Saturday, 21 October 2017

Lí Ban

The memories rise above the surface of all others, overwhelmingly clear. She stands on the small pebble beach off the woods by the Blackwater River straddling the border between county Cork and county Waterford, bright in her old, waxy yellow raincoat, staring out across the dark swathe of water at the opposite bank heavy with foliage. Near the water, a small shack has become consumed with shrubbery, rendered inaccessible.
            Admittedly, as I traipse down the wide promenade receiving a forceful flow of sea gusts, my memory of that visit to Youghal years ago isn’t impeccable. I remember that to get to that little beach we had to walk along the motorway verge, which made me well and broil with anxiety. I remember a small rocky bay in Youghal itself, and the great green beach head jutting into the sea on the opposite side of the estuary. But I can’t remember visiting South-East Ireland with a girl in a bright yellow raincoat, and, until this day, feel that the view from the small pebble riverbank was uninterrupted by such a dandelion figure; I had stood at the edge and watched the swarthy weeds swirl in the dark water. I had skimmed stones across its flat surface.
            Two years ago? Three years ago? I feel that it had been September, and in a year where I had embarked on some sudden bout of small adventures abroad, after a decade grounded. I found myself quietly walking down the streets of Oslo, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Edinburgh… It was for the cities in the night-time, preferably freezing cold too. At least that’s what I remember most from these cities; beautiful lights in a cold night sky that felt light, and silent.
            I dig my hands into my pockets in futile protection against the winds that bring in winter. I find that they are littered with holes. Barely anyone is out on the coast, but it doesn’t feel empty. What does feel empty? Concrete car parks. Corridors in Dental clinics. Shopping malls after close. I  tread from ‘empty spaces’ to ‘humanless spaces.’ I can see fields of spider webs lying low on the grass, rippling in an autumn ray of sunlight. I can see a deer browsing in the boundary of a wood, raising its head in alarm at a twig crunching. I remember the dense bramble on the other side of the Blackwater river, devouring that small shack, aswarm with kittiwakes and crabs and the occasional heron, when I see her, luminescent in that raincoat amidst the November grey in early evening, on the coast, in the real, filled out and fleshed in front of me. The yellow of her coat obliterates the greenery that gently rolled in my imagination; it reasserts herself falsely into my benign tidings over my trip to Youghal. My throat readies to pulse out questions; who are you, have we met, have we stood on a small pebble beach on the Blackwater river straddling county Cork and county Wateford in the Republic of Ireland and gazed at the heavy shrubbery on the opposite bank, when her hand quickly rises to my face, placing a single finger on my lips in hush.

            Slowly, she cranes her neck to look over the coast. I’m trying to remember her but there is sadly nothing to remember, just a blaring image in my brain of an event somehow spliced with imagination. I look at her face, which stares sternly over the water swashing onto the beach. I feel a drop, then a downpour gushes upon us, and her finger is withdrawn from my lips as she relents her serious face into a smile. The rain dribbles down the outside of her waxy yellow raincoat.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Early Novel Sample

A sample of one of three novels I started and failed to complete in the past five years or so. This one was the most recent, and I do think about returning to it, editing and completing it. A lot of the story is lost to me now and also I think differently about characters, their situations and their voices. 

