How grown ups ruin things.
The little boy on the District Line is giddy with insight, his eyes are aglow with love, his voice alive with excitement. Swinging round the pole he’s meant to just hold on to, he tells his friend, ‘sometimes I think that everything is just a dream.’ His friend, just slightly taller, but still little, exclaims: ‘so do I!’
It’s a moment of sheer wonder. A wonder dad has lost. Dad says: ‘That’s the question my dad likes to think about, how do you know that everything isn’t just a dream; that we’re not in someone’s brain…’
The boys try to ignore him, they’re not ready for his existential, inherited angst. But dad now has the upper hand: ‘How do you know,’ he insists, ‘how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?’ There’s a smile on his face, but it doesn’t look as benign as he possibly means it to be: there is power at play now, it’s a smirk.
Slightly older but still very young boy has no answer: ‘I just know,’ he says.
Dad—to the younger boy, they don’t look like brothers to me—is like a dog with his bone: ‘But how can you be sure? Have you ever had a dream?’
This strikes me as near-cruel a question. These boys are maybe seven, eight? Older, slightly taller, but still nine-years-old-I-imagine-at-the-most boy is now unsure: ‘Yes…?’ The uncertainty infuses a slight quiver in his voice.
My heart breaks; I want to hug him and say: ‘Everything is all right; and you’re quite right too, and your little friend. Sometimes everything is just a dream, but not in this cynical, clinical way your little friend’s dad now makes you think and worry about.’ Still dad won’t let go and instead pushes on with his inquisition, until: ‘You start freaking me out,’ the little boy says.
At last dad relents, sensing the fear he has just poured over his son and his son’s gschpänli, who were just a moment ago so excited that everything could still be a dream, and to whom until just a moment ago it probably was…
The tear I shed for these boys is as heavy as the joy was light that I felt for their innocence. If only dad had had a wiser father. The prism of your childhood paints the world in colours that but slowly fade, and if it is tainted, obscured or damaged, oh how long a shadow it casts…
he is walking quietly
across the bridge which spans over
his restless despair
looks so wet in the rain
and the birds in the water
have brought joyous pursuit they
have clear meaning but they confused it
he is walking aimlessly
slowly across the sky while his neglect
is fixed on the ground, such a wonderful
heavensent shower this is it is
soaking the mind
it’s a worldly world it’s a bridge he
walks across it’s a water worth in
reality only a smile
slowly he walks*
the haze doesn’t clear yet
in the distance but as the soothing liquid
is running outside and inside
his hopeful body his temper
has lost its
what a pity ooh
and his fingers gently touch the railing
if only someone had seen
that at this time he was an Angel.*
the light shone through my eyelids straight into my soul into my central nervous system
and i asked the lamp post standing next to me
isn’t life full of complexity
the answer i received was fluttered
and overwhelmed, aghast, it burned out
and my palms were suddenly
becoming a pillow
so i rested my baffled nose and cheek and second rib
while slowly he was
Some of the snowflakes came down in clusters, others in twirling jumbles, and others still in flighty twists, but he knew he needed a steady snowflake that was on its own, a lone snowflake, disentangled, unburdened, unencumbered, free: a snowflake not unlike him, a snowflake that had been gently descending along its unspectacular way through the world and was now ready to leave its most particular, most individual mark.
Such a snowflake soon caught his eye, as it approached, a little slower than some of the clumpier ones around it and a little faster than some of the ones that didn’t quite seem formed yet, and he held out his bare hand with the glass plate on it, and as if a little curious, as if attracted, as if called by this strip of translucence in its path, it settled, and lo: it stayed. Like a bed made for it, like a throne on which now to sit, like a home that was primed now and ready for it there to live, the snowflake accepted this destination and delivered its presence onto the plate, its intricate shape, its form, its identity kissed into the fast drying liquid.
The Snowflake Collector looked at his treasure in sheer wonder. My dear good friend, I can’t presume to know you, but may I name you Ferdinand. The snowflake did not object to being so named, and The Snowflake Collector solemnly took him inside, looked at him closely, as closely as he could with his bare eyes, under the light, and he dabbed one more drop of superglue over him to fix him and then lay another glass plate on top of Ferdinand, to protect him. Also, he realised, to encase him: his bed, his throne, was also his tomb.
A deep pain and anguish drove through The Snowflake Collector’s heart at this moment: am I committing a crime, am I stealing Ferdinand’s soul? Should he not have been allowed to ease himself onto the ground or the bench or the table, among his companions, and then melt away with the sun, seep into the ground, dissolve into his watery molecules and find his way back into the rhythm of the universe? Is my keeping him captive here now for as long as these glass plates will last not depriving his spirit from turning into something else, something different, but equally wondrous? Is somewhere in the cycle of nature something now missing, because I have named this snowflake Ferdinand and declared him mine own?
