archipelago

too many islands

 

 

 

 

Prison suited Smith. He felt at home. He felt persecuted. It was just as he always imagined.

 

Apart from the noise. It was noisy. And the bustle. And the temperature. And the smell. Smith had never imagined that smell. Nor the hunger. But of course he would be hungry. It was a punishment. And he hadn’t eaten since this morning. But Smith’s deeply ingrained sense that he was right was sharper than ever. He was right, and that was his great comfort in these trying times.

 

Not that there was anything particularly trying about sitting still in a concrete walled cell (There were three walls of concrete, the wall he faced was in fact a wall of metal bars, just as you’d expect to find in a police detention cell.). It could have been boring though. It would have been unbearable if you were the kind of person who couldn’t bear it. It could have been awful. It could have been too much. It could have been it. That’s it. No more. But Smith wasn’t unduly perturbed. As always, he had his thoughts to occupy him, so many thoughts: the shape of a fish, the size of a square mile, his mother’s wrists, the capital of Mexico, the colour and rhythmic movement of water in the ship canal, the eyes of a shark, the sound of a gun shot in the movies, the texture of freshly cut wood, the time it takes to walk to the city centre, the number of players on a rugby team, the way a penguin walks, the colour of her hair, the summer solstice, a table and six chairs, the longest river in the world, the number of dogs in the city, the colour yellow, baseball caps, the shape of newspaper articles, illuminated windows, plastic bags, Venetian blinds, the number of prepositions, medium wave signals, glass place mats, four yucca plants, digestive biscuits, magnolia paint, the amount of bubbles in a pint of larger, newspaper print, light bulbs, silver cars and the number forty-four.

 

Also there were his more abstract thoughts, which intermingled with these concrete thoughts: the essence of existence, the soul of a bird, the nature of morality, the good life, beauty, the square root of twenty four, the meaning of a word, truth, free will, fatalism, evil, determinism, survival of the fittest, perfection, time, nature, the universe, life, the beginning, god, zero, the peak of perfection, gravity, heterodoxy, electromagnetism, fundamentalism, longitude, singularity, monotheism, insight, twenty-three degrees, infinity, death, addiction and the ineluctable modality of the visible.

 

Did any of these thoughts, either concrete or abstracts, originate in his sensory experience of the jail cell? No.

 

The following were Smith’s sensory experiences over this time period: The clinking of something, the colour of naked concrete, the feeling of emptiness in his stomach, the indistinct shouting of a number of words, the manner in which the metal bars cut across his view of the fourth concrete wall running along the corridor, a series of loud bangs, the coldness of the air against his face, the sound of a door opening, it clanging shut, the eerie quality of the pale light, the flickering fluorescent light down the hallway, a faint mumbling from one or other of the cells to his right, an indistinct whispering from the left, the almost audible words now being whispered, the word “you”, the words “yes you”, the sight of a thin hand extended out from the where the bars at the front of his cell left a two inch gap with the concrete wall, the hand waving up and down, the sound of the words, harshly whispered: “Hey! What’s your name?” The thin hand turned upward as though lifting an invisible weight. The sound of a door opening and foot steps on the corridor. The hand disappearing. The appearance of a policeman, from the left, in profile. His disappearance, to the right. The sound of his footsteps continuing. Getting quieter. Getting louder. His reappearance, from the right. The sight of a policeman in profile. His disappearance to the right. The sound of his footsteps continuing. Getting quieter. The closing of the metal door with a bang. The appearance of a thin hand – its index finger pointing directly at him.

 

Twenty four metal bars, each two inches apart from the next, formed the furthest extent of his cell. Smith could look another six feet beyond them at the concrete wall at the other side of the corridor. The cell he was in was square, roughly six feet by six feet. There was a concrete shelf attached to the concrete wall opposite the bars. It wasn’t clear, from the distance Smith was looking, six feet, and because of the dim light, where the bars became the door he had been pushed through three hours before. Smith now doubted the existence of this door.

 

Just as Smith’s thoughts were acquiring this level of coherence, the thin hand appeared again and disrupted his thought process. The thin hand was accompanied by the whispered words “Get over here.” When accompanied by the idea of decay, the recollection of his phone number, the image of the back of his father’s neck and a faint feeling of jubilation, these sensory experiences failed to bed down into Smith’s understanding of the world. With the words “Quick.” and “I’ve got something for you.” also whispered, but with a greater sense of urgency, and with much more force, such that the words were no longer really whispered, but spat out exclamations, Smith reacted as though by reflex, stood up and approached the thin hand.

 

It was empty.

 

It was only when Oscar collected him from the police station early the next morning that Smith began to see how all of these seemingly unrelated memories, ideas, sensory impressions and feelings were related.

 

He told Oscar about the empty hand and the pointing finger.

 

“An empty hand, eh?” Oscar nodded. “And a pointing finger as well?”

 

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Smith dared to ask.

 

“Yes,” Oscar dared to reply. “Yes,” he repeated with more certainty. “Yes. Yes I am. I’m thinking just that.”

 

“What?”

 

“What you’re thinking… I’m thinking just what you’re thinking. You’re right. Whatever you’re thinking. Your idea. Your theory. I think you’re right. It couldn’t be anything else.”

