Digital Ischemia


Wratislaw part 4 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

With the stealth of a grizzly bear, Wratislaw forces his way further into the rhododendron, shattering branches and snagging his shirt. Obviously the witch has seen him coming, has scaled a tree, and has gained the tomfoolery initiative with the pelting effort. How can he get a tactical advantage?

Back on the ramparts, he had tried Kamila’s approach, grilling her about her motivation.
“Why are you talking to me? This isn’t still guilt for letting me think you were someone else.”

At the start of the afternoon, Wratislaw had headed to the back of the auditorium. His being there at all had been entirely the fault of a colleague who had suggested the diversion since he was in south-west Poland between assignments. He had had no other interest in a sideshow about ‘thinking’. He had expected to have to resist cheesy showmanship and light hypnosis.

As he had moved into the end of a row, a woman a few seats along had garbled some pleasantry. He had fumbled an apology in English. Always the British embarrassment for being elsewhere without any effort at the native language. She had quipped back—in English, curse her—that she wasn’t Polish either and the event seemed a long way for him to have come. He had admitted he had other business there and asked if the speaker was worth travelling from Czech for. And off they had gone, easily conversing across ranging fascinations, and incidentally swapping seats somewhere along the way.

Her clothes had draped over her willowy frame, under her long, straight, dark hair, itself under a retro cloth Alice-band. Her eyes were dark too, like treacle with glints of amber. Glints of activity within. Tremendous activity. He hadn’t sought to impress; just to keep up. He had had no idea she was psychoanalysing him. Or about the more critical factor.

After a particularly deep exploration of his motivation for solo performance, which had taken her a good couple of minutes, she had paused, glanced away, breathed, and smiled at him. That had fanned the sparks into a warm glow. She had then stood, ambled to the front of the hall and proceeded to lead a discussion on thinking. Hiding in plain sight.

He had felt eviscerated: six months of ‘getting to know’ compressed into six minutes. Had he only known that rich seam would have to last him six years.

None of that explains what Kamila is up to now with the clothing decoy. Wratislaw tries to distract himself from the distracting notion that she is unclad. In a tree.

…continues tomorrow



Wratislaw part 3 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

Kamila had said she preferred the Czech version of the Polish Wrocław, although the sound was similar. She knew his real name of course, but wanted a conversation without the public celebrity, without the performance accolades. Wratislaw just wanted the conversation. What had she said?
“It just doesn’t work for me.”
“Doesn’t work for me either, obviously.”
“You are not happy in your illustrious career?”
“No, I mean yes, but the name doesn’t get me the attention of interesting, intelligent—”
She grimaced at the developing patronisation. He stopped. They started again. Obviously, somewhere thereafter, they stopped again. He winces at the recollection.

Advancing through the gloaming, Wratislaw senses dampness in the air then hears a faint, welcome trickling. However, inevitably, something is awry.

Where the river bank blurs beneath a willow’s fine fringe of branches, a suitably willowy figure lies, one leg stretched toward the rippling water. He peers to see if there are bare toes, or dipped toes. That seems more important than identifying the owner. In truth he has already decided that point, even if reality will prove him wrong. In the absence of movement, he begins stealthily closing the gap.

Wratislaw is interrupted by a twig or seed hitting the top of his head and pattering on the ground beside him. And another. Some squirrel at trough, perhaps. He doesn’t doubt that squirrels are nocturnal. He resumes stalking the prone figure.
“Have you thought this through?” That voice scythes through his viscera. It didn’t come from the bank; it was much closer.

He freezes for two seconds; for another two his eyes dart back and forth fruitlessly in the fading light; then he plunges into a convenient rhododendron bush.

Wratislaw crouches among the resentful jaggy branches, palpitating, sweating even. His mind races through his irrational and probably pointless behaviour. If she has seen him, then, obviously, she was the ‘squirrel’. Why hide in a bush, where she can no doubt still see him? In order to see her. And who then is the figure on the bank?

Always Kamila questioned. It was her way of creating conversation. “Why are you here?”
“Here in…Wrocław [vrotswahf]—did I get that right? I was saying ‘roe-claw’ until my manager updated my crib sheet—Good. So, here in this city or right here on this…rampart?”

After the event she tracked him to a flat roof outside the second storey dance hall. The french windows along the corridor were open for ventilation. She seemed relieved, as if she’d been searching for him and had feared she’d missed him. He’d been waiting and hoping, to talk some more, and some more, and some other. He was gratified.

