‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
When I think of home I think of the sea, of the waves breaking against the rocks and the frothing remainder meeting the land in a head-on rush to embrace it. I remember the time as a child when I was caught on a sandbar between the incoming tide and a deepening pool of seawater between the beach and I, making the pool a barricade that I had nearly lost the will, resolve and confidence to overcome. I was scared of the things that could be lurking in the water, of the large flat jellyfish waiting with their tentacles outstretched and the crabs poised with their claws open, ready to snap at a moment’s hesitation on my part.
My feet were lost to the cold depths at this point and I could feel only the rush of water around my torso even though the bright intense sun hovered overhead, warming each body laid out on the beach in front of me, as if to mock my situation and to suggest that life went on no matter what happened to me. With my cries of worry and my arms waving feebly I was eventually noticed and saved by an older brother who guided me by hand across the treacherous water that had so frightened and paralysed me.
I’d wanted the safety of the land, of something solid under my feet where I could look to the sea unmolested by creatures of the deep. I’d become trapped because I was not paying attention to what was happening around me as I was too busy splashing in the water, resting on the sandbar and admiring the view of family and friends relaxing by the sea.
The journey to get to that beach had felt like a holiday in itself, not a fifteen minute drive from my family home. Packed in the car, almost as tightly as sardines, we would be wearing our swimming trunks clasping plastic spades and buckets. Sometimes a store box, packed with frozen ice packs, accompanied us and was filled full of cool and refreshing snacks that we’d eat after an hour or two of heating up in the fresh salt tinged air. The North Sea would sometimes bring winds that had rallied and rolled across the water coming from as far away as Holland or Denmark, maybe even Norway at a push, or so I had hoped. It was naive to think such things perhaps but I liked the thought of being connected with the countries that we had visited on holidays in the past.
After our little swim and exploration of the sand the two families would trudge back to the parked car, heading through a sandy beach that morphed into a half-hearted shingle before giving way once more to sand dunes, where shark sticks of dried grass would prick your feet and legs as you hobbled over them. It was customary to then shake our clothes free of sand, shaking our bodies in union as we did so, and then push on to purchase an ice cream in a cone and try to all fit into the car once again. We’d had a day at the beach and the sun had tired us out, we needed food and drink to replenish the physical and mental energy that we had lost exploring for shells, oddly shaped stones, the dried out remains of crabs and the dodging of the rubbish that protruded through the sand itself.
I had thought about these summer family trips to the beach years later as I relaxed in the back garden of my university house during my undergraduate years of study. I had gotten lucky with this house so close to the university campus and the local parade of shops – French doors, from my room, led directly into our fairly big back garden where, during the summer, autumn and spring seasons, my house mates and I could relax unencumbered by walls. We read in the sun, drank beer and burnt meat during numerous BBQ’s, we solidified our relationships here too. It was the ideal relaxation area late on a Friday after a week full of lectures, research and writing, where we could gather with a few of our friends and get a mild buzz from drinking beers in the evening sun. Music accompanied those gatherings, music that hung in the cooling air and permeated our bodies to slowly drift off out into the night once we had taken our fill.
The grass under my feet and the fact that I often took off my T-shirt as I lay on the grass meant that I felt truly rooted to the ground and I could stare at the sky freely, my eyes wandering from cloud to cloud or bird to bird as they popped into view. It felt good being partially clothed, to feel the heat of the sun on my own skin or the coldness of the northern breeze against my chest. It was different from sitting in a cool lecture theatre absorbing the information like a sponge, making notes on what I wanted to research and to write about for the next essay or presentation that popped up regularly, like ships on the horizon that appear in a pleasingly timely manner. I wouldn’t admit it to myself, but I enjoyed the peace and the quiet away from the others that came with being down in the back garden by myself. It had a timeless quality, that it felt like I could be a student forever and never truly grow up.
But still, I missed the sea. The waves that broke, that swelled, that seemed to bore ceaselessly on against the land that I called home.