 

Buoyed by having such confidence placed in him, at least buoyed to his normal levels of self-confidence, total confidence in his every idea, assumption and theory, his normal state of unconditional self-assurance, complete absence of self-doubt, absolute faith in his perception of the world, an inviolable picture which could never be tainted by misunderstanding or distortions borne of a faulty or incomplete perspective, so essentially buoyed, buoyed up, up high, crest of a wave, top of his game, up high looking down – Smith put into words the theory which had been coalescing in his mind over the last few hours:

 

“It’s him… the man with the… that man… he’s at the heart of this. It was his hand, his pointing finger, his voice whispering to me, trying to get to me, misdirecting me. The man who looks at clouds. The man who locked us in that room. Who escaped. It’s him. Of course it’s him. It has to be.”

 

“Yes,” Oscar almost shouted out. “It’s him.”

automaton

…it’s human nature

 

 

 

 

What else could Helen do?

 

Nothing. Helen could do nothing else but do what Helen would do, should do, could only do, must do, is about to do, is doing right now.

 

There she is, doing what she had to do. This would be a great comfort to her, if her thoughts were to lead this way, towards self-doubt, seeking absolution of blame, seeking relief from the moral quandaries which can and do plague us. But not Helen. To be caught up in her own nature and have no choice but to do what her nature dictated, was a not welcome break from having to think about what she should, might or could possibly do. Helen just did. Helen was. Helen is. Helen must.

 

And what must Helen do?

 

Helen had little choice but to jumble up the newspaper’s central filing system.

 

“Don’t we keep computer records?” Helen had asked earlier that day.

 

“Of course. But we need to know where certain pieces of paper are. Pieces of paper are still what we always go back to. They’re the beginning and end.”

 

Randomly pulling out files from the beginning of the alphabet, Helen restored them to shelves at the other end of the room. As she busied herself with placing files from “c” into “s” and files from “f” into “r”, Helen realised that she was following a recognisable pattern. If she was to continue in this manner for the next ten or twenty years, she would merely reverse the alphabet. So she altered the manner in which she was proceeding, placing some “b” files in “a” and “s” files in “t”. Of course, she changed the labels of the files, so that the files could not be located. There would be no beginning, nor would there be an end.

 

The filing clerk would have to be fired. There was nothing else for it.

 

Helen might be the slave of her own nature, but she was also the master of the fate of someone else.

 

The filing clerk was a fairly nice, harmless, inoffensive young man. The type of young man you could not find it in you to dislike, let alone hate. This bothered Helen. It bothered her to such a degree that she found herself hating the filing clerk – which was convenient, though not essential. Helen didn’t have to persuade herself of the evil inherent in the filing clerk. She didn’t convince herself. She was just convinced.

 

“Do you have anything that needs filing?” he asked every morning, an innocent and polite smile colouring his features.

 

Helen nourished her hatred of him.

 

“I couldn’t find that file on the Murphy story,” he told her one afternoon. “Are you sure it was filed?”

 

Helen relished the control she had of his fate.

 

What would happen to this inoffensive and jolly young man upon being fired was of as much interest to Helen as what happened to him when he left work every evening. It wasn’t that she didn’t care; it was just that she wasn’t aware of his having an existence at either end of her awareness of him.

 

“I had one hell of a crazy night last night,” he stated one morning.

 

Helen could only look at him with a puzzled face. She didn’t understand what he could mean.

 

But Helen was at the same time a keen observer of her fellow man. She spent nearly fifteen minutes watching him go about his business in the office yesterday. He spoke at length to nearly everybody, speaking longer to the young women than to the men, spending longer with the more junior staff, seeming to be a little wary of older and more senior members of staff – as you’d expect. Helen, as a keen observer of her fellow man, expected this.

 

When he wasn’t speaking to anyone, and paused in his work, hovering between one menial task and another, he let his eyes rest on the features of one or two particular young women. He seemed mostly absorbed by their breasts. Helen noted this.

 

Helen prided herself on her awareness of other people, despite the fact that it was almost non-existent. She treasured the fact that she had unearthed about the young filing clerk – he was an admirer of young women’s breasts. And Helen had breasts. A plan slowly formed in her mind.

 

“I can’t find that file,” he said to a reporter from sport yesterday morning. It was becoming his regular refrain. Becoming more and more frustrated with the missing files and with his inability to meet basic requests for files, the filing clerk seemed to be a little on edge – which was duly noted by Helen: he liked young women’s breasts and he was a little on edge.

 

“Perhaps I could help you find that file.” Helen startled him as he sat alone amongst the shelves of the filing room, lost amongst his thoughts. Helen had a good idea of what was occupying those thoughts.

 

He didn’t have the wherewithal to respond, especially as her breasts were almost touching his face.

 

“The file I requested this morning,” Helen added.

 

“The file?”

 

Helen bent down slightly and arched her back. “The Winton file.” Helen couldn’t repress a little titter. She had no choice.

 

He looked flustered. He eventually caught her eye, but wasn’t sure what to make of the manner in which she was looking at him. The look of confusion, stained slightly by fear, was noted by Helen. She had noted so many things about this young man. She now had as full a picture of him in her head as she was ever likely to get. This was the peak of her understanding of him. He was more real to her now than he ever was or would be.

 

“What’s wrong?” Helen adopted the soft tone and troubled appearance of someone who was genuinely concerned, at least she thought she did.

 

The young filing clerk told her everything. However, after half an hour, Helen had forgotten the majority of his everything. But she retained the fact that he had just been spurned in love. Of course, there was also the fact that he was frustrated by his job: files kept going missing and everyone took it out on him. “Who else could be to blame?” Helen had asked him. It was at this point he walked quickly from the room, tears clearly collecting in his eyes.

