The Myopia Paradox

1

Cobras do not strike in sunlight, rattlers never rattle when they’re wet. That’s all you have to know about council officers. Fionnghan MacIain, the assistant curator fell into the second category. I should have slipped him a quart of Glen Fiddich, beforehand. “The trouble is,” he waffled, “we’ve not got the time, let alone the space. And, if I were to leave your work in our storeroom, gathering dust, until someone could look at it, there’s a risk it might get damaged. In which case, according to the manifest, we couldn’t afford the higher insurance premium.”

All gobbledygook. If the Mossback Gallery wanted to do something, they did it.

I suppose I’d better tell you who I am. Pat Bart is my name, though lately I’ve taken to calling myself Giselle Bartleby. I’ll keep you guessing why, for now. You could call this my autobiography. Legend has it I died when I finished it; turning up my toes as I finished the last page. There. Where  it says copyright MMXV. And don’t you forget it. Pinch any of my scintillating prose and I’ll haunt you till your hair falls out onto the ground like horse shit — plop.  Yellowbrown and steaming, falling on the floor in great, hot lumps. All right, that last bit about steaming lumps was exaggeration, poet’s license. Well I renewed my poet’s license this morning, for five of your Earth pounds. So fingers off, or I’ll bite them off, and spit them in your face like dumdum bullets.

I’d better paint a bit of a picture so you don’t go thinking I’m tall and svelte and comely. You’d like as not think me the opposite of those three. That’s why I don’t ‘do’ glamour, as a rule. But I did intend the peach-blossom silk choker to bring out the cerulean of my eyes. And that is my one concession to femininity. My gunmetal dungarees were bought for the occasion. My mahogany hair close-cropped to a sensual, finger-tickling velvet an hour before.

That’s enough about me for now. Back to Fionnghan MacIain. “So,” he continued, a purring wasp in his nest of paper, “if you could have them picked up again, ASAP, we’d appreciate it.”

Thinking of something else I’d like to pick up — and throw off the roof — I nonetheless managed the ghost of a smile. And even nodded in quasi agreement. They could all stay till I got George to pick them up in his four by four. He’s a little treasure, is George. He took my pics there in the first place. He was a bit openmouthed when he saw how many, but helped me heave them into his four by four. To be honest, he did most of the heaving — my back was playing me up. The porters hadn’t complained about carrying them to the lift. They lugged pictures about all day. And to the unlearned, one art treasure looks no different from another. It was this so-called ‘expert’ that was the buggeration factor.

“I’m not saying, don’t bring any more,” MacIain insisted, “just better if you bring them one at a time.”

Then he got snidey.

Cheek of it. They refused to show my work. Well, that’s their loss. But that snide remark was the limit. I mean, fancy saying they won’t show it because I don’t have a degree in fine arts. That’s just snobbery, of the intellectual kind. Can’t they recognise an authentic, self-taught genius when they’re looking at her? What’s that you say? Modesty? No place for modesty in this world. You’ve got to blow your own ophicleide, (a trumpet’s too small these days). And you’ve got to put your shoulder to it. Especially if you’re a woman. And double-top on life’s dartboard.

“I mean,” he said, taking hold of ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and turning it this way and that, “what’s it supposed to be?”

“That’s a horse,” I said. And it was: a real horse; with fetlocks and withers and mane. How could he not appreciate the beautiful, sweeping curve of the horse’s neck with the man’s arm following it round. Had he no soul?

I could see he was working himself up to say something uncomplimentary. It was time to go. He was not in the mood for anything that wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite, or neo-classical. No spirit of adventure, that’s him.

“And that sky,” he said. “What colour do you call that? Snotgreen?”

Time to leave the gallery, time to go home. I picked up ‘The Horse Whisperer’ (pearls among swine, it was) tucked it under my arm and made a dramatic sweep of an exit.

2

To cheer myself up, I descended on the students’ art show in the Hays Building next door. Most of our University was glass, steel and concrete. But the Hays was Gothic and inherited from the Freemasons who had moved to the suburbs ten years ago. I was homeless at the time they moved out, and I joined a squat in there for a short while. There was no lecky, and we used to tell ghost stories in the dark featuring the masons and their human sacrifices. Nowadays, the interior was much brighter for its trendy makeover. The weird Egyptian symbols were still there, though; chiseled into the stonework. They still cast spooky shadows on the floor when the sun shone through them.

