Saturday, 25 December 2010

The Boat House

on stilts. The sixty or so birds that make up
the neighbourhood cannot make holes
in the ice. The house built on the lake
for boats or ducks or otters is now stranded
on dry water, can be reached on foot. Speaking
to each other, the wood cut years ago submits
to the ice that was born yesterday. A train passes
like a wild boar and is swallowed by silence.
On the ice, objects: a toy car, a plug attached
to a cut cable (choked on its copper spew),
a baseball hat embroidered with Toronto’s
clean cut blue jay, and an open-mouthed
video recorder. When we stepped onto the lake
I did not feel it creak or heave. The rock I pitched
jarred like a spade on flint. There were prints, too,
a dance of invisible gulls, the belly-dragging scoop
of a pregnant cat, and, always going towards
the boat house, two upright unknown animals.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Another Poem About a Charley Harper Painting

You cannot blame a child
for wanting to bob stupidly
on a lake in a fibreglass parody
of a boat: it is a right
as inalienable as that
which binds a stick
to its dog. There is a path
that goes around the lake
twice – once each way –
and jetties on the bank
where fish can be pulled
like teeth, at an alarming
rate. The heron looks
at the pink stiff-necked
things with ineffective
mouths, and wonders
how something can be
both driven and directionless.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Myth of the Frost-Bringer

and other child-made myths. Like the redwing
who was once a song thrush but grew so cold
that he lit a fire in his own feathers. The hill
full of them feeding their flames with flame-red
raw-red haws. Winter comes fingers-first, a tense
Russian pianist. An egg cracked and spilling
over the head of the hill. A sense of things
dropped from a table, gobbled by ravening
mouselike underthoughts, little helpers
of Morozko, exiles.

After Charley Harper's 'Blue Jay Bathing'

My irreproachable sense of logic states
that you cannot stand a drinking horn up
unaided, unless you are on soft ground.
Some books are so old that their provenance
is traceable only by smell – here words are subject
to subsidence, a being-shifting that transcends
meaning. Movement is the opposite of semiotics.
To read a book is to know its author, even
if that author is a dinosaur or a kite. I know you.
I know that like a jay there is a kinky blue nurse’s
uniform under the pinkish murk of your outer.
When you peel off your clothes and wash hurriedly
the shower room is like a winter birdbath or your body
is an ancient book (flicked through too fast,
flickering) that shouldn’t get wet but wants to.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Joke

you told about planting Gogol’s
nose in Roethke’s greenhouse and watering
it made me think of your body
as a zoo of body parts
(zoo: animal, captive, impotent, reflection.)
I forget the punch line. But you’re protected
from my tropospheric depressions
by the glass of words (tropos:
from the Greek to turn, and our word
‘trope.’) No joke.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Projects

It is his day off work so he decides to do some writing. He goes into the library with a fair idea of what it is he is going to write, and a fair idea that it is going to be quite good by his standards. He sits down at a computer and in less than half an hour he has written a short story. The story is about a solipsistic curtain. He reads it back to himself and it is not what he expected. He feels no ownership. It is not that he doesn’t like the story, he just feels entirely apart from it, as if he hadn’t actually written it. It contains words, whole phrases that simply don’t fit in with his way of thinking. There is a literary device that he would never normally use. Notwithstanding this he decides to print off a few copies under a nom de plume that he makes up on the spot – Robert Rosario. He photocopies a diamond-shaped art nouveau print of some chestnut leaves to use as a front cover for the story, and he leaves a copy in the library, under the London Review of Books on the magazine shelf. He takes another copy up the hill to the museum and art gallery, where there is an exhibition of paintings inspired by the sea. He leaves Robert Rosario’s story on the backless chairs in the middle of the gallery. Walking home he thinks about the past, about how five years ago he had plans, and would never have used a pen name. About how he and his then-girlfriend had planned to move to Bath where he would have done a masters degree in creative writing and she would have continued her childcare studies, and he would have been a modestly successful novelist and they would have collaborated on critical and practical studies of Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. He realises that all of his friends, at least the ones with any emotional or intellectual connection with him, have either gone back to university or had children, while he has a low-paid job in the local council. He thinks about going back and knows it is only a thought, and he will go on filtering the stories of Robert Rosario into his home town.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Tom Bryon

The events concerning Tom Bryon and myself – or, more accurately, Tom Bryon and the town I shared with him – occurred around the spring and summer of 2006. It is perfectly safe to assume that these events, or events inseparable from them, could have happened many times and perhaps in other towns and cities – Liverpool, Bristol, Ipswich and Budapest are or were places known to Tom Bryon – but the fact is that only on this particular occasion did either of us see fit to remember what happened, or to record what happened, which amounts to more or less the same thing. That the events happened in Swindon is neither here nor there if like most people you know nothing of Swindon. The simple fact of the matter is that for a vast majority of the people who live or have lived or will live on the Earth, Swindon does not exist. For those who know a little of its history it is less of a town and more of an island – a temporal island, at least, in that it has no parallels: it grew up late and fast. It has never been and will never be an old town or a new town (despite the geo-historical split brought about by Brunel and his railway that led to the top half of the town being called Old Town and the bottom New Town.) In the latter part of the twentieth century it was a poor, pitiful town that wanted to be a city but would have made a poor, pitiful city. Its council even applied for city status but the bid was politely ignored. Tom Bryon described himself as ‘Swindon and proud’ or ‘Swindon born and bred’ but he had not been born there, or even close. He was in love with the place: an inexplicable seam of bright love that he mined in any way he could. He supported the local football team with the passion of a man much less intelligent than himself; he went to concerts and exhibitions of local artists who were far less talented in their field than he was in his. He proudly debased himself for a town; was like a mistress to a town. And I, who also loved that place, admired his fervour probably more sincerely than I admired the fruits of his other great passion – writing.

