Writing From A Distance.
My writing began at the age of 13 when I came second in my secondary school’s poetry competition. It was an achievement that startled my teachers, since I rarely spoke in school. When my parents divorced and the family home was sold I was cared for by my father by the sea and I returned to basic education through night school. My first attempt at fitting into higher education failed due to examination anxiety and after a period of isolation I arrived in Kirklees.
In Huddersfield during the 1990’s there was a strong northern cultural alliance in poetry mixing British influences with influences from Chile, Mexico, and East and West Coast American and the Caribbean. It was the idea that a northern English town could ‘re-culture itself’ in some small way and it was this that first attracted the publicity – to the extent that it caused The World Poetry Festival to be staged there. I arrived late to The Kirklees Writing in the Community Programme in a workshop led by the great Milner Place, the programme having been founded by Keith Jafrate. The K.W.C.P., The Poetry Business, established by Peter Sansom, and a poetry magazine called The Wide Skirt, owned by Geoff Hattersley, had already attracted a community of writers. From these community workshops had come Simon Armitage, who was nationally recognized even then.
Around 1997 my poetry lapsed because I found that even poetry was affected by an inability to work within groups on a daily basis. My autism was diagnosed in 1999. Choosing more solitary forms my fiction began as a satellite of The Word Hoard, these being stories with ruined buildings that were central to the plot. A long poem titled ‘A Little Book of Leaving’ had revitalized an interest from childhood, one that was concerned with old buildings. My poetry ended when I was diagnosed with autism. This explained why somedays I could talk and write and others talking and writing was like falling downstairs. Diagnosis helped to understand that visual art was going to be altogether easier to do than Literature. Literature is a challenging and often severe art and autism just makes it impossibly challenging. I continued to write in allotted seasons during my B.A. Fine Art and M.A. Visual Studies degrees. My ‘Art Season’ ran through the academic year while my ‘Writing Season’ ran through the summer months. My writing group for the duration of my ‘seasons’ was a small group that no longer meets called The Perpetual Line. The Perpetual Line had developed out of one of the many projects of The Word Hoard, a highly innovative organisation with international links founded by Keith Jafrate that was also a studio for his jazz music and his poetry.
Below is an example of how poems do still arrive occasionally.
All I ever told you was this
That a heart might spill
Or fly raggedly
Or freeze under paper frosts
Or never shine again
All I ever told you was this
That poems are ladders
Made of snakes
Flames made of rain
Arguments of silences
All I ever told you was this
That words run out of people
To say them
To hurt with them
To die beside them
All I ever told you was this
That I would leave it to poems to tell you
Like I had given it to a spirit
To a face in the dark
To a limping old book
All I ever told you was this
That snow falls the same
And means as much
And listens as intently
Each to the other
Extract from fiction: Avelin.
I cannot say that my fiction-writing has been very successful, because so few of my stories have ever finished. I draft and re-draft as I am supposed to do, but it is the values where my stories seem to lose their way, because my characters are most often drawn for better or worse towards unwelcoming buildings.
The first extract from my secret fiction is from Avelin, a magical realist comedy set in 1925. This story is more easily recognisable as a novel than my earlier and longer piece of writing, which I will introduce later. Because writing is a hiding place many of my stories never finish. At a place where a social momentum forms then many of the the stories falter. There is a point in any story when characters form groups and resemble in some part the world beyond my private one and that is where i have most difficulty. The writer Diane Darby once called my work “Kitchen sink Surrealism.” I wanted to have someone from outside explore the world I had made within and so I invented an exiled Italian scholar in this particular story who was perfect for that. She has returned in a sequel that I have been writing on and off for a couple of years.
Spiritualism influenced some of my forebears whilst an uncompromising logic was apparent in others. Magical Realism, a Mexican literary tradition, has provided a bridge between the two. Although essentially a comedy there are the passing existential crises that magical realism is known for. The sequel as I write it might be less frightening, because these stories are first and foremost comedies of enchantment.
Here is an extract from Avelin.
At the age of twenty one I, Lachia Mettini, was dispatched upon the railways by my mother who would have me visit her sister who had been many years out of knowledge. Pausing upon a journey through soot and smoke I arrived at the home of Mrs. Hetty Vernier of Coppleton, that lady being my mother’s loyal school-friend and correspondent. I should point out that I cannot now recall Mrs Vernier except for her face, which appeared from our first meeting to be stretched always into an expression of utter surprise. Everything I said startled Mrs Vernier and this restricted me to communicating the dullest things I could think of in order to avoid causing her some muscular injury. It was Mrs Vernier who persuaded me that I should take her walker’s map showing The Great Northern Moors in case I became lost. Mrs Vernier’s hospitality gave me a much needed rest before my journey resumed early the next morning, a journey that took me away from everything I might call familiar and towards something like a wilderness.
Just as my mother’s maid, Elma Herring, had explained, there would be nothing but ice and smoke awaiting me at every halt on my journey northward. There would be no advantage in speaking to anyone not paid to give advice since it was likely that other passengers would have the weakest understanding of their destinations – it being like our knowledge of shoes she pointed out to me earnestly. I took this to mean that we are conveyed uncertainly by industries that are invisible to us. Such was the gravity that Elma spoke on this topic that when I mentioned her observations to Mother then Mother was swept up in admiration and declared at once that Elma should accompany me to the station and send me off. I believe it was a shock to the maid, for during her escort she hardly spoke a word. Whether she knew by some intelligence what lay in store for me I cannot say but it occurred to me later that Elma had some insight into my journey that I could not see for myself and indeed later her role came to be that of a confidant to me, just as she had been to my mother, when all had ended.
My stay at Mrs Vernier’s had significance besides her high sensitivity. Sometime after dinner and in her study and by means of a large lamp she showed me some papers at a desk and explained some of the circumstances surrounding what she called my ‘Expedition.’
