The Saved

imgres

“I want to do burlesque,” said the hen. “A striptease. I’ll take my feathers off, one by one. Would you like me, like that? Would you think I looked tasty?”

The cat said nothing. Why did she have to say these things? It was the sacred rule of the Ark, the foundation on which everything rested – you didn’t eat your fellow passengers. Look, there was the lion, lying down with the lamb, not even drooling.

“Or a magic trick. Saw the head off the lady. I’ll keep on dancing. Oh, how beautifully I would dance, if I couldn’t think.”

“It’ll be over soon,” he said, without looking at her. “The waters are already receding. You can lay your eggs and raise your chicks and be happy.”

“Oh yes, of course. Repopulating the earth. The brood-mother of nations. What an honour.” She laughed bitterly.

“Look, we didn’t ask for this,” said the cat quietly. “We aren’t to blame for our luck or for what happened to the others. What kind of a world is it going to be if all we do in it is mourn?”

“I don’t want to mourn. I want to dance. I want to die of music.”

 

There were songbirds on the gunwales, blackbirds, starlings, swallows, finches, rising and calling and fluttering over each other with a constant rippling motion; below them, the sunlight dazzled on the water. There was no sail, because there was nowhere to go. Noah and his family were busy with the work of the ship, sluicing and scrubbing and tending their stores.

 

“I was a temple cat,” said the cat, “in the city of Uruk, at the temple of Ishtar. The front of the temple was faced with coloured tiles of white and blue and the white steps to the gate were washed each day. The statues were gilded and the temple women wore circlets of gold wire and gold rings in their ears. Men came to couple with the women, in honour of the goddess, and to make sacrifices. They killed doves and lambs. Then the bones and scraps were thrown on the refuse heaps at the back of the temple, which grew bigger every year and stank, swarming with rats and buzzing with flies. The dark ooze seeped from the rubbish and ran down to the river. There was always sickness in the city, but the people went on worshipping Ishtar, who brought them prosperity and made things grow.”

“It sounds horrible,” said the hen.

“It was a good life for a cat,” said the cat. “There was plenty to eat and the women were kind to me. There was one I remember. She would stroke me and share fish with me when she had some. She was trying to save the trinkets the men gave her so she could buy an inn when she was too old to work in the temple – she’d put them in an old oil jar she kept in the corner – but she never managed to save very much; she kept shaking the trinkets out again and exchanging them for new sandals or wine.”

“Was there music in the temple?”

“Oh yes, lots. Voices, flutes, drums, harps. Formal music for the goddess, worksongs for cooking and washing, lullabies for the babies, story-songs for the fireside. But mostly love-songs, because Ishtar is the goddess of love.”

“Will you sing me one of the songs?”

“My singing was never encouraged. But my point is, it was always going to end. They knew it. The woman I told you about knew she couldn’t live that life forever, that her youth was passing; and everyone knew that the stink and the filth were getting worse and worse. They talked about cleaning it up, they had a lot of quarrels and arguments, but they never changed anything. So, in the end, the change simply happened. And I suppose we have to make the best of it.”

“All my life I’ve loved music. I used to like to sit at roost and hear the people singing in the evenings. Entertainers would come to the village and I’d dream of all the places they’d been to that they were carrying in their music. I’m really not suited to be the mother of all hen-kind, you know. I’m dreamy and impractical, I was always quite low down the pecking order…”

“You’ll be fine,” said the cat.

“I wonder what we’ll find to eat, when we get off the boat? I just used to follow the flock, before. I guess there’ll be loads of, what do you call it, alluvial mud, and that makes things grow, doesn’t it? And bugs coming up, like after the rains? Well, it is after the rains.”

“I’m planning to stick close to the humans. There’s always something to scavenge where the humans are.”

“Yes, all the mice and little birds and things will stay around the humans. Have you ever had a bird as big as me?”

“To be honest I was more of a mouse man. And just stealing things and getting treats from the women.”

“Don’t you want me?”

“You’re a very fine hen.”

There was a silence and then the hen began to speak once more.

“It’s going to be hard, starting again. I’m frightened but I’ll simply have to try, because there isn’t any other way. There won’t be much time to think, I suppose – the humans will be building and sowing and chopping and making, and I’ll be fussing over my chicks and learning to forage for whatever there is to eat, wherever we end up living. But I want you to promise that one day you’ll come to me, when the sun is setting, and you’ll sing me the songs of Ishtar. I’ll dance for you, and then I’ll lie down, I won’t struggle at all, and you’ll eat me all up.”

“I promise. I’ll savour every bit.”

“I’m glad we’ve had this time together.”

