Wednesday, March 09, 2016

In the Place of Miracles

Here is Richard Finch: a bony Englishman, forty-five years old, in earth-tone slacks made out of some kind of stretchy fabric and a polo shirt from Marks and Spencer, hunched over a pushchair amongst the white marble miracles of Pisa, birthplace of his second wife. Their child, almost two now, is curled asleep in the pushchair, sucking at the fleecy ear of a toy rabbit. She has never been allowed a dummy. Finch checks his watch every thirty seconds and his wife, clearly annoyed, tells him they have plenty of time. Her attitude may well be all que sera sera, he thinks, but he likes to get to the airport early, to be at the front of the inevitable queue, and they still have to retrieve the suitcases from her mother's, which is not exactly between their current position and the airport, and she almost certainly hasn't taken into account how protracted the leavetaking is likely to be, particularly now the long-awaited grandchild has to be said goodbye to as well, and all the snuggling and tears and promises of an almost immediate return entered into, and the fact that there is probably going to be rush hour traffic, yes even here, where no-one rushes to do anything at all. He twiddles his fingers on the crossbar of the buggy, to stop himself looking at his watch but also as a subtle yet unmistakeable indication of his ongoing impatience.

Mrs Finch - smaller, slightly younger, and possessed of a honey-eyed, aquiline beauty which makes Finch the envy of his friends and colleagues - is altogether more relaxed. She walks alongside her husband and child smiling at the folly of the tourists, duelling with selfie sticks to position themselves at a position of greatest advantage for the same photo that everyone takes when they come to this small corner of the country she left behind. Nice to see the place anew, she thinks, through his eyes. And when Isabella is a little older, through her eyes too.

“Don't they drive you mad?”
“Why should they? Everyone is behaving very well.”

This is true, more or less, Finch thinks. No-one is actually throwing punches, but it's a scene, nevertheless. It was her idea, this. To have a leisurely lunch and wander down to marvel at i turisti, marvelling at the marvels. All good fun, but they're now half an hour behind the schedule he had outlined in his head. Perhaps he should have told her about this earlier.

“Laura,” he begins. His wife raises a hand. Across an angle of lush grass, perhaps fifty or sixty yards away, a crowd has gathered, and a woman can be heard shrieking. Finch can't see what is going on, exactly. His glasses are at at home on the narrow table in the hallway. Laura takes his arm. “Do something,” she says. He checks his watch again, finding himself somehow helpless, through no fault of his own. They're not even supposed to still be here, according to his own, silent reckoning. She is pushing him now, towards the fracas, away from the airport. He steps over the low swag of black chain and starts to jog across the grass, his gait long yet inefficient, like an old, lame wolf. The scene before him sharpens into a kind of sense. A Japanese couple and their son, all in matching golf visors, the father, with some expensive looking camera equipment slung over his back as he kneels behind the boy, who is three or four years old, and whose face is the livid purple of a drunk's cheek. The man has his arms around the boy and is snatching them upwards in an effort, Finch assumes, to dislodge something in his airway. Trachea, is it? The kid is flopping around noiselessly like a dead thing.

The crowd see the tall Englishman coming and back away in expectation so that when he arrives dozens of pairs of eyes settle upon him. The mother is still screaming and shaking. This response does not seem disproportionate to the situation, Finch acknowledges, which does appear to be rather grave, but he is surprised by it nevertheless, perhaps, he considers, because of the woman's nationality, and the Japanese reputation for calm stoicism. He stands there for a moment, panting slightly, and remarks to himself that the reason that we have a word for stereotypes is probably something to do with their unreliability, otherwise there would be no need to discriminate between generalisations of this kind and actual fact. The noise the woman is making, whatever his feelings about it, isn't helpful, so he puts a hand on her shoulder and flaps his other hand up and down, as if testing the buoyancy of a hotel pillow, in an effort to calm her down. The father, who seems to be conforming wholeheartedly to Finch's possibly somewhat bigoted expectations looks up at him and says “Medico?” Finch shakes his head and points towards the squat mediaeval gateway to the piazza through which he and his own family had entered minutes earlier and beyond which are visible the chequered markings of an emergency vehicle. “No, ambulancia,” he says, complete with a bad Spanish accent. “Ambulanza.” He looks into the eyes of the father and realises that the man's implacable exterior is a lie, white marble over brickwork, and that he is as panicked as his wife, still moaning to Finch's left, but at a manageable volume.