Onward with her interrogation. “Or here in this country, at this building, this event. Or anything between or beyond. The point is to see how you interpret the question.”
“That really over-complicates things.”
“You only have to pick one, otherwise I think you evade the question.”
As he had earlier, Wratislaw found himself comfortable being truthful. “I am fixated on modern Czech classics.”
“Can you have a modern classic?”
“I think the question there was ‘then why are you in Poland’. Because Czech classics since Beethoven are like eating apple crumble for twenty years then tasting lemon sorbet. And now I need some…cheese.” The metaphor expired horribly on him.
“This is how you prepare: with a dessert menu?”
“I want to get right in his head—Janačék—like method acting, but playing. I want to feel ten years of unrequited passion.”
“And more than one thousand unanswered letters?”
“Yes! The wrist-ache!”

Here she frowned sideways at him. Surely she didn’t register smut; English not her first language etc. She ploughed on with the serious.
“Do you think composers must be unappreciated in their lifetimes for them to produce such timelessly brilliant work?”
“Keeps them keen.”
“Do we value composers’ legacies—our selfish enjoyment—more than their personal contentment and gratification?”
“Oh, don’t make it into a moral philosophy question!”
“How can it be a moral issue? They’re dead.”
“Except the living ones.”

So it went on: Wratislaw trying to charm through Kamila’s so very serious pursuit of wisdom, to cover the fact that he was utterly fascinated yet out of his depth. Which is exactly where he is again. Loving every moment. Despite his professional mental focus melting like the sorbet. He recalls the subsequent Chopin festival being another of his unremarkable performances. His Raindrop Prelude was a miserable drizzle. He can plot the correlation between his virtuosity dissolving and her presence in space and time.

…continues tomorrow


Wratislaw part 2 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

Wratislaw series begins at part 1

BBC Ben laughs as Wratislaw’s smirk melts away to distracted despair. Ben plays the precarious rapport.
“Shall we carry on, then? I mean: this is radio; we could be drifting in outer space for all they know.”
“Oh, I’m already there. Totally defused.”
Ben chuckles. “I like to have guests wait in a windowless void; they get a bit untethered.”

Wratislaw has managed to press the disturbance into just a tiny corner of his mind. He’s almost completely subsumed in describing his experience of Martinu. Almost.
“All that in just one minute forty-five. It’s miniaturism on a colossal scale.” He watches Ben puzzle over the juxtaposition and decide it makes a perfectly oxymoronic exit from the interview.

Ben shuts down the recording and thanks Wratislaw in his straightforward Manchester manner. Wratislaw appreciates the lack of toadying. Still, yet another something else is awry.
“Dress code seems rather formal today?”
Ben laughs coyly. “I didn’t think you’d noticed!”
Wratislaw chuckles politely, leaving a gap for Ben to fill. He learned that from her.
“We have this live section party thing after. A sort of thank-you knees-up for getting through the festival season with nothing more than a slight over-run from a broken string, a couple of screaming kids, and one interval track that went AWOL.”
Wratislaw allows a smirk. “Ah, yes. I’m invited.”
“Great! Well, might be awful actually. Our researcher–I think you just met her—she reckons we won’t last ten minutes.”

Kamila. Obviously. That’s why he is asking. Kamila Tuháčková. Not her real name either, but real names turn out to be meaningless. And researcher-cum-philosopher-cum-sorceresses don’t usually wear frocks like that. Surely. But of course Ben is just exercising their rapport, that diaphanous bit of professional camaraderie that is already dissolving. Because Wratislaw has a performance to come. Come undone. Come dancing. Cum-sorceress.

Wratislaw has made two laborious circuits of the throng, trying to graciously accept compliments, trying not to point out too often that it was, in fact, merely one of his mediocre performances. Gone was the ready confidence, replaced with caution. He avoided the risk of any flourishes, turned out an agricultural recital, and was lucky his damp tension hadn’t caused him to slide out by a half-note on those blasted polished keys. On the plus side, he can easily catch out any obsequious flatterers.

But he doesn’t have to be here. He doesn’t even have to be polite. He came for something else and it eludes him. A loose garden door catches his eye. A welcome respite to reassess and plot the quickest route for his escape. For his disappointment.

The downward slope of the extensive lawn draws him away from the hall. Nobody else seems enticed out here, unappreciative heathens, but the situation suits him. He deliberately brushes by shrubs and tree branches, unperturbed by dew and beetles landing on his jacket. The smell they give off is sublime. But everything is heightened when she’s there. Except not there.

Tuháčková, pronounced too-hatch-kova, not too-hats-, as one of her colleagues had doggedly referred to her, as if it was funny. Why always the British patronisation of other nations? Always inventing their own pronunciation and even names. But isn’t his own another example? Her example. Always an exception… Always exceptional.

