REPORT A PROBLEM
Yom Kippur, Chanukkah, Rosh Hashanan and a whole bunch of other festivals we’re learning through this presentation. We built an improvised Sukkah with screens and material; the Four Species were held in a tight bond and the Sukkah was blessed. I’ve caught most of the presentation but my mind keeps wandering across the road to another presentation in another room. I’ve had this dull ache in my chest all week that’s left an ugly bruise inside. A part of me torn out and paraded around in front of my face. That’s how it feels anyway and I don’t know why.
‘When I used to be younger, it was my belief that you met some other person. I believed that the world was small. I thought that the world was my mother and father. And then you find someone, some other person, and you just go, simple as that, you just go off somewhere, in love. I believed that people were perfect. And life went on forever. I was right. About everything.’
Beauty sleeper, truth speaker; secret keeper, ice cream eater. With a book of sayings and a selfless heart, a thousand little complications packed up tight in home-made fabric drawers.
I would sit with you in Café Utopia for hours reading papers and drinking coffee. Perhaps you drank tea, the memory is fond of playing tricks. One copy of The Guardian, one of The Times – perhaps a book you had to read for your course – and a slice of cake or a cool glass of apple juice. The walls were glassed and moved around us in a circle; goldfish swam lazily under the papers, enclosed beneath the table. I remember this, now, as something we always did but perhaps we only went three or four times. It’s not important now.
The body has taken a fair old battering this week: fuelled with the wrong food and too much alcohol. Too much shouting and not enough exercise or sunlight – my skin needs to breathe and relax into itself instead of being stretched across my bones like an old guitar string. I need to sleep more, to experience waking up feeling like I’ve had my eyes shut for more than an elongated blink. I know I need a quiet week of running, sleeping and reading but equally, I know I love these midnight hours too much. Perfect time for thinking and writing.
Johnnie Halder sitting behind his mahogany desk gazing into the mahogany walls opposite. Tracing circles in the deep red carpet with the heel of his boot, willing himself to turn his head to the window. To look out at the dusty pens and bleached white wooden buildings rooted into the gums of the earth like broken teeth. Stamping his report just above the signature with the eagle and Party approval. A report, eschewing all sentimentality, on procedure, morale and best practice. Remembering Anne from time to time; Helen with a fading warmth and Maurice in the darkness of his night-terrors.
Another milestone in this new life you’ve forced upon us. Another first for everyone involved. Happy Birthday Dad! Fish, chips, mushy peas and a bottle of champagne: I remember writing almost the same order before Christmas. Eternal Return has jumped into my head for no apparent reason. That everything recurs as we once experienced it. Last year you’d have been taken out for a meal and a film maybe – perhaps you’d make a special effort to shrug off the guilt? Four years ago the day would have been guilt-free. Years before that we’d all have been at home eating together.
The body has a nasty habit of falling into nasty habits: a movement that causes a hunch or a funnily distinct walk becomes habitual until we don’t notice it anymore. It becomes the way we walk or the way we stand. To change it is irritating and sometimes painful, and most people will never have cause to but you see it everyday: the man who walks to work with a bounce in his stride on the balls of his feet; the guy who runs with his chest and bum thrust out in opposition like a rooster. They think it’s normal.
Group improvisation for ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ set in a secondary school in 1930s Amsterdam. Three Jewish children harassed and harangued by the other students and Mr Halder, the supply teacher, stuck in the middle. Notes were passed to the Jewish girls bristling with cruel, childish comments; simple statements that they had no friends, were filthy, alien, other. Coughing fits erupted when they tried to answer a question or make a complaint. They were punched, kicked and had their books stolen. They burst into tears, fought back and eventually gave up complaining; stood together hand in hand smiling defiantly.
A slick of black hair swept across her face dripping down to her chest. A cigarette pushes its way through the strands gasping for a breath of air. She pinches it between her teeth and drawls something American from the corner of her mouth; a smile perhaps, wreathed in smoke, hiding in a noisy bar underneath her make-up. She defies the sun in her black leather jacket and cowboy boots, keeping time with a steady line of weekend traffic, passing from shadow to shadow pretending not to have noticed her reflection in the black coffee cups being raised around her.
Pity or pitiful? I can’t decide. I mean Pity, obviously, but I feel as though I’m being taken for a ride. The old face, deeply creased and world-weary, blown up to a towering height and plastered onto the tube tunnel wall. He looks down at the well-fed, over-dressed commuters sweating quietly into their shirts, jaws clenched in frustration at the two minute wait for the next train. He looks down imploringly. He implores with big blue eyes and a nicotine stained beard. He implores and my heart aches. He implores and I bristle with scepticism. What good is my pity?