He reaches out to the child and puts two long hands under the boy's armpits. The kid has the surprising density of the unconscious, and Finch lets the small body flop onto his shoulder as he turns to run towards the gate. As he does so a small, sand-coloured object, wet with the boy's spit and phlegm, flies out of the kid's mouth, marking a gentle, curved descent before nestling atop the impossibly green grass. Almost immediately the boy comes to and starts to cough and cry. Finch has only taken five paces. He stops and with considerable care lowers the kid, lighter now by a more than the mass of a half-eaten rice cake, down onto the lawn. The father gathers his son into an embrace shuddered by sobbing. People are taking pictures or applauding. The boy's mother is thanking Finch, over and over again and pulling at the Englishman's sleeve, which is annoying, because all he wants to do is check the time, though he knows that the reward that awaits him is a missed flight, or at the very best a long, snaking queue at the airport, and him at the back of it.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Minus the Shooting

Younis loved his country, all of it that he had seen anyway, and he had seen more than everybody he knew. He was a commercial traveller, buying fabric mostly, and some leather goods. Business took him south to the edge of the desert, where low, white villages were dwarfed by sand dunes, and all along the Mediterranean coast. Some mornings he would pull up beside the coast road, get out of the car, and stand in the play of wind between the land and the sea, would throw his suit jacket on to the back seat and stand there in his shirt, arms slightly away from his body, his tie flapping around his shoulders. He loved the people of his country too, a humorous nation, excitable, generous though largely underfed, speaking a rich creole of French and Arabic with countless oaths borrowed and often spliced from both. A good-looking people. More handsome than those from either side, at any rate. Younis himself was much admired, though unmarried. His moustache was broad and his hair still thick. The Lexus belonged to the company, in truth, but the apartment, in a good part of town, was his.

He might have called himself a patriot, but here, as in certain other countries, the word had assumed some negative overtones. It had come to connote a kind of small-mindedness, and a parochial, or at least less than cosmopolitan attitude to non-Arabs. Younis regretted but understood the recent upswell in patriotic feeling amongst the lower classes. Though he was a businessman he thought of himself as being essentially of the left. He bought a socialist newspaper two or three times a week and always on a Thursday. He dressed in western clothes but maintained some local habits. What bound him to the masses, to the young men in the squares who veered between political discontent and nationalist fervour, was his passion for the national football team. This passion created a literal queasiness in him. He was so invested in the fortunes of the team that watching them made him sick. He would heave with nerves if the opposition crossed the halfway line. So he couldn't watch. Or could only watch the game's neutralities. The national anthems. The ball being shuffled across the back four. The pundits at half-time (though he would have, occasionally, to avert his eyes from the screen as attempts on goal at either end were analysed in slow motion).

Later on this particular September day the Desert Falcons were to play a World Cup qualifier against Senegal, in Dakar. Younis was not optimistic about the result, nor indeed his chances of avoiding the match. If he stayed in his hand would drift towards the television remote like some disembodied horror, and he would curl and cringe on the sofa until the rout was complete. Every café in the city would be showing the game, every laundrette and takeaway. Market stalls and taxis would have the radio tuned to a sports channel. He thought about driving out of the city, but again foresaw a twitching hand, one that could almost be identified as his own, fiddling furiously with the dial of a car stereo. He would have to go out on foot, he realised. Younis decided to reacquaint himself with the stuffed fauna in the Musée National. He would set out just before six, walk directly to the museum, sit in front of some paintings, be transported back to an idealised childhood amongst the tatty taxidermy in the basement, then make his way back. He estimated that the whole adventure would take up to two hours, long enough for the match to reach its unhappy conclusion.

The afternoon had begun to cool as he put on a linen jacket and skipped down the stone staircase of his building, a free man. On the corner of his street a workman and a gendarme were arguing over a flag, which the labourer had tied to a barrier. Younis listened as he waited for the lights to change. It seemed that the cop had told the workman to remove the flag because, as he pointed out (and not unreasonably, Younis thought) it considerably reduced visibility for anyone turning left on a filter light. The labourer, who seemed to be in a less reasonable frame of mind, kept repeating that the flag was 'symbolic', and it emerged besides that the flag was a permanent fixture on the barrier, had been tied to it, in fact, since the Desert Falcons had last made it to the World Cup, seven years previously, and was therefore, in all likelihood, irremovable. The gendarme then enquired if the navvy had an alternative barrier at his disposal, which enquiry was duly answered, somewhat insolently, in the negative. Younis imagined retelling the story at some later point, of The Flag and the Hole in the Road, perhaps as an amusing antidote to the disappointing reversal about to visited upon his beloved national team by the Senegalese. The lights changed and he let them, patting down his jacket for an imaginary billfold, or pack of cigarettes, a charade performed so that the two interlocutors would not think he was merely loitering in the hope that they would come to blows. He made an effort to record their continuing dialogue in his mind, more or less as it happened.

