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By Lloyd Jones
Poetry Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2006 Lloyd Jones
All rights reserved.
THE TIDE GOES OUT
The journey begins
I SLAMMED the boot lid, hard, and the car rocked.
Then I noticed something – a head, nodding rhythmically in the back seat.
A wig ... my mind imagined ... was that a wig? The hair was ash blonde and coarse.
There was something slightly unnatural about it. And I wasn't expecting anyone else to be with us.
My eyes moved from the wig to Olly's face.
Standing by the driver's door, with the keys in her right hand, she watched me with bemused eyes; smile lines were forming, delicately, at the corners of her eyes.
Her mouth parted and she laughed softly, looked down, and I heard a soft blip as she disabled the central locking system. There was a scrunch of chippings as she got in. Walking towards the passenger side, I glanced sideways at the person sitting in the back of the car.
Then I eased myself into my seat and belted myself in.
The interior of the car was cold and impassive: left to stand alone in an unpeopled landscape, I imagined it would guard itself, defend its own squat metal kennel for a thousand years. I sensed a foreboding – this box, trimmed in factory grey, had something about it that day which hinted at a cold, robotic future.
Her body was suddenly next to me, close. My stomach muscles tensed slightly as she swished her belt across her midriff. This accentuated her breasts, and I averted my eyes courteously. I was aware of small currents of air, sent by her movements, brushing coolly against my skin. As she leant towards me, head down, looking for the belt-snap, a swathe of hair fell from behind her right ear and curtained her face; it swayed in a graceful curve and my biology admired its rich cascade. There was a slight hint of shampoo; I thought of the shoulder underneath her hair, white, unclothed.
I nodded, and our eyes locked momentarily. I had to look up slightly – she was higher in her seat than I expected. Then she started the car and we began our long journey north, the roads salty and white. Indicating, she steered us towards the expressway's churning, dyspeptic canal. My mind flitted from subject to subject.
Why was I needed now, yet again? Just when I was getting some peace and quiet – at last. I was so fed up with being needed all the time. People are so needy. Can't they ever sort out their own problems? Their voices gnaw at me: on my mobile, through the letterbox. Pleading. And I'm not getting any younger. Sometimes I feel as if I'm walking in a glass corridor, a circular tube of memories, walking round and round, getting tired ...
'You're very quiet today,' she said.
She was a fast driver, I noticed. But good. An easy, experienced competence. For a while, as we overtook in the fast lane, we were level with a car full of youngish men, uberchavs in baseball caps. They studied her, dispassionately: an ordnance party, measuring her topography in trigs and chains. One of them said something and they all laughed. She was unaware of their interest; I shifted my eyes away from them.
'Something bothering you?' she asked.
'Oh, not really.'
Small clouds, greyed by the windscreen, travelled in a ghost-train of reflections across her face. The sky was a Brillo factory, puffing out small neat cloud-parcels on the horizon's conveyor belt. Above us, on the pockmarked cheek of the hill, gorse erupted in zit clusters.
'Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?' she asked in a carefully controlled voice.
'For God's sake yes, absolutely. I really want to – I promise.'
'I just thought then, for a moment, you were having second thoughts.'
'No, absolutely not. I'm looking forward to it, really. Life was getting far too boring. I need a new challenge.'
Liar. New challenge? Christ, hadn't I dealt with enough challenges – solved enough problems?
I snuggled into my seat and closed my eyes. The soporific hum of the engine eased me towards sleep. I needed to recharge, to recover. My toast had landed butter-side up whenever I'd tripped up in life, mostly. But I was getting older, I needed more rest. Stupefied, my body lay on a coned-off stretch of the human highway – like so many fortysomething people – recovering after my first big collision with mortality. I was time-fodder like everyone else; I was aware of death, in the corner of my eye, sitting in his dodgem, tattooed and fresh from the pub, singling me out and laughing a little too loudly as he prepared to ram me again, from behind. Someone famous said that middle age is when you stop running away from your past. Correction. Middle age is when you stop running away from your past and start running away from your future. But before I run I want to rest awhile, on the hard shoulder ... waiting for my future.
I decided, after a while, to tell her. I wanted to begin with a clean slate – with nothing to hide. And I thought we could trade secrets, perhaps. If I told her a little about my inner life then she might tell me more about the demons running around inside her. It was worth a try.
'I'm trying to write about it ... to tell the whole story – everything that's happened,' I said after a while.
'Really!' She was excited. 'That's incredible! I'm really glad.'
I knew she meant it.
She flicked us back into the slow lane.
'It's a great story ... your fans'll be well happy!' She was young enough to say well happy.
