a work-in-progress presentation.
October 21st 6.30 for 7.00,
Fabrica, 40 Duke Street, Brighton, BN1 1AG.
Refreshments plus pay bar
Places limited,booking essential.
“A stunning, heart breaking, strange, brooding, melancholy, delicate, profound piece of work.” Edward Carey.
When writer Philip Morgan was given a terminal diagnosis he was forced to address his own mortality and out of this experience created “Hours:” a mesmerising publication that meditates on what it means to be human
The author is now developing “Hours “ into a performance piece and as part of this process actor and writer Tim Crouch will read from the opening section of the book while images from the publication are projected.
After the reading the audience will be encouraged to provide feedback, which will shape the development of the piece into a full-length theatrical event.
Book free tickets by following this link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/hours-tickets-36197978127
This beautifully produced memoir is a mixture of short stories, images and poems.
Its major themes of death, illusion and redemption are rooted in a life time of working in theatre.
“… a stunning, heartbreaking, strange, brooding, melancholy, delicate, profound piece of work.”
(Writer and Illustrator. Author of Observatory Mansions and Heap House)
“… an object of great thought and originality and beauty.”
I started out with the idea of writing a novel which featured a production manager. I was a production manager/producer in theatre and performing arts and fine art for thirty years or so and involved professionally with theatre from the age of thirteen. I began with the idea of writing something that I thought might sell. So I dreamed up a convoluted plot about ISIS blowing up a theatre based on research on the Moscow theatre siege. I had the idea to insert thoughts and images about stage craft and as I became more interested in that my very poor Bruce Willis plot faded away completely. “Fragments” emerged – see below. I showed the stories to some friends and the only ones they liked were the ones that were autobigraphical. My imagination clearly not being as vivid as I thought. So I got rid of the non-autobiographical and then I became the narrator and then an over-arching logic emerged, which was how I had dealt with receiving a potentialy terminal diagnosis of heart failure.
What has finally emerged is a memoir in the sense that all the incidents did happen to me. However, I have focussed in on incidents and cut out stuff that I felt was irrelevant to the narrative.
The images are an attempt to create what I felt during that time and the best way I can explain the theory is that the constituent parts are tessarae, complete in themselves but forming a pattern, that the meaning is actually communicated by their juxtaposition.
There is an intentional space left in the piece for each reader to fill.
It was very important to me that what emerged was a phsyical thing, the very physicality of the book is an essential part of the whole; it won’t work as a virtual experience. The paper is very high quality, thick, rough to the touch; the printing is great and the full colour medieval images stunning.
It needs to be seen and felt and handled and weighed. I hope it is something that people will return to many times: to puzzle over, to look at favourite bits, to write on and spill red wine on.
The main ambition is to offer some small solace in the face of death.
The Fragments” metamorphosed into “Hours” over a long period of time.
“The Fragments” will be a collection of short stories loosely based on my own experience as a production manager in theatre. There are now three stories on this page: see below. The theme is the illusions we create in order to live our lives. It will be interleaved with examples of stage machinery and magic tricks. It is amazing when you consider the effort we put into illusion! See the drawing below which dates from the 1830’s; all the machinery was hand operated and functioned by the use of counterweights and pulley systems.
My parents in their extreme old age were like two rusting tankers calmly anchored in a backwater, sinking companionably beneath weed covered water.
I have never found that backwater.
I am holed and far out to sea.
Darkness is falling.
Like Jack London, I have come to a decision.
“By the time it was dark, wind and sea had become too strong for the boat, and I reluctantly took in the sail and set about making a drag or sea-anchor. I had learned of the device from the talk of the hunters, and it was a simple thing to manufacture. Furling the sail and lashing it securely about the mast, boom, spirit, and two pairs of spare oars, I threw it overboard. A line connected it with the bow, and as it floated low in the water, practically unexposed to the wind, it drifted less rapidly than the boat. In consequence it held the boat bow on to the sea and wind—the safest position in which to escape being swamped when the sea is breaking into whitecaps.
These jottings are my sea anchor.
I want to see the horizon before I die.
I sit in an overcrowded room high in a red brick villa. It has a clay tiled roof and mullioned windows and, positioned on a gable, two terracotta dragons.
It is unclear whether they are guardians or invaders, friends or foes.
I have been sent to talk to the occupant of the overcrowded room.
He comes in from the kitchen.
He is carrying a tray.
The tray is black papier-mâché inlaid with mother of pearl.
On the tray are two coffee cups with a complex wave pattern on a blue ground. I pick one up.
Sévres, he says, as I turn the cup in my hands. French Soft-Paste – 1760’s.
I trace the pattern with my forefinger.
It’s an Ogee form, he says, two arcs that curve in opposite senses, rare on porcelain.
Like waves, I say.
In architecture, he says, pouring coffee from a spindly orange and gold pot; they’re called talons.
The room is overcrowded with his life.
His face is white, his cheeks seared by thin vertical lines. He wears a blue chalk-stripe double-breasted suit. He smells of bay rum. His hair is thin and neatly combed.
The coffee is delicious, his fingernails cut.
The room is very small.
I haven’t always lived like this, he says. I have got through two fortunes and three wives and a number of houses.
He smiles, his teeth are yellow, symmetrical, well cared for.
I thought he was going to come and talk to me, he says.
He sends his apologies, I say. He is very busy.
He sighs, sips his coffee
I have been told to let him down gently.
The room is little more than a box, a servant’s quarters, the kitchen part-concealed behind a crimson velvet drape.
It will be on the theme of Pulchinella, he says, my event. There will be an exhibition and a performance and an environment.
He passes me two pieces of cardboard held together with stamp hinges. Inside is a photograph.
I stare at the image
Petrouska. Theatre du Chatelet,13 June 1911, he says. Score: Igor Stravinsky; conductor: Pierre Monteux; choreography: Michel Fokine; sets: Aleaxandre Brenois; Nijinsky.
It is signed.
He sips his coffee.
You saw it? I say. The premiere?
I worked on it.
I had seen them the year before in London. I stole money. Boarded the boat train.
I went to to the stage door in Paris and asked to see Diaghilev. They assumed I was one of his catamites and let me in.
Sleep with him? No, I would have done but I wasn’t asked. I was given the nominal title of assistant.
Did they pay you?
My needs were satisfied.
He speaks with the elided vowels of the English upper class. I try to imagine him in the beds of Russian dancers who smell of harsh black tobacco, vodka and sweat; a fifteen year old seeking an alternative to life.
But your mother?
Occupied with her own concerns. I think she regarded it as part of my education.
I hand the picture back to him.
He puts the folder down, sits back.
It will be quite expensive, he says, my event.
Do you have the money?
Oh no. I have nothing.
I’m not sure the Festival will be able to fund it. We don’t have a lot of money and the Art’s Council… It’s a wonderful idea but we have already made a lot commitments. The programme is pretty well established. Do you have any contacts?
My contacts are dead, he says. They would need a set of jump leads and a large dynamo. He makes a circular motion with one hand.
He smiles, pushes a stray strand of hair away from his forehead.
Poor Vaslav, he says tapping the folder with a fingernail. He was an empty vessel that needed to be filled. So boring, so wooden, apart from when he was on stage. Then he was a god. Off stage he didn’t exist at all. Perhaps I should have gone with them to South America, helped him, but I went with Diaghilev, to Venice: strange fevered times. Then England, the army. Some people say that Petroushka is about the triumph of the human spirit. I never saw it that way. Diaghilev possessing Vaslav. Vaslav a doomed puppet. But then we’re all doomed puppets aren’t we? At the mercy of our desires. Terrified of being confronted with the fact that we are nothing more than straw. I fought in two wars. Another form of drama. Another way of disguising the emptiness. And then what to make of our own dear Mr Punch: infanticide, wife murderer, conqueror of the devil, glove puppet.
He smiles at me.
I am unsure how to behave with this man. He doesn’t fit into any category that I am familiar with. He seems to be entirely constructed by his past which threatens at any moment to overwhelm him and suck him back in an undertow of reminiscence, back into the deep black pit from which he originally emerged. It is as if he is a projection of himself.
In Italy, he says, with the Allies, during the Second War, I went to see an opera house. I went through a network of narrow streets. Ingresso Degli Artisti. In white paint on black. A cubicle, a glass partition, pigeon holes for letters, a ledger to mark who was in and who was out. A desk, an old man in uniform: black jacket with touches of gold braid. He looked at me. I went through the door. Fallen beams, tattered curtains, shattered scenery, the devastated town square, suggestions of the dead, profound black clouds racked behind the ruined campanile.
I see pinpoints of light,
violent piercings of the dark,
the random firing of the neurones in my retina.
I think of the old man high in the red brick Edwardian villa.
I think of him poised on the edge of the abyss of his past.
I think of him holding a coffee cup in one hand and smiling as he disappears.
I think of the old man at the stage door.
I think of him guarding the entrance to the other world.
I think of him in a black uniform with a scattering of gold braid.
I think of him living in a narrow bare boarded room.
I think of him as having a a single bed with a tightly drawn blanket,
so tight that when he drops a coin it bounces.
And when it bounces he smiles,
He has a goldfinch on a chain, the bird sings in the morning to waken him. And when he comes home late at night after the opera it sings when he lights the lamp. He loves the bird. He drinks red wine from an unlabelled bottle. He eats strong garlic sausage that he cuts with a clasp knife with a curved blade. He walks with a limp: shrapnel he received at Vittorio Veneto. He is Dionysius, his laurel wreath lies dust-covered on the top of his wardrobe. He guards the door to devastation.
I would like his room. I can smell the dry dust. On the bed would lie a young woman: small breasted with narrow hips, her stomach slightly rounded, her ankles neat. I would sit on the chair beside the bed and observe her. I would not touch her, there would be no need. Her eyes would be open. She would not see me. She would breath softly. I would stay with her.
I think of Nijinsky waiting to be filled with the god of dance. I think of Nijinsky dancing for a group of Russian soldiers on the roadside outside Vienna. I think of how the music they were playing called him into life as we are all called into life by the flickering of our electrical circuits.
I think that my world is a Punch and Judy tent, high and striped and set in a deserted park. That we are all glove puppets enacting our domestic dramas of violence and love until the show finishes and the tent is folded away leaving merely a patch of flattened grass.
I think all these things in order to disguise the truth.
I go to see the heart specialist tomorrow.
SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO
It is a moist afternoon and I am dying.
The street is tawdry in the damaged sunlight.
Sweat gathers at my hairline.
When I was young sweating was vigorous; now it sticks to my skin, slides slow down my body.
No part of me functions as efficiently as it did.
The process of ageing is, I think, as I pause in the shade, a good example of entropy, more and more effort being used to less and less effect.
It is apparent, that these bow fronted Regency dwellings with unusable balconies and shrunken dimensions had been built for people who couldn’t afford what they wanted: that these houses were third best, a low rung on the ladder of aspiration.
Coming up between them I see a figure wearing a red coat and a white hat.
I wonder how it has come to this.
I know that each and everything is dying from the moment that it is born, that all things are moving irreversibly towards disorder and death. However it is still surprising to discover that it applies to you, that you are not for some unspecified but undeniable reason exempt.
There must be an error.
I watch the red coated figure push an antique pram towards me
A steady decline.
My heart beating faster and faster but to less effect
I had been interested in the echocardiogram. The indistinct pulsing image on the small screen in the windowless room. The grease spread on my chest: faintly necrophiliac. The sounds of blood being moved through my heart. The technician said that these were not the actual sounds but an interpretation of electronic pulses.