“I can't just leave the hole unprotected.”
“Well cut it off then,” replied the constable.
“I can't and I won't. The flag is a symbol.”
“So you've said. May I ask what the flag symbolises, and how?”
“It symbolises our nation. Our struggle.”
The policeman nodded.
“I'm still struggling to understand how, exactly, this dirty bit of cloth symbolises the whole nation. Isn't it just a flag? And a flag in the wrong place? Tell me.”
The lights changed again. Younis let them.
“So the white band,” the workman began, “represents the peace we have achieved.” The cop surveyed the noisome junction.
“I suppose we're not actually at war, just at the moment.”
“The red is the blood shed by those martyrs, our fathers and brothers, with which peace, and our freedom, were bought.”
“Did you read that in a pamphlet?” The workman lit a cigarette and smiled but did not answer. Younis sensed that the situation was moving towards detente. Tempers cooling like the day, energy dispersing towards the end of the universe.
“And the green?” The workman wasn't sure.
“I guess it represents the country. The green land.”

Islam, thought Younis, crossing the road, finally. Green is for Islam, spine of the nation, its laws, sacraments and customs. There was a lot of desert, yes, but even here in the north it wasn't particularly green. A strange conclusion to reach. He imagined an alternate flag, with a beige stripe at the bottom. That might best represent the country's topography, was that the word? And yet it was a beautiful country, and no greener now, after the revolutions of his lifetime, than when the French were in charge, nor the Spanish before them. So the green represented a national religion, an established faith. Younis could have done without it. People needed to forget about the next world and focus on their desires in the here and now. Want something, buy it. Don't worry too much about what you can never possibly know. At the western end of the harbour the land rose up a thousand feet. There was a Moorish fort there, and a Spanish chapel beneath it. Less close to God. Tourists were driven up in coaches to see the battlements and the icons. Once a year, on Ascension Day, some pilgrims from the city walked up there. For what? There was a café and some souvenir stalls and a view over the port. Nothing special.

The boulevard was empty. Younis strode along it at a military pace. He imagined himself as the sole survivor of some biological outrage. The whole world at his disposal but no-one to share it with. He shivered and fell out of rhythm for a moment, becoming conscious of each footstep. Ahead, four hundred metres on the left, loomed the museum. Richly coloured friezes running in a band around the building. White stucco, black railings with an occasional soft drink can impaled upon them. A border of coarse grass. Palm trees every twenty yards or so. It was, Younis reflected, a modest, colonial sort of affair. Not the Louvre, nor the Prado, but something out at the edge of things. And perhaps all the better for it. A uniformed man stood on the steps and addressed Younis as he approached the gates.

“No admission after five forty-five.”
“Since when?”
“Since I've worked here,” said the man.
“Was it your decision, then, to change the opening hours?”
“What? No, I just work here.” The two men stood regarding each other for a moment, then the security guard lifted his chin and looked back towards the port. “Go home and watch the match,” he said. “That's what I'll be doing.”

Younis offered the man a limp salute and turned around. He was disappointed, but the walk had killed some time and kept his mind off the game. He walked north, staying on the shaded side of the boulevard. Ten minutes later he turned right towards the centre of town. He had decided to take refuge in the shop of Murad, his barber, who was a Christian and possibly a homosexual. Anyway, Younis remembered, Murad took no interest at all in football, and the television in the salon was invariably tuned to an entertainment channel. He skirted the bazaar, walking through the jewellery district. This was the oldest part of the city, the blackened buildings crowding closer, gutters almost touching overhead. Most of the shops were open. Old men hunched behind heavy glass cabinets. Men who had lived through everything but had seen nothing, hidden away in this dark corridor, insulated by diamonds. They beckoned to him. “Buy or sell,” he heard repeatedly, muffled by closed doors and old velvet. Six forty-five. Half time. He sat outside a small café and ordered a coffee. He sugared and sipped it. Very good, like the coffee in Spain, he thought. A moment later his stomach seemed somehow to violently rotate within him as, looking away from the café, he saw the match score reflected in the darkened window of a shop across the street. Any other score might have taken a moment to absorb, to reverse the characters and to recall which was the home team. It was nil – nil. Gloriously and unambiguously scoreless. Younis allowed himself a brief moment of hope. Perhaps they could pull it off. But hope was almost immediately overwhelmed by memories of past failures. The team defending a narrow lead, dropping deeper and deeper into their own half, throwing themselves in the way of every shot and cross, until tired legs can no longer perform. A low drive deflected twice in a crowded box. A foot withdrawn just too late from the path of the overlapping left back. All that effort for nothing.

Younis pulled a note from his wallet and tucked it under his saucer. There was a photograph in there, sandwiched between two business cards. His niece aged about four. He had always been fond of the girl, grown up and living in America now, but the reason he kept the photo was because of an unusual quality he felt it possessed. Her hair is long and uncovered. She wears a knee length brown dress which he remembers being stitched from a heavy fabric, corduroy perhaps. She is leaning forward at the waist, her arms stretched down in front of her, her hands half a metre apart. There is a red ball in mid-air. This was the thing about the photograph. It seemed to capture not only a moment, but also what preceded and followed this moment. You could see that the girl had just bounced the ball, but also, from its position slightly beyond her reach, you could see that she would not catch it and that the ball would skip away from her over the hard ground. He had taken the photo himself, and did not remember if this had happened, but looking at the image it was impossible to conceive that it hadn't. That the girl hadn't shrieked slightly, and skipped along after the ball. He wasn't sure what significance this had, really, but he felt that it must have something to do with how humans experience time and space. This was the kind of thinking he tried to avoid, particularly when it was late, and he was alone. But his mind was generally unquiet. The little girl in the brown dress provoked another question, as he rose and put on his jacket. How, he wondered, did we get from that innate instinct to play, to the present moment, where nation was staked against nation, across the globe, where the kicking of a ball could not be an unpolitical act, if only because of the great numbers of souls, his included, who were invested in the trajectory of that act? He heard the whistle blow for the start of the second half.

There was a red sign above the barber shop window with Murad's name and line of business hand-painted upon it in Arabic, French and English. This last, lowest set of letters was smaller than those above, as if added as an optimistic afterthought. The town attracted few tourists, and those who made to these narrow streets were usually looking for hashish rather than a haircut. A tricolour was pinned up in a corner of the window, just big enough to reassure nationalists that their custom was welcomed (Younis thought of the roaddigger) and not so big as to prove distasteful to everyone else.

Murad was not busy. He sat alone on the vinyl banquette where, during the week, his customers would wait their turn in the chair. Younis watched him for a while before entering the shop. His attention, it seemed, was divided between the large tropical fish tank at the back of the shop and the television in the corner. Nothing was happening in the fish tank, nothing that Younis could perceive, anyway. Meanwhile on the flatscreen young men and women threw themselves about in silence. Murad rose as he entered and greeted him warmly. The barber's own hair was thinning somewhat, and was unnaturally black, and as he spoke to Younis he repeatedly scraped his palm over his scalp from front to back. Funny, Younis thought, that you never saw a dentist with bad teeth.

“I was just thinking about closing up for the day.” Younis stepped backwards, smiling.
“I can come back, if you prefer. I've already been turned away from the Musée National...”
“No, no, sit down.” The barber was flustered. “Not a soul for two hours. On a Sunday.”
“There's a football match going on,” Younis explained. “An important one.”
“Not important to me.”
“Well, important in the sense that it has robbed you of your usual customers.”
“But their hair will still need cutting, whoever wins.”

It was then agreed that the client's hair would be washed, prior to cutting, and that afterwards a wet shave would be in order. The great black chair was duly lowered and Younis leant over the sink. Murad's voice, sharing some gossip about the mayor and his mistress, was only intermittently audible as water and hands and shampoo and more hands and more water swilled about his client's ears. The effect was not unpleasant. As Murad towelled his hair dry Younis watched a young man approaching in the mirror. A young black with untidy hair. Murad saw him too, and made towards the door. Younis still had water in his ears. Murad explained that he was with his last customer but the young man offered to pay double as he had a job interview in the morning and felt it important that he resemble, at least somewhat, the small square figure in the photo he had attached to his curriculum vitae. Just a trim with clippers, a five minute job. Murad's resistance to the young man's appeals seemed, to Younis at least, distinctly unchristian, and as a representative of at least one minority (almost certainly two) the barber might have been expected to empathise with the plight of a fellow who was similarly marginalised by the random circumstances of his birth, and the conditions which informed themselves upon these circumstances. It was not so apparently. But Younis hectored Murad, without referring to this surmised parallel between the two other men's conditions of life, querying instead if the barber could afford to turn away a paying customer in the current climate, determined in this last afternoon to be a whimsical thing altogether. The young man sat down on the banquette, eventually, and nodded his thanks to the older man in the chair. Almost immediately Younis regretted taking sides. The young African asked if he could watch the end of the match while he waited. Half an hour to go, or thereabouts. Murad tossed him the remote.

Younis clenched each part of himself and tried not to look. The familiar nausea swelled over him as Murad, with exquisite slowness, moved around him with the scissors. Statistics appeared in the lower third of the screen. Senegal could boast eighty-five percent possession, most of it in the Falcon's half. Twelve corners to none. Seventeen attempts on goal (nine on target) to none. The away team hadn't had a shot. The sound was still off but Younis was confident that the commentator would be recycling some variation of “The statistic that really matters is the score”. Younis tried to focus on the blades of the scissors. He saw them moving in the mirror and listened to them clicking. Yick-yick-yick. It was impossible. Eighty minutes. Murad produced the small mirror and showed him the back of his head. It looked, Younis thought, reassuringly similar to the back of his head after the last dozen or so haircuts he'd had. Murad was still brushing cut hair from his neck as he rose to leave. The barber pressed him gently back into the seat. “Let's shave you.” He disappeared into the back of the shop and reappeared with a small pile of steaming towels. The Falcons keeper tipped a forceful header on to the crossbar. As Younis sat with the lower part of his face shrouded in hot towels Murad shaved the African's head. The young man pronounced himself satisfied with the job done, and paid double, as promised. Murad gave him back one of the notes. He stayed in the chair next to Younis who appeared to be ill. The older man, whose skin had taken on a grey tinge, was watching the game closely now, though his head seemed to wobble rather on his neck. He reached for the remote and unmuted the television. Forty thousand people whistling. This was odd, he thought. Did the home crowd want the game to end? Perhaps it was a cultural thing. Were they jeering their team? Murad removed the towels and began lathering his chin.

Three minutes of extra time. The whistling intensifies. Murad is saying something. His two customers urge him to be quiet. Another corner. Senegal leave one on one at the back. The corner is too close to the Falcons keeper who catches it and punts it towards the halfway line. It looks like a training drill. The ball bounces over the Senegalese centre-back and is seized upon by the solitary Falcons forward. He is smaller and quicker and pulls away towards the edge of the penalty area, but shifts the ball too far in front of him. The Senegal goalkeeper sees this and charges out to clear but gets to the ball a quarter of a second after the centre-forward who lifts it over his sliding legs. The forward is flipped, almost and the ball rolls goalward. The Senegalese centre-half recovers and hooks it around the post.

Younis remained in his seat. As the ball rolled towards the line he refused to admit the possibility that it might cross it, that the retreating defender might stumble or fluff the clearance. Three points away in Dakar was simply too much to dream of. A draw seemed certain now. Senegal were down to ten men, and without a goalkeeper, having used their three substitutions. The left-back had taken the gloves and stood behind the wall half-laughing as he directed them into position. A draw was an excellent result. So he would not rue the chance that hadn't quite gone in. The incident had secured the point. Murad peeled a blade from its wrapper and slid it into the razor. It felt odd to experience this calm, Younis thought, to watch as a disinterested observer might. He felt the blade against his cheek. The stand-in goalkeeper gave a thumbs-up to the referee who blew his whistle. Mohamed Shahili, nineteen years old and perhaps sixty-five kilos, took two steps towards the ball and poked it with the outside of his right boot, still on the toes, but kicking slightly across it. Murad began to pull the blade down over his client's left cheek, in short staccato movements. Like a Bernard Herrmann score, thought Younis, listening at the same time to the TV pundit who was explaining that the biggest difficulty from this distance was getting the ball up over the wall and down again in time for it to squeeze beneath the bar, while Shahili's strike seemed to be overcoming this difficulty in the most convincing fashion, leaving the locum keeper flatfooted as it slid down the back of the net and the ball rested there, its energy spent, an object newly weighted with history.