This so deeply troubled The Snowflake Collector that he spent many hours sitting at his table in his very small kitchen, not eating anything, not even Bündnerfleisch, and barely touching his Chrüterschnapps, wondering how, if ever, he could atone for this act of appropriation. Who am I, he thought, to claim such a beautiful thing? How dare I deprive it of its link to its past and its future? Is it not insufferably arrogant and presumptuous of me to make me his ‘master’?
He felt the abyss of despair open up its gaping void before him, and the urge to throw his third, his successful case for the snowflakes into the fire overcame him, but he felt no power to let go of Ferdinand. Could it be, he wondered, in passionate silence, that I am already in love with him? Has making him mine already made me his just as much, am I already—only hours after capturing him—entirely under his spell? And this is only one, my first one, how will I bear adding to him? Will he and the power he has over me not become so overwhelming as to be meaningless? Will he and his fellows, his peers, entirely take over? Will I succumb to their unbearable potency?
The Snowflake Collector did not go to bed that night. Slumped over the table by the flickering flames in the stove, he sat there, clasping the glass plates between which he had immortalised—by, he felt, killing—his snowflake friend Ferdinand, and when he woke up in the morning, the blood from his thumb where the sharp edge of the glass had cut into his flesh had encrusted his hand and the table and also the glass, and a drop of his blood had seeped in between the two glass plates, and so together with his first snowflake there was now preserved there also a drop of himself, and he said to himself: so be it. I shall surrender to the will of the universe, and if it is not the will of the universe, it is the frivolity of my imagination I shall follow. Ferdinand will forgive me. Or maybe he can’t. But I shall make his agony worthwhile: I shall share him with the world. And that way, maybe, he too, not just I, can have a purpose beyond our mere existence.
He put Ferdinand in his pocket and, still not having eaten anything, made his way down to the inn on the edge of the hamlet, an hour or so from his hut, and there introduced him—holding out his still unwashed, bloodied hand—to Yanosh.
‘Look,’ he said; and Yanosh took the plate from his hand and held it up against the light, and his eyes lit up with equal awe. Yanosh, after a minute or two of examining him took out his smartphone and photographed him with the light shining through him, and handed him back and asked: ‘what name did you choose?’
‘I like Ferdinand,’ Yanosh said. ‘I’ll have to get hold of a macro lens for my camera, so I can take better pictures.’
We called her The Wood Pixie. None of us knew her. Still, it pleased us to make mild fun of her, not in an evil, vicious, or ill-tempered way, more in an abstract helplessness: there was this woman who had the man we all loved, and he was beholden to her.
We imagined her as sharp and fierce and incredibly demanding. There is no telling whether we were right to do so; it was just an impression we got. Not only did we not know her, we also didn’t ever really hear anything about her, other than that she existed. And so The Wood Pixie acquired mythical status, and whenever we found that he couldn’t make it to a party or said no to a dinner or did not invite us to his wedding, we relished imagining her stamping angry little feet on the ground, conjuring demons and casting terrible spells.
Once in a while though, he managed to escape. He knew it would not be forever—we knew he wouldn’t want it to be forever, because we knew, we imagined, he was already too lost to her—but just for an evening, now and then, or even, as on one occasion, for a weekend, to the country, somewhere nobody would find us, he would be able to get away and join us.
Another of our good friends had borrowed a house. It was a very large house, a converted barn, with dark wooden beams, an incredibly high ceiling, deep leather sofas, and the kind of beds where you dream you have gone to heaven, even before you’ve fallen asleep.
We were there for only one night, I believe, and really absolutely nothing much happened: we arrived. We must at some point have eaten some food, we drank wine or more likely champagne, because that’s what we tended to drink in those days, and we did a few lines. Maybe we played some games. Where the food or the wine or champagne or the lines had come from, I don’t remember: they simply materialised. Much like the house.
Even precisely who was there now is a blur. Four of us, maybe six? Certainly no large group and certainly nobody we didn’t know. I only remember him though. I wished, I so longed, I hoped, I so willed the evening to get to the point where he would simply not care enough about who or what he normally was and forget about The Wood Pixie and allow me to snuggle up to him in his bed, and very possibly he would have done had I had the courage to sneak into it in the first place. But I didn’t. Non, je ne regrette rien, sauf… Sauf les temps quand je suis été lâche. Sauf les temps quand un amour ou une trame du hazard semblait possible, mais je n’avais pas le courage de tenter ma chance.
There have been two, maybe three, possibly, at a stretch, four. Two, three or four times when I didn’t have the courage to take the chance that was obviously there. (Or was it only ever there in my—wishful—imagination?) The weakness of being vulnerable. The weakness of not being able to show yourself vulnerable. The need, at all cost, not to be needy.
Morning came and I woke up in a bedscape of white softness, on my own. It so happened that he gave me a lift home in his red MX5. And then the killer line, as we sat next to each other, in worn leather seats, shades on, burning down the M4:
I: ‘That was a really excellent weekend.’
