Monthly Archives: October 2007

A long intimacy

Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone.

– Henry Green

The face collector

There are hordes of people in this city, and many more faces. Formal stitched-up faces; faces worn in safe rooms, where they drop and fall into their natural folds; faces worn for too long, until they wear like old suitcases; smooth faces always quickly exchanged — even these I’m learning to respect.

I became a face collector out of boredom, almost out of malice. Most days I felt as if I’d been locked in a bare room. I slept badly.

All faces were masks to me then. I started with masks of authority: they were easy because they were blank or hard surfaces. With experience I made them crack and collected the tired or angry faces that emerged. At my worst I started in on the faces of my friends and family, pinpointing what I told myself were lines of weakness, amassing expressions like an anthropologist gathering totems from primitive tribes. Soon I’d assembled a mental gallery of frozen faces — nervous, prim, laughing, buffoonish — which I flicked through when I couldn’t sleep.

I stopped after I first had the dream. There were so many of them: they sat on a long bench in a park strewn with detritus. In the distance small stick-like figures were picking at the objects with long forks to no apparent purpose. I walked along the bench trying to find a way around it. They had all fallen forward into their hands. The ones I came close to sat up. I looked at the receding wave of cupped hands in horror, making a shuddering effort to stay with them, because I sensed the flayed heads that were waiting for me if I raised my gaze. I walked through the rubbish as quickly as I could, but the bench only stretched farther.

They're gutting this town

They’re gutting this town. A new corporation clad in steel and glass is moving in, buying up land and buildings, opening up the streets and making holes down to the underworld beneath our feet, where men in blue overalls are replacing the tangled old intestines, which not so long ago conveyed the future, with sleek new cables and pipes. All the corporation’s employees wear blue. The tradesmen wear blue overalls and the office workers wear blue suits and ties. The corporation has no logo. Instead, it has patented its own shade of silvery blue, which it has given its own name. Soon half the town will be the same colour. They’re tearing out the old shops’ entrails and wiping all their different faces off – from the sombre old jewellery facades to the smirks of hip young storefronts. On my street they’re demolishing a block of flats that was once appallingly modern, and today when the blue men climbed off their machines and swaggered home they left a wall that only last month was shared by four flats on either side. I can see it from my window now, with its patchwork of paint and wallpaper, even a mirror that still hangs from it; I can see it struggling to trace the shape of the structure it no longer occupies and to bear witness to the lives that have moved elsewhere. Old pipes stick out from its sides, dripping their last digestive juices onto the rubble below. Past afternoons still cling to it: the smoke and dinners of many years, the pinch of nails, the knocks of annoyed neighbours, the sweet smell of babies, the acrid smell of anxious schoolchildren, the pungent smell of the beds of adolescents… I’m waiting to see what form the new entrails, faces, juices and smells will take under their new coat of silvery blue and steel and glass. How will they ooze down through the new cracks, how will they assert themselves now, how will they outlast the image this time?


When we were young

From time to time we meet to measure our states of mind against one another. We’ve done this at least once a year for two decades no matter where in the world and how far apart we’ve been. No one else will do. It has to be us because we’re part of each other. When we were young we wanted to go to the dogs and drag each other down. After we moved apart we wanted to disappear in solitude. We’re bonded for good or ill and have to meet from time to time. One will contact the other. If we don’t meet we both feel we won’t know ourselves fully. When we were young we were stupid and we knew we were stupid. We knew we were callow and to make sure we knew it our elders told us over and over again. But we couldn’t help cringing at ourselves. We wanted to get older so we could benefit from our hard-won experience. And now that we’re growing older it’s as we knew it would be when we were younger. We look back on our younger selves and cringe and are thankful that we’ve grown older and can benefit from our hard-won experience. And as we look back on our youth our lives become fresher because we don’t see them from the point of view of a imagined future when we’ll be able to see them from a truer perspective. Our lives are newer just as we knew they would be. Now we can meet and laugh though not quite in the way that we imagined.