I entered through the grandiose arch. But instead of going into the main gallery I turned right into the area reserved for the 2.2s — unofficially.  Was it bound to be nasty? It was, indeed it was. A young man of impetigous appearance quite blended in with a metal table, splattered with dried paint. Close to, I saw it was also covered with rough-cast, unglazed porcelain Buddhas. The scabious young man lowered his Morning Star, stood up, and touched a button. The table began to vibrate. The pot Buddhas jigged around. One of them fell off the edge of the table and smashed to pieces on the floor. The young man smiled. Another two pot Buddhas fell off the edge and smashed. He switched off the motor and bowed from the waist like a Japanese. Was I supposed to comment? The young man went back to his ‘Morning Star’ and I walked off as my headache intensified. If that’s anything to go by, they can keep their degrees. Wankers, the lot of them. I will admit, a few of them have technique. But none of them have originality. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you’ve no originality you might as well try whistling down the wind. That’s the thing you can always say about a Giselle Bartleby painting. ‘Originality guaranteed’. Of course, sometimes it’s the dyslexia coming out that brings the originality. Like the times I get the hands and feet mixed up. But I always paint over those. If I spot them. Anyway, I’ve evolved a special technique to avoid that happening again. “Note the distinctive Bartleby sweep,” future critics will say. “The continuous line enclosing the figure.” A pity I didn’t think of that before. As long as I keep my charcoal on the canvas, I can ensure everything’s where it belongs. And the outcome’s picture-perfect. And effortless. Every time. More or less. Being blind in one eye doesn’t help, when you’re an artist. But being a bit deaf does, sometimes.

They know me too well, that’s their problem.

I used to be a life model in the Mossback Gallery. That bunch of tossers can never admit one of their own meat-loafers has talent. Apart, that is, from the usual, physical one of enduring the same position for a thirty-minute stretch.

It was for my debut as an artist I decided to try using a different name. ‘Giselle’ is from the ballet. Pat Bart just didn’t sound like anything. But when you are eighteen stone, it’s hard to be invisible. They still say, “Hello, Pat,” as soon as I walk through the canvas jungle, my paint box underneath my arm. I’ve tried to suppress ‘Pat’ ever since I heard someone referring to me as, ‘that Cow Pat’. Only jealousy, of course, but still not polite to call someone that.

Let’s see them make something of ‘Giselle’. Or Bartleby, if it comes to that.

Another reason I use ‘Giselle Bartleby’ is to stop the DSS finding out about my professional pittance — if ever it arrives. You see, most times we barter. Suzie at the health emporium balances my chakras in exchange for drawing lessons. Then there’s George, helps me do a moonlight flit with his van, every so often. I did his portrait the last time. He came off best because the painting cost £30 in materials alone. If I’d bought them new, that is. In real terms, it’s worth about £300. Maybe more. A real investment. I might buy it back, one day. He said I could take it, if I wanted. It worried him that it might get damaged in his own, forthcoming move. And  anyway, he’d run out of wall space. But just taking it, without a payment, wouldn’t be fair on him. I’ll give him a fair price, when the time comes.

That awful snob MacIain doesn’t know what he’s looking at. “If you had an art degree,” the smug bastard said, “I would at least know that someone had put some value on your previous work.” So forty-five years of life experience doesn’t count? They’re all in it together, is what he really meant.

#

3

On my way out, I was pleased to see Rex Gallivant, on his way in. Rex was a history of art lecturer who used to have his own little gallery in the backroom of a remaindered-book shop. He was going to exhibit some of my paintings. Until the bookshop closed down, that is. “Hello, Rex,” I said. “I was hoping to bump into you.”

He frowned at me.

“Giselle,” I said.

“What about it?” he answered. He’s forgetful, as well as long-sighted.

“I’m Giselle,” I said. “Giselle Bartleby.”

Still no response.

“Pat Bart.”

“Oh yes,” he said, with a smile, of sorts. “How’s the modelling going?”

“It’s not,” I said. “I haven’t modelled in months. I’ve become a professional painter.”

“Ah, right,” he said. “How’s that going? Have you got a full order book? Of course, you’ll need your own van and ladders…”

“Not a house painter,” I said, holding up ‘The Horse Whisperer’. “I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve launched myself on a new career as an artist.”