Mrs Vernier’s face had a most extraordinary baboon-like nervousness as she spoke so that I could hardly listen to her for watching it. However in spite of this she was able to tell me much that my mother had neglected to tell me, albeit whilst flicking her glance to every object in the room as if it might attack her.
“Your mother has a twin,” Mrs Vernier said whilst giving a sideboard a terrified glance.
“A twin!” I said with some surprise and which caused Mrs Vernier to leap up.
“I mean,” I said more gently whilst re-seating the lady, “a twin.”
Mrs Vernier stared about her.
“Although you were never told that your aunt existed.”
I shook my head.
Mrs Vernier came forward to pat my hand.
“That is as I expected. Your mother sent letters to me over many years and demanded of me that you be kept from knowing until the proper time.” Mrs Vernier took some rose water from a china bowl and dabbed the liquid about her neck. “And this is the proper time,” she said, “yes it is.”
“Mrs Vernier,” I began, “I am a product of a University. It is nineteen twenty five. If you are about to tell me that my mother and her sister were orphans and were separated at birth then I am quite aware that there are such tragedies. They happen too often and too widely for me not to be aware of them. The fact that my mother has never spoken of her sister except in the briefest way, has led me to suspect that her sister was brought up by nuns or monks or whatever else there are.” I leant forward to repay the compliment. I pressed my hands upon Mrs Vernier’s.
“These are things I have long guessed at,” I said to her.
Mrs Vernier made some nervous gesture that suggested she must impart unpleasant news.
“The state of things is odd, child – and I say this as one who is most afraid of things that are out of order – but your aunt, though I only visited her once,” and Mrs Vernier made a face that suggested she did not want to meet anyone out of the way again, “has some condition that means she has not grown up.”
I set my tea cup down and made to lean too far forward for my companion’s nerves, since she retreated.
“You mean she is a person with impaired bodily growth?” I asked.
“Not in the way you mean,” Mrs Vernier said slowly. “Your Aunt Avelin has not changed in any way whatsoever since her eighth year.”
I folded my arms.
“Then you are suggesting that Avelin – I mean Aunt Avelin, is rather late in her mentality?” I said. “I have often heard of people who retain some excitement they cannot resolve,” I explained.
“Quite right, child,” Mrs Vernier said, “and well put, but it is not the way with Avelin. She is quite unchanged – quite preserved – indeed I would say that had not your grandfather and grandmother taken every precaution to have her remain in the house then I feel she might have been exposed to the world and been hideously mistreated by it. By this I mean that your aunt shows no sign of ageing whatsoever. The doctor who treated Avelin as a child visited no more after a case of measles. After that Avelin never required treatment for anything; no doctor has visited her since.”
I sat back and smiled at Mrs Vernier as I do with tales that do not run as they should but Mrs Vernier gave no indication of amusement, instead she appeared terrified – though that of course was her normal expression.
“But Mrs Vernier,” I said haughtily, “I cannot accept that my Aunt is anything like what you say; why I have not heard anything like it,” I glanced about the room, “why it would alter the world entirely to have someone who never grew up.”
“But she has grown up in her way,” Mrs Vernier said like the chirp of a bird.
“Which would mean?” I asked.
Mrs Vernier gave me a fixed stare.
“Avelin attracts unusual visitations – things that cannot be right but yet do indeed take place according to the accounts of the few that have stayed with her.”
“Visitations?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mrs Vernier said, as if I should know what she meant.
“I am afraid I do not follow,” I said. “Who would visit my aunt who would cause her such doubt or mistrust?”
Mrs Vernier appeared to tremble before she began to wipe away one or two tears with a handkerchief that she had removed from her sleeve.
“Bless me that I can help either your mother or yourself with such a case but I feel I cannot understand it better than you do. I was informed after many years by your good mother of your aunt’s whereabouts. It was my duty to visit her in her isolation and my own instincts have told me that her ageless life is due to her being eternal.”
I laughed loudly.
“Mrs Vernier you have obviously been a victim of a terrible misunderstanding -– well it is ludicrous that someone could be an eternal of any sort.”
Mrs Vernier took my outburst with good grace before setting a hand carefully on mine.
“No one has left High Stoor without being much altered by it,” she said softly. “It is your mother’s wish that I should call at High Stoor some days after your arrival and give you a reason to leave should you wish it.”
“Mrs Vernier you are very welcome,” I said, “indeed I would welcome a visitor but please do not think that I need any protection whatsoever. I mean, however can my aunt be what you say?”
The two of us were perhaps a picture of awkwardness, since I judged my host to be ill and she perhaps judged me to have no gratitude by laughing at her. Yet Mrs Vernier seemed suddenly relieved that she had delivered all information as she should and she added such things that were her own opinions.
“I have seen Avelin with my own eyes,” she whispered. Then Mrs Vernier resolved to provide an answer.
“I believe that Avelin is dead and that she died long ago and lives on in some semblance that merely wears the appearance of life, though I have shared my suspicions with only your mother and yourself. When I heard that your mother had given you her instruction to go then I knew that I should protect you if I possibly could.”
She then grasped my hand.
“I will arrive on the third day and stay at the inn that is across the moor. I shall be your guardian if ever you needed one,” Mrs Vernier said, her face filled with unbridled terror.
Then after this peculiar conversation it was necessary to divert Mrs Vernier from her unusual preoccupation with it. Therefore I outlined my mother’s plans for her sister, those being that Avelin should be evaluated for her needs. High Stoor, the house to which I must travel, should be evaluated also, with the view that I might volunteer to inherit it, the choice of words being most peculiar to her. Yet however the matter should tend it had been made apparent by Mother that she could not travel to such a place and that if necessary Avelin should instead be persuaded to journey to her.
After a cup of tea however Mrs Vernier broached the subject again.
“Avelin and your mother have been out of communication since childhood. I was sent as an emissary and I did just this as a duty to your mother and as I would for you and any loyal friend. It is for this reason that I shall attend you three days after your arrival, as I say. It is for this reason also that I will ensure that you leave High Stoor and that you return safely home.”
