the community witch

To begin with, I’d had an unsettling dream. Lola, our lurcher, was stuck in mud down in a ditch, and I’d struggled with a short hose to wash her out of there. She’d accepted my help with a boneless kind of resignation, lapping at the water more to please me than anything else. I’d woken up exhausted. Found myself downstairs having coffee and toast, driving into work, parking, tapping out the code for the security door, swiping my card and passing through into the frenetic office – the whole thing so toneless and heavy-eyed I wouldn’t have been surprised to find I was still in my pyjamas.

I sat down and started to plan the day, struggling against the feeling that I was out of place, faking it. To be fair, it was a feeling I’d had before, that I was an imposter, acting out a role, and it was surely only a matter of time before I was found out. I could see it all, the sudden fall of silence, the turning of faces in my direction, the manager standing over me with her arms folded, tough detectives just visible in her office, smiling, shaking their heads, cracking their knuckles.

A disconnected, dizzying kind of feeling. I forced myself out of it by focusing on the task at hand, probably in the same way you might dampen down vertigo on a cliff face by describing in detail the tiny wildflower growing close to your face.

All this is to say I had a muzzy headache when I sorted out my list of patients for the day and went outside.

It was the perfect day for a headache. Even the pigeons were off, either comatose on the ledges or pitching forwards, gliding a little, slamming into the ground. The sky was a hard, preternatural blue, with that artificial depth you only get in cheap, 3D pictures.

My first visit didn’t go well. I’d already established – or thought I had – that I’d be visiting early today to take blood before Mr Williams had taken his digoxin. When I rang to give him the heads up I was on my way, there was no reply. I tried the mobile. Same thing. I texted the mobile to say I was coming, and headed over. They had a keysafe, so access wasn’t an issue. At least, it shouldn’t have been. Outside the block there were only two keysafes. One was so crapped up it looked like it had been salvaged from the Titanic and stuck on the wall as a talking point. The other was obviously the one I needed – pristine, the label still bright. Which was fine, except the number didn’t work. I went round the back of the block, to the courtyard parking area. The early sun was angling in, falling on a pot of large, white lilies, which seemed like a sign, although of what, I couldn’t say. There was no access, so I returned to the front and used the tradesmen button, which seemed appropriate, anyway. It worked. Two floors up, I knocked on Mr Williams’ door. I knew he couldn’t get up to answer it, but he lived with his son Nathan, so that was okay. After a while I knocked again. I heard some shouting, and I guessed Mr Williams hadn’t told his son about the visit. Still – it was nine o’clock by now, so I didn’t feel too bad. I left it a good while before I knocked again, just in case Nathan was in the shower and needed time to dry off. All in all it was probably twenty minutes. At last, the sound of movement in the hallway, latches thrown, and the door was suddenly wrenched open.
‘What?’ said Nathan, round eyed, furious, peering round the edge of the door with one hand either side of his face like a malevolent Kilroy.
‘I’ve come to take some blood,’ I said. ‘I rang and sent a text.’
He stared at me for a long second, like he was running through the consequences of tearing me to pieces – (on the run; helicopters, hounds, handcuffs; the cells; the dock; the nick; stepping out into the broad bright world with a brown paper parcel under his arm twenty-five years later with a long beard and a crooked back…).
‘On you go, mate,’ he snarled, and released the door.

I was thinking about all this when I was sitting in a slow line of traffic on my way to the next patient. It added to the fugged stew of the day. What was I doing with my life? Was it a struggle simply because I was forcing myself to do something that wasn’t a good fit? What was a good fit? How was it possible that I had got to this age, having done so much, still struggling to orientate myself in the world?

The traffic loosened a little and we all nudged forwards. I sighed, pulled on the handbrake again, glanced in the rearview mirror at the car behind me. It was a battered old Micra, the red pinking out, a line of plastic animals along the dash. The driver was a middle-aged woman, her hair in a Little My bun so high on the top of her head it flattened against the roof. She was wearing white plastic sunglasses which made her look like an owl on acid. As soon as she noticed me she spread the fingers of either hand widely with the thumbs still hooked in the wheel, like she was flaring her wings. I smiled awkwardly and looked forward again – only to find the traffic had moved on. I fumbled the gears, stalled, started again, caught up.