When I met him in those deluded days of the late nineteen nineties we were both at college. He had only just started writing – short, awful, plentiful poems, pale shadows of the nature poems of Ted Hughes, or John Burnside – and we immediately bonded over a shared love of music, poetry and soft drugs and a shared admiration for our English Literature tutor, Jim North, who himself loved music, attempted to instigate poetry and tolerated soft drugs. The great, always-old figure of Jim North was a local hero and when you are as immersed in your locality as Tom Bryon and myself were at the time a local hero is as important as a national one, and immeasurably more meaningful. We visited North’s house and showed him our poetry (taking his cue from Larkin, Tom Bryon never read his poetry out loud.) North lived in a house in the greener part of Old Town. His wife, a south-east Asian, made us tea without milk and North would insist on us taking a glass of wine instead. His large suburban garden had three levels and had the feel of one of those neatly stepped farms on Asian hillsides and he would read our poems on the top level with a Dave Brubeck record on in the house, too far away for us to hear. It was as a result of these moments (which now seem to me impossibly childlike and even childish) that we – that is Tom Bryon and I – were prompted to produce a poetry magazine, the first and only issue of which appeared on the coffee tables of small-time pot dealers and English students just after the turn of the century. The poetry scene in Swindon at that time, if it existed at all, was so far underground that it was invisible. If it didn’t exist, we invented it and killed it in one move. But I think it did exist, and we aimed for it, and overshot. That is to say we ended up under it. Under the underground. Our magazine turned up in a few cafes and record shops where it was bought by friends and family members who gave it away to lesser friends and family members because they already had copies. One copy ended up being shown to secondary school pupils: and I mean shown, passed around a class unread as an example of something, I don’t know what. Another batch ended up in Bristol. Even at the time I winced to think of the distinguished, bicycle-riding student poets of Bristol – poets who had read and understood Reda or Borges or Pound – I winced and still wince at the thought of them sitting in dark bars with beautiful girls laughing at the timid little poets from Swindon. But nonetheless in certain circles we achieved a kind of local celebrity that was born more from admiration of our lifestyle and our hard work than of our poetry, and maybe if we had not failed to see that those things were inseparable we wouldn’t have stopped. Someone (it was probably Jim North) described us as being like a latter-day Coleridge and Wordsworth, wandering around the countryside, getting off our heads and writing poems about it.

Through embarrassment or inertia or after some long-forgotten epiphany we stopped writing poetry, both of us.

We both went away to study and lost contact for half a decade. I was in Brighton, then New Zealand. Tom Bryon, in a moment of masochism or stupidity, went to Liverpool. Rarely I heard stories about him from mutual friends – that he was engaged to an ugly rich girl but he had broken it off because he had wanted a family and she had terminated his child, that he was engaged to dancer who had broken it off because he got drunk and hit her in his sleep, that he had published a novel under a different name, that he was a fascist who lived the life of an alcoholic aristocrat, that he was a socialist working in a library.

When I finished studying I moved into a house with my girlfriend not far from Swindon, where my family still lived. For a while I forgot about my wonderful, useless English degree and did what the Great British arts graduate is prone to do – drifted through a succession of menial administrative jobs. I wrote, or pretended to write, or attempted to write when I had the time. I had the odd piece published. I made use of electronic media not because I thought it was a good way of publishing but because I didn’t think I had the time to contact real publishers and because I was not sure enough of the quality of my work . For years the only creative work I had done was short stories. No poems at all. I read Dave Eggers and his contemporaries and my stories became shorter and shorter to the point where they became one word then one letter then a dot on a non-existent page. I tried to think of this creative trajectory in terms of the trajectory of a bouncing ball – the point where I ceased to write anything being the point where the ball hits the ground. But the ground was rough, so to speak, or maybe the ball was not round; either way it bounced irregularly and I wrote a poem. Just one poem, but it was enough to make me think about Tom Bryon for the first time in months, maybe years. I looked on the internet for traces of his writing, without luck. I did some detective work, phoned a couple of people, and by chance ran into an old university friend of his – an Irish medical student called Ruth – who gave me some information. Basically I found out that he was back in Swindon, living with his family. That was enough. He went out of my mind again for a few weeks.

In the spring of 2006 I took a holiday and visited my parents. On the first night I went with my father to get drunk at the Beehive on Prospect Hill – a thin, stooping street like a little old man, a street connecting the Old Town and the New Town, and that ran to the very base of the college building (always ugly, now ugly and derelict) where we had studied seven years previously. Tom Bryon was on a stool at the bar, laughing that wild, effeminate laugh of his. He was already drunk – it was not yet seven o’clock – and was filling a glass from a near-full bottle of wine. He shook hands and then he hugged me – something I had never expected him to do: he rarely indulged in physical displays of emotion. He was with a girl whom he did not introduce and who looked younger than him (and he still looked young for his age) and when she tried to pour herself a glass of wine he stopped her with his hand and ordered two more glasses ‘for his guests,’ as he said. He had been half way through telling a story to the barman and a couple of older men, and he insisted on starting at the beginning for the sake of me and my father.

