Friday, 9 May 2008

Exposure

When the weekend comes it’s a treat for everybody.
I heard them earlier, on the radio. So bright and shining; they’re looking forward to everything.
Debbie and Mike are going canoeing on some big lake; Cassandra is attending a pottery workshop tomorrow; Robert is just looking forward to getting home to his beautiful wife and a cold beer or five.
I’m sitting in a smoky basement, choking again. The guys are coming over soon, but so what? What am I looking forward to this weekend? What does the weekend mean to me?
I’m just glad not to be in work for two days. That’s what the weekend means to me. But I find myself spending these twin days of freedom in free-fall, worrying about the onrushing ground, the return of the routine, the inescapable ‘Monday’.
Some people see the dawn as a rebirth, a resurrection of life and warmth and existence, I suppose. But I don’t know.
There have been some hard nights. The sort when the darkness never seems to end, and phantoms are plaguing you. I’ll admit, I’ve prayed for the dawn to come. But who’s to say that dawn brings anything better than the cloying darkness of the early morning?
I’ve been reading a lot of war poetry lately. Wilfred Owen, mainly. My son was studying it at school. Left the book here one night after he’d been sleeping over, so I picked it up.
I didn’t love it all, but so much of it grabbed my attention. I was already thinking about how the weekend is just a break in the monotony of existence, as night is to day. I wonder if Owen would have agreed with me? Here’s the quote that really got me:

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow...
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens

“But nothing happens”. That’s how I feel, and I reckon that’s how most people feel, but they would never admit it. I can hear their voices now coming through my open window.
Filtering out the traffic noise, I can hear the clinking of glasses, laughter and raised voices coming from the nearby beer garden. The long dark of winter has ended and they’re out enjoying the light again. Yeah, they love it all so much that they’re going to drink until they can’t remember the things they had to do this week.
I’ve decided, I don’t think I feel like seeing anyone tonight. I think I’ll tell the guys I feel like a night in, on my own. Tired after a long week. Something like that.
Me and Wilfred Owen, we’ll be alright. We’ll keep each other company, and we’ll sit there together on duty. Watching and waiting, until the sun goes down once more.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Burning

A heatwave, an eight hour shift and hard work in a take-away place. My day, in a nutshell.
My hell on Earth is over, for today. I’m standing outside the Sun Star Grill and I’m looking for the breeze to come and reach under my blouse a little and cool down my burning flesh.
Jesus, I am hot. Please help me to cool down.
They wouldn’t let me take a drink from the chiller. All day long, while I was grilling cheeseburgers and slicing up the donner meat, these drinks were my temptation: one hundred cans and bottles of Sprite, Coke, Diet Coke and Fanta. I don’t get paid until tomorrow and so I didn’t have any money to buy one.
Sam kept saying, “Water, water is free. Drink the water. Here’s a cup. Drink the water, won’t you?” And I drank it, but it was so warm. So warm compared to those big bottles of Sprite, all sitting there so cool in the cabinet next to me.
A girl I know called Katie came in around 3pm to buy some chips. She also bought a can of Coke. You should have seen the way the condensation started to drip down the side. From the very moment I took it from the fridge I couldn‘t stop looking at that can. Katie gave me a pitying sort of look as she paid for her food. She must think I’m so strange. Strange and fat and ugly.

I met Katie at Bible Class. Every Sunday afternoon since I was nine years old, my parents have taken me to the Evergreen Centre on Sandy Lane where I’ve been taught the lessons I need to live my life. The lessons they don’t teach me in school. Miss Templar, one of the best leaders there, says that her lesson plans are devised by God.
It always makes me smile when she says that.
At first, when I used to go, I would cry a lot. We all would, even the boys. The leaders made us realise how much sin was in our hearts, you see. Yes, we all said we were Christians, but did we act like it? Did we keep God in our hearts 24/7? Or were we hypocrites? Sinning along with our friends every day in school, using foul language, listening to secular music?
Every Sunday, the first fifteen minutes of those early sessions, we spent them in tears. Our tears, said Miss Templar, were like the waters of our baptism washing our sin away.
I hope one day that the Lord Jesus will speak through me. Lots of the other children will convulse and speak in tongues most weeks, but it never seems to happen to me. I will shout and jump with the best of them, but it always makes me so hot and tired. Maybe that’s why the spirit never enters me? Maybe it is because I am too fat and lazy to truly hear God’s word?