“Have you really?” he said, squinting at me through an invisible lorgnette.

“Yes. I’ve already sold one painting.”

“Have you really?” he said, again. I could tell he had something else on his mind.

“Tell you what,” I said, linking my left arm with his right and butterflying my lashes like a bad un. “I saw a vacant shop on Cathedral Mount — the old secondhand food shop. You know? ‘S & M Foods’. And naturally, I thought of you.”

“Naturally,” he said, distracted by a pigeon or something, over my right shoulder. Men should not try to multitask.

“I checked, and it’s dirt cheap rent. Because of the hill, I expect.”

That pigeon must have been doing something pretty acrobatic, because he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He reached into his pocket, excavated a silver snuff box from his hip pocket and transferred a pinch to his hairy nostrils. This action meant he had to unlink his arm from mine and it would have been too cheeky to grab onto his again.

“You know,” I said, bringing my voice down to Thatcherine depths, “you could afford to rent it, and start a new art gallery. ‘The Gallivant Gallery’. It has a terrific ring to it.”

“Yes,” he said. That was a good sign. “I suppose I could.”

So I pressed on. “And if you did, I could have a studio in the backroom.”

“Yes, I suppose you could,” he said.

“And, I could teach people to paint, to contribute to the rent.”

“Yes, I suppose you could,” he said. If Rex had his own TV show it would be called, ‘I suppose You Could’.

“And sell my paintings, of course,” I said, more to fill the silence than anything.

“Of course,” he said.

“And we’d both be quids in,” I said, with what I hoped was an encouraging wink.

“Yes, I suppose we could be,” he said. He looked at his watch, a gold Rolex. I could tell it was genuine because the second hand didn’t jerk as it swept round the dial.  “If you don’t mind,” he added, “I’m a little pushed for time. In fact, I must dash. I’ve got a train to catch.”

“So, do we go ahead?” I asked.

“We could do,” he said, backing away.

“And store all my paintings at your place until…?”

But he had already swept off into the crowd.

He didn’t jerk around either.

#

4

It being Saturday, I decided on a walk home by the river. It’s a wondrous varied route. It winds its way through sparkling woods and grey old factories, ending up by an industrial museum that combines the two. A decrepit, brick and stone-built edifice wherein an ancient water turbine is preserved. Here the fluvial force powers an old drop hammer and various other Victorian appliances of science. The trouble was the trickling water was soon calling to my bladder. So I made haste for the horrible little public lavatory tucked away behind what was laughably called the café.  And on my exit, I bumped into George Meek, ambulance driver of this parish. “Hello George,” I said. “You off somewhere?”

“Erm, not really. It’s my day off. Just had coffee here and now I’m going home.” Peculiar, that. I’d swear he had the distinct look of someone just arriving.

“Ah, good,” I said. “I’ll come with you. Got a job for you, George.”

“A job? What do you…?”

“Driving job. Taking my paintings up to Rex Gallivant’s place. I’ll explain on the way.” I decided to advance the right arm this time. It stayed put.  Less intimidating, perhaps? Must stick to the right in future, when linking arms with men — and talking business.

“Any payment for this…?”

“Oh, same basis as before. Payment in kind.”

“You see, I don’t really want another painting,” he said. “I mean, it was good, sort of. But I just don’t want another portrait cluttering up the place.”

“I’ll do you a landscape this time. I’m good at landscapes. It will be like having another window. Open the room up.”

“Ah, I see,” he growled. He unlinked his arm and thrust his hands deep into his pockets so that his arms made twin exclamation points. “I don’t know when I could.” He went on, quieter now. “Honestly, Pat, your ‘jobs’ tend to turn into ‘mini adventures’. Like that time we ended up pretending to be Arab diplomats at that trade delegation…”

“This one won’t,” I said, cutting him short. “I’ve already talked to Rex about it. It’s quite straightforward.”

“Yes, well,” he went on, “I don’t know when I could…”

“We’d best do it now,” I said. “Before Rex has a chance to change his mind. Just joking. He’s really enthusiastic for us to go into business together. I want to show him how keen I am, by taking my paintings over there straight away.”

“Your paintings?”

“Yes.”

“Not anybody else’s, then?”

“Who else’s could I take?”

“Are your paintings actually worth something?” he said. “I ask purely for information. I mean, no offence. Most people’s aren’t.”