But then – a strange thing. I thought: what if she wasn’t annoyed with me? What if she was actually a witch, dedicated to casual acts of magic wherever she went. What if the Micra was her familiar? That flare of her fingers – maybe that was the spell being released, sparkling through the air from her to me like that beam of sunlight on the pot of lilies?

I decided that’s what it was. And strangely enough, as soon as I did, the day got better. The next patient and his family were as warm and welcoming to me as if I were the son they never had. I sat between them, sunk deep on the ludicrously comfortable sofa, taking notes, making them laugh. And the patient after that, who I’d found hanging half-in and half-out of his bed, who I’d treated as best I could till the ambulance came – well, I could see he appreciated it, too. And when the ambulance did turn up I knew them, and it was like a reunion. And it was all warm and easy and right. And I finished late but I didn’t care.

And it was all down to that witch.

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the throwdowns

They’d been working at it for a while, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

I knew the place as Broken Tree Hill. Just beyond the recreation ground there were two fields – pastures for cows most of the year – both leading down steeply to the woods beyond. The field to the left was the broadest. It passed behind the health spa that had been built back of the manor hotel. You could hear people laughing in the outside pool doing aquarobics, or in the summer see them shielding their eyes on their loungers to watch as you walked by with your dog. There was a group of three pines in the middle of the smaller field to the right. One was still vigorously in leaf, but its two companions hadn’t fared so well. One had been brought down in a storm sometime, no-one knows when. It was still off the ground though, supporting its weight on a lattice of stripped branches. The third pine was dead, too, wormy and rotten but defiantly upright, its stripped branches raking the sky. If the blown pine was a boxer struggling to beat the count, the standing pine was an ancient actor making her melodramatic farewell to the rapturous clouds in the balcony.

I took many photographs of the trio on Broken Tree Hill. It was impossible not to. There was an inherent drama in the scene, early morning, late at night. I spent hours getting it from all angles – particularly the actor pine. She was so compelling, like she was pointing something out, some spot in the ground or the future or both, and if only I was smart enough or stood still long enough I might be able to figure out what it was.

The local gangs had made their marks on the trees, of course. It was a natural hang out. They’d sprayed graffiti on the trunks – a smiling cloud, doobie, a knife. There was a nylon rope with a stub of wood hanging from the living pine. A scattering of bottles and cans in the tangles of blackberry and the rabbit burrows. Lately I’d noticed they’d started chipping away at a hole near the base of the actor pine, trying to bring her down. The heartwood was soft and friable in that strangely geometric way dead wood falls to pieces. They must’ve made it halfway through by now, and I was amazed the old tree had managed to keep standing through the strong winds of the early winter. There was something else keeping this tree up, I thought. She still had something to say.

But this morning when I came through the gate the change was immediate. A gap in the skyline as stark and outrageous as a slap. I hurried over.

The kids had given up on the chipping and burnt it down instead. They’d filled the hole with junk, and a few boxes of what at first I thought were matches but which were actually those little fireworks called throwdowns, the ones you chuck on the pavement that snap like firecrackers. It seemed appropriate. And now the old pine lay stretched out on the grass, the branches that had gestured so beautifully to the sky broken in pieces all around.

