Category Archives: creative writing

god wind blow

God Wind blow
Turn cities to rust
Turn lakes to mountains
History to dust

God Wind grow
To stratospheric heights
Expand through space and time
Cross continents, span lives.

God Wind flow
Within me and without
Carry me away
Scatter me about

God Wind dance
Duets with midnight flame
Make ballets with trees
Choreograph the rain.

Clouds at sunset, Lake Arenal, Costa Rica.

Clouds at sunset, Lake Arenal, Costa Rica.

 

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a version of me died in the congo

One of the jobs I do in this city where one job is never enough is I work on a website. The website covers news from all over the world and sometimes I get a story from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stories from the DRC – just as an FYI news media love acronyms – they’re usually quite depressing. The DRC has had civil war on and off for the last two decades. Millions have died.

Image

A photo of me on the Congo River taken in 2006.

As you might imagine this means DRC is a pretty crap choice for a vacation.

I know this because I holidayed there a few years ago. Whenever I see DRC news stories I’m reminded of this visit and of the end of the trip in particular, when I burst in to tears in front of a room full of strangers.

The strangers were immigration officers and a couple of cops. Aside from the odd dewy-eyed moment in the darkness of a movie theater I don’t cry in public. Yet this was second time that day I’d cried. The first was a few hours earlier at a cafe where I’d been trying to collect myself after some wild-eyed kid pulled a knife on me in the street.

Because of the shock the tears came uncontrollably. The locals saw this and word got around and pretty soon a couple of “cops” turned up. (FYI – in DRC you must put inverted commas round the name of any public official). The “cops” asked me to accompany them to the precinct. I went because I thought they wanted me to fill in a crime report. But it soon became clear they weren’t interested in the crime. I was led to an office where I met some “immigration officers”.

The men wanted to see my passport. I might be here illegally, they said. When I tried to protest that maybe the recent knife crime should take precedence over my immigration status they got very angry and began shouting. That’s when I started crying.

My memory is of some pretty major league blubbing. Crumpled, wet face. Loud sobs. The whole nine yard. The men in the room were not impressed and if anything their treatment of me grew even harsher after my breakdown. I was escorted back to my hotel and had my passport taken from me. I was taken to a police precinct and forced to sleep on a moth-eaten mattress. The next day I got my passport back and that same afternoon booked a flight out of the DRC and a few days later left and never went back.

That episode left a big mark on me. It shattered an illusion I’d had about myself till then. Till that point I’d wanted to see myself as the adventurous writer, bringing reportage from far flung places, cool-headed in the face of danger. A modern-day Hemingway. But this episode showed me that this larger-than-life person didn’t exist and that the truth was someone much smaller.

For along time after the DRC trip I felt humiliated by my breakdown and I hated the small person I’d revealed myself to be. I couldn’t really talk about it but I know it prayed on me. I got involved in a series of relationships that looking back on it now were quasi-abusive and quit working and got fucked up a lot. I think I was punishing myself. I think I wanted to forget.

In the last couple of years I’ve started to understand the truth of that episode. The main thing is that I’ve begun to come to terms with that smaller person who inhabits me. I see him now as the little boy I once was and the vulnerability he reveals in me I realize is the heart of my humanity and without it I would be just another dead man walking.

I realize too that the truly shameful fear on show in that room in Kinshasa wasn’t mine. It was the men’s. They were afraid to see another man cry because it reminded them too much of their own vulnerability. They had grown used to the idea that they had to stay hard to survive. They had grown used to the idea that a man never lets his guard down, that to show weakness is to be less than human.

Because of this terrible fear men do terrible things. At least in part, this terrible fear is why millions have died in the DRC.

A version of me died in the Congo and, on the whole, I’m glad he’s gone.


e was not for england – a poem

When I was 22, E was not for England.

The country I grew up in wanted me inside a Pink Floyd lyric
Wanted decorum and a pulling up short
It said “that’ll do” and “that’s quite enough”
And “don’t you think you’re overreacting”
And “there’s no harm in giving up.”

And my generation wanted out of that
Were bursting to exhale
To taste, sense, see with new sensation.
My generation had an idea too
Had a quiet feeling that things might break open

I suppose every generation do.