“Mine are.” I played my trump. “The Mossback Gallery think they are. I left some with them, to be appraised. They said the prices I put on them were too low. They told me to increase them tenfold.”

“What? Frank Raphael said that?”

“Not Frank Raphael,” I said. “One of his minions. I had to fill in a form. There were boxes for the titles and value. I thought I’d price them low. You know, enough to cover the cost of materials, plus twenty percent. But he said, ‘You need to increase your prices. Put a nought on the end.’”

George reflected. “Ah, for insurance purposes,” he said. That pigeon had come back and was bothering him, now.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s what made me realise that I was undervaluing my talent. And, that I could make a living from painting.”

“So is the Mossback exhibiting your paintings?”

“Probably; I’m waiting to hear,” I said. “But I’m really talking about the ones I’ve got at home. Come on. Help me carry them downstairs and up to Rex’s and I’ll cook you supper.”

His brow furrowed as he said, “But he may not be in. Have you thought of that?  All that way for nothing.”

That was a point. Rex had said he needed to catch a train. Always going somewhere, Rex. Every time I met him. Envied him, in a way. Big family and always in demand. Suppose you’d call that charisma. But if you’re not born with it, you have to work at it. That’s harder for a woman, in the current climate. “It’ll be all right, George,” I said. “He’s got a big garage, and he never leaves it locked. We can leave the paintings in there. I’ll sleep on the garage floor till he comes back and lets me use his sofa. Don’t worry about me. I’ve done it before.”

And I’ll do it again.

“Look, I haven’t enough room in my car…”

“That’s all right. We can always make two journeys.”

We made three.

 

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The Man Who Ate The Ocean

Every day, with the noon-tide, Andre continues in his plan to eat the ocean. Grasping, clutching, sucking, licking his way he moves from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. No sea is safe from Andre’s probing tongue, nimble fingers, tearing teeth.

Day by day: anchovy; bass; cod; eel; hake; lobster; mackerel; octopus; prawn; scampi; tuna; whitebait; all slide into Andre’s gullet’s boiling depths.

Today he is emptying oyster beds — a peculiar departure from his itinerary.

Moving slowly and methodically, he slices each shell in turn and licks at the insides. The relentless suction of Andre’s moluscine gut rumbles over serried, rapidly emptying shells, his questing tongue — a pseudopod — slopping along rows of mother of pearl.

The orphaned spats along the banks grow fewer every year. Now only thirteen remain, under a bridge by the waters edge. An early sunrise blinks them open, and they rise up, becoming boys.

One of them is Jesus. He is not their leader, but there is something about him, something greater than an empty stomach.

“The ocean is nearly gone,” says Jesus. “Andre is eating it all.”

Tomas sneers. “Says who?”

“Listen, it’s true. My Papa told me as he died: ‘Andre is eating the ocean, that is why he is here.’”

Pedro jeers: “Your Papa died loco. How can anyone eat an ocean?”

“How do you eat up anything? One bit at a time. I tell you, every day he eats a little piece. She is getting less and less.”

“It is true,” puts in Juan. “Why else do our fathers’ boats rot in the harbour?”

“My Father’s nets were not worth inheriting,” says Jesus. “Before Andre came this way there was fish for anyone.”

Somewhere, a street organ jangles a fandango. Our boys turn towards its sound. With nothing better to do they walk, hands in pockets, in search of it.

They turn into Calle San Jose and there stands a street minstrel, ancient beyond his years in a faded, embroidered bolero, crumpled shirt and frayed pantaloons. He is turning the handle of a decrepit wooden organillo much bigger and much stronger than himself. The contraption jangles and rattles out the same fifty bars of the one Spanish tune every foreign tourist knows, over and over again.

“No monkey,” says Pedro.

A murmur of disappointment hovers in the dusty air. Disappointment is all that ever relieves boredom. But a monkey would make a nice change.

Pablo, the youngest, howls. “I want to see a monkey!”

“Whoever heard of an organ grinder without a monkey?” says Juan, indignant.

Instead of a monkey, a Catalan woman, gaudily dressed, but fading, dances an amazing fandango, not fast but graceful. Arabesque calligraphy made flesh in the movement of her arms and legs, and the click of her castanets. As her feet slam down, thick clouds of dust surround legs already black with dirt from neglected streets. Her face is streaked with grime and sweat and her ragged dress is stained and patched so much that little remains of its beauty. But there is a hint of grace.