Everything that we perceive is an interpretation of electronic pulses. Only God sees the actual and I don’t believe in him. I saw a representation of the wavelengths that move through the air and us: ultra-violet, infra-red, gamma, micro, radio, X. I find the thought of this unperceived sea comforting. I have never enjoyed empty space.
Upon my diagnosis I discovered that I could recognise those who had received notice of their death. They walk with shoulders that are pulled forward at the edges. Their heads are bowed as their vision is pulled ineluctably inwards to the centre of their being. Their steps have a minute hesitation. There is a diminution of pressure around them.
I recognise the figure in the red coat toiling up the hill towards me, away from the sea. I have known him for thirty years. He is a conjurer. He is not an intimate but has been a figure on the periphery of the outdoor shows I used to produce. He was often surrounded by a small crowd of children who seemed more horrified than amused by the rituals that he performed.
After I had done my solitary internet research culminating in a line drawing on an American website of a naked man with swollen stomach and elephantine legs delicately coughing into the palm of his right hand, I became frightened. Death is not something I have avoided contemplating but it had been an abstract intellectual concept and now it was real.
The conjuror saw me, waved a hand. Continued pushing the pram towards me. I stayed in the shade. Walking is difficult for me now.
The fear when it came was visceral, non intellectual, direct from the amygdala that organ in the limbic system of the brain from which our memories and forecasts of disintegration come: the origin of all fear. And in the humming darkness of summer nights in my flat I realised that I needed to develop a strategy to cope with this panting, sweating, burn.
I have a dog.
His name is D’eath.
He is a black hound with the smooth shining coat of a Labrador.
He sleeps in the corner of my room.
There are nights when he sleeps close to my bed.
There are nights when he sleeps on my feet
There are nights when he sleeps hard upon my chest, his breath warm and foetid in my face, suffocating me.
On those nights I take him for a walk.
We walk by the sea.
I reach down to touch his head.
He does not react.
He does not encourage affection.
One night soon he will snuff me out.
My lovers spoke of the inadequacy of my heart as we lay close but separate in many darkened rooms.
The conjurer recognises me. He is grateful to be able to pause in his journey. He methodically applies the brake to the pram. He touches the brim of his battered hat. “How are you?” he asks.
The process of dealing with my death is all encompassing. There is no space for other thoughts or activities. I am fully occupied with mortality.
When I realised that my death was imminent I was mildly surprised at my intellectual response. I had no desire to contact long lost friends for after all there was a reason why they were lost. I had no desire to visit ruined buildings or stare at distant mountain peaks. I had the overwhelming desire to behave correctly. What, I wondered, is correct? I have no interest in definitions that originate with others. I have not accepted that anyone else can issue any truthful judgement on my actions since I was raped at the age of nine. When the huge urgent figure with wiry chest hair and an overpowering scent of after-shave seized me in his arms he extinguished and penetrated me in a way that reamed out my soul, my belief in others. Abuse at a young age leaves one isolated, aware that other people’s judgements are graded according to how much or how little your actions will satisfy their needs without exposing them to threat. You trust no one. Correct is to not expose myself to any other. To deal with situations on my own. To cry in silence during the night. That is to show courage. That is correct.
My life has been devoted to keeping order; avoiding catastrophe.
The angiogram was both futile and not a good experience.
I had shaved off my pubic hair.
My surgeon gave me a rapid run down of the risks.:
Allergic reaction to the dye.
Irregular heart beat.
Heart attack or stroke.
Puncturing of the artery.
He recited them with the rapidity and lack of emotion of the terms and conditions fired out by the adverts trying to sell me a financial deal on a car.
Lying on the gurney being wheeled through the corridor to the operating theatre was familiar. I had seen the sequence so many times: the rectangular neon ceiling lights processing past as I listened to the hum of the rubber wheels on the linoleum floor. Cliched, I thought.
There was quite a crowd in the operating theatre. I was introduced to two students, young women, who were there to watch the procedure. I smiled hoped they would enjoy the show. They laughed, awkwardly. All the participants apart from me were wearing large green aprons. I wore a spotted hospital gown, split down the back. I thought at the time that the aprons were to protect them from blood-spatter in the event of my artery being punctured. I realised afterwards they must have been to protect then from x-rays.
I was calm and cheerful, an act I am used to performing. I knew that they were going to insert a catheter into my femoral artery, in my groin and then push it up into my heart where they would then release dye.
I felt nothing, I had already had a local anaesthetic. I felt that the modesty sheet they erected was a good plan, I had no desire to see the insertion. There was a noise: a scraping grinding, which was accompanied by a shoulder movement on the surgeon’s part that resembled the motion required to remove the head of a chicken. The combination of the noise and movement made me feel that an essential part of myself was being unscrewed and I had a vision of myself as an item of clumsy and inefficient manufacture made from interlocking threaded parts of brass and copper with perhaps the occasional piece of chrome. I experienced a wave of fuzziness, a sense of my distinctness fading, that I was changing into smoke. I thought – the dye; I am allergic to the dye; it is killing me. There was an absolute visceral imperative to escape. I raised my head. I cursed. I begged for help. They shouted at me to be still. I attempted to get off the table. I saw the white faces of the students as they moved back and then there were hands on my shoulders and a mask rammed onto my face.
I am on the waiting list for a heart transplant but I hold out little hope and anyway am not convinced that they can replace something that I have been accused so many times of not having.
His face is strangely smooth, no stray hairs emerging from nostrils or ears or from the crevices so difficult to reach once you pass sixty. Perhaps he has been the recipient of a remarkably efficient process of depilation. He looks as if he has been buffed.
I say that I am good, which considering my condition is correct.
“Just done a gig at the Brunswick Festival,” he says.
“How did it go?”
“Fine, but slow.”
We have little to say to each other. We engage when we meet because it indicates a level of continuity in our lives and while implicit within our meeting is the possibility that this will be the last there is also the prospect of another, that the chain of our existence will continue.
“Did you hear that Jimmy Collier has died?”
I did hear that. I knew him slightly. He was a writer and performer who had pursued relentlessly the staging of a piece he had written about a labour dispute in Southern Wales in the nineteenth century. He had staged it at the Edinburgh Festival, at his own expense. Pancreatic cancer,
Nigel, a maker, gassed himself in a car on an allotment.
I nod again.
An unlikely victim of lung cancer.
“There’s a good few of us,” he said “already over on the other side.”
“Indeed.” I nod yet again, smile inanely.
He leans straight armed on the pram, which contains his magic table and feathers and balloons and marked cards; tools of the trade.
“When we get there,” he says “we’ll have enough people to put on a nice little show.”
He leans forward, undoes the brake on the pram, He doesn’t shake my hand.
I watch as he moves up the slope.
Just before he reaches the end of the street I shout after him.“Something to look forward to then.”
He waves one hand in silent acknowledgement.
I have always been afraid of the dark.
The Italian architect and stage designer Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), in the second part of his Tutto l’Opera d’Architettura, talks of the stage as being “adorned with innumerable lights, large, medium, and small.” He describes the “Bozze,” a convex glass bottle filled with coloured liquid, which when put in front of tallow candles and animal fat lamps acts as a lens. I like to imagine the shafts of coloured light penetrating the smoke-filled rancid air of a sixteenth century Venetian opera house as outside the November rain pools on cobble stones and the wind from the lagoon seeks out lovers scurrying hand in hand along the Zattere in search of sanctuary from the night.
It is 1971.
I am nineteen.
I am standing on a metal gantry with my back to the stage.
I am facing a vertical array of switches and wheels and levers.
The apparatus in front of me is known as a Grand Master. It was developed by Strand Electric, the first one being put into the Alexandra Hall in Halifax, a six hundred seat theatre built by a building society for the use of their amateur theatrical troupe. It consists of levers that are attached to resistance dimmers that control the intensity of the lights. The levers can be screwed onto shafts which are turned by wheels and these wheels can be turned simultaneously by a gearing system that leads to one single wheel: the Grand Master. The one true god of the lighting state.
I am agonisingly young.
I am working as a stage hand on a pantomime. I have just finished college and been called to a theatre in Malvern as a last minute replacement. My role involves shifting scenery and operating sound effects and being on the book.
I am a hierophant in the temple of illusion.
My room at a boarding house in a collapsing Edwardian villa is disconcertingly large with paint peeling from stained and cobweb encrusted coving. There are two single beds, a new plywood wardrobe, a deeply stained rug, a bay window and a cracked wash-hand basin. The toilet is down the corridor. When I drop my bag on the floor I feel as if I am alone on a raft on a choppy sea.
During rehearsal, while waiting for a cue, poised between the wind machine and the thunder sheet, the Fairy Godmother presses herself against me. Later we make love on my raft. We don’t pull the twin beds together. We are not accustomed to the expanse of a double bed. It feels safer in the one. We ask nothing from each other beyond our physical presence, not even our names. Our bodies become wondrous things we occupy in unfamiliar and mysterious ways: skin to skin, no longer alone. After sex the darkness returns, the gates close and we are outside the walls. We lie separate, isolated in the domain of fading sensation; incapable of preventing the act draining into memory.
I light a cigarette.
She doesn’t stay the night.
The sexual act can illuminate with a brilliant light; each detail entirely visible; but the darkness never truly dissipates. It bides its time and then seeps back in after that moment of relief.
It is morning, I am standing upstage grasping a mug of tea.
The hot drink keeps me steady, warms my fingers.
I am caught between delight at my conquest and awareness that I have acquired nothing, not even a myth; that the bright light has emphasised the dark.
Lance shambles towards me. He is sixteen. He has acne and blonde hair. His wrists are very thin. He drags a large stage broom behind him and has inadvertently assembled a pile of glitter. He smiles at me. He looks unclean, a little greasy. He has perfect teeth.
We need to fix that, I say gesturing at the star cloth. It’s fucked.
He stares up at it. It’s always been like that, he says.
Well, it won’t be for much longer, I say. Go up to the flies and let it in.
He drops the broom on the stage. The wooden handle bounces, once.
The theatre had been state of the art in 1929. Now it is on its last legs.
I watch as he climbs the ladder to the fly gallery.
He turns on the working lights.
The grid far above me is illuminated.
I look up at the beams and pulleys and ropes: the mechanism.
He bounces the star cloth once. I shout to him that he’s got the correct set of lines and as he drops the cloth in I first pull the hem upstage and then run the bar downstage so I end up with the cloth face down; the ancient yellowed electrical flex revealed; the backing long gone.
Jimmy, the star and producer of the show, short, fat, dyed hair, a staple of the working men’s clubs who is reputed to wear his y-fronts reversed to allow ease of access to his arse, appears at the side of the stage. He doesn’t look pleased.
What are you doing?
Fixing the star cloth.
I’m not fucking paying for that.
There’s no charge.
Doing it for love?
If you like.
He stares at me.
He smiles at Jimmy, does a strange bobbing movement, a bastard half-curtsey.
Jimmy gives him a single look and then leaves.
I raise my eyebrows.
I only jerked him off, Lance says.
He gave me five bob for doing it.
It’s the naive and desperate hope that is attached to sexual encounters that fills me with compassion. The visceral belief that the spasm of orgasm will fix the scene; banish uncertainty. Who told us that sex is transformative and why do we hang onto that idea when experience relentlessly proves to us that that is not the case; that the most we can hope for is a moment of tenderness, a shared bulwark against the inviolable darkness, a brief shaft of light? It amazes me how we risk all for that moment. How we never learn, we never give up. How we cling on to an unrealistic and irrational belief that this time the climax will act as a burning glass, penetrate the curtain and allow us to slide through into a wondrous land.