Younis jumped this time and the razor marked a thin red line an inch below his cheekbone. Murad stepped back from the chair and the young African pointed at the older man beside him. The cut was narrow and red and there was still white foam above it. None of the men would swear to it, and they didn't mention it to friends and family in the following weeks and months, but they all saw it. The blood beneath the wound had changed colour entirely and was now bright green, the green of the flag in the window of the small salon.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Along the Embankment in a white Transit knees knocking like marbles sun on the water flashing low H with the Star shielding his eyes can't see my mirror put it down man before you get us all kill dead blood in the gutter blood. 40 Mayfair on the dash The Autobiography of Malcolm X fading neath the windscreen droll old black men and me libertarian types doing removals. Not so old physically active older than they look but with the stoop of the weight of what they are and what they have lifted eyes rheumy from the low bright sun and marijuana don't defer to no-one least of all me drinking Lucozade for energy. Salt marks on my shirt Royal Hospital Fulham Road High Street Ken shit crashin around in the back motorcyclist death wish he an organ donor. This is work because things have to be moved arranged with great care 3D jigsaw puzzle get it all in save a trip then a speed bump and the sound of violent sundering behind our heads only me sweating and knowing the names of things free through an accident of parentage of second generation West Indian vagueness about facts and details. Overladen the Transit in stately transit up Campden Hill Road need a Sherpa for this. Unloading, stopping. Almost done. This is work slowing now as the sun and the effort wear on the bodies of lean-armed almost down stone steps backwards one foot arm in Idi Amin lean-armed wear on the bodies of lean-armed black-skinned men. Slow. Cigarette. Breathe now. Back in the van.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Tell It Again (Chapters I and II)


There was a time, which seems distant but really was not so very long ago, when very few people lived in cities. Back then people lived in small villages or in solitary houses a long way from anywhere. We tend to think of olden times as being more friendly and more simple but really people went to great lengths to keep out of each other's way. Take, for instance, the family who are at the heart of the story I am about to tell. The father, well, he was either dead or working abroad for the king, depending on who you listened to. The grandmother was so keen to avoid the rest of her family that she had installed herself in a remote cottage in the middle of a forest which was populated by rowdy woodcutters and crafty, talking wolves. The mother, meanwhile, thought so little of her only child that she was willing to send her off into this parlous labyrinth of trees unaccompanied, and dressed in bright clothing which was bound to draw the attention of any ill-intentioned passer-by. The little girl? It seems that she was a simple, beautiful soul, rather as we imagine little girls to be in stories like this. So that's a relief.

She was, like small people are to this day, prone to fads. Her mother, in a rare fit of affection, had sewn her daughter a bright red cape with a hood, and the girl wore it all the time. The villagers thereabouts called the girl “Little Red Riding Hood”, because it was remarkable that she always had the same garment on, and because they couldn't be bothered to remember her real name; they had problems of their own, after all, what with blighted crops and talking wolves and suchlike.

One day, Little Red Riding Hood's mother (a name she resented, she was a person after all, with an identity of her own) learned from a passing tinker that the girl's grandmother was ill. She had some leftover cakes and a small pat of butter that needed using up, which she wrapped hastily, and put in a small basket. “Little Red Riding Hood,” she called into the garden, “Take these things at once to your grandmother in the forest!” The little girl, delighted that her mother had embraced the nickname theretofore used only by the faceless populace of the village, skipped to the kitchen step, collected the basket and set out on her way. Her mother readied herself for a trip into the village, to do some leisurely shopping, and to perhaps get her hair done. She saw the floating crimson form of the child's riding hood dwindle out of sight amongst the long grass at the forest's edge. Then it disappeared altogether into the darkness of the wood. “Mmm,” the mother thought. “What's the worst that can befall her?”


It took a while for the small girl's eyes to adjust to the light beneath the forest's canopy. As soon as she had finished squinting she saw a large, low figure approach. A wolf it was, wearing a pair of small round spectacles and a yellow waistcoat which was a little loose, where he was hungry. He was otherwise dressed much as you would expect a wolf to be. He stopped a few feet from the girl, sat up on his hind legs and spoke.
“Good morning, delicious child. Where are you off to?”
“Good morning, sir,” said Little Red Riding Hood, politely. “I am going to see my grandmother a short distance hence. She has been unwell and I am taking her victuals which I hope will restore her health.” The wolf eyed her quizzically, not least because of the child's diction, which seemed rather old-fashioned, even in those days.
“Okay,” said the wolf. “I won't keep you, but I would advise, since you've gone to the trouble of entering this here forest, that you take time to admire the beautiful wild flowers that lie just off the quickest path between here and your Granny's house.”
“Oh, do you know whereabouts my grandmother's house lies?” The wolf thought for a moment. He wondered if the girl was perhaps not as naïve as she appeared. His avid yellow eyes looked into hers, which were blue and trusting. The situation was developing. His initial ruse was simply to get the girl out of earshot of a crowd of unruly woodcutters who were chopping things, wood presumably, in a nearby clearing. Now he saw that his plan might be easily adapted into an eat-one-get-one-free opportunity. He was tremendously hungry.
“Remind me?”
“It's half a league from here, as the crow flies, due west. A compact, picturesque rustic-style property with its own mature nuttery.”
“Made of gingerbread?”
“Made of bricks,” said the little girl, firmly.
“Right you are,” said the wolf. “I'll let you be on your way, don't want to keep the old girl waiting. Don't forget to smell the flowers, and maybe pick some. They're gorgeous.” And with that he fell gracefully onto his forepaws and trotted off westwards.