In England in the 90s something happened that was akin to America in the 60s.
We didn’t have Dylan or King or Kennedy
Or counter culture or civil rights or even rock and roll
We had dance music.
And if that doesn’t sound much, consider:
All it takes to turn a strip of dead metal into a blinding white ball of light is this:
A catalyst.

When I was 22 E was not for England.

I took ecstasy for the first time with Aaron Johnson at the Empire nightclub in Teesside at 10.30pm on a Thursday. That was important, Aaron said. Because that way you’d be coming up before midnight and if you were enjoying it you could add another dose, before the club closed.

And first, he said, just try a half. Else you might vomit everything up and we’ll have wasted five quid. And don’t drink too little; you’ll get dehydrated and pass out.

And don’t drink too much; because you’ll end up like that girl who died because she kept on drinking water and forgot to piss.

Leah Betts, she was called. And her parents agreed her death should be used to warn about the dangers of drugs and so the papers were full of it. Showing photos of her lying there in hospital fighting for her life, tubes shoved down her throat and up her nose and her face swelled up so much her eyes were pushed closed.
Her skin was ink blue and red and for all we knew she was already dead.
And over it the headline:
“It could be your child!”

When I was 22 I was doing a dead end job; data entry at an insurance company, indexing cards with customer records on them in a windowless room with a dozen others.
And there was an old guy worked there was a narcoleptic and 20 times a day he’d fall asleep.
I’d listen to him snore
Thinking how that crackle of breath was like the sound an engine makes
When it’s out of fuel and stutters to a stand still
Makes one last revolution before it admits defeat.
And I didn’t want to give in to sleep.
Be like the sleepwalkers I saw each day under nicotine skies
Their faces unwell; their eyes filled with silent rage; suffocating inside
Trying not to think about how or when or why they’d thrown in the towel.
I wanted something more for me
I wanted ecstasy.

I came from a post-industrial landscape
The remnants of dark satanic mills
Replaced by petro-chemical plants.
And I would take the bus (just one an hour)
Past 60s housing and tower blocks that stacked like cigarette boxes in corner shops
And get out at the cinema and watch American movies:
See technicolour heroes always win the day
And sitting in the darkness feel the bitter-sweet longing
Knowing that romance did exist in life. Just somewhere far away.

And you would go each week to your grandparents
Who sat all day in front of TV sets turned low
Like ancient Salamanders basking in the glow
Of halogen suns.

And grandma took wulferin for her heart
And a couple of brandies to take the edge off things at night
And Aunty Mary smoked 40 Benson and Hedges
And Uncle Jim drank seven pints a day all his life.

And I played football with Aaron Johnson
On grass pitches underneath pylons in our hometown,
Which sat in the loop of a river
Like a condemned man in a noose.

Then grandma died and mom got cancer
And a kid from the town threw himself in front of a train
And for me and Aaron Johnson escape was only answer
Because no one had ever taught us how to deal with pain.

So at the age of 22 I stood in the dark recesses of the Empire nightclub
And Aaron laid the half into my palm
I washed it down with a mouthful of beer
Like a Christian taking secret communion
And waited to see water turn to wine.

Maybe you know what happened next
Maybe you’ve been there too
Bought a ticket for a lottery
Asked yourself in the darkness: is this the stupidest decision of my life?
Will I be dead in an hour?
Will I be a poster boy for a government awareness campaign
My parents standing shame-faced round the grave
And all the kids from my old school
Fidgeting on church pews, wanting out,
Like animals in a zoo?

Maybe you’ve been there too
When the floodgates open
And serotonin soaks you like a summer shower
And everything is Technicolor
All is love
And you can’t believe you’ll ever get higher
(And you won’t)
And just for those few hours
It’s as if God reached down from heaven above and said to you:
My boy, you must never be afraid or give up hope
You must know that I am with you
That I walk beside you every step of the way
And the people you share this grim northern town with are your brothers and sisters,
And the world around is beautiful and bountiful and will give to you, and keep on giving
So long as we all shall live.

And here was Aaron beside me,
Hypnotized by the beat
And in the darkness I grabbed him, and called ‘I fuckin’ love you man!’ in his ear.
And he turned to me and grinned
And at that moment it was as if we had found each other for the first time;
Had met in some new way.
Like creatures living in the abyss of deep sea
Who looking across the expanse of eternal night
See one another as specks of colour illuminating the blackness.
Bioluminescence.