…continues at part 3


Wratislaw part 1 of 10

A drily hyperbolic, humorous short story – a pianist with a passion for Janáček’s music finds the composer’s unrequited infatuation is part of the bargain

piano keys spotlit

Wratislaw strides along the corridor to the control room in confidence and bliss. He feels completely ready for his forthcoming performance. He has no doubt the feeling is authentic.

He’s about 180cm tall with white hair on the top over dark sides, a head chiselled from stone, and the shoulders of a kite. His face is the intellectual, emotional counterpoint to this with considerably more expressive versatility than the usual boulder. Most noticeable of all are his blue eyes, focusing eons of Baltic cold from beneath heavy brows. You may recognise him, recognise his talent. You would know him by a different name. In any case, Wratislaw is not his real name.

To ice Wratislaw’s cake, the BBC has sent one of its more insightful, less hyperventilated presenters to interview him. He will not have to wade through banalities about Beethoven’s incipient deafness, or about Martinu’s exile. He will not have to resist the urge to throw icy water over orgasmic hyperbolae about pianistic virtuosity. A question about folk melodic origins will gain half a point. Anything about the ganzfeld of the etudes will get a full mark, even if it is lifted from his own sleeve notes. However, something is awry.

The control room is in darkness. Unusual in a building that seems to measure the value of its existence to the nation in gigawatts. He swipes ineffectually at the wall by the door. Instead of light, a voice rushes at him.
“What do you hope to see, exactly?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I—” Someone is already in the room. Something else is awry. Very awry. He swivels about, searching for—
The voice cuts in. “Are you? – Sorry?”
He forces a single syllable from his maelstrom mind. “You!”

Wratislaw lunges at where the voice seems to originate. Suddenly the dark resolves itself into an impossible assembly of 3D geometry. Grey surfaces shimmer at him then dissolve – spectres reflecting the dim puddle of light from the corridor. He makes a few more cautious wafts before anxiety about his precious hands wins. He emits a grunt of exasperation. The voice of his unsatisfied desire tantalises him again from elsewhere.
“Are you trying to dance with me?”
“Where are you?”
“Do you want to see me?”
“Don’t be irrational, Wrati. You have an interview, a soundcheck, a sanitised meal, a wardrobe change then a performance.”
He barely notices the second sentence; the way she said his name, the name she had given him, then, there. He has to grasp something tangible.
“Tonight; ten-thirty.”
“You don’t sleep?”
“Now you’re being irrational, Kamila. How could I sleep with you…here?”
“Remembering my name is a good start. Ten-thirty at the Gardens.”

The last statement comes from the doorway, right behind him. He snaps his head around and glimpses her silhouette before it slides from sight. Ten-thirty in the Gardens. Is that agreed? Which Gardens?!

As his head sparks and buzzes disturbingly, BBC Ben lopes in with a glowing orb and two network cables: one orange, one blue. Fittingly unfathomable.
“Two hours to broadcast and we’re dismantling the wiring.” His unperturbed air is an unnecessary contrast.
Wratislaw returns partially to the present and Ben with his giant glow-worm.
“I thought I’d wandered into some awful joke about how many pianists it takes to change a lightbulb.”

…continues at part 2


Eye of the Storm: part 4 of 4

Series starts at part 1

After an unusually dry winter and a warm spring, the usual May heatwave has finished preparing the tinder. I don’t have time to swither over whether fire-fighting is a good idea for Jamie right now. The residual dampness in his freshly decontaminated clothes may be a blessing. I push a pair of heavy duty gardening gloves on his worn hands and lead him through the rocks to the moor. I only insist that he doesn’t let fire come between his back and the sea.

The sight of the machair is less frightening than I expect: a layer of smoke hugs the ground but most is fanned inland by the wind from the sea. We walk cautiously through this murk. The ground here is still springy. Ahead, a neighbour waves a greeting. Heading toward them, we hear the crackle, see the smoking glow: lines of flame. Unbelievable but terrifying. How can salty, calciferous bog be on fire?

Our disparate community is remarkably coordinated. We hand pump sea water through an unbelievably long hose to soak the ground at the natural fire breaks. It’s a relatively small affair, thankfully, for two dozen folk to tackle – mostly about maintaining a decent buffer to our cultivated strips of kitchen garden. We’re not stupid enough to try to beat out flames. Jamie lugs buckets with heart-warming gusto.