As he spoke I noticed that his eyes occasionally moved from his glass to the door, as if he were expecting someone. His glances were not quick or furtive. It was as if he were resigned to something. He never looked at his audience when he spoke, except once when he turned away from me and stopped and looked towards the girl and I thought he was crying, or looking for her advice, or had forgotten what he was saying.

The story he told was essentially a personal anecdote. He had been to Oxford for an evening to attend a poetry reading in a bar (this struck me as unusual because although he liked bars he hated poetry readings.) The poets, he said, were not up to much. There was one called Melissa something-or-other who had exposed her breasts whilst reading a poem about the death of Lorca, but that was about as interesting as it got. Anyway, he had stayed until the end for some reason, got ‘convincingly drunk’ (his words) and missed the last train back to Swindon. He tried a few hostels and guest houses with no reward, got thrown out of a bar or two (it was a Wednesday and everywhere closed early – Oxford is still a small, quiet city) and ended up walking around Jericho looking for somewhere to sleep. He found a quiet spot behind some industrial wheelie bins in a car park belonging to the Oxford University Press and prostrated himself alongside an old wall. But he was in a short-sleeved shirt and it was a cold night – cold enough to pierce his drunkenness, to make a mockery of it – and he could not get to sleep. He tried something different. Specifically he tried to get himself arrested, so that he might spend the night in a cell with the body heat of a selection of Oxford’s many drug addicts to keep him warm. He sang. He shouted. He swore. He rattled the bikes fastened with chains to the railings at the fronts of houses, screaming like a selection of Oxford’s many ghosts. When this failed to attract the attention of the local constabulary he threatened a bunch of students, trying to get into a fight. They first laughed, then ignored him. He followed them to a house, where they locked him out and turned on their music. When he finally did spot a cycle-mounted policeman he threw himself into the path of his bike but the man swerved and shouted at him to go home, then rode off at speed. By this time it was about three in the morning and he decided that he would be better off just walking all night to conserve his warmth. Then he found a charity shop with a number of donations piled up in bin bags by its front door. He tore the bags open ‘like a man driven to madness by witnessing extremes of madness’ (his words again). Most contained toys, board games, teapots. In one was a cutlery set that he thought about taking – in his temporary madness and the darkness he was convinced it was old silver. But in one of the bags (the last one, as is the way in fairytales) he found a sweatshirt, a pair of socks, a pink hand towel and a shower curtain. These he took to his old bed in the OUP car park. The towel served as a pillow and partial headscarf, the shower curtain as a blanket and the socks (inexplicably they were odd) as gloves. He got half an hour, maybe an hour of sleep before he was woken by his own shivering, and when the shivering became a numbness he decided to get up and walk again, and very nearly couldn’t. He walked back to the train station to catch the six-thirty train. At the station the coffee kiosk was already open but, he said, ‘I didn’t buy a coffee because I had somehow convinced myself that taking any kind of stimulant would result in me having a massive heart attack, so instead I bought a bottle of water and read the Metro. My train came and I got on it. Two girls were sleeping on the seat behind me and one woke up and made a noise of fear or shock, like she didn’t know where she was, and then went back to sleep again. I had to change trains at Didcot. It was just getting light. The station was monochrome, and so was the sky. I lay on my back waiting for the connecting train. Over the station a bird of prey flew or glided. I think it was a red kite from the Chiltern population not far away. It must have been. It was the only thing of human colour in that metallic morning. It may have been my sleeplessness or the cold or whatever but it seemed huge, huge and blood red and solitary. In the ten seconds or so that it took to get from one side of the station to the other it did not flap its wings once. I got on the train and thought about the poem in the sky. The train too was a poem, and the Metro I still carried. Poems I had written, or at least thought. Is there a difference? I was wearing a sweatshirt I had stolen from outside a charity shop in Oxford and that was the most beautiful poem of all. At about this time I realised that I stank. I stank of myself, but more that that, something that I had slept in, dog shit or fox shit (I used to be able to tell the difference but not any more.) But I stank of something else as well, something worse than sweat and shit, and I couldn’t tell what it was, which might be why I thought it was worse. I was glad that I was on my own in the train carriage, and then I heard a sound behind me: the sound of somebody waking up, the sound of a girl waking up with a start, and I looked through the gap between the seats and saw two girls, the same two girls that had been on the previous train and had stayed on when I got off. I started palpitating for a second and then I thought, there is nothing strange about this. I calmed myself down with the knowledge that I wasn’t in a train at all. I hadn’t been to Oxford and slept in a car park. This was a great poem, a great prose poem written between the contours of a map. And this calmed me down for a while. I started to hallucinate. I had a vision of two beautiful women sleeping and waking in turn, just behind me, and a seat and a train. Have you ever had hallucinations of something behind you? It is almost indescribable, like complete darkness. There was an open door in the back of my head that closed every time I looked through it. I hallucinated birds of prey; a firmament of wings. I saw a whole town that was not my own, read street names that sounded exotic even if they were not. By the time I got back to Swindon I had never been to Oxford. I had cultivated a vision and it was easier to believe than a fact. I went to work that morning, after going home and putting my shitty sweatshirt in the wash.’

Here he stopped. Everybody but me had turned away and was concentrating on something else. His girlfriend was doing a crossword. She was beautiful and young and didn’t know a thing. Maybe she knew that his story had been for me, a welcome home. I asked him where he worked: a library. At least one of the rumours had been well-founded. ‘More often than not I stay at home, though. I’ve basically got a permanent doctor’s note.’