The forest was indeed full of beautiful flowers, most of whose names her grandmother knew or had invented. The dew wort, the badger lily, the philanderus. In places the sunlight pierced the the leaves overhead in narrow beams, illuminating small patches of the forest floor, and revealing every small thing in the air above. Little Red Riding Hood lost herself in the splendour of the moment, of the then and there. She quite forgot about her mother and her grandmother and the wolf and her poor father, either lost or dead or in France or somewhere even more horrendous. She pulled her hood down and danced to the music of the forest, which was mostly just crickets.  

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Mandela and Me

The plan, I imagine, was for a night in town, but we never made it that far.  We stopped into the Thresher at the bottom of the hill and Mass bought a packet of More (not the Menthol ones) and then we went over the road to The Rose of Mossley, and drank dark mild, which, at 75p a pint, was not significantly more expensive than the Carnatic bar.  The bar was closed for the Valentine's Ball.  My girlfriend at the time, a psychology student at the Queen's College, Oxford, could not be persuaded to attend.  If I even invited her. Massimo was terminally single, and neither of us had the cash to buy a ticket.  We had a few and walked up the hill picking at chips and gravy, steaming in the February air. Noise came from inside the main building. Posh kids having fun.

We crashed a lot of balls that summer, travelling as far as Leeds in order to do so.  On one occasion Mass was completely without formal clothing, but managed to acquire a long black cape from somewhere, which he wore over his reeking jeans.  This was the first such undertaking.  Security lapsed after eleven o' clock, and we slid in.

I think of my first spell at university as a time of immense and concentrated egoism, I suppose everyone does.  I didn't have much time for politics, though I did march against student loans and poll tax in Glasgow, because I wanted a look at the place again, and there was a girl I liked who was going.  I disliked Thatcher and wanted her out, if only because she was all I could remember.  A limited horizon behind me.  I deplored the fact that there existed, in my lifetime, in my present moment, the idea and practice of Apartheid.  I didn't eat their apples.  I disliked the accent.  I knew who Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko were, but I didn't have a poster up.

The DJ played this song:

And I pogoed up and down for three minutes or so along with everyone else.  I was wearing Doctor Steve's dinner suit, which was a little long in the arms, I remember.  Then the music stopped.  The DJ, who was at least as drunk as everyone else shouted "(unintelligible) FREE...!!!  NELSON MANDELA IS FREE!!!" We were all very pleased, of course, even the posh kids, and we shouted and swore.  Then the DJ played this song:

And we fell about the place in a boozy hopeful rapture.

South Africa remains a troubled and divided nation, from what I can tell, but this moment was one of very few from my youth which history has been unable to tone.  Its lustre is undimmed and its promise consummated, all because of one man. When one apparently impossible thing is achieved it tends to make us believe that other impossible ends might be reached, and maybe distant notions of a fairer world aren't so impractical.  Hope persists.  Nelson Mandela is free.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

At Heathrow

When I was a kid, he tells her, fourteen, younger probably I suddenly became conscious of what my face looked like. What? she says. He laughs at himself, What I mean is, look obviously I'd stand in front of the mirror when I was brushing my teeth, and I'd seen photos of myself but I never really disassociated, until that point, the me that I thought about, from the me in the mirror. So I'd stare hard into the mirror, maybe it was when I started to shave, with my face covered with ludicrous amounts of foam, like a skinny Santa, so just my eyes were visible and I'd stare deep into my eyes until there was nothing there I recognised as me, or even as something human. If you stare at a word long enough its meaning dissolves and I was trying the same thing. Maybe.