My cousin Liam came in at lunch time. He’s older than me and he drives a van delivering the local papers to all the newsagents in town. He’s not a believer and he laughs at me, though I always turn the other cheek.
Liam told me he saw a hypnotist on TV convince a group of Jews that they should become Christians. He just told them all what to do, put his hands on them and the next thing they were all blessing themselves and praying to Jesus for forgiveness from the wicked lives they used to live. Some of them were crying, he said.
That bit always made me feel a bit sick, and I would say a prayer then, and one for Liam too so that he might also be saved, one day.
Liam ordered two plain burgers - halfpounders - and went outside to smoke while I cooked them. I slapped the raw slices of ground beef down on the griddle and they immediately started to smoke. The black coals beneath the grill glowed red as the fat and grease dripped down from the slowly blackening burger. They landed, plopping down with a satisfying hiss…

I’m cooler now that I’ve been outside for a few minutes. Dad should be along soon to pick me up. He won’t ever leave me standing in the street for very long.
I’m looking forward to Sunday’s meeting. We’re having a barbecue.
Miss Templar has asked us all to bring in a copy of a Harry Potter book. Any that we can find - from a friend, neighbour or whoever - and we’re each going to come to the front of the hall and then toss the book into the fire.
As Miss Templar says, “Harry Potter is a warlock, and the Bible says that a warlock should be put to death.” She thinks he would have been burned at the stake, if he’d been real.
It’s still so hot waiting out here, and it’s only the start of summer. I hope dad will let me put the air-conditioning on. I hope he gets here soon.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Keeping hold

Remember that fearful age, that point in time when your father said you should be riding a bike?
And remember the fateful day when he screwed you down into the saddle of just such a bike and made you ride?
We’ve all seen that now clich├ęd scene played out… “Don’t let go, dad!”
“Don’t worry, son. I’ve got you.” And then, “Look son, you’re riding, you’re doing it on your own!”
What did it feel like, that moment when your parent let go of you? Did you feel your blood coursing through your veins? Did you see the world and its endless possibilities suddenly open out before you and feel like you could fly above it all?
Or did the full weight of this world, all its possible dangers and endless responsibilities, suddenly climb on behind you to make your bike swerve and wobble? Did hitting the ground that first time feel like your umbilical cord had severed once more? That innate trust and protection you’d always counted on, suddenly comes with a healthy dose of mistrust.
Who knows which of those two types of people are the lucky ones? But Kevin, he loved to ride. Even today, if you’d looked out of your window at about 4pm you might have seen him.
He’s got a great bike. A Burner 2 BMX in Midnight Black with internal Gyro and 48 spoked wheels, alloy V-brakes, freestyle saddle and two pegs.
He knows the specs off by heart because he read them so many times when he was looking at the bike in the catalogue. It’s not the best bike in the world, far from it. But his parents told him how much they could spend and he picked the bike accordingly. What’s more, the other kids don’t make jokes about it, which is helpful.
Today Kevin is riding in great loops of his neighbourhood. He started with a small loop, along his road and then a quick dart into the alley that runs behind all the gardens. He pedals down here as fast as he dares, knowing that any moment a dog or a neighbour might appear and cause a small wreck!
After the successful completion of this stage, it’s a ring right around the houses, taking in Arbour Avenue along with Kevin’s own street, Daleside Close. Once he’s successfully completed each stage, Kevin looks for the next route, the bigger challenge.
He’s still wearing the knee and elbow pads his mother laid out for him this morning (knowing his BMX-inspired plans for the day) but he’s cast off his helmet, chucking it over the fence into his back yard as he whizzed down the alley earlier. Let’s face it, no-one looks cool in a helmet.
At school, the teacher told his class a story about a boy, of about Kevin’s age, who received a brand new bike for his birthday and rode it along the street that very day. This boy hit something (a rock, a tin can, who knows?) and was sent sailing from his saddle onto his head.
The teacher seemed to take great delight in describing the spinal injuries suffered in the crash, and the fact that this boy of boundless energy was now capable of riding only a wheelchair.
“And what item of safety wear could have saved him?” The teacher would ask this to the class, and the class would have to repeat as one: “A HELMET!”
Maybe this story was the sole reason no boy in Kevin’s class ever wore a bicycle helmet. Not that the tale didn’t make an impression on him, but how many kids are riding round in a wheelchair because they didn’t wear a helmet?
At some point, on the final stage of his fastest ever loop of the High Street/Kendal Lane/Melling Road/Daleside Close circuit, Kevin swerved away from a reversing neighbour and clipped the kerb.
His Midnight Black Burner 2 with internal Gyro flipped over a wall and embedded itself in a hawthorn bush.
Kevin himself came over the handlebars and landed on his right shoulder. If you could have watched his crash in slow motion you would have seen his arms reaching out in desperation to break his fall. And you would have seen his body half-somersault so that his arms could never quite touch any part of the ground before his torso did.
He scraped his back and legs pretty badly, and his collar bone was broken, but his head, neck and spine were unharmed.
Still, Kevin didn’t know that at the time and he was pretty scared. All he knew was that he couldn’t get up and there were people standing gravely around him.
Kevin had tears in his eyes and he was crying out. Crying out for his dad: “Get my dad, he’ll know what to do. Someone get my dad.”
And soon his dad came, and his dad knew what to do this time, just like he’d known what to do that first time when Kevin had swerved, wobbled and fallen.
When the overwhelming fear of responsibility and lone struggle had gripped his young mind and brought him crashing to the ground, his father was there running towards him with healing arms and that strange habit of always knowing exactly what needed to be done.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Wisdom and Merchurio (conclusion)