Another dog walker came over and we stood there and talked about it. She’d seen the fire and taken pictures of it on her phone, a demonic bolus of red flame around the base, a shimmer of grey smoke.
‘You can get too sentimental about these things,’ she said, putting the phone back in her pocket. ‘Storms take trees all the time. We burn wood in the fireplace. Lightning strikes. And years ago – many years ago – dinosaurs would’ve shouldered them over without a thought. Kids are a natural phenomenon, too. It’s just a shame they get possessed by this destructive instinct from time to time. They shot all the windows out of the youth club out with an air gun, for God’s sake! I mean – where’s the sense in that?’
I had to agree.
‘The creative impulse turned on its head,’ I said.
‘Absolutely.’
I fished my own phone out.
‘Did you see that photo in the paper the other day? Of the black hole? They’ve given it a name now. Powehi. However you say it.’
I scrolled down and we both read what it is and what it means. The adorned fathomless dark creation.’
‘I like that’ she says as I put the phone away again. ‘It’s a good name for something like that. So – basically what you’re saying is that these kids are like a black hole?’
‘Mini ones. But they can turn it around. You have to hope.’
We stood and surveyed the scene in silence for a while.
‘Oh well!’ she said. ‘Must get on!’
And strode away.

 

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the creation of uncertainty

The Babylonians believed that Tiamat, the goddess of chaos and the oceans, lay with Abzu, the god of fresh water, and from their union the unnamed world was born. The Ancient Egyptians believed in a primordial craftsman called Ptah, who was so accomplished all he had to do was think about making something and it was instantly done. For the Kuba of Central Africa, the sun, moon and stars were vomited up by the god Mbombo after a spell of nausea. In Norse mythology, Odin, Vili and Ve kill the frost giant Ymir by cutting him to pieces. His brains become the clouds, his blood the oceans, his hair and bones the trees and hills, and his eyebrows become Midgard, where humans eventually live.

Despite the eternal claims of these stories, nothing stays the same. Civilisations come and go, and so do their creation myths. Cultures merge, absorbing one another’s icons and totems. What was once a powerful pagan earth goddess becomes a gargoyle to ward off evil spirits, a mask to hang on the wall.

IMG_0537And these creation myths play out on a smaller, more domestic scale. Each family will have its own version; we’ll all be well rehearsed in the specifics – the love notes in the office, the scratched pram in the hall of the flower shop, the book reading on the riverbank – and we’ll busily extend them with tropes of our own, working them into a weave that feels like something, a verifiable connection between the past and the future, a richly illustrated truth. It isn’t, of course. It’s just another way of imposing order on the world. And like any myth, one day it will have to change. Parents will die or become old, facts will emerge that don’t fit the narrative, affairs, abortions, revisions, elisions, things done and not done, dates that don’t work, things that trip the flow of it all and leave you wondering how you could ever have been so naive.

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the old courtier & the pug

Even Jenny’s pug makes me anxious. There’s something about the way he trolls over to me, waggling breathlessly from side to side like an antique footstool that’s somehow learned to walk. And when he finally arrives at my feet, he’ll stop and slowly look up at me, panting in his tight fleece waistcoat, like he’s expecting me to do something, and if I don’t do it soon he’ll explode, and there’ll be pug everywhere, and it’ll all be my fault.

I pat his head (which isn’t what he wants), and I wait.

Jenny comes striding over the hill, waving.

To be honest, I’ll often try to avoid Jenny. She’s nice enough, but like her dog, she makes me anxious. And I say that despite having tried over the last year through meditation to understand that’s it’s not other people or events that make me feel anything but how I react to them. I suppose it’s the difference between accepting that spiders are essentially harmless, that it’s an irrational fear rooted in family experience & conditioning, and actually picking one out of a box and putting it on my head. So even though I fully understand that wanting to avoid talking to Jenny is really just an indication that I’ve a lot more work to do on myself, still I can’t help looking for the exit.

