sold

Rachel brings her tea over and sits with me.

‘What’ve you been up to?’ I ask her.

‘House hunting’ she says.

‘How’s that going?’

‘Terrible. I had the worst day the other day. I saw nine houses.’

‘Nine?’

‘I know. I just booked out the entire morning and went’

‘Did Ben go?’

‘Ben? No! He can’t stand it. But you play to your strengths. I’m what you might call the triage nurse in this relationship, especially as far as houses go. I sift out the crap. Which is all of them.’

‘It’s a thing, that’s for sure.’

‘I had the weirdest estate agent show me round. She was only young. About twenty, I’d guess, her hair all piled up. And she had this heavy makeup that stopped at her chin, circling her features, which made her look a bit like a giant egg. I couldn’t help asking about it. I do it like that so I don’t get raped she said’

‘What a thing to say!’

‘I know! She was wearing an extraordinary outfit. White fur jacket split at the sides, bright pantaloon trousers and leather boots. Although she was barefoot when I met her at the office. She was sitting on a chair digging her toes into the carpet. Mmm she said. Feel that!’

‘Weird!’

‘That’s not the half of it. When we got into the car she said she knew right off we’d get along because she gets a feeling about people. She said she thought I was a florist, and when I said I was a nurse, she said yeah, I’m not surprised, because you totally look like one. And anyway, she said, I’m just glad you’re not like the usual stiffs I have to show round.’

‘Wow!’

‘And then there were the houses. Honestly, Jim – it was like a roll call for the damned. The first one was a bungalow right the other side of town, down by the river. I mean literally by the river. On the flood plain. Don’t worry, she said. It only floods when it’s tidal. What – you mean like twice a day? I said. You’re up some steps so you’re good, she said. Anyway, it’s an unadopted road, which people love. It means you can do what you want with it. I reckon it’s more that the council know it floods and have washed their hands, I said, but she ignored that and showed me round. A dismal, lightless hole that should’ve been condemned, let alone put on the market. No? she said – okay – I’ll show you some more.

The next one was worse. It had this terrible atmosphere, creepy and sad, like someone had died or been murdered. I asked her if anyone was living there at the moment because I couldn’t tell. There was a mattress on the floor, and the sheets were thrown back, odd things scattered about. She said yeah, a woman and her kid. She’s getting divorced or something. Honestly, Jim – I wanted to start taking some details so I could call social services. I mean – it was getting a bit like work. Anyway, that was no good, so we drove over to the next house and out of the blue she asked me if liked macaroni cheese? I said yep, love it. I said we’re vegetarian, so we have macaroni cheese quite a lot. Have you tried it with bacon on the top? she said, because that is the absolute nuts. And I said well…no, because we’re vegetarian. So she said did I know why Muslims don’t eat bacon? I said I thought there was something in the Quran about it, and she said yeah – it’s because they eat their own shit.

The next house she showed me had an enormous crack right down the middle. I mean huge, like if you slammed the door it would fall apart in two halves. Oh that? she said. That’s just subsidence. I sold a house exactly like this the other day for four-fifty. Then she laughed and said there’s no way they’ll be able to resell. I wanted to say to her – you do know that’s not a good story to be telling me in this situation, right? But what was the point?

The last house she showed me belonged to this elderly couple. The estate agent stayed outside stomping up and down having some huge argument on her phone whilst I looked round. It was run-down, like all the others, but of course I was going through the rooms making lots of encouraging noises like you do. Oh – I love what you’ve done in the bathroom. Those brown tiles are really so, I don’t know, quirky – kind of thing. The elderly guy followed behind me the whole time, breathing down my neck, which was unnerving. Every time I turned round he was right in my face, smiling. I went into the bedroom and there was this enormous cactus in a pot. I mean gigantic – the same height as me. I turned round and there he was, smiling away. I can see you like my phallic cactus he said. And that’s when the estate agent came in. What d’you think, she said, clapping her hands. Sold?’

stuck

we tried to get to there
we really did
but the motorway was shut
and we got royally stuck
in a tailback
that merged in turn
ineffective
as a fucked zip
I watched the jam ahead
simmering into oblivion
the queue behind
slowly replacing the bones of my back
with a line of tiny replica cars
and a tiny replica me
hand to wheel, to brow, to wheel
(caption on box:
the man who missed the funeral)

