Digital Ischemia

25/12/2017

The Santa Hat

As the sky reluctantly lightens to murky blue, a two centimetre tall shiny red cone bobs along outside the window. Could it be elves or some other mythical creatures associated with the season? The jaunty angle fascinates me. I hear tapping and scratching, and the faint thumps of small feet.

I lean in to the shadowy wall, craning to see past the frame. A bluetit lands, unfazed by the festive mystery. He ignores the seeds I sprinkled in favour of jabbing the frame edges for insects trapped in spider web. The red cone wobbles and pulls my focus. Other than the seeds, I see no trail of magic or any clues. Can I get closer without being seen?

The bluetit twitches his head one final time, satisfied he has exhausted all visible sources of ready caught insect. I brace to move, hoping to use his departure as cover. I have to take a chance, as the red cone could also vanish at any moment. Wings flutter and I lean right in to the glass.

The red Santa hat tops a less than festive sparrow. She has a shiny plastic lid stuck to her head. It looks like the cap off a bottle; unmarked so I can only guess if it was packaging for some food product or cosmetic. Sticky either way. It’s poorly designed, even for its intended purpose: difficult to grip to twist it. Impossible for a clawed creature. Harsh penance for seeking food.

The sparrow dips clumsily to peck a seed. She flaps and falls into the adjoining shrub. Apparently she can hop up to the window and back to the bush but not fly. She’s too unbalanced, weighed down. Perhaps a sparrowhawk can get the lid off.

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24/12/2017

Three Boxes

Harris drives himself around the mezzanine’s south-east corner. Two more laps around the atrium, maybe three. He won’t have time for four. Walking is good for creative thought. Being away from the office is good for any kind of thought. He can’t think in that fairground of hollered conversations, phone rings, keyboard clatters, printer whirs… Nor in the fog of alpha-female pheromones.

Never mind the hurdles; he has a conundrum to solve. He focuses on the brick red railings passing at his left. The regular vertical stripes of shiny red soothe him. Until they refract into nauseating undulating shimmers.

Half way along the east side, Harris momentarily achieves a meditative state. Ironically this is vaporised by a numinous shaft of light from a southwestern skylight. Reflexively he halts, tilts his face perpendicular to it, to maximise the radiation, imagining he feels the warmth of divine inspiration. He registers a faint sigh. Sighing would probably be a key theme in the office soundtrack if it weren’t smothered by the fairground effects. The fairground conundrum. A seat in the sun would be good.

Harris wheels about and steps over to the nearest bench. This is mostly an act of spatial memory as his eyes are still readjusting to not staring at a nuclear explosion. Lucky chance has him alight not on top of someone else. As his eyes return to usual levels of exposure, he finds he is not at the epicentre of the beam. That position is occupied by a woman with a tilted face, closed eyes and beatific smile. He aborts his inner mocking reflex with the evidence for his own recent practice.

Harris launches in, “it’s like an alien tractor beam, isn’t it?”
The woman replies without turning her head, “I wasn’t sighing out of pique—it’s not my sunlight—I was exhaling in sort of appreciation.”
“Maybe you’ve had enough? I mean, maybe you’re cooked enough? Sorry, I keep sounding disrespectful.”
“No effect. Too good a day.”
“Depends where you’re sitting. Argh, sorry, sorry; I don’t mean literally; I mean my day’s pretty shite, as usual.”
“I was just wondering who to share my good fortune with first. Who might be most in need. And here you are.”

The woman flicks her head to face Harris and opens her eyes. He feels them rake through his motivations. The sensation is curiously paralysing.

“I’m Iona.”
“Harris. What fortune?”
“I got a commission.”
“From here?”
“To fill that space.” She indicates the massive cuboid of air within the mezzanine’s confines, capped by the shallow tetrahedral roof.
“With what? Why would you?! What are you?”
“Styrofoam; to blot out everything pleasant; a sadist.”
Harris tips his head back and manages half a chuckle. “Knee-jerked again, didn’t I?”
Iona turns back to the project space. “Serious answers: I don’t know yet; to make people think, to achieve your company’s objective and hopefully to get paid; and, I suppose, a sort of installation artist.”
“But however good your intentions, anything’s going to blot out that magnificent light!”
“Nonsense.”
“OK, give me an example! Please don’t say some ghastly perspex construction.”
“Just one? The sound of brass cogs and shafts, pistons and capstans, in an enormously convoluted contraption.”
“Yeh, I see how that’s not going to obliterate anything at all. And how are you going to hang it? Sky hooks?”
“A speaker?”
“Ah, I see: ‘the sound of…’; cunning.”

Iona turns to feel the sunlight fade, replaced by her smugness. Not to totally take advantage of her troubled companion, though. Supposed to be sharing fortune here.

“What’s your bother?”
“That’s what I was doing circuits to solve.”
“Before you stopped to interfere with my sunlight.”
“Can’t get anything right.”
“So let me spread my irrepressible joy over your problem and make you feel even worse.”
“I can’t really tell you. I mean, I’m not being mysterious, it just wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“How about … a metaphor?”
“Er, OK, I have— No, there are two boxes. I can pick one or the other.”
“What do they look like?”
“What?”
“These boxes.”
“Does it matter?”
“It would help me visualise the … options.”
“They’re solid, ebony cubes, with lids. Thick sides.”
“How big?”
“Pfff, about twenty centimetres each way. Happy?”
“Ecstatic. Thank you.”