One mistake I often make is to try to preempt the pessimism. It’s the conversational equivalent of bending down to pick up a box you think is full of books but turns out only to have a duvet and a pillow, so you end up throwing it in the air and falling over backwards.
‘Hey Jenny! How are you? What a lovely day it is today! So Spring like! Everything powering up! God – we’re lucky…’
Jenny stares at me through her lavender tinted glasses.
‘Did you hear about the boy in the high street the other day?’ she says.
‘Boy? What boy? No…’
‘Carrying a machete.’
‘A machete? Oh my god…’
‘Look,’ she says, opening Facebook on her phone and showing me the picture – a weapon that looks more like something a Klingon would use in a ceremonial fight.
‘Bloody hell!’
‘I don’t understand kids these days,’ she says, putting the phone away again, carefully, so she doesn’t cut herself on the picture. ‘I mean – we never had half the things they’ve got. Ferried around from place to place like little princesses. They have the best clothes. The best shoes. I suppose it’s all these violent games they play. But you see they just don’t have any respect. And they seem so angry all the time.’
‘Well. They certainly get a lot of peer pressure on social media. I’m glad I didn’t have that when I was growing up.’
‘I worry about the future. I really do. I worry for the world my grandchildren will live in.’
‘Knife crime’s terrible,’ I say, struggling to stay objective. ‘Horrible. Really awful. But one thing struck me the other day. You know some kids think they have to carry a knife because the other kid’ll have one? Isn’t that the same as our foreign policy? You’ve got to have nuclear weapons because the other country’s got them? I mean – aren’t they just doing what the government’s doing?’
Jenny pushes her glasses back onto her nose.
‘They’ve been smashing car mirrors,’ she says. ‘For no reason. Car mirrors. Just walking along and smashing them off.’
‘That’s terrible.’
‘And I tell you something else. I’ve had my car ten years, and last night the alarm went off! Twice! It’s never done that before.’
‘That’s worrying.’
‘I mean – these kids. They’re so angry!’
‘It’s interesting that all this comes at a time of reduced public spending. Do you think that’s got anything to do with it?’
‘I don’t know about that. All I know is, I’m glad I’m not a child growing up in this world…’

The conversation splutters on like this for a while. She’s not enjoying it. I’m not enjoying it. It’s like we’re wrestling with the controls of a little plane that’s stalling over a chasm. I’m tempted just to embrace my fate, put my arms in the air and try to relish the plummeting – except – I can’t afford to let myself think of life this way. It’s too bleak and soul-sapping. It would feel like surrender.

I look around for Lola. She’s way up the hill, heroically silhouetted against the sky, staring down at me with an expression that – even from this distance – I can read as pity.

Back at university we studied an early Renaissance book by Castiglione called ‘The Book of the Courtier’. Written at the beginning of the 16th century, it was an early kind of How To guide for members of court, but it digressed lightly and beautifully into conversations about social philosophy, religion and so on. The book was surprisingly contemporary in feel. I remember one bit in particular, where the subject of ‘it wasn’t like this in my day’ came up.

“I have often considered not without wonder whence arises a fault, which, as it is universally found among old people, may be believed to be proper and natural to them. And this is, that they nearly all praise bygone times and censure the present, inveighing against our acts and ways and everything which they in their youth did not do; affirming too that every good custom and good manner of living, every virtue, in short everything, is always going from bad to worse.”
(from the beginning of the second book)

He wrote that over five hundred years ago. But despite all his balance and courtly wisdom, all his sprezzatura, I bet even old Castiglione would’ve changed direction when he saw the pug.

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the nightmare continues

Brexit.

Sounds like an energy biscuit. Except this one’s the opposite, the kind you’d eat to bring you back down. Frosted with Diazepam.

As I write, the government have voted to extend Article 50, and ask the EU if we can delay our exit. Which is like being on the rack and asking the guy in the leather apron for a few more turns of the wheel, because – you know – it really is helping with our joint problems…)

For the record, I’m a Remainer. Or Remoaner as we were rebranded. Presumably on the basis that we had the absolute GALL and plain BAD SPORTSMANSHIP to complain about the amount of misinformation that was put out at the time of the referendum, and to point out that maybe such a complex and important move should be worthy of a little more balanced thinking. I mean, you wouldn’t put in an offer to buy a house that was advertised as charming, plucky, full of character, great views – only to read the survey and find out it’s built of Play-Doh, on a fault line, near a reactor, overlooking some abandoned docks – and NOT feel a little scratchy.

Still – a vote is a vote.mrsmay

‘Let’s get this done’ croaks Mrs May, leaning in, reassuring as a fancy dress nurse with an ID badge drawn in crayon.