Once we’ve done all we can, we agree a watch rota and disperse again. Jamie stops before we reach the house. He seems to be shaking again and folds up against a rock. I wonder if it’s the intense activity or…
“I don’t know what to do next.”
Apparently activity isn’t just a distraction for him; he processes stuff that way.
“That’s OK.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know either.” I’m determined not to push him.

I lie beside him among tufts of lightly smoked wildflowers. Not standing. Not too close. This is my magic mantra now. The cool breeze is welcome. He waits before asking.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Whatever makes you happy. You’re always concerned with everyone else. It’s your turn.”
“What are you thinking though?”
“I’m wondering… Are you just with me to keep me happy?”
Could’ve sweetened that a bit. He laughs dismissively. He doesn’t say anything, but from the corner of my eye he looks very tense; too much emotion bubbling up again. I decide to try a little comforting.
“We will figure this out. After all, after the wind and the water and the fire, there’s still earthquakes to come.” I mean the humour to be cathartic.

The heat becomes appropriately humid for battering through some personal issues. When the rain finally comes, it’s spectacular. Jamie is rooted to the rock with this fantastic brooding expression. I get some great shots of him, of his curious allure. I get plenty of time to look at those.

One morning I wake up to that too deep quiet again: no storm, no shouting neighbour, no Jamie. His turn to leave. His turn.

Through the summer I share chores with another member of the community: a guy with a simple rationale, particularly about an unattended woman. He’s skilled and committed, but not… We get along so far but… Unattended but not unattached. Still infatuated. The one who cares.

The impending harvest brings thick air again. The plants are almost ready, drying and browning, and I’m impatient for something else. Eventually I give in to the urge to wander pointlessly along the cliff. The heat haze above the machair is magnificent. Perfectly ready for… Mechanically I scan the hemicircle from south around east to north. And back.

There it is: the artefact in the shimmer that could be… A vertical smudge rippling. I sit down on his rock to wait and watch.

Apparently I missed the earthquake. I missed the news. I missed any informative neighbours. Or perhaps that was what agitated me. Jamie says that’s pretty desperate clawing for a link. Campaigners always said fracking beside a nuclear power plant was Russian roulette. Guess what? He says he was close to the epicentre in Cumbria. I jump back, feigning repulsion at his likely radiation levels. He smirks. My first tremor.

He can’t remember if the earthquake was magnitude 3.4 or 4.3; small anyway, not harmful, but significant. I plunge into attitudey teen.
“Why are you not still there then, if it’s all safe, and anyway aren’t you exactly what they need?”
He raises the eyebrows. I’ve missed that most of all.
“What am I exactly?”
“Gaffer-taping a ruptured nuclear reactor is one of your top skills, after, you know, building a shelter and miraculously finding a piano to show off at. Post-apocalyptic man?” I tense up: hardly a welcoming— I stop. The self-conscious teen can rest. I could give him much worse for vanishing into the steaming wilderness while still unhinged, not to mention the clichéd over-worked mid-life meltdown phase. None of that is how we work.

He guffaws reassuringly, reaffirmingly. “You’re the food finder? I can’t wait to live on your last packet of mints.”
Tears of laughter, of relief, fill my eyes. He’s back.

He doesn’t miss a thing. When I can see again, he touches my hand, entreatingly, “did you like my post-apocalyptic smouldering across the plain effort?”
In his glinting eyes, I see little earthquakes on the beach. He cares whether I care. Can’t ask more than that.


Eye of the Storm: part 3 of 4

Series starts at part 1

As our emotional turbulence subsides, he notices the quiet.
“The wind’s stopped.”
“We’re in the calm centre of it now.”
“The eye of the storm?”
He’s drawn up from the bed, up the stairs, up to the front glass, trailing a blanket, a touchstone.
“You can go out, if you want.”
His head flicks around, startled.
“See where the dark churning stuff is, past the headland?”
“Is that rain clouds?” How adorably childlike his awe sounds.
“And debris and sea and whatever else it’s lifted along the way… Well, keep glancing at it and you’ll see when it closes in – when you can’t see the crags any more. You’ll feel the wind rise again too.”
“Time to get back inside? Where are you going?”
“Get some pictures. Last time I was too hypnotised.”
“Don’t take any chances.”
“Everything’s a chance.”

Two miles with a handcart laden with long-life groceries. My comprehensive domestic goods supply hub is Finn’s bar. My all-weather home is this Passivhaus embedded in cliff rock with its flexiglass face and wind turbine hairdo. All that planning and readiness. Nothing prepared me for this.

I keep reminding myself his state of mind is not my fault. But I still contributed, however little. I’m certainly involved. What else could I do? When did he stop being Jamie?