I slam the flat sole of my boot against the door, crunching it open, and as soon as I’m in the man leaps on me and I grunt and we fall instantly to the floor but I catch him good with my elbow sending his bottom two teeth out and he loosens his grip and I’m up and I use the my boot again against his head this time. Then the other man bounds over and catches me in the chest but not low enough to do much but rattle and ache so I bung out one with my right and then a low one with my left and then the boot again.
            I’m wearing all the clothes I own; one pair of underwear, one pair of socks (one sock missing heel,) one pair of long underwear, one grey t-shirt, one navy blue sweatshirt, one workcoat, a pair of jeans and the boots. Winter is eating in, but right now I am sweating, lumbering around the room as men leap out of nowhere, catching me good, but never good enough for them.
            “Joseph!” The only person ever to call me Joseph. “You fucking nut you was supposed to be quiet!” He rants as we clear the room looking. We are looking for signs that these men had something to do with a crime. The kidnapping of my sister. I lean into the bathroom. The ceramic of the bath has been completely shattered, while the sink hangs off of the wall, linked by gurgling copper pipes, and scraps of dusty plaster. The ceramic lid to the toilet cistern is missing. There is piss in the toilet, and underneath that, rust or limescale that has eaten into or attached itself to the rotten ceramic, apart from a clear, undamaged shape, like a bird spreading its wings. Davy pushes past me and starts pissing with me in the room.
            “Fucks sake.” Could barely hear him over the urine hitting water. The bath is filled with some sort of chemical, surrounded by glass piping and beakers like in school. Davy reckons it’s to make some drug or other. The motel’s been abandoned for a long time; cats roam around, relaxed and happy, unafraid, collarless, ceaselessly breeding and defecating. Through the doorway in this lighting the world looks grey, and cold.
            My sister found employment in the honourable, dreamlike way. She was the eldest of us; me, my second eldest sister Lou, and my eldest sister, Wend. While I was rumbling through the bush and Lou was gathering clay, Wend was always on the field, darting over other players, striking the ugly puff of a ball in between the goalposts time after time and time; it was not a surprise when she was seriously noticed, and less of a surprise when she moved out into the town, still young, to train all day, to hone the blade that is this talent she owns. Davy says this is why she has been kidnapped; she represents a lot of money, a lot of skill.
            My father didn’t follow football, but respected sport. Every Tuesday and Thursday, after he got back from work, after all the niggles had been fixed around the house, after all the gardening had been done, after all the mouths had been fed, he’d disappear to the boxing gym. Occasionally, he’d have a match on Saturday. Usually he’d win, but occasionally he’d lose, and be unseen, holed up in his room from shame and unable to move without pain. Then he’d emerge again, making jokes about him and Wendy swapping sports; she could only kick her boxing opponents and he only punch the ball and the referee. Davy would laugh.
            Davy would sit at the table in his vest, the tattoo of our home district’s coat of arms on his shoulder, and grumble about my father’s boxing. “With them gloves on, might as well be fighting with numb stumps on the end of your arm. There’s no wrist in it, it’s just shoulder and bicep.” Here he’d flex his own hands, his knuckles worn and scarred. “Can’t kill a man with your bare fists. Hurts too much. You’re taking a share of the hit.” Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night uncle Davy would be at the Red Lion, a damp and flat-roofed pub in town. He wouldn’t drink much, but at the sign of a few knowing glances, would descend into the basement, to face a challenger in a bareknuckle fight. Once he took me with him, when I was about sixteen. If both contenders were still conscious at the end of the fight, they embraced, they smiled, bloody, teeth missing, gristle and bone crunched and misaligned. My mother threw a bowl at Davy’s head when he brought me back. Strangely, that bowl gave him the only scar on his face, just above his left eyebrow.
            I would never watch my father fight. Watching Davy fight was flesh on flesh, bone on bone. To me, my father’s strength was used to heave buildings into sway in the villages of the county, to tear the Earth in the garden to feed us, to hold my mother tightly with great bursts of emotion, to lift the children up, to shake hands and pat backs. I didn’t like to think of those dexterous and calloused hands swathed in padded leather, pounding a man’s face, surrounded by nameless spectators, a crowd stitched out of many tuxedoes .
            Yet it was the reverse pounding which took effect. In one particular month, my father took shelter in his room for a fortnight altogether, a week each after two separate fights. After he felt rid of shame and pain after the second bout of loss, he returned to work, unbruised, unscarred; healed. He picked up a load of bricks, and headed up the scaffolding, in his usual careful way. He carefully stepped off the ladder, carefully hollered that the ‘Bricks’re up boys,’ then carefully set them down, then carefully stood up. Upon standing, after a series of hurling many punches, and receiving much more, finally something, some nerve or blood vessel, failed in a more basic task. Anywhere else and we’d have been laughing, consoling, smiling. But at the top of the scaffolding, my Father lost consciousness, and tottered over, diving into the brick heap, his solidity, his strength, crumpled against the misshapen piling of stone.
            A year later, we’re all working; Wend is rising in the world of football, working part time; Lou is working part time, studying part time, and I am working full time, for the same group my father worked with. Perhaps as a sympathetic gesture, or more likely the assumption that skill could be hereditary. Sons often follow their fathers. We all work on the garden, we all bring the earth to fruit.

            Davy came to dinner and visited often anyway, but now he’s here at least every other day. He takes Lou to school and Wend to football practise, he helps out in the garden and around the house. He fixed up the old truck; our Dad walked everywhere anyway, and so when the truck broke down it never crossed his mind to get it fixed. Mam worked part-time in a school in a town in the next county. I’d still find her sat on the bed, looking out the window at the garden, or the fields, frozen in some movement; folding clothes, getting dressed. I knew who was in her thoughts; he’ll live forever in her.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Finding the Line

“Where are you from?”
Neck half craned from the phone that had just died in his hand, the young man hadn’t seen this old man in a ragged coat a second ago, nor had he seen any of his surroundings ever before in his life.
“Brinian? Where’s that?”
“Rousay… Where am I now?”
“Rousay, why that’s in… That’s in Orkney! You might be the most Northern one I’ve met, and I’ve been riding the line for decades. Might have been one from Shetland… Think it was Brindister.”
“where am I? I was just there…”
“Aye, it’s confusing, no easy explanation… We’re in Bridgend.” The old man raised his eyebrows and pulled a grimacing smile, possibly meant to be interpreted as a welcome.
“what?” The fear rises.
“Bridgend. Wales I think. Congratulations, boy, you’ve just ridden the line! One of the longest continuous steps I think I’ve ever heard of!” The phone is still out, and still dead. The old man knows what the device is, but hasn’t had the attention or chance to become familiar with it.
“You look a bit peaky, son. I know a place. Come for a sit?” The old man lays a hand on the Orcadian’s shoulder, gestures with his other hand, and, without looking ahead, steps forward, forcing the younger man to as well. They step, feet moving, and they also, step, they are put into the line and they step forward.
“Here we are. Just as I remember; been a little while since I was last here mind.”
The young Orcadian drops his phone. “Fuckin’… OhmiGod, oh God.”
“Easy son. It’s just a pub. They say Edward Teach drank here. C’mon boy, just let me get you there, eh?” Gently, the old man walks the younger to the door of the Llandoger Trow. “We’re… We’re somewhere different.” Fear has passed into pure bewilderment in the young man’s eyes. “Aye son,” the older man says with a knowing smile. “I’m sorry. I’m gonna explain, it’s just best we sit somewhere good, you know?”
“so where are we then?!”
“Well, we were in Bridgend, and we stepped, lad, we stepped into Bristol. I stepped us here.”

The old man silently exhales through the tips of his mottled moustache flecked with ale foam. He is relieved; he tries to help them all, and he usually tries to take them to the Llandoger Trow, not for any real reason other than it being his favourite, but if they’re screaming, or crying, or anything extreme, it’s not easy; he’s there often enough to get recognised, not something he can say about anywhere else. The Orcadian is still has a slight tremor as he tries to grip his pint, but he is at least curious. “How does it work?”
“Hold on. Two steps back, now; what’s your name?”
“Sig. You?” The words are short bursts; in the face of what is going on, banal introductions merely waste time and breath.
“Jack.” The old man shifts in his seat, leans forward. “And I couldn’t tell you the scientifics. Whatever ‘it’ is, it works. I’m pretty sure anyone could do it, too, but I don’t know why only a few of us have stumbled into it. You just… Feel the line, you find it branching out in front of you, and you… Step.”
“What does.. What’s the line? This makes no sense.”
“The line is, well, it’s just there. I don’t know if it’s, like, geological, carried by the stones, or biological, or cultural, but it’s there. You’ll know it properly soon, you’ll get a feel for it. It’s the straightest line there is and it zigzags to everyplace it can.”
Maybe it’s a trick, Sig thought. Some midnight prank, it couldn’t be truly possible to go from Brinian in Orkney to Bridgend in Wales, to a pub in Bristol, to converse with an apparent madman, contradicting himself at every explanation. Surroundings don’t lie, though, and there is no way this is Brinian, and the step they took did seem to obliterate Bridgend into something completely different, an old city dock. “Where can it go, this line?”
“the line’s sort of, fishhooked, y’see to certain places. It’s trying to shoot off around the universe, but something has snagged it. What do you notice about the places we’ve been?”
“They’re different?”
“well, yes, but similar in one way. Think of the names. Bridgend, Bristol, you came from Brinian you say.”
“The names have the same first three letters?”
The old man smiled apologetically. “Yes. That is apparently what catches the line.”
“I don’t understand at all, Can you explain-“
“It is unexplainable.”
“But you’ve just told me a lot of how it works already?”
“I’ver told you how it works. I’ve told you what you’d learn yourself. I have not explained it, as I cannot.”
“Is it that complex? We’ve just stepped it twice.”
“It’s not complex. Medical law’s complex, but you can still learn it, you can have it explained to you step-by-step. There is no explanation for travelling the line. On its surface it is understandable, in its essence it is unexplainable.”
“Don’t let it trouble you. Why would you need to know? Why would you need to know the physics of it when you can step from Brisbane to Brighton?”
“That far?”
“Aye, though I wouldn’t recommend abroad too much, you can wear yourself out, and it’s not so easy to find the line. You don’t want to be stuck out there for too long.”
“So you’ve travelled all over? All over the line?”
“Yeah, I’ve travelled all along the line. When I first discovered it I just used it to go to as many places as possible; two, three every day, maybe less if they weren’t boring. You know, it’s sad, it does seem to keep you locked in to English speaking places. Different languages don’t seem to favour ‘Brih.’ After a while I bored of that, and set to truly walking the line, hoping to meet it in the middle, to walk it in a circle. It didn’t work; can’t explain why, after a few years I ended up in the same place I set off from, but you could feel it, the line did not overlap on itself. It is the straightest line there is. After a while I just set into what I do now, look for the signs along the line for a newbie, or a fellow traveller, anyone to help along the way a little.”

