305834590834590 Whist

‘My girlfriend is getting texty,’ the man who ticks every box and makes me go aglow inside tells me. He’s a trombonist and that alone should tell me everything I need to know. Except he’s also tall and blond and a bit Scandinavian looking and exceptionally friendly, and he has that borderline cute proportion of a long torso and comparatively short legs that make him simply adorable.

I have nothing to say about this. Therein lies the ‘interