Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Bigger The Map

At the end of another trying day, we found ourselves lying down in a suburban London Bed & Breakfast not far from where my grandmother had lived. The amber street light outside bled through a gap in the curtains, so I could make out small amounts of detail in the minimal light- Anna’s arm arching on to my chest, and the faint traces of summer freckles creeping up towards her wrist. I could also see faded hints of flowers on the uncomfortably off-white wallpaper, like faint splashes of Ribena that nobody had been considerate enough to clean off.

Aside from the noise of the odd passing car, the silence was uncomfortable – unexpected even – for a grotty B&B. I decided to break it by talking, which had not usually been a good policy at many points in the last few months.

“I’m sorry for the way I’ve been behaving lately,” I began.

“I know, I know”, she replied gently.

“This isn’t me really, you know, it’s just that I’m ill,” I continued.

“I know, I know,” she repeated.

“Everyone says so,” I added, sensing rare sympathy from her. “It’s generally agreed”.

“I know,” she said again.

The simple repetition of her words and the noise of her gentle breathing was hypnotic. I had grown used to the metronomic noise of the grand-daughter clock we owned in our Bristol flat. When Anna first moved in, she demanded I let it wind down, as it left her unable to sleep. Once I had let it run its course, though, I found I couldn’t sleep myself – I needed the reassurance of its mathematical precision, the certainty of its rhythm. Without it, I felt afraid, wide open to chaos. Right now, her breath and repetitive platitudes were taking its place.

“And this is a fresh start,” I said. “Once we get to Australia in a few weeks, we can rest for as long as we want, and I can recuperate.”

“I know,” she said wearily. “I know.”

“But things are definitely going to change”.

“I know,” she replied again, and moved her hand slowly around to touch my face. I felt her fingers pulling gently at my eyelids, and the palm of her hand brushing my nose. I had forgotten how tired I really was, and her hands felt like a rubbery foam oozing in. Sleep rushed forwards, plugging my ears and eyes, making me oblivious to everything. Before I went under, I had a strange suspicion that she said something else, something which varied the script away from the gentle reassuring rhythms she had been uttering earlier. It caused a vague pang of doubt, but whatever it was, it wasn’t loud or shocking enough to stir me from the first throes of sleep.


The next thing I knew, light was piercing its way through the open curtains, and an unfamiliar middle aged woman was stood in front of the window, talking loudly at me.

“It’s not,” she trilled camply, in the manner of a 1970s TV show puppet, “in my nature to burst into the bedrooms of strangers in this way, but it’s fifteen minutes after the time you were supposed to have left this hotel, I’m afraid. I banged and banged on the door, but you might have been dead for all I knew”.

“What?!” I replied, sitting bolt upright, desperately trying to make sense of my surroundings.

“I said,” she replied, “You have got to be out in the next fifteen minutes. Unless you want to pay for another night here, that is, and,” she sneered, “I’d say you’re not in a position to do that”.

I quickly scanned the room in a vain attempt to make sense of the situation. We had set the

travel alarm the night before, but that had disappeared from the dressing table. Along with it, Anna’s clothes, her rucksack, and her yellow summer jacket had also gone. It was almost as if she had never happened to me, as if the last five years had been some sort of peculiar dream, and I had in reality spent the time sleeping in dingy hostels like this one.

“Oh, she’s long gone, by the way,” the lady said with a pleased expression, restoring some startling sense to the moment. “She left very early this morning in quite a bad way. Having hysterics, she was. I had to sit her down with a cup of tea, try to get her to calm down.”

“Where did she go?!” I demanded forcefully. I received a baleful glare.

“Oh, she’s paid, if that’s all you’re worried about. Don’t fret about that.”

I looked up at the woman in disbelief. She was possibly the angriest individual I had encountered in the last year, and 2005 had taken me to all sorts of places – the DSS, the squalid house-shares of untrustworthy acquaintances, and, due to a misunderstanding with some officers of the law, a police cell for the night. Her face looked like a silicon mask in the process of being peeled off, with a number of pale white spots the shape of individual Rice Krispies glued to her forehead. She looked down her long nose at me from behind dark curls in her fringe, waiting for me to respond.

“Where’s she gone?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

The lady tossed a sealed envelope on to my bed, then waited for me to open it. I ripped it apart with trembling hands, only to find the words “I’M SO SORRY” written in block capitals on a torn-off piece of paper, followed by a single, meaningless “X”, presumably meant to simulate one last kiss.