 

Helen could have acted out of compassion at this point, but that wasn’t in her nature. Not that she even considered it – acting out of compassion. Nor did she, at this point, consider her nature. Nor did she consider any alternative to what she was about to do.

 

When the office had emptied out that evening Helen went from desk to desk, taking files which had been left out for filing the next morning. She was careful to take files at random, making sure that there was no pattern to her actions. Also, she took no files from the desks of the most junior reporters and staff, whose desks ran along a glass wall beneath the sweep of the close circuit cameras. Having collected as many files as she could comfortably carry, Helen made her way to the filing room at the back of the office. Intent on acting quickly, Helen fell over the outstretched legs of the filing clerk as soon as she entered the room. The files she was carrying spread across the floor.

 

Getting quickly to his feet, the young man was almost all apologies, but he couldn’t get out a single word. Helen was about to explain what she was doing, when she noticed that the filing room was in quite a bit of disarray. There were files spilt onto the floor all the way down the main corridor. There was a pile of files thrown into the far corner. The whole of the “r” section was spilled onto the floor.

 

“Don’t say anything,” were the only words the young filing clerk could manage.

 

Helen had no choice.

alas

pity, grief, distress, concern, disquiet, misery, unhappiness and/or disappointment being given voice to

 

 

 

“This is Barry,” Smith said. “You’ll be seeing a lot of him from here on in.”

 

Barry smiled up at Oscar.

 

But Oscar could only return a look of confusion. “From here on in to what?”

 

Oscar did try to vary how he looked on the world, and he really did try to avoid this particular look of confusion, because he wasn’t confused. Not at all.

 

“Please excuse this look of confusion – it’s not that I’m at all confused by this Barry person.” Oscar finally smiled down at him. “How are things Barry?”

 

Barry looked to Smith before he replied. On receiving a nod of assent, he mumbled something about being alright.

 

“He prefers the name Baz actually,” Smith said. He had adopted a tone which Oscar had heard before, a tone which made him wary of what Smith was saying, knowing that these were words which meant something to Smith, words with consequences hanging off them. This was the particular tone of voice, Oscar was sure, which preceded particularly fraught and momentous events.

 

But by now, owing to these reflections which absented him from the world in which Smith was putting forth, in which his voice was resonating, rising and falling, Oscar had lost his thread

 

“…because it’s more proletarian, isn’t it? Baz? Than Barry? Barry has a ring of… Well, a ring of something else. And Little Baz here is a proletarian, aren’t you Baz.”

 

The child beamed. “I am. I’m a proletarian.”

 

He must have been nine or ten years of age, maybe more if he had suffered malnutrition in his life, which was entirely possible. Because you just don’t know these days. Or any days in fact. You don’t know about anything, which didn’t mean you didn’t know anything. It’s just, well, you can’t discount anything – Baz here could have suffered from malnutrition in the past, or be suffering from it right now – it was a distinct possibility. Distinct, if no more probable than not.

 

“I’m the original noble proletarian,” Little Baz pronounced.

 

“Like the noble savage,” Smith said by way of an explanation.

 

Little Baz was all of a sudden on the brink of tears. His sniffling drew both Smith and Oscar’s gaze back down to his face.

 

“You said I wasn’t no savage,” he got out between rather weak sobs. “You said.”

 

“Indeed I did, Baz.” Smith looked genuinely pained. “Indeed I did. Terribly sorry to bring all this up again. It’ll not happen again. Because I have nothing but respect for my proletarian brothers. Let me assure you of that, Little Baz. Nothing but respect.”

 

“And for savages?” Oscar inquired.

 

Smith was quick to shake his head disapprovingly at Oscar, and then shape his lips into a few harsh words of warning, words that he had rather little Baz not hear, and words which, consequently, no one would hear.

 

But Oscar didn’t feel obliged to watch what he said as far as this Little Baz was concerned; he would speak as he chose within his hearing, within the hearing of a little child of no consequence. But… He looked from Little Baz to Smith and back again, just to be sure, trying to fit everything together, just in case, before he could say something about it. Because something had to be said. He began to say one thing and then another, but didn’t quite know what to say. What was this, this… what had he here before him? What strange convolution of the world had he found himself wound into such that proletarian little boys suffering from malnutrition were being hoisted upon his consciousness?

 

“We are embarking…” Smith was trying to say something to preclude the possibility of Oscar saying anything, what would inevitably be the wrong thing. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re embarking on a journey, a programme of study… Yet, it’s also an investigation, or maybe more of an experiment…

 

“What?”

 

“Are you a proletarian?” Little Baz had suddenly acquired the look of some innocent who might feature in a knitwear catalogue.

 

Oscar didn’t think he could say that he was.

 

“Is this man not a proletarian?”

 

The boy’s tone of voice had now risen into a deeply irritating childish whine. He might have been about to cry. At least, he was succeeding in making Oscar feel that he had done something wrong, something to incur the boy’s displeasure, such as stealing candy from him or tripping him up, or some such reprehensible act.

 

“Focus Little Baz. Focus.” Smith got down on his haunches to the child’s level. “Tell yourself your story Little Baz. Remember your story.”

 

And the boy was transfixed. A preternatural calm over came him, a state in which his gaze seemed to catch out some figure in the near distance, something which wasn’t there – Oscar turned to look just to make sure – and became entranced by that figure and its rhythmic movements through the ether.