My father went home not long after that: he had never liked Tom. The old men sat at the bar getting drunker and Tom Bryon sobered up, or seemed to. His eyes grew clearer and he asked genuinely interested questions about the time I had spent in Wellington and about my girlfriend and suggested that we collaborate on a collection of short stories (his writing patterns had mirrored mine to an intriguing extent over the five years we had been without contact.) I thought that I must have been having some kind of positive, focussing effect on his mind, on that slightly ridiculous mind of his, that mind full of bad poetry and very few memories. Only later did I concede that he might have taken some sort of medication.

He slipped back into drunkenness just as I too was beginning to feel the effects of the bottles of red wine. One of the old men at the bar was a northerner and Tom Bryon started arguing with him, for no reason other than the fact that he was a northerner. If there was one thing Tom Bryon hated it was a northerner. It turned out that the man was also an awful person who by his very attitude seemed almost to be trying to justify my friend’s hatred. It was obvious that Tom wanted a fight and equally obvious that if he were to get his wish he would lose. I had a distinct foreboding that whatever I tried to do there would be some kind of violence that evening: if I had not had this feeling I would have tried to get him out there and then, but it just didn’t seem worth it. I let him argue. He occasionally banged a glass on the bar or threw up his arms in a histrionic flourish that reminded me of the men in southern European bars. Sometimes he hit the bar with his fists in a manner I thought more like a Latin American. But of course, he had never been to any of these places. I asked the girl what her name was and she said Tilly and Tom interrupted his argument to say to nobody in particular that Tilly is a dog’s name (although I thought it sounded more like a cat’s name, and said so.) Tilly was a student, or at least that’s what she said. She didn’t look like one to me, but what does a student look like in a town with no university? I asked her how she had met Tom Bryon.

‘In here. I work here.’ She looked straight ahead of her, not meeting anyone’s eyes, seemingly making a point of her own reticence. But something about her posture, her alertness, made it clear that she was not consciously being rude or acting bored. She seemed to be constantly listening to something, perhaps something in Tom’s speech that I could not pick up or was not actually there. Or she was listening to the sounds of the pub, the town, simultaneously recording and interpreting them, Tom Bryon’s secretary.

I realised after a few minutes that he was no longer arguing. The northerner had gone: whether he had left the building or gone to the toilet I don’t know, but I did not feel any more comfortable. Tom was still talking, but to us now, about things that were too normal, about the weather, would you believe, and about another of his great hates: trade unions. His hands were shaking a little now, and he drunk his wine faster than before. At one point he had a short coughing fit – a strange, deep cascade of disyllabic coughs that sounded like someone reciting a sermon or verse in iambic meter. When I thumped him on the back he put his hands up as if in apology, as if it was not him that was coughing.

We left the pub in an unheralded rainstorm. Tom and Tilly had no coats, and when I tried to give Tilly my light jacket she laughed at me. In the rain it seemed that she was alive for the first time since I had met her. I thought about where the rain went after it had poured down the hill to the New Town. The surface of Prospect Hill looked like an eel’s back. Swindon is a town without a river, and a town without a river is sick, moribund. I imagined a giant pool under the shops and businesses of New Town, a millennia-old pool of stagnant rainwater growing imperceptibly with every drop that fell, incapable of supporting life, or worse, capable only of supporting a kind of life that is inferior to death. I was certain that the whole town would fall prey to the subsidence caused by this watery black hole – buildings would be summoned down the hill and back into the earth and the town would cease to exist, confirming its status as an island in time, born out of the black dust of industry and consumed by a still black pool of water.

In the rain like shattered glass our journey up the hill to Tom Bryon’s home took on the aspect of a pilgrimage. Tilly danced through the weather. I saw her as a new convert to some wild old religion. She screamed prayers at the houses with her small, beatitudinous mouth. Tom Bryon was remarkably stoic. As for me, my wet hair was in my eyes and my coat was a burden. I felt like a doubter whose doubt was finally giving way: the wall around my faith was beginning to crumble, eroded no doubt by alcohol. Tilly skipped and Tom Bryon walked serenely. I hurried on with my head down shivering slightly and feeling, inexplicably, that it was important to cover my neck and the lower part of my face with the collar of my jacket. I remained certain that at any moment the northerner from the pub was going to appear from a doorway, intent on making martyrs of us.

Against all the odds, Tom Bryon’s house was spotlessly clean. Tilly and I stood in the kitchen while he fetched some towels to dry our hair. There were paintings on all the walls, all by the same artist. Tilly explained to me that Tom’s landlady was an artist. She told me the name and I recognised it, or thought I did. It must have been someone I had known before I first left Swindon. All the paintings looked like imitations of Leonora Carrington – in one a human figure in a beaked plague-frock held huge purple heron upside-down by its feet and examined whatever was between its legs. Many had horses in them: skeleton-horses, men with horse-heads, the white chalk horse carved in Uffington Hill. A surgeon scissored the fingers off a pair of elegant black gloves while a man turned his back and cried and a woman on a rocking-horse coughed blood into a handkerchief. The artist, Tilly said, was away on holiday at the moment, so there was no need to keep too quiet, and no reason to be too polite about her pictures.