I kneel and crawl across the star cloth trying to avoid smashing any of the ancient pea bulbs. Lance is standing watching me. He appears unsure how to behave, whether to be triumphant or ashamed or insouciant.
I need cables and a soldering iron.
I go to the workshop.
Frank, the chief technician, is lying on the floor.
He is very pale.
He looks up at me.
It’s up to you now, he says and turns his head to one side.
The whole thing is so fragile.
We create these structures.
We try to keep the darkness at bay.
Lance and I watch the ambulance pull away from the scene dock.
Jimmy appears beside us in costume and make up.
House opens in an hour, he says.
Time to get the show on the road.
What about Frank?
He’ll get better or he won’t.
He turns away and goes back into the darkness.
We have to cancel, I say.
He looks at me. Why?
There’s no one to operate the lights.
You have to.
I don’t know how.
You’ll work it out.
I am standing on the gantry.
I stare at the levers.
I am paralysed.
For fuck’s sake.
Jimmy is standing below me.
Don’t you get it. You have to do it. It’s not a matter of choice.
I can hear the audience, excited children.
Are you going to go out there and tell them to go home?
I shake my head.
I can’t do it. I don’t know how.
when the levers are up the lights are on,
when they’re down they’re off.
That’s all you need to know.
I haven’t got a cue sheet.
You don’t need one.
When I want the lights up I’ll shout light.
When I want the lights down I’ll shout dark.
And that’s it?
I stare at the Grand Master.
Maybe that is all there is to it:
Lance opens the curtains.
Lights shouts Jimmy.
I turn the wheel.
The star cloth stutters into life.
ONCE MORE WITH FEELING.
Jimmy throws back his double whiskey in one gulp, stands and makes his way through the throng to the bar.
I am in a pub in Margate. It isn’t a proper pub, it’s a converted shop full of real ale and bottled beers and sea food. What is a real pub? There was one where I used to live in Tufnel Park. It had worn brown leatherette seats, a smoking coke fire and a dog with a goitre. That was a real pub. It is the last night of a small scale tour which I have been production manager on. I have not gone on the road with this one, just supervised the production week and the first two gigs. I have shown up tonight to wish the five person company well; take them out for a drink on the producer. The actors have gone. Ranesh and Kerry to polycotton sheets. Arthur to drive, drunk, back to Croydon and Michael to a solitary and sober bed so he can get home to wife and three children in Northampton by the first train.
It is just Jimmy and me.
I know Jimmy through the intermittent intimacy afforded by small scale theatre touring. We load up a van with a basic set and take off to small and often severely neglected spaces throughout the country with the intention of providing a window into a land of imagination. And during those weeks of one night stands, arriving at noon, putting up the minimal set, doing the show and then on to another largely indifferent town one becomes intimate. A temporary tribe. In my youth sex was an essential part of the process, not so now. The appeal of coupling with the unknown body of an effective stranger between the polycotton sheets of a run down bed and breakfast (guests allowed) has faded. Now for me the intimacy tends to be expressed through conversations in a battered van as we drive through the darkness. The monotony of motorways at night, the anonymity of being part of a never ending stream of traffic, the awareness that you are just one of the many who have hired the vehicle tends to strip artifice away from those in the front seat while the others sleep in the back. As you stare through the smeared windscreen at the oncoming lights consequence becomes irrelevant. Some times you feel as if you are about to drive off the end of the world. Sex is something we do a lot in our business; promiscuity becomes a habit. Because we tend the illusions we have a greater exposure to the darkness that lies beyond them and it is this awareness of the chaos that powers the drunken coupling, the attempts at losing oneself in a fleeting concupiscence. In fact these alcohol fuelled exertions tend to to make us even more aware that all the sweating and ejaculating and mixing of bodily fluids is a futile attempt to cover the sound of our fingernails scraping down the wall of eternity. There is nothing more lonely, or more truthful than attempting to sleep in a narrow bed while through the wall you hear the drunken mumblings of the rest of your band of performers crammed into one single room and passing the emptying bottle of Jameson’s from hand to hand.
Jimmy is back, he has two half-tumblers of whiskey. I settle down to hear his story. This is part of my role: father confessor, soother of egos, mender of broken hearts and consultant on sexually transmitted diseases. “What do you know about Karl?” he says. I sip at my drink. I am drunk, not excessively but sufficient to blur things at the edges, to let them slide over the weir of scepticism and land deep in my consciousness.
“He hung himself,” I say.
“Twice,” he says.
I hadn’t particularly liked Karl. He had very tightly curled hair that seemed to reflect the level of his energy and his rage. He was a dangerous man to go to the pub with. I had seen him clear the counter with one sweep of his arm when he was bored, or high or mischievous. The ensuing fight was normally very contained and sometimes he mysteriously ended up being best friends with the publican. His consumption of alcohol and cocaine was legendary but above all he made things. Wonderful things. Big beasts that breathed fire, ships that sank, birds that flew. He was a magician with his hands able to magic mythic beasts from discarded copper pipe and plastic tubing. He could fashion something from nothing,. He was a master of illusion. I had worked with him and found him difficult. Spiky, quick to take offence and slow to forget. He was utterly unreliable on a personal level but he inspired love. He had been capable of great generosity. And he had undoubtedly had great talent bordering some said on genius except when it came to making money. He was exceptionally bad at that.
“What do you mean twice?”
Jimmy stared at me. Blinked.
“In November 2012…”
“Two years ago?”
“Yes, two years ago.”
Jimmy raised his hand: I went quiet; he placed his hand palm down on the table. “He drove up to that cottage, that cottage of Hattie’s. You know.”
I didn’t, but I nodded.
“He had said he wanted to be on his own. But it was his birthday so Hattie decided it would be cool for some of us and her as well, obviously, to go up and like surprise him. He fucking surprised us. It was a beautiful day, sun shining and everything, which doesn’t happen much up there. Front door wasn’t locked. Hattie couldn’t get into the kitchen, asked me to help. The door was stuck so I gave it a big old kick. It should have opened with a bang but it was a thud and there he was. Face blue, tongue sticking out. Dead. “
I go to interrupt; Jimmy stares at the table top. I stop.
“We cut him down and tried mouth to mouth and heart massage but he’d been there a while. Strangled himself. All he had to do was put his toes down.There was a big drawing of a prick done in charcoal on the wall and written underneath it: “You can just fuck right off, you cunts.” There was a note stuck on his chest which said: “Put me out with the rubbish.” Frank wanted to call the police but Hattie said no. She was fucking furious man. Never seen anyone so angry. I thought she was going to have a stroke or something.” Jimmy massaged his palms against his temples then pulled at his already tousled hair. “We dug a hole out the back; dropped him in it. Fucking crazy. It was what he wanted though. Dying wish and all that. Frank wanted to do some sort of service but Hattie wouldn’t have that either. I mean we weren’t doing anything bad. It wasn’t like we’d killed him. It was more like he’d killed us.” Jimmy stared at the remnants of the packet of peanuts on the table, pushed the discarded packaging with a finger. “Fucking destroyed us he had.”
When someone kills themselves it strikes at the foundations of your life.
“There was me, Hattie, Jack and Frank. We didn’t know what to do after we’d buried him. We’d got a fucking birthday cake and champagne and caviare and Tunnock’ s tea cakes and two bottles of Glen Morangie. You know all the stuff he really liked and the cunt had killed himself. Left us in the lurch. So there we were sat round the kitchen table, him in the hole out the back.”
Late at night, after a show, you go into a twilight place and in that place memories fly like giant bats, emotions lose their tethering. You are a creature waiting to be animated; you have lost your purpose and are exposed.
“It started with Hattie. She said she couldn’t imagine life without him. Then Jack said we didn’t have to. We could imagine life with him; we of all people could. We made our living by conjuring things up so why couldn’t we conjure him back to life? We made worlds all the time, so why not make a world in which Karl didn’t die, in which Karl was still alive.”
I have my hand gripped round the whiskey glass.In the midst of the fragmenting bar I have a shrinking and fragile area of stillness around me. I am aware of three guys in an advanced state of drunkenness at the table behind..
“Was Karl in the coffin we buried last year?” I say.
“He was and he wasn’t.”
I have read Derrida. I have a minimal grasp of the idea that something can only exist relative to the reality of its non-existence, that being contains within it non-being, but this was taking an abstract idea and trying to give it a substance that I found difficult to swallow, even with the hedges of my mind worn down by whisky and tiredness.
“Either he was or he wasn’t.”
“Things aren’t that simple.”
“Who was in the coffin?”
“Something that had become Karl.”
I had organised the funeral and it was a big number. Karl was well known in our world, the world of theatre and large scale outdoor events. So it had to be a suitable send off, which consisted of a sinuous construction of pallets laced with fireworks on the beach. I used up a big favour with the Beach Officer and also lied about the size of the conflagration and quantity of pyro. The fire was great, the fireworks beautiful, the Beach Officer furious and I had to spend five hours the next morning collecting the nails from the pallets with a small magnet from amongst the blackened pebbles. At least two hundred people showed up, a sizeable proportion of whom were random drunks attracted by the flames.
“We couldn’t believe he’d done it to us; couldn’t accept it. I mean if he was dead, if he had ended his life it meant quite simply that we weren’t worth living for. It meant that we didn’t matter. That nothing mattered. That life didn’t matter. It meant that everything that he had said about us, all those nights of drinking and good times were a lie. That he hadn’t loved any of us. We couldn’t grasp it so we decided not to. We reckoned he must have known that we would come up and surprise him so he wanted to surprise us. Now we decided to surprise him by making him come back to life. We decided to prove him wrong. We laughed about how pissed off he’d be. He was never wrong was he? Would never admit it and if you tried to make him admit it, if you penetrated that bullshit facade, he’d just fuck right off and not talk to you for a year or something.”
I notice out of the corner of my eye that one of the trio of men at the table behind has another by the throat. I wonder if it is all going to kick off.
“So we decided that this time we were going to show him.”
“Show him what?”
“That he couldn’t take us for granted. That we weren’t what he took us for. That he couldn’t just do whatever he wanted. We were pissed and distraught and crazy. I mean have you ever buried someone?”
I shake my head. I’ve seen a number of bodies but never buried one. Never had the cause.
“Well, let me tell you it’s fucking weird. He was unbelievably heavy, like he was full of lead. And we didn’t bury him deep, couldn’t be arsed; none of that six foot under stuff. I looked it up on my iPhone. They made it six foot so they could put another one on top and we didn’t reckon we were going to do that so we made it just deep enough to keep the dogs off, about three foot. Kept thinking he was going to wake up, swear at us, spit the dirt out of his mouth, but he didn’t. Even when he was buried I thought he might dig himself fucking out. He was perverse enough to do that wasn’t he?”
He looks at me, waiting for some sort of response. I go for a piss. In the toilet I lean my forehead against the tiles above the urinal. I wonder how many of me there are wandering about the world, how many dead in holes in the ground, how many living in a suburb of Madrid, how many in prison and how many drinking lager on a collapsed sofa watching porn. I feel that the only thing real about me is the small area of my skin that is touching the sticky porcelain, everything else is just so much smoke.