 

“What have you done to this child?” Oscar wasn’t particularly worried. Was this now a genuine confusion that he felt?

 

“This kid’s got a story.” Smith smiled down on his little friend. “It just needed pointing out to him, and I was on hand.”

 

“Of course. I understand now.”

 

“It was yesterday morning, was that a Tuesday? I think it was a Tuesday. At Stretford Mall. Beneath the brass sculpture of the humming bird. There he was. He was stood amongst a throng. He was lost. He was no one. But what happened next marked him out and began a story that needed to be told.”

 

“I’ve not been to Stretford Mall for ages.”

 

“There was, for some reason, though I don’t believe in fate, nor the possibility of any kind of divine intervention…” Smith cast a nervous glance over his shoulder before he could continue. “…there was an unnatural calm, a strange quiet which had descended over the little world made up of the intersection of those two indoor avenues of shops. It was the quiet which struck me, as it must have done many of the others who had been there. And out of that quiet came the beginning of the story – an old man, a pensioner wheeling along one of those little trolley things that pensioners always wheel along. And then it happened – the poor man was rent asunder. Such that a moment later he was splayed across the ground, lying on his back, a look of horror marking his features. And his tins of beans – tins of beans Oscar – can you credit that. Oh, those tins of beans. If ever there was a better symbol for the working, striving, honest human being… tin upon tin of economy beans in tomato sauce rolling along that dirty floor.”

 

“Economy beans.”

 

“Now – this was the moment. Because there comes a time, not a time that’s orchestrated by the gods, or assigned by fate, but it comes, if we wait long enough it comes, and here it came to this group of scallywags standing on the benches beneath that brass humming bird sculpture. It was a moment to test them.”

 

The boy was in a daze, caught by the words that Smith was uttering, or still entranced by that non-existent figure a few yards away.

 

“Now some of us might refer to Greek Gods or Lord Jim or some such bourgeoisie learning…” Smith tutted derisively. “But this is knowledge as a barrier Oscar, a barrier rather than knowledge which enables our fellow men – but no, there’s no need for such literary references. Because there stood Little Baz, regardless of literary precursors, ignorant of any Icarus or Aphrodite, there he stood, stood tall, amongst his little friends, all bellowing in unison at this old man’s predicament, there he stood, and though he was no taller, measuring only some four feet as you can see, no taller than any of his friends, even probably smaller, there he stood, and he was standing tall. He was taller by a foot at that moment. He stood tall and he said: “Do not laugh!” Just like that. That’s what he said.”

 

“Do not laugh,” Little Baz now repeated, his eyes still unfocused, his head now swaying from side to side.

 

“That,” Smith concluded, “was the cry of a proletarian hero. That was the beginning of an inspiring story.”

 

cramp

…a sharp pain consequent of over-exertion or over-speculating or over-whelming     

Helen was in control. She rolled the heavy grey ball of the mouse from one side of desk to the other. This was important to her. To feel in control. Because that’s all being in control was – feeling in control. It was a feeling. A sense. Knowing. How you feel about things happening around you. Knowing that you’re in control. And feeling out of control? – well, that would be disastrous. Helen felt a sharp pain in her stomach.

 

The little ball rebounded from her coffee cup into her hand. The very thought of her having no control over what was happening to her, the thought of her control being undermined by all those other people or processes beyond her control, the idea that it didn’t matter what she did, that whatever she did, no matter what, the outcome would be the same, that there was nothing she could do – such a thought was an anathema to Helen. She always caught the little grey mouse ball just as it was about to roll off the desk.

 

Helen had to be in control, so Helen just worked out what was going to happen, what would have happened regardless of her exertions, and accepted it. Not that she just accepted it; she actually sought it out. Not that she sat around and worked things out; she didn’t go through every possible permutation and calculate the odds, the likelihood of Jimmy the Nod tripping over her foot and falling down the emergency stairs, breaking both his legs so badly that he was confined to a wheelchair for six months, the likelihood of The Chief having a fetish for skin tight rubber and studded collars, the likelihood of the two women working at the main reception spreading the most awful rumours about her, the likelihood of her never discovering the specifics of those rumours… there was never any kind of calm and sustained deliberation on any of these subjects. There was no conscious calculation. No consideration of external influences, the impossibility of overestimating the depths to which other people would sink, the grubby meanderings towards one or other sexual perversion… none of this went on. Helen just knew. She knew how the world worked and she cut her expectations according to it. She was neither hopeful nor hopeless. She was neither realistic nor pessimistic. She strove towards the inevitable with a laudable tenacity.

 

Not only did she accept the inevitable, but she christened it as her goal and she worked towards it. Though this wasn’t fatalism. It wasn’t resignation. It was a way of engaging with the world, of dealing with the world, with the chaos of events and people, whilst retaining a modicum of self respect, as well as a raft of other feelings such as self-worth, pride, arrogance, vanity, confidence, smugness, self-centredness and some other-nesses for which there are no names. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t this. It just was. It is.

 

That Oscar’s love for her had dissolved into nothingness had now taken on the appearance of inevitability, the way that things which have happened tend to do. What could be more inevitable than something which had already happened? Surely such things were the most inevitable. More inevitable than all the cars passing by on the street below, or the sun setting, or those people who die everyday on the other side of the world. She had once played with the thought of Oscar falling in love with her. She had been certain. But looking back on it now, considering how things had turned out, Helen felt the warm glow of having done the right thing – pointing Oscar in another direction, dissuading him. So even though she had seduced him, even though she had devised a plan and put that plan into action to get Oscar to fall in love with her, she could now smile at the way things had turned out, nod her head at the inevitability of things, and smile at getting her own way, and smile. Just smile.