That word – well. There it was again. Perhaps our jaunt to Ffynnon Fair had triggered a recurring association. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be wells. I had even encountered a well in my front room while I stood waiting for Olly to pick me up. Standing in the bay window, listening for her car, I'd grabbed the nearest book on the top shelf of an old oak bookcase close to hand. My fingers had alighted on a dog-eared, cloth-covered ex libris edition of Knud Holmboe's Desert Encounter – and I'd thumbed through it, looking for a passage which had made a big impression on me many years previously. Holmboe, a Dane born in the early 1900s, had converted to Islam and had gone on a dangerous adventure in North Africa. It cost him his life – at the age of just 29 he was murdered by Arab brigands a few miles south of Akaba, but not before recording his fascinating story: a journey through the desert ... and there I found it, the passage I'd wanted to read again. Travelling by car through the sands, with a leaky radiator, he had come across an old marabout – a sorcerer prophet as Holmboe describes him – who had refused a lift, despite being literally in the middle of nowhere. Having no urgent business elsewhere, or perhaps no business at all, anywhere in the world, he was content to walk all day, alone, in the searing heat. And then, after breaking down, Holmboe and his party had been saved by desert cave-dwellers, who gave them water and gypsum with which to repair their radiator. It had been a close run thing. My heart had been wrenched by a passage describing how the Italians had blocked up the Bedouin wells with concrete, condemning them to a slow death, in retribution for a Bedouin rebellion against the European occupation of their homeland.
'I've made a tentative start,' I said. 'Of course, I'll have to change it all later on. But you have to start somewhere ...'
She glanced at me.
'Let me guess,' she said. 'I'm trying to guess where you'll start the story.'
I was almost asleep by the time she came up with anything. When I heard her voice I dipped out of the fog seeping around my brain.
'It's a place. I'm fairly sure it's a place, not a person, at the start of your story,' she said. 'The Millennium Stadium perhaps, after the final whistle ...'
'Wrong,' I replied, laughing lightly. 'It's a place, sure, but there are people too. It's certainly not the Millennium Stadium. It's a place where nothing ever moves, nothing ever happens.'
'What do you mean?'
'I'm having to work from photos. That's all I have to go on.'
'You're writing about old photos?'
'Yes, in a way. It's a part of my life which I can't remember anything about, so I'm trying to work out what happened.'
'So there's no one in the photos?'
'There are people, yes.'
She waited for me to continue.
'But the people never move,' I added lamely. 'They're frozen – I can't remember them ever moving, or laughing, or saying anything. They're like cardboard cutouts.'
'Nothing strange about that,' she said. 'Same with all pictures from the past – those people have gone ... they might as well have been dead for a thousand years, in a way.'
I murmured something, purposefully indistinct, to fill in some time. I closed my eyes again. I was weary: after all, the whole country was a vast winter dormitory; millions of animals were snoozing contentedly while humanity ranged the land, a crazed squirrel looking for its nuts.
'You can't leave it at that,' she said, prodding me on again. She couldn't leave me alone, like the rest of them.
I told her: 'Nothing at all happens – there's a big gap in my memory. For ten years of my life, nothing at all happened. I can't remember a single thing. There's no footage – no film clips, no video to run. Blank. Just one big empty black hole.'
She looked towards me, through that smoky curl sweeping across her face.
'When was this?'
'Up to the age of ten. Absolutely nothing. And whenever I try to remember, a feeling comes over me ...'
I hesitated, again.
'Go on ...'
'It's like a numb feeling, but there's another feeling as well ... a sort of prickly pre-excitement; the sort you get before doing a bungee jump.'
'Never done one.'
'Neither have I, actually. You know what I mean, though ...'
'Butterflies, you mean?'
'Yeah, something like butterflies, but not quite – the dream equivalent of butterflies. The sort you get in your sleep and you wake up feeling edgy, wound up. As if someone had been chasing you, and you were glad to be awake ...'
'How often do you go to this nothing place of yours?'
'Oh, every now and again. I don't go there often because I've a feeling it's too dangerous ... that there's something in that hole which I don't want to know about, yet I'm drawn towards it, like a kid near a pond. I get a sort of vertigo, if you know what I mean ...'
I relaxed against the head-rest and closed my eyes. Could shards of memory rise slowly to the surface – was it possible? When I was young I'd been too busy running around; now, perhaps, I had time to kneel and comb the soil with my fingers, gather all the pieces and reconstruct a vessel to hold my past.
I left her alone, to think for a while. I hoped there would be a trade-off – that she would reveal something about her problems. I wanted her to tell me why she was hurting inside – why she cried suddenly in unexpected places. It became a wink-joke between us: she would start to cry, silently, and I would hand her a sweet. Almost Pavlovian – but it was the only response I could come up with, except for hugging her, which wasn't always appropriate. Not when she was driving, anyway. Today she stayed silent, flicking the sweet I'd given her from cheek to cheek. I could hear it rolling against her teeth occasionally and I thought of river boulders clunking downstream in a storm. I tried something new every day almost, but she liked the fruit gums best. Hated Liquorice Allsorts, spat them out. Slowly, I got to know her likes and dislikes. Her mannerisms too: the way she twanged her bra straps when she was bored, and blew out her fringe, her lips sounding like a muffled road drill, when she was exasperated. Strange quirks, too: she had a thing about the moon, knew all its phases; she liked French cinema but listened to country and western. Christ.
