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.
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.
Breathing heavily but gaining elevation, the tramp up the rocks that have been laid to raise you, the village church and shops shrinking away into miniature, the gentle hum of traffic and chatting tourists silenced, your face burning with the effort, your feet in your socks in a sweat, the faces smiling that have already found the summit, the hope of fair weather, a view, the worries of whether you are fit or unfit, your general health, whether it was really something to embark on, and thoughts of never achieving it, never, climbing up, never seeing, doing it for yourself…
There is something in human nature, I heard it said, that is disruptive. We favour the underdog, laugh too loud, stare too long, make stupid remarks. We are drawn to sarcasm, cynicism and hypocrisy. We tell little lies, become brave and boastful or lazy and stubborn. We accelerate too fast, brake too late, take the back roads, know better. We laugh at understanding, deride intellectualism, groan at athletes, hate art. We don’t trust anyone and mock experience. We spill pints, turn our backs, mutter spite. Me, I chase bicycles up mountains, screaming at the riders, dressed only in my pants.
On the polished table was a huge salmon; bowls of spring vegetable soup; Scotch eggs; asparagus and hams; potatoes from Majorca; goat’s cheese tartlets; prawns with caviar; pea-shoot jellies; scallops with spiced cauliflower puree; roast chickens and guinea fowl; confit duck; sherbets and ices; five kinds of trifle; a tower of profiteroles and more cheeses than he had ever seen.
* * *
He lay in his bed, visions of dishes lurching round his mind. From his toes to the hairs on his head he felt obese. The best evenings were sordid, he thought, and oh what a feast: he deserved it all.
Oh but the rains I remember, alternating with the regular insistence of windscreen wipers: downpour, drizzle, downpour, drizzle, downpour, drizzle. They seem so long ago. Now, the way I see it, the world is brighter. Plants bud sooner, the birds always sing. There are children playing in the cul-de-sacs and everyone, at any time, can glimpse the tiniest speck of summer. In February the sun is warm on my neck. If it rained last week I can’t remember. I walk to the shops, meet friends. I have no jacket with a hood, no umbrella. The reservoirs, they warn, are dry.
A day with white tops on the grey waves. A day of no horizons. A woman came out of one house and disappeared into the next. In the field a horse chewed grass. Herring gulls circled. Three miles out at sea it lashed rain. The rain was to come, dragging itself behind a trawler returning to port. The trawler was just a speck, growing, until it was recognisable as a boat to the naked eye. And then, as the stoves were being lit, the trawler disappeared, taking with it five men, drowning their lives in the sludge of the past.
In the park the dog was wrestling with a bone. Hey, said the man, throwing a ball into the sky. The dog ran across the frosty grass and the ball soared into the winter blue, rising above the trees. Upwards from the tops of the oaks and birches a bird flew – maybe it was a dove – towards the gold-flecked river; and out in the distance, across the water, was a thin white plume. Aeroplanes. Horizons in Europe, the Indian Ocean, warmer climes, desert sun, heat. The heat – a missile caught in a tragic arc, screeching to earth. Earth, flesh, bone.
I do not remember Franco’s death. The first transatlantic flight of Concorde, perhaps. I remember the coming of Mike Tyson as if it were someone else’s story, not mine. The withdrawal of Thatcher from the leadership race, smothered in feelings of a time and a place…
a bank of television screens in a shop window, baggy jumpers and long hair, oranges for Christmas, a cold dark house where woodlice and mold would triumph…
There is almost nothing. Almost. Nothing to fix a thought upon. No true memory. No one idea. Just a twinge, an ache, that something happened, once was.