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Meeting strangers on trains - they provide disposable entertainment: offer insights and advice, or simply tell good stories. Even the most bizarre fellow passenger can prove a useful character study. Listen for the nervous laughter punctuating the inane chat, and wait for your own in response - Itís automatic and polite: nobody likes silence. Note the foot-tapping, throat clearing, finger drumming asides. Repeatedly pushing the glasses further up the nose and wild gesticulations. Watch your neighbours, eagle-eyed, smirking as they see you trapped in duels with lonely ego-maniacs. Your head bobbing in time to the track, feigning agreement and interest.
Another train journey - usually the perfect excuse to write but tonight is proving difficult. I feel cramped in this space. Nostalgic for Sheffield today: Sliding down Springvale Road in winter - Ice underfoot and snow all around. Watching taxis and drunks struggling up the hills, skidding and falling respectively. Numb fingers, pinched ears and sore noses. Mojitos in Muse; San Miguel in Cubanaís; hummus in the Showroom and countless Leffe in the interval. Another lock-in in the Cobden View watching the pub hound sleeping by the fire. Running home at 3 oíclock in the morning. All a life-time ago.
Deep down I know Iíve left myself too much for tomorrow. Iíll never find the time I need to finish all the projects but Iíve convinced myself otherwise tonight. I shall compromise and prioritise; become a highly-focused, goal-hungry success story. Or Iíll just try and carefully manoeuvre my way around some of the more immovable obstacles and simply move the other ones. For a split second I thought you might have died on the tube this morning Ė ĎPerson under a train at Oxford Circusí Ė That would be just like you. Your phone was dead but you were fine. Blissfully unaware.
An episode or two of The West Wing for old timeís sake was the plan for tonight. Then staying up with housemates Ďtil the early hours watching the results streaming in. Everything crossed for the Obama victory Ė surely! I remember four years ago, watching the monitors in Bar One flashing up blue and red states. The picture slowly unfolding before us; more beers to quell the disappointment. Itís different this time: ever since his victory in Iowa back in January Iíve followed every thread of news, every video. Now weíre at the end and I canít keep my eyes open.
I didnít mean for it to end like that and Iím sorry it did, but sometimes you have nothing to say to me. Thatís fine, letís acknowledge the truth and talk again when thereís something to discuss. I know it doesnít work like that, we have to keep talking regardless. Even when weíre going round in circles and Iím not listening and youíre forming words to fill the silence. Even then, we have to keep the ball in the air or weíll be left with nothing. So, again, Iím sorry. I knew it was happening but didnít have the strength.
Iíve been trying to think about our relationship Ė where we stand with one another Ė and the truth is we donít have one; thereís no standing or sitting or talking together. We no longer share anything. We each know the other still lives through talking to another but thatís all. For my part, I care a great deal Ė much more than I could write Ė and will stay sitting and hoping for something. ĎA wrinkled crabbed man they picture thee Old Winter.í I wish you were back in front of the mouldering fire to be drawn nodding off, rosy cheeks and laughter.
Heís scared: itís pathetic. Worried that one day theyíll uncover his secret and stumble upon the truth. He speaks very well, talks with authority on his chosen subjects and nods in all the right places. In short his act is perfect. He holds himself correctly, is ready with a quip and very rarely splits an infinitive. Yet his knowledge is borrowed: the jokes on-loan. He does not possess an original thought. Everything is plagiarized and stolen. Confidence eludes him and his truth is based in fiction. Always pushing insecurity to the darkest recess of his mind. Still it bubbles up.
Sitting at the top of the stairs catching strains of conversation and Iím thirteen years old again listening to an argument Iím not supposed to hear. Words forced out through tears and a fluttering chest. Sheís tiny, like a delicate bird abandoned by itís mother. Eyes that used to sparkle with laughter now just plead for some rest or an answer, or for someone to hold her and tell her everything will be okay. And Iím crying again because itís falling apart and Iím still thirteen years old and I canít help her. Iím not sure anyone can this time.
There is a clinical precision to what is being asked. A process that must be followed; broken down piece-by-piece and reassembled according to certain principles. But it might not work for everyone and I appreciate the honesty. Exercises to encourage freedom of movement and breath Ė to synchronise the two and allow the body and mind to be open Ė will work for some and not for others. Some images are useful: imagining the lungs extending down into your pelvic floor or an inflatable ĎHí in your torso perhaps? Much of what we do may only become clear twenty years from now.
For some life is very long. Time doesnít fly or pass in the blink of an eye but tumbles through the hour-glass grain by interminable grain. Each second is noted and experienced fully and in isolation Ė any number of choices ruminated upon and discarded in despair. Whole other lives are glimpsed within the parting lashes of a blink and forgotten just as quickly. Trapped in cycles of misery and melancholy, anomie and agony. The nihilist need never fear the never-ending drudgery, but revel in the joy that lies beyond all this vulgarity. Eternity makes a mockery out of mortal maladies.