Then we needed petrol, she noticed, and we started looking for stations. We were running on empty, and a niggling worry entered the car space.
'You're going to tell everything then,' she said. 'Is it going to be kiss and tell or cry and tell, if you know what I mean?'
'Haven't decided yet.'
I was getting concerned.
'Have you got any petrol in a can?' I asked.
I mulled, fatalistically, as we motored on.
'Anyway,' I said, 'how are you getting on at the moment? Are you still behind with your course work?'
'Yes, still trying to catch up.'
'What's the problem?'
She gathered a strand of hair curling across her eyes and tucked it behind her left ear. I admired its flow, the dynamic of its sidewinder snake-life. Also her nose, her mouth – everything about her was in the right quantity and proportion.
'I'm having trouble with history.'
'Yep. I can't finish one of my essays.'
'What's it about?'
'I had trouble with him too. Very peculiar man.'
'Yes, very. What's the problem – all that Harry Potter stuff, his dark arts?'
'No, nothing like that.'
'All that cabala and alchemy getting to you?'
'No, I'm fine with all that.'
'Well, what is it then?'
The strand of hair loosened and she tucked it back into place again; she rubbed her nose with her sleeve, sniffed, looked at me and smiled.
That was a lovely smile.
'You won't believe me, anyway.'
'Do you believe in angels?'
'And fairies too, and Father Christmas ...'
'Don't be nasty to me.'
I made sooth-a-baby noises.
'All right then – do you believe in the opposite of angels? Whatever the opposite of an angel is called. Incubus, is that right?'
'Something like that.'
'I think so. Incubus is male isn't it? A nasty man who comes to you in the night. Something like that, anyway.'
'Succubus is the female equivalent.'
And I thought of Meridiana the Succubus – a beautiful tenth century demon who helped the first French Pope, Sylvester II, to gain power and riches – or so the story goes. A fabled scholar with an incredible knowledge of many subjects including Arab astronomy, Sylvester also studied magic and astrology. A myth arose that he was a sorcerer, in league with the Devil. He was forced to flee after 'stealing' a book of spells from an Arab philosopher who pursued him, tracing him by the stars. Sylvester hid by hanging from a wooden bridge, where, suspended between heaven and earth, he was invisible to the magician. Some say that Sylvester fashioned a bronze head which answered yes or no to his questions.
My mind returned to the present, and the reason for our journey. There was something the matter with Olly. She was out of sorts. She was caught in a fast spin cycle.
'I've been howling at the moon again,' she said as we drove through one of the tunnels.
'Howling at the moon.'
'You mean howling, literally?'
'No. Phoning my friends late at night when I'm drunk.'
She still had a sense of humour. That was a good sign. I liked the way she lobbed her mind at me like a grenade then watched, bemused, as I scanned it desperately to see if she'd removed the pin.
Out of the tunnel, a few miles further on, I said: 'Sleeping OK?'
She rubbed her nose with her sleeve again.
'No, not really ... I've been having lots of bad dreams. Every night – feels like that, anyway.'
I wondered what she was dreaming about.
A half-sucked sweet peeped out between her lips, sickly-green, and she wiggled it about for a while with her tongue.
'For ages now ... mostly about a war. It starts with a statue coming down, and I'm underneath it, trying to get out of the way.'
I gave her time to follow this up, but she was silent for a mile or so. I thought perhaps she wanted to shrug it off.
She told me eventually. The statue toppled down on her every night. Then she was on the run, in derelict buildings or in lonely places. She was always in a war, and it was really frightening. She told me about the jets screaming down on her.
'How could I imagine it? I've never seen anything like that – but it's so realistic,' she said. 'As if I'm there when it's happening.'
I was really fascinated now. Involved. I wanted to know what was going on.
An Orwellian nightmare was taking place in Iraq, but the British public had gone back to sleep, engorged on fantasy. I started to rant about it, one of those middle-aged loop tapes you slot in and then off you go, knowing that everyone else has a vast collection of their own too, gathering dust, re-played on long walks or during sleepless nights. The very last station on the line for an old British freight train called free speech; where lost commuters rant to antique gods on darkened platforms in the middle of nowhere, somewhere like Cilmeri or Adlestrop. Perhaps I ranted too long, too hard, because at some stage I stopped suddenly, as if a fox had heard a twig snap.
Excerpted from Mr Cassini by Lloyd Jones. Copyright © 2006 Lloyd Jones. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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