The theatre we’ve just done the show in was built in 1787. It’s a beautiful little space: capacity three hundred and sixty (we sold twelve tickets) with two horse shoe balconies and a hemp flying system. The stage manager, a man in his fifties with a large belly, unshaven and smelling of sweat, loved it and so did I. “Thing is,” he says, “you have to make sure that Lizzie can see.” He points to a simple white square of metal in the stage left wall just upstage of the prompt desk. “Lizzie’s in there,” he says. “She wanted to go on the roof but we thought what with the seagulls she’d be better off down here. She keeps us company. Don’t you darling?” he says kissing the palm of his hand and slapping the tin on his way down to the crew room.
How real are any of us?
Back in the bar the man who had the other by the throat is now weeping.
Jimmy starts straight in. “It was just after Karl had finished that run of work in Scotland so we reckoned no one would question his dropping out of sight for a bit. Give us time to get it together. Time to make a new one. We reckoned it didn’t even matter what he looked like, not really. People project things don’t they? They see what they want to see. You wait twenty five years to see Kate Bush and spend one hundred forty quid on a ticket and it’s going to be great show. It has to be. So if everybody wanted it to be Karl it would be Karl. That’s what we reckoned and we were right. It was like we made a container and Karlness just filled it up.”
I like being drunk. I like the mistiness, the whirling, the disconnectedness. But only up to a certain point. I need to keep one foot on the ground.
“So we went down the pub and we chose someone and Hattie went in after him. Hattie’s a good looker. Well, she’s all right. No dog. And there was this bloke sat on his own. His hair was wrong but we could dye it; perm it. He was too short but we reckoned built up shoes. We’d all had a bit of sniff on top of the booze so everything was possible. Hannah started chatting him up and we watched. He looked terrified, which wasn’t a great start, Karl would have fucked a three legged dog if it had stood still long enough; looked like this bloke didn’t know what his dick was for. We could see that Hattie was struggling. I mean she was cuddling up close to him but he kept moving away. She was well pissed and maybe he thought she was a prostitute or something. Anyway when she went to the bar to get him another drink he legged it.”
There’s a theory called Social Constructionism. It says that we only exist relative to our surroundings. Put us in a different environment and we become someone different. I have never felt solid in myself. The practical is my sea anchor, it stops me being swamped by the waves.
“Jack followed him knocked him out.”
“Beer bottle. He wrapped it in a scarf so it wouldn’t break.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Put him in the car and took him to the cottage.”
“We preferred to say that we were offering him an alternative life. Hannah was steaming. Devastated that he hadn’t succumbed to her womanly wiles and had to be coshed. Nasty blow to her ego.”
“And his head.”
Jimmy looks at me then starts to laugh and I join in. The trio on the table don’t like that. Stare at us. One stands up shambles towards me. I back off, go to the bar. It’s very noisy, a quartet of student types shrieking at each other. It’s late. The guy follows me.The guy bumps me. He catches me by the elbow, shouts in my ear and instinctively I incline my head to listen.
“My friend’s had some bad news. His wife’s dying,” he yells. “That’s why he’s so upset. He doesn’t know that she was planning to leave him. That she was going to leave him for me. That I’ve been shagging her. That I love her. I don’t know what to do. I can’t tell anyone.”
“You’ve just told me,” I shout pointing at my chest.. He pauses, nods and for one moment I think he’s going to hug me, then he buys me a drink.
“What happened, when he came round?” I say when I get to the relative calm of Jimmy. At least he’s talking about the past not the present or the future.
“He was really pissed off and frightened.”
“Wouldn’t you have been?”
“What if someone offered me a new life? I’d be fucking delighted. And it included Hattie, who is…”
“No dog.” I finished for him. “So he wasn’t keen?”
“No. We had to tie him too a fucking chair, that’s how not keen he was. He was a useless piece of shit, started crying and all. I mean would Karl have done that?”
“He wasn’t Karl.”
“But we were going to improve him. make him better, turn him into Karl.”
“That wouldn’t make him better; it would make him Karl. When he was Karl he wouldn’t be whoever he was when you brained him with a beer bottle he would be Karl so he couldn’t be better than himself all he could be was himself which would be Karl.”
The bar is emptying out. The man with the dying wife and his mates who are shagging her have gone. Part of me goes with them.
“Hattie was like a demon. She said he had ten minutes to convince her that he was of value. If he did she would let him go if he didn’t she would extinguish him.”
“So she killed him?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“How can you kill someone in a manner of speaking?”
“He worked in the local council, giving out parking permits. He was separated. He had no kids and he was up there on a walking holiday on his own. He came across as the original Johnny No Mates. It would have been different if he’d been a racing driver or a hedge fund manager or an artist but then he wouldn’t have been sat on his own in a scuzzy pub just outside Huddersfield would he? And he wouldn’t have been wearing shit jeans and own brand trainers. Christ what a loser. “
“You mean as opposed to us lot working like dogs and being paid peanuts.”
“Dogs don’t eat peanuts.”
“My dog does.”
“Didn’t know you had a dog.”
Jimmy stares at me; shakes his head; rubs his eyes.
Bob Dylan said anybody can be happy. I’m not sure that’s true. I think maybe it takes a special talent that very few of us have.
“She said that he wasn’t worth saving, that he had nothing to offer, that she was going to blow him out, extinguish him. That then he would be free to become Karl and that as Karl he’d have so much to give to the world. She said if he didn’t agree to be Karl she’d kill him, put him in the hole out the back.”
“You wouldn’t have done that would you?”
Jimmy stares at me. “I think that night if he’d said no we would have. We were crazy. In the land of the dead. Once Karl killed himself all the rules went, We felt we couldn’t let him go. That it would have caused all sorts of ructions. But we could top him and dump him in the hole out the back.; easy. No one had seen him with us and he was on his own.”
“They’d seen him with Hannah?’
“Yeah, but he left before her. We pointed this out to him.He begged her to let him go. She said he didn’t understand, that it was chance for him, a chance to start over. Sad sack he was crying and everything. She cut all his hair off. He shit himself. Disgusting that was.”
“What were you doing?”
“Watching, drinking, taking drugs. She untied him. He didn’t protest. I reckon he thought he was about to be killed. He was in shock. She stripped him, washed him; got a tin basin and fucking washed his arse. She took his stuff and burned it all in the fire. She put Karl’s clothes on him. Called him Karl. Made us call him Karl. Said she loved him. That he was a wonderful person, someone everyone was proud of. Then she fucked him.”
“In front of you?”
“No, don’t be weird. She took him to bed.”
“What did you do?”
“Passed out. Next morning I woke up and thought fuck what have we done? Jack woke up looked at me raised his eyebrows and I said yes we did. Tony said we didn’t kill him did we? We looked at each other crept up to the bedroom and there the two of them were, asleep. We went back down to the kitchen.We’ll have to give him back Jack said. I agreed. Give him some money say it was a bet or something that got out of hand. Send him on his way.”
“So is that what you did?’
“He wouldn’t go.”
“Said we’d convinced him that his life was shit. Said that he wanted to be Karl. Said he was Karl. Then we said he wouldn’t get away with it, his hair was wrong, he was too short, he wasn’t talented, couldn’t make things. He said he’d learn if we taught him and we’d shaved his hair off.”
“But that’s crazy.”
“It wasn’t actually. Hannah was up for it. Said he was really sweet in bed, not as skilled as Karl, as dangerous, but she could teach him that. She said we could make an ideal Karl, a perfect Karl. And we thought about that. If we made him we could make him into the Karl we wanted and he was up for it. Said he didn’t want to go back to what he was before. That he wasn’t anything before.
Jack was very shaky. Said he’d be reported as missing, police would come after him. He said he’d write a note to his work that he’d come into some money and and decided to move abroad. He’d do the same with his landlord. Nobody would come looking. He’d pay everything off, close his bank accounts and that would be that. Gone. He said if we didn’t go along with it he would go to the police tell them we’d kidnapped him and that he’d escaped. That we had killed Karl and buried him out the back. Strangled him and then tried to make it look like a suicide. That no one would believe he’d hung himself behind the door and there was nowhere else in the cottage high enough to hang yourself from. That we were going to do the same to him. That we were psychopathic serial killers. He had us by the balls. He really got into it, fucking took over. Said we had to support him and everything. So we agreed. We decided that while we were training him up we would say that Karl was ill, had a breakdown. I mean he was all over the place and the amount of coke he’d taken it wouldn’t surprise anyone. Were you surprised?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t been surprised when I was told in fact I’d thought it amazing it hadn’t happened before.
“We said he was very ill, couldn’t be left on his own that one of us lot was going to stay with him. He’d made quite a bit of money on the Scotch gig so we used that. Hattie knew all his passwords and shit and we hadn’t buried his cards with him. In fact we hadn’t buried him in anything, we’d stripped him of everything, sent him naked back to the earth. And we trained him, didn’t we? We worked really fucking hard because until we had got him right we had to look after him. Took up all our spare time. It was a nightmare. Gave him books to read. Music to listen to. Told him what his memories were. We did fuck about with the memories a bit. Like making out we were more important to him that we really were, that he liked us more than he had, stuff like that. He was a good student. Then we had to launch him didn’t we? Couldn’t stay in the cottage for ever and we wanted Karl back. Wanted Karl down the pub. We wanted to stop making him. We wanted him to be him. We worked out a strategy. Kept his head shaved. Part of the illness we said when introduced him to the crowd. We made sure he wore that leather jacket, you know the one with the red lighting flashes, and those really fancy specs. People recognised him in the street, came up to him, asked him how he was, was he better. He was a bit weird and he wasn’t exactly like the old Karl but then he’d been through a lot hadn’t he? His nervousness people put down to the mental illness. His forgetting things, not recognising people to the medication, ECT. After about three weeks he had slotted right in, started living his life. He’d fallen out with his family, years before. He went back to see his mum, made it up with her. She was over the moon. Been waiting for it for fifteen years. Fulfilled her dream. She wasn’t going to question it. By May we’d forgotten he was a new one. He just was. He didn’t get any work but he went down the workshop every day. Found some of his old drawings. Started making stuff. Pretty shit at the beginning but he had been ill. The he got into it. It wasn’t the old Karl but as he said he’d changed, what with being ill and he saw things differently now. It was all great. We were all happy about it. Hattie was on tour a lot but when she was back she said it was even better than before. He was nice too all of us. Grateful, said we’d saved his life. Everyone said how much nicer he was and how he looked better than ever what with the crew cut. We didn’t mind supporting him. I mean he got the dole but we chucked a bit extra in; made us feel good.“
“So what happened?”
“ I don’t know exactly. Maybe he got too confident, decided he didn’t need us, wanted more from us. Shit you know Karl, nothing was ever right for long, he was always looking for something more, something new and when it didn’t pan out, well then the darkness. He started back in on the coke big time. He fell out with his mum again and then his birthday was coming up. He’d never liked his birthdays had he?”
“But he wasn’t him.”
“Then who was he? Hattie moved out. Said it was too much. He would be up all night listening to his records, bashing away at the guitar.”
“Still learning the part?”
“He wasn’t learning any part. He was Karl.”
When I was at college we did an acting exercise. We were doing scenes from a piece depicting a homosexual relationship. We had been told to bring in an object which would represent an emotion appropriate to our character. Colin brought in a hat, his dad’s. Colin was very mild mannered. He pulled a wall bar off, we were rehearsing in the dance studio. He smashed a chair. The teacher told me to go in as my character and talk him down, say I loved him. I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t gone in, if we’d left him there?