“What is this?” I asked, the panic bubbling to my head, “Where is she? What happened?!”

“What happened,” replied the lady, “is what always happens. Men like you happened to her. That’s all there is to it, dear. There’s no big mystery. Unfortunately.”

“Yes,” she said, dusting the windowsill whilst I sat in stunned silence, “we had quite a chat this morning. I only spoke to her for about ten minutes or so before she went away, but it was enough to get a good picture of things. She told me all about you and her. I know all about you, don’t you worry about that. You’re lucky I’m not pulling you out of bed by the ears and kicking you on to the street, dear, though I shall be charging you for an extra day if you don’t shift your backside at some point in the next ten minutes. And don’t think I won’t call the police if you don’t have the money to pay me with”.

This made no sense at all. Anna had left me before, four times in fact, but the departures were never sudden. Forty eight hours of tears, tantrums, shouts and arguments normally preceded her exit. Friends of hers appeared at the house to pick up her things, shaking their heads at me disdainfully, and it would always seem as if she’d picked the ones I disliked the most to arrive, purely to spite me. And then we’d sort it all out on the telephone – I’d tell her what I’d been doing to improve my deteriorating ways, and she’d come back wearily, hugging me by the front door in tears. A pattern had established itself. Anna never left me without having some sort of last word. There were times when I expected her not to return, but she wasn’t the type to do things suddenly and without spelling out her reasons. There was no victory in that.

“It’s not what it seems! I don’t understand what’s going on!” I spluttered, playing the sympathy card. “I’m ill! I’m on tablets!”

“Oh, we’re all on tablets, love,” replied the crone. “I’m on so many tablets I rattle when I walk. You don’t have the monopoly on tablets, let me tell you that”.

She left the room for me to pick up last night’s clothes and bundle them back on to my body. Panting and in a rush, I slipped on the faded grey New Order T-shirt that was at least ten years old. I didn’t even listen to the band anymore – it was a relic of my youth that I’d somehow never discarded, something I’d decided to cling on to for reasons that were unclear even to me. I then leapt into my 32 inch waist red corduroy trousers that were seeming at least an inch too small for me these days, and put the wrong socks on the wrong feet, the right shoes on the right feet, picked up my rucksack and went out to the hallway where the landlady was waiting. She was relishing every moment of my misfortune, and had the final line for my departure she delivered precisely with relish, as if she had been rehearsing it for half her life.

“It’s all the same with you lot,” she said, standing before the glass front door, whose vertical lines distorted the street outside like a picture slide puzzle. “With all your big ideas. My husband was just the same. Had a perfectly good job as a lorry driver for years, then decided to quit one day because he thought he could make a living as a landscape painter”.

She awaited a response from me, something as little as a facial expression, but I didn’t give her the satisfaction.

“I mean, a landscape painter,” she scoffed. “I said to him, ‘Jerry, people have cameras nowadays. Cameras and good photographers. Nobody needs good landscape paintings, never mind yours.’ Wouldn’t have it though, would he?”

She then opened the door and made a weary waving gesture for me to walk through on the street outside, seemingly spent of her quota of words for me. It slammed behind me as soon as my right foot left the first step.

I considered knocking on the door again in an attempt to get some more information from her, but the futility of this idea slowly became apparent. My brain was in poor logical working order on an average day these days, never mind after a sudden shock. Sudden shocks had the effect of numbing its workings, making it seem as if I was viewing the world through the lenses of a penny peep strip show at the arcades. It was all dim, slow, flickering and distant, and happening to somebody else. I felt like the voyeur of my own seedy life.

I looked up and down the street for possible signs of where Anna might have gone to. I was

greeted only by arching concrete streetlamps goosenecking their way over a quiet road, and rows of bed and breakfast hotels and Victorian houses. There was no sign of anyone around at all.

I pulled the rucksack from my shoulders and tugged at the giant A-Z atlas that I’d bought the day before from a charity shop. It was leather bound, as solid on the outside as a flatpack furniture shelf, and preposterously large. Anna had tried to talk me out of buying it on account of the fact that it was heavy, old and therefore, in her words, “out of date”.

“But it’s huge! It covers all of London, and all of the far suburbs we’re going to! You can see fields on it! And the farms are all marked!” I replied enthusiastically.

“Size isn’t important,” she said in a small, tired voice, too worn out to even bother to turn her statement into a weak double-entendre, “but age is. Look at it! The M25 is just a proposed motorway on the map. It hadn’t even been built when this was published.”

“Houses disappear, but streets don’t,” I said, smugly justifying my purchase.

I felt less sure of myself in the light of a new day, but hoped I was right. I flicked through the pages, and turned to page 24, which seemed to cater for the immediate area I was stood in. Roads twisted like spaghetti around the page, with one straight, orange A road spiking through the middle of them. I sat on the wall of a neighbouring house and considered my options. The first thought that occurred to me was to return to our Bristol flat to see if Anna would be back there, but then I remembered that I had the only set of keys. She had thrown hers into the Thames a week ago in the middle of an argument, and hadn’t bothered to get any more cut. I now realised that I should probably have read something significant into that at the time.

I phoned Anna’s mobile twenty times, and on each occasion it went straight to voicemail. I then considered telephoning her mother to ascertain her whereabouts, but her mother had placed strict instructions for me never to contact her house, demands that may even be enforced by the local constabulary. I had turned up drunk there on one occasion shortly after a row, and traipsed dog shit into her pile carpet. Contrary to her claims, I hadn’t known I’d trodden in it, but the combination of the angry shouting and the smearing and the smell had used up whatever residual goodwill there was left between us.

My brain, like an old Bakelite television, was taking its time in warming up, and I decided to walk to the visitor’s farm that Anna and I had made plans to go to the night before. I’d talked long and hard about how much it would mean to me, what a large part of my life it had been when I lived with my grandmother, and if there was any hope for us at all, any semblance of romance in the world, I felt that she might actually be there, maybe waiting for me, maybe just trying to make sense of who I was. I had no better ideas.

To get to North Edge Farm, which was clearly marked in a faux-handwritten font on the atlas, I had to follow a few suburban roads that almost appeared to twist into each other, then follow a curved lane which ran alongside some common ground to the north. One thing perturbed me about the atlas. Just above where the farm was, a fat blue semi-transparent dotted line ghosted its way across the landscape, showing the then proposed route of the M25. This had not been present during my grandmother’s days, and I wondered if it might have obliterated the farm now. As I slowly walked through the mist, and heard the hum of traffic in the distance, I totted up facts and figures in my head. I had heard of the farmer near Manchester who had decided to leave his business in the middle of the north and southbound carriageways of a motorway, but was quite sure that such things were far from typical.

I quickened my pace and eventually saw a giant concrete bridge in the distance, slamming its way across the winding lane beneath with delivery lorries snarling above it. Across the open ground I could see the route of a slip road sliding off the motorway embankment leading up to a neighbouring main road, and smaller vehicles and white vans creeping towards it. It looked like the toy road network I dominated the living room with as a child.

I looked to my left for the entrance gate for the farm. It was still there, but there was no mailbox by the stile, no welcoming sign, and no signs of any cattle or life. I put one foot over the other, and clumsily hauled myself over the fence, scraping my legs into mud as I fell awkwardly to the ground.

The grass was truly overgrown and hadn’t been mowed by man or beast in some years. Grasshoppers sounded off their announcements to their potential mates, and empty tins of Special Brew lager clunked under my shoes. As I drew closer to the main farmhouse, I could see only smashed windows, and the distant traces of half-scrawled graffiti over the face of the building. The closer I got, the more the roar of the motorway obliterated the noises of nature. As a child, I would have been pursued and warned by a flock of honking geese by this point, but now, at the turn of the twenty first century, all I could hear was the snake hiss of tyres on wet tarmac, and the growling throttle of trucks.

I turned to go back to the lane, consulting my map again to consider transport routes back into London from where I could return home to Bristol. I must have cut a troubled-looking figure, for eventually a car pulled up beside me, and the driver put his head out of the window.

“Where are you looking to get to?” asked the driver, an olive skinned man with cropped hair and a matey expression.

“Well, I wanted to go and look around the farm,” I said. “It used to be here. But this is all that’s left now”.

He regarded me with an amused face.

“How old’s that map you’re looking at?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Early eighties, I guess.”

“Jesus, mate…” he said. “Listen, that farm’s been derelict for almost as long as I’ve been living round here. The farmer packed up and went. Do you drive?” he asked, disconnectedly.

“No,” I replied.

“A shame. You see, I use one of these”. He pulled out a small black box with a shimmering flat monitor screen.

“They can show you an up-to-date view of the roads in your area. Suggested routes, possible short cuts, the works. I don’t even need to think anymore with this gadget, frees my brain up for other things!” he joked.

I held my atlas up weakly.

“This is a big atlas, though,” I said. “It covers the whole area! And it was cheap.”

The man laughed at me piteously.

“Well this,” he said, holding the black box up again, “is the whole bloody country, and it fits in my hand!”

I regarded him silently.

“You need a lift back somewhere?” he asked. “Hop in if you want”.

“No,” I replied. “I’ll be fine. I came out for a walk, and I suppose I should carry on having one”.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “Good luck!” then pushed his foot down aggressively on the accelerator and skidded away noisily.

I began to walk in the direction of the main road. According to the atlas, a railway station lay just two miles away, and from there I could get a train into central London. I assumed the train line, at least, would still be operating.

The roar of the motorway obliterated everything and stopped me from thinking about anything apart from the discomfort of the noise for awhile, but when I got further away I realised that my brain was working again, and the wrongness of everything that had happened recently came to the forefront. Somewhere in the country, in a mysterious, non-specified place untraceable by the man’s black box, was Anna, but no amount of technology was going to trace her at this stage, and no amount of life-changing, mood-altering pills were going to make her change her mind. She meant it this time. I knew that. The patterns of our relationship had inexplicably changed. There were no games being played anymore.

I turned back and walked towards the motorway again. The noise, the steady flow of traffic, the roar of lorries, the certainty of destinations, drowned the chaos of my life out. I welcomed the modern racket in, and gazed at the vacant farmhouse in the distance. As I looked on at it, I found myself wondering why I was in any rush to go home. It was summer, I had nothing good to go back for, and this was a kind of shelter. I could hide here for a long time to come.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Dog On Its Hind Legs

Of course, we’d both always wanted a dog. We’d discussed the issue many times over, weighing up the pros and cons, zig-zagging around the complexities of canine care. Who would look after the mutt whilst both of us were at work during the day? Would it be fair on the creature to be locked in a small flat in London? Did we really want to make compromises to our lifestyle, always having to put a quadruped first?

These are questions every serious dog owner should ask themselves before committing to their new role, and I’m sure you’ll have seen the numerous campaigning leaflets for yourself – “A Dog Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas”, “Dogs Are Animals, Not Fashion Statements”, “Dogs Die in Hot Cars”, that kind of thing. I was still in the process of quizzing myself over the muddiness of my desire to have a new friend versus the practicalities, when Claire came home one Saturday afternoon with a large black Standard Poodle.

“Surprise!” she declared loudly as she walked through the door with the soft metal haired creature, an eighties salon on legs. It regarded me with what seemed like a mixture of affected nonchalance and dismay, like a rocker sibling observing his skinny, short-haired liberal brother.

“We hadn’t discussed this properly yet!” I said, but she simply waved her hand at me dismissively, as if she’d had enough of that particular subject, then replied “His name is Geoffrey”.

“Geoffrey?” I shouted. “But Geoffrey isn’t a dog’s name! It’s the name of Tory MPs, or children’s presenters, or ageing Yorkshire cricketers! Dogs should not be called Geoffrey!”

“Well, that’s what they told me his name was at the rescue centre, and that’s what he answers to,” she replied, and the two of them walked off and barely acknowledged me for the rest of the afternoon.

In fact, if Geoffrey did indeed answer to his ridiculous name, he certainly never did it when I called him that day. It was almost as if I wasn’t a presence in the flat so far as the hound was concerned – he never once looked at me, nor acknowledged my entrance into the room. If this was what the glory of companionship with a mutt was supposed to be all about, I wasn’t feeling the satisfied glow at all. I was beginning to wish we’d bought a cat.

Two nights later, after two full days of being ignored by Geoffrey, I was woken up in the middle of the night by what I thought was the light in the spare room flicking on and off. I sleepily poured myself out of bed to investigate, and saw only Geoffrey stood by the spare room door, glaring at me. There was no other human presence to be seen.

“Is there someone else in the flat, Geoffrey?” I asked, almost expecting him to answer, but he trotted off doggishly to the kitchen, and returned to his bed-basket. It was then that it occurred to me that he must have used the light-switch himself.

I told Claire about this incident the next morning.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed. “You’ve just been dreaming. He’s not tall enough to turn the lights on and off even if he stands on his hind legs.”

“He could have jumped up and switched them on,” I answered, but she just told me to stop being “silly”.

My suspicions about him continued over the coming days. Many of my possessions had been moved around the flat, some placed on different shelves, some with the tell-tale marks of pawprints or toothmarks. It was almost as if Geoffrey was expressing his dissatisfaction with my reading materials, hobbies and interests by dumping them precariously in unsuitable places. Some even smelt suspiciously of urine. I tried to raise these concerns with Claire, but they were greeted with the usual incredulity.

As you can imagine, then, it perhaps wasn’t as much of a surprise to me as it should have been when I walked into the kitchen yesterday to find Geoffrey stood on his hind legs, as bold as you please, frying up some eggs over the stove for breakfast. LBC Radio was also switched on, but in fairness I don’t know if he had chosen to listen to that station of his own volition or Claire had left it on before heading out. He didn’t even acknowledge my entrance into the room, not even to turn around from his activity to gauge my reaction. To all intents and purposes, it was as if I were of the lowest significance in the dog’s priorities. Whilst the eggs sizzled, he gently rocked the pan backwards and forwards with his front left paw. He looked more like a relative of Brian May’s than a dog.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I commanded Geoffrey, deciding there and then that using the stove surely had to be off the map in terms of what an owner should or should not allow a dog to do. But once again, Geoffrey failed to acknowledge me and I was stunned into silence, and could only watch as he waited for the pan to cool, and then licked the eggs straight off it.

“I don’t think dogs are supposed to eat eggs anyway, it’s bad for their bowels,” I said to him, but he was clearly too busy enjoying the results of his kitchen labour to comment.

While contemplating whether I should phone somebody to sort this ridiculous situation out – although I was a bit stumped to think of exactly who – I also noticed that various slices of Battenburg cake – my Battenburg cake – had been put on to saucers and strategically placed in the corners of the kitchen.

“What the hell have you done with my cake?” I asked the dog furiously, and at that very moment, a mouse scuttled out from under the fridge, took a nibble of the cake, and Geoffrey immediately pounced with the speed of a whippet half his size and clutched the creature in his jaws. Once the rodent’s neck was broken, he let it hang limply in his mouth, and for the first time ever, he looked at me. It wasn’t the loving, compassionate look a dog should give his owner, complete with wagging tail, but a cold, superior look, the look a bear trainer gives to the animal he forces to dance.

Geoffrey did not say a word – he never has done, for all his intelligence he clearly doesn’t think speech is worth the effort – but from his look I seemed to comprehend a clear message.

“Look at you,” he sneered, almost as if he had actually verbalized the phrase. “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that? For months your flat has had these mice, and you’ve never been able to get rid of them, you bumbling piece of airy, pink flesh with your music and your useless, decaying books. You haven’t known the creature’s habits, but I’ve made the effort to watch them come and go. That’s why I cut up your stupid cake and placed it strategically around the kitchen.

“And don’t you ever, ever, order me around again. I tell you, I won’t stand for it. How do you think it feels for me, having an owner like you? You might think I have the hair of the guitarist out of Queen, and need to get myself groomed in poncey boutiques, but you spend money on clothes and still look like some try-hard jerk. At least I can only ever be a dog, and I tell you, I’m bloody proud of that much”.

Once this glare-message appeared to have finished, he dropped the mouse where he stood, then trotted off into another room, leaving me to think about what had just happened. I hadn’t had the chance to absorb very much when Claire came home again and reprimanded me for eating eggs without properly cleaning the frying pan afterwards. I felt it pointless to explain the facts behind the situation.

I suspect I may not be long for this world. Geoffrey has other plans for me. Books about murder have moved their way mysteriously to the front of the bookshelf. The axe from the attic appeared in the hallway recently. And many times, when nobody has been looking, Geoffrey has bared his teeth at me in a manner which could be a hint of things to come. Claire never notices. So far as she is concerned, he seems to take priority in the household these days.

More than once at night he’s come into the bedroom and sniffed my testicles, and made mouth-gestures as if he’s about to bite them off. Next time, if I don’t wake up and notice him there, I believe it may well happen for real. Reader, if I am ever found dead, please take this note seriously, and examine the evidence on the basis of what I’ve just told you. I realize it will be an unusual case, but there may be other similar ones to come in these strange upside down times, where dogs are walking on their hind legs behind our backs.