The vast night

Often I gazed at you in wonder: stood at the window begun
the day before, stood and gazed at you in wonder. As yet
the new city seemed forbidden to me, and the strange
unpersuadable landscape darkened as though
I didn’t exist. Even the nearest Things
didn’t care whether I understood them. The street
thrust itself up to the lamppost: I saw it was foreign.
Over there–a room, feelable, clear in the lamplight–,
I already took part; they noticed, and closed the shutters.
Stood. Then a child began crying. I knew what the mothers
all around, in the houses, were capable of–, and knew
the inconsolable origins of all tears.
Or a woman’s voice sang and reached a little beyond
expectation, or downstairs an old man let out
a cough that was full of reproach, as though his body were right
and the gentler world mistaken. And then the hour
struck–, but I counted too late, it tumbled on past me.–
Like a new boy at school, who is finally allowed to join in,
but he can’t reach the ball, is helpless at all the games
the others pursue with such ease, and he stands there staring
into the distance,–where–?: I stood there and suddenly
grasped that it was you: you were playing with me, grown-up
Night, and I gazed at you in wonder. Where the towers
were raging, where with averted fate
a city surrounded me, and indecipherable mountains
camped against me, and strangeness, in narrowing circles,
prowled around my randomly flickering emotions–:
it was then that in all your magnificence
you were not ashamed to know me. Your breath moved tenderly
over my face. And, spread across solemn distances,
your smile entered my heart.

– Rilke (trans. S. Mitchell)

She destroyed his image

She destroyed his image. She destroyed their friends’ images. She destroyed her own image. She was left with an empty room and a handful of holiday trinkets. She destroyed those too. She lay on a rug and fell into a deep dreamless sleep. She awoke the next day. She went outside and saw him walking down the street. It was high noon. The sun was strong and everyone else in the town stayed inside. They walked together for a while in the bleaching light.

He walked across the border

Luck was waiting for him when he walked across the border into a new country. Fear covered him like a cage. But the air there was cleaner, the strays were friendlier and the inhabitants didn’t look at him as though they were trying to see through his walls. They let him wander anywhere: in the square at high noon where he swelled with smugness; in the shadows of passageways where even his sins fell short of their mark. Because they looked at him with indifferent sympathy, because they questioned him out of a dead society, he asked to become their student. They told him that wasn’t the way it worked. But they let him stay. When he drank and pointed at them they let him shout. When he fought against the bottle they let him do it his way, though he fought drunk. When he refused even his own help they let him alone. When he accused them of spiritual theft and every other crime he could think of, they said, There’s nothing to steal here: everything’s already been given. The cage began to lift. He failed into their world and grew accustomed to their concept of mercy. They said that mercy must turn in on itself afresh every day. He learned for himself to draw open the curtain first thing in the morning. He learned not to mock what he saw outside his window. This was in another country where the laws that had crushed him didn’t apply, or where the same laws crushed him differently, so that he was crushed not by solitude but by mercy, and every noon, broken in his idleness, he went back to the square where he knew he’d be counted in. And every noon his initiation was complete.

An expedition to the Outer Zone

I was the one they chose to go to the Outer Zone beyond our part of the perimeter. To mark the occasion the Manager of Inner Zone 7.5 gave a pompous speech standing on a turned-over wheelie bin in front of the old supermarket whose supplies had been raided a decade ago. He called me ‘the foremost man of energy and intellect in IZ 7.5 and a loyal servant of the Inner Zones’, but I was far from it. I was simply the only one apart from the Manager himself who could write a report to the District Officer in the Old Language. The others clapped half-heartedly and returned to their rooms, eyes glazed with fatigue.

I took a bicycle and rode on the road until I reached the barbed-wire barriers, then walked through abandoned army outposts and around buildings submerged in toxic bogs. Eventually I came to a settlement protected by a makeshift wall. I walked up to a gate and was startled when a crowd of Carriers appeared, jostling to grip the bars and stare at me. They must have had watchers who saw me coming. I explained my purpose to the ones who looked like leaders. Amid much shouting and discussion, the crowd opened the gate and swarmed around me, handling my oxygen pack and groping my pockets and nostril tubes.