Harris realises he’s going to be late back to the office. Suddenly he doesn’t care. It was a mostly self-imposed target anyway. The world has changed.

He volunteers more imaginary detail to delay the inevitable. “There’s a regular dashed pattern in a strip near the top of each side. You want to know if there are any chips or other blemishes?”
“I’d like to predict the inside.”
“Piss off.”
“OK, I’m going to write it down … then we can check later if I’m right.”

Iona fishes a scrap of paper and pencil out a pocket and scribbles. She scrumples the paper and lays it on the bench between them. Harris is unimpressed.
“Nerd.”
“Absolutely. On you go.”

Harris settles back to describe professional contents that have leaked in different ways into his personal life. One tends to froth angrily and foam stickily over the edge of its container. The other seems under control until you spot the poison leaching from the bottom corner. Under questioning, he admits the boxes are there as much to segregate the contents from each other as from his personal life.

“I can’t cope with both; I don’t even know if I can manage one, but I’ll have to try.”
Iona cocks her head, mildly amused. “Will you?”
“What other choice is there?”
“There’s always a third way.”
“Where?”
“Go back a bit.”
“In time? Are you going to tell me the two boxes were once parts of the same original box?!”
“That would be ridiculous.”
“So?”
“Step back.”
“Bloody metaphors. Oh, surprise, there’s a third box, sneaking into view.”
“And what’s in this one?”
“No idea.”
“Can you look?”
“Nope. Mystery.”
“Hm, well, I’m sorry. I see I’ve just massively wasted your time on this entertaining but fruitless diversion.”

Harris caresses the scrumpled paper prediction. After tantalising himself for a couple of seconds, he snatches it and pulls it open. He frowns, reorients the writing.

Iona watches him sidelong, curious but trying not to be too attached. After a few seconds of his neutral expression, she nudges, “well?”

Harris jumps up. “Come on.”
“Where? Why?”
“I’m going to need your help with these boxes. Well, with the other two.”
Iona hesitates. “They’re not going to like it.”
“Absolutely not. I see my metaphor wasn’t as veiled as I imagined.”
“You chose the third box?”
“Of course I did. I may be afraid of the unknown but I’m not a masochist for known poisons.”

Harris strides north. Iona grabs her bag and tries to keep up.
Harris calls back, “how’d you know then? Is red silk some standard default male mental image?”
“Railings, Harris. How many circuits?”
“What? Because they’re red and shiny?”
“What does this building look like outside?”
“I hate architects. And artists. What’s your name again?”
“Iona.”
“No, it’s Box Three.”

24/09/2017

Night on the Tiles

I blundered into the dimly lit washroom, thoughtless in my sleepy haze. As I automatically reached over the sink for my toothbrush, a dark mass behind the tap startled me. I was used to spiders and other housemates—woodlice, vine weevils, mites, and other dots—scurrying across surfaces but more often living out of sight. I’d even been bitten by a spider. That surprised me, and left me with a tiny red V-shaped cut in my wrist as evidence. That spider had chosen my cardigan sleeve for refuge and reasonably considered my thrusting arm to be an attack. Apparently biting spiders are common in Britain; fortunately they’re harmless.

I knew August was the mating season for ‘house’ spiders, driving them to roam widely and overtly in search of partners, and hence being seen more often. This one surprised me not only by her location but her size: a good ten centimetres diameter. I dislike surprises, especially late at night, and the ensuing tension. I think it comes down to a fear of insects unintentionally jumping on to me and disappearing up a sleeve or into my ear or somewhere I can’t get them. And then what? I supposed they might bite or tickle or lay eggs or commit some other grievous offence. More irrational conditioning.

I went on with teeth-brushing, casting frequent glances to check she was still there. Perhaps the light had halted her exploration, even though it was dark orange – at least neither of us should suffer melatonin cycle disturbances. Do spiders have melatonin? Perhaps my noise or movement vibrations disturbed her. Still indulging this mental blether, I turned off the light and went to bed. The next morning she was gone.

The second night I had entirely forgotten her existence and so was startled again by her presence on the tiles beside the sink. I was more relaxed, though, and observant. After a couple of minutes she rotated to face the wall and compressed herself against the grout. This seemed like avoidance behaviour. I was sorry cause her discomfort. I have no illusions about this being ‘my’ space. The wilderness may have been long since concreted over, but nature is mobile and constantly recolonising.

The following morning she had stopped just over the edge of the tiled unit, where the panel descends to the floor. She remained immobile during my intermittent visits through the day. I wondered if her exploration had tired her, or she had bivouacked there to extend her range the coming night, or she was awaiting prey… or a mate.

The third night the tiles were unoccupied. No movement, no stasis, no presence. I was somewhat relieved, but also concerned by the not knowing – pure selfishness: once you know something is present, not seeing it becomes unsettling. As the toothpaste foam built up, I wondered about the content of her life of which I was mostly ignorant. I trundled back and forth, brushing, pondering.

Crunch. My right foot felt a momentary resistance. My head leaped to the fateful conclusion. I bent my knee and raised my foot behind me: even in the artificial twilight the sole showed a telltale wet patch. The floor covering was too dark to identify the victim.