For months I had watched him slowly desiccate, despite encouraging him to talk to me. I had supported him every way I could imagine and asked how I could help further. I had trodden so very warily around the edge of the chasm of defensiveness. I do that myself: if I’m too frazzled, any enquiry about how I am or how to help tips me over into resenting the attack. How dare anyone pick on me when I just need to… Just need to…

He had had so many ‘just need to’s. Too many. And they kept breeding. With an awful jolt I saw how he’d made time and energy for me by squeezing his downtime, relaxation, and sleep. Simple arithmetic. Squeezed beyond sustainability.

Eventually I considered my own selfish perspective: I was stressed; I hadn’t worked creatively for weeks. I was foutering at admin because I had no mental focus. Constantly distracted by trying to anticipate his next need, trying to figure out how to break through his shell, solve the impossible time-management conundrum, fix him. Pair of stereotypes.

A couple of trusted confidantes, even his daughter, had been wonderfully supportive and understanding, and quite useless. No suggestions other than those I had tried and the only remaining option. I couldn’t avert the disaster. I was just pressing the accelerator. I couldn’t watch him implode. I left.

That always sounds defeatist to me. I failed. He careered on for six weeks. His daughter called me one day to say he had at last stopped, unspooled and harangued her until she told him where I was. Hiding.

When I entered the pub, Finn nodded to the lounge. “Package for you.” Jamie lay on the sweat-stained, beer-drizzled, velour banquette. He looked horribly gaunt and pasty. He’d probably been there all night.

He leant on the cart except for the uphill sections, rambling intermittently. I caught little of it through the whining wind. I was weirdly shocked at being with him again, but not him.

I introduced him to this wacky temporary residence in stages as we stripped him and hosed him down. I was on the brink myself, seeing him so drained of emotion and energy. Finally we staggered down to the sleeping den in the rock and he keeled over. I watched him a while, still adjusting to this new him. Upstairs again the usual quietness felt like a vacuum. I clicked on the radio: worky tunes. Don’t stand so close to me. Not the wisest relationship philosophy, but workable.

He awoke late afternoon and quietly tipped a pan of porridge into himself. Surprisingly he didn’t nod off again immediately. Maybe less surprising he didn’t want discussion. He announced he’d resigned one of his jobs. The subtext was that would make me happy. That was all that mattered to him: making folk happy. I love him for that. I wish he included himself. I left it. I was getting good at stepping away.

As always, my turmoil is superseded by events. I’m woken by a shout. Anxiety spikes as I reach for Jamie. Not him. He’s disoriented and startled, but not shouting. I pull myself up the stairs. My neighbour hollers again through the door: the moor is burning.

concludes at part 4


Eye of the Storm: part 2 of 4

Follows part 1

When my gawping continued beyond a natural period of surprise, he lunged at the piano stool, swivelled with practised showmanship, and launched into The Beatles – When I’m Sixty-Four. I composed myself by taking in the marvellous plastic veneer of the school upright: one of those mustard efforts with unrealistically textured panels and waxen slab keys. It was at least tuned. He was teasing me with my sixth year ‘light relief’ project. How the hell did he remember that?

He ended with irritatingly cocky embellishment. Two students cheered weakly. Jamie sprang up and flourished a bow. Mr Broadwood caused my chest to flip again. Not just in awe of his appropriately post-apocalyptic skills. Of course he noticed my collapsing dissemblance. I’m sure he took advantage of that idle amusement by volunteering the pair of us to chaperone those unfortunates who were assigned to the assembly hall dormitory.

As the night buffeted and lashed on, everyone else babbled away in their emergency blanket forts, even the reticent ones, and sleepiness seemed as unlikely as sleep. Our guardians’ post by the windows suddenly seemed foolish – what with gale-force gusts, sheets of water, and electrifying forks of lightning.
“Does it strike you as daft to be right beside eighty square metres of single-pane?”
He laughed. “Not keen on striking.” Always the ready quip.

The musty quilted rug I was perching on was suddenly a magic carpet, slaloming toward safety in the lee of that sturdy, serviceable piano. We made our own fort from empty blanket boxes and let the inevitable cheeky comments bounce off. So long as they were enjoying mocking us, they were enjoying themselves.

“Do you remember that other storm?” He asked tentatively, as though counselling me through trauma. Don’t be ridiculous: whenever the weather was wild I thought of him. That particular meteorological event had been all about wind. We had emerged en masse afterward, under-slept and under-informed, and had milled about like zombie ants. Everywhere had been tangled with strewn branches. Suburban tree-lined avenues had been transformed into queues of war-wounded amputees with weeping gashes.