 

Noah’s family had finished their chores and the sons sat down to rest on the deck while the women went below to cook the evening meal. Noah had gone into his cabin. Now he came out with a dove on his hand. He whispered in its ear. Then he raised his hand and sent it forth, and it went out to search the face of the waters, looking for the first rebirth of land.

A Ghost Story

dark-lane

At the waning of the year I gather my ghosts. This is their time, in that dark pause, when between the bustle of Christmas and the trudge of January the memories return, drifting from familiar walls, pooling under lamps. Like the living, the dead want to be heard, but they are more confused than the living and fainter, thinner – shreds of old love and pain. I try to listen and piece them together. I give them four walls to stop them wandering.

There’s the lost child. “Mother, mother,” he calls, from very long ago. “Here I am, dear,” I say. It’s all he wants. It quiets him for a while. And then there’s the angry ghost who cries “Justice!” and makes his case to me – oh, it’s only jabberings now, and the dream he gives me of the scaffold and the noose – but there is no justice, only time. Some are faded to whispers with the centuries; some have stories I’ve tried to complete, with discreet researches in the newspaper archives. The detective side is fascinating, though I don’t like to travel and go into the city rarely. The poltergeist shook itself into nothing in the pantry when I gave it jars to throw. I swept out the glass and was glad this is such a big house, so far back from the road.

It was in the road I found some of them, chilling the hollows or rattling in the hedges, or rather they found me and followed me back. The ghosts recognize a listener. A sensitive, as some would say, though I’d almost say an insensitive, for they don’t frighten me and never have. I can comb through their pangs and terrors and stay apart. I confer a little order. It is my work now.

 

It’s often in the last week of December the new ghosts arrive, and the old ones are wakeful, and I put down my books and give them the long dark hours. But this year I had a visitor by day, and he was one of the living. He tramped up the drive, head down, back hunched, wearing a shabby grey anorak and a scarf and hat against the cold. I could see the belligerence in his tread and knew he meant trouble.

I left exactly the right pause before answering the door, not too long, not too short. “Yes?” My tone was politely inquiring, but I kept the chain on, as what older lady wouldn’t, answering the door to a stranger.

“Let me in. Don’t pretend you don’t remember who I am,” he said.

“You do look a little familiar, but I’m sorry…”

“Gary Henderson.” Then, when I didn’t immediately react, “son of Marjorie Henderson. And it’s no good shutting me out, because I have evidence and I know where you live. Let me in.”

He needed to have his say, so I unchained the door and let him in.

 

Of course I remembered Marjorie Henderson, and Gary too now I thought about it, though it had been so many years – almost thirty. A terrible affair and the end of my old life, so very different from the secluded existence I had now. I had worked in finance. First I had been a banker; then I became a financial adviser and agent. I specialized in working with small investors, finding opportunities for them to profit from the mysterious movements of the stock market. Ordinary people trusted me, especially old people and women, because I was a woman and I looked kind and yet competent, and I listened when they told me about their lives. I wasn’t their idea of a financial wizard, but once they had overcome the initial prejudice they gladly placed their savings in my deft hands.

It all ended with the scandal of the Queriros Fund. This was a fund created to build new hotels in Aruba. It was a little-known fund but there was rapid growth in the sector, and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for my clients. I encouraged several of them to invest heavily and even purchased some shares myself. Unfortunately, after the price of the stock had gone sharply up, it was revealed that, though the hotels existed, the fund had nothing to do with them. The money had simply been stolen and my clients had lost everything.

I was accused of being in on the scam. The police invaded my office, opening every file, confiscating my computer. They found nothing, but my reputation was gone and I had no will to rebuild it. I retired to the countryside. For Marjorie Henderson it was worse: a widow prematurely crippled by MS, she had lost all hope of independence with the fund. She killed herself, leaving one son.

 

“She wasn’t the only one,” said Gary, almost hissing. I had made tea, but he wasn’t placated by the ritual; he gripped the china cup so hard I almost thought he would crush it. “Ann Salisbury killed herself too, five years later. I hope she haunts you.”

She didn’t. I was unusually well placed to assure him of that, but there was no point in saying so. Nor did I mention that Ann had always had her troubles, before Queriros as well as after.

“But I’ve got you now. I tracked down Linda Talbot, and she told me about your dealings with George Montgomery.” Linda had been my PA.

“The police questioned Linda at the time. You know, I was cheated too.”

“You did alright for yourself, though, didn’t you? Look at this house. A bloody castle. You’re living on my mum’s money right now. And Ann Salisbury’s. And all the others.”

“So what did Linda say?”