Wrong time to choose to freeze on the floor! Wrong place! Why did she not sense my noise or vibrations or the light tonight? Why not flee? Evolutionarily unsound!

My defensive denials fizzled out. Was she starving? Not dehydrated in a washroom, surely. Was she fuddled by sleep disturbance? But I wasn’t there that often. Was she just trying to get from A to B, and like the poor hedgehog, when faced with large, looming movement, made a poor choice. Freezing in the path of a heavy creature means death.

Daylight confirmed my conclusion. She’s still there: a fading husk of legs, pressed on the floor. I’ve slid her aside so I don’t repeat the offence, but haven’t appeased my regret yet. I didn’t mean to, sure, but I can’t say I couldn’t have foreseen that risk. Apologies tumble out as pathetically inadequate recompense for not considering consequences. Why do my needs or arbitrary habits supersede my housemates’? What might I have learned from sharing time and space with her? What have I learned?

10/09/2017

Play Me

SCENE 1
SOUND: phone rings
HARRIET: Hey, Vin. Alright?
VIN: (D) No, sorry, need you to come through. Drew’s really upset. He’s locked himself in his office.
HARRIET: Upset? At what?
VIN: (D) No’ angry; he’s wailing, greeting even.

SCENE 2
SOUND: footsteps approach, taps on door
HARRIET: Drew? Can you let us in?
SOUND: door handle clunks, muffled groan, sob
HARRIET: My love, we’re really concerned. Please let us in. Drew?
VIN: Come on, man. Need to let us help.
SOUND: taps on door
HARRIET: Drew?
SOUND: footsteps recede
HARRIET: (whisper) At least he’s conscious.
VIN: (whisper) There’s no’ anything up wi’ you two, is there?
HARRIET: No? Totally fine till you called. Was he alright with you?
VIN: Aye, seen him first thing. He just didnae come through for lunch. Will we burst the door?
HARRIET: He might be right inside. OK, what I’m about to show you… Never mind. I trust you. We’re going back along, but totally silent, OK?

SCENE 3
SOUND: door clicks
HARRIET: Nicely done.
VIN: We’re in a storage cupboard.
HARRIET: Aye, I found this one time he had me wait in his office. I got bored, peered about, seen the wardrobe—why is there a wardrobe in that office? Turns out the back of it’s like Narnia except it’s just sort of joists and maintenance scaffold between the walls. Anyway, it comes out here. So, we walk along the planks and sneak into his wardrobe.
VIN: Do we need anything?
HARRIET: Torch. There.

SCENE 4
SOUND: breathing, click, rustle, swish, steps burst from wardrobe
DREW: No! Get out! (gasp)
VIN: It’s only us, man.
SOUND: shuffle, rustle of kneeling
HARRIET: My lovely man, what’s happened? Can you sit up? Look at me.
VIN: Did he collapse?
HARRIET: I don’t know yet. No smell on his breath, eyes are fine, pulse a bit rapid. Can you look about if anything’s out of place?
VIN: I don’t want to touch his stuff.
HARRIET: Don’t. Just scan. You’ll see something.
VIN: Why’s that flashing? Must’ve been unplugged. There’s a CD in, paused. Who has CDs still?
HARRIET: Maybe that’s why it was unplugged.
VIN: Will I unpause it?
DREW: No!
HARRIET: Drew, my love, can you tell me why? Just tell us, please?
DREW: No. (moan)
SOUND: caress
HARRIET: OK. Why plug it in..?
VIN: Guess we have to listen—
HARRIET: No! Wait. No, don’t touch it. Don’t touch the buttons, any CD cases, anything.
VIN: OK, what?
HARRIET: What do you do when some mailbox you don’t know emails you a file unexpectedly?
VIN: Bin it; virus.
HARRIET: What if it’s an audio file?
VIN: Probably a fake file extension; bin it.
HARRIET: What if it’s on a CD? Can’t infect the stereo, can you?
VIN: Shit! Sonovirus?
HARRIET: Don’t touch anything. Come away over here. We need serious polis. Nobody needs to listen to that. They need to Fourier analyse it or something off-line. No audio.
VIN: You think Drew here got like hypnotised?
HARRIET: I know: I have a rush of paranoia now. But we do it to ourselves plenty: atmospheric music, trance, using vocal tone, pitch, pace to match mood or subtly altering it to lead mood. No wonder we’re stressed-out insomniacs. Applied maliciously you could use sound as effects, tunes, speech to match subconscious thought, brainwaves even, then disrupt them. Not much of a leap to someone twisting it to an audio weapon.
VIN: He maybe thought it was a promo track?
HARRIET: Call the polis—ambulance first. Say he’s maybe been hypnotised into some sort of mental breakdown.
VIN: Psychotic?
SOUND: phone tapping
HARRIET: I don’t know the psychiatry, it’s mood-altering sound. I don’t think he’s scrambled, just maybe acutely depressed or paranoid from suggestion or non-verbal sound.