One especially agitated member of the community had barked for assistance clearing roads and sorting usable timber. We had shrugged and let him shout instructions. The hilarious nature of the giant wheeze would all become apparent in due course. For the moment we had contentedly resigned ourselves to merely collecting mock-fodder.

After an hour dragging wet wood, the novelty and my energy had worn off like the skin on my palms. I had cunningly worked my way behind a conveniently large, damp, ready bonfire to obscure a skive. I gobbled half a packet of sugar and synthetic flavour lozenges and succumbed to the haze of an insulin spike.

“Do I know you from somewhere?” There he’d been, Mr Broadwood, the craft and design teacher, slouching among the debris. Somehow the residual hypoglycaemia gave me pique that came out not too shabby.
“I doubt it. I don’t usually do woodwork.”

For a terrifying long moment, he had raised his eyebrows and let me squirm. Had I just totally gone beyond the bounds there? Disrespected him and his profession? Of course not; we weren’t in school, I wasn’t in his class, plus he had started it, if that wasn’t too childish a retort. But that was how he kept the edge with his pupils, kept them teetering between triumph and ruin.

Somehow he roped me in to some woodcraft effort he had going with the primary school. It was fun. I never figured out how. I got to spend a whole Saturday swishing through sopping undergrowth, helping a few wide-eyed weans build a hut in some spare woodland. We all trooped home, mysteriously enriched by the experience. I was released at my road end before he deposited the last two fizzing forest folk at their respective homes. He had been careful that we were never alone together. That was how he kept the tension. Kept me teetering. They had planned elaborate activities for the summer; I would be gone.

Strange to think at that time he had been so keen to appear older, to fake the superiority he didn’t feel. Fifteen years on he was trying to be young still. Such as not quite getting around to telling me had a daughter. But that wasn’t an issue: she tactfully introduced herself after one of our classes, before I did anything daft. I like her.

Miraculously, the fifteen year old hut was still standing. You couldn’t call it a professional finish, but it was waterproof and private and securable – from the inside. Its furnishings and my arse will never be the same again. Still, it was quieter and more comfortable than a piano for succumbing to the effect of him with wet hair.

Now, here he is, another five years on, sopping wet again, seeming totally childlike in the face of adult problems. And I’m no help.

continues in part 3


Eye of the Storm: part 1 of 4

eye of a storm, typhoon, swirling cloud

He stands, trembling, in my rudimentary shower; the rain mixing in to the tears. When did he stop being Jamie?

You can’t go back? Sometimes a perfect storm of events and emotions parallels sometime past. Sometimes, then, all the moment needs is a tune, a snatch of melody, to trigger a momentary wormhole and plunge you back.

Not listening to a badly-tuned radio is a brilliant exercise in exhausting psychology. My brain detects speech and tune among the noise and spools rabidly. Its raison d’être is to recognise pattern, interpret meaning and apply to current events. Take a single phrase about Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Link to a lyric. Link to a reunion with a companion song from decades ago: The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me. Then comes the plunge.

There I was, then I was, five years back, trying to explain convincingly how I came to be there again, then again. Explain the tortuous convolutions of bureaucracy that had sucked me into a temporary teaching project and spat me out at my old school. But I was enthused, I was inspired, and most of all I was relieved: the guy I had been infatuated with fifteen years earlier, the teacher of course, was not there. I said it out loud. Some of the attitudey teens smirked.

I exited my temporary classroom and birled orientatively in the corridor. The distant rabble of departing students faded. This had been Maths. The toilets were still at the west end—the girls’ anyway; no idea where the guys’ was—so the hangout was… the radiator by… But I wasn’t heading there; I was being an adult. Turn about. Was it still called ‘staff room’? I managed only three paces. Less than a second of sound arrested me completely.

That companion tune, recognised in three-quarters of a bar, consumed my attention. After the first chorus, a friendly colleague battered out through the staircase door. He recognised my static bewilderment and reoriented me toward a mug of hot dishwater. He reattached me to present reality by gently mocking my confusion to the staff collective. I muttered self-effacingly about my weakness in the face of antique pop music. He seized the bait and blamed “Jamie” for always playing ‘worky tunes’ on local FM at breaks. My heart gave a final massive palpitation and stopped altogether.

‘Jamie’ had been Mr Infatuation. Not that we had ever dared address a teacher by their forename; school culture was not that egalitarian in those days. Their forenames had been for outbursts of resentful venom, well out of earshot. Common enough name anyway. Ridiculous reaction.