“Linda said there were meetings that weren’t in the diary. Planning, going on late, and a trip she booked you to Switzerland. Which, of course, is where all the anonymous bank accounts are.”

Sometimes with my ghosts I wondered how much of what they remembered was real. They felt pain and rage, but it was all so long ago. They found words that made sense of what was left of them, but sometimes those words reminded me of ballad refrains or stories told to scare children; how much of it had ever happened, I couldn’t know. Stories last better than facts.

“Linda must be very old now,” I said carefully.

“She’s not senile and she can still talk to the police,” said Gary.

“George Montgomery was completely cleared,” I added. “There wasn’t a stain on his name. What’s he doing now?”

“He’s directing a bank. I’ll bring him down too,” said Gary. “But you were the one who destroyed mum. You were the one who sweet-talked her, the one she thought was her friend.”

“So you’ve been looking for evidence all these years,” I said.

Why hadn’t he simply gone to the police, persuadable Linda in tow? Because he needed to be heard. Because he wanted more than a constable taking notes and an indifferent inspector who’d recognize him for the obsessive he was, even if the case was to be reopened – and surely it couldn’t be? To think of that, all over again, the questioning, the publicity… But as for Gary, he wanted to have his triumph and be fully attended to, in person, by me, the one who would understand it, the one who couldn’t help but listen.

“No, I haven’t been looking for evidence all these years,” said Gary. “I’ve been looking for a way out. I’ve tried drink and Buddhism and betting on the horses – you name it, I’ve tried it. But I could never forget. I couldn’t escape like you have – I didn’t have a castle in the country – I had a two-up two-down in Blackburn and a backyard full of fucking bottles. You don’t know what it’s like, you’ve never felt a thing, you’ve never given a toss for what you did, because it’s not like a real crime, is it, moving a few figures around, ruining a few people’s lives along the way…”

“Go back to the start,” I said. “Tell me about the last thirty years.”

So he did, and I listened, as the pale December sun went down. Indeed he’d had a sad life, petty and discontented. There had been a lot of drinking and wasted opportunities. He’d never had much luck with women, it seemed, and never stayed long in a job; though he went into the civil service, supposedly a secure path, he always seemed to be the one who was shifted to a different department, and he’d repeatedly tried to get other jobs that fell through or ended.

“But you kept trying,” I said. “That’s good.”

“Yes, that’s good,” he echoed with a sarcastic glance.

I repeatedly had to take him back a stage and sort out the narrative. He tended to ramble and air his resentments, which weren’t directed only against me. Eventually we reached the previous year, the redundancy at age fifty-three with a minimal payout which he’d used to fund his search for Linda Talbot, and for me.

There was quiet when he’d finished. I glanced at the window. It was completely dark.

“How did you get here?” I asked.

“Train,” he said. “Do you think I can afford a car?”

“There aren’t many trains, especially not at this time of year. I’m pretty sure you’ve missed the last one.” I stood up. “You’d better have something to eat before we find you somewhere to sleep for the night.”

Telling his story had soothed him, I think, but at that moment I saw a gaunt, shadowy face start to manifest behind him, and he gave a great shudder and his own face wrenched into a mask of hostility.

“Don’t think you can buy me off with dinner and a fancy bedroom,” he snarled, and I took an involuntary step back. Perhaps he would actually become violent?

“No question of buying you off,” I said. “I’m being practical. You need to make some arrangements, and it’s the time I normally eat.”

“I couldn’t eat in the same room with you without being sick,” he replied, but it was a melodramatic thing to say, not wholly convincing. The ghostly face had vanished again.

“I will put out some cold food for you, then,” I said. “And you can ring the pub in the village to see if they have a room.” I left him getting out his phone and trying to find a signal, but I knew already he would have no luck even if he could get through to the pub. There was nowhere offering accommodation in the village.

 

I could feel the restlessness of the ghosts in the walls. They sensed the conflict and the straying of my attention.

“Oh, ghosts,” I said aloud. “Perhaps I’m going to join you. I don’t think so. But I can’t be quite sure. This man has been obsessively hating me for so many years.” But I went into the kitchen and got out sliced ham and brown bread, which I placed in the dining room, and then I climbed the stairs and made up a bed at the opposite end of the house from my own. I went to my bedroom and checked that I still had the key for the door, and that it locked.

 

In the end he took the bed I’d made up. There was nowhere else nearby, and he was the sort who would never even contemplate taking a taxi for such a long distance. Moreover, he could see the nervousness behind my composure, and like most failed and resentful people he had a bullying strain that made him enjoy invading my space, suppressing his own discomfort. I ushered him to his room and retreated to mine as early as possible. Then there was nothing to do but wait out the hours. The ghosts shifted and sighed through the house. “Mother, mother!” “Justice!” “The cold, the cold, oh, remember…” I didn’t answer. I had nothing to say to them that night.