“He fell out with all of us. Said we weren’t proper friends, that we didn’t respect him, that no one did. He said he didn’t get what he deserved, that no one cared about him. I went to see him. He told me to fuck off so I did. We didn’t bother to go up to the cottage this time. Hattie phoned the police. You know the rest.” Jimmy stared into his empty glass. “I miss him,” he said.
I am a careful man. I am a measured man. I see my life through a gap in the curtains.
I lie on my back.
I am waiting for something to happen.
There is a crack. I had thought of cleaning it out, widening it, then filling it, but the ceiling is too high.
The apartment is old. The bed is cheap and low, the quilt worn. I hear the woman breathing beside me.
I touch her shoulder. It is smooth, rounded, warm.
I watch the crack. It runs from corner to corner. It divides the ceiling.
I push the woman’s shoulder – gently. She raises her head. My voice is calm. “I’m leaving,” I say.
“But you only just got back.”
I watch the crack. If the ceiling had been whole, if the paint had not been flaking, things would have been different.
The woman sits up. She turns on the bedside light. The lampshade is scorched, tasselled, yellow. It is a remnant of her dead husband.
I have the beginning of a cramp in my left calf.
I sit up in the bed.
I flex my foot.
The woman turns towards me. Her breasts are small, pointed and narrow, the nipples tight. Her hair, cut short, rises in small spikes, the grey concealed by auburn dye. Her skin is smooth and white. There are two vertical lines at each corner of her mouth. Her upper lip is out of true I used to love her – perhaps.
“I can’t stay.”
“Because it wouldn’t be right.”
The woman gets out of the bed. She walks naked across the room. Her arse is beautiful. She puts on a short, thin, black, silk dressing gown. She pulls the belt tight and sits on the stool in front of her makeshift dressing table.I can see her inner thigh, the shadow of her pubic hair. I listen to a solitary car slow and stop. Then I listen to it drive away.
“Tell me about Berlin.” She reaches for her cigarettes. She is trying to be calm. Her hand shakes.
“I saw the show. I met the technicians. I spoke to the director.”
“Why did that take three days?”
“You know I like to see shows twice.”
I am a production manager. My job is to foresee the unforeseen, to ensure that it cannot occur. I imagine what can go wrong and then forestall it I check and then check again. I am paid to look on the dark side of life.
It was snowing in Berlin. There were prostitutes outside my hotel. I watched one from the bar. She was dressed in a white ski suit. She had blonde hair. She stood by the edge of the road. Car headlights illuminated her. Thin snow drifted round her shoulders.
I imagined paying for my coffee, putting on my coat and walking across the road to her.
I imagined taking her to a small, warm room.
I imagined a mirrored counterpane, on a mattress, on the floor.
I imagined a cream coloured, battered body.
I imagined a softness that would hold me.
I imagined a darkness that would welcome me.
I bought myself a small brandy.
“Did you meet someone there? Did you fuck them?”
She lights a cigarette, blows smoke narrow through her nostrils.
“I don’t mind if you did. If it was a prostitute we could phone her up, invite her over, share her.”
I look at her. I wonder at her rapaciousness, her need, her desperation.
I wonder why it is focused on me.
In the morning I walked from my hotel to the Brandenburg Gate: down Freidrich Strasse and then right along Unter Den Linden. In the curved glass of the Sony building I saw the Reichstag in flames.
I was in Berlin to see a show. It was a Lithuanian production of The Cherry Orchard. It presented no particular difficulties. There was a ceiling piece that would make lighting difficult in some venues and one effect where a wardrobe penetrated the ceiling from above and sand and papers fell from it.The mechanism enabling this to occur was primitive but efficient. I like primitive things that achieve their objective with the minimum of complication. In my experience the unforeseen emerges from the interstices contained within machinery. It is difficult to police that which only exists as a consequence of the proximity of other objects.
I went back to the bar at the hotel and watched the same prostitute. I could not recover the optimism of the previous night and went to bed where I fell into a troubled sleep: dreams of dogs and sheep in a grey landscape where banks of cloud rolled over escarpments.
The next morning I walked. I did not need to be at the theatre until five. It was colder than I had expected: twelve below. Thin snow blew through the streets.
“I went to a museum.”
“More of an exhibition really.”
“What sort of exhibition?”
I took the S-Bahn to Wannsee. It was bitterly cold. I walked along a road: on one side leafless trees, on the other rich men’s houses. There was a lake.
The gate to the museum was locked.
I went down a flight of stone steps to a small paved area that overlooked the lake. A stone lion stared blind across the water. There was a stall selling hot drinks. I bought a coffee and walked to the balustrade, warming my hands on the chipped glass mug. As I stood there I wished that Ihad chosen gluhvine.
The lake was calm, the sun intermittent, my coat inadequate, the family groups loud, vulgar and argumentative.
I finished my coffee and walked into the woods. The path was broad, over used, the small amount of winter undergrowth littered with sweet papers, soiled tissues, dog shit. It led to the edge of the lake. There were groups of Germans out for their Sunday morning walk: dogs and children and grandparents. The wind from the lake penetrated me.
I left the main path. I found a small soiled beach, the grey sand dotted with cigarette ends. Behind me I could hear dogs barking, children crying, adults shouting. I went to the water’s edge. Between the water and the land there was a three inch wide fragmented boundary of ice. The grey flakes rubbed against each other, making an insistent, blurred, tinkling sound. To the left and right of the beach bushes and small trees bent to meet the water. Their lower extremities were sheathed in ice. I realised that the water must have been more turbulent in the recent past, that waves must have immersed the branches and that the residue of the immersion must have frozen in the cold air.
I squatted, reached out to touch the grey flakes of ice then at the last moment closed my hand into a fist, stood and walked to the museum.
“It was a holocaust museum.”
“Why on earth did you want to go there?”
“The in-flight magazine said that it was something not to be missed.”
I stopped at the black painted wrought iron gates and rang the bell. The gate swung open. I walked up a neat gravelled drive to the bow-fronted entrance. I knocked on the polished hard wood door. A woman in her sixties opened the door. She was plump and motherly. She was concerned that I should hang up my inadequate coat correctly. The villa was over heated. She handed me a guidebook written in English and then paused as if about to tell me something, not about the house or the exhibition but about me. Then the bell rang and she went away.
“It was lots of photographs. They planned the Final Solution there, signed the papers, in a room with a polished table that overlooked the lake.”
“What’s that got to do with us?”
A photograph – beneath the photograph some text:
A young man with rolled up sleeves was armed with an iron crowbar.
He yanked a man from a group (and) killed him with one or several blows to
the back of his head. In this manner, within three quarters of an hour, he slew
a group of from 45 to 50 persons.
Report by a photographer on the pogrom at Kovno
In the photograph: a young woman. She was in her early twenties. She had high cheekbones, large dark eyes, perfect skin. She was crouched on the ground, naked. Behind her the trouser-covered legs of men. She had her right arm across her breasts. She looked beyond the camera. She looked at me.
“There was a young woman, in a picture.”
“She made an impression on me.”
The woman stared at me, eyes narrowed against drifting smoke.
“I can’t get her out of my mind.” I lie down in the bed. “I’ve got her picture here, in the guidebook. If you want to look.”
I stare at the crack in the ceiling.
“You rescued me,” the woman says.
“I didn’t mean to,” I reply, “that was not my intention.”
I sat on a narrow wooden bench and concentrated on the photograph. I tried to smell the blood. I tried to see the young man with rolled up sleeves. I tried to see the piles of bodies: tidy, arms to their sides. I failed.
“I don’t want to pretend,” I say.
“Pretend what?” the woman asks.
“That everything is all right when it isn’t.”
“And leaving me will make it right?”
“Staying with you will make it worse.
THE DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION.
I often have the sensation of standing with the back of my heels over a precipice. I feel that it would take the slightest push to send me over.
I was on a plane to Vilnius. I had the seat-tray-table down. I had five small transparent zip lock bags each filled with a quantity of white powder arranged neatly before me. I opened one of the bags, licked my finger and put it into the bag then withdrew it in order to examine closely what had stuck to my skin. I was sat by the window, rammed in. I am six foot three and budget airlines force me into many contortions. My immediate neighbour was male and wore a suit.
I did not acknowledge him.
I have a tendency to surround myself with a barrier, to withdraw from effective contact with the external world, so that I can construct my own land without interference. It is a technique that I developed in my childhood.
I brushed the white powder off my finger, put aside the first bag and opened the second. My fellow passenger got to his feet and disappeared from my sight. I made no internal comment on his disappearance. I opened the third of the bags and continued my examination of their contents. I was on the last bag when a male steward inserted himself into the seat beside me. He addressed me by name, which startled me, although in hindsight I realised that it was simple for him to look up my seat number on the manifest; anonymity is largely illusory these days whereas insignificance is absolute. He asked me what I was doing. He said that a passenger had complained about my activities. He also said that he had informed the captain of his intention to talk to me. He lent his head back against the seat cushion and regarded me.
I don’t understand, I said.
He gestured at the packets. What’s that?
Snow, I said and as I spoke I understood. No, I said, It’s not cocaine, it’s snow, real snow, well, actually not real snow, it’s theatrical snow. It’s paper – see. I tipped one of the bags out onto the tray. It’s for a show I’m working on. It has to be fire proof. There are different grades. I’m taking it to Lithuania to see which type the director wants.
The steward cautiously poked at the small white pile.
Did you think I was a drug dealer? That’s ridiculous. If I was would I be checking my wares in full view?”
You’d be surprised what people do in full view. I’ve had people shooting up, giving blow jobs, counting out thousands of dollars in used notes. For all I knew you could have been high and dangerous. In the States we would have been able to send an air marshall to deal with you.”
His relief was palpable. I put the snow away.
The man who had been sat beside me didn’t return. It would have been too difficult for him; he and his judgement would have been called into question; a sliver of darkness would have penetrated his world.
We are all players in theatres of the mind. We have no awareness of what roles we are playing in other people’s dramas until we move from bit player to lead and are forcibly thrown into the scene: when the person next to you decides you are a drug dealer and alerts the air crew: when seven bullets are fired into your head and one into your shoulder because a policeman has decided you are a suicide bomber: when your lover tells you it’s obvious that you no longer care for them and leaves. You never know when another person’s world will attempt to impinge on yours. And if it succeeds then in some way this has to be because you have failed in the upkeep of your own world, failed to ensure the integrity of the imaginative structure that you have constructed to keep others and ultimately the darkness out. We try to modify people on their entry to our world, morph them into beings who fit our private diorama and if we fail our world can disintegrate and the darkness triumph. It’s hard work keeping this show on the road and there is always the temptation to say fuck it and take the consequences. An actor I know jumped off the edge of the stage while performing in a production of Becket’s Godot, and walked out of the auditorium never to be seen in a theatre again. He had always had certain problems with distinguishing realities; one night, while playing the part of the Stranger in Cherry Orchard, he was nowhere to be found. At the beginning of Act Two, during which he made his brief appearance, a door to the auditorium opened and a figure moved through the half darkness to take an empty seat. The figure settled in then leaned across to its neighbour and whispered “You’ll like this next bit; it’s where I come in.”
We chose the snow. Remus, the director, and I, and I ordered it from Snow Business. The ordering of it had made me anxious. It was the fact that it would be delivered to the venue when I wasn’t there and that when I arrived, on the Friday, it would be impossible to get more in time for the opening night on the Monday, should some accident have befallen it. However the cost of having it delivered to me and my bringing it on the plane was excessive and I couldn’t get there earlier as I was working on another job and anyway there was no budget for an extra night in the hotel. The world for me is a place filled with hidden dangers. I proceed with the utmost caution, always looking for unseen trip wires. My partners mistake hyper-vigilance for selfishness. It’s difficult to relax when you are waiting for the moment when the improvised explosive device will blow you into oblivion.