SCENE 5
VIN: On the way. Eight minutes. Can I touch the door?
HARRIET: Why?
VIN: Unlock it?
HARRIET: Aye, good point.
SOUND: bolt drawn
DREW: (gibbers)
VIN: You’re alright, man. Help on the way. Why Drew?
HARRIET: That’s not how terrorists work, is it? It’s random, innocent folk.
VIN: There’ll be more then? Shit. They won’t show their hand without an impact.
HARRIET: That’s my paranoia ramped right up. Maybe it’s just one random nutter. Oh, my poor boy.
VIN: How desperate do you need to be to go to these lengths to get attention?!
HARRIET: I’m not feeling sympathetic to anyone’s cause right now.
VIN: It’s just nasty stuff. Twisted sociopaths.
HARRIET: Want to head out to meet the medics?
VIN: Check they are who they say they are?
HARRIET: Cannae do this conspiracy shit. I just need to see my man safe.
VIN: Still trust me?
HARRIET: Have to trust someone. Have to trust each other? Otherwise they win.
SOUND: door clicks
HARRIET: My poor love. We’ll be alright.
DREW: (sigh)

03/09/2017

Barcode Not Recognised

My wife disappeared in an art gallery. I’m not a connoisseur. The exhibition was modern – post-talent I would say. It appeared minimalist of effort and mercenary of presentation. The images were monochrome, straight lines.

I wandered among them in bewilderment, wondering how long it would take a troupe of monkeys to produce the same with a graphics app and random key strokes. After twenty minutes I abandoned my search for any shred of interest or intrigue. I approached my wife who was standing, mesmerised before a giant barcode: black vertical lines on a white background, but perfected – entirely uniform with equal width bars and spacing. It was a grill lit by one ice white spotlight. We stood, side by side, for several minutes. Eventually she murmured that it was true, pure brilliance. Tactfully, I muttered something about it standing out but I didn’t recognise any feature of value. I couldn’t sustain a focus on it and my mind and eyes soon wandered. Consequently, when the incident occurred, I glimpsed it only peripherally.

Apparently without cue, from about five metres away, she walked straight at it, slowly, steadily, right up to it. She closed in and vanished.

At first I thought she’d wandered between the exhibit panels, but couldn’t find her. I didn’t think she could’ve left as there was a perky ticket checker beside the doors, and I had the tickets. I swept the place, then, just for my own sanity. I went out to check our car, despite knowing I had the keys. Eventually in escalating concern I sought help. The ticket checker assured me that no-one had left before my foray to the car park. We scanned the CCTV footage of the entrance and car park and indeed no-one had. We examined the internal camera footage and there, in poor quality monochrome—ironically suited to the art—we watched her approach the massive barcode and disappear.

I was surprised all over again. I had thought I must’ve been mistaken. She didn’t disappear front to back, like passing behind the edge of an opaque object; she didn’t fall; she wasn’t grabbed. She faded away, like someone had switched off a projection.

That was what spurred my thinking, in the following hours and days. After several nights of insomnia, my mind opened up creatively to the most bizarre and unlikely possibilities. I wondered at what point beforehand a change could’ve been made. When was the switch?

I found it: she’d gone to the toilet when we arrived, and I hadn’t seen her come out. She had appeared beside a piece or art, so I had joined her. She hadn’t spoken. I had nothing to say, bewildered as I was. But why? I invested weeks and months of painstaking forensic analysis into all the life evidence she left. She had carefully, gradually and systematically removed anything she valued, including her own money, and left all the dross as an unchanged façade.

The rest is cliché. Infidelity, attraction to a man with more money than a small country, but also a staggering creative talent, which combined to manifest even his most elaborate whims. A hologram. A simple message relayed from a tiny black speaker stuck on… you guessed it: the barcode. The toilet had a cleaner’s cupboard, which had been unlocked, and which had a service hatch, which was shared with the neighbouring shop, which had any number of patrons departing in obfuscatory groups or hats. Gone.

I have no idea why she left, or why she chose such a dramatic exit. The banality of the barcode could suggest that she rejected our life because it was too insipid and predictable, or not dull enough. She had changed into someone I didn’t recognise, and had deliberately hidden that change. I stopped analysing my own thought-echoes and got some sleep. The stages of change played through my emotions. I hope they’re happy living a perfectly straight path.

Now, when I spend time with someone, I pay attention.

06/08/2017

My Neighbour’s Baby

The parents’ squabbling catches my attention. My quiet Sunday breakfast with a wildlife magazine shattered. Peer Gynt capers on in the Hall of the Mountain King. The squabblers slam from room to room, swatting and shrieking at each other. I lean to the window and pull back the gauze curtain, searching for explanation. One of their children sits on my front grass. Just sits, not playing, not eating, not moving, not seemingly hurt, but I don’t read children well. The parents barrel on. Another figure slinks by – another neighbour, inspecting the unattended child. My gut flips – some pre-verbal fear. In a reflex I knock the window. The neighbour starts and glances at me. I wave. Frustratingly her momentum carries her out of my sight. The parents separate, hurling only intermittent complaints. The child remains immobile.

I unlock the front door to look closer. Mostly I want to help, but I need more information: what happened? I seem to be too late. The neighbour is out of sight. The child sits on the grass, freckled and bewildered. I don’t want to approach in case this aggravates the situation. I don’t want to interfere. Or should I move her to a safer position? What would be safer? In my house is far too ambiguous. I have no relationship with this child. Her parents seem to be calming. I return indoors and glance out the window. The child still hasn’t moved. I can’t settle back to breakfast; I wander ineffectually about the front rooms, reviewing the incident, assessing my choices. I keep glancing out the window.