The head snaps back and peels of silent laughter shudder from your chest. Your mouth a perfect oval framing crests of black fillings set off against pink gums. Veins bulge in your neck and forehead while your cheeks flush red like apples in a picture book for children learning to form words. Eyes sparkle with a new delicious thought; a fool-proof plan to make the others join you in the laughter. Iíve yet to see you stumble or sit alone exposed. Thereís always a crowd or safety net to protect you from the serious questions. Perhaps Iím not being fair.
In another lifetime maybe. If things had panned out differently, there might have been a chance. A chance to find the stillness and serenity that must lie behind the chaotic faÁade. To hear stories of days long before this one when I didnít belong here. To learn the names to all the faces stored in your head for safe-keeping. Realistically, it would never have happened of course. There are some distances that cannot be bridged with the tools we have to hand. The story is not without hope, just very unlikely. Certainly thereís room for a couple of decent chapters.
A wet Sunday in 1967 caught in a black and white photo. ĎSwinging Londoní bathed in Rock ní Roll still on a World-Cup-winning high. Forty-one years later hanging on my bedroom wall. A young man walks through Piccadily Circus, hands thrust into his duffel coat pockets, collar turned up against the wind. Perhaps hurrying to a record shop to pick up the latest import from America. Iíve done the same walk myself - CD tucked under my arm, desperate to get home and play it until something sticks. His footsteps echo on an empty street. Mine are lost in traffic.
Iím striving to be more open with you but I find Iím bottling up; keeping things hidden away from where we exist. Our world is censored by what we chose to let each other know. Much of our time is spent in isolation with our own thoughts for company, but that is true of anyone. What we feel and what we show do not always correspond Ė sometimes they oppose with an outward mask for an inward scar.
ĎYouíre looking more open.í
ĎThank you Robert, but I really donít know what that looks like.í
Can you see where the problem is?
Yes, I think youíre lucky. Youíve travelled and seen the world. You speak three languages and youíre not yet sixteen. I donít mention the war in the country you once called home or your family split across a continent. We both think it of course. I press on: Do you miss home? Is it very different from London or Paris? ďIíd love to go.Ē I say. But Iím not sure I would. You wrinkle your nose and smile - youíre certain I wouldnít. I wonder if you feel settled here. ďNot yet. Someday. I hope.Ē Yes, I think youíre lucky.
Seconds trickled into minutes and stuttered into hours: apparently deliberating, uncertain of their footing. Like some poorly conceived farce with doors opening stage left and right, heralding new characters, each more contrived than the last. You, as audience, remain baffled - trying desperately to remember what it is youíre supposed to be doing here. Surely you canít be expected to clap? The stories are tragic in their comedy. Days rush on without you. Weeks lapping at their heels. And you remain. Stock-still. Waiting for your cue. As expectation turns to hope you realise youíve forgotten why it is youíre waiting.
Some things remain secret because they have to be kept that way. Thereís no choice in the matter. If they escape into a broader, collective conscience they shatter into something else. The form shifts taking on attributes prescribed by others, until the shape has changed. The colours may remain and everyone will assure you that they understand your secret the way you intended but putting it into language has already destroyed it. For most, the division between our public and private persona is distinct. The irrational anxieties and barely-whispered hopes remain buried: hushed and hidden away. For fear of what?
Incredible how we can watch good friends grow older. I have a memory of us playing tennis or basketball - passing notes to one another in RE. And now we sit amongst a group of mutual friends laughing and joking. Iíve been lucky and adopted my favourite role, sitting just off to one side, watching everyone else chatting and drinking. No one has noticed Iím gone but I know Iím on borrowed time. An involuntary smile passes my lips as I study old friends talking to new. A reflection on yourself they say - Iíll take it every single time.
Forty minutes as a chimpanzee and an hour or so as a five year old child in a playground. Thighs burning and knees locked into the squat, bouncing around the room leaping from action to action. Befriend, intimidate, play; protect the mate, establish authority, play some more. Jumping on furniture, rolling on pipes; aware of gentle bruising but oblivious to the pain. Chimps wouldnít bruise like that. Running with guns, shouting at girls and playing with a fire-engine. Forming alliances and breaking them for a funny look or dropping the ball or taking my toy. It all got pretty wild.
I saw him four years ago staggering across the stage, completely off his face, pouring his soul into the microphone. His lyrics were dark and haunting Ė I remember the silence in the room and the hairs prickling on the back of my neck as he sang about Sylvia Plath. I didnít think heíd live another year, let alone four. He came back though and heís introducing songs with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek Ė ĎLetís have another sunshine numberÖ This next oneís about how well-adjusted I am! About how Iím gonna die alone.í I guess he found something better.