“Look at her feet,” whispers Pedro.

The others stare. There is blood on her feet but her fingers bleed too, from her castanets.

This is her Sacre du Printemps.

The sages have assembled.

Through her glazed eyes she counts thirteen of them, gathering to witness her dance herself to death.

Her movements increased in frenzy. Faster. Faster.

“She is dancing to save our ocean,” says Jesus.

A passer by drops a few coins into a tin mug on top of the organillo.

“I have an idea,” says Juan. “I will hide behind the organ. Pedro, you throw a stone at the mug, and I will catch it when it falls.”

“He will see us,” says Marcos.

“The rest of you must distract him,” says Juan. “Play football. Pedro — you be the striker.”

So it is agreed. They have no ball, only a stone. They kick the stone between them, falling over each other in the excitement of the game, their footfalls a noisy counterpoint to the rhythmic stamp of the dancer.

Round and round she whirls — and the rabble of boys breaks ranks and runs towards her, jostling and shouting. The old man looks up sharply.

An elbow hits Jesus in the ribs and he falls, gasping for breath. He looks up and he sees the Catalan woman balancing on one leg in frozen fright, and a twenty legged monster bearing down on her.

“Stop!” shouts Jesus.

But, miraculously, the tide of unwashed faces parts and surges past on either side. The old man is shouting and shaking his fist.

Jesus runs off to join the others where they gather in Calle Generalissimo Franco, dividing up the spoils.

Juan picks out a few coins. The pesetas, he keeps. “What are these?” He cannot read, and he has never seen nor heard of Euros before. “Foreign coins!” he says with disgust, and tosses  them away. Tourist money. He spits. “Five pesetas each,” says Juan. He is their accountant because his father was a shopkeeper before he died.

“I think that we should give it back.”

The others stare at Jesus, with empty eyes and empty bellies.

Juan is appalled. “What? You must be loco!”

“The Catalan Woman; she is dancing to save our ocean. It is a sin to steal from her.”

Juan throws a single coin down at Jesus’ feet in disgust. “Here. Give it back yourself.”

Now the boys disperse, shouting, “Loco! Loco!” They leave Jesus, staring at the coin before his feet.

The old man comes shuffling round the corner. Jesus is petrified, rooted to the spot.

The old man is coming straight at him, his face a mixture of anger and despair.

There is the tin mug lying on the floor. Jesus snatches it up, drops the coin into it and runs up to the old man and holds it out to him.

There is a long moment while the old man stares first at Jesus and then at the mug. Jesus holds up the mug, clutching it with white knuckles until it is level with the old man’s face. With a snarl of confusion rather than anger, the old man snatches the mug. He takes out the coin, and throws it at Jesus, who turns and runs.

Jesus walks down Calle Generalissimo Franco, clutching the worthless coin, stomach empty as a fishing net. Some men stand on ladders, they are removing the street sign and replacing it with one that says: Calle San Francisco. Jesus stops to stare and scratch his head. He cannot even read, let alone appreciate the irony.

He walks up to a hamburger stand and offers the coin that the old man threw back in his face. The man at the hamburger stand scratches his head. “That is no good,” he says. “Euros only. Pesetas are no good anymore.” Jesus walks away, not understanding what has happened.

It is noon and the street is alive with tourists. Even their clothes laugh in daring colours that flash and chase Jesus like a firework display. Sunglasses sparkle and media players hum like bees. Jesus stares up at them, wanting to tell them that Andre is eating his ocean. But not knowing any words they would understand, he can only open and close his mouth — a beached turbot.

Sometimes there are the remains of hamburgers in the streets, but today some dogs got there first. Jesus sees some stragglers, ribs sticking out, on their way to rejoin their pack. He thinks immediately of his friends: Marcos; Juan; Pedro; Pablo; Tomas; Jose; Miguel; Anton; Gomez; Vincente; Carlos; and Francisco. They would be eating somewhere. Jesus does not know how much they have between them. He knows that they have five pesetas each. Five pesetas would not buy much, but multiplied by twelve, Jesus thinks, it would be at least a hundred pesetas — maybe even two hundred — a small fortune. Enough, maybe, to buy a big slice of pizza, or a chicken, or a hamburger and French-fries. They would not be hungry when they went to sleep under the bridge tonight.