Sometimes people see her on the tube and then recognise her later and they give her a look which says, Well, how interesting that we ended up in the same place! But of course they're flying onwards and she's still here and she'll get the same tube back from the airport.

A blur cannot be accepted or understood as what it is. Slowing into the platform other passengers, scarce at this hour, try to read posters or pick out faces. Flickering eyes you never see elsewhere. The train emerges into a blueblack dawn at Barons Court, westering over flatlands, gulped below ground at Hatton Cross. Her long fingers tapering about an old paperback chosen from a banana box under Waterloo Bridge. Standing on the escalator still reading, might as well finish the chapter, p. 129 her womb was coming open with rosy ecstasy. She tuts at Mr Lawrence, replaces her bookmark and moves into the great low sweep of the Terminal, where everything is gleaming. It is still early.

She is x-rayed and patted down wondering every morning if they go easy on her because of her face, her eyes reflecting mountains and her skin like a desert at dusk. The boy from the portable electronics shop who she sees some mornings eating his breakfast at same time that she does says it's no worse than working outside the airport where they search you if you're going out of the building for a fag – he doesn't smoke himself – at least in his trade. She thinks they're in the same trade though it doesn't look like it, him in a short-sleeved shirt, polyester tie, and her in her preposterous lab coat. Beauty is a science, of course, and while she doesn't know a great deal about that science, biochemistry presumably, the boy does know about cellphones and laptops and other media devices. Perhaps he should wear the coat. Milkmen wear white coats too, he reminds her, but she doesn't necessarily remember this to be true. And butchers, too. It's all the same trade, she thinks, no matter what you're selling. But the boy, in a white coat, would look more like a butcher than a scientist. She doesn't tell the boy this.

He is talking, he has good teeth, she concedes, straight at least and not too yellow. He needs a haircut, his hair veers undecidedly about his ears, and he needs to look into her eyes. Her hair is hidden so it's all she has, her gaze. When he looks at her he looks away immediately, and it seems more like guilt than shyness. Perhaps he has a girlfriend. He wears a ring on the third finger of his right hand. Like an almost married ring. Too young, parents don't approve. Maybe if you made something of yourself.

A flight is announced, the same flight that prompts them both to finish their breakfast and start work, which has prompted them separately, five mornings out of seven, to finish their tea or coffee or juice, to dust pastry crumbs from their uniforms and walk slowly to their respective retail positions, via the loo sometimes, and the same flight that she acknowledges they will never take together, or apart.

Monday, August 26, 2013


He came out of the supermarket having forgotten what he went in for, holding only an apple. At the bus stop outside a woman was attempting to wrestle a small girl into a push chair. The child, whose hair was styled into discrete knots all over her head performed a can-can of resistance. He was a scientist now, he supposed, nineteen years old and up at Imperial doing physics. He cared more about pleasing his parents than his painting, and that, presumably, was what separated artists from dabblers, regardless of their ability. He wore shorts and a polo shirt with the name of his hall of residence embroidered on the chest. His name was Lee Chen and he had never had a girlfriend.

Richard Finch headed south towards the river in a convertible Saab he had bought for his father with his first bonus. It was too big for the old man's garage, the door sat at thirty degrees from vertical, nestling on the bonnet. The bungalow in Hove wasn't built to house a man with a large Scandinavian sports car so the big black thing had gone back to London, whence it came, replace by a silver grey Nissan Micra which Dad drove twice a week, to the cemetery and the cinema in Brighton. Finch saw the lights change ahead of him, accelerated and passed through the bollards before they were red, and across the junction to Beaufort Street.

The car missed him by half a metre, travelling at twenty metres per second and accelerating, its wing mirror still closer. Lee knew the driver had seen him, he saw a hand of apology raised almost instantly. He wasn't the type to shout. He was infuriated by that hand, though, there was something careless about it. The hand of someone who lived a life without consequences. Without thinking he turned and threw the apple at the back of the car. He misjudged the trajectory completely. The apple flew higher and further than he intended. Could adrenalin act so quickly, he wondered, almost certainly not. The apple descended in a shallow parabola and struck the driver on the left temple. He saw the man twitch at the steering before the car thumped irreversibly into a parked UPS van. Glass exploded, the car's airbag deployed with a great puff of powder and an unpleasant smell that was unfamiliar to Lee. The van's alarm sounded. People ran towards the accident. Lee walked.

The man's face was misshapen but he was breathing and alert. Lee stood and looked at him for ten seconds. He counted. Then he walked back away from the river, picking up the apple, bruised now on two sides, from the gutter.