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.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dead Man's Jeans

A Ghost Story

She found them in a charity shop, run for the local hospice. An old woman arranging nick-nacks in the window and an unhappy looking girl in her late teens at the till. It wasn't the sort of place where she'd normally look for clothes but she had wandered in while waiting for a prescription to be filled at the chemist two doors along. Everything else on the rack was labelled, and far too small for her husband, a tall man, and oddly shaped now, after too many years sat at a desk looking at numbers. The jeans were new, she thought, or at least barely worn. One belt loop was unstitched but Imelda, who helped around the house three days a week, could sort that out. The girl asked the old woman to price them. She handed over a fifty pound note and got two twenties, plus change, in return. She had done a good thing, she thought, but left the rather tatty little place with a feeling of unease.

They were a super fit. Comfy, yet flattering. He tucked his shirt in and they walked down the lane to the Two Brewers for dinner. Dennis seemed more relaxed than usual. He lingered at the bar while refreshing her gin and tonic, and said something to Sally, the landlord's niece, which made her giggle and blush. She watched him walk back, glass in hand. The jeans seemed to narrow his hips, which in turn made his shoulders appear broader. His habitual stoop had gone, or had she imagined it? Seated, he smiled at her more than she was used to. He tipped generously and they walked home, his long arm around her waist. They kissed on the doorstep then he pulled her inside, slapping her backside like a teenager. She brushed her teeth, agitated and aroused. Stepping from the ensuite she saw the jeans at the foot of the bed and her husband asleep, his body twisted into a awkward shape, as if he'd been shot.

He only wore them at the weekends, at first. He took to leaning against things with an unconsidered air. One foot off the floor, like a cowboy, she thought. He whistled when he wore the jeans, but not at other times. He stood taller still when he had them on. Women noticed him, and she noticed them noticing him. Soon he began to change into them as soon as he got home from work. The evenings were lengthening and he found excuses to be away from her, dogwalking, hedge-trimming. But she told herself that nothing had really changed.

“So we've decided to start having casual Fridays at work,” he told her. “Relax a bit. Clothes do not maketh the man, after all. Or woman.”
“Whose idea was it?”
She watched him move in his armchair.
“It was my idea,” he said eventually.

She pulled the washing machine out from the wall and smashed the pipes off the back of it with a glass candlestick. She put her laundry into the back of the car and drove into town. It took three hours to wash and dry everything at the laundrette. Five pounds for parking and handfuls of coins for the machines. She smoked a cigarette outside, watching the clothes dance in the dryer, then threw the packet away. Folded everything and put it back in the basket, in the boot. Except the jeans which sat on the passenger seat as she drove half a mile to other end of the high street. She walked in to the hospice shop and put the jeans on the counter. The old woman recognised her as she turned to leave.
“Didn't fit?”
“No,” she said. “Not quite.”

“Would you like to exchange them for anything?” She shook her head and walked back to the car.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fun Run

Everyone was expected to participate. Those who were physically incapacitated were encouraged to attend; to hand out water bottles or finishers t-shirts to the runners at the end. The t-shirts were in corporate colours, with the name of the bank on the front and the event's various sponsors (in much smaller writing) on the back. One unlucky young woman in HR had to push back her wedding shower, planned for the same evening, to the following Wednesday. They assembled in the park, numbers pinned to their singlets, already tired after a day in the city and the journey westwards. The sun still cruelly high, the temperature in the high twenties.

It wasn't a race, of course, but an exercise in public relations, and esprit de corps. Nevertheless talk in every office, on all thirty-three floors of the bank's London headquarters, centred on who might win. Who looked fittest. Who did the hard miles in the gym. On the upper floors it was generally agreed that some rapid young associate with a past on the track would take the honours. There was an informal club for triathletes at the bank, who trained together three mornings a week. Surely the prize would go to one of them.

In fact there were only two contenders. A New Zealander called Grant something, close to forty, utterly ruthless and hugely unpopular (who worked in Legal), and Ibrahim from the post room. Ibrahim was only there because of some outreach programme that one of the senior VPs had been bullied into signing up for by his meddling other half. Freed, blinking, from HMYOI Feltham, he sat a literacy test, got a job and started buying food for his family from Waitrose.

Grant had run a 1500M heat at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, and missed out on the semis by three one-hundredths of a second. He still wore his hair (blonde) a little too long. His handshake was dry, his eyes blue-grey and purposeful, but he was dead inside. He crossed the start line thirty seconds or so before Ibrahim. He was soon twenty yards ahead of the field, coasting. Three minute Ks, he thought. No-one's going to live with that. He checked his watch.

Ibrahim detested almost everyone he worked with. They were, he reflected at times, idiots. But the money was easy. Everything was easy. It was also very unlikely that he would get shot, cut or whatever, while working in the post room. They ran in front of him, bent forwards in abject cadence, drones, fools. He ran in a strikingly upright posture, dancing almost, through the bent mass of bodies, the corporation before him. He still had his post room polo on, and some basketball shorts, but his running shoes, which he had stolen to size, were top notch.

The runners thinned out as he approached the front. Then there was just one ahead, a tanned older guy, all in black. Ibrahim stretched his legs. He guessed they were about half way, then saw a yellow banner with 3KM on it.

Grant felt someone at his shoulder, didn't hear him. As the track turned he saw the kid's shadow stretching ahead of his. Tall, he thought, turning his head slightly and flicking his eyes backwards. African? Arab? Looks like a fucking goat. Young too. Grant realised he might have a problem, and felt a new tightness in his legs. Not insurmountable. Let's see what you've got. He kicked, just a gentle acceleration.

Ibrahim let the blonde guy pull ahead, twenty metres or so, then lengthened his stride again, easing up alongside him, floating over the turf. Saucony Powergrid with a flame motif, a hundred and forty quid, the right price.

Beyond the ribbons which marked their course the park passed in a jolting blur of dried out foliage, greenbrown, some flowers wilting to the same colour in the heat. Grant heard the kid's feet, only just, over his own breathing. Two paces to every three of his own. He felt a burning in his shins and his neck, the lower pain in the bone, the higher in the muscle, but the same pain essentially, his body telling him he was doing something he really, really shouldn't be doing. They ran under a kite marking a kilometre to go. Three more minutes of pain, then relief. Like holding in a piss, but with your whole body. He turned his head again, as far as broiled neck would allow. The Arab boy was there, he didn't seem to be sweating even, his jaw loose, eyes straight ahead. Who was this fucking kid?

It bothered Ibrahim that he didn't know who the guy was. Was he someone who could have him sacked? He stayed at his shoulder putting the ground behind him unhurriedly. He was loose now, warm. The skin on the old guy's neck was an unusual shade of red, like a drunk's cheek, but more vivid. He pushed ahead of him then slowed. Everything is politics, he thought. Everything.

Grant fell over the line first, and heard his surname being mispronounced over the PA. He lay on his back, and as if compelled by the motivational talking-to he had given himself a kilometre back, urinated lustily into his shorts.

The kid stood over him, offering a hand of support or salutation, withdrawn when he saw the moistened halo of dusty ground around the older man's middle. Close, said Grant. You know, said the goaty looking kid.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Tristan and Grace in Nature

She got to the top before him, her neck shiny from the effort, dancing up the incline on rubber pedals. A red oxide gate in the high hedgerow let them look down over the valley. They slid off their saddles and stood.

He had never noticed her in class. Grace was serious and quiet and sat behind him. He was behind her now, looking down over the sloping field. She seemed French, he thought, with her hair up and her eyebrows, expressive of subtleties beyond the grasp of a thirteen year old boy, even one as tall as him.

They had met outside the bakers, both bored after Easter, both on bicycles. 'Let's ride up Peg's Hill,' she said, and he assented, through a hot cross bun.

Two sudden flashes of white amongst the stubble. The bellies of two hares stop-starting. Changing direction. One bigger, wilder of eye. They leapt at angles, twisting in mid-air, flying across the field, faster than a car, then vaulting backwards. A beautiful thing to witness. He turned to look at her, to say 'Can you believe this?' She was already looking back at him. She reached over and took his hand. He thought he was going to be sick, but in a good way. As if he might be shedding some now dead part of himself.

Yards away, the big hare caught and mounted the smaller hare, only one of them moving now, with calmer eyes.

Grace felt the boy's hand slip from hers.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Terry and Ralph

It was his ex-wife's dog, a German Shepherd with a white beard and sad, gunky eyes. She had run off with a sales rep who turned up once a month at the office where she worked. Who would lean on the tall counter out in Reception, his keys on the glass, a briefcase between his feet, smiling like a boy. She couldn't resist him, even as she recognised that he was smiling the same smile at young women all over the South-East.

He remembered the first time they'd been here, when Ralph was neutered, snarling in the back of his old Cortina estate on the way, as if somehow aware of what lay in store. Altogether quieter on the way back, trying to puzzle things out, perhaps. A new melancholy hung about the dog, but only for a while. He was doing her a favour. And they were back again five years later, married now, when she was convinced Ralph had hip dysplasia, which turned out instead to be a piece of glass, an inch of viciousness, buried in his left forepaw. Or was it his right? He'd have been seven then, half a lifetime ago, and always so healthy otherwise.

But not now. Opposite the house (emptier, quieter, since Cindy moved out) was a school. He knew the caretaker from the pub and had a key to the small gate twenty yards down the road. Every evening he'd take Ralph over there and let him run loose on the sports field and every other evening Ralph would shit in the long jump pit and he'd have to pick it up in one of those bags you put loose vegetables in which he stole occasionally from the supermarket for this specific purpose. I must love you, he remarked once to the dog, I carry your shit around in a bag. Ralph did not answer, other than by continuing, on alternate evenings, to shit in the long jump pit.

Until recently this had been the best bit of both their days. While Ralph chased around the field Terry would smoke and look at the moon, if there was one. Terry didn't know if such a thing as fellowship could exist between a human and a dumb creature, but he was pretty sure he was happy, and so was Ralph.

A month ago, perhaps a little longer, Ralph had stopped jumping up at the sound of his chain being removed from the hook in the porch. Then his back legs started to go. Terry was helpless, fucking helpless, witnessing the sudden deterioration of a dog he'd never asked for. Because a dog really can be a friend, but in at least one way a useless friend, because they can't tell you what to do. So Terry had brought him here, carrying him out and laying him on a blanket in the back of his Mondeo, and the vet had told him what to do, and he'd agreed. And now he watched the dog on the table, apparently sleeping, the fur on his side rising and falling, ever more slowly, until it stopped.