Jesus looks about him, drinking in brown limbs and shining teeth. The Catalan woman’s teeth were black and brown, and her skin white and parchment dry though streaked with dirt. Her smile was not like these others either. When they smiled it was the pop of a wine cork that Jesus had heard so often passing by their cafe tables. The Catalan woman’s smile was a great wave surging up and breaking over jagged rocks in a frenzy of despair.

Today, Andre is eating the Pacific, moving northward up the Alaskan coast, devouring crabs with a sideways movement of his head between his grasping, pincer claws. He pauses, his antennae alert for danger. Someone is watching him. He looks up, his eyes focus and for the first time he sees Jesus.

Rain is streaking the window distorting a small boy’s face pressed against the glass, mouth opening and closing straining to eat food right off Andre’s plate.

Andre calls a waiter and points at the glass. “That one!”

Hands grasp Jesus’ wrists and draw him up, stretching him out, crucified.

Deep within him, something breaks and he goes limp. Sometimes, waiters smile kindly and give him scraps from the kitchen, but not this time. Andre is too important a customer.

So Jesus goes to sleep beneath his favourite bridge, hungry, beaten and alone.

Loneliness adds to Jesus’ hunger. Next day he tries to steal from cafe tables but is too slow and too weak with hunger and is driven away. Now there is little he can do but sleep and drink sea water. Even so, it takes him a full week to die.

Between the gulls and the crabs, there is nothing much of him left, and the tide takes that.

Andre leaves the coast. Ahead of him stretches sheep and cattle country. Flocks of whippoorwills erupt from sun scorched trees. Deer raise fear-filled eyes, seeing on the horizon an emerging blight. and a ravenous lion’s roar is edged with hunger and despair. Game too: duck; pheasant; grouse; even the humble chicken cannot escape him. Wide open spaces surrender and fall beneath his tearing, grasping claws and gluttonous maw.

The ocean finished, Andre begin to eat the land.

Copyright 2017: Zoë Nightingale; 2007 Zoë Elizabeth Butler

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Don’t Go There.

It was a dare. And a very scary one. St Tibulus’s church with its crumbling stone walls was fenced off and signposted:

“DANGEROUS”.

Most people haven’t heard of St Tibulus — except for an episode of Father Ted — and he’s widely believed to be fiction. But the old church had existed since medieval times, becoming a ruin a century ago. ‘Tibulus’ is a strange name. It translates from Latin as ‘bits’ which doesn’t help. But at least no one can claim the name had a pagan origin, can they? These recondite matters were not in my nine year old head as I stumbled and weaved through the neck-high grass around the ruin. I wasn’t even worried about tripping over a hidden rock. I was more concerned about the stories I’d heard of children going missing; ‘dragged down into the earth” — so the story goes. Of course, I didn’t really believe that, did I? Not believing didn’t remove the fear. But I so wanted to join Pete’s gang. There was honour at stake. The first girl member of ‘The Skeletons’! All I had to do was go into that ruin and bring back the proof that I’d been there. The grass grew even taller near the church. I couldn’t see over it. Mummy’s voice rang in my ears: “Don’t go there — ever!” The grass sprang back in my eyes, bringing tears, and I panted for breath, nervously fingering my inhaler in my pocket. And “Don’t go there! Don’t go there!” rang in my head, over and over. But then at last, I was through the long grass looking at the ruin; horrible in the gloom of the setting sun. I took out my inhaler for a quick hit just in case.

“What are you doing, young lady?”

An old man was sitting on a broken bit of wall, wearing a kind of black smock over his clothes: probably from the council; a caretaker or something.

“Er, I’m lost,” I lied. Best I could come up with.

“You certainly are if you’re here,” he said. “What’s your name?” ”

“Candy.”

“Sweet. Well, my name is Brother Robin. I’m a monk of the order of Viribonus; one of the titles of St Tibulus. I’ll show you around, if you like.”

I was amazed to find this kindly man with a jolly manner and a big smile in such a fearful place. I liked him.

He led me inside the ruin. I was amazed to find it was nowhere near as derelict inside. Indeed, it was a well appointed little parlour. “If I’d known you were coming,” said Robin, “I would have made tea for you. You should have rung up the office.”

“Office?” I said, uncomfortable. “What office?”