‘There’s no way we’re gonna make it’
you said
calling ahead
‘Don’t worry’ you said
‘Lots of people are in the same boat’
I wish it had been a boat
we might have had some hope
of getting round
that unholy fuck-up

I wound the window down
breathed the sharp and careless air
and tried to think outside the bollocks

the pattern of shadows on that crash barrier
for instance
now – I wouldn’t have seen THAT
if there hadn’t been a diesel spillage
closing all three lanes
and diverting everything
through someone’s garden

I thought about you
how you took your coffee
how you used to smoke
screwing up your eyes
your head on one side
reaching for a tap of ash
like a declaration of victory
Cuss oukhtel hayat!
You tell me!
What CAN you make of it?
Apple pie?

the comfort of fossils

there’s a monument over the playing fields
to a doctor who found a bone
(I’m simplifying, of course
there’s so much more to say
about the world of Victorian scientists,
how they would squabble like lizards
over the fossilised remains of – well – lizards)
the doctor got a few things wrong, poor chap
he thought the bone was some kind of horn
when it was actually a thumb
but it’s difficult when everyone down in the quarry
thinks you’re completely insane, and
no-one has any idea what you’re talking about
because Jurassic World
won’t be available to rent online
for another two hundred years

looking back it gives me great comfortIMG_7237
to think of the iguanodon
whose thumb (not horn) it was
wading up to its chops in the soupy delta
about where the rugby pitch now is
swiping up a half ton of weed
and methodically chewing
as it watches pterosaurs
wheel and turn in a planeless sky

 

what do dreams even MEAN?

I keep a dream diary
(have I lost you already?)
this was the entry for last night:
I’m in an ancient forest
desperate to take a picture
the trees there are big
skin like saltwater crocs
I almost break a leg
scrabbling round the roots
suddenly there’s a shadow
I think maybe bear or deer
I hold the camera ready
turns out it’s the ranger
on a horse, sneaking up
‘hold it buster’ he cries
I run, the ranger
shouting obscenities
as I duck under a fence

cut to the next scene

I have to get some sick people to hospital
in an ambulance you steer with your mind
and two bent sticks
I don’t do too bad
turns out, it’s like dowsing
I just have to remember
what thirsty feels like
and it takes me straight there
in a crazy, sawtooth line
through the hooting snarl-ups
to the cooler with no cups
back of the ER

Monday 12th February, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Third Kitten

What I need you to know is this: it happened back in 1980, I was eighteen, I was clueless, and I didn’t have a mobile phone. (No-one did. They were the size of field radios, for god’s sake. No shops sold them, and even if they did, a contract would cost about three thousand pounds. So only bankers, film stars or presidents had them, and as I was none of the above, I had to use a call box like everyone else).

My girlfriend Max and I had decided to live in Bristol. It was a desperate move, the kind of close your eyes and jump tactic you adopt when things aren’t going well but you can’t think of anything else. I’d been acting in a production of Journey’s End at the local theatre. By some inexplicable kink in the casting process I’d scored the part of Captain Stanhope. It didn’t go well. The problem was, when I thought I was conveying nervous exhaustion I came across as bored. In a promotional still for the production I’m staring off into the distance looking pale and a little ticked-off, like I’m at the back of a long queue for the toilet. ‘You smoked a lot’ was what my brother Pete said when he came to see me. When the review came out in the paper I only featured in the also appearing section, an act of courtesy that read as a damning sleight. (The relationship between Stanhope and Raleigh is central to the play. It would be like a critic going to see Hamlet, ignoring the Prince and focusing on Polonius, instead). Which isn’t to say the critic was wrong, of course. The guys playing Sargent Osborne and Mason were obviously better actors than me. The tragedy was – wholesale slaughter of The First World War aside – I’d been miscast. I should’ve played the cook. I’ve always looked more cook than captain.

Anyway, I’d thought acting was my ticket out, but in the end it was National Express.

We’d chosen Bristol because it was far enough away to escape the gravitational pull of our home town failures, it was cheaper than London, and Max had some friends there who could put us up the first night whilst we looked for a place. We arrived at their house one sharp winter’s evening, knocked on the front door, and waited.

