The faces in anguish. The screams of a horse. The door of no exit. The eye of the blistered sun low as a ceiling bulb. The gasping bull that looks away. A glove for a hand – palm deep-lined. The screeching bird. The heavy mortal stagger of feet, the trampled flowers, the limp child in a mother’s paralysed arms. Flames from the rooftops and burning slate. A solitary candle thrust into despair. The cleaver pinned to the earth.
The dread contortions of life are frozen. That we made this altar is absurd. That we can forget it is the horror.
1 September 2015.
Global share prices tumble as visa checks are waived and bodies are washed up on a continent’s beaches. Dead. The stations and sports halls are full of refugees. We are learning new names and new vocabulary. There was no vocabulary for this. Old words are not sufficient. Very old words might just be. The images pile across front pages, television screens and media streams. They are not past or future, they are now. We are history and horror. A corner is turned. We plead for hope. Barbed wire barricades are to come.
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It was the week she discovered Bob Kaufman and read a poem of his (now forgotten) while the rain streaked across the window of her suburban flat. It was the week the cancer first looked ineluctably fatal.
The news streamed in dolefully: news of supporters and opponents, the disaffected and the quietly optimistic, as if they were some covert vigilante force, untrustworthy renegades all, double agents plenty.
The news was totemic, untouchable. The language was all wrong. The words she was hearing, the words that remained despite visits to the hospital – they were words beyond the window, beyond the rain.
I am looking at the sky despite the clouds. I will not miss these moments. It is just me and my eyes. I have no telescope, no binoculars. I am looking at the sky, the night sky, through a mist of light pollution, into the occluded dark, here, so late and so early, standing alone for this fleeting chance. I am gazing into the stars to see fractured pieces of rock and ice as small as grains of sand. I am waiting for them to flare, to illuminate the ghost of a speeding comet. I am waiting for the gods.
There will be no clichés. No morning light, no birds singing, no greening of the year. This is no bildungsroman. We learn nothing. We will repeat the same mistakes because we have the same hopes and the same fears and we continue to lack the facility to contend. We are compromised by ourselves and others but prefer not to think about it. We will not accept ourselves and our complicity. We accept feeling thwarted, but deny the true challenge. The roles of hunter and hunted are vainglorious, but we never let them go. We enjoy stasis. It is our alibi.
I was told that water has memory. I can believe it. I think of how a drop – the cold moisture of a cloud, somewhere a continent away – might precipitate itself upon an azure sea. That it might get pulled this way and that, become submerged, forgotten, embroiled in the waves and the churn of marine life; that it might be lifted and fall again, that it might enter rivers, cross countries; that it might finally be taken along by a tide, that it might beach itself on closer shores, that it might pour from our taps, with its memory intact.
And so what if they thought she had nothing to offer and nothing to say? If they thought she had no place in the modern world, then what? She would ride it out, keep going, fix herself on being there, again, always. What would they know about independent thought? They dieted on whatever fodder they were thrown, gorged themselves and got fat. And if it was said she was a figure of repression, then it was just a spiteful cry of envy, heard only from a miserable few. She thought of the flags that had lined the Mall, yawned, smiled.
That ol’ London thing, waiting at a crossing in rush hour between showers and a book falls out of the sky, lands at the side of the road, hardback, heavy, with a thud, the biography of a sports personality with late-career broadsides to discharge, and you look up, and there are only clouds. A day or two later and the same pavements are rammed with the supporters and opponents of President Kagame of Rwanda who is due to arrive at The Savoy. All morning the air vibrates to the sound of horns and singing. A limousine arrives, above it clouds.
That our lives are nothing less than fissile
is a blind spot on a blue retina.
We arc our actions, our thoughts, like missiles;
sing praise, hope the heavens make us better;
behold the sky and hold it high, careful
not to see the cracks that let the light in –
or the umbra, its foretelling, which, shared,
might point a compass towards compassion.
The shadows of celestial bodies
fall to earth with no poetry, reason
or goal. We are better than this, we say.
But when we play gods we soon discover
those graves we think beneath us are above.
She didn’t torch the place. Not yet. The others could have done it if they’d wanted. She fudged a tear. Anything more might have signalled guilt. Her predecessor, Gestas, would take the blame. They’d be happy to let him have it. They’d needed to crucify someone and Gestas, such an impenitent robber, the one she’d called friend, lover, rose highest. As she knew he would. Somehow she wandered away and washed her hands, thinking of how she might return. Someone would do well out of this. And she had the names and numbers, the secret places, the matchbox and fuel.