I puzzled at this.
“Mrs Vernier, do you believe there is danger there?” I asked with surprise.
Mrs Vernier stared about her with a look of dread.
“These are things that your mother cannot believe,” she said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“There are many things my mother cannot believe, Mrs Vernier, because my mother is a philosopher.”
Given that neither of us could comment on philosophy there was a silence between us. Then my mind strayed I should say to the preparations I had undergone before setting off from London.
On the eve of my departure my good friend Myda Lowens let me know that she had assumed that my trip would be academic and said as much as she helped me pack.
“So you are visiting a learned lady rather like your mother?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said. “Mrs Vernier is no one like that,” I said cautiously.
Myda, who I should say was a recent but stalwart supporter of my attempts at independence made a blank expression.
“Then what is it that this Mrs Vernier does?” she asked with one of her long looks.
I resumed my packing.
“I really cannot think what she does,” I said with no enthusiasm whatsoever. “Her reputation is most unusual,” I explained.
At this Myda sat down upon my bed.
“Then what is she usually doing?” she asked next.
I stared about, hoping to find inspiration in the wallpaper.
“She is a lady from Coppleton in Cheshire,” I said, “who receives occasional monies from people for whom she serves with her hobbies,” I explained prettily.
“And what would those hobbies be?” asked Myda whilst leaning forward to study my face.
“She is a clairvoyant,” I said.
I then breathed a heavy sigh.
“Myda,” I said with a tone of regret. “I should tell you that Mrs Vernier was responsible for the strangest times my mother ever had. It is perfectly clear to me now that my mother, who has orchestrated this trip like she orchestrates her own, has plans to send me mad.”
Myda who was next scratching at her head addressed me warily.
“But why should your mother wish to send you mad?” she asked with the innocence that typifies anyone who had not met my mother.
I narrowed my eyes.
“Because,” I said, “my mother is a philosopher who has long considered it her duty to send me out of the ‘common mind,’” I explained. “By her standards I see only the surface of life and the surface of thought and she has used intellectual dilemmas to temper me before. It has been her habit to send me to peculiar places on peculiar errands, though of course,” I said, “I have often resisted these.” I said firmly.
I looked towards the window.
“She sent me from Italy, which I love dearly, to England where it always rains but I returned to Rome in spite of her,” I said heroically. “Once there she objected so much to religion that I took it up,” I said.
I then set my hands on my hips.
“Were it up my mother I should be hold up in some dark room barricaded by writings and bottles of ink,” I said, meaning to close the subject.
Myda gazed about her at my dusky room with its piles of journals and where larger sheets displayed conjectures drawn from them.
“But you are,” Myda said.
Mother, at that time immersed in her academic career, had made me abandon my studies and return again to England. Italy, where I had spent so many happy years had become the lair of a dictator, so that many that I held dear had been charged to leave. Thus darkness and thuggery saw me denied entry to the country I loved best and I was, as I say, forced instead to accept England with its smoke and rain and hidden children.
This was how I came to be roomed in the lodge at Knadith College, London, it being accommodation that my mother had arranged through her influence there. Knadith, I should explain, was the only proper all-female college in England.
I had glanced at Myda.
“My mother is a seasoned academic with whom I can neither agree nor disagree because I do not know what she is talking about,” I said.
With regard to the later evening the advice of Mrs Vernier had not much further to go. She described the village to which I should travel and some parts of the land about it, which were in the main featureless. The map was shown to me, which did nothing but disappoint, since it was a representation of a barren place.
Thus I retired to my bedroom, where the late Mr Naven Vernier seemed present everywhere in photographs and while the subject of spirits and spirituality had a powerful representation on all bookshelves.
In the morning I was escorted to the railway station by Mrs Vernier, but who seemed just as concerned as she had been the night before. Indeed she had packed a travelling-bag as if she desired to accompany me.
“If you should wish it in the slightest I shall come with you forthwith and we can face it all together,” she said bravely.
“Mrs Vernier,” I implored her, “I am visiting a relation, there is no danger in such a thing,” I said. “You have provided me with a map and a box of sandwiches. That is help enough I am sure for the small duties I am to perform there.”
By having her stand on the platform and promise to remain I had obedience from her and when the train moved off I waved across a frenzy of people who were waving also.
My train journey included many changes whilst at each halt fewer people were boarding or alighting. I arrived in the late afternoon at the wintry and darkening railway platform in the village of Melther and was met, after a delay, by a Mr Barrit who promptly forecast snow. I had to explain to him that snow was unlikely according to the newspapers and thus I revealed at the outset my ignorance of the extremes of moorland weather and especially its sudden declines. With regard to the village itself it was enclosed on three sides by the narrowing of a valley, or dale, the place being a ravine sided by close-knit stone built terraced houses.
The train escaped like a mouse’s tail into a tunnel and was watched, it seemed so to me, by the bright-eyed cats that were the little lamp-lit little houses that were terraced and above me. My retreat from the smoke and the cold to one of a row of waiting-rooms allowed me to read Mrs. Vernier’s map by a lamp there but the map gave no indication of a house above the village, in fact it showed no habitation at all. The swathes of shadings and outcrops were peppered only with little farmsteads after many miles where the railway line emerged and then proceeded seemingly to nowhere at all.
Only after much study did I find High Stoor, it being my aunt’s house, where there was printed: Stoor and Rack Estate. I could make out a winding lane across Racker Moor where another lane crossed it. Then after a mile or so a drive was shown to the left that led more or less straight into another dale that became as narrow and steep-sided as this one. Then tight at the limit there was the house, where the valley sides rose up to either side of it.
After returning the map to my travelling-bag I had the most awful feeling then that I had been neglected and that no one had been sent to fetch me. Those houses above the other platform were such private little dwellings. The noise of kitchens rang about the place just as the smell of thick foods made the hour seem later than it should be. In the sky of palest grey there were crows lifting like necklaces of bitter songs and after a time watching them I was suddenly visited by a white haired old lady dressed in grey who asked what I might be doing.