As it turned out, there wasn’t time to gently reintroduce myself to that emotional world. Two days later a predicted tropical storm escalated into one of those hurricanes that Britain would have to get used to. A burst river, a burst sewer—I’m still not clear which came first or if one triggered the other—blocked the main road and we were cheerily advised to stay put. The students gave a brilliantly tragic impression of having their human rights trampled, even the ones who were happy not to go home, or happy to have longer in the company of their current/targeted/pipe-dreamed beau. Yeh, I recognised that demeanour.

By the evening, we were camping out in the canteen, nourishing ourselves on tomorrow’s lunch. I was called to disaster summit in the hall. The head was all brisk war effort and relishing every moment. She was already rehearsing her gracious statement to the local press, in which she would downplay her heroic leadership. Thankfully she was literally drowned out by dirty water lapping at the full length windows facing the quadrangle.

Quadrangles don’t usually have watercourses but this one did have a rainwater drain. Which was allowing the water the wrong way. Plus fifty year old concrete architecture was not well insulated from the elements. A more enlightened senior staff member directed us away from moving air about and instead toward moving sandbags.

Between those unromantic heaves and splashes and whumps, a comedy wavering voice registered.
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I remember you.” He gave that non-committed half-smile that always left him an escape route from embarrassment among capricious teens. The one that unravelled us.

continues in part 2


The Tool

Mr Workshop is a new arrival in our quiet, menacing cul-de-sac. He is already an established irritant. He introduced himself by spattering Aunty Spamela’s precious camelias with tiny black beads of undisclosed constituents. They died horribly.

Uncle Merv took a dislike to Mr Power-Tool’s garage activities the first spring. The unpredictable, intermittent noise vibrations caused Merv’s ants to lose all sense of purpose and direction. He empathised fiercely. Their erstwhile orderly conurbation in the shed’s eaves suddenly abandoned strategy for spiralling collisions. And the spiders behaved like they were on caffeine. Their webs were disgraceful. They all became rather hungry. Not evolutionarily successful.

Mr Motorhome ground his engine like a tarmac planer. He parked up at the boundary fence like a grey new build, blotting out the sun. Aunty Spamela, marinating on a layer of aluminium foil like a misshapen offcut of meat-style but utterly bland mycoprotein, cast a warning eye like a mushroom cloud.

Mr Water-Jet proceeded to rattle along the gravel obliviously and commence the water blast and jet pump sonata around the lower regions of the behemoth. After a the first movement, a blissful interval was smothered with a swarm of cigarette smoke. Aunty Spam stood up, foil sticking to her wobbles, and glared at the fence. She seemed to be mouthing something trenchant such as “for goodness’ sake.” Lost to the screech of Mr Mini-Scaffold-for-reaching-the-roof lining up for movement two.

Uncle Merv and I were foutering at the shed’s sarking, trying to attach some memory foam. Merv wasn’t clear on details, but the plan seemed less about aiding memoir and more about muffling ants. I think he was desperate to shield the community from the intolerable noise. Chronic noise stress was epidemic. Merv was already suffering acute seethe. The ants really just needed the vibration of their bodies and whole world to stop.

As I sutured foam and felt together with an unsettling pride, Spamela resettled on her oven tray. Mr Mini-Scaffold screeched around to the Other Side. The water-jet rebound combined with a fascinating mini-cyclone effect from the warm southerly breeze. I watched the symphonic dance of droplets as they embraced the hawthorn and the crazywebs and Spam with a fine mist of soap and dirt. Not welcome.

Next day, Merv and I smirked at the dazzlingly white motorhome. This could only mean imminent departure. Mr Engine-smooth-as-a-tractor revved up and lurched out of his driveway. I was poised, despite the subterranean shudders. Merv nodded to his camoflaged system of old wing mirrors which relayed a nauseatingly distorted image of the offending garage: its side door was wide open. I deflated. Mr Wank-Wagon must’ve just gone for fuel. We waited in a state of jangling tension for a good six hours before the idea occurred that fate might have granted us a boon.

Mr Unfortunately-left-the-garage-side-door-open thundered back into the neighbourhood the following weekend. We had mixed feelings. The absence wasn’t long enough but we were excited for our ingenious denouement.

The potion had worked a treat, although the myriad poisonous vapours in that den had given me pernicious head-swim. I reckon Merv added some of Aunty Spam’s age-defying skin tightener. I’ve never felt so constricted. I think his dose had a waft of eau de pheromone too. Ms Ant-Colony was unable to resist a holiday expedition. With some recent needlepoint practice, Ms House-Spider wove an elastic silk mesh curiously like chicken wire.

