And When the Ashes Fall From the Sky

‘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.’

– Record 19 in Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s novel We, first published in 1924.

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The Tale of the Old Man and the Maid

He stumbled into the room, roughly grasping the top of the chair by his well-worn desk and cursing each former lover in his moist and ailing breath, fell into a sorry heap upon the bed, too tired to pull off his boots and too saddened by the decline in his quality of life to remove his glasses.  Nothing, save the frothing fury of the tropical sea rising up and laying salty claim to all the beaches in the land, could save the loss of face that he had endured that day.  For in front of his red-headed daughter, who was buxom, proud and ready to marry the young military captain that had so captured her heart and stained it so openly on his own uniformed arm, he had been stripped of all power, humiliated and whipped like a cowering dog chained to a post in the yard.

The cause of his mistreatment was the maid, who had so blithely started that fateful day as gormless as she had entered this life, the daughter of a whore who had given her up at the first opportunity.  That is not to say that she, the maid, was unaware of the power that her accusation would bring to her master, as she knew from her dilapidated upbringing that the raw power of sexual lust could do strange things to a man’s heart.  It was a memory passed down in blood from her estranged mother, the one who would die empty-handed clutching helplessly at the passing shoes of the sons and daughters of her customers.  It was an ignoble end to a life lived in the shadows, but one that her daughter would not share with her mother, or so she had thought.

Instead she would carry around with her a glowing heart filled at the memories of a holiday romance, a fling that had lit a thousand nights of self-fueled passion spread across the decades following the now hazy memories of a lifetime ago.  These were the glimpses into her past that brought her body and mind onto the edge of so fantastic an experience that she temporarily blinded herself each and every time she accessed them.  Although her current life lacked little in the way of attention from the opposite sex, keeping as she had the plump and youthful looks of her mother, the willingness to partake in the tasting of the flesh was strictly divorced from the cannibalization of her own memories.  In short, it was these that she feasted on instead of the current attention that she attracted and returned to again and again in the silence of the night.

Time passed silently, the moon forever chasing the sun as the weeks leaped into months and the seasons dictated the passing of the years.  By chance work had found her employed as a maid for an owner of a large tract of land, which included numerous rented apartments and holiday villas for tourists that visited this small Caribbean nation alongside the owner’s main housing complex, hidden in a corner behind a curving perimeter wall.  The owner coveted his private life and communicated with both his retinue and his staff by way of paper notes, dotted across the working surfaces of a life he had little known intimately but instead managed from afar.  The practice worked as if by magic though, the newer members of staff at first baffled by the notes left in green ink each morning, documenting the previous day’s stock figures, both incoming and outgoing, and dictating the actions of the next.  The older staff however were well used to this method and blithely accepted whatever the writer of the note wanted, trusting as they did the path ahead as an apparition of the successful path behind.

The persistent rumours of the sightings of the owner were frequent among the staff, with wild recollections of a golden-haired Lothario prowling the grounds at night or that he was actually a hunchback man who had been seen howling at the moon in rage and despair.  Lucinda, the young slip of a girl who worked in the granary, had once caught a slender grey-haired gentlemen helping himself to the kitchen stores but he had pranced off into the night before she had a chance to shout his name.  No sightings were confirmed although that did not stop the rumours being mulled over and created late into the night by the staff at the end of their long shifts; instead the owner preferred always to communicate by his spidery flowing script rather than by sight and sound.

The maid had seen his notes and was taken by the veracity of the green ink on the faded, golden papers.  The twirls of the P’s and the L’s satisfied some small section of her stomach, pleasingly looped as they were.  In time she started to collect a number of the notes once the older ones had been discarded, their actions carried out by the ever observant and trusting staff.  It was late one springs night, in her provided for one bed-roomed cleaners cottage, that the maid noticed the odd word or phrase that silently rung a long-dormant bell within her memory.

Surely the owner could not be the very flame that had burnt for eternity within her chest, ever since that fleeting coastal romance?  She gathered up the dozen or so notes spread across the duvet and held them close to her tight chest, breathing in the vapors of the ink as her pupils dilated and the clothes fell from her body of their own volition.  When she woke she noted the cold sweat of her body, the notes plastered on the inside of her thigh, on top of her belly and her breasts, a love intent on the recreation of the physical and the spiritual.  She knew then that the owner was indeed her former lover.

Some days later a note went up on the main noticeboard: ‘To wit: My Daughter to Marry the Captain, Two Days Hence – Staff Welcome’.

The owner’s daughter was most unlike her father in that she was well-known in the community, haughty but well-known.  Little did she communicate directly with the staff, she was instead seen and not heard.  Two days until the wedding!  Some of the staff, the kitchen women and the mucker outers especially, expressed surprise that they were invited to view the proceedings, but all were excited by the prospect of finally seeing with their own eyes the owner of the land.  Much was made of the brevity of the note in comparison to the usual notes but none could argue that the next 48 hours were to pass in a state of increasing frenzy and intrigue.

Today was the day that she was going to proclaim that this stored fountain of love was directly transferable to the object of her affections, the owner.  In her fevered night-long dreams she could foresee a double marriage taking place, father and daughter pleased and pressed into unions of love, her simple maid’s status raised to the title of owner’s wife!  Oh, what pleasure awaited them both!  Dressing in her finest clothes and smartening up her shoes, she went to join the rest of the workers gathered outside in the courtyard, ready to proceed to the wedding venue – an outdoor folly that took into its expansive view the bay and the mountains in the background and the luscious greens in the foreground.

The crowd waited with bated breath as the procession of the captain and his bride, and assembled groomsmen and bride’s maids of honor, sorted themselves within the folly.  A minute or two later the owner strode into view, each booted foot planted with firm resolution, his tight thin-lipped mouth curled up into the slightest imitation of a sneer, framed by golden-greying hair.  A complete hush fell over the crowd of workers and some swore they could see green ink stains on his fingertips, a visual clue that this was who they suspected that he was.

It was at this moment that the maid, her breasts almost bursting out of her tight white top, lunged forward, one foot unsteadily following the other as a faint scream of ecstasy escaped her lips and the faint light of terror entered the owner’s eyes.

‘Matías!  Matías!  My love, it is me, Natalia!’

It was later recalled it was at this moment that the owner’s heart sunk fully into the very bowels of his body.

What for her had been an unforgettable romance by the sea, had been instead for him a desultory sink in status, one that he had revelled in at the time for its feeling of desperation but had since been forced into the very back of his mind.  Instead, and ever since that long weekend spent entwined in both the arms and breasts of Natalia, he had made love to women only on par with his social standing, determined to remove the grit that he had felt instilled itself in him from sinking so low that one time.

In short, there could be no worse time for his past to haunt the owner then at the very moment he chose to show himself for the first time to his staff at his daughter’s wedding.

His eyes sunk into their sockets, and continued to join his heart, whilst his cheeks became maroon curtains of the richest silk.

He ran and he did not look back as Natalia stumbled onto her knees and tried clasping onto his fleeing heels, just as her mother had once done in the street where she lay dying …

Photograph by the author using a Pentax S1a and Lomography Lady Grey film. If reproduced please credit as appropriate.

Full of Fire: Part 3

(Part 1Part 2)

She never regretted moving to this flat.  It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were.  In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city.  She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at the parent’s house.  If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples.  No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.

The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty.  Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape.  It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace.  But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime.  She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.

Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man.  Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father.  She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page.  The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body.  Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends.  It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness.  In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.

The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still.  Her foundation of independence had just become solidified yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.

In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life.  To put death at a distance and to keep love close.  That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it, it was how she lived her live in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise.  Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner.  The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.

In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose resting, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass.  He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.

It would not be long now.

‘On the Beach’ Predicting the Future

Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home.  This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two.  The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”

“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it.  The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could you have done that, Peter?  I mean, they’d all left school.”

“Newspapers”, he said.  “You could have done something with newspapers.  We didn’t do it.  No nation did, because we were all too silly.  We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way.  But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”

Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.

It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend.  For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.

Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer.  Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach.  Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…

Through The Window

The final flight to a familiar destination, my body sighs with relief.  You are my final stranger, the person who sits one empty chair away from me of who I do not know one bit.  I see your passport briefly, possibly from the Emirates judging from the silver cross of swords potent on the cover and the colourful shawl draped across your delicate face.

Your body is tiny in comparison to my towering torso and broad hulking shoulders. You curl up in your seat as soon as the plane starts to taxi, covering your head fully and aiming for a fitful fifty minute sleep.  I am envious of this talent, I can only stare straight ahead, dipping into a satirical magazine to ease my boredom.  This is the shortest flight that I have been on for some time now, but even here my eyes cannot rest.  I reacquaint myself with the politics and humour of this land, smiling to myself as the plane carries on heading to the north.

I look across from time to time, partly to see the green grass of home but also to check that you are still resting.  Your left hand is placed across your stomach, holding steady as your wrapped head lolls from time to time.  The silent movements in sleep stand in great contrast to the roar of the engines situated just a few metres from where we are.

We smile at one another as I let you pass me by to get into the aisle, we have arrived at our destination and I am glad.  I am finally home whilst you, I feel, may be very far from it but I hope you find a home here too and a loving family of friends.

The Earth & Everything In It

My room, I realize, is covered in books and CD’s.  Stacks of both poke out from under my bed, bulge on shelves, take root on free patches on the floor.  I have boxes of academic books and reference texts resting below where I sleep, buried alongside those are boxes of CD’s and cassette tapes, filled with yesterday’s music and recorded jam sessions made during the proclivities of my youth.  They are, it appears, my media of choice for consuming the experiences and thoughts of being human.

To be human, as to recognize to being alive, is temporary but what a beauty that it is in itself:

‘But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limb and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend , or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.’

From My Struggle: Part 2. A Man In Love (2014) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Clock In, Clock Out

The office I worked in dealt with applications from students and our daily targets were monitored and recorded for prosperity, and to check against what was and what wasn’t correctly documented in our individual tally sheets.  Of course these sheets were digital spreadsheets that were specially formatted for each different piece of work that was allocated to the worker.  The spreadsheets highlighted how much allotted time was given dependent on the category that the piece of work fell into, whether we’d have five minutes to complete it or ten minutes.  Simple pieces of work could be given only a few minutes whilst more complicated pieces, such as responding to emails with extensive trails or queries, were given a timing of a quarter of an hour or more.  We felt that luck was on our side when one such piece of work fell out of the electronic basket and into our caseload, we had time to breath, to relax, to look into the faces of the person sat beside ourselves and to realize that we each went through the same, day in and day out.

Many kept to this electronic tally, toting it up at the end of the night by memory or by scrolling through the master sheet.  I, unlike many of my work colleagues, kept a ink tally in Roman numerals of each type of piece of work that I had completed that day.  Towards the end of the evening, when we each heaved a sigh of relief and gladness that the working day was over, I looked down with fondness upon my scrap of paper to find an ever changing squiggle of lines, crossed and solitary, segmented by type and time.

It was the last action of the working shift that so pleased me, that I could scrupple up the piece of paper with my jottings on, tear it in two if needs be and thrice more into smaller pieces so that no readable piece remained, and declare that I was the master of myself once again.  No greater feeling of satisfaction came with the job then that final action of labour destruction, or rather rapprochement that my work towards the whole could be so simply and so justifiably torn up.  That my value as a worker was counted as so little that I needed to be constantly monitored for each and every movement within the workplace, each piece of work accounted for and judged against the character of my soul.  The residual of feeling of loyalty, that thinning pool of employee liquid that had somehow lingered through the various turbulent governmental changes and process improvements, now felt at a very low ebb indeed.  It could evaporate at any moment.

My action was, in its way, a minor everyday rebellion at the absurdity of employment itself.  That each man and woman shall spend a third of their life strapped to the face of labour so that the other third can be slept through and the final third can be lived in a state of fretful suspense.  It is perhaps not fair to categorize in this way what so many want, what so many need, but for me it is not enough nor is it a rightful use of the labour market.  To rebel, in whatever fashion is feasible or at least in which way is not detrimental to your standards, is to acknowledge that you recognize that this is so.  Such is life.

To Pity the Fool in Love

No-one ever expects that they will walk around a corner and find the person that will become their significant other lingering there on the street before them.  How we meet our partners, our lovers and confidantes, becomes a personal legend shared between only ourselves in truth, embellished by time and by the ebb and flow of emotion.  Love can be a hard emotion to describe, to quantify or to qualify, to articulate to each other and to one another.  That drunken and passionate kiss goodbye, the result of a haphazard opportunity presented in all of its glory, sits side by side with the memory of a slow burning romance experienced in our youths when we fumbled anew under covers soaked in teenage sweat.  Experiments of connection and of lust, of two pieces of lego mixing and matching to form one.  As time recedes the flashes of faces become a Rolodex of past conquests and imagined hurt, often sitting uncomfortably close to one another.

Lust, as a rapid fire launchpad to the past, operates on much the same lines as those random encounters experienced during the vicissitudes of youth.  In moments of relaxation you are comfortably entertaining yourself, your thoughts ensconced on a particular moment and how it would play out in your mind, perhaps how you would make the move and seal the return of the love and physical intimacy as given in your affections.

Yet still, how the mind can shock and shake the very foundations of your core!

No longer are you in the throes of doubled or singled passion, your senses are startled and your hands are instead given to fumbling lamely against the body of skin and flesh before you.  No more thought is given to reaching the apex of sexual arousal.

You are instead seeing the failures of your past mount even as you have failed to.  The chances lost of forming romantic entangles in the freshly cut grass, of bridging the gap between brief fumbles on the sofa and maintaining long-term relationships.  The thought is half formed, it ghosts across the mind but briefly as you lie there on your bed, shivering in the warm night air.

To walk around the corner of the street you inhabit, to cross the road at just the right time, to be there to answer that question and to form that connection as the eyes meet, the pupils dilate, and the lips curl into a smile.  The heart that jumps a beat and resets into a rhythm of two.  To miss those opportunities.  To wait upon a table where the food of life will never be placed.  It can be a hard thing to think about in the moment of your greatest conquest, of a solo ascent.

On Health and Safety: Part 2

Q.2. A fire has broken out in the building that you currently work in, endangering the staff present and the building itself.  What should your first course of action be?

Please select one of the answers below

a. The fire has broken out just at the right time as it is currently your break period.  Cracking open your little used locker you locate the marshmallows that have sat in the locker for the past 8 months and, using a fork no-one has cleaned within the past month, you head over to where the fire is and toast the marshmallows.  You laugh hysterically as your colleagues vacate the building whilst you sate your belly.

b. The fire is close to your desk, however you notice that Gill, on secondment from the Lancaster office, is trying to leave before you do so you accidentally trip her up and run over the top of her to get out of the office.  The cause of the fire, it is later ascertained, was your specially ordered fan from HR, even though you ordered it in November and the office air conditioning was to blame for the high temperature.   

c. Fire excites you!  It strengthens you!  You have become disillusioned with office life and believe that, just like the dragon queen from telly, you too can become tougher and more leader-like if you throw yourself into a fire and survive its red hot embers.  Your remains are later found cramped into a fetal position.  Nobody mentions the embarrassing porn magazine found in your smoldering locker to your mother at the work service. 

d. You locate the nearest fire alarm and push the trigger, indicate the nearest fire escape and help colleagues through before closing each set of doors as you exit the building and wait for the fire brigade to turn up.

Variations on a Thought

I am having trouble conveying the feelings that I am having, the fact that I want to write, to keep writing, but cannot quite formulate exactly what I want to say.  At the moment I am finding a deep release through music, either through live gigs or listening to albums as I drive across the northern landscape of the country I inhabit.  Often, on a morning when I wake, I play the album in the CD player and wash myself in the tones of whoever is playing.  It is a sweet relief.  There is an immediate sense of  feeling, of a placement on a particular chord or orchestral swell, that rush of recognition that can only come with time when reading the words of others.  Yet I feel there is a deep kindred between these two methods of communication, two of the most important for me.  Yes, of course we talk, we can express our desires, worries, love and anger through talking, we gesture too, we can laugh or howl with derision, but there is something in the beauty of the written word, in the musical note, that is lacking from the babble that vocalizes forth from the mouths of both myself and of others.  What does this say about me?  I am not quite sure I want to know, that maybe I value the thoughts and beliefs of others, but worry about giving a voice to my own?  Perhaps.

This isn’t the piece or the time to give voice to such ill thought out ideas or half formed theories.  I want to keep writing, I want you to keep reading, I want us both to keep being creative, to tap into that font of magic that cannot be commercialized, crunched down to size for productivity measures or customer service satisfaction.  I feel in limbo, between the world of what is expected of us all as individuals, in a market where we have to pull our weight to feed our commercial gain, compared to a more utopian paradise where the value of a person is not placed on their output, or their labor.  It is ridiculous to think of such thoughts, ridiculous to think that I am free to think such thoughts, to moan about a life well lived.  But I do, we all do, no matter our position, social standing or inherent bias built into us.  We are all individuals and we are all a collective.  Together we love, destroy and displace.

I am having trouble writing.  I am staring at the computer screen each and every day. It is, I realize with a disgusted shudder, a proxy for human interaction, for skin on skin.  Yet still I come back for more, in the vain and vapid belief that this is a life well lived, that this is life itself.  Humans need the company of the animals and plants, of the soil itself, to know that we do not share this planet alone amongst our kind.  We are but one of many and I feel that this is forgotten more and more.  Ignorance is bliss until the world collapses around ourselves, and we are left choking on the markers of productivity.

Death has become a familiar friend as of late, in this last year of my life.  This may be the last year of my life, I hope it is not but we never quite know what is around the corner.  Surely we should grab it, if we believe it is so?  Yet still, I lie in bed an extra hour, to soak in the sonic variations and textural tones of the current album spinning in my CD player. Content to know that, for the time being, this is where I belong.  My limbs relax, my eyes flutter and close, finally my breathing shallows.  It is a mere shadow of true sexual ecstasy, but it is close.