A Welcome Round Table

My mother has this Christmas tradition that, when we have all taken our seats and just before we have taken our first bite of a long-awaited roast dinner, we raise a toast to the dearly departed, to those members of the family who are no longer with us and to those friends that no longer accompany us throughout our life journey.  It reminds us, the living, to be thankful that we are seeing the close of yet another year together, to remain thankful to have known the dearly departed and that we remember them still.

The fact that this takes place before we have tasted our food is of the utmost importance.  To say thank you on an empty stomach is to accept that we have lost those that will never be by our sides again, that we will never break bread with them and share our laughter and sadness across the table.  Our eyes will never again catch theirs.

I sometimes like to imagine where the deceased are now, as if their memories have somehow broken free of their corporeal remains and drift uninhibited across the globe.  It can be difficult to think that all that we have ever known and all that we have ever loved and experienced can be so self-contained in our floating globe, silently rotating in the great big soup of the universe.  But it is and it must be, that is why we remember and why we say goodbye once again at the close of the year.

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Three Books of a Kind

In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material.  For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce.  The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies.  It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.

However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints.  I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.

Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north.  This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries.  This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism.  This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).

This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me.  Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!

What Will You Say?

I have been shooting  incorrectly for the majority of the time; it took me just one trip with the well-informed to tell me that.  I should have known, I shouldn’t have shot from the hip, wasting film and time combined.  Honestly, I have learnt my lesson, just hand me that last roll of black and white film and I’ll get your shot, the one that we both dream of on long hazy afternoons – the body laying silently, awaiting a brief exposure with your eyes focused on mine, the twin cradles of hips and shoulders turned towards me and only to me.  As if in a dream the thin rivulets of your flesh cascade gently against the cold leather couch.

On developing I can see the flames licking the border of the shot, the deep blacks and greys helping to create shadow against the brilliant white of immovability.  The mistaken shot turns into something more, an image captured that I had not originally cared to note.

Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super and Lomography Lady Grey film. If reproduced elsewhere please credit the author as appropriate.

Farming the Battleground

Please my feathered friends, take a seat and join me at my table.  I have put out extra plates, cutlery and cups so that we may drink to our health and continued friendship.  It is true that I have partaken in eating your brethren, please let us raise our glasses to your forgone cousins, brothers and sisters, but I shall dare say that if you had the chance to peck at my deceased body you would too, would you not?  Ah ha, a shifting of the eyes and a quick nod of the beak!

But we are not here to debate such a delicate ethical matter are we!  No, no, such matters of the higher order can be cast aside for today, for this is instead a more mundane meeting of the species.  An exchange of information no more and no less.  Please, have another glass of wine, let your fingers wrap around the stem and your nose smell the lush fruit of warmer climes.  Isn’t it funny how our senses can move us so quickly, how our imagination can cast aside reality for the landscapes of our dreams?  Ah good, you are all enjoying the wine!

I am ahead of myself, please forgive me, eat some of the home-baked bread, baked by my wife, no less, just yesterday!  Can you see how moist the crumb is and how it crumbles at the slightest provocation?  It is a most delightful treat when jam has been spread across a thick slice, goes down a cinch with a warm cup of coffee you know!

Yes, yes, we shall have coffees after our main course and after a few more bottles of wine or so.  There is no rush to complete today’s meeting and, as you know, I have already talked to the head raven.  He is fine in realizing the deal that we have, that I shall pass on what I can as and when I come across it.  You know, of course, that this may be some time as the wars of men are fought differently to the battles of survival that we ourselves fight.  Ho!  Those beastly metallic traps clunking across the soil, those wooden fire sticks bursting forth nothing but pain and death . . .  What a world we have inherited, make no mistake!

But still, we can farm our own foods from this mess, we can survive and I believe that we can indeed thrive in this matter.  It will take some tricks, yes it will, but we can do it.

Don’t give me that look old coop master!  I have seen that look before and I have vanquished it too, so be aware of old man Kerensky!  Sure I may lecture you from the pulpit, but I have been on my share of the battlegrounds as and I will again serve my feathered friends whilst the great nations who rule over us become mired in their bog of war!  Now, let me get my maps to show you where I think it is best to hunt for our treasure.

There is life in the old dog yet you know . . .

A Respite, A Relief

We pulled up in our rented vehicle, dwarfed quite comfortably by the incumbent coaches ferrying tourists from sight to sight, and prepared to disembark once again as travelers in a foreign land.  In reality the location reminded us, perhaps more grandly than we remembered, of our own homes and the landscape therein, the coast battered by salt-fused waves whilst brash accents announced a population who had become ingrained into the very land they lived on.  Our identities remained the same half the world away and we became a self contained unit, a family of friends.

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Photograph by the author using a digital camera. If used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

The Corridor

I love you and I need you, I wish that I could see you.  I’m travelling down this corridor alone, strapped to this trolley with doctors by my side pushing through door after door.  I can see the light shining but I’m not sure if it’s for me or if it’s for everyone around me.  I cry out, not pain not in horror, I cry out in confusion.  I need you and I want you, to be by my side again.  Memories flood my frazzled mind, a skeletal hand clasps my own and tells me it will be alright, it will be okay.  I can help but feel that this is a denial, that my body is failing even as I flail in the half-light of an under-funded hospital, staffed by sleep walking staff with the warmest of hearts.

I need you and I want you, I can hear voices in the corridor, not my own or those around me but others, crying out in equal pain or in anger at the wait.  Where are my sons, where are my daughters?  I wanted to say to grow up in peace, to love your family, friends and neighbours as one, to move on or to leave if you need to.  We understand, we want you to be happy, we need you to be with us.  I love and I need you, and I wish that I could see you.