Can it really only be the first day of the week? Have I done enough to warrant feeling this tired already? Perhaps it was the movement session this morning where my back was moved in ways I didn’t think possible? Or the improvisation exercises where we fed each other unholy amounts of cake and juice and this is the anticipated sugar crash I’m due. Most likely, of course, is the restless night enjoyed waking every hour, mind leaping from thought to memory to worry to fear. Pushing each difficult question to the back somewhere out of sight and smiling through.
We passed on the escalator, me descending as you rose up towards home. We smiled but didn’t actually say a word, just laughed at what had happened. You thought about turning and running back down; I made it up halfway but the length of the day and the heat of the night convinced us otherwise. I smiled again and melted into the walls as my carriage sped me rumbling beneath the streets of London. Walking home through the smells of restaurants taking final orders, of tapas and Indian, French cuisine and bottled beers remembering your touch as a coffee-cup kiss.
There are things I should write about tonight but I’m not sure I can face them. In fact I’m pretty certain that I can’t. Distances, loneliness and isolation. A feeling of endings: nothing clear and definite but hazy, unspoken punctuation that I almost feel responsible for. What I long for is no longer possible; that solution fell apart some time ago now and I need to accept this truth before anything can change. But I can’t pick sides and I won’t be forced to so will have to remain in the middle. Rootless and drifting further away; the forgotten one.
A song whispered to the wind perhaps but whispered to the end. ‘The next crossroads are the last, lad.’ And the Button Man eases himself down to the floor, or softly up against the door-frame, imperceptibly alongside the double bass or quietly at the piano. He pads his way amongst the others, smiling in shadows and hiding in light. Long white hair on a white suit jacket, and snow white shoes sharpened into a stealthy point. He moves like a cat; produces the knife to slit the throat and hangs with a grin and a wave goodbye.
Next crossroads, lad.
A marriage proposal totally off the cuff; improvised to within an inch of its life but he got away with it I think. A pasta meal with rose wine – well apple and blackcurrant squash – in goblets; the room adorned with flowers and candles. A crossword to spell the question… just, and a ring dropped on bended knee. They retire to the sofa for cigarettes and conversation, initially slightly stilted but they relax into it with hushed tones and talk of the future, then a comfortable silence. There’s only so much further they can take this but they’re absorbed for now.
He creates still-life photos in his scene. Crouching on the rug in the new house gazing up at the walls; sitting cross-legged, cradling a cushion, in the day-dreaming chair, day-dreaming with her sat on the arm coaxing him out of his reverie. They’re up in motion again, gliding through the room in elipses; skating around the furniture unpacking boxes and meeting to touch. Her voice pitter-patters in the space like the fingers of a pianist trilling through the air. Walking backwards to a tenor saxophone and a playful bass-line plucked with a nodding head and tapping foot. Smiles all around.
We can have a conversation about it now – we have reached that stage – and make it seem as normal as possible; like we were discussing the weather for the week ahead or a recipe for trout. Not that we would, of course, but you see my point. It’s always the same pattern: I’ll tell you how things are going in my life (funny how life moves from being ours to mine) you’ll talk about sailing or a band you’ve seen, then you’ll mention seeing mum somewhere. You’ll wait and in the silence I’ll say something to move us away again.
I despise this hour and a half in my week. Children running around the room pushing each other in the back and making faces across the group. Glowing scarlet when they’ve been caught by the teacher and sticking out their tongues when his back is turned again. Perfectly capable of doing the work if they shut up long enough to hear what’s being asked. But they don’t. We don’t. A funny thought pops into someone’s head and they feel the urge to share with the group. I really wish they wouldn’t. The perfect arena for showing off and showing up.
‘With tuppence for paper and strings, you can have your own set of wings. With your feet on the ground, you’re a bird in flight with your fist holding tight to the string of your kite.’ The Actors’ Church full to the rafters. Splashes of colour standing along the back wall and forcing themselves upstairs to the balcony. Familiar faces, famous faces, family faces smiling with tears in the eyes remembering his life, fondly. Brought together to celebrate a man I didn’t know but now feel so close to. A slide-show passes through my mind full of tears and laughter.
This is getting hard again. It shouldn’t be this hard. I feel as though I’m not really here: I’m disappearing in my chair, blurring out of my focus until the blue of my t-shirt has bled out into the cream floor and white walls. People move around me leaving coloured vapour trails behind them; traces of who they are and where they’ve been, of broken lines and unfinished thoughts, empty space and whispered silence. We can’t hear each other speaking.
Meet me on the bench around the corner and we’ll watch people go by with ice cream and chocolate slices.
I’m getting ahead (of myself). I don’t know if this is for keeps. I can’t be sure if I’m this person but that’s normal, right? Perfectly incomplete in uncertainty: a healthy response to this place I find myself treading water, trying to keep my head above the crashing waves, but then nobody said it should be easy; no one said I’d be happy like this or any other way. No one said anything to me or if they did, I wasn’t listening. I was off making mistakes for myself, all my own creation. I’m happy not knowing what comes next.