I remember as if it were yesterday, the thick legs creeping slowly around the side of the cobwebbed decorated bag with all the inevitability of death itself. I howled, even as I jerked the bag onto the surface of the bed and I could see for the first time that this large spider was aged, weary of life.
It had none of the vitality of its younger form; it didn’t embody the free spirit of jazz scuttling here and there, enticed by the possibility of finding a mate. It was stately, as if to query who would dare to wake it from its slumber in the bag I had so little used and within which it had made its final home.
I crushed it quickly and fully, the circular body being beaten flat with the legs retracting close to its lifeless form. I covered the body with a cup, afraid to see the results of my own actions.
In my dreams it haunts me still.
Give me a sign so I can start the healing,
We shared the wine around the yearly meeting.
As I don’t want to be lonely this holiday,
I’m taking off my shoes and giving my body to the homeless.
I’d give you my remaining years to be alone with you, for a minute of your time,
To give you one last kiss goodbye and a warm embrace under the leaf dappled light.
Every night the front cover of my diary asks me ‘Who are you?’ and every night I struggle to articulate myself, to justify myself to myself. Lyric after devastating lyric falls from the speaker and I want to share this moment with you, I want to bask in the radiance of your love for this artist. I find myself driving along at night knowing that if I don’t take the turn off for home, I will not ever stop this journey north. The trumpets herald, but I am not sure what they signify. I miss you. Will this job ever end, will I ever escape this office? How do I break free of my own body. What are those birds thinking, soaring so high in the sky, eyeing each other, safety in numbers perhaps? The land meets the sea, the sea meets the sky, the sky holds the stars. Everything that has ever lived, nearly everything that has ever lived, is here on this planet, on this pinprick in the sky. Where have you gone though, when will I cross that eternal divide?
I miss you.
This is the thought that is at the forefront of my thoughts, that one that pervades the bitterness of being here, of comforting your family when all I want is to say how much I loved you to you directly.
I miss you.
Did I ever mourn my lost family members enough? Should I feel guilt now, why has this struck me so hard? Why does this artist so move me to tears nearly every day. Their music touches me like nothing else, a lightening bolt connecting the living and the dead. I hate and I love. I just want to say to my father, to my mother, hold me. Hold me. I miss you. My elbow is dirty again, how can I scrub so hard yet it not get any cleaner? I can feel the metal attached, drilled deep into my bones. I can feel the plates and the rods pressing against my skin, the metalwork that keeps me standing and grounds me, that completes my alien body amongst this landscape of beauty, this hidden careworn ugliness. I am jealous of your walk in the woods, your walk up the hills, your walk down the concrete slabbed route to town.
I miss you.
What is death when life is complicated enough. What is life when death is eternal. The great divide, never knowing just what it is that separates this from that.
First step up the ladder,
is the hardest they say, as we sit and sigh
in meeting after meeting where the rooms look good,
photos look even better, another rat hole, small pit,
infested, full of tits, nothing wrong
but the size of the picture.
Review after review after review, each dangling
the same beautiful bait: an affordable home.
Each set their trap in their own way, despondent
resplendent resident, a land owner, herds us round,
but he ain’t nothing but ground down by the strangers feet that,
day after day, trudge through their home, second home,
third best, first worst.
It’s the safest financial asset that you’ll ever make –
banker checks his purse and smiles, pushes across the table
how much we can just afford, give or take a decade or two,
it’s a dice throw, a chance shot in the dark for a stable home,
a sweet Rome, a capital for two.
We’ll get there I know it, though it’s just another view, another chance remark
that’ll throw me off the scent of this time well spent.
“In my wanderings from agency to agency, imagining myself working in the various businesses, I had also gained an insight into the country’s wonderful freedom. No one asked about my nationality, my religion, my origin, and what was more – an amazing thing to imagine in our modern world of fingerprints, visas and police permits – I had travelled without a passport. But there was work waiting for people to do it, and that was all that counted.”
Stefan Zweig on America in the early 20th century. From his memoir The World of Yesterday (page 212, Pushkin Press), originally published in 1942.