He knows exactly where he wants to go. Back to Brinian, cold, rainy Brinian, just find the line this one time and never trip up on it again. What about time? Can a straight line accidentally slip gently through time, to the past, into the future?
They are outside the Llandoger Trow now. “I can feel it there, but it’s like it’s surrounded by a bubble. Like a membrane, like a womb. It’s like that part of the line, the time part, is unfinished; you can get a feel for the blueprint of the path but if you were to take a step you’d find that there was no road there. You’d fall.” The old man’s eyes are darting in the night air. Is this what finding the line looks like? “Think I’ll step out… Step on over to… Brierfield. Aye, Brierfield, and find a place to kip.” The old man’s eyes swat to Sig’s. “You’ll be alright?”
“aye, aye I spose so…”
“well, alright then. I’m sure our paths will cross again.” The old man looked like he tripped over himself, his ragged coat clapping like a pigeon’s wings in the air for a brief moment before the sole of his shoe scraped a last time on the dockside  and he was gone, tumbling up the line to Lancashire.

Feel the line… Sig blinked in the night air. He screwed his eyes shut, he darted his eyes around like old Jack. He held his breath. No line in the air. How had he done it before? Just as he began to panic about the strange journey he’d have to make from Southern England to the Isle of Rousay, he felt it. Unsheathed in front of him, both minute and infinitely long from behind Sig and on in front of him, he felt the line. Taut as a wire, sharp as a razor, gleaming on the dockside, immeasurably straight but pulsing with the roundabout of places it joins up all over, Sig’s breath left him, his eyes unblinking and his mouth open, and he stepped into the line and out of the dock, and into a cemetery. The cemetery at Brinian, Rousay. It was night, but he could hear the sea churning strong, he could see the stars, and he could feel the whiplash streak of the line screening forever in all directions, the straightest edge there was. Unexplainable.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Lives in our Death: Rewilding for a Post-Human World.

Apocalyptic visions are getting harder and harder to ignore in the 21st century; they’re embedded densely in popular culture, the media frequently leans towards intense catastrophic fear-mongering, and many experts are espousing troubling theories about the nearing end-times, including the man who conceived of the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, James Lovelock.
            Instead of spurring a drive towards correction, this kind of embedded fear has all too often led to frantic action and bizarre offsetting of fear; Slavoj Žižek observes that in the face of impending sea level rises and the loss of both ice caps, people are instead attracted to (and fed by the media) stories about possible carbon-saving boat travel across the newly created Arctic sea, or the possiblility of Antarctica as an entirely new plain to colonise. This impedes the kind of radical environmental action massively; people are either happy to continue with business as usual or are too pessimistic to do anything proactive.
            Rewilding is definitely proactive and radical; it suggests a drastic change in our approach to natural landscapes to just leave them be, or to reinstate vital aspects of ecosystems that we have helped eradicate (such as large predators) to enable them to be self-sufficient. Many, including George Monbiot in his seminal book on rewilding in Britain, entitled Feral, espouse human-oriented arguments that delve into the spiritual and the economic. I believe that, especially in the case of humans becoming extinct, rewilding is essential simply for the planet.
            As the global landscape stands, especially in Europe, where there are animals, there are fences. We alone can permeate these fences; we bring the animals their feed, we rake away their droppings. The space animals, especially livestock, are allowed to occupy is a liminal space, often without natural function. The same can be observed in some ‘wild’ and natural spaces; conservation organisations created ‘natural disturbance’ to manage the lives of the animals therein, also most likely fenced in. What happens to these animals when we die?
            Presumably, they also die. Without a supply of food, surrounded by their own muck and often separated from breeding partners, these animals will die, and rot, and provide food for the scavenging few that can even make it past the fence such as birds or insects. If this was a rewilded or truly wild space, it would be self-sufficient and naturally functioning. Animal carcasses would of course be present in the landscape, but they would be integrated into the natural processes present just as should occur in the wilderness. Species can roam, breed, interact, spread, just as animals and plants naturally do; they are fluid.

Although the lifetime of a fence is far greater than their own lives, the chance we would give them to be able to live and breed for generations yet to come before the fence finally falls is still a whole lot better than the meagre chance afforded to our pets, zoo occupants, livestock, pitiful nature reserves. To not think of the lives of those we implicate in our own past our species’ extinction is as absurd as assuming that when you die, everyone else dies. Besides, through proactive rewilding, we might even solve some of the apocalyptic issues currently plaguing our planet such as carbon emissions, deforestation, and the terrifying loss of biodiversity the world over.