We called them Carriers, but all of us had been affected by the Illness in some way. Most of us had sore joints, pockmarks, weak lungs. We were all equally mired in selfishness, anger and fear, and in our need to drag as many of the others as we could down with us. We were all hungry. Distinctions between groups depended less on Zone designations (which were relative in any case: the Outer Zones’ designations were the reverse of ours) than on who had possession of the medical equipment. This changed from time to time after battles between factions formed by shifting, cryptic loyalties and fought with every possible implement: sticks and stones, curtain rods and hammers, and no one and nothing spared. But the medical supplies were dwindling and the Illness was making everyone weaker: a few more heavy battles involving several Zones and the End Days that were predicted with such tedious regularity would in fact be in sight for us all.

They led me roughly past blocks of flats beside a stream full of garbage and moulding furniture. Families were bathing in it, sharing bars of soap. Eventually we came to an old corporation building festooned with brightly coloured ribbons. I was led into the lobby. The walls were lined with wheezing officials dressed entirely in denim. At the end wall was a throne of sorts consisting of an armchair on a platform covered in bed sheets, on either side of which stood a brass lion. On the throne sat a tight-lipped old man dressed in a policeman’s uniform.

One of the officials walked over to me and whispered instructions in my ear. I was to walk up to the throne slowly and make obeisance to ‘The Police’ three times with my face on the ground. I was not to look at the throne while I bowed.

As I knelt and bowed my head to the ground I heard a creaking sound. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that two of the officials were working a pump jack behind the throne, which was rising into the air on an elevating platform. As I stood up having paid my respects, I found ‘The Police’ was sitting near the ceiling. Flakes of rust were tumbling through the air.

‘The Police’, whom I now recognised as a former Manager of one of the Inner Zones who had led campaigns against the Carriers, coughed, spat on the ground below, and began to address me. ‘We’re a peaceful, open-handed people’, he said loudly. ‘We’ve never asked you for anything. Yet you attack us viciously. Tell me why I shouldn’t tell them to kill you.’ He gestured at his decrepit officials.

I replied in the Old Clichés in which I had never believed: ‘I come in peace’, I shouted back up. ’We’re all suffering. We’re all Carriers of the Illness, and supplies are low. I’m appealling to The Police, on behalf of my own Police, to help stop the violence so we can work together for our common survival.’

‘You appeal, yet you’re the ones with the equipment. You’re the owners and the attackers.’

‘We’ve attacked you, yes, just as you’ve attacked us. But now we’re coming to you to seek reconciliation.’

The Police coughed and spat again. ‘How do we know you won’t kill us all?’

‘Trust. We have to trust each other. It’s the only way.’

The next week the entire settlement met the IZ 7.5 Group in one of the Neutral Zones, unarmed. We took the amphetamine pills allocated by the DO for warfare, encircled the Carriers and killed them all with bayonets we had fashioned from branches and tin cans.

The world's most beautiful bellybutton

At night a hundred images of pretty women hovered in his mind, their bodies like a hundred dewy roses: women he had seen on the streets, in a store, turning a corner, boarding a train paraded through his secret self. A downy nape, a cluster of freckles between brown breasts… He asked Magic to unlock his loneliness and let him collide with a smooth open body. One day he met a girl who told him she had the world’s most beautiful bellybutton. Her bellybutton she said was like the inside of a tiny seashell, did he want to see it? What he wanted was to be alone with this information, to guard these words spoken by the lips of a real girl that would have been enough to keep his fantasies churning for days, but she pulled him into a grove and showed him her tiny swirl and more besides, took his dignity, and laid his secret life to waste.

Better than ourselves

At bottom we are better than ourselves, since we abhor our misdeeds.

– Strindberg