Tom made cups of milky coffee for Tilly and I and brewed himself some kind of herbal infusion – he described it as Egyptian Ayurvedic liquorice tea. We dried with the vigour of sportsmen and sat on a cream sofa in the silent house. A beautiful tortoiseshell cat with a crooked tail appeared from somewhere and spiralled down to sleep in Tilly’s lap. Tom and I, as people do in these situations, began to talk nostalgically about mutual acquaintances. With a comforting predictability the conversation kept returning to Jim North and how we would get back in contact with him. Tilly slung the cat over her shoulder and said goodnight. At some point – whether it was before or after Tilly had gone to bed I am not entirely sure – Tom jumped up and opened a cabinet. He searched through a row of bottles like a museum curator about to produce an artefact that has been kept under lock and key for centuries. What he brought back was a half-full bottle of homemade sloe gin with the consistency of gloss paint. I drank a glass in one gulp and experienced a strange kind of pain in my jaw, a pain I had never felt before, like the sort of feeling you get if you eat something really horrible, only this was more physical, more stabbing, and seemed to effect the tissue and cartilage around the all the bones of the lower half of my skull, so I drank more until the pain stopped.

‘I’m planning to move back to Swindon,’ I told Tom Bryon. This wasn’t true, or at least it hadn’t been true at the beginning of the evening, but now I was getting cold, and discernibly drunk, and the room had started spinning. That sounds like a ridiculous caricature of drunkenness but let me explain – the room was not spinning horizontally like the earth on its axis, but vertically. In front of me it was going from bottom to top, the carpet and the coffee table with Tom Bryon’s untouched liquorice tea and the paintings all disappearing over my head, giving me the sensation that I was moving quickly through a tunnel. I looked behind me expecting everything to be going downwards, from top to bottom, but I couldn’t see anything. The I realised that I was lying on my side on the cream sofa which on closer inspection was not cream but another colour like cream that I had forgotten the name of or didn’t want to think about and there was a rolled-up sleeping bag at my feet and I heard Tom Bryon’s voice coming from somewhere upstairs saying, ‘Come here, I want to show you something.’

I tried to be sober, expecting to see some new piece of his landlady’s artwork or a magazine with one of his poems in it. On the stairs the cat darted between my legs, terrified, probably terrified of me stumbling and crushing it in my drunkenness. Tom pulled me in to the room at the top of the stairs and said, ‘I meant to show you this earlier, but I forgot.’

The room was tiny. There was a double bed and several hundred books piled against the walls and under the bed. There was nothing else, but it was so cramped that you would have had to climb over the bed to get to the window at the far end. The light was on. It seemed to me that it was far too bright for the room: far too bright for the room’s size, more than anything. Tilly was lying on the bed, rather than in it, face down, asleep or unconscious and wearing only a pair of pink briefs.

Tom said, ‘Look at her tattoo,’ but I was already looking at her tattoo, and I was already thinking that I was going to be sick, if not then, then at some point during that night. Between Tilly’s shoulder blades was the tattoo of somebody’s head. Let me be more precise: the tattoo of Tom Bryon’s head, about four or five inches in diameter at most. My first thought was that there was something odd about having your boyfriends head tattooed on your back, but this didn’t explain the sudden increase in nausea it triggered in me, so I looked at Tom with my mouth firmly closed.

‘Don’t you get it?’ he said. His mouth displayed something that was close to malice. ‘I’ve known that girl for eighteen months, not a day longer.’

It became clear, or, as they say, ‘it dawned on me,’ like there is some kind of bright new morning involved in this kind of revelation, not the intense murkiness brought about by the knowledge that this girl had had a tattoo of Tom Bryon done before she had met him, before she knew what he looked like. I looked at Tilly’s back again like a driver on a motorway who slows down to look at the scene of an accident on the opposite carriageway. The face on the pale back was definitely my friend’s face. The nose may have been a bit smaller, the eyes closer together, but these were mere errors of artistry. The face was Tom Bryon’s, and the hair was Tom Bryon’s hair: that infamous long cavalier’s hair that he had cut off five years ago and never grown back.

And then, instead of considering the implications of what I had just been shown, I thought about that word cavalier and its meanings as an adjective: arrogant, haughty, high-handed; and how those words could easily have been used to describe Tom Bryon and even to describe me when we had been friends five years ago. And I thought about how that was not true or only partly true: the same island looked at from the north and from the south are two different things and yet not different. And then Tom answered the question that I had not yet asked.

‘She says it’s not me,’ he said. ‘She says it’s some guy that she knew years ago, who she thought she was in love with. I actually believe her, for what it’s worth, but I knew you wouldn’t, that’s why I wanted to show you.’

‘How old is she?’

‘Twenty.’

I touched the sleeping girl’s short bob of hair: the hair of a girl who was a conduit of miracles, a river in a town without a river. Tom was laughing his high-pitched laugh again. He said, ‘I knew that would impress you.’

I thought I was going to be sick, and ran down the stairs like the cat had done before me.

A sleeping bag is like a hermit’s cave or a tunnel. I slept well, much to my surprise, and woke to find Tilly and Tom in matching dressing gowns – a sight that struck me as grotesque – arguing happily over a frying pan full of eggs. I hardly said a word over breakfast. Tom turned on one of the twenty-four hour news channels and we watched it for I don’t know how long: it felt like I was in that sleeping bag for hours or weeks eating fried eggs and drinking coffee. The news stories kept repeating themselves: two Georgian Air Force pilots had been killed when their jets had collided at an air show near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Footage from somebody’s mobile phone showed the planes disappear together behind a tree-lined hill. Seconds later a single puff of smoke appeared. Every time they showed the crash, or the evidence of the crash, Tilly buried her head in the front of Tom’s dressing gown. When I left at midday they both hugged me and I assured them that I would come and see them again before I left Swindon.