He: ‘Yes, and the best thing about it is getting away with it.’
I saw The Wood Pixie looming suddenly large, puffed up to overbearing proportions, but even she, with her frightening powers, would never know about this weekend, because he’d make it home before her, all obedient innocence. And he was pleased as punch about this, beaming like a boy, his eyes on the fast lane, the one that would get him back just in time, under the radar.
Later on I then once or twice saw a picture of her: she looked lovely. There is no reason at all to assume, to presume, that he ended up with the wrong woman, the wrong person. In fact I imagine the opposite. For him, all things considered, if not quite all told, The Wood Pixie was probably exactly what he needed, for him, she probably to this day is pretty much perfect…
Shaped like a pear, she sits on the bed, doing make-up. Her skin is coffee-coloured soft, her eyes smile with secret knowledge, ancient and wise. She is twenty. Unrushed and unhurried she dabs the powder brush to her cheek; her legs folded. Her voluptuousness is contagious. In her lower lip, a golden ring. She looks like a goddess, and when she gets up, her vast midriff and buttocks bounce to the stoic rhythm of her stately gait. Gracious and large, she beams life into whatever sphere encompasses her. Gorgeous is she.
I remember her, as I look up at the waitress who is taking my order, who by contrast is gamine and lean and angular too. I appreciate her angularity more than I like it but then angular, so am I: assembled in the right way we two could make quite a pattern. But I am seated at a table on my own, still puzzled as to why I am here, and she with her dark brown eyes and dark brown hair makes me feel I belong here. (I have pale blue eyes and no hair to speak of, except in places where it flummoxes now and perturbs me.) I order a Turkish coffee and fresh lemon juice, and I’m given a moment to look at the menu and decide what to eat. I am ravenous which makes me think I maybe haven’t eaten in a while. How long does it take to get from Clapham Junction to Beyoğlu? I suppose it depends on the route.
My rational mind tells me there can be no Sultaness. Then again, my rational mind tells me I am in Kingston, Surrey. Upon the old river Thames. (It pleases me to call it ‘the old river’, though in truth it is unlikely to be older than most.) My rational mind is being irrelevant, I decide, and I order a hamburger with chips, because I am hungry and I don’t remember being a vegetarian, though it wouldn’t surprise me to find that I was. The Sultaness speaks to me now in perfectly formed elliptical syllables, and she says: ‘Nearly time to make our grand entrance.’ I understand her not.
I’m trying to remember the night before in the hope that this would lead to something: ideally some sort of explanation, or if not that then perhaps just a shimmer of clarity. The night before is a blur. I’d come back from Ibiza. I’d been playing water polo at three in the morning with some hearty Scandinavians in the pool. That much is certain. From then on in, nothing much is. I wonder where I’ll be staying tonight, but my burger arrives and puts on hold questions and queries alike.
“Our grand entrance,” she’d said. Are we in this together? I wonder have I still got my phone and I feel for it in my pocket, and there it is, no missed calls. No voicemail. No text. None new, that is, I’m not friendless. Friends! I could phone up a friend, I could call Michael or Richard or David or Sam and say: hey how is it going, what are you up to, have you any idea what I might be doing in Istanbul? My rational mind says that that’s the way forward, but having relegated my rational mind just a moment ago I feel sheepish putting it back in charge so inelegantly so soon, and I ask for some mustard instead.
The agency hasn’t rung to find out where I am. Maybe they sent me here? Unlikely, and also: what for? The fact that the agency hasn’t rung to ask how long I’d be before pitching up, allowing, one imagines, a note of disapproval in their voice at having to chase me rather than me informing them of my delay due to a detour via, erm, Turkey, bodes well and ill simultaneously and in measure that broadly compares.
If they don’t miss me, then I’m not in trouble for not showing up. On the other hand, if they don’t miss me, perhaps I have ceased to exist? Maybe I have never existed at all and am no more and no less than a figment of my imagination. I like the word figment and decide to use it again soon, but unpaired from ‘imagination’ to make it thus more particular, to me. The agency hasn’t phoned and it’s now what, coming up to eleven, but Turkey is two hours ahead, so that could mean that they might phone any moment; maybe I should call them right now. Or would that be overhasty, even drastic. Maybe the agency too has ceased to exist, or has never existed at all and is in fact no more and no less than a figment of its own imagination. (Ah yes, I walked right into that one.)
I notice that I have not run out of cigarettes and decide to allow myself one now, as the circumstances are clearly extenuating. The ritual of lighting it, the sensation of pulling in the warm air. The exhaling, with a lower jaw jutted out just ever so slightly. What obfuscates the atmosphere may yet purge the mind. My headache has gone, that’s a relief.
. . .
The Sultaness was first published in LASSO 5 – The Blackout Issue
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