 

Considering that Oscar’s efforts, whatever he might be working towards, would come to nothing, just as her seduction of him had come to nothing, that both were a foregone conclusion, each as foregone as the other, each as inevitable as the already-happened, Helen would commit herself to working towards undermining Oscar’s efforts, ensuring that his ultimate goal, whatever that might be, would be unrealised. His seemingly genuine intention to engage with the world as a normal human being would not be realised. That failure would be ably assisted by Helen. Though that failure needed no assistance (it was inevitable), Helen still looked forward to the moment when she could taste success.

 

That taste of success was sharpest when she reported to The Chief over a lunch of thin sandwiches at his desk on the malicious scheme Oscar had been maliciously scheming, to ruin the newspaper by getting grossly inappropriate news articles into print.

 

That evening, the office emptied to a quiet hum, Jimmy the Nod was sat in his wheelchair at the back of the office, next to the stationary cupboard, almost hidden by a metre high stack of files awaiting his attention. On seeing him lurking there, Helen realised that he would be a participant in her demise. Managing to look over his shoulder, hidden behind the open door of the stationary cupboard, Helen saw the file he was holding – the file of Bill Simmons, or Tommy Kilpatrick, or the man she had no choice but to love, or the man who Smith was obsessed with, or the man that Henry was afraid of, or the man that Oscar was writing about, or the man whose picture Jimmy the Nod was chuckling at. As well as chuckling, Jimmy the Nod was making indecipherable notes on a scrap of paper. Other scraps of paper, carefully laid out on his lap on top of other files, were covered with intricate diagrams, tables, graphs, curious sketches and maps. Helen knew that Jimmy the Nod would get his revenge on her.

 

As well as Oscar’s failure being assured, so too was hers. Therefore Helen had to prove to herself her own connivance in it. It would be unthinkable for her to be fired for a reason either beyond her control or outside of her knowledge. Her incompetence must be a studied incompetence. Her failure must be deliberate and carefully thought out. What better way to gain control over the vagaries of the world and the people in it, than to choreograph your own failure. So this is what Helen had decided to do, after a negligible string of if-then-and-therefores, less than a moment’s reflection and little more thought than made up the shape of the conclusion: I will perform the final scene in this tragedy with great assurance.

 

The Chief was stood smiling at his office door when Helen sat back at her desk. She could leave in fifteen minutes. She would have to, she realised at that moment, there was no other choice, it was inevitable, she must devise her own catastrophic failure such that it dragged The Chief down, and Oscar too, and everybody else, whoever she could drag down with her. It would be a catastrophe. It would be worthy of her starring role. And Jimmy the Nod too. A wheelchair would feature in the final scene. A scene in which she was undone. A scene in which she finally met the man she could not stop thinking about. It would be perfect. It would be just what she always wanted, whatever it was that happened. Everything was perfect. But then Helen felt a pang. A pang of conscience perhaps, guilt, remorse, shame… a pang of something. But it passed.

sublime

…above us only stars

 

 

 

 

 

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” Henry went on, continuing a conversation of which he felt to be an integral part.

 

However, everyone else had stopped behind Smith, who was struggling with the pink plastic canoe, but eventually got it up onto his shoulder, the paddle in one hand, his other hand clutching at the air for balance.

 

Smith now walked with a purpose of someone who was unlikely to lose his head, despite whatever might be happening around his head or whatever might be happening inside his head. With single-minded determination he lugged the plastic canoe across the three lanes of stalled traffic, one end of it scraping along the footpath once it had slid off his shoulder again. This was with the same single-minded determination with which Smith did everything, brushing his teeth, stirring his tea, scratching his head, pushing the plastic canoe into number 25 Railway Street that morning, knocking over two cups of cold black coffee, waking everyone up, eating two bowls of bran flakes, tearing curtains from windows and tugging dust laden Venetian blinds up and away, getting everyone out into the back garden and delivering a sermon, one foot on an upturned mop bucket – “If you can dream,” he began. He ended with the same single-minded determination, rounding his speech off with “meet with triumph.”

 

And so they were off: Oscar, Smith, Henry and Helen, off to launch Smith in his small pink plastic canoe on the Ship canal, a plastic canoe with none of the properties one would expect of a ship-canal going vessel. The likelihood of disaster was what spurred them all on, apart from Smith, who would have been determined to make his dreams a reality, were he ever to distinguish between the two in the first place.

 

“It’s pretty choppy,” Helen said, when they reached the waterfront. The water slapped at the slime covered bricks several feet below them.

 

“It’s two miles into town,” Oscar told Smith, adopting the tone of someone who knew what he was talking about, though not feeling at all the impostor. “That’s a stretch for one man in a canoe. Do you think you’ll make it?”

 

Smith, who never had the least intention of making it all the way into town, now confirmed that he could, that he would, and that he wouldn’t stop until he got there.

 

“I’ll bet twenty you never make it,” Helen said.

 

“I’m in for some of that,” Henry added.

 

“Me too,” Oscar added.