One silk thread precisely at tensile limit. One week-of-withdrawal addict’s grasp. One beautifully choreographed cascade of twang, tilt, twirl and trigger. One soft suffocation by non-organically cultivated fungal mycelia. Mr Restless cocooned, clamped and coffined in his own toxic veneered fibreboard.

We left him to chrysalis for a bit.

Me and Merv: the spider and the ant. Petty invertebrate superheroes.

[ Truthache series starts with Entry. ]


Parabola Hyperbolae

Grudgingly Merv has let me into one of his secrets, i.e. sanity-savers for life married to Aunty Pamela. Below the garage he has been painstakingly excavating a cellar, dungeon, with plans to tunnel to the sea (70 miles).

To date he has surreptitiously emptied several bucketfuls behind the cypress, about a teaspoon at a time, over fifteen years. The whole business is redolent of prisoner’s desperation. His embryonic cavern is currently a shallow pit, but the two of us can sit in it, without getting too intimate, and, crucially, without being detected by Spamela.

Lately I’ve been fixating on why I can’t get into the mindset to transform. I decided to harangue Merv. Unjustified attacks are part of being my sidekick.

I yank the garage door, stride into the gloom and smack my entire body off something. I stagger back. Finding myself outside the door again, I re-try entry. My eyes are adjusting, but again, before I see anything through the murk, I rebound out again.
“Merv!” I hear only an echo. I plough on; I know he can hear me.
“What is the purpose of lights that come on automatically after a power-cut?”
I hear the unmistakable crackle of his jumper building up static. Grudgingly a solid, heavy object drags across the floor. Could be him; could be some new device. No matter. A click heralds the warm-up routine of the fluorescent light strip.

I am gradually introduced to a hall of mirrors: everything behind me spread in front of me, with the aesthetic horror that is Merv translucently mingled through it. Understandably I let out a quavering wail. Thankfully he hauls me into his pit, where we sit silently ignoring my recent unheroic noise. While my retinas restore themselves to factory settings, he explains.

Being shiny and fully focussed, like Merv’s device, you’ve already figured out what it is. Crucially, you’ve also already figured out this plot and where it’s going. But since I haven’t, you may like to stay with me to see if I arrive intact.

This episode isn’t so much an injustice as an irritation, but perhaps I need a wee run-up after my hiatus. Any time we have a power-cut, once it’s restored, the Straight Line Garden People’s garage light comes on. This floodlight illuminates their driveway, front garden, all west facing rooms, the street, our front rooms, and the length of our hall. Merv removed the mirror from the back wall because he felt like he was in the Hadron Collider. Still, I step out of my room into Close Encounters. I feel a strong urge to jump on a camel and ride east.

What’s the problem? They’re on holiday. I care a bit about their electricity bill, and their household security, but then they don’t seem to care that much, since they’ve left the bedroom blind at the usual half-way ‘we’re on holiday so burgle away’ setting. Mostly I care about wildlife with shattered circadian rhythms, and the carbon going in and out of power stations in unhelpful forms and amounts.

What’s the point? That’s the real question. What possible benefit could it confer? The power companies advise us to switch everything off except a hall light so we know when the power’s back without the demand surge blowing it again. Not that anyone does. But why would you want an outside light to come on after a power-cut? I’ve seen rechargeable torches that come on automatically when the power cuts. That’s helpful. You can see where the torch is and lift it to light your way. Dandy. Why after? When you’re two thousand miles away? It’s just a ‘because we can’ techy gimmick, isn’t it?

Merv rigs up his specially curved reflector in the attic window. After a couple of hours without power, Spamela’s fretting about her freezer. We reiterate to her the eight hour rule, but she’s already in crisis scenarios where at the eighth hour mark we suddenly have ten kilos of mushy peas and more subsiding scones than you could sink a barge with. I suggest pea jam. Merv bundles me out of the kitchen.

Merv and I giggle about the place, amusing ourselves trying to think of inventive activities that don’t involve electricity. Ashamedly we can’t. Amusingly we go to make tea to help us think, fill the kettle, flick the switch, then wait for our brains to realise the stupidity. Silly us. Just use the microwave. Er. Error.

Suddenly, since electricity tends not to take a run-up, everything fires up. Merv and I scuttle to the front window with electric antipication, just in time to watch the paint peel. Theirs.

As a bonus, one night I accidentally-on-purpose left the reflector oriented at the back fence. Apparently, when Madame la Every Car Door Must Be Opened And Closed In Anger At 06:35 executed her routine, the cul de sac reverberated with shattering echoes. Apparently she suffered a temporary mild tinnitus. According to Merv, anyway. I slept through the whole thing.

[ Truthache series starts with Entry. ]

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