Suddenly the parents launch a fresh bout of shouting. I check the window: the child is gone – in a matter of seconds between my glances. I can’t see anybody, any movement. I open the front door and see the parents hopping and shrieking along the pavement. I can’t read their distress. Still no sign of the child. My eyes flit to another movement. Beneath the bordering hedge I see my neighbour’s legs saunter up the path and out of sight. The parents are hysterical. Why didn’t they do something for their child before? Why didn’t I? I peer again between the trunks of the hedge. I look very carefully to catch a glimpse as my neighbour’s path curves back into view. In a moment I see what I’m looking for: the shape of the child, carried away.

There was a moment when I could have acted. I chose not to. To let others’ choices play out. I may have delayed things by rapping the window, but that’s as likely to have increased the suffering as not. If I had the chance again, I’d lift that baby and bring it indoors. I’d suffer the guilt of upsetting the parents. My experiences lead me to believe that my neighbour simply wanted to play with the child. A distorted behaviour that has its roots in natural instinct but has become torture. I have some responsibility for that. I could do better.

If it had been my neighbour the sparrowhawk who found the young blackbird, I would be more comfortable with that. A reasonably quick death for food. A domestic cat I’m much less comfortable with. It doesn’t feel natural to me. Still, I have too little information. I had a moment and I only half-intervened. Bless her.

02/07/2017

The Fly and The Mountain

Gliding through vast mountains on one of my observational learning expeditions, I spot a guy with a hefty head-load trekking up a treacherous pass. I alight masterfully beside him. He greets me with annoyance.
“Stop hovering around me like a fly.”
“I seek a drop of wisdom, as the fly awaits a bead of sweat.”
“You’re not even getting my sweat. Piss off.”

I am supremely unrufflable. I aspire to that infuriating spiritual superiority that would allow me to chuckle all-knowingly at any example of the atrocious suffering of the human condition. I float patiently, shadowing his trudging up the path.

I could remove his burden, his basket of headstuff, to the top of the mountain with but a thought. But he would not thank me. He would complain of someone nicking it before he got there. He would complain that he might want something out of it meantime. He wants his luggage with him. It’s part of him, of his life. I have no such attachment. I quickly check that I have remembered to imagine my physical manifestation as clothed.

A couple hundred yards ahead, a boulder broods beside the path. A mere thought deposits me and my irritatingly beatific grin there. I imagine the guy will soon approach a shoulder in the path, see the boulder and take in my omnipresence. I expect his expletive.

I return to my observation. The guy is relieved by my apparent departure. He is otherwise fully present in this moment. Full marks there. He relishes the effort and the reward of his journey.

Ah! There it is. ‘Reward for effort’. As he comes into view, his face indeed churns with renewed rage. I signal to him a cheery wave of thanks. He responds with the economy of two fingers.

I flash back to my ascetic eyrie to paint up today’s learning scroll. My thanks go to the universe for providing this experience purely in order for me to learn this lesson at precisely the right time. My egoic smugometer throbs pleasingly.

25/06/2017

Solstice Stillness

follows Night Ride and Sunrise

As the leading edge of the rising sunlight pours down past my hand I feel that warmth. And another: I feel another hand touch mine. I wind two fingers between these others. The animal warmth, the companionship is surreal. My fatigued legs underline my fragility as the nuclear explosion hits us. I’m not looking at the sun, but the dazzle across the wet sand is mesmerising. The pebbles laid to outline the orca blaze darkly. Eventually it becomes too bright; I have to turn.

This straggle of a man juts out of the sand like he’s been here years. His features seem especially coarse and creased as my eyes overcompensate the contrast. Envying experiences of which I’m ignorant would be nonsensical, but he seems rooted, settled.

He cranks his head around to face me, with huge effort to turn from the sun. He opens his eyes, then his mouth as I did only moments back. For him, the lack of arising words seems a surprise, a perplexing fault, rather than a second thought. I firm my grip on his hand.

Where did he come from? I twist to scan further around, behind us, to examine my entry point. I see the thin end of the curved edge of headland, the last stretch of silky grass that I glided over, the beginnings of the vertical rock face, loose rocks tumbling over the beach in geological time, no shelter. Where was he before that?

Finally, he rasps, “It wasn’t for you.”
“I know. It wasn’t for you either. It’s only meaningful from the crags.”
“Or from the air.”
“Your problem with me is that I didn’t arrive by helicopter?”
“My problem is that you showed up.”
My pique relishes this bickering. “Sorry to ruin your peace but other people are going to keep showing up. We’re like ants at jam.”

I release his hand. Mine feels damp. I step away then change direction to reach for the bike handle.
He spits out, “I won’t nick it.”
I flush, thinking: no, but you’d have my food and precious things in an instant, and that would hurt me more than I’m prepared for right now. The sublime sunrise moment has left me feeling vulnerable. Remember that thing? Surely it can’t be overshadowed already. I want peace and isolation to savour that experience, not someone else’s selfish, abrasive neurosis. Ha – I’m just like him. I shove the bike east, away from him, along the beach. I’m not leaving yet.

He emits another flurry of words, “I meant: once you’d showed up, I didn’t know what to do next. I don’t…”
I freeze, replaying his blurted confession. Is it? Is it enough to mollify my umbrage?

He lunges surprisingly nimbly and is suddenly in front of me, facing me, fixing my eyes. Bless him, he’s contrite enough not to touch me again. So he stands in my path. A couple times I feign to bypass him. A smirk breaks one side of his stare.