 

Considering these offers for the briefest of moments, before accepting them with no thought to anything other than making a heap of all his winnings, having transformed three twenty pound notes into a glowing mass of gold coins, Smith rubbed his hands together and nudged the canoe towards the six foot drop into the canal.

 

“I’ve tried this before at the water sports centre,” Smith said. “But they weren’t having it. I’m afraid an illegal entry is my only option. The water was higher the last time I was here though.”

 

“Tides,” Henry said.

 

“Canals don’t have tides,” Helen said, though she didn’t adopt the demeanour or stance or look or anything else of someone who was about to debate anything, let alone whether canals have tides; she looked more like someone who had no awareness of canals, of tides, of Henry or of the words twittering around and about her. It was as though she was dredging up long forgotten words up from a distant and painful past, and coincidentally these words coincided with a conversation which was taking place near by.

 

“Where do you think this canal goes?” Henry asked, his questioning glare sweeping the three stood in front of him as though they were his students. Anyone? Anyone? “This is a Ship Canal. It’s little more than a river. It’s a man made river. Up to two hundred feet across. Built for the big ships of the time. Big ships. Huge. Sailing down this river. And where do rivers go?”

 

There was no answer from his class, who all stood there with looks of varying levels of disinterest.

 

“The sea. Rivers flow into the sea. The sea has tides. The water goes up and down. Waves. That’s what waves are. Water pushing itself up the beach and estuary. That water pushes the river water up and down. Up and down. The water in the Ship canal goes up and town. It’s tidal.”

 

The canoe was in the water and Smith was climbing down the ladder to the water by the time Henry had rounded off his lesson with a self satisfied grin.

 

Smith was putting his heart, his every nerve and sinew, into this enterprise though he had yet to cast off, yet to get into the canoe. He could barely keep the canoe in reach with the paddle. When he next managed to pull it near he lunged for it. Then there was a drawn out period of action, struggle, and failure. Pitch and toss. Smith starting again at his beginnings. Breathing heavy words about his loss. Holding on when there’s nothing in him. Except the will. Will. That’s all he had. And it got him this far. As far as him straddling the canoe two yards away from the paddle. The paddle was all too soon three yards, four yards away from him. It was, everyone present would freely admit, floating away from him.

 

“Tides,” Henry said, looking down at the scene as it unfolded. “Where does that current come from if not from tides?”

 

“It’s gravity you idiot,” Oscar said. “Rivers flow down hill.”

 

“It’s a canal,” Helen said. “Canals don’t flow. They’re flat.”

 

“It’s a ship canal,” Henry said. “That’s a whole different ball game.”

 

Smith paddled with his hands in order to steer the canoe about and make his way towards the paddle.

 

“Hold on,” Helen offered by way of advice.

 

“Don’t sink it.” Henry had advice to offer too.

 

“Use you legs,” Oscar offered. “Splash with your legs.”

 

There was little chance of Smith catching up with the paddle, which was by now picking up speed.

 

“The unforgiving minute,” Henry said.

 

“Town’s the other way,” Helen said.

 

“You’ve got to go up hill,” Oscar said.

 

“Against the current,” Henry said. He could sympathise with that – swimming against the current. “Like a salmon.”

 

“Like a salmon,” Oscar said. “Like a salmon.”

 

Helen joined in with the call for Smith to emulate a salmon, but their was little chance of his succeeding in such, what with him straddling a pink plastic canoe, his feet in the water, his hands desperately slapping at the water’s surface, and his paddle floating further away.

 

“Yours is the earth…” Henry shouted after him “…and everything that’s in it.”

 

Oscar and Helen nodded their agreement. Smith had paddled himself into a current and was about to be taken somewhere.

throng

…everyone, everything and everything else

 

 

 

 

 

The gap left in the world, a hole, a hole so big it was gaping, a gaping hole, a hole just stood there gaping at Smith, like it was asking something of him, demanding something, this hole, like all holes do, because that’s all they are, things missing, gaps, nothing, you’re being gaped at by this nothing, this swelling black nothing staring at you, goading you. It was a glaring omission which could only have lasted for a few moments. Maybe a week. Depends on the weather. The season. What’s on telly. A quiet news week. Turn to page nineteen.

 

But gaps get filled in, invariably. Some gaps, really big gaps, those which gape, which are holes, which are glaring, they get filled in all the quicker. Because that’s gravity. That’s how it works. It fills holes. That’s why there are so few holes. Apart from the grand canyon. And it’s only a matter of time before that gets filled in. Erosion. Because by the end of the world the world will be flat, completely flat. A sphere. A flat sphere. Smooth. There’ll be no river valleys, glacial valleys, undulating hills, mole hills or mountains. There won’t even be any rivers. All the rivers will be dried up. Everything will be a river. All the water and the earth would be mixed together in a perfect mix. Which won’t be a river. More like mud. Everything will be mud. Everything will be the same. So that’s why there would be no more gaps. That’s the way the world’s headed. Anyone could see that. But so much for the obvious. So much for mud.