“Well, it hardly matters now. I have some honey cake that I can give you later. This is my little living space. The really magical place is the crypt. I’ll show you.” He smiled, and I saw that like most old people his gums had shrunken so that his eyeteeth seemed quite long and pointed. “It’s where I keep the honey cake.”

“Don’t go there, Candice! Don’t go there, don’t go there, don’t speak to strange men,” Mummy’s voice went round and round in my head. But I needed a souvenir; if I was going to join The Skeletons. On the chimneypiece, I saw a silver framed photograph of Brother Robin. It was even engraved: “Brother Robin Goodman of the Order of St Tibulus Viribonus”.

“Come along, my dear! The cake’s downstairs, in the crypt!”

I snatched the picture and legged it to the door, the monk’s angry howl echoing in my ears.

I was crying as I fought my way through the long grass. I tried to keep to the path I had trampled before. It was still a struggle. Any second I would feel his hand on my shoulder, his breath in my ear.

But for some unknown reason, he did not follow me.

§

Mummy sighed, then said: “I shall not punish you. I think you have been punished enough. Just show me the picture. I only hope this club is worth the misery they put you through.”

She told me there was no such Order of St Tibulus Viribonus and no record of a ‘Brother Robin Goodman’. But children have gone missing in our area. And ‘Viribonus’ means ‘good fellow’. Mummy knew a thing or two about folklore and told me that ‘Robin Goodfellow’ was an old name for that evil sprite — ‘Puck’. She also told me that St Tibulus was indeed not a real saint, but one adopted from a pagan figure — ‘Cobalus’, Latin for ‘Goblin’.

And when I held up the picture frame, my blood ran cold. It was old, battered and with no sign of a picture ever having been there.

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The Lost World of Fahrenheit 451

I clutched the telephone receiver in my hot, red, white knuckled hand. My iPhone was no longer working. The computer had stopped working too. Only the old fashioned telephone was still crackling out a voice into my ear. And now even that had gone silent.

“Jerry, are you there?”

I pressed the receiver harder to my ear. It was beginning to hurt. It was ages since I last used one of those old telephones. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable they were. “Jerry! Jerry!”

There was a loud crackle and then — blessed relief! Jerry’s voice came back. “I was reading that book, the one you bought me,” he said. “Here, I’ll read some to you.”

“You don’t have to,” I said. If only he’d not insisted on driving home to find that damn book he’d be with me now, instead of stranded with a car that would no longer run.

“Something to do,” he answered. “Something to hold on to while I talk to you.”

“But we’ve so little time, Jerry.”

“I know, and there’s so little point to anything.”

“How long have we got left?”

“Hours? Minutes? I don’t know. The temperature rise is running away. New York is dead, now. Come on, I’ll read you some of this. It’s beautiful poetry:

“We are the hollow men,

We are the stuffed men…”

“Not that one, Jerry. I don’t like how it ends.”

“But it’s more relevant now than it ever was…”

“Anything you say to me is poetry, now, Jerry.”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Marion. But it’s so hard to think straight in this heat.”

“Just say the one thing you never said to me. You know what that is, Jerry? I’ve longed for you to say it. I know you wanted to. Can you guess what it is I want to hear?”

“Just tell me, Marion.”

“Stop teasing, Jerry. You know what I mean. Damn you’re shy! And at a time like this. This time of all times. Just say it, Jerry. It doesn’t even matter any more — whether you mean it or not. Just do this one thing for me, Jerry. Say those words.”

“Yes, I’ll say it, but I need to clear my throat first. So dry.”

The line went quiet. For a moment I thought he’d gone. But then he spoke again. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. “Just getting a drink of water. So thirsty.”

“Oh Jerry!” I said. “For God’s sake, hurry, my darling.”

The first light of dawn crept between the blades of the shutters. If it got any warmer I would pass out.

“Hurry, Jerry. Can you hear me? I love you Jerry. Please hurry back and say you love me too.”

“I’ll be back in a minute,” he had said. But the minute had long gone and there was no sound of him.

“Jerry,” I said. “Jerry!”

The line was noisy again, crackling.

No it was not the line crackling.

It was the book, he was reading to me. It was the pages catching fire and crackling as they burned in his hand.

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Readability

 

I just wrote an opening paragraph in my notebook. Don’t know where it’s going at this stage. But this is what I wrote:

“More rats, these days. Don’t know what that means. One just ran across the pavement. They’ve got bolder. That one’s looking at me. Up on its hind legs. They never used to come outside. Have to set more traps.”