Merchurio’s introduction is accompanied by the movement of his hand to his bare chest, his tunic hanging open.
He leans back so that his long grey hair almost reaches the ground. We are not invited to sit, but I feel it’s safe to do so, and Leda follows as always.
Twin lanterns hang from poles spaced evenly across the tent and flash their twinkle across our host’s face as the breeze slowly sways their flames. Our senses buzz with strange fumes and odours reeking from the pipe and the decades-old hides. Leda told me, years later, that at this moment she felt she had been swallowed by some great lizard and was trapped in its foul stomach.
Sitting in here, in the mouth of mythology, with us was Merchurio. It seemed he had been appraised of our plight, of our dream of flight from possessive parents, and of matrimony blessed, despite our young ages.
He considered the situation for some minutes while staring hard into my face and then at the visage of my beautiful companion. My love, my Leda.
Eventually, he sighed, took a full draught of his pipe, breathed out a cloud and spoke to us. “Fine families,” said he, “would never agree to the marriage of two so young.”
“Perhaps,” he continued, “the girl could be made ready for a man, for who can say the true age of the magical creature that is ‘woman’?
But a boy, a boy who has barely hair on his chin? Why, how can he be fit for anything but a gentleman’s amusement? Even a whore would laugh at his manhood, though she would take his fortune, nonetheless.”
He took another small puff and choked a little. He looked down and wiped away the mucus that had caught in his beard.
“No, you come for my advice - and there is no advice deemed greater to the people of your city - and it is this: do not attempt to marry. It will only lead to anger, hatred and eventual poisoned bloodshed between your two houses.
Wait out your years, boy. Do your duty by your father, your mother and your city. Then you may marry; if not this girl, then some other.”
We looked at each other in horror. There had always existed between us such a fear of similar dismissal; a worry that nothing could be done, that there was no solution to our woes. Perhaps the current strength of our bond had grown so, due to the external; the ancient weight of society, of manners, of tradition, that sought so hard to rip us asunder.
I appealed to our host, I appealed to the wise and revered Merchurio. Surely there was something could be done? Surely there was some path for us to choose other than our bitter separation? But the old man sternly shook his head and looked at me as though I should be ashamed, having come to him with this matter.
He sat staring blankly at us, unmoved by the great globular teardrops streaking Leda’s angelic face. Numb, I attempted standing and almost crawled from the tent of the great seer, collapsing into the forest clearing.
Mere moments passed but, with horror, I came to realise that Leda had not emerged with me. I hovered there, in a haze of shock, no idea of what to do next. But, eventually, such moments passed that I felt re-entry necessary. I moved again towards Merchurio’s lair.
At once the pockmarked man who had been our guide slithered from the side of the tent and barred my way. This time he was expecting my dagger to be drawn, spinning me around and reaching my arm up behind my back until I let the weapon fall with a cry of wincing pain.
And here he held me, in sweating minutes of agony while my mind raced with the evil possibilities that might be happening mere feet away, within the awful tent before me.
My imagination reeled. Time lost all meaning and relation. Then, presently, she came again. Leda, emerging through the smoke, and wearing a crown of white feathers that Merchurio had bestowed upon her.
She came close and kissed me soft. My arm was released from its snare.
I saw now, in the moon’s glow, that her face was transformed. Where she wore tears, now her complexion was rosy. Where she bore a frown, her lips were now pleated in a smile.
And then she spoke. She spoke such words that even now I can't believe they came from her lips. Lips that had just that day planned and communicated such an immediate happiness for us.
“I cannot return with you,” she said in a slow, purposeful tone. “If we cannot wed, I will soon be promised to a man with whom my father does business.
But the wise Merchurio and I have spoken, and he has agreed to keep me here, hidden among the green of the canopy, where only Apollo or Diana themselves may choose to find me.
Go now, my brave love. Return to your father and mother. Seek for me only when your service is done.”
And, with those words, I was unduly dragged from that place of strange wonder and a sack placed upon my head. Once more, I was led by my hateful guide out of the rich majesty of the woods, and into the clumsy sprawl of the city. Away from the tents and the clearing, away from Leda, away from the great Merchurio, and belched back upon the steps of my family’s residence, steps I had descended hours earlier on a quest that I felt sure would shape my life’s happiness.
And, as the great oak door swung wide, I looked up at the cold grey stone staircase that led to my family’s rooms. It seemed to stretch on forever. The foreboding staircase of my future, it seemed an impossible climb.
With Leda’s image before me, ever beckoning me onward, I lifted one foot before the other and began my arduous, heartbreaking climb.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Wisdom and Merchurio