“I’ve been here a long time. You can stay with me or you can go. You can’t stay without me.”
I ask a little trade for my acquiescence, “Why an orca?”
“Intelligent, well evolved, decent creatures.”
“Is that who you want to communicate with?”
“No chimpanzees or elephants in Scotland.”
“Any progress?”
“More than I’ve had with humans.”
“Imagine how much more we could be if we could.”
“We can; we just haven’t worked out how yet.”
“I hope you do. Maybe if they want to as well. I wonder why they would, though. We’re choking them with plastic, poisoning them with chemicals leaching from landfilled electronics, removing their habitat, or simply killing them for body parts. And there’s taking them captive, ‘lethal’ sampling for ‘scientific research’, ship strikes…”
“I’m aware of the time pressure. It doesn’t help.”
“I only mean to despair of my species—my culture. We keep obliterating communities—native peoples as much as other species—then regretting it later when we realise what we’ve lost, whether that’s indigenous knowledge or ecosystem processes. We think we’re so successful, but the terms of that success are so short-sighted.” I seem to have a lot to say on this. So does he.
“It’s way more than our ‘loss’: they have their own right to life, their own life, not just for how they can help us.”
“You’re right, of course. I should go.” I seem to have flipped my stance.
“Why?”
“I’m bringing all the shit that you’re trying to get away from.”
“You’re not bringing anything apart from a decent-looking oilskin, and you’re not leaving.”
“Hostage for a tarp?”
“Something like that.”
“When did I change from resented intruder?”
“You said ‘who’. About the orca; you see it as a person, not a thing.”

He makes fire; he bakes bannocks. Not the hermit I’d assumed. Apparently he trades information and expertise with crofters and hikers for the staples he can’t forage. I’ve brought plenty, partly to share, partly for not knowing how long I’d stay. I wonder if he’d choose me or the supplies.

He’s a caveman, but again not as I’d assumed. The entrance is invisible without serious exploration: behind a downward-sloping four foot high shelf of rock, a horizontal slit the width of a human head. Reading my panic, he chuckles, “As long as you can fit your head through, the rest of your body will squish.” Hardly reassuring.

I glance about for distraction. Nestled in a rocky crevice, a solar-powered evaporator reassuringly drips desalinated water into an amphora. Anxiety makes me critical, “And if there’s no sun?”
“Cloud still lets some energy through. It’s slow but it’s enough.”
I continue digging, “And if it’s raining?”
He looks at me, patronising amusement twisting his face. I flush again. That idiocy just sealed my fate.

He slides on his back; for some reason I’m less uncomfortable on my belly. We squirm and side-wind like snakes into the cold hole. High rock shelves carry dry groceries and drying dulse, ceramic vessels and shell platters. The smell is oddly pleasant. A huge contoured sandbag seems to be universal furniture. I draw back from inspecting further; it feels intrusive.

Solo again in scavenging for driftwood, I find a cache of plastic flotsam. Things in the wrong place. I can’t help myself collecting it and removing it to the cove’s grassy entrance. Things to be returned to the rest of the world. That done, the polluted spot restored according to my idiosyncratic perspective, I make an offering to the sea of the dried flower I brought. An apology. A drop in the ocean.

We return to the fire and boil water for a drink of herbal something. It’s exquisite. The simplicity and the ingenuity delight me. My half pound bag of random nuts delights him; he’s had none for months. He tells me he didn’t intend to stay so long. He didn’t intend to be alone.

Some time after five AM the world leans its furthest. The moment of the solstice before the world’s tilt begins to recede. I feel for the turn, straining as if I might catch the crank and rattle of the universal machinery. I recall my hairpin journey, its far flung crook before I came back almost to my starting point.

He chose me, we shared, and I stayed.

beach pink shell

20/06/2017

Night Ride and Sunrise

Sandscape

Inspired by: Jean Sibelius – Öinen ratsastus ja auringonnousu (Night Ride and Sunrise) ~15min

A cold air balloon hits me in the face, startling me to gasp. I tread hard on the pedals before I can reconsider. I set out again, cycling through the night, but this time away from home – such that it is: that rough stone bothy furnished with old wood from so many places before. They’re barely familiar but they sing long songs of experiences, those sticks and stones. They even grudgingly comfort me, lost soul that I am. Only now I have an urgent reason to get somewhere.

I hope the wheels don’t come off, literally or figuratively. I had to liberate the bicycle from the lean-to, from cobwebs, carcasses, dust and rust; spent most of yesterday at it – or maybe it’s the day before now; must be by midnight. Thought I might need to go further. Never thought I’d need to go faster. I review my inventory: water, food, blanket, tarp… A torch seems inappropriate. Can’t think of anything else needed, but I never do, until it’s too late to turn back. I feel for the pannier behind the saddle; still secure. Can’t do that too often: the front wheel wobbles wildly on the rutted track.

This section of the way is newly familiar. Three weeks’ exploring has started this way every day. I wanted a remarkable place to see the solstice sunrise. Along this tiny stretch of north Scottish coast I’m spoilt for choice. Unusually for me I could simply let my intuition take over. Wherever I ended up would be fine, would be right. No obsessing. I was learning to relax, until I found the cove this evening—yesterday evening. Now I ride that old, familiar tension.

