old man approached them. “Come with me,” he said. He took them into a hidden room in the hollow of the hill where there was nothing but a great lever. “Pull this lever,” he said, “and you will see what your friends see.”

They pulled the lever and went outside. The trolls looked just as ugly as they had before, though perhaps their muscles seemed even larger, and there was a sort of frightful magnificence about them. But now there was a shadowy host of enemies looming at the crest of the hill. Each of them was marked with a sinister curved sign. The stones from the ruined chapel had that sign on too – even though the villagers remembered building it with their own hands and decorating it with paintings and designs of their own making. And there seemed to be far fewer people being thrown into the river. The few that were had the sign branded on their forehead. 

“Is this the truth?” the watchers asked.

“One of the versions you have seen is the truth,” said the old man.

“We know what we saw first was true,” said the watchers. “It is wrong to drown people, and the dead had always been our good friends and neighbours. We will pull the lever again.”

So they pulled the lever again and went back to watching the horrible things the trolls were doing.

“Can we bring the other villagers and pull the lever so they see what we see?”

“You could try,” said the old man. “But they’ll pull the lever again, just as you did.”

“What can we do?”

“The only thing you can do is to tell stories. Showing them is no good. Arguing is no good. But stories are the most powerful thing: tell them love stories, give them characters, give them emotional arcs. Avoid allegory, however – it’s annoying.”

“Stories about what? We don’t know how to start.”

“You have to start. Start with – “ but the old man blurred, shifted, broke up like the tuning on a radio and was gone.

So the sad villagers stood talking and trying to think of the right stories. But they knew there were other stories too. There were stories you could weave like a bower and crawl into for the winter; stories that were doors into a sweet past that never was. The leaves were falling, red and gold, and they would make a rich soft mantle for one lying down to sleep.

Violent Child

[Today’s Braille Face piece takes its name from the first track of Calm the Teeth. With an album title like that I could have tried for something pretty surreal. But I came up with this.]

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My name is Liam and I’m eight. I like the Jurassic World game, Minecraft, Castle Clash, and Happy Wheels, though when my mam sees me playing Happy Wheels she gets that pulled-down look and she wrinkles up her nose and says it’s gross and too violent and she should delete it. OK, it’s a bit gross but it’s funny. I like riding my bike. I have a big bike now. I like doing maths but I don’t like doing colouring. I don’t know why they always make you do colouring.

At school I play with Conor, Harry and Jake, when they are friends with me. They were friends with me last week and we were playing this great game where we were battling balrogs, and Conor and Harry were the balrogs and I was the wizard and Jake was the warrior. I have an idea for a computer game that’s going to be about balrogs. You can play as the balrogs or you can play as the good guys and you can set different levels so you have to survive for different lengths of time or you have to kill different numbers of enemies. It’s going to be awesome. So we were playing this, but pretending all the extra characters and making the noises and stuff. It was great. But then Conor said it was boring and he made this game where you had to talk in burps. That was fun but then we had to say all our names in burps and he said my name sounded like a burp anyway. And then every time any of them saw me they would say “Hi [buuuurp]” and giggle in a stupid way. So then they weren’t being my friends anymore.

Sometimes they want to play things that are boring. So then I go off by myself and I walk around and think. I think about maths, sometimes, and I think about my computer game and all the different scenes it’s going to have. It’s going to have a really good story, too, with a book that you can buy to go with the game. It’ll be an adventure story, but with jokes in. This week I’m thinking a lot about my game, because my friends aren’t being my friends. I know I’m a weirdo.

My mam asked what I was thinking about and was I OK. I didn’t tell her about Conor. I started to tell her about my game. I had got to the bit where you have to fight your way through the Gates of Doom, and if you go left there are two balrogs and if you go right there are four balrogs and the balrogs keep multiplying, except if you use the ice-thrower, then they get frozen and they can’t multiply. “That’s really interesting,” she said. But then she said she had to cook dinner. She only ever listens for a short time.

It’s really hard at school this week. I didn’t get twenty out of twenty in my maths test. Then Conor and the others kept doing burps when I had to give my book report. Quiet little burps and the teacher just said “Settle down, there”, like it didn’t matter. At break I thought I’d go off by the bike shed and keep thinking but they were following me around and giggling.

This morning I thought it was better again. Conor came and asked if I wanted to play the balrog game. I was really excited and I started to tell him some of the new rules I’d made up. But he said they were stupid and he wanted to do the old rules, but with a rule he’s invented where you have to lie on the ground for ten seconds if you get flamed. I didn’t want to play that rule. He doesn’t understand that he’s spoiling it. If you lie on the ground then you can’t fight and it doesn’t work. But he said he wouldn’t play if we didn’t play with his rule. So we played with his rule for a bit but it was rubbish.

In class he started doing the burping thing again. The teacher didn’t even notice.

Then at big break Conor got Harry and Jake and said the game now was that I was the balrog, and if they burped at me enough I’d die. And they followed me around burping and giggling. So in the end I punched him. I totally wasted him, like, I owned him, and I shouted “Fuck you, asshole!” which is something I’ve heard on YouTube.

The teacher was standing by me like she instantaneously materialised from thin air.

So now I’m in big, big trouble. Conor has a huge nosebleed and they’re ringing his mam. And I know no-one is going to listen to me.

Part

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 6. The album I’m working from for this, Glow.Neck, is particularly good and contains several tracks that made it onto Kōya, in addition to having a really strong, yearning mood of its own. And yet I got stuck. So this is a short one and maybe one day I’ll come back to it and turn it into something else.]

Swimming up unwilling from deep sleep she wakes confused, words on the tip of her tongue – what? There is something she has forgotten. But here is the cat standing on her pillow, giving her arm a little nip to help her out of bed. Stumbling down the stairs into the routine: bowls, water, dry food, kettle on, teabag.

Did she hear someone calling her?

Shower, clothes, makeup (just a little), toast, teeth, checking for keys. Down the road to the bus-stop. If the bus is on time, she will be given a clue. She has to do something, find someone – something is broken, something is missing. If the bus is late, there will be no clue.

And yet she is peaceful. The trees go by one by one, the cars and the houses, one by one, all in order, keeping the rhythm. The minutes fall into place. It’s as though she can keep the disquiet in a little locked box, hidden in her chest. It’s there waiting, for when she hears the voice again, and is not asleep. And will follow, even unto the fire.