Part of me wishes it would just go ahead. Maybe it’ll be okay. Maybe we can trust the ERG, the DUP and any of the other reactionary crazies who would love nothing more than to make this country a Land of Hope and Glory theme park, where the log flume is actually a giant Churchillian cigar rushing headlong down a cataract of laundered money, and the golden horses of the carousel are restricted to the kids from public schools; where the canteens are filled with cheap chlorinated chicken and beef burgers oozing with Five Mile Island dressing; where the Queen lives in a glittering tent waiting to tell the fortune of anyone the park inspectors happen to push through her flaps, and the Hall of Mirrors is a miniature Houses of Parliament, where everyone constantly changes shape.

The only hope is that some ragged revolutionary force will storm the gates, push over the Monopoly banker character that says: You Have To Be THIS Wealthy To Enjoy our Rides! , overpower the Facebook sponsored security guards, and then run around unzipping all the minimum wagers trapped in the character costumes, the Frowning Shakespeares, the Laughing Policemen, the Private Doctors, The Trumps.

Then what?

Dissolve cut from the fires of the burning fairground to the not-so-distant future…

Climate change will be the one, unavoidable subject of public discourse. It’ll either be raining too heavily or blowing too violently or blazing too intensely for anyone to think about anything else. There’ll be factions calling for greater cooperation between people and states, factions insisting on a tighter, more protectionist approach, and then another, mysterious, more watchful faction – the one with the money, hubris, tech and military backing – who’ll have thought for a long time that the best thing to do is to pull out completely, in something big and splashy, called The Ark©, and they’ll be quietly studying star maps spread out on brushed steel tables, circling in red some other poor planets we can screw up.

Spacexit. (What a ride).

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baba yaga vs. the terminator

‘Does anybody know any scary stories?’
A hundred hands shoot up.
The actor smiles, gestures to a little boy sitting at the front.
‘Yes?’ she says.
‘The Terminator!’
‘Well!’ she says, leaning back. ‘Hmm. I think that’s a little violent, don’t you? Anyone else…?’
Twenty minutes later they’re halfway through a piece based on the witch Baba Yaga, where she’s persuading a woman to make herself beautiful by rubbing her face with a cheese grater.
I glance at the kid who mentioned Terminator, but if he’s aware of the irony he doesn’t show it, leaning back in horrified delight as the cheese grater is produced and waved in the air, glinting cruelly in the assembly hall lights.

I don’t know what makes me think of this now. Maybe it’s because earlier today we were sitting having breakfast talking about good names. Jessie knows someone called Cat Whiskins, and someone else called Riddler Bear, either of which would make great characters in a detective novel; Eloise has a multicoloured knitted mouse she’s called Quench J Taylor (the J is silent, obviously); our family doctor was called Dr Hornet, and yes, he did actually wear a tight waistcoat of black and yellow stripes and came and went through the window. (Okay – lied about the waistcoat and the window. But he had a very waspish manner. When I was a teenager I went to him with depression; he told me to join the army).

Baba Yaga is undeniably a great name, too, packed full of meaning, as well as being very satisfying to say out loud. I mean, if you say it over and over (but probably not in front of a mirror), it does make you want to widen your eyes and smile. Maybe even treat yourself to a cackle. Apparently baba is Slavic for grandma or old woman – or even midwife / sorceress, depending how far back you go, and in which Eastern European culture – and yaga can mean abuse, evil woman, shudder, anger, or legendary evil female being, depending who you ask and how low the sun is at the time. Tradition has it that she rides around in a mortar waving a pestle, she lives in a hut raised up on chicken legs, and when inside ‘… may be found stretched out over the stove, reaching from one corner of the hut to another.’ (Wiki). And whilst no doubt we’ve all rented a place like that, in BY’s case it gives her an idiosyncratic buzz of authenticity whose comic weirdness only seems to heighten the horror of it all.