We bioluminesed that night.

I took ecstasy once more with Aaron. At 70s night at Club M. 15 quid in and all you could drink.
But the law of diminishing returns is writ large over every addict’s grave and that night Aaron threw up in the bushes after necking four pills and swore off it and cleaned up and got a job in a call center
And, a few years later, a wife and two kids.

And I kept wandering; unable to settle down.
Because something had changed in me after ecstasy.
A filter had been removed; a veil had been lifted.
In some strange, nearly imperceptible way my vision had been shifted
And the real world was never quite the same.

And on I went and in the distance saw the lights of New York
Like a million souls before me stepped onto Broadway.
Looked around the movie sets of my youth.
Thought to myself: In a world of shifting perspectives,
I could get used to this view.

So I stayed. And now I’m old enough to feel morning aches,
And heartburn and to empathize with period pains.
And I go running in the park at twilight when the fireflies are out on summer nights.
The fireflies, who long ago learned to feed themselves a chemical
That breaks down in them and makes light.

So this is where I’m at in my story.
And now I’ll tell you where I hope to be.
I want tell my friends I love them without shame.
And fill a room with the warm glow of communal bliss
That touched me that Thursday night
And do it using only heart and mind
And no trick of chemical binds.

I want to face my troubles down
Risk a burn or two to wake myself up
Because discomfort is better than numbness,
Numbness is giving up.
I will shine my light
Not fade to grey like grandad in his chair
Search for the lights of others in the darkness
Since there is life in knowing someone else is there.


the tree of the one big fantastic idea

This is an extract from a novel I am writing about a young girl and a street urchin who tells stories that all begin on the same location – the Y-intersection of a crowded city street. This is the first story he tells.

Many years ago when the musicians who got this city jumping were not allowed to buy a coffee in the bars where they played, there was a tree grew on this spot. It was a silver birch and under its shade, on summer days, buskers came to play. One such busker was Marshall J. Marshall. He was a second rate musician but a first class snoozer.

One summer afternoon he lay asleep here and when he awoke he was struck by a revelation. He realized that he would never make it as a musician; that he just didn’t have what it took. This revelation pained him greatly because he loved music above all else in his life. He went about for days in a terrible depression. At the end of a long day wandering the city streets he came back to the square and tipping his hat over his eyes, as was his habit, he nodded off again under the silver birch. A short time later he awoke with a start. He had undergone another revelation only this one didn’t make him depressed. In his sleep he had realized a fantastic new direction for his life.

Since he would not make it as a great musician, he thought, he would do the next best thing. He would listen to music and he would write about what he heard. In this way Marshall J. Marshall became the first great reviewer of music in the city and his stories appeared in all the big papers of the day, making him rich and famous.

One day near the end of his life a reporter asked Marshall how he had come to be a reviewer and he told the man the story of the tree. “I am sure,” he said. “That there is something special about that silver birch. Twice I slept below its branches and twice it showed me how to get on life.”

Sitting at home one day in his luxurious townhouse J. Booker Jarvis read this story. He was the offspring of a wealthy family and lived in a large house in an exclusive neighbourhood of the city. Jarvis lived with his long-suffering wife Mildred. They had no children. Mildred wanted them but Jarvis insisted there was simply no time for such trivialities. You see all Jarvis’s energies were devoted to the important task of inventing. This was his passion above all others. He had spent years on his inventions and taken out innumerable patents. Until now all his attempts at reinventing the wheel had ended in failure. But when he read Marshall’s words Jarvis was struck with an interesting possibility. If he could just get that tree out of the square he could perhaps benefit from its mystical properties. But Jarvis was a shut-in and he had a mortal fear of the city streets, which he regarded as volatile and dangerous. He realised he could not manage such a thing alone and so he asked the son of his neighbor, a precocious teen with quick eyes.

The neighbor’s boy was called Arty.

One night Arty and Jarvis took a cab to the square and to this same Y-intersection where the silver birch grew. With shovels and pitchforks they dug up the tree and wrapping it in a shawl they carried it back home. Jarvis planted it in his back yard and the very next night he slept under it. He slept under it every night for the next month and nothing happened. He began to despair.