A day or two later Rebecca, my girlfriend, joined me in my parents’ house: it was her first visit to my home town and she made me give her an in-depth walking tour of what she called the ‘sights and sounds.’ I showed her the places where I had grown up: my first school hidden in an almost surreal labyrinth of grey terraced houses, the parks where I had broken up fights and smoked pot, the pubs where they had served me as an illegal sixteen-year-old in a time before the authorities got tough on that kind of thing. We went for a coffee in Los Gatos, a Spanish tapas bar in Old Town that hadn’t been there when I was a kid but would have been a great place to sit and write poems. Rebecca said, ‘Swindon is more interesting than I expected, but I don’t think I could ever live here.’ A girl walked past the bar. I only saw the back of her head for a couple of seconds but I was certain it was Tilly. I began to tell Rebecca a tentative version of my meeting with Tom Bryon. By the end she was laughing. She said, ‘That boy sounds like a typical poet.’

It had not occurred to me until then but I saw that it was possible that Tom had staged that evening’s events for my benefit, if benefit is the right word. It was a suspicion that, once it had lodged itself in my head would not go away. Could it have possible that Tilly’s tattoo was not a tattoo at all, but a poem, an enigmatic lie disguised as a gem? I understood Tom better than most people and he was a poet and so was I, and this was just another one of his mediocre poems about the way people change, about the nature of friendship, about the poet’s ego. I got the feeling that Tom knew I was not going to visit him again while I was in Swindon, that he had somehow known that I was going to be there in the pub at that time and had dressed up the evening as a poem, a great trick to prove his worth on this world or in this town. And I got the feeling that the characters in the poem did not exist – the landlady was made up, the Leonora Carrington imitations were all done for me. The very idea of a tortoiseshell cat with a crooked tail began to seem utterly ridiculous to me, like a heavy-handed metaphor. And I too was a character: therefore I didn’t exist, in a sense. Tom Bryon was inventing a mythology for this tiny island nation and I was one of its gods, one of its minor household deities. And then, as happens with mediocre poems, I forgot about it.

I saw Tom Bryon, by chance, a year later. He had come to my home town where there was a weekend jazz festival and I saw him talking to a musician after an outdoor performance. I let them finish their conversation then invited him to come for a pint with me. He was delighted to see me, said he didn’t drink anymore, but would gladly go for a coffee. He told me he was working on a book – a huge, multi-generational novel based partly on the life of the writer Richard Jefferies (‘What would Dorian Grey have turned out like if he had read Jefferies’s After London instead of Huysmans’s A Rebours?’ he asked me. I said I had never read any Jefferies.) I learnt that he was still living in the same place, but had split up with Tilly. ‘It was a relationship built on liquid foundations, if you know what I mean. Or on liquid lunches. And anyway, she was a bit mad.’

This time when we parted there were no hugs, but we left each other our new phone numbers and promised to send each other work: if we are both going to be failed writers, I said, then at least someone will know that we’ve failed, that we’ve tried and failed.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Two Bits

The Bathing Habits of My Ex-Wife

Some people like to shower before getting into a bath so that they don’t spend twenty minutes or half an hour steeping in their own dirt. Some prefer to do it the other way around – shower afterwards to get rid of any dirty residue. Many don’t bother with a shower at all. My wife, my ex-wife, likes to do both – a shower before and a shower after. The latter part of our marriage is like a lesson in platitudes and clich├ęs – ‘We just stopped loving each other,’ ‘We kind of drifted apart,’ that sort of thing. She didn’t leave me as such.




Dress

I thought I was only a girl, but Father said, You are a woman now and you must go to work. With the care of a toymaker he dressed me in a black bra and black briefs and put an unlit cigarette in my mouth and made me stand in the window of his exclusive little clothes shop.

Today a man urinated up against the window. I am always learning new things. I am learning how to regulate my breathing so that I can keep almost perfectly still. Soon, maybe, I will be able to hold my breath indefinitely. Then perhaps Father will let me dress in a beautiful black dress and one of those fine black hats with a lace veil that flutters even when there is no wind.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Self Portrait: Woman Waking

I woke up and the author of this story was still asleep. His head was on my belly: I could feel the curve of his ear cupping the vacuum of my navel. His body and legs were curled into an almost foetal position. By that I don't mean to imply anything to do with parenthood, immaturity or any of the other easy, lazy links that authors make. I am perfectly aware of the place of foetuses and foetal imagery in bad literature, so let me clarify: this is a purely visual image. I was not pregnant with the author's baby. Or with any baby for that matter. In fact, we had only had sex twice, and he had used a condom on both occasions.

The important thing is that he was asleep and I was awake. I had, for a few bright minutes that morning, a kind of power over the author. I imagined that I could see his hair growing. I prodded the living skin on his shoulder with the dry end of a ballpoint, and he didn't move. I knew that if I was to move, to exert any meaningful power, I would wake him instantly, and the power would evaporate.