 

It’s like the untimely death of Tommy Kilpatrick. It was untimely. It was a gap. It had to be filled. It’s like a law of physics, chemistry and biology. All three. And mathematics too. Pure mathematics. Not one plus two plus three, and taking away, and multiplication, nothing you can do on your fingers, but the mathematics of infinity and zeros, empty planes and clean lines, geometry, trigonometry, the number of numbers, primes numbers and negative numbers. Logic demands it too. As did Smith. You can’t have such glaring omissions walking around the place like they were people or things or something like that. It just wouldn’t do. Tommy Kilpatrick wasn’t all he was cracked up to be anyway. Not like he was the middle of the x- and y- axis. Bang in the middle. Alpha and omega. Just a mirage. Like ice-cream in the desert. Just because he’s dead in the boot of Smith’s car doesn’t mean that everything has come to some kind of end, like the world’s ended, or everything’s falling apart, or the wheels have come off. Because things never come to an end. Not until all the rivers and soil get mixed together in a perfect mixture. And that’s millennia away. It’ll take a couple of millennia just to fill up the grand canyon alone. Never minds all those other mountains. Rocks.

 

But at the same time Smith had to acknowledge that now he was struggling with his demons. And his car was out of petrol. And the boot wouldn’t lock. Never did. For as long as he knew. And maybe longer. That boot wouldn’t lock. Just wouldn’t. So he couldn’t hide anything away. Nothing. Not even the corpse of Mr T Kilpatrick which would be revealed to the world with the morning sun and by the faintest of breezes. Or a falling acorn would just be enough. And there you are. The dead man in his boot. A dead man. In a car boot. Which was just one of his many demons. But really it was just a dead man in his boot.

 

And there’s that schoolgirl standing at the corner of the road, half hidden by the overgrown hedging. The concrete manifestation of his demons. Standing there like it’s the middle of the day. But it’s the middle of the night. Well, it’s dark. The day’s over. Sun’s gone. Light’s gone. Darkness is everywhere. Like darkness was something that had location and extension and mass. A piece of darkness. And that other girl, also in a school uniform, though a very disorganised uniform, like it wasn’t a uniform at all. Her white shirt stark in the darkness. Like it was a light. And then another schoolgirl. And another. Like school was over. Or about to begin. Like it wasn’t night time at all. Like it wasn’t dark. Like they weren’t demons but school girls. Like being haunted by tins of sardines, jars of mayonnaise, tables and chairs.

 

And some of them walked down the hill to the white light of the supermarket. And Smith followed them. Because this was something. Because darkness was nothing and this was something. Of course, darkness only hides things. But now they were being revealed. Three cars sped past down the hill. The girls were shrieking like it was the middle of the day. Laughing. What were they all laughing at? And pushing each other into the bushes. Disappearing. And then out they’d come again. Like they had returned from a long journey in the darkness and they hugged their friends like they hadn’t seen them for days. Hadn’t seen them for months. Years. It had taken them years to traverse the darkness of the bushes and trees. And such things they saw. Things that only darkness can hide. Things you wouldn’t believe. Couldn’t put it into words. Isn’t the words. Couldn’t even begin.

 

The girls were swallowed up by the brightness of the supermarket. The colour of everything. That’s what supermarkets are. The colour of everything. Because this is a tale of exile and belonging. Smith was exiled. And this was where he belonged. The supermarket opened its arms and welcomed him down its aisles. Spaghetti. Long grain rice. Corn flakes. Magazines. Toilet paper. Bread. Biscuits. Milk. Birthday cards. It’s like everything means something if you look at it long enough. But it wasn’t his birthday for another two months. And the longer he looked at the chocolate sauce the more it means. It means everything. But he didn’t like chocolate sauce. Too sweet. Hurts the teeth. Like those little metal sugar balls. Put them on cakes. Decorations. Candles. Whole cubic feet of sponge cake. Could fill a whole room if the bubbles were large enough. Because that’s all sponge cake was. The air between the mixture. Ninety percent gaps. And ten percent mixture. Like bread. Complete rip off. Buying air most of the time. Like you can sell the air you breathe. Theoretically you can sell anything. People will buy anything. In theory. And people love air. Can’t get enough of it. As long as they don’t feel they’re getting a raw deal. Wouldn’t give a brass razoo for a raw deal. Impossibility of a socialist utopia. Uncooked bread has fewer bubbles in it. Less gaps. Then put it in the oven and there you go. Which is the location of the soul. Fresh air inside you. In between the gaps in your muscles. In between cells. And every atom is a hundred percent nothing anyway. Practically empty space. Electrons are more or less nothing. And protons are like mice in a corn field. Get killed by crows. Magpies. Owls at night. A cup of red bush tea would recharge your metaphysical batteries. Should open the box with the kettle in it. Tea’s on aisle seventeen. Never seen anyone sit down and have something to eat here. Like it’s a church. Or a railway line. With everyone’s eyes strafing the shelves. Wouldn’t look at you. Just bump into you. Knock you down. Trolleys pushing through the corn. Barley. Rye. No one would look you in the eye. Everyone has something to hide.

hysteria

when insanity becomes too much

 

 

 

 

 

Helen’s feet were sore after a long day. What a long day. It was very long. If you consider that it started so long ago, with her pushing Jimmy the Nod in his wheelchair up the hill to the school. That dirty, dishonest, crippled bastard. And that was first thing in the morning. Before the sun had even risen. Not properly anyway. The sun wasn’t sitting up in the sky. It was behind some bushes. Trees. And now she could still hear the sound of the wheels squeaking. The wheelchair squeaking. And the squeaks running into each other as the wheelchair picked up speed, rolling back down the hill, with the flailing arms and legs of Jimmy the Nod thrown out in every direction. And there wasn’t even a crash. He just disappeared. Around a bend. And then there was Tommy Kilpatrick. Though he wasn’t there. Couldn’t find him. Where was he? No sign of him. Unrequited love. Madness. A thorough search. You have to be thorough. Helen was thorough. Very thorough. But not thorough enough. Because her love was unrequited. A very long day.