Then, one afternoon in late summer he was gardening in his back yard when he found himself getting sleepy. He lay down under the tree and dozed off. When he awoke an incredible idea had occurred to him. He had long lived in fear of impostors breaking into his home in the dead of night and he knew that burglary was a terrible blight on the city. It was an invention for a new type of lock. Jarvis was filled with excitement as he wrote down the calculations.

In a flurry of hand-waving and garbled words he told his wife, who said it sounded like a great plan and smiled with half her mouth. But when Jarvis read the calculations again and he was suddenly filled with doubt. Hadn’t he come up with a hundred ideas that had come to nothing? Why should this one be any different? And hadn’t his wife told him it sounded like a great plan every time he came up with a new idea?

He hesitated over the idea for weeks, mulling it over in his head, wondering if it was indeed the one big fantastic idea or just another dud. This poor nervous wreck of a man thought and thought and thought until his brain ached and he could think of nothing more. Around a month after his first revelation he slept again under the tree and when he awoke he found that once more he had dreamed about the new miracle lock. This time he wasted no time. He went down to the patent office to register his idea.

Imagine his horror when the clerk told him that the design for the lock had already been patented. Jarvis demanded to know how this could be. He had poured through the patent records in the days after his great idea and found no such lock in existence. The clerk said the patent had been filed only two weeks before. Jarvis was dumbstruck. He looked at the signature of the person who had registered the patent and saw in black and white the name of his betrayer. It was Arty, his young neighbour.

Back home he slammed hard with his fist on his neighbor’s door. When the boy’s father opened the door he looked nervously at Jarvis. In a fit of rage Jarvis said the man’s son was a thief and a fraud and he demanded to see him. The old man, who was inclined to see no wrong in his offspring, took great offence at this outburst and shut the door on him, refusing to have anything more to do with his volatile neighbour. For the next few days Jarvis waited by his window for the boy to leave but his wait was in vain. Arty had returned to boarding school in another state and was not due back for some months.

With his terrible fear of the streets, Jarvis would not be able to go find the boy. Instead he decided to wait it out for his return. In the meantime he sat at his back window gazing out on the tree, wondering how the boy could have stolen his idea. The more he contemplated the great deception that had been played on him the angrier he grew, and the more he thought about it the more this anger was directed towards the silver birch. That lone tree came to represent for him all the failures of his life and eventually, unable to contain his disgust any longer, he took an axe and chopped it down. When this was done he returned to his back window but looking out he was still bothered. The stump of the tree remained. Deciding to remove all trace of it from his life he hired a gang of workmen and had them yank the tree up, roots and all.

That night it rained heavily and Jarvis slept fitfully. In the morning his wife awoke and went out to do some shopping. When she returned she found a pile of rubble where her house had once stood.

The firemen dug all afternoons through the remains until eventually they found her husband, in his usual spot by the back window. In his hand he still clutched his morning coffee. At the inquest they discovered that the roots of the silver birch were the devil in the piece. They had reached under the house and when they were pulled up the heavy rain had poured into the holes left behind and weakened the foundations of the building. After the funeral, Mildred moved away to live with her sister in another state in a house by the ocean where she spent her days making socks for children in need.

Gazing out on the sea one day she remembered two things about her married life that had not seemed significant before. The first was that her husband was frequently in the habit of talking in his sleep and the second, in case you haven’t guessed, was that the quick-eyed Arty had a bedroom window that faced onto the yard. Mildred smiled with half her face and turning her head from the window she went back to her knitting.


O

She said that what he didn’t know about topping copper pipes, it wasn’t worth knowing, then bit into the toasted panini. I could not form a response. Then it didn’t matter because the counter girl was making a world of fuss over a cracked mug, chattering hysterically, red but pig-headed. Standing over her I felt a hot-cold shiver run through me. “Well, that’s good then isn’t it?” I said when the maniac had quietened down.

“He’s bin all o’er the world with it and it’s good money an’ all. But I s’posse there’s
nothin’ doin’ in that line right now eh? Like you with yer…what is it?”