No reply.

We knocked again, blew on our hands. Waited some more.

Still nothing.

I decided to look through the letterbox. Why, I’m not sure. If Max’ friends been standing in the hallway hoping we’d go away, spying on them through the letterbox wouldn’t have helped.

The letterbox was low down on the door, for some reason. I’m sure the postman hated having to bend down to shove the letters through, and aesthetically it gave the door a strangely upside-down appearance. Still, that’s where it was, so I knelt down on the front step and pushed the flap open.

And found six black eyes looking straight back at me.

I dropped the flap and jumped back, because in my road-weary delirium I thought it was a giant spider specifically bred to guard the letterbox. But I recovered quickly and bravely pushed open the flap to have another look. And there they were! Three cute kittens! One tortoiseshell and white, one brindle, and the other the purest black. They’d obviously been attracted by the knocking and come to see what was going on. I waggled my fingers through the letterbox making kissy-kissy noises, and the kittens clambered over each other in their eagerness to get at me. It was a beautiful moment after all the hassle of the journey, the cold and the worry. I played with them like that for a minute or two, then straightened up again to talk to Max about what we should do next.

Maybe her friends were out at work. Maybe they had to go to the shops. We stood on the doorstep looking left and right down the street, hoping we’d see them hurrying towards us along the frosty pavement, laden down with bags, smiling and waving. But the street was resolutely empty of anything but parked cars and a layer of ice so sparkling white you could hear it cracking as it thickened.

There were other things to be considered. Maybe we’d got the dates wrong. Maybe they were expecting us tomorrow.

This is where the lack of mobile phones comes in. If we’d had them we could’ve called her friends up and said Hey! We’re here! and sorted the whole thing out. As it was, the best we could do was find a phone box and call them at work – if Max could remember where they worked.

We were standing on the doorstep wondering what to do next when there was a thin meowing sound close-by. One of the kittens – the pure black one – had somehow escaped and was wrapping itself around my legs.

I picked it up and gave it a cuddle.

‘You shouldn’t have encouraged it,’ said Max. ‘Now what do we do?’
‘Put him back.’

But looking at the house, we couldn’t figure out how the kitten got out. There was no open window, no cat flap, no access to the back of the house we could see.
‘He must’ve squeezed through the letterbox.’
‘He’d never fit through there’
‘You’d be surprised what cats can fit through. Especially when they’re as cute and tiny as this one!’
I held the kitten up next to my face to demonstrate, then knelt back down on the front step and gently introduced it to the letterbox, face first.
‘Come on, sweetie!’ I said, holding the flap open with one hand and pushing him forwards with the other. ‘There you go!’
The kitten braced his front paws against the door and pushed back.
‘Come on! Come on, little fella! Thaaaat’s it…!’
He meowed pitifully and fought back, wildly scrabbling.
I thought maybe there was something on the other side stopping him going through, so I handed him up to Max and bent down to have a look.

And saw three kittens sitting on their haunches with horrified expressions on their faces.

‘It’s a different kitten,’ I said, gently closing the flap and standing up again.

‘Shit,’ said Max. ‘Now what?’

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the difficulty thereof

Well. He certainly liked his walks.
I’m sorry if that makes him sound like a dog
but it’s true.
Anyway. What can I say?
He took a lot of pictures.
There. A positive.
Shared them on Twitter. He Tweeted.
Was a Twitterer.
Between you and me
I don’t see much difference
between that and those crazy people you see over the park
hunched over with a bag of crusts, covered in pigeons.
Still, it gave him a sense of purpose.
To be honest, and this doesn’t go any further,
I think it’s a crying shame.
All those plans he had, all those Big Ideas.
And in the end, what did it come down to?
A scattering of snaps on some virtual table.
Each one with a cutesy title, of course,
for ease of identification, I suppose,
like those tags you see
tied on toes in the mortuary.
I mean, honestly:
sticks & stones
the rag tree
coppice storm
guardian of the way
you take my point
(That last one’s me, btw, rofl).
I mean – look at this one:
a shovel, broken in the handle
dropped in the woods.
‘Like it died and hadn’t been able to bury itself’
That’s what he told me. I said Okay Right Hmm
But isn’t that just a teensy bit morbid?
He was like that, though.
A bit dry for some.
He couldn’t just close his eyes
and feel the sun on his face.
D’you know what I mean?
He had to root around in all that shadowy shit
Bring things down
to the flare of light in a horse’s eye
or the dance of a rag tied on the lowest branch of a tree.
Or, for heaven’s sake,
a broken shovel someone tossed.
I mean, honestly.
Where’s the joy? The simple common sense?
It just goes to show,
you can lead a horse to water
but you can’t make it stop banging on
about words, art, life
and the difficulty thereof