I thought: I feel like I am walking along a riverbed, walking blind with my head in the air pocket created by the underside of an upturned canoe. There is no way of knowing when I will reach the opposite bank. I have no power over the depth of water, the strength of current, the hypocrisy of crocodiles. But really that doesn't matter because basically all rivers are the same. They all do the same things. They all evaporate if the weather gets too hot, freeze if it gets cold. They don't start flowing backwards on a whim. Basically, rivers are predictable.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Someone Comes Between

Your little review of John Ashbery
that didn't appear in the Tuesday
paper. Wasn't a secret code meant only
for me: No poet has a longer finger
or more extensive menagerie than

I googled you and him together
jealous as a twin and a lover
but pooling your minds proved
luckily difficult the flex of his dream
and the female curve of your rationale
remained unhelixed. What's chipped
away at by hard rains of words is not us:
you are a solenoid that must be kept dry
he is an eighty-something yank

his carpal grasp on the keys
to a ruined castle that I handed over

Sunday, 8 August 2010

A Letter Came

A letter came. On the envelope were the words MR P. A. GUDGEON and an address. Mr P. A. Gudgeon recognised the address as his own, or that of his house. The envelope was white; the address was on a white label stuck onto the white envelope. The stamp was blue, and had a picture of an ageless woman - the head of state of the country where Mr Gudgeon lived - in profile. He opened the letter with an unwieldy decorative paper-knife with the dead silver head of a duck as its handle. The beak left a semi-circular imprint in his thumb which disappeared as, looking through a magnifying glass framed in soapstone, he read the letter.

CORK, said the tame rook on the windowsill. COOORRRRK. Mr Gudgeon threw it an old cork from a bottle of damson wine and the bird caught it in its bill, spearing it and gargling with laughter, tossing it from side to side and flapping inanely.

Mr Gudgeon replied to the letter using a pencil that he sharpened after every word with a penknife that he sharpened after every word on a stone that he cleaned after every paragraph.

When he had finished the letter Mr Gudgeon put it in a yellowish envelope and went to feed the pigs. A year ago there had been four pigs. One pair had had piglets, bringing the total up to eleven. Now there were four again, but a different four.

When he went to post the letter darkness was beginning to crawl over the low hills and reach around the bubonic groins of beech trees thrust into the air. Mr Gudgeon did not care much for the stiff milky darkness of a country night, but neither was he afraid of it. He knew exactly the distance between his door and the post box. It was three miles and three furlongs straight across the fields. Going along the lane added an extra furlong and a half. Mr Gudgeon left his coat behind. He knew more about the weather than I do.

The walk to the letter triggered the following memory (in fact many things triggered the following memory because it was a memory that was different from all the other memories): The last time he went into town had been it nineteen eighty-six. His brother had taken him to a public house in the old part of town where men and women talked about things that made his face turn white. All the drinkers seemed to be dressed in black leather. When they moved their arms he thought of cockroaches moving across a dirty kitchen floor: his floor. After a few nervous port and lemons he decided to catch the late train rather than stay the night in his brother's house. The sky reflected the metallic brightness of the world. He walked through the world. It whispered and breathed around him though it seemed to be made of foil. He walked through the world of residential buildings, grew tired and leant on a wall in front of a three-storey house. Over the expanse of front garden he could see clearly into the living room of the house. Women with the faces of foxes and men like giant bats were seated around a table, with mouths extended in terrible grins. A man with a heavily greased moustache, his arms the tendrils of a predatory plant, poured black milk into a pyramid structure made of cuboid whisky tumblers. The liquid flowed down in a dark mountain waterfall; the pyramid glowed like a pointed obsidian tooth. The people in the room were looking at Mr Gudgeon. One of the women pulled down the straps of her black evening dress. Her nipples were black as wet flint against her nakedness. Mr Gudgeon vomited. Purple droplets cascaded off a privet hedge. He ran to where he thought the train station was; paving slabs heaved up in front of him like a sea. There was a firmament of windows, bright with fragile life. Nowhere was there a stand of beech trees holding the earth's crust together with rachitic roots.

He posted the letter. A papery sound, or a sound like the inhalation of a single breath, escaped from the mouth of the pillar-box. He touched the red sides. He placed and ear against the red bulge at the top. It felt a little like the cold, tight skin of a piglet. He listened with his ear, with the skin of his ear, with the skin and vegetable flesh of his body, and he heard a pulse like the pulse of a pig, a human: the pulse of communication, of shared existence. The skin was cold. Blood flowed somewhere. He lifted his head up and blood flowed everywhere. As he walked back along the lane he heard no pulse, except the plastic beat of his shoes on the grey crust of the human world.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Old, Imperfect Sonnet - The Way We Live Now (2004)

We have a dog called Como. Sometimes
the hot water works and the bathroom steams
in the mornings; often not. There is always
hair in the plughole. The space between
front door and front gate is covered
by a brownness of used-to-be leaves
frozen into a range of toe-stubbing
little mountains. One of us will retrieve
the old ground in the spring, probably.

Como sleeps between us on the coldest
nights. The way we are is dangerously
safe, like heavy drinking or incest.
Everey night before bed one of us calls
the dog. If he doesn't come we fuck. Day falls.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Life's Too Short To Save The Fucking Panda Bear

A lump forms in her throat when she reads the leaflet. It's not so much the picture - sad though it is - of the giant helpless creature with its paws in its lap. It's the text. Badly written and melodramatic, rife with the kind of hyperbole you usually associate with salespeople, it nonetheless speaks to her on a visceral level. She nearly cries. She must still be half-drunk from last night.

It might have been the postman that had woken her, or the blade of light that had moved from her fiances face to hers where she had failed to draw the curtains tight in her night-drunkenness. Anyway she had woken earlier than normal, warm and light-headed.

The panda leaflet is her only post. It came in an envelope with her name on it and a free pen inside to make her feel guilty, although the first thing she feels on reading about the plight of the panda bear is not really guilt. At least she doesn't think so. It's more like a tinge of preliminary sadness. Then almost straight away she wonders how the hippies got her address to send her this stuff. She is always very careful about giving her address to people.