“I am waiting,” I said politely.
“Wey-erting fer wat?” the lady asked me.
“Oh, I see,” I said, realising that in such a village as this no one could ever simply keep their identity to themselves.
“My name is Lachia Mettini. I am waiting for my aunt’s driver who is Mr. Barrit from High Stoor,” I explained, hoping this would satisfy her need to know who I was.
“Thas made tha-selves polly and pot,” was the old lady’s brash reply and she led me by the hand to the last little shelter in the row where Mr Barrit had been asking the same old lady where I might be.
Mr. Barrit was a short stout man who seemed too small for his large black moustache that struck out from his face. His dark brown eyes had such a nervous force in them that I took him for someone who was waiting to be shot.
“Miss Mettini,” Mr Barrit said with a hurrying glance. “There is barely enough time,” he said.
“Barely enough time for what. exactly?” I asked.
He passed a coin to the old lady and then after a nod he received from me my travelling-bag.
“Before the snow, Miss,” Mr Barrit said hurriedly. “We’ll catch our deaths, Miss,” he said, “or the car won’t take the hill and we’ll be stuck down here for a week.”
He then set off to walk carrying my bag. His overtight black suit caused him some hindrance while his black hair was greased back very strictly indeed.
I then made my remark about the newspaper’s account of the weather, which Mr Barrit seemed either not to hear or not to believe.
The car was a black one and very small and domed I should say that I was grateful to manage to get in it. It was in all ways so tiny that I was forced to closely watch Mr Barrit do what was required to get the car started. It was then a game between gravity and machine and whether the gears could manage the terrifying steepness of the cobbled lanes. We had advanced back along the dale to where a tight bend allowed us to climb the other way and to ascend above the line of the topmost roofs where more crows were scattered, while to our right began rows of giant black rocks that had done well not to fall on top of us. Then when the engine had perhaps complained enough we came to a level cobbled road was bereft of houses. Thereafter the cobbles gave way to a rut and gravel surface bordered by high bracken and where all hope of habitation seemed lost.
There began then a conversation about the terrain while Mr. Barrit’s little car whined and chugged and battled like a fierce dog up further steeps.
“It’s terrible here, Miss,” Mr Barrit said, and he fixed me with a stare that quickly returned to the business at hand. “The plants stab you, the moor tires you. The sky pelts you. The wind blows you down.”
Then rather to provide evidence of this the car reached the top of an incline where the failing light made for a view. Before and above us I saw pale screed hills with darker ones beyond them. Then now and then the dips came where the streams had cut the land to furrows where ewes gazed at us with their noble faces.
Through all this Mr. Barrit talked of the difficulties of the moors and their uncertain paths and sudden fogs and suchlike.
“So I take it you drive occasionally,” I said hopefully, “to give change to Mrs Barrit.”
This remark caused him to slow the car down.
“Indeed,” he said. “My wife and I,” and he paused, “try to keep out of the way of things.”
“My aunt is very private I understand,” I said.
“Yes Miss,” is all he said.
It became apparent to me then that Mr Barrit had remained rather unnerved by something.
“What do think of the house?” I asked him directly.
My question caused a temporary paralysis and the car was nearly flung into a ditch. Just in time Mr Barrit recovered and the car rather scuttled back and sped on.
After taking a few deep breaths and seeing the dusky landscape rear about the car’s headlights like we should be attacked by rocks, I tempered myself.
“I mean,” I said hoarsely. “I was wondering if you find the house suitable?”
Mr Barrit stared forward.
“Suitable for what, Miss?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, recovering my nerves, “as a place to live.”
Mr Barrit continued to stare forward while his eyes suggested some awful irony had occurred to him.
It felt then that I should change the subject for the sake of our safety and so I mentioned something of my business here.
“Mr. Barrit,” I said. “Although we have only just met I must explain that I have never met my aunt before. Yet two months ago my mother asked me to volunteer to inherit her sister’s house by some arrangement, which is curious don’t you think?” I asked.
I paused but received no reply.
“It is as if she meant that others have previously refused to inherit it,” I said. “Although of course I must refuse it too since I am too young to be concerned with a house.”
Mr Barrit did not reply and meanwhile the car took us bumping along until we slowed at two large stone gate-posts to our left and where a drive began that was mossed and shaded. The drive had a steep bank to its right that rose higher as we drove along and while to our left many dry-stone walls had collapsed to show marsh and heath and where more sheep were grazing. The drive followed a steep bank to our right until after a distance and where the dale finally formed a cleft or gill there was a most unusual house.
High Stoor was a very wide house made tall by many towers that seemed built entirely out of place. The front façade had many unusual corners as if some structure within the house protruded or altered it and as well as these there were other additions to the windows that I could not make out in the failing light. When we arrived through a further iron gate Mr Barrit’s car juddered and rattled to a halt before a stretch of tall railings that appeared to surround the house entirely like a perimeter. Approximate to some rather grand steps those railings had a gate and to these Mr Barrit went after removing some keys from his pocket.
Such was the air of protection that greeted me that I was not surprised to find that the protection extended to the house itself. Every window had been fitted with barriers comprising of iron frames and thick iron bars and about those towers were arranged tall iron spikes that split into two with some pointing downward.
Some faintest window-light graced the smoke-blackened stone in places but otherwise the house had no other presence than rows of teeth aimed towards the heavens.
Mr Barrit had fetched my bag and he led me some way through the railed gate before returning to lock it.
“Mr Barrit,” I said at my first opportunity. “To what end do these defences serve?” I asked.
Mr Barrit glanced above and about but I could observe his face most clearly when he had climbed the icy steps of the house and reached a large oil-lamp chained above the door that was shining at us.