We stepped through shadowed doorways below the eaves of a city. Spindling pathways, interconnecting veins slicing communities, marking unseen borders; such paths we followed. Me leading, she grasping my hand so tightly and following close behind.
We used the eventide well, to cloak our movements through these old corridors, these thick passageways between buildings, where the walls have been laid so close to one another that it appears there is no room to proceed. They close in, such walls, upon two lonely children running together away from families and light; avoiding sentry and night-watchman; breaking curfew and command.
Somewhere, a darkness calls us, and we go to him. This man, so enshrouded, has waited almost half an hour longer than agreed. He is angry. He wishes to be paid double; paid double to take us to Merchurio.
I give him all I have and he sneers and spits on the ground. He has a face like lemon peel, and hair grows from his every wrinkle and sore. The creature eyes Leda, attempts to paw her and ask her name. I pull forth my dagger and brandish it close to his hand. He laughs once, and turns his back to me. I don’t know if I’m winning or not. Leda’s grip advances up my arm.
He beckons us on, through streets where fetid streams wash away the sins of gin-soaked sleepers, dead and bloated on the cobbles. He beckons us on, toward Merchurio.
To the east, the city drifts downhill and flattens out at its borders with the forest. There is little change from picking our way through the claustrophobic maze of streets and buildings to dodging huge trees and overhanging branches. And it is just as dark here. The moon finds it as difficult to prick the shadows of nature as it does the shadows of man.
“Soon enough,” says our odious guide, “soon enough,” as though answering our unspoken questions as to our arrival in the house of Merchurio.
As the dense canopy appears to give way to a clearing ahead, I fancy I hear the roar of the dragon and the snort of the bull nearby. Through the trees, the moon is able to illuminate gilded spectres dancing in the forest glade. Are these satyrs and devils? Do the gods walk abroad in this place? I slow my pace, and Leda holds me across the chest, burying her head in my side. But we strive on.
As we break the treeline, an assortment of a strange and fearful kind cast their eyes towards us for a moment and then go back to their business. They are people, not faeries, demons or other and they are revelling with ale, laughter and flame. Beneath the shelter of the larger tree boughs are sat huts and skin-tents. We are not pointed in the direction of the largest of these abodes, but rather to a battered erection covered with stitched hides, where smoke drifts aimlessly from a small vent and strange lights dance within.
A flap of skin is peeled back and we are bidden entry to this hollow of madness. Inside, smoking a small pipe, sits Merchurio.

...to be concluded...