But back to the sadness. It isn't anything to do with the individual giant panda, the fluffed-up asexual clown looking out hangover-eyed from the piece of paper in front of her. And it's not the kind of sadness you feel when your pet dog gets stomach cancer and has to be put to sleep. It's more of a personal kind of despondency, one that you can only feel in the early morning after you've been drinking and making plans that you are unlikely ever to fulfil, when your head is clear and you are fully awake and have just eased the dry horror of your mouth with half a pint of really cold grapefruit juice.

This is when she nearly cries.

She nearly cries because she never gives money to tramps and has never been to a Scottish island, because she kills moths and doesn't care when the cat Erwin brings in partially dismembered frogs that dance circles in their own cold blood, because she is nearly thirty. And because she lives with a man who wears shit-coloured suits and works for English Heritage putting things in boxes, and who still brings her flowers and talked her out of becoming a pesco-vegetarian.

She doesn't cry.

She turns on her laptop and Googles 'conservation volunteering', gets a string of websites showing persuasive photographs: a proud Eritrean farmer with immaculate teeth, the tragi-comic lump of a giant tortoise. It seems you have to pay for the privilege of saving the planet these days, but even so she registers her email address with one of the sites before her headache materialises out of nowhere.

The tine of sunlight in the bedroom has not moved: it bisects her pillow. She draws the curtain and gets back into bed without waking her fiance, who is called Steve and who will only cheat on her once before he dies in car accident at the age of forty-one. A brown suit hangs on the back of the door. She sets her alarm so she can iron his shirt.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

After the Party/Cibus Interruptus

It was some time after the anorexic girl's birthday party but still a little while before the general election that I went up to the hills to walk. In FACT it was probably only two or three or four days after the party, and I was walking off the effcts of drinking for a weekend, teaching myself to sweat and suffer and drink water and sweat again.

My plan was to take the path onto the low gorsy plateau, then the sheep path, the hare path, the unpath, and finally to sit in some cleft or other, sheltered and hungry, where I could unwrap a healthy lunch. But I had to take a diversion. The first tractor reared up over the brow of the hill, red and belligerent, and threatened to follow the track I was walking on, so I bore left to skirt the hill's base and climb from another angle. I have no problem SHARING the countryside, but I have an aversion to farmers. Farms are fine, but I can't deal with farmers.

Two birds flew up from a tall hedge of trees, or more likely from the field behind the trees. At first I thought they were pigeons, but their plumage was a map of dark and light: lapwings. A pair of starving lapwings, recent migrants. I heard the sound of an engine, too high-pitched to be a tractor, and thousands, tens of thousands of lapwings errupted over the hedge into the sky in a spiral column. I thought at first that it was the birds making the engine noise, but through the cloud of wings there appeared a WW1 biplane. Strung behind it like a liquid tail was a banner. The writing on the banner was Cyrillic, and I could make NO SENSE of it. Lapwings still poured into the air: many were chopped to pieces by the plane's propeller, bits of darkandwhite bird like torn newspaper floated back down to earth. I hid from the rain of broken bloodless creatures in the SHELTER of the hedge and remembered for the first time in years a recurring dream I had had as an adolescent in which a green sports car came towards me. In the car was a man in a suit with a megaphone who had shouted 'WHO WILL YOU VOTE FOR?' The car always ran me over before I could think of an answer.

There is a patch of trees cloaking a pond and beyond the patch there are no more fields only scant grass and gorse and sandstone stumps. I went through the trees with pheasantsounds keeping pace with me on each side, towards and old gate that I knew, but the gate was gone: there was only a barricade of briar, and the pheasantsounds followed me back to the field, and I had to skirt the wood. Here I escaped the second red tractor: a beast with mechanical appendages that looked like the stingers or ovipositors of some malevolent or motherly insect, mantid arms outstretched, bursting its coquelicot skin.

The wooden stakes that are USED as fenceposts are uprooted/deracine/entwurzelt, matchwood on the fields. They are giant retarded leadless pencils marking invisible crosses on the landscape.

Up on the gorseland there is a stone near to where the sick sheep go when their bones feel the need to shed their bag of skin and bleach in the sun. I sat down on the stone and removed from my bag a plastic bottle of vodka and lemonade I had painstakingly prepared. I drank and discovered that the drink had turned into water, so I drank some more to make sure and it was definitely a bottle of water like all the other bottles of water I had consumed that day (there were many) so I drank out of spite until the bottle was finished. I began to compose a letter on the back of a postcard showing a blazing white chalk figure gashed across a hillside. The letter was to te short girl I had met at the anorexic girl's party. There was not much space on the back of the postcard.

dear trudie my toesandankles still hurt from saturday I think the old Port has brought the old Gout back/I cant blame you fr this or anything though im sorry I acted the way i did and so shoud you be perhaps/perhaps you really didnt want to do anything as i didnt and if you were wineless and cold here with me now and with the sheepskeletons you wouldnt be asking me to jump your little bones or maybe.../I'm sorry/I'm sorry if you are hurt and sorry tht you are a catholic and a socialist/either one of these on its own i could deal with but not both/but as is often the case with catholics and socialists you do have great breasts/what am I saying

At this point I must have fallen asleep because in my mind was the vision of an open-topped car coming towards me at speed. The man in the car had a megaphone but it didn't seem to be working. I think he was saying 'What is it that you love,' or 'Where is it that you will go.' As with all dreams it could have been a meaningless amalgamation of the two. Anyway I couldn't answer because the car stopped and the man bundled me into the back seat and I woke up sweating because it is worse to be bound and gagged and thrown into a car than it is to be run over by one.