“Miss Avelin or her guests have often referred to what they call choirs of sheep that approach the house at night, Miss,” he said in a way that showed he had withdrawn from his previous character into a more measured one.
“Sheep,” I said whilst looking above me. “And what else do people here expect, Mr Barrit?” I asked.
Mr Barrit turned and looked back down the dale that was flooding across with dark.
“The region has many unusual creatures, Miss, including a very rare species of hornet,” he said.
Those railings behind us struck a macabre note with me because I had assumed Stoor House to be upon the heath or in the last woods rather than upon the moor itself. The wanton moor that Mr Barrit disliked had invaded from all directions into the grounds whilst through breaks in the dry stone walls had come the living clouds of sheep in threes and fours that studied us like dim sentinels. Owing to the gathering dusk I could see no further upon the land but when Mr Barrit beckoned me back towards the door I became suddenly aware of snow. It was falling about us so silently and beautifully that I had somehow neglected to see it and I turned to survey the change in weather like I had somehow altered it myself. The flakes were large, causing me to think that Mr Barrit had been right in his assessment of it. It was a quickening whitening spinning drift that was soon about and had we remained in Melther we would surely have been marooned there.
Extract from Fiction: That Which Develops To Completion.
This story did not originate on the page, instead it was based on a story told out loud to friends in my youth. The story was simpler then and had the tone of the bedtime stories I invented for my late brother when we were young. Then later I lived in rented rooms in many nasty old buildings and these became the inspiration for a kind of super-realism, first through a long poem that revisited one particular building and then through the influence of one flat where the floor had collapsed into the flat below a week before I had moved in and which had been hurriedly repaired. The story might be called a story from youth, but it also contains many features of my life that continue today. The making of many worlds is unavoidable in autistic people, because the mainstream world is effectively uninhabitable for them.
Below is an extract from That Which Develops To Completion.
That Which Develops To Completion.
For the first part there are steps but also tiredness, a skeleton that wants the opposite of what is done. He looks back down the staircase. There is still a living-room down there where his parents answer the shouting and the surface of that warmth through which his face had come still touched him somehow, made him look down, like a dog would be looking up mirror-eyed where the shoes would be. For a moment there is a slowing, and the first part is over. The fire-door is opened. The staircase sharks back down, takes a plastic-skinned banister with it which is the way the staircase is every Christmas, promising and promising like it could take you anywhere. Some kind of howling starts up the staircase from a lower floor, louder then so loud that the whole stairwell gapes and the faltering light from a florescent bulb seems stopped then reaching. He gentles the keys in his hand. The children run up to the floor below his and they cry out in meeting someone coming through the fire door. “Come on! The lift’s – Grandma’s in the taxi – it’s broken – come on!” His door opens.
There is a greetings card. For a second there are at least a hundred. No, it is an invitation to a church. He peers out of the window to see if there is a church. From this great height there are quite a few. He squints at the card to see which one it is. His lips lick carefully together. His blink is gentle against the bold print. The letter-box opens.
His shoe treads a garden pea into the carpet.
“Mrs Nogget!” he exclaims.
She walks past him. The city is growing dark and everlasting. Sunset climbs brilliantly onto the clouds and cars blink over the river’s gentle bridge. The sound of the carrier-bag on the hard-top table clatters. The tins and jars, her bunch of teeth smiling.
He watches her produce a package from her pocket and place it in his hands.
“For goodness sake!” she says, seeming to bounce off the walls and switching the lights on. “And look at this,” she says, picking a single Christmas card off the floor and standing it again on the window-sill – reading it aloud with ceremony: “To Edna.” She looks again and then at an envelope lying on the carpet and then at the bare window-sill, shelves and other surfaces, then resigns to nudge the card with her palms to the best position. Down in the car-park a taxi seems lifted by its spread lights and wide open doors set against the dark surface. Some figures stand cold together and hair blowing.
“Is that what you wanted?” she asked him.
He answered, but she also answered – the lady in the taxi, leaning forward from the back seat and hissing that her daughter should have picked her up and Samantha picked her up every year but this year she knew her place like she was under the ground. Prefer The New Year Love, the driver says. Singing of the bushes in the near distance haunting up thousands of knives and forks or seeming to heave some thing with their branches from one to another and over the fence into the security lights’ bright darkness. Darkness hung along the main road, from old buildings in their soft under-lit hoverings or darkness made vast nests out of the various factories’ stockyards and amongst these the shaving-brush unwrapped in the reflection, which she was also watching.
“They’re all going away for Christmas,” she said.
He is in the bathroom placing the shaving-brush on the edge of the sink. She unlocks a door and goes out onto the concrete balcony, pops her head back in. “Don’t lock me out this time,” her words go off into the air, go empty and big like thrown bed-sheets. Down below the driver has lifted the bonnet and is trying to fix the engine. A father and two boys stand small and some way back.
He sets up the Christmas card which has blown over. “They’re all going away this year,” he says, “where it’s nice and warm.”
“Well,” she says, coming back in and looking at her watch, “let’s lock this door.” She locks it and turns back to the carrier-bag on the table. “There’s everything you like,” her eyes natter the contents, her fingers raise the cans a fraction and let them go then push some mince pies out of the way to lift out a box containing a broad red candle. “There,” she smiles.
“Very useful,” he says.
“Don’t forget to soften the brush in boiling water,” she adds a kiss to his cheek. He opens the door for her and a voice rails from beyond the fire-door “These bloody stairs!” A draught blows between them. She says she will call on him in the New Year. She says she will have more time then and that she never has any time. He says she must do whatever is best. He waves her goodbye along the corridor and goes inside and the second part is over.