I drift away too easily. I should pay attention to this moment, this space, the immediate future, the path ahead. The undulations of the landscape seem concertinaed even at this modest speed. Wind gusts, breezes, blasts and swirls. I try to become accustomed to the uneven rhythms of the jolting and swaying, to not resist. A cloud of tiny creatures peppers my face; I blink until my eyes rinse them out.

My initial sprint—for warmth as much as from excitement—subsides to steadier pedalling and rhythmic squeaking. Glowing nocturnal eyes flash aside from the front wheel. How do I seem to them? How do I see? I’d forgotten the beauty of incomplete darkness this time of year: the northern horizon remains a rich, deep blue through the barely five hours from sunset to rise.

Through a strip of scrubby trees, the front wheel jinks off a twisted tree root. For a moment the bike and I are suspended at the edge of tipping over. A rut yanks the wheel and restores my balance. That was pure fortune; no skill of mine. I’m rattled enough to coast to a halt, to rest.

The pannier is still intact. I brought other things too—unnecessary things of sentimentality; I’m not ready to analyse that just yet—four pieces of music, a notebook, a dried, pressed wild orchid – romantic, thoughtful, planned, preserved, but only delaying the inevitable.

Avian pipings precede the dawn – other insomniacs unable to rest in the undying twilight. Colour and shape emerge from the blue, movement flickers, huddling to stretching to quivering, then dainty footsteps. I refocus on the path: the appointment is the summer solstice: sunrise, four AM. It really doesn’t matter where, but I’m suddenly very attached to that cove.

I ride my excitement, rattling and jiggling over the last of the rough moorland, then freewheeling down a smoother grassy slope. A slight warmth catches me, reminds me I’m racing the sun.

I so hope I’ve timed this right. I was so late spotting the cove, even later deciding what to do. I had reached the crags expecting to see only a sunset—an entire experience in itself—then sleep a bit before wandering out again for sunrise. The direct light slipped away, like every year for millennia, leaving the twilight to reveal an image.

The shape blew me away. I just gawped. Suddenly I was galvanised: it had to be, but could it? My brain struggled to engage with logistics, to calculate if I had time to cycle home for supplies then all the way west until the ground fell away so I could double back at land’s edge until it descended to sea level. I don’t know the distance but it would be well over an hour each length of the hairpin, maybe nearer two. I wasn’t sure I remembered the terrain. Now I’m sure. Committed, anyway.

The dawn chorus winds up – I can’t help myself labelling each arising signature: starling, oyster catcher, curlew, skylark, meadow pipit. Their calls cut the murmur of air pushing through the features of the land.

So smoothly the total glow becomes direct sunlight way above my head, brightening, warming, lifting the air. A puff of cloud has the temerity to dull then obscure the light. For one hypoxic moment I think that gives me more time. As if anything so ephemeral could slow universal mechanics.

Exultation bubbles over my anxiety. I haven’t dared wonder if I can even access the cove this way. It has to be. There’s no time for— I clatter around the last curve, in a rush of anticipating the sudden drag of sand, and the moment of sight.

The sand. The pebbles. Here on the tiny beach they are obviously arranged, but the shape is not apparent. From the crags the shape is a deliberate line drawing of an orca, swimming through a sea of sand and rocky spume. It’s a magnificent vision. It must have been created recently or the tide would have smudged it, erased it. It must be communication. Must it? I lean on to one foot and swing the other over the bike. As I rest the frame against a rock my legs wobble – exhaustion or nerves?

I stand at the orca’s pebble fluke facing north-east. I open my mouth to call out a greeting to…anyone, but perhaps being present is enough. The sun doesn’t need my awe verbalising. I let my eyes sweep the sharp, sandy cove, the shimmering sea, the jutting rocks, and back to the crags and my earlier vantage point. A few moments more rush past. My euphoria builds with the dazzle. Finally the sun’s rim ripples over the headland. I imagine I feel its leading edge scan down my body. Perfect.

The world turns. And someone stands beside me.

Wooden post in sand

18/06/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Midsummer Malcoordination

Ancient beech tree

Flora needs a dark night of the soul – her soul. She needs a dark wood to get entangled in and become thoroughly lost. The summer solstice beckons. This being the least dark point of the year is merely a minor hurdle to waylay the under-zealous.

Fossoway beech stands through its 421st year. It was planted by a fortunate gust of wind in September 1596 in a fortunate spot upon soft, moist loam. It has been fortunate enough to receive regular celestial watering and plentiful nourishment from myriad lifeforms crossing its space. This specific instance of Fagus sylvatica programming has been optimised to take advantage of such fortune: a perfect combination of natural forces, poised on the precarious tip of a tiny equilibrium. The moments of its eons slide by; each fully attended to, fully felt, as it stretches, reaches, in every direction of space and time.

Flora selects her most inappropriate clothing to ensure she trips over a protruding tree root, thereby twisting her ankle beyond any weight-bearing capacity, then gets soaked in a predictable rainstorm, thereby becoming dangerously chilled. For her lower half she chooses a flat sheet of double-layered cheesecloth with straps at two corners. She forgets the fancy name of the garment. It’s perfectly impossible in its rigidity: fastening it tightly enough to prevent it slipping down also prevents her legs from operating and restricts her breathing. A slight loosening to allow movement thus makes slippage and trippage deliciously inevitable. A shapeless blouse based on the elasticated cone construction method—a triumph of manufacturing economy over style and functionality—has sleeves not only too long but trumpeting wide around her fingers, thereby always in the way of any emergency grasp. The garment is finished by a ghastly fringe of inexplicable tassles and thirty-four redundant beaded fastenings, designed to fail within twenty minutes. She unbraids her hair with a lazy wrench, letting it flop where it will, expecting it to sway and flap and straggle across her eyes at every critical visual movement. Perfect.