ĎDamn Sam, I love a woman that rains.í
Contrary to the point of collapse. An outburst that brings a smile to his lips. A claim that they understand nothing or, in the nicest possible way, donít see the point repeatedly pushed to one side. Sheíll never sit on a question but has to know exactly why weíre asking. He sits back watching, slightly off-centre, commenting where he sees fit and sometimes speaking out of turn. Biting the tongue and throwing a glare to the point where neither knows what the other is thinking but reciprocates just in case. How social.
I worked myself into it all morning Ė the music catalysed everything. A swell of excitement and anticipation carried me straight into the exercise. Prowling around the crates cradling a hammer in my fist. I leapt straight into it, breaking through the wood; tearing the structure apart with my hands; hurling it against the wall. Smashing the sofa with a metal bar, the hammer, splintered wood, my fists and feet, anything. The music stopped and he was crying. Sweating, chest heaving, throat burning Ė flecked with blood and flesh from the chicken I tore apart Ė I tasted the adrenaline slowly draining away.
Writing hurts: I canít hold the pen without a dull ache in the thumb. The right hand is bruised around the wrist but Iíve got full movement so I shouldnít worry. The sprained ankle is tender but the swelling has subsided Ė a tentative walk for a day or two perhaps. The nail narrowly missed the heel but has left a decent hole in the sole of the left shoe.
Sleeping hurt; waking hurt a little more. But it was one of the better days weíve had so far, even if the evening was spent in Accident and Emergency. Ridiculous really.
A window seat to the world at large; a world thatís falling away. Insistent feet beat, stepping over tears and cracks as the seams pull apart. Skipping over craters and chasms that have swallowed the trees and the cars. That are filling with water from above and mud from below. That are windswept and weary from living too long. That is coiled like a worm in the gut of a dog squirming for survival. Flattening, fattening and pressing against the membrane. That shimmies and sways in a distant doorway; pale bone on bone sparkling and stiffening into an ice figurine.
ĎIím looking at you (now) and Iím thinking: if it could be like this. If it could always be like thisÖí
If we could stay framed forever in this room, floodlit and warm from the street outside, telling stories or playing parts. Four black portraits, coloured with trails of fairy lights spun around a concrete tree, reflect the white walls on our faces. Sitting upright in your chair like youíre standing in a hotel foyer waiting for someone you love or can imagine loving in the future. You smile towards the concierge, the clock and the door.
Please: after you.
Your dad died on Christmas Eve. All these years and I had absolutely no idea. I remember being vaguely aware that he was ill but nothing else. I remember a cold night drinking outside at a house party, weeks or months later, when you broke down. I guess I got caught up in all the university festivities: finishing essays and chasing distractions. I just didnít notice what had happened. Five years of asking what you were doing for Christmas Ė telling you how much I loved this time of year. I see now why you donít. I think heíd be proud.
You might try and come along to the same place? ĎItís a big resort.í What? Youíve lost your mind Ė not hard when you refuse to speak to anyone. The exercise aside, Iíve still not been angry. I canít get worked up about it. Youíre like kids fighting in a playground but you can never give up.
Temporarily forgotten through a meal and drinks with friends, We shall miss this if it falls apart but perhaps we can keep it intact a little longer. Evenings sat around the dining room table with glasses of Ďhouse redí and Kronie. The Clapham chapter.
Pirates on the last tube home; wrecked. ĎUp the Bracketí playing in my ears, taking me back to the Leadmill and the sticky dancefloor. Crowd-surfing to the bang of the drums and the beat of the bass. Tall and willowy like a hunter in some undiscovered tribe in some unchartered territory very far from here. The only place on earth you could buy a vodka and Vimto or a vodka and Iron Bru for a pound! Largely ignoring the other or pretending to be engrossed in something just beyond them, slightly to one side. The pirates all have matching beards.
Waiting for my sponsor to finish chatting to another actor Ė third year so higher up the pecking order. This part of the business is difficult: establishing and maintaining relationships without seeming false or superficial. I catch his eye and play it cool; he wanders off and I have to chase him. We talk and thereís nothing to worry about; heís a lovely guy. Full of stories about his grandchildren and opinions on the theatre. I thank him once more, we wish each other ĎMerry Christmasí or ĎHappy festive periodí (whatever it was I stuttered) and we go our separate ways.
I donít feel like writing any more; Iíve forgotten why I started. I canít follow any idea through to the end Ė it disintegrates somewhere in the middle or, more often than not, much earlier. I lose interest or lose grasp of the feeling or thought that got me interested in the first place. I remember my audience and my hand hesitates above the page Ė Iím blocking all my offers (thank you). It becomes an exercise in code writing to the point where Iím not sure what Iíve written. Iíll look back in years to come and not have a clue.
The Tip Jar