A lady comes out of the building and walks through the gusting weather, along the muddy tyre-crossed pavements where the padlocked wire gates shiver and clack. She tucks a scarf more securely around her neck, dips her face, as her brisk walk takes her out where the industrial estate’s avenues meet a junction with the wide main road. Back at the forecourt a second taxi has drawn up and suitcases have been transferred. The boys run around the taxis and occasionally watch her progress, they lurch forwards to grab each other’s arms and go stabbing the air with out-stretched fingers. They look again and the lady is gone. The second driver pulls away with the first driver squashed in the middle of the back seat. One of the boys looks back at the flats which seem almost derelict except for some windows near the very top which are bright and a regular glow of windows on the stairwell between floors. A figure in uniform comes out from an office on the ground floor and gives a short confident wave to the driver and then turns slowly about.
The flat-windows rattle with the wind.
Last Christmas. He looks at the pen in his hand and wonders whether he should choose another. He perseveres. Last Christmas was very quiet. I enjoy the quiet although I know the quiet isn’t for everybody. He looks across the sky where the lights of a jet are switching and flicking. Last Christmas the Queen was very informative – he wonders if this was true. He tries to remember what she said. Although I can’t remember anything she said. He gives the pen a little shake. I am using the pen you bought me and it is working very well. A sound like pallets blown over in the factory stockyards. The wind pours over the building. I am having a lovely Christmas, he picks a mince-pie from the packet (he shakes the pen and it showers the paper with droplets of black ink). He sits back, nibbling at the mince-pie. He leans forward. Last Christmas the Queen wished that one day we might each own something which actually worked. He continues eating the pie as he walks over to the flat-door. He goes outside and listens to the perfect quiet of the corridor and the falling sort of emptiness there.
He takes a long breath, a steady and balancing kind of breath like an entire circus is waiting for what his breath will do.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“But what do you think?” his brother whispers.
“What would happen if everybody died? What would happen if the war didn’t stop?”
He shuffles around in his bed and looks at the ceiling, he sniffs. “There are lots more people in America Alex.” He licks his lips. “If everybody died except Mother and Father and Aunt Anne and some others then we’d have to say we weren’t going to have the war and that would be that I suppose. Aunt Anne hasn’t got time to have a war she’s too busy with poorly Thomas.”
“But,” Alex whispers, “they’d come wouldn’t they, they’d come to have the war and then we’d have to have the war then wouldn’t we?”
He looks at the ceiling. “If everybody died then nobody would come. If everybody died there’d only be us.” He brushes the curtain with his hand. The air is cold.
“There’d only be us wouldn’t there!” Alex says aloud.
“Shhh! – that never happens, that was just pretend,” and he listens to the house for footsteps coming up those stairs, and lowers his head to the pillow.
“Nobody gets to be alone Alex.”
He puts his arm up and rests his hand against the door-frame and then bends one knee. That is all? And then his head leans from upright and rests against the door-frame too. He closes his eyes and he appears to be sleeping. So still, he becomes something a cat wouldn’t stop for. To be like this. The roughness of the wind against those large cold windows in the rooms behind him. From somewhere the ringing smell of last month’s industrial cleaning moves like a constant tide, and from this the insistence that everybody is still here. But listen. The furniture factory isn’t loading up its long poster-sided trailers, the ‘up-factory’ isn’t raising hydraulic wails into the night sky (he’d never heard them come down) or any of the dong-ga-dong-ga-dong-ga-dung-ga-dung-ga-dung-ga messages that bounce over the land in the middle of the night. In quiet. To be like this. Never to be like that again. One of his windows gives that same rattle, but now in solo. Far off and barely audible a loud phone bleats on the ground floor in Mr Mckerr’s office, it switches and trembles down there, almost sailing around for someone to answer it. To be like this. In the corridor the uncertain florescent bulb finally comes on. To be like this, for this is the third part. The door is closed and the shaving brush is fetched from the bathroom and held up in the kitchen and examined.
After softening, knock excess water from
shaving-brush with fingertips. Do not
allow lather to dry. When applying avoid
excessive pressure which can damage the
bristle. Made In Holland. His thumb.
so strong and still and devoted to its purpose; that if his hands were occupied entirely by thumbs there would have been no limits and his life could have been hauled from so many little-finger pre-occupations, stood up powerfully like a thumb himself. He stands there in the kitchen for an absorbed time with his thumb. He fills the kettle, then fights to put the lid back on which chews around the rim as usual, scraping that thin edge. He takes a coffee-mug from the high cupboard and sets it down beside the kettle on the peeling work-surface of the fridge and stands suddenly appalled that he has nothing else to do. He goes into the lounge and switches the television on and turns up the volume until Francia Zetman and her Christmas guests are rolling back in their chairs, then switches channels. A chameleon is balancing on a twig. An opera singer pronounces a huge word. “Not just a bank.” – “…I’m in love with Jellyland! Have you been to Jellyland?”
He goes back into the kitchen, tilting his head towards the music, the window rattles loudly. He opens the window upwards and outwards to give it a good slam. Tea-towels rise on their hooks – a calendar on a cupboard-side blows around: October, March – October, August, February. He stands introduced to a ventilator-hood on a factory-roof below going around and back, squeaking and crowing. He leans over the sink to look down.
“Mrs Woodside is alone.”
“Mrs Woodside isn’t alone, she talks to Mr Charlton.”
“She’s alone though!”
“That’s nothing like being alone.”
The door opens.
“Alex. You can either go to sleep here or you can go to sleep in Grandma’s old room.” The door waits for a reply. “The last time I came upstairs you were having a story and then you were going to sleep but so far all I’ve heard is chatter.” The door waits. The door closes. The quiet swells and aches like the room has been stung by bees.
“Mrs Woodside is alone,” Alex sneers.
He listens to Alex’s voice then sighs and turns over. He licks his lips. He can hear Alex’s attention waiting. He licks his lips. Alex is wondering about the first words. He can hear Alex breathing.
“This is a story about someone who lived alone. I’ve thought about it and this might only be the first part.”
Alex relaxes and ruffles the bedclothes around himself.