It is November 1999. I am in Belfast and the bomb has exploded. I have lost the snow.
I am waiting in the loading dock of The Waterfront Centre in Belfast. If I had fully registered the fact that the venue wasn’t a proper theatre but a conference centre I would never have arranged for the snow to be delivered here. Nobody outside of theatre understands the absolute necessity of each segment, that there is no room for error or indifference; that effort and precision are essential to effective delivery of illusion. If your attention to detail fails so does the world you are responsible for maintaining. In theatre the stage door keeper knows that every package however small could be the difference between triumph and disaster and this hadn’t been a small package it had been three bales.
The security guard returns, shakes his head. “No sign,” he says and my stomach clenches. “Probably somewhere around. It’s a big building. Lots of nooks and crannies. If you come back in the morning happen it’ll have turned up.”
“Do things often go missing here?” I don’t want to ask but I have no choice.
He nods. “I’d be lying if I said they didn’t because they do. But then what can you expect? It’s in the nature of things.” He walks to the edge of the concrete platform, offers me a cigarette which I refuse then takes one for himself and blows smoke out into the drizzle filled sodium tinted gloom. “God, it’s great to be out of the rain and in the light, isn’t it?” he says.
I leave him smoking and with my little wheeled bag bumping behind me go on out into that night. I know the direction of the hotel. I have examined the map and it shows clearly the route I need to follow. Up Cromac Street then along The Ormeau Road. I need the walk. I don’t mind the drizzle; it eases the pressure in my head. Head down I proceed. I wonder what I can do without the snow. There is a sudden squall, rain in my eyes. I follow the pavement. When the rain eases I register that the street has become narrower and that the kerb stones are painted red, white and blue. The houses are terraced, small and brick. There is a pub. The windows glow in the dark. It looks unprepossessing but neighbourly; I will shelter there, get directions. It’s called The Hideout. I look up the deserted road before I cross to ensure that nothing is coming. When I turn my head back I see that there is something painted on the gable end of the pub. I cross the road. I look up. It’s a mural, simple but powerful, of a piper in a kilt standing before a gravestone. The inscription on the stone says: “Here Lies a Soldier.” Above the piper is painted a banner that reads “2nd Battalion U.V.F. Sth Belfast” and round the edge of the mural are shields with names and dates. I count them: there are fourteen. The most recent reads “C.Devlin 1998.”
I don’t go into the pub. I retrace my steps until I find the Omagh Road and head South. I register when the kerbstones are no longer red, white and blue.
At the hotel I check in. I am soaking wet. The young receptionist asks me if I walked. I say yes. “From the Waterfront Centre?” I nod. She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t do that again, sir. I really wouldn’t,” she says handing me the key to my room. “You’re crossing the lines there.”
In the room familiar, but unknown, I strip off my wet clothes and have a hot shower. I imagine that when I leave the bathroom there will be someone to welcome me. I rest my head against the wall and build a picture of domesticity complete with coal fire and cat.
I lie down on the tightly covered bed and stare at the ceiling. If the snow doesn’t turn up then the show can’t happen. The quickest I could get more would be to arrange for it to be couriered on Monday morning from the company’s HQ in Stroud and realistically it wouldn’t arrive until late that day. We couldn’t light without it and we couldn’t perform without it. I sit up and then I stand and I pace, four paces forward, four paces back. I only have a towel around my waist. This is my worst fear. That by failing to anticipate something I cause the show to fail, the curtain not to go up, the lights not to come on and then what? Nothing. A big black nothing. The audience come and are turned away. The actors sit in the dressing room in full costume and make up but have nothing to say. The technicians have no reason to raise the curtain or turn on the PA. Everyone just goes home: the usher with no programmes sold, the ice cream lady with her untouched wares back in the freezer.
I love being in theatres, particularly at night on my own. They murmur and stir in their sleep waiting for the performance to bring them to life. In the four hundred seat opera house at Drottningholm before they introduced electricity there were 240 candles. When I can’t sleep I lie in bed and imagine that it is me who is lighting them one by one with a taper: each candle scaring away the dark and ushering in the warmth. In a full auditorium one is safe, no harm can be done. I relish standing there knowing that I have been instrumental in bringing joy to one hundred or one thousand people, in keeping them safe and free from suffering for those minutes or hours. But to fail. That is terrible, unthinkable. Then the people are locked out.
I hear a noise.
It comes from outside my room.
It is difficult to ascribe a cause to it.
It starts low, reverberant and then rises to a shrill whistling aspirant sound like wind shrieking in wires but not.
It originates, I think, from a human, possibly in distress.
I open the door.
I stare down the dimly lit corridor that gives the appearance of being constructed of cardboard and see a figure silhouetted against a ceiling to floor window.
The figure holds above its head a fire extinguisher, shockingly red against the black.
At the conclusion of the shriek, which is what I now realise is the most accurate categorisation of the sound, it slams the fire extinguisher against the glass.
We are on the fifth floor.
Outside a fully fledged storm is battering the building swinging in across the North Sea.
I watch the figure as it shrieks again and strikes the window.
It is ten o’clock at night.
The figure staggers, hurls itself against the glass.
A door opens, a head appears, a woman wearing thick glasses.
The figure turns and regards me and her.
I recognise him.
He is a member of the cast.
The woman has gone.
It strikes me that one man’s shelter is another man’s prison.
The double door at the end of the corridor away from the window opens and the young woman who was on the reception desk walks slowly towards me.
She looks at my semi-naked body and raises her eyebrows.
The figure holding the fire extinguisher is absolutely still.
For a long moment we are frozen, caught in time, a tableau.
Am I the young woman’s lover, is the figure holding the fire extinguisher her jealous husband?
Is there a fire in the young woman’s room? Have I come to her aid and is the figure with the fire extinguisher backing me up?
Or is it all meaningless?
“Are you all right,sir?” she asks the figure. “Do you have a problem?”
The figure bows its shoulders, turns to the window, screams and crashes the fire extinguisher into the glass.
The glass crazes, disintegrates into myriad pieces and cascades over the figure.
Darkness and wind and rain fill the corridor.
I wait for the figure to plunge out into the darkness.
When I get to the Conference Centre the next morning the three bales of snow are placed neatly in the centre of the podium. They had been held in the manager’s office for safe keeping.
On the stage it rapidly discolours. I realise that it is designed for use in film. I will need to arrange a steady supply.
On the plane back to Stansted I remember a time in New York. Walking across a square. A single cop with her cap positioned on the back of her head standing hands on hips. At her feet a body covered in a yellow slicker. I look up. I see a break in the immaculate face of a skyscraper.
I notice that the building is the Department of Immigration.
I am an anxious man, alert to the unseen obstacle.
I have left my girlfriend and she is filled with rage.
All my stuff is in her flat and at irregular intervals she leaves a message that some item of mine will be placed on the pavement.
She always gives me notice.
In that way she is like the IRA
There is no such thing as a clean break.
The past never truly lets you go.
At any moment it can blow you off your feet, deafen you.
Lee, the venue sound engineer, walks slowly toward me. We have a big concert tonight. He is dressed entirely in black: tight jeans, safety boots, damaged tee shirt. He is forty six. He used to work for Tony Blair: ensuring that he could be heard. They recorded everything. Solidified the sound, rendered it in digital information, in binary code.
Live sound is a mysterious thing. It ambushes you, won’t let you alone disputes with you and then is gone before you can be certain of its meaning.
Dead sound is dead.
We should have selective hearing: only registering that which is helpful, positive; filtering out all that is counterproductive; shutting our ears to the unwanted echo, the dark reverberation. We should stop ourselves from listening, being woken in the night by a sound that has already ceased; our heart beating fast in case we have missed something significant: a warning, a memory, a cry from the past; but we can’t.
Vitruvius in Book Five of his Ten Books on Architecture describes the Voice as “a flowing breath of air. It moves in an endless number of circular rounds, like the increasing circular waves which appear when a stone is thrown into smooth water, and which keep on spreading from the centre until interrupted by narrow limits,which prevent them from reaching their end in due formation.”
We are surrounded by distorted and damaged echoes, awash in resonance from our past.
Tonight we have Brian Wilson performing.
Lee has long, lank, strawberry blonde hair that only partially conceals a bald spot. The whiteness of his skin is accentuated by the fact that he rarely goes out in the sunlight. The theatre technician’s natural habitat is the dark; nine out of ten always sat at the back of the class listening to their own tunes.
Is it all right in there? I ask.
Yeah, it’s fine.
You’re doing monitors aren’t you?
Sound check at six?
That’s what the man wants.
So everything’s cool?
Lee nods. Brian doesn’t do the sound check, he says.
So nothing. He’s had lots of bits replaced.
Liver, lungs, maybe heart.
It’s what I’ve heard.
Where did you hear that?
Everybody knows; it’s common knowledge.
Lee hears a lot of things: he’s a sound engineer.
What do you call a sound engineer without a girlfriend?
One of the measures of the behaviour of sound in a room is reverberation time.
Traditionally it is the time it takes for the report of a pistol shot to decay into perfect silence.
The recommended time for Romantic Symphonic music is 2.2 seconds, for speech 1 second. I worked in a church that had a reverberation time of 11 seconds.
The sound of the Big Bang still reverberates through the universe.
The Beach Boys released Good Vibrations in 1967.
I left my girl friend two weeks ago.
I often wonder what we are, what we are composed of. Echoes?
Brian Wilson arrives. He is brought into the canteen. I have been told that he likes to eat with the band, doesn’t like to be on his own. He doesn’t look like I imagined he would but when I interrogate myself I realise that all I had was a vague image of blonde hair and sun-tanned pectoral muscles.
He is sixty four.
It is reputed that Greek tragic masks had a reverberant quality that increased the intelligibility of the speech, allowed it to travel further, extended its decay time.
What are we so desperate to hear?
What are we so terrified of missing?
Brian Wilson stands looking around with an expression of benign confusion. It would appear that he is not aware of exactly where he is but that he doesn’t seem to find that frightening; in fact he seems to find it comforting. He seems to like being nowhere.
His minders sit him at a table and tie a large napkin around his neck.
I notice that he is never left alone.
I imagine that they are frightened that he will become lost and never come back to them.
It’s 1967. It’s summer. I’m eighteen. I am a trainee stage electrician at an opera house. I am in the kitchen area of the Nissan Hut that houses the male technicians. I dance in front of a gas cooker. On a prized and protected Dansette portable record player “Good Vibrations” is playing: the sound fills the air. As I dance I stir a large pot, which contains the general purpose stew. No one knows for sure when this dish began or what it originally consisted of but it continues to serve us, every day an extra ingredient is added to make up the volume: baked beans, chopped tomatoes, corned beef, sweet corn and occasionally peaches. Our theory is that provided we always bring it to the boil we won’t get sick. And we don’t, but that may have more to do with our youth than any understanding of food hygiene. I ladle out a beige lumpy bowlful and eat it rapidly with half a dozen pieces of ready-sliced white bread. I am in a state of excitement. I am always in a state of excitement. It never leaves me. Even my despair is shot through with lightning flashes of silver and gold. I have possibilities. In fact I am possibilities. I am nothing else. Tonight I am on lock up. I have to close the venue when the piano rehearsal finishes at 9.30. There is a party in the manor house. I am allowed to attend. The others are already there. I am certain that tonight I will get properly laid, I am not sure what properly is I just know that I haven’t experienced it yet but that when I do I will know it and never forget it.