I’m struggling to find a good place to start. I keep playing out arguments in my head before they’ve even started. Most won’t start; they’ll only ever exist in my head. Arguments where I’m defending myself against something I’ve done wrong – a poor decision; a comment I should have kept to myself. Arguments where I’ve done nothing wrong but seem to have wound up defending myself anyway. Arguments about stupid things like who drank the orange juice and arguments about bigger things like who to love and how much. My head feels like a tiny pond full of giant fish.
He always described you as a self-destructive soul, ‘here for a good time not a long time.’ You’re tiny and falling off tables with your hands in the air means you’ll break teeth. Leopard print leggings and a shock of black hair cropped up like a mohawk, you opened my eyes to Portishead and we played it on repeat ‘til morning. We always fell back to that first meeting; never progressed much further but that was fine, we knew it would never amount to anything. It was disposable and we threw it away a long time ago. Tiny wandering star.
Those tiny words stopped me in my tracks and knocked everything out of my head. Lists I was compiling against my will; work that needed to be done, things that needed to be said. It all left me then. Left me staring up at the digital display – next train arriving in one minute – staring and stumbling over words I didn’t need to form. Staring and smiling into space. I felt my heart. It wasn’t doing anything it hadn’t done a million times before but I was conscious of this beat, feeling it glowing in my chest, coughing out the dust.
I form stories in my head: moral tales that end with a lesson of one kind or another. They involve me in hypothetical narratives – usually a disaster of some description – where I’m tested to see if I pull through to the other side. In reality of course, those tales wouldn’t be about me at all – how I’d survive the death of a loved one – It would be the end of me, I suspect. You’re ill, probably nothing at all but you made the plot of my latest horror story. But I control the endings, so: they lived happily ever after.
Clown-like coward: he’s juggling lots of balls. He drops a few of the smaller ones but nobody notices much, they’re waiting on the giant flaming torches spinning through the air; waiting to see if they’ll come tumbling down around his feet. He knows he’s lost already, the smallest ones sit like marbles catching his eye with every revolution; taunting him for letting them fall from his grasp. They roll in lonely circles winking at each other, whispering conspiracies. His arms ache, his fingers blister and burn but still he keeps on throwing; balancing the world with a ball or two.
This song has transported me back somewhere I can’t quite trace. To a memory or imagined memory of a coffee or glass of wine, cocktail – no, I can smell coffee – coffee in a café somewhere I loved. I was probably alone with a book or newspaper reading the same sentence over or trying to finish the crossword. Catching glimpses of other people drinking coffee and unconsciously finishing their stories: where they’ve been, where they’re going, how they’d look in bed; the usual stuff that makes for bedtime reading. The coffee is cold and it’s time to leave.
You’re here now.
Occasionally, it all gets too much: too busy, too loud, too frantic, too many people running around performing to each other being oppressive and indulgent and it drives me inside myself away from all the shrieking and mindless laughter; away from private jokes and public announcements, from stilted formalities and expectations, giggling girls and brawling boys, angst, tears and barbed sarcasm; away from the world I love so full of things I loathe and find so false. Occasionally, I know I have to get away or I’ll break something. Some time alone to come back again and love it all.
If I give you the start does it alter the end? Have I thrown you with a question? You were expecting something else perhaps; something more… definite. A statement with bold lines and reassuring punctuation. Would that make you feel better? Would it make you feel anything at all? If I give you the start do you look for the end? Following the tiny thread to its feeble fraying finish. I can’t see the end this time and I have no intention of going looking for it. I’m enjoying the journey, and the view on the way, far too much.
He’s got a sensitive soul wrapped up warm with a knitted vest and bicycle clips to prevent it falling out the bottom of his trousers. He speaks his mind quietly, jaw set, continuously looking over his shoulder. Everything he says has been clearly thought out, written in his own words beforehand. He shares these personal revelations with a sincere gaze that dissolves into uncontrolled laughter. The head rocks back and the thigh is slapped like a careful old man at a chessboard. He puts a cigarette to his lips and rolls his eyes slightly before collapsing into smoky laughter again.
Bedtime stories for a drifting sleeper.
Tales of Davidoff, the wise old fellow with the portly paunch and pitch-black hair flecked with night-time constellations, rocking back and forth on the hollowed stump of the tallest tree on the highest hill in the village, gazing up from dusk ‘til dawn to find out where the stars sleep. Red-eyed and blinking back morning, he’d rise from his perch with a booming laugh, wagging his finger up at the sky, for try as he might, he couldn’t catch those sleeping stars as they sauntered off in the sunlight. He was looking too high.
The Tip Jar