“Up among the stars there was a shattered moon, which I think belonged to nowhere since as far as I know there was nowhere where it might have been and for as far as you might look there was nowhere where it might be going. In this moon there was a lamp shining like a light from a window and behind it were steps down to great caves and tunnels and deep in these caves there lived a wizard. Although he was very busy he would save some time before he went to bed and would climb the steps to the very top.
Sometimes there would be comets to light the way, sometimes such sights of darkness and stars. And sometimes there was only the lamp – like a dance of pages, showing places he had been and people he once knew. All the time he had lived there he had been alone – more even than Mrs Woodside, for the wizard had been there for thousands of years.
Now as you know, magical people are light-breathing and do not breathe air at all. This night he had his lamp close by at the top of the steps and he was ready for bed. The sky was gentle with its thousands of little stars.
It was then that from the distance ahead of him there came a little boat.
It was not an ordinary boat, it was a boat for going…over the stars” He waits for a moment and takes a careful breath. “Over the stars is the way to get somewhere without setting off. Sometimes they are very well made so -” he claps his hands, “they go straight to the very best place.” He waits. “And sometimes they are not very well made and look like an old boot and take you to the very last place you would ever want to be and not only that, they get very lost sometimes or finish up as wrecks when whoever was travelling has abandoned them. This boat was like the oldest and most worn out boot you’ll ever see and even the lanterns were tired of shining and kept flickering on and off, which can happen when no one has breathed them for a very long time.
In a doorway near the back there was a person and this person came forward with a squinting expression when they’d seen the old man with his lamp and they waved and then knelt down beside one of the lanterns to talk to him.
For a long time there was nothing to say. For a long time the figure leant back against the planks and wondered. The wizard yawned and looked about him, pulled a scarf more tightly around his neck and rubbed his hands together. They sat there. The lanterns flickered on and off on the boat so that by one or the other he could see the figure was a small girl. Finally the old man chose a language that was quite common everywhere and by and by they began to talk.
She was sorry to disturb him, she said, but her boat was broken and she couldn’t go over the stars and the boat had taken her floating and she was lost.
The old man made a long expression of seriousness and turned a little from his position. He told her as he yawned that there was a chance there was a world some seven years behind him, and might be a dirty but wise enough place where there might be help and that the boat was probably taking her there.
Seven years? Seven years! she was saying over and over and then said that she would much prefer to moor her boat here and spend some time with him.
Now, and as you might have guessed, this particular old man was cautious with strangers. Strangers might be book-thieves, bed-thieves, slipper thieves or worse than any of these they might be guests. He’d come to know that thieves of their many kinds were sure to leave quite quickly, but guests: there was no getting rid of them.
No- no, he said, that she’d better not stay here, that this was the very last place she would ever want to be. He told her to abandon her boat and that it wasn’t very well made and that she should earn a new one. He watched as she reluctantly turned around and when she was safely inside then the boat turned slowly about and was on its way again. He watched until the stranger’s boat was just a faint flickery star and then he picked up his lamp and he set off for bed.
Sometimes our lives are not what we think Alex. The old man went to bed thinking what marvellous ways the stranger had to disguise herself so young. He thought what a traveller she must be to have such disguises…all the boats she must earned…and (yawn) books and other treasures, and was falling asleep. The great head turned on its pillow and sleep came like extra blankets unfolding around him. He slept and for the first time in countless bedtimes he had a dream. The dream was like a sum adding up and taking away and his dream was scratching away at his head and annoying him so much that he was awake.
Half-sleeping and half-thoughtful he climbed those steps with his lamp and his shadows to the very top.
The stranger’s boat was tied fast at the head of the stairwell and when she saw his light then she climbed from the boat, although she was very tired. He gave her a long and severe look, as if she might rise up as a sorceress at any moment. Then, and looking with some concern: “Where are your parents?” he asked her.
She gave in to a tremendous yawn. “In the garden,” she said.
That is how the old man came by his first ever guest. He showed her to a cave nearby where there was a old silky bed and arranged a line of lamps for her and left her to sleep. Down the stairway he stepped, his rags and his bad moods melting and he became a wizard again, all fingertips and long thoughts, for the wizard was always very careful.
The kettle is boiling, a stampede of three minutes to get to the right moment: and then the sudden thought: click: it’s now.
The shaving-brush becomes submerged. An arm-ache, like a meow in his elbow-joint and his lips open slightly and the pale blue cup is full, and he bends at the knees to put the kettle down. The wind jumps up from the car-park, that balcony-door judders then meets an advert which blots it out. The electric-heater in the lounge tins on, like the peck of a little bird. Suddenly his sniff. A tea-bag is examining the shaving-brush. He gives them a look of disappointment and takes the cup to the sink.
There is a particular place in his mouth where his tongue can go where the last of his teeth are living. Like the familiar shapes of old toys in the back of a cupboard. His cheeks curve inward and his face looks through and reflects back from the window with the expression of a camel. But also the cars on the slopes of the western estate are searching too, they run like bright rain: to the darker houses, to the annoying-but-have-to-be-visited. Like Mrs Delk. Mrs Delk, he thinks about Mrs Delk. Which flat? (The one where the baby cries.) Ah, his eyes turn carefully towards the western estate, beyond it the regional airport. Her daughter took a flight more than, he waits, more than sixteen years ago. The Great Delk, the children of the flats called her when she played the flute and confused them with books they didn’t dare read. So many years so serious and then, the eyebrows on the camel rise slightly, she just won the lottery like that. Like a strong but uninteresting tree, he thinks, that flowered one Saturday evening above every other. The lucky Delk. But also still The Great Delk (wherever that first Delk had gone), for her playing.
The wind is pulling at some young people who are walking along the far main road. The three boys are stopped in front of the boarded up shoe shop and wait for and look back at two girls who are wearing bright and then orange jackets and trying to keep broad-rimmed black hats on their heads. The boys look at the posters stuck on the boarded shop-front and they each step on one foot and then the other and hunch up a little. A large white car stops and the boys get in. The girls walk slowly until they meet the car. The boys get out and the girls get into the car. The boys get into the car and they drive away.
He puts the dripping tea-bag into a bin-lined cardboard box under the window-side work-surface, takes the shaving-brush out of the steel sink and puts it back in the cup. He checks the kettle and then fills it and sets it back and plugs it in and leaves the kitchen. He goes past the television which is singing and opens the door to the box-bedroom and switches the light on. The cream-coloured clock, which had been knocked from the bedside-cabinet onto the floor is still ticking. It is four minutes past eight. The windows shudder in the three rooms and he opens a bureau that is in front of the bedroom window and takes out an old black fountain-pen and some paper. He switches the light off, shuts the door, turns the television down and sits at the plastic wood-printed hard-top table and writes:
GONE FOR MILK FIVE MINUTES PAST EIGHT.
There are eight flats on this floor, “Our doors” and “Their doors.” Their doors can be reached by going through the fire-door, over the landing and through the fire-door on the other side. Their doors are theirs and whoever lives there is them and they have their doors. “Our doors” were not the same as “Their doors,” or, as it had once been explained to him, all the doors would be the same if they didn’t live there.
His flat-door shuts trapping the sheet of paper and he joins the cold of the corridor and turns to his left. Some floors below, and softened, someone walks bang through one fire-door and squeak-bang through another. Mr McKerr is knocking and checking the locks. He listens to McKerr and then carries on down the corridor. Under the florescent strip-light which flickers, past the door on the right where the baby cries, and the next slate-grey door on the right is the one he goes to and finds a key, turns the lock and goes in.
Camphor-cream. The touch of a leaf and smooth of wallpaper as he searches for the light- switch. The curtains are closed and whole darkening and in the feathery light from the corridor a fruit-bowl appears like a carousel of children. Camphor. The light-switch. The light. He goes carefully beside the porcelain figures and into the kitchen. The dry steel sink. There is a note on the fridge.
to take the white loaf
as well as the milk
Please do not use the toilet.
He opens the fridge, but it’s a freezer (full and crackling), then opens the fridge. There is a carton of pasteurised milk in the door-rack and on the middle shelf there is a scrunched remainder of thin-sliced white bread. There is nothing else. He leaves the flat and locks the door, turns and walks quietly into the draught to his own door, unlocks, removes the sheet of paper and goes in. The television has found a horse. Slightly warmer now. The curtains ready to be dragged scraunching and snagging together, the table ready to be wiped clean of ink, the carpet ready to be stamped back flat towards the balcony-door, mince-pie crumbs to be followed. The beginning of the fourth part.
Thank you again for the curtains. As I was saying when we last met, you will be very welcome if you come by.
The lady who has taken your old flat is called Mrs Roales. I haven’t met her properly but I was able to tell her, as you requested, that the smell has nothing to do with you. She said she had noticed it but couldn’t find where it was coming from. I told her that you had been living there two years and that you had not been able to find an exact spot. She thanked me and also thanks you and said she will try not to worry about it.
The factories will be closing for a full week this Christmas, which is very good, and the new one won’t be open before the New Year. I am very pleased to hear that you are enjoying the Home and that you are settling in.
In the corridor the fire-door whines open and Mr McKerr begins his routine, a procedure which comes fully to life at Christmas, is ignored for the rest of the winter and reappears for a period during the summer months. That hollow melody of knocks and turned door-handles goes the length of the corridor and then returns. (Dab-dab-tat.)
Suddenly his door is vibrating and the magnolia inter-com telephone receiver slips from its fitting and drops neatly into a vase of water. A giant brown spider in its hole in the bookcase itches forward.
His lips feel cold. A door shuts downstairs and his parents’ conversations are muffled and separating, stealing to comforts he cannot be a part of. Alex swallows and then his breath is quieter. Someone next door kicks through the garden back from the toilet. A blanket is rough against his chin as he turns his head.
“There were no people when she woke up. There was no one walking either up or down the steps outside and there were no children running about, or people mending things, or anything. She couldn’t hear a living soul. What kind of house would be so quiet? What was this place?
For that first breakfast the old man brought her a tray of fruit and told her that he would mend her boat, that she should prepare for leaving and that: ‘Going was better than staying for a busy life.’ She was hungry but she found time to thank him and to say that if he was staying at their house there’d be all kinds of things to do and people to meet and, when she saw him worrying about these, told him her mother’s abiding rule: ‘A guest is for the best.’
Hrrhhh…, he had said, stepping away from her and drew a chair from the wall and sat down. He spoke softly, but seriously, as if the walls themselves might be listening to his every word.
He told her that if she went walking she shouldn’t go far. She should take a lamp for herself and keep to the stairway which was her only chance. There were pleasant walks for a mile or two where the lamps were regular. He said she wasn’t to follow strange stairs. He said if she was lost he could find her so long as she stayed in the light. He gave her an anxious look. He said that apart from these there was one very important thing. He said that in a certain place there was a door. He then waved his hand about, it was the only door here as far as he knew and after all just a door and not interesting, but she was never to approach if she saw it and most of all she was never to go in.
Never to go in, she had whispered and given him a long and peculiar look. She knew of course what he was, as she thought to herself, he was no doubt one of those “odd people” her mother mentioned from time to time; that ‘she’d know one when she met one,’ her mother had told her and now as she sighed and spat a pip high over the breakfast and into the dimness beyond, she knew she had.
She told him not to worry about the door, that wasn’t he someone half-good with spells who was never very happy at school? She told him that in the end he shouldn’t be worrying and hiding and didn’t he know that he was probably much the same as anybody else. She smiled and formally introduced herself and said that her name was Farva Mop, that their house was Ershi Mop, which was a small house but never short of visitors. She was pushing pips around her plate with her fingers as she said this and was describing the many boatfuls of people who came to stay and how much fun there always was. When she looked up smiling the old man had gone.
End of Extracts from fiction.