I hear they have a nightmare with Brian’s drugs. Lee says. He sticks a roll up into the corner of his mouth. The problem apparently is, he continues, getting the balance just right: too much speed and he’ll have a heart attack, too many downers and he’ll have respiratory failure. What with the stuff to stop bits of him from being rejected he’s a pharmaceutical phenomenon. It’s a miracle they manage to keep him going at all.
In Lee’s line of work truth is entirely subjective, there are no absolutes. He can emphasise or mute whichever part of the spectrum he wishes.
Until the mechanism fails and then silence will overwhelm him leaving only the echoes.
Why do we find it so difficult to leave things as they are, to accept what we are given or not given? Why can’t we accept limitations? Why must always seek to improve, to make better, to enhance? We never know when to leave well alone. Why can’t we just leave things to decay into silence? We install electro acoustic enhancement systems in venues. They increase the reverberation, extend the decay. They don’t really work. They make the room sound bigger than it is but the room is still the same size. The sound isn’t right unless you shut your eyes. It’s unintelligible. It doesn’t correspond to what you see. The brain doesn’t like to be messed with. It rejects. You cannot make something into what it is not.
You can never be rid of your children.
Consequences follow you to the grave.
I walk to the opera house. It is a prison. A man married a woman; she wanted above everything to sing; he didn’t want to lose her. He built an opera house, in the garden, for her. Then she died. Her dressing room is as it was with a shelf running round it at high level on which is sat a rank of porcelain-faced dolls. It is reputed that her make up is still there and the costume she last wore. Animals won’t cross the stage. In Elisir d’Amore the donkey wouldn’t go on stage. The trainer had to drug it. The administrator’s dogs run round the backstage rather than go across. The wife is still there. She hasn’t been allowed to leave. She appears in the family box to anyone who appears in a role she sang. She has been seen many times. I walk steadily round the building moving through the small rehearsal rooms, shutting off the lights. I am not frightened. She has no reason to harm me. I am one of her tribe. I go through the rehearsal room that was hers, it is painted green and there is a full sized grand piano, the curtains are never drawn. It takes me twenty minutes to do the round. I lock the stage door behind me. As I walk to the party I notice that all the lights I have turned off are now on. I pause for a moment; I wonder what it is she wants me to hear then I continue on my way. The party is in the manor’s ballroom. It is lit with theatre lamps on stands. A friend of mine, Tom, is dancing with his girlfriend, she wears a long dress and has flowers drawn on her arms; she does a sudden spin, catches the light’s stand. The light falls and hits Tom square on the back of the head. As we sit in the back of the ambulance, the blue light flashing through the windows, Tom’s girlfriend weeping, her complex eye makeup a muddied mess, I wonder whether this is in fact going to be my life, sat in an emergency vehicle rushing to somewhere where there is the hope that things may be put right.
Brian has finished his dinner.
I go over and talk to his manager.
They want a familiarisation tour of the back stage area.
They handle Brian with great tenderness. He doesn’t speak to me merely acknowledges me with a slight nod. They start at his dressing room. They walk him through the route to the stage reassuring him that he will never be left on his own. At ten foot intervals they tape an arrow on the floor in fluorescent tape. When they get to the stage they show him his seat behind the keyboards. Then they put three lines of tape on the floor just offstage and write in tape on the floor “Stand Here.” They reassure him again that he will never be left on his own.
We don’t accept that anything is over. We bend our ears to hear the reverberation, we install devices to magnify it, catch it. Why can’t we just let it go?
I have just left my girlfriend.
It wasn’t that there was anything specifically wrong.
It just wasn’t possible to stay.
I have returned to my parents.
They are in their seventies.
I expect her to be in touch.
It is an entirely sold out house, one thousand three hundred people. The excitement in the auditorium is palpable. Brian’s backing band come on stage. There is one musician who looks like Brian should have looked, he is blonde, he is slim, he is suntanned. Brian sleepwalks onto the stage and sits behind the keyboard. The audience rises too its feet. I hear a voice calling out to me, a voice dancing in front of a two ring gas cooker. I can’t make out what it says.
Brian’s voice is shot. He uses the keyboard minimally. He stares out into the auditorium with a thousand yard stare. From where I stand at the side of the auditorium I wonder what he sees, what he is looking for. Is he looking at himself in the past or at a future which only he can see where he has been able to leave all this behind? His band give it everything, his voice is overridden. He is a man featuring in his own tribute band. Maybe that’s what we all become?
There is a text from her on my phone.
In half an hour your computer will be on the pavement.
I don’t go to collect it.
MINDING THE ELEPHANT
I have never been fond of animals.
It’s half past midnight
I am walking along the beach in Brighton.
I am minding the elephant.
He’s an Asian elephant.
He stands a little bit taller than me.
His name is Max and he likes to get out.
He’s four years old.
Things are not good with me.
I have effectively lost everything.
At my drama school there was a girl called Liza. She paid her way through college by performing sex acts in front of a businessman once a week. Then she got a job in a circus, in Italy, as an elephant rider. She wore long needle-like spurs. Her legs were concealed behind the elephant’s ears. When she finished her act and got off the elephant, outside of the tent, leaving the amazed children and charmed adults behind, her legs were slick with blood. She used to wipe them down with a towel.
Nobody uses spurs on Max.
His trainer seems to treat him gently.
They have a good relationship.
It is wonderful to walk along the shingle at midnight with them, to watch Max wade with care through the surf.
The first historically recorded elephant in Northern Europe was brought to the British capital of Colchester, by the emperor Claudius, during the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.
I am destitute.
I live in the abandoned flat of an acquaintance.
I am forty.
I work on the night crew at an exhibition centre.
Max is part of an ice show that is resident there, at the moment.
The supervisor of the night crew gives me more responsible jobs.
Minding the elephant is one of those.
We are a small group.
We hang on to the edge of life by our fingertips.
We no longer belong to the day.
The ice show crew lay down a black plastic pond liner which they fill with a network of pipes. They connect the pipes to the chillers. When the pipes become covered in frost they spray a thin film of water about every fifteen minutes until they build up a three inch layer of ice. The chillers are mounted on lorries and sit in the loading bay. They have two Portacabins with their offices. They tour all over the world. In South America parents bring their children not to see the show but to see the ice. They open the auditorium an hour early so the children can touch the ice.
In 1876 a mechanically frozen ice rink was opened by John Gamgee at 379 Kings Road, Chelsea.
The rink was based on a concrete surface, with layers of earth, cow hair and timber planks. On these were laid oval copper pipes carrying a solution of glycerine with ether, nitrogen peroxide and water. The pipes were covered by water and the solution was pumped through, freezing the water into ice. The rink initially proved a success; however, the process was expensive, and mists rising from the ice deterred customers, forcing it to close by the end of the year.
I like to think of the ladies in their long dresses being gradually overwhelmed by the mist as they describe elegant circles on the ice.
When I go back to the flat in the hours just before dawn I am sometimes seized by a physical manifestation of despair that leaves me cruciform face down on the filthy carpet.
I find it curious how an emotion can manifest itself in such an entirely physical way.
There are no thoughts in my head at those times.
The elephant is beautiful
He is impossible.
He cannot be.
I do not understand how I have come to be here.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore trains elephants using an operant conditioning system. Operant conditioning is a process used to positively reinforce behaviours that are desired and to decrease behaviours that are not desired by training the animal away from those behaviours. Punishment is never used. The animal is given a variety of cues for a specific behaviour in the form of either an audible, tactile, or visual stimulus. Depending on how the elephant responds, a positive reinforcement usually is given in the form of a food item, verbal praise, or an enrichment item. Conditioning occurs when the elephant’s correct behaviour is achieved and reinforced consistently through repetition over an extended amount of time.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
We build things.
Layer on layer on layer until they form a skin.
Then one day the chillers get turned off.
The ice begins to melt and the men come in with sledge hammers.
I am standing at the foot of the wooden stairs that lead to the doors of the Round House Theatre. I am the company manager of Andy Warhol’s Pork. A figure in a silver lameé dress, wearing high heels and with back-combed hair like blue candy floss runs out of the doors, across the platform and then down the stairs towards me. He half-stumbles, half-falls into my arms. I pick him up; he is very light, and walk steadily up the stairs back to his dressing room. All the time he is shouting that he just can’t do it. He has diamante encrusted gauze butterflies in his hair. This happens every night.
I meet an old friend of mine. His mother has Alzheimer’s. She is confined to a nursing home. She continuously runs a loop containing three events from her early adolescence. They all feature her at school. They all feature her being humiliated.
I am standing on a balcony at the Ritz hotel. This is not where I belong. I have walked past the Ritz many times, walked beneath its colonnade, warily glanced through the windows. It is Fred Hughes’ suite. He is Andy Warhol’s social secretary. Fred is immaculate. He is just under six foot, olive skin, smooth, black, neatly cut and oiled hair, a dark blue double breasted suit with wide lapels, a dark blue silk tie, a white silk shirt with a deep collar. He decides which parties Andy should go to. Andy has gone to Vienna. Fred will follow. Fred has ten identical suits, twenty identical shirts, ten identical ties, ten identical pairs of shoes. He gets his hair cut every day. In the sitting room of the suite two women are sat on a louis quatorze couch. They are in their late twenties, one wears a black velvet dress tight across her breast, her explosive hair is contained by a fringed orange scarf; the other has blonde ringlets and wears a dress with a marigold motif; her mouth is a scarlet gash. She is an English rose subverted. They sit decorously, knees together, holding their champagne glasses with care. They are discussing the elasticity of their vaginas: how many fingers they can each accommodate with comfort, how easy it is to get a complete fist in there, how that differs from taking it up the arse. There are three men who stand with their backs to the wall and smoke. Two are in double breasted suits, the other in a tight leather jacket and bottle green velvet flares. Fred is taking a continuous stream of Polaroids. As he approaches the women or the men, they momentarily freeze and then, after the shot has been taken, continue seamlessly with what they were doing; the men smoking, the women talking. The floor is covered with pictures. Fred doesn’t look at them, no one looks at them; they litter the carpet. I watch through a gap in the curtains.
Why am I here and not there?
I sit at a small table and wait for her.
The invention of modern instant cameras is normally credited to American scientist Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, who unveiled the first commercial instant camera, the Land Camera, in 1948, a year after revealing instant film in New York City.
If we could stop time, pause its gelatinous movement; we could hold the instant, assess it, turn it in our hand, examine it from every side.
I order a coffee. I want nothing else. I feel almost transparent.
If we took those polaroids of Fred’s, gathered them up from the carpet in the Ritz, we could assemble an album in which the difference between each image was so small time became irrelevant. We could create an eddy, a back-water where the current of time became sluggish, confused and eventually ceased. We could create a situation where time would dismiss us as an aberration that he cannot be bothered to deal with. He would leave us on a loop that would play eternally while the outside world aged and died and London fell in order to rise again.The women would continue sitting on the louis quatorze sofa discussing the relative elasticity of their vaginas as the others smoked and I watched through the gap in the curtains. We would float, imperishable. Is this the intention behind the meaningless conversations, the lives devoted to trivia, the six hour films in which nothing happens? If you don’t notice the passing of time does it pass? Is it the act of observing that creates the universe? Is that our job, to be witnesses? What occurs if we shut our eyes?
The people sigh and rise from their positions. I am approached absently. I agree to drive some of them across London in my convertible Morris Thousand to Bayswater. A party.