Just for fun, I thought I’d check it for readability on one of the online readability checkers. Here’s what it said:

“Your grade is about four; the same reading level as Charlotte’s Web and the lyrics to ‘Baby one more time’ by Britney Spears.”.

Well I’ve never heard Britney Spears mentioned in the same sentence as E. B. Whiyte. I wonder, should she be flattered, or should he be worried, or should all three of us give up? Generally, the assumption with these readability checkers is that the lower the score, the more readable is the text. Of course, that was only the first paragraph. I ran mine through my own, deaktop readability checker: “Hemingway”. It geve it a rating of “O”. The very pinacle of readability. I ran the opening page of James Joyce’s Ulysses through the online readability checker and it said it was at the same level of difficulty as Harry Potter. But of course, these are openings. Openings have to be easy to read, to draw the reader in. I ran the first page of chapter 2 of Ulysses through Hemingway, it scored 0. And you thought that Joyce was difficult? Well, some of it is. It varies. But you might be reading it wrong. Try reading it in an Irish brogue. Ulysses is a very funny book. Honest!

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Hold the Kleenex, There’s a Different Way To Read This Film.

 

Just watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Of course, I’ve watched it before, but I always enjoy it, right up to the last three minutes, which is an awful awful, tacked on, sentimental, Hollywood ending.

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And of course, that wasn’t the only rewrite. Truman Capote’s novel was rewritten, partially by him, to make it a story of an odd couple, a gigolo and a hooker. Originally, the narrator was one pair of eyes, and Holly Golightly’s story was one of several. I said Paul and Holly were an odd couple in the film. They were odd because in real life, had their relationship worked on any level it would have ended in disaster. I actually knew someone who was like Holly. In fact, I think that she modelled herself on “Holly Golightly: Travelling” as the fictional woman styled herself. The real life ‘Holly’ called herself a free spirit. And she did have unrequited loves. Tragically, she died, alone, and — I guess — unloved. I suppose we have to pity such women; beautiful, graceful, intelligent, but absolutely barking mad. The film makes much more sense if one notes the gay subtext; for Truman Capote was gay, and even as George Peppard plays him, Paul Varjak’s character makes more sense as a repressed homosexual. The real tragedy that we, from our twenty-first century viewpoint can appreciate, is that a better ending would have been if Holly had helped Paul to find himself, like a loving sister that she clearly identified herself to be. Why else did she insist on calling Paul by her brother’s name, ‘Fred’? Why was it that she could lie in bed with him and feel no sexual tension? And why didn’t director Blake Edwards read the signs and follow it through to its logical conclusion. Alas, this was Hollywood in 1961. William Wilder’s far superior film, The Children’s Hour, which also starred Audrey Hepburn and which was released in the same year had the emotional depth and maturity to tackle such issues and its director may well have given Truman Capote a rewrite worthy of him. But of course, it wouldn’t have had the tear-fest ending. And I suppose that both Capote and Edwards knew which side their bread was buttered.
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“It’s Political Correctness Gone Mad!” and Other Baby Whines of the Right.

There is no left wing ‘Thought Police’ forcing political correctness on everyone else. There is, however, a right wing ‘Thought Police’ spreading paranoia about political correctness. Yes, some left wing people do go a little too far in vociferously defending human rights, or calling for them to be extended, which is what the right see as political correctness. But when it comes down to it, it is the arrogance of white male middle class privilege that is the force for reactionary political unrest in the twenty-first century. By definition, the underdogs, the less privileged, the poor, and the oppressed cannot assert their rights over the ruling class. They — or rather we — can ask for, protest, petition, and ultimately vote for our rights. But by and large we are all helpless. It is just ridiculous for the rich, privileged, predominantly white and male, dominant, ruling class to whine that that they face ‘political correctness gone mad’. They actually make themselves look pathetic; crybabies who have very little to cry about and a hell of a lot to be thankful for. Revolutions come about when one sector of the ruling class decides to off another sector of the ruling class, and promise the lower orders a say in the new order. That is what is happening now. The loud mouthed, arrogant, to their minds ‘deprived’ but in reality well off and powerful are turning on the intellectuals and getting the working class to provide the muscle. No good can come of that. We’ve already chucked out of the EU. Look at what happens to the chuckers. Nothing. They are what happens to us, in the end.

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