IMG_7005

Saturday 10th February 2018

oops

Nicole Kidman starred in an advert for Chanel no.5. At one point she’s on a rooftop in New York or somewhere. She laughs and says: ‘I’m a dancer! I love to dance!’

Well – to paraphrase Nicole. I’m a writer. I hate to paint.

I don’t mean the opaque That’s a cat, that’s a man on a boat, that’s an angel, and I’m calling it: Prayer no. 5 kind of painting. I mean primer, undercoat, eggshell.

My antipathy goes back years. One of my first jobs coming to London as a teenager was painting the outside of a housing block in Putney. I was lost in more ways than I could tell. No belief in the future; certainly none in the present. Breakfast was a Mars bar and a bottle of milk on the tube on the way in. Supper at night I stopped off at Mickey’s Fish Bar in Ladbroke Grove. I was staying in lodgings – a dreadfully cold and downbeat room with a cracked sink, scummy bathroom down the hall, and fights next door so regular you could set your watch. Ella, the owner, lived in the basement with a budgerigar called Rico, who she’d draw out of the cage from time to time and press to her lips. (I had feverish visions of her reaching into my room and doing the same to me). Ella was kind enough, though, so long as you paid her on time. She always accepted the money with a profoundly sad expression, holding the cheque as tightly as she held Rico, her broad face collapsing over the red crease of her lipstick, so thickly and crudely applied it looked worse than anything I was slapping on in Putney.

Since then I’ve always associated the smell of paint with cold hands and existential horror.

Which goes a little way to explaining why it took me so long getting round to painting Jess’ room.

What happened was, I suddenly found I had to take two weeks’ annual leave. I’d been called into the office – to get the sack, I thought. So a lovely surprise, then, to be told I’d underused my leave for the financial year, and had been allocated two weeks on spec. With such a generous stretch of time, there was no way I could defer the painting any more. Kath bought the materials; I cleared the decks and got everything ready.

The thing with jobs you put off for a long time: they never actually seem so bad once you start. I had the radio on, regular cups of tea. There was almost a meditative aspect to it all, the sanding down, the sugar soaping, the taping of the windows and carpets, the laying of dust sheets. Why had I made such a fuss? In fact – maybe there was a job here for me? I could quit work and set up on my own – Jimmy C’s P&D. Or something classier: St James Interiors. I could get a little van, with a big fibreglass brush on the roof, and a sweet little collection of tools neatly hung on a rack in the back.

It wasn’t so bad. I was over my phobia. I was actually starting to enjoy it.

Kath came to help towards the end of that first afternoon. A couple of times whilst she was painting the top of the cupboards she said Oops.
‘Try not to spill any’ I said.
‘Sorry.’
I went downstairs to fetch up a ten litre bucket of emulsion.
‘How are you going to get that in the paint tray?’ Kath said when I struggled in through the door.
‘I’ll be careful,’ I said.
‘Oh. Okay,’ she said, and stopped to watch me from the top of the ladder.

I prised off the lid, lifted the bucket, and started to tip a quantity of paint into the tray. It was heavy and hard to control, and I didn’t want to overfill, so I tipped the bucket back towards me, overcompensating because of the weight, and slopping paint down the front of my trousers.
‘Shit!’
I put the tub down and took my trousers off, covering my socks in the process. Whilst I was struggling to hold the dripping trousers in one hand and take my socks off with the other I fell backwards against the wet door, getting paint down my t-shirt and boxer shorts.
‘Shit!’
I stripped everything off, stuffed it all in the trash bag, and ran naked into the next room.

When I came back half an hour later dressed in fresh clothes, Kath smiled down at me from the top of the ladder
‘Okay?’ she said.

No.

I hate to paint.

 

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