Around its base, the beech has seven—most auspicious—impressively sturdy arms arranged at varying stages of being overwhelmed by their own weight, right down to lethargically resting upon the layered leaf litter. The crumbling remains of earlier exhausted limbs dissolve back into the woodland recycle. A radius of thirty metres around this Titan contains nothing but itself: it has completely papered over every sliver of sky, every grain of soil. A perfect dance-floor.

Music swirls within Flora’s head – random, powerful strains and skirls that direct her dance. Flora flings her arms and birls into a stagger. Fortunately every beech arm has some growth at Flora height of a characteristically sturdy nature, perfect for tactfully receiving dizzy dancers and reeling them back into orbit. A perfect moment.

Flora supplicates before the beech: heartfelt, overwrought thanks to her perfect dance partner.

Gzwzwzwzwrrt. Lightning strikes. Something had to.

Of Fossoway Flora there is no trace. Except… Perhaps when wind blows through the twigs you may hear her peculiar musical refrain. When a scientist bores and extracts a careful core from the tree to establish its precise age, some strange isotopes may be identified: cheap cotton from the unethical sweatshops of Bangladesh. When the midsummer heat lifts the air, an idiosyncratically beaded and tassled spider’s web catches far more than its fair share of drifting, airborne creatures. Each time, once again, tilting the precarious equilibrium of nature.

Prince Tiahmin came not upon this clearing. He’s in the right wood, on the appointed day, but in an artificial intelligence simulation or the wrong reality, deluding his senses and suspending his disbelief. He wouldn’t recognise a rain-slick, gusting beech leaf if it slapped him in the face. However it would give him a much needed interface refresh. Unfortunately Tiahmin believes his mission is to blam baddies. It never occurs to him to enquire to what end. Anyway, who wants to question such things? That requires the facing of that other, dull and uncomfortable reality. So long as baddies arise, he has a call to blamming. His superhero hairdo, ever tilting at enemies, underlines the point.

Come back again in another hundred years.

Or, actually, maybe just bide your time a wee moment…

Prince Tiahmin has gunned a stolen 1970s Massey Ferguson into a supposedly deserted industrial farm complex. He would be quicker walking, but convention requires assault by vehicle. His only available weapon is an anachronistic pitchfork. It may be effective on any zombie scarecrows that lurch into range, but would not be at all satisfying. He has absolutely no interest in collecting a cache of pre-regulatory agricultural chemicals; he has no interest in chemistry…of that sort.

Tiahmin’s sole motivation for indulging this unentertaining and badly animated diversion around an agricultural cul-de-sac is, of course, seedy. A gaming chum of dubious trustworthiness has boasted of a feisty, busty, rustic wench in the environs. With the requisite hack key she promises to become very obliging. Sometimes three minutes of low grade erotica has to be seen to be disbelieved.

After four underwhelming circuits of the farmyard buildings, in a rationale-free fit of frustration, Tiahmin revs the red diesel and chugs flat-out at five miles per hour up a pasture—large scale, livid green triangles adorned with unconvincing cuboid livestock—toward an enticingly dark smear of forest.

Tiahmin aims the unappreciated Fergie at the nearest brown column. Once the graphics stop vibrating in an uncoded eventuality loop, he dismounts, sans pitchfork, and trudges jerkily through primeval tree ferns—the serendipitous botanical design is wasted on him—until a beige clearing forces its way into his path. A low resolution character artefacts beside a hefty tree trunk. With a rapacious leer, he taps to text entry mode and pastes the prepared character string.

Bzhzhzheow. No power. Had to happen. The only sound is an invective suited to one of limited profanity.

Prince Tiahmin is awoken by a sopping leaf slapping him about the phizog – unnecessarily loudly and repeatedly. He would attribute this flagellation to a freak microclimate, except for the leaf still being attached to the looming limb of a tree. By a beaded stem. Well practised in the spotting and following of obvious clues, he hauls himself up by the obliging branch. He admires the astonishing improvement in graphic and tactile resolution – which is to say: he likes the look and feel of the place. And the heady scent. The soft whooshing of air is unsettling, but he assumes it’s meant to be atmospheric.

The moment Tiahmin completes his reconnoitre of the beech clearing—for of course it is that—music arrives, drifting by in wisps; discordant pibrochs and dizzying slurs. Cursory assessment of the tree reveals a curiously attractive arrangement of branches, ascending helically. He boldly climbs this staircase toward the crown and its tumult of drooping foliage, which appears to keep blowing rather coyly across two small cankers. And that’s quite enough of that.

Did the fair pair live happily ever after, entwined in arboreal bliss? Hardly. The poor girl has rematerialised in genomic combination with a tree – Fagus sapiens. The poor boy is ill-equipped to deal with a non-threatening surreality. But once Tiahmin gets to grips with Flora’s various cankers and galls, they have an interlude of what can only be described as heavy coppicing.

Ancient beech tree branch

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