The final corridor, my body is checked in.  Checked once that I am who I say I am, that the arrows painted on my limbs are correct and that my brain is related to my body and my body is related to my name.  I say I am who I am and they take it on board, and I’m made to wait at Heaven’s Gate.  Two blonde angels guide me, make me comfortable on the slip green sheets which matches their sleek outfits.  Only bras and knickers must be under their gowns I think, wondering who they share their bed and younger, supplier bodies with at night.  My own is broken, battered and torn.  A mess of surgical scars, shortened limbs but above average, well we won’t go into that but it is according to a litany of my previous lovers.

I want you and I need you, I wish that I could see you.  I laugh, laugh at the futility of it all.  The drugs, I yearn for the warmth of the morphine, of the wicked sleeping potion to crawl up into my veins and up into my arm and to flood the chest cavity and consciousness itself.  I yearn to sleep with no dreams, where the minute that passes is not a minute but a moment between awake and awake.  My eyes linger on one of the angels, filling in the paperwork in the corner of the room, haloed by broken bodies on stripped back beds.

I need you and I want you, I wish that I could see you.  I’m moving, I’m moving, but I’m not moving, there are no words for this.  Through the first set of doors I am pushed, name confirmed once more.  Am I aware of what is going to happen to me and why it is happening?  Yes, yes I scream still dreaming of the green robed angels in the theatre waiting room.  Just do it, yes the heart always beats fast.  I need you and I want you, but I just can’t seem to see you.  I stare at the anaethetist’s eyes as the plunger is gently but firmly pressed down, a milky white liquid seeps into my own bloodstream diluting reality.

I needed you and I wanted you, but I just can’t seem to have seen you.  I wake as if I have been asleep for years.  I crave water, yearn to drink a thousand litres of the freshest water available.  I want to drown in crystalline lakes and to never wake.  A tube has been down my throat, a mainline into the neck is still present.  I wish that I could have seen you, I’m sorry to have left you.  I close my eyes again.

The Contract

How could I possibly tell her that I had thought we had a future together when these thoughts alone were just the remanent of fragmented dreams, and that those dreams were recalled by the half light ecstasy of sexual mores that only I could gain personal satisfaction in?  No, these feelings and lust-filled thoughts were just that.  They were simply a morning temptation before the creeping light of dawn awoke me fully to the realities of the day ahead.  I held the phone in my right hand, her number displayed on the screen with a text half-finished underneath.  I reread the message and cringed in shame, the liquid warm against my belly whilst I drew deep breaths.  Deleted.  For the betterment of us both.

Besides I had double English to attend and I still needed to scrub the sleep from my eyes, shower and dress.  The walk to the college alone would take twenty minutes and I had an hour at the most to get ready, prepare for the class and to arrive on time.  Timekeeping was never a strong point for me, the lack of punctuality ran in the family and infuriated my mother continually throughout her children’s adolescence.  My eldest brother, for I was one of four and the second youngest of our parent’s brood, would drive my mother crazy by getting up late, sometimes comically late and especially so if we had to be somewhere on time. This would then cascade a chain of fury from my mother to my father, who got annoyed on her behalf before the fury finally found us, his younger brothers.  Once we were out of the house however we were fine and I think Dad sensed this when he saw the frustration spreading and urged us out as fast as was humanely possible.

The house was empty this morning though so I could blast the music, keep the bedroom door open and move about freely as naked as the day my poor mother had pushed me out.  I loved it – the feeling of an empty house where my favourite music reverberated from wall to wall; where I could eat quickly before I jumped into the shower, laughing as I did so as the water followed and flowed over the contours of my limbs and ran down my thighs.  They were where the thick surgical scars outlined the orthopaedic surgeon’s fixation.  I was proud of these scars, they were my personal tattoos of a specific time and place, my memories of pain and pleasure entwined to produce a better me (or so the hope went).

The first lesson passed without incidence, we learnt of the black ram tupping the white ewe and the lecturer expounded on what this meant for the play, for the deft characterisation and turn of phrase the author was so well-known for.  I wondered of his contemporaries, of his hopes and dreams.  I wondered what became of his loves and hungers, what his reaction would be if he knew that his plays would be enacted out four centuries hence whilst his fellow playwrights would lie largely forgotten in the lands that birthed them.  But still, I had the break to look forward to where I would see her and think ashamedly back to my morning scene.  I wanted to hold her hair in my hands and look deep into the blues of her eyes.  This was a fantasy, the girl who I would later call my partner had brown eyes and curly hair, she wasn’t the person who I had dreamt of whilst I had lain in bed, regretting the passing of the minutes that I was powerless to stop.

This was the contract, signed by us both.  Remaining friends but no more, the blushes of a late teenage crush hidden by a mop of hair.  Instead I put aside my fantasy of my cheek against hers, my lips kissing hers, my body entwined with hers, and put our friendship on a higher plane. There was no underlying hidden moral heroism driving this, it was purely the shame of not trying and never asking for her hand.  The joy of seeing her and sharing stories over drinks replaced this erotic dream of mine, one that I had subconsciously harboured since school and let blossom fully at college.  Instead I focused on the give and take of friendship. The unsaid declaration of the fact that she and I were always willing to be there for one another, at the end of a text, a phone call or in person, that it remained hanging in the air never needing to be vocalised.

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Taken by the author with a Pentax S1a camera using Lomography Lady Grey film. If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate.