French Letterbox: Rue du Bac, Rouen

I am walking on a street in Rouen not speaking French.140.jpg

On glass I hear tapping. I am walking. There is yet tapping on glass. I am not walking yet now.

There is the voice of a woman to me speaking. There is a place for letters in a glass door and the voice of a woman is in this place for the letters in the glass door. It is she who had tapped.

I cannot see the woman. I can only see the eyes of the woman because the place for the letters is a fine rectangle. She is shouting the door is shut. The door is shut. The door is shut. She says this many times well. Continue reading

Wild Boys of Brighton

They don’t like to be damp. They are not fond of wind. Or cold. It was not their idea to take the Family Fishing Rod to Brighton Beach (past the empty mini-golf, over the silent kiddy railway) – it was my idea.

The wind whipped at our coats and although the rain was light it was intrusive.  There was a lot of jumping up and down on the spot, hands covered by jumper sleeves, “…can – we – gooooo?”

We struggled to untangle the invisible line (“Don’t touch it while I’m UNTANGLING it… Go away!” “But, Daddy it’s MY fishing rod!”) and although the wind was unhelpful, eventually we had a line with a hook and a weight and a little float on it.

Then we got out the worms.

They were in a jar in one of the boys’ pockets… the worms were of no interest until the moment came when a worm was THREADED onto a HOOK. In fact, fishing was of no interest until that moment.

The first cast was a beauty – the slick of rod through the air, the slow arc ending in the dark circle of moment as the worm hit the water. Then we realised that it was only the worm that had hit the water. The rest of the line was still with us on the beach.

Another worm, this time threaded without mercy in several places onto the hook.  A quick acquaintance with the way the reel’s locking system worked and a second attempt. Beautiful. Now the boys were hopping up and down in excitement… “My turn!” “My turn!” It seemed the unmoving sea was teeming with boy-sized fish just nosing about near the shore, trusting and curious about a worm squirming on a hook that might suddenly hit the sea floor in front of them. Nibble nibble. The float floated – every boy was SURE it would be snatched beneath the surface any second – come on! Come on fish!  Jump jump jump – some explosions and kung fu kicks to let off the steam of anticipation.  Quiet yelps and gun shots and whispered crowd roars as they waited for the fish to notice the worm. “Hey fish – here you are!”

It was dusk.  The beach was empty but for some die-hards with a lot of Brobdingnagian fishing equipment and all-weather gear further down. On the horizon, fingers of sun made silver columns from the clouds into the sea. I got out my camera but only got this before it died:

…that’s because it’s a phone and I need a new camera that is a camera. So the portraits of happy children excitedly pulling at a fishing line whose end floats only a few feet away in a still, grey sea are lost.

But it was heaven. If heaven is cold – it was very.

Out There Somewhere

photo

I was sitting on a bit of ruined abbey nursing the book I was supposed to be reading, enjoying the breeze and the faint brown smell that mulched York.
I tweeted something like: “What a magnificent city this is. Like a goddess! I am stumbling around like a primitive something.”
This was not altogether true, I was now sitting and stumbling only inwardly.
I started trying to write what follows in the past tense which I find very awkward, like writing left-handed. But here I went.

A friend of mine spent her school years abroad. She studied English literature and history and watched a lot of BBC television. After about eighteen years she finally set foot in Europe, was granted some sort of residential permanency and set about the serious business of assimilation.

She started in Rome. Being a trusting and naive member of the European diaspora she believed Europe to be some sort of cultural aggregate. (She later learned this to be an accurate but uncommon view which for a time she found confusing.)

In her far away studies she had spent many hours poring over street plans and elevations of urban, C 14th Rome. She knew which chapels bristled from which naves of which cathedrals and whose canvases and sculptures would be found in them. She knew which galleries and palazzi owned which works by whom and even which were of doubtful provenance. She knew the mythical stories depicted in fountains and on plinths and how the whole buildings had once looked, where now stood roped-off stony outlines. She knew these outlines too.
But, she said, no essay or exam preparation had prepared her for the shock, the smack of realizing that THIS Rome, thrumming with Piaggios and boys with nice jumpers and combed hair, THIS Rome was THAT Rome. The microfiches and slides, the imported catalogues and postcard reproductions of Great Works she had consumed, the material that constituted her entire education was this: this gelato, this boy in D&G glasses, this nappied toddler scrambling over this fallen column lovingly guarded by this black moth of an Italian Mama – this was that.

And here she was in it, drinking in the sun, the shameless admiration of Italian boys, and the starry glasses of prosecco.
She could recite this literature, she could draw maps of these streets possibly better than the people who lived on them, but she still thought: “Why didn’t anyone say?”

It wasn’t that she felt deceived or deprived, she said. Neither was it like she had turned up to a party the morning after, only to find everyone gone – though she admitted it was sometimes a little like that.

It was more like, and she said this was the best she could explain it, that she didn’t know who to thank.

As I wrote this I thought, as I often do, that had I been sitting where I then was, exactly 400 years earlier, I would have been part of a thick stone wall. I wondered how many centuries-dead people might have leant against that wall crying or laughing or bursting to go to the toilet, praying or farting? What might I, Wall, have seen or heard?

I finished writing and was walking away now remembering a documentary in which a scientist described how one day we will be able to hear all the sounds that have ever been emitted on the earth. Yes. Everything that has ever whispered, plinked or fizzed. He said it was all out there – the sound was all still out there: dinosaurs’ yowls, Shakespeare’s discarded drafts, Jesus’ teachings – we just have to develop a way of capturing it. An ear for the universe.
And then we will know.
What a reckoning that will be.

The Making of Hills

The Land by Milton

I have, it was recently, been caught making poignant yet unscientific observations about hills.  It was something I wrote.  You might have seen it.

Apparently hills just don’t form like I think they do – like a duvet settling on a bed – that is just plain wrong.   A friend tells me.  Then when I try to describe what I mean I use the phrase “a meniscus of billowing duvet” and I am apparently digging even deeper.  Meniscus.  He asks me.

So I have to be told that the way I view hills, that is: as a very, very slow wave – that view is very, very wrong.  I was thinking of a wave so slow as to be imperceptible. In my mind I saw the earth inhaling and exhaling at sub-glacial speed. I was working up to a metaphor that drew on surfing and foam.  But what I imagine is not an analogy – it is a fantasy.  It just doesn’t happen.

I might like to think of the earth’s crust as dappled and textured as a puddle in a wind, but it’s not.

For a person who knows how hills are made, it is physically painful to have them described as waves.  Or ripples.  For me to imagine God plinking a celestial pebble onto the unformed surface of the earth and then watching for several millennia as ripples break around and away is a lovely thing – mainly for me.

So I take back what I said about hills being waves.

Specificity is freedom.  A thing needs to be pinned down before it will grow.

We have a trough of strawberry plants in our kitchen at the moment and not many strawberries.  I’ll tell you why.  These strawberries send out runners.  When the runners are allowed to rest, undisturbed in, say, the pot where peppers are growing (oh yes, our kitchen is a Horn of Plenty), it puts down roots.  It quietly makes another plant.  It just needs peace and a place and off it goes.

All this energy spent making more strawberry plants diverts the mother strawberry from making strawberries.  So not many strawberries.  But seven happy strawberry plants where we planted three.  Bouncy and bushy as an army in camouflage.

I can’t be at peace if my idea about the hill is plain wrong.  That idea has no place.  And nothing will grow from it.

In fixity – freedom. That’s what I’ve learned.


What She Had On Her Desk – 3

Still with Trudy and her container of Small People… cont.DSC01176

For the second day running Bland Neighbour had tipped out of the container with a biro in one hand and a notebook in the other. Trudy had let it pass the first day.  She was caught up with Older Chap’s Silver Surfer session at the local library. Amusingly, that had ended in an uncomfortable situation involving what turned out to be his daughter’s online avatar.

Trudy was always drawn to a combination of dark and comic. The neatness of this common paradox was somehow digestable. After all, she had been brought up on a diet of stories which ended: “and the moral of the story is: never X when you Y a Z.”

On this day Trudy watched Bland Neighbour writing what looked like a letter – she could see it was a letter by the shape of the words on the page. The letter was the size of half a stamp – or less. (My, but these people were small.) His pencil was thinner than a pin.  Although she could not make out the words, she could see them trace a shape – heavier on the left and bulkier lower down the page.

She could also see that Neighbour was writing with unmistakeable intent.

Trudy was unsure how to read her own feelings about this mysterious absorption. She thought she might disturb him a little to see what happened. She tickled him with her pencil.  The pencil passed right through his body.

She started. That was odd. She licked the pencil and tried again with the eraser end: prodding and pushing, carefully at first, until she was finally stirring the space where he sat with a whizzing motion.

Strange!

He was air.

Her pencil was useless.  Her Man a tiny illusion: solid until she touched him, oblivious to his mastery of his own existence, his attention and whole world a tiny dirtying, square.

She stopped. It occurred to her that she might have a problem getting him to leave.

Perhaps she ought to have the breakfast she had missed this morning. (Tuesday was PE Day for two children and Show and Tell for one, so the day had had a febrile start.)

Now Trudy noticed a woman perched on a phone book above him, tear open an envelope and pull out a page. Behind her, a boy turned away to read from a similar piece of paper, holding it with two hands as though it weighed a stone. Over on a sunglasses’ case others were also frozen, reading from single pages.

There on a mousemat edge and there astride a paperclip, still more. Objects dropped from hands, envelopes were scrunched and thrown aside, fingers ran through hair and drew strands between open lips as the people read.

In the stillness, the Neighbour stabbed emphatically at the bottom of the page and looked at it for a second before folding it in three and slipping it nicely into an envelope. He stood up, placed it into his back pocket and walked over to the edge of the desk.

Then he vanished.

And Trudy noticed the silence he left behind, how the people re-read their pages, how they did and undid and did again their shirt buttons, how they pulled at ears, hair and chins – lost in tiny, tiny unreadable words. They stood like this for a long time.

No-one seemed to know he’d gone. And neither had he thought to let them know.

What She Had on Her Desk – 2

(continued):

Last week we learned that Trudy keeps a plastic container of small people on her desk.DSC01172

Perhaps it was the strong coffee Trudy usually drank in the mornings.  Perhaps it was the solitude… but these mornings she spent with her little collection of soft people – well they were not as whimsical and charming as you might think.   There had been a couple of deaths, limbs lost, pestilence spread – only the odd picnic or birthday party went right.

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