The apartment in Bayswater is large and shabby. A man with long hair, longer than mine, approaches me. The two women and the man in the velvet trousers have gone. Fred never appeared. There is no one taking photographs here. The man asks me who I am and at that moment I don’t know. I tell him my birthday and he is filled with excitement. We are psychic twins, he says. Born on the same day and perhaps at the same time. I was born just past midnight. So was he. It means, apparently, that we are locked together for eternity. He is a musician, in a band that I have heard of faintly. He gives me a small pipe filled with dope and I inhale. There is no woman in this room who I could fuck. No body that could give me shelter from the coldness on the balcony on which I stand peering through the curtains. No vagina to hold me tight.
I feel as if I am on the tip of a spire of rock that rises up through clouds, that I am in some poorly executed Goth fantasy. I know that if I move I will fall and be condemned to spin through non-knowing for ever. I stare intently at the corner of the rug on which I stand. My feet echo the right angle. I know I must not move. Part of my mind says that wasn’t just dope in that pipe but most of my brain is occupied with not falling off the carpet. I cautiously raise my eyes. I can see my reflection in the window opposite, my reflection is doubled and redoubled and redoubled running backwards into the darkness of the street outside. I now have a definitive problem. If I keep looking at my reflections I will fall off the carpet. If I stop looking at my reflections they will escape me at enormous velocity and leave me a brittle shell that will disintegrate into ashes at the slightest touch.
I dare not close my eyes.
I have no idea what will be revealed when I open them again.
Which one of my reflections is me?
Heine said: “time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies are finite…. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again…. And thus it will happen one day that a man will be born again, just like me.”
As the Red Hot Chilli Peppers say “Can’t stop the spirits when they need you. This life is more than just a read through.”
In all this who am I?
What am I?
She walks down the street.
I watch her through the glass window of the restaurant.
She sits opposite me.
She does not smile.
You have destroyed my life, she says. You have taken everything away from me.
THE GATES OF DAWN
I am eating soup sat at a table on a wooden platform that protrudes over a river. I can see the sluggish weed-filled water through gaps between the boards. The soup is cold and thick and flavoured with dill. Mosquitoes are near. I am happy.
It should be possible to exist in moments of sensual engagement: October sun on skin, the small hands of rain on a hot and humid afternoon.
I finish my soup and walk. Through narrow winding medieval streets. I hold onto my blankness with all the care of a man cupping a butterfly between his hands.
Each moment has the capacity to expand simultaneously in all directions before the guillotine falls. If only we could stay there, on the borderline. Exist in the cracks.
I am in Vilnius to see a show that contains snow and fire. The street I am walking down has four story tenement houses on either side, it is cobbled and dilapidated.There is the occasional balcony, small, rectangular with rusting wrought iron railings, asymmetrically placed, apparently as an after thought. The overall colour is a soft yellow fading into dirty cream. Areas of paint and render are coming away from the walls revealing the stone beneath. A woman in a floral dress and low heeled shoes is walking towards me. From a narrow side alley a man appears, he is thin and hunched wearing black trousers and a denim jacket. He walks close to the woman and then with deliberation reaches out and closes his hand around the handle of her bag. He pulls. The woman doesn’t let go. She leans her body backwards and the two of them stumble out of the sunlight in the centre of the street into the shadow at its edge. The woman opens her mouth. I don’t hear any scream. The man re-establishes his footing, pulls back, creates a line of tension between himself and the woman. He glances up the street and sees me. I have stopped. I am doing nothing. His gaze holds mine. He is sunburned, perhaps fifty. There is no movement. The three of us are held: in aspic, in amber; then the moment breaks. He releases the bag and goes slowly back the way he came. The woman adjusts herself and walks past me, not acknowledging my presence. I feel that I have witnessed something mythic, primeval, something that I should not have seen.
Is it the watching that causes the event to occur? Is it the witnessing that makes things real? Is it consciousness that causes the blade to drop?
I walk down Gedimino Prospektas, past shops and restaurants, until I reach Lukiskes Square. Gedimino Prospektas is the main street. It was built in 1836. It has had various names: St George Avenue, Mickiewicz Street, Adolf Hitler Street, Stalin Avenue, Lenin Street. Opposite me is a four storey neo-classical building: the former headquarters of the NKVD. I am here to see the Museum of Genocide Victims.
The museum is housed in nineteen cells in the basement. Originally there were 52. There is a guide. He was a prisoner. He does not speak English but there is an audio tape, also a young man who came down the steps into the corridor that is the museum just after me and who seems happy to relay any particular information from the guide.
We peer into cells that have been arranged as displays, pictures on the walls of dead partisans, of dead political prisoners, of guards, officials, remnants; one, we are told, is filled with the bones exhumed from a mass grave.
There is one that puzzles me. It has a mushroom shape in the centre of the floor and you would step down in order to get into it. The guide, through my unofficial interpreter, explains that the cell would be filled with water up to the top of the step. Prisoners would be stripped naked and put in it. In the winter the water would be freezing. If you stood on the mushroom shape you were out of the water. However the domed metal surface of the mushroom was at such an angle that it was not possible to remain on it for any length of time without slipping off. Also there was only room for a maximum of two people. Prisoners would fight to get on it and those who did would inevitably either be pulled or fall off. Even if you are on your own, the ex-prisoner says, you can only stay on by tensing the muscles in your thighs and buttocks, a moments lack of concentration and you fall bodily into the water.
The problem is to do with time, causality.
We go down some steps to a brick vaulted cellar room with no windows. There is a tiled floor with two large drains in the centre. At one end of the room is a wooden wall. At head height on the wall there is a white painted square and in the centre of the square a sliding flap. At the opposite end of the room a pair of double doors. This is the execution chamber. The drains are for the blood. The double doors for the bodies. More than a thousand people were killed here. The chief of the prison, a Lieutenant Colonel V. Dolgirev would often come down of an evening to lend a hand. On occasion prisoners would stand with their head centred in the white square. The flap would be opened and a bullet fired into the back of the revealed head. The bodies were flung onto a truck.
I wonder if within that terror, at its ultimate heart, there is a moment of certainty in one’s physical being and if that certainty comes at the moment before one’s disintegration, if at the moment of death there is ultimate light.
Sometimes they just dumped the bodies outside the gates
I leave the museum. I walk back up Gedimino and then through the Old Town which is now a UNESCO world heritage site. I walk up a steep street and there is an archway with a balcony and open glass doors.
I go through a narrow door and up a steep staircase and then am in front of the Black Madonna. Arranged neatly before her are votive offerings: little arms, legs, eyes of silver.
I sit in the theatre and watch as the show comes to an end and the front of the stage is ringed with gas flames five foot high. I wonder how I will be able to achieve that in a way that will satisfy the authorities in the United Kingdom and Holland and Germany. What they have here is a curved length of copper tube with holes punched in it and a man with a taper. No safety, no cut off, no way of preventing disaster.
That night I lie in my bed in the hotel and wonder about the patterns we inscribe on the void.
I sit in a green plastic upholstered chair. I am sat at an awkward angle before a small box wood desk: neither directly in front of nor parallel to, but somehow in between. A tall elegant man in shirt-sleeves and wearing a dark-blue tie with white polka dots is explaining to me the mechanism of my heart. Telling me that it doesn’t function correctly. Is not fulfilling it’s purpose; that the ejection factor is just not good enough. He draws a line on a piece of paper, the line runs down from upper left to lower right.
It should be here, he says, indicating the top of the line. It is here. He scores across the line half way down. It is declining, he says, a small sympathetic but empty smile on his well-formed lips, and the question is when it will stop.
What happens if does continue – declining? I have always been polite and ultimately compliant; rebellion has never been more than a stance.
We would have to make a major intervention.
He gathers his papers together. Clearly it is time for me to go.
I am not convinced that ingenuity can solve this problem
I have nowhere to place my votive offerings. No virgin to pray before. No prisoner to execute. No emergency cut-off valve. No intervention between me and the dark.
I wonder on which night Lieutenant Colonel V. Dolgirev will come for me and whether I will be prepared.
Will I be thrown on a truck or dumped outside the doors?
A MACHINE FOR LIVING
In a nineteenth-century terraced house with blue-painted shutters and bougainvillaea pouring across its facade I am shown to my room by a slim bare-foot narrow-hipped young Moroccan woman with sweat-glistening skin. Her hair is piled high on her head revealing a strong-sinewed neck. Her skirt is a crimson cotton shawl. We pass a partially open door through which I glimpse a young dark-skinned man with tightly-curled black hair lying smoking on a single bed. My room is beside his. The young woman is neither polite nor rude. She is indifferent to me as a person, as a man.
I am an object.
I lie on the narrow metal bed.
I am tired, yet febrile.
Wooden shutters keep out the afternoon glare.
Sweat gathers in my groin.
I hear everything that goes on in the next door room.
I hear the door shut.
I hear an exchange that I cannot understand.
I hear the bedsprings creak as she lies down.
I hear their breathing. The sound suggests dark corridors of desire.
I leave the building, disturbing no one, and check into a regular hotel.
I crave the vernacular, but the crookedness of my soul alarms me.
I go to see a dance performance. There is a chain-link curtain that disappears when back-lit. The stage is a grid. The dancers manoeuvre wheeled squares of mesh. I walk beside the Old Harbour. I will programme this piece; its intellectual rigour appeals to me.
I go to see Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation. He believed architecture could contain and pacify.
On the TGV to Avignon a tall North African has an argument with a man who is sitting in his seat. I wonder at the need to contain, limit, delineate, at the fear of the organic.
A German with long narrow hands is talking to me about his show. He describes a transparent tunnel floored with sand and rocks, inside thousands of locusts. They are the cast, he says. They fuck each other, they kill each other, they eat each other.
There is also a tortoise.
I will not programme this show. It would not suit the sensibilities of our audience. They have no desire to contemplate what writhes within.
On the plane I imagine myself cool and calm, an occupant of one of the apartments in the Unite d’habitation. It contains two floors connected with an interior stair case. The kitchen equipment contains a four plate electric range with oven, a double sink with automatic garbage disposal, refrigerator and working table. The kitchen unit is air conditioned by the central system. The sound insulation consists of lead sheets put in between the separating walls of the apartments. Along the interior road on level 7 and 8 lies a shopping centre, containing a fish, butcher, milk, fruit and vegetable shop as well as a bakery, a liquor and drugstore.
I will have no wife.
I will have a Moroccan mistress who will live in a house with blue shutters and shelter me in her single bed.
Since my diagnosis I have been forced to live my life from the outside. It is a construct whose doors are closed.
Jeremy Bentham believed that his Panoptican would contain and pacify:
The building is circular.
The apartments of the prisoners occupy the circumference.
The lodge of the inspector occupies the centre.
Each cell has in the outward circumference, a window, large enough, not only to light the cell, but, through the cell, to afford light enough to the correspondent part of the lodge.
The inner circumference of the cell is formed by an iron grating, so light as not to screen any part of the cell from the inspector’s view.
Small lamps, in the outside of each window of the lodge, backed by a reflector, to throw the light into the corresponding cells, would extend to the night the security of the day.
I could be contained and pacified in such a place. It would be good to know that one was under permanent surveillance, that the inspector kept watch.
I sit across the desk from the CEO.
He would like me to have found some gems.
I have not.
I explain the locust show.
He purses his thin lips.
I tell him of the tortoise that paces indifferent through the chaos, camera strapped to its back.
He leans back and smiles.