I told her again the pretend profession I had been wasting my days with most the last decade and she gave a wan smile, as if I was telling her I was a poet she studied at O-level. Out of the stale crud of makeup the gooey gelatinous hole of her mouth sucked in
another shred of toasted bread.

____________

Getting Back to Work. Our tutor said it was about “relearning some of the rudiments of selling yourself”.

“I’m sure you’ve all a great deal to offer,” said the chinless man looking round the table on the second floor of the Stockton-on-Tees job centre.

“But when you’re out of work your confidence can take a knock, if you like. We wanna help you get some of that confidence back so that you can leave here with a load of ideas about how yer gonna find work.” His voice rose in pitch to give a metaphorical punch of the air.

“Any questions? Goood stuff.”

Out the window the sky was metallic and across the street a Skaghead* blew smoke rings from the doorway of the Wobbly Goblin. I felt sick. When it was over I bolted for the door, ignoring the leaflets on retraining, piled helpfully in the centre of the table.

A broad set of shoulders and sharply tapered neck blocked my way to the lift. Inside the young man kept his chin straight and his hands behind his back. His hair was jelled flat like a set of railings and on the inside of his wrist was written Dad.

“Fucking fairy,” he said as the door closed. Our carriage groaned and we slid down slowly, the increments of time stretched taut like the lift cable. When the lift opened he kept pace with me through the reception hall and out the sliding doors. On the steps he said it again: “Fucking fairy.” His club hands rounded on his mouth and he pulled on a cigarette. “Thinks he can convince us with his ‘best friend’ routine. He won’t be helpin’ get me back into work. Later.”

He crossed the road to the Wobbly Goblin and I turned away into the damp afternoon. The next time I saw him it was signing on day and I took my place on the benches waiting for the call up. He spoke about his work abroad in oil and gas. The girls in Jakarta were the best but they always wanted taking shopping. All whores knew how to spend your money, he said excited, and I heard my name shouted and left him to it.

The next time was in the high street. I was walking back from the job centre and he was coming the other way. He had no jacket in spite of a sharp wind and in a replica football shirt his frame was more slight than I imagined. The sockets of his broad
unrepentant face were dark and with his hands dug in his pockets he leaned ahead a shoulder and let the opposite leg drag to one side as if the pavement was pulling apart beneath him.

A man he knew was putting together a team for a project in the Gulf but he might not bother, he said. Sick of digs. And there was a girlfriend of sorts. “Wants kiddies,” he said sheepishly.

“Oh,” I said. He pulled himself up straight and puffed out his chest, realising he had let his guard slip. “Later,” he said.

After in the coffee shop the dusty sugar granules left ink spots on the surface of the Americano. I wondered if Angela had kids. They were certainly overdue. I had hated her forward-planning but now a pair of confident hands at the wheel sounded good. Just to be on the move, regardless of the direction.

“Excuse me.” She was sitting at a table alone. “That man ye was talking with.”

He had not spoken to his mother in five years and she thought maybe we were friends because he seemed to know me. I told her about the job centre and the Getting Back to Work session and she said it was strange because she came here most Thursdays
but…

“But today’s Friday,” she corrected herself. “Look at me. I’d forget me ‘ead. I ‘ad a dentist appointment yesterday.”

“Well goodbye then.”

Walking back to the bus stop I crashed into him rounding the corner by the job centre. I stumbled with my coffee and going down on one knee, I saw it for a moment, there on the flagstone, something you would ordinarily mistake for nothing. Seeing it as plain and innocuous as a chewing gum wrapper, I realised what was wrong from the start. After I’d signed on that morning I stayed for half an hour playing with the job search machine in the foyer. That meant when I saw him in the street it was gone ten. That meant he had missed his signing on time. Yet he’d seemed in no hurry. It had seemed like he wanted to talk more.

Dad touched cold stone as his club of hand cupped the wrapper and I rose cautiously to my feet, pretending not to have seen anything.

I pretended not to have seen anything too when I came next to sign on and there he was, blowing smoke rings from the doorway of the Wobbly Goblin, staring and smoking, staring and smoking. And again when I saw his mother in the coffee shop round the corner where she implored me without words for news of her son and I stood in shameful silence, waiting until the counter girl made a scene about a cracked mug, or some such nonsense.