 

And then there were all those girls running everywhere. And the trees. And the sun. When the sun was up in the sky. The day was bright. The grass was bright. And then it was dark. It was dark when Helen woke up a few minutes ago, having taken a nap, having fallen into some bushes, having given up. Having dreamed. Dreams and dreams. Such dreams she dreamt. She dreamt of such things. Such things she couldn’t name. You couldn’t imagine. Such things. Such things dreams are made of. Dreams of hundreds of school girls. Reporters everywhere. Chaos. Disaster. A monkey puzzle tree. The embrace of Tommy Kilpatrick. A final embrace. Requite.

 

But she hadn’t given up. Had she? No. She would never give up. No matter how long a day was. However long a day can be. Longer even. Not for her was giving up. The thought didn’t even occur to Helen. She could swear to it. She hadn’t given up. What had she given up? She would find that sinister man she had fallen in love with. She was after him. She was right behind him. In control. She felt like she was right behind him. Like he was around the next corner. He was always around the next corner. She could see him standing there, around the corner. Just stood there. That sinister smile. And now, because it was dark, he could have been standing twenty feet away and she wouldn’t have been able to see him, unless he was standing underneath one of the few street lamps. Though if he was in the bushes he could have been standing almost right next to her. The bastard. Right next to her. Helen lunged into the bushes. There he was. Somewhere. Nearby.

 

And there were so many bushes. How could there be so many bushes? He could have been standing in all of them. In every direction. And then there was all that space in the dark. Space she couldn’t even see. It was like it was never ending. It was like she was so small – she could almost see a picture of space, like it was something instead of nothing. Empty canvas. Darks canvas. And Helen was painting a picture on this canvass. Pictures. Hundreds of pictures. Picture after picture of Tommy Kilpatrick. Him just standing there. And pictures of other people too. Other people lurking. Just standing there. There were so many people. It was crowded. The darkness was swarming with these people. They were standing right up against each other. Leaning against each other. Their fingers in each other’s fingers. Filling every bit of the darkness. Until the darkness was full of a million pictures of other people.

 

But everything changed with the white brightness of the supermarket. Everything was illuminated. All the people had disappeared. The million people. And there was no sign of Tommy Kilpatrick. It was as though they had all shuffled behind parked cars, lamp posts and shelves of rice and pasta. Run away. But Helen was undeterred. Unrequited. She went forward. She had always been going forward. Ever since she came down the stairs this morning, yesterday morning, every morning. Forward. With the bang of the front door still in her ears. You had to bang it otherwise it wouldn’t shut. It would just swing open all day. It had often swung open all day. You had to give it a good bang.

 

And Helen hadn’t just found herself stumbling into the supermarket. Into the supermarket and there she was, reasons coming afterwards. Because this was just where she wanted to be. Where she had always been heading. All part of the plan. Here we are. Finally. The supermarket at one in the morning. Or whatever time it is. This was where things were always going to end. Between shelves of tins and cans and packets of crisps. Helen didn’t even pick up a trolley or basket. Didn’t need one. Wouldn’t think of taking one. She stumbled on into the aisles. There were many aisles. As many aisles as there were grains of sand on the beach. Clouds in the sky. Bushes in the darkness.

 

Each aisle extended into a distant distance. Far distant. Where another aisle began. And another. From every angle extended an infinity of aisles. Aisles of everything. There were hundreds of jars of pasta sauce closing in on her. Hundreds. There were ten different varieties. Eleven. Twelve. They were stacked five, six, seven deep. Five shelves. Both sides of the valley, all the way up the aisle. Pasta sauce. For all those people who eat pasta sauce. Pasta sauce with mushrooms. Mixed vegetables. With a subtle spice. Real virgin olive oil. A hint of the Indian Subcontinent. Green peppers. Onions. In two easy steps. Suitable for celiacs. May contain nuts. Lighter. Taste the difference. Twenty-three different varieties. Twenty-four. Stir in. Just add meat. Original recipe. Six varieties of tomatoes. Sun kissed tomatoes. Twelve tomatoes in every jar. Taste the tomatoes. Packed full of tomatoes. Chunky. Extra special. Full of Mediterranean goodness. Sunshine.

 

Helen had stacked two hundred on the floor as part of her scheme. It was all part of her plan. She had counted twenty-six varieties, including packets, tins, jars and tubs. And she hadn’t even begun to look at the other side of the aisle yet. Another world. There were twenty six stacks on the floor. The first and second shelves were half empty. The column of mushroom pasta sauce tottered and needed to be shored up. Helen found that she could lean it against the shelving. The packets had to be piled rather than stacked. The tins were the easiest to stack. Jars could only be stacked six high before tottering. Tottering. Helen hated tottering. Couldn’t abide it. Wouldn’t stand for it. A tower of eight jars tottered one last time. Three jars cracked releasing their sunshine goodness in a red gash across the dun white floor.

 

This was the first intimation that all was not going according to plan. Helen wavered. She was struck by doubt. Maybe. Just maybe she was in the wrong aisle. She could just make out the aisle of toiletries in the distance. They were bright. A white and glowing aisle of white and glowing shelves. Red and blue lines. Subtle pinks. Lighter blues. Extending in neat lines. Shelves. Straight lines following the aisle to the end. Where it ended on a black square of the night.