I thought back to how he’d reacted to that partial manifestation earlier. He had felt it, but not, like me, calm and undisturbed.

The mutterings and the flittings rose. The voices grew louder and louder – “Mother, mother, where are you mother?” “No justice, no justice!” – and then there was a cry, a thump, the stumbling run of feet, half falling down the stairs, and the crash of the front door being flung wide.

 

He drifted back a few hours later. Perhaps the ghosts had known of the car speeding down the lane. The police who attended the accident did not think to come and question me. But the pale spirit came, questioning, searching, confused. “Mother, mother,” he called. “I’m here, dear,” I answered. “Why don’t you tell me about it?” So he told me about it, in shreds and mumblings. And I looked at the little framed postcard of Bern on the wall, the one George Montgomery had sent me, perfectly blank, to signal that he was ready to pull the plug on the Queriros Fund. I had not expected him to do it in so crude and spectacular a fashion, nor that I would come so near to being his fall guy. But he had kept me in comfort all this time; and, truly, it was the people side of the job I had always enjoyed. I find them just as intriguing a challenge now that they’re dead.

Photo credit: http://greensideup.ie/tag/winter/

The Dressing-Up Box Nativity Play

This is a nativity play designed for the needs of the modern parent i.e. it uses only costumes that the average time-poor, pointless-crap-rich family already owns. It preaches a message of love, acceptance and extreme laziness highly pertinent to our frantic society.

christmas-star

SCENE ONE

A generic nativity play set with stars and stuff. Enter Mary (a princess) and Batman. All their luggage is piled on the back of a patient grey zombie.

Song: “Little zombie”

Mary We need somewhere to rest. I am about to have a baby and our zombie is very tired.

Batman knocks in mid-air.

Batman Is there room in the inn?

Witch No, but you can sleep in the stable where I keep all the ghosts, vampires and ghouls.

Enter ten children in their Halloween costumes.

Song: “A Wraith in a Manger”

Narrator (a knight) Mary had her baby and she called him Jesus. She laid him in the manger.

Ghost Wooooooo, what a beautiful baby!

Count Dracula He looks tasty.

Mary (indulgently) Count Dracula, you need to learn about the spirit of Christmas!

SCENE TWO

Still the same generic nativity play set, only now Mary, Batman and all the Halloween characters sit down at the side of the stage to indicate we can’t see them.

Narrator And there were superheroes abiding in the fields, keeping watch over the city by night.

Enter six or seven superheroes.

Song: “O little town of Bethlehem, how full you are of crime” 

Narrator Suddenly, the sky was full of princesses.

Enter fifteen princesses. Fourteen of them are Elsa from “Frozen”. The fifteenth is Xena, Warrior Princess, as she has a geeky mum who does cosplay.

Song: “The people that walked in darkness have Xena great light”

Xena, Warrior Princess Be not afraid! A child has been born in the city of Bethlehem who will save everybody much better than you do. However, he is being menaced by Count Dracula.

The superheroes have a quiet but intense argument among themselves.

Spiderman We will go to see him and bring him presents.

SCENE THREE

Same as Scene One but now with all the superheroes. The superheroes present the baby with a random selection of cuddly toys, weapons, pokémon cards etc.

Count Dracula This baby must be important, but I am getting very hungry.

Superman Don’t you dare try it, Dracula! We defeated you before!

Song: “Last Christmas, we skewered your heart”

By the way (thanks to Comics Alliance):

ac05

SCENE FOUR

Nothing about the stage has changed, except perhaps a small ghoul has fallen off it. Enter three wise Jedi: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Song: “We three kings escaped the Death Star”

Obi-Wan Kenobi We felt a disturbance in the Force and set out to bring gifts to the newborn king.

Luke We bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh-derous lightsabers.

The Jedi lay the lightsabers beside the crib.

Count Dracula I admit it, I can’t harm this baby. There’s simply too much peace and goodwill around. From now on I will give up sucking blood and eat only foil-wrapped chocolate coins and chestnut stuffing.

Everybody Hooray! Count Dracula has discovered the spirit of Christmas!

Song: “Dracul, the sharp-toothed vampire”

Darth Vader Jesus, I am your father.

Teacher Stop it, Nathan, that’s not in the Bible.

Song: “Have yourself a very mixed-up Christmas”

 

THE END

Backwards

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

img_3158

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’.]

unknown-1

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.]

s-l225

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.]

1795e_dilutatanr

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.