I love the fact John Wick’s nickname is Baba Yaga. Keanu Reeves rocks that abusive grandma look with acrobatic flair & beauty, of course, but I think the role definitely benefits from the darker resonances the ancient name carries. I’m sure The Babadook is a nod to the old Slavic witch, too, by the way. And one of the reasons that film was so creepy was that association between children’s fairy story and existential dread (or is it just me?)

Which brings me back to that Theatre in Education company all those years ago.
‘Does anybody know any scary stories?’ she said.
I think what she really meant was: ‘Does anybody know any scarier stories than this?’

The Terminator wouldn’t have stood a chance.

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purchased

The camp in the woods was a poem.

What drew me first was the sign. I could just make it out through the trees. At first I thought it was a PRIVATE – NO ENTRY thing. As I got closer I could see it was part of something else, something more extempore. A lean-to made of green tarpaulin, ropes and bent saplings. Camping chairs and plastic garden furniture around a fire pit. A scattering of shovels and rakes. An upturned wheelbarrow. I saw they’d been working on a bike track, making jumps out of mounds of packed earth supported with wattle fences, water trenches on the fall-side to make it more interesting. It was an industrious scene. The tools looked suspiciously new, and I guessed they’d stolen them from the allotments near the church. In fact, come to think of it, everything looked scavenged. The sign turned out to be a whiteboard they’d nicked from the gate outside the local nuclear bunker (hilariously and ironically apologising for the cancellation of the planned open day due to ‘inclement weather’).

Whilst I was taking some pictures it struck me what a perfect analogy all this was: a nuclear bunker sign, tied to a tree next to the flimsiest of structures, so open to the elements you could imagine sitting in one of those rickety plastic chairs smoking a last cigarette as the shockwave raced towards you; a stolen iron ‘purchased’ sign hammered into the ground in front of a shelter pitched on private land; the hard work and improvisational skill taken to make the track and the jumps versus the anti-social thievery and trespass. But how much more anti-social was it to be part of a system that would countenance using a nuclear weapon – the normalisation of which underscored not just by the fact that the authorities had built a nuclear bunker next to the allotments in the first place, but now and again ran an open day (weather permitting)?

Not that I wouldn’t have been furious if I’d turned up at the allotment, found my shed broken into and my tools gone. I would’ve stamped about in my wellies, becoming even more furious waiting hours on hold for the non-emergency police line to pick-up. No doubt I would’ve entertained the same vengeful fantasies, subsiding in time into a moodily pessimistic so-this-is-how-things-are-these-days kind of wretchedness.

But isn’t what these feral bike track-kids have done just empire building writ small? Isn’t that what we as a country have done for centuries? Found a place we liked, stuck something in the ground that marked it out as ‘ours’? And then, after sufficient time had passed for us to say it had some historical patency, denied anyone else any influence there (even if it was thousands of miles from our shores and right next door to theirs)? And not just us, of course. A great many other countries have been founded on the same take & defend principle.

A colonial poem, then, writ small in stolen canvas, garden tools, and a sign apologising for the cancellation of the nuclear bunker open day.

 

 

slam dunk

Well – finally I did it! I performed one of my poems at a poetry slam.

Leo runs Guerrilla Poets at The Lansdown Arms in Lewes every third Sunday. It wasn’t at all as I imagined. It was so much better! The pub was full and friendly. A great mix of regulars, passing trade – and poets of every age and description. A woman who’d just written some lines on her phone. A guy who had only stopped by on his way to see his girlfriend in a pub up the road, but who happened to have four lines in his head about the philosophy of bike wheels. A woman who read a poem about the place in Mexico where Dean Moriarty died, shaking the dried rattle from a snake to cleanse the air before she spoke. A woman who used to be a punk and performed a poem about yeastiness. A little boy who skipped up and read a poem about poo and another one about not eating chicken. And me – reading Junkenstein’s Lament. It was such a warm, supportive and appreciative crowd, the perfect place to start out. It makes me want to do more (although next time I’ll make an effort to learn the poem first, so I don’t lose my place and the rhythm of it….).

If you’ve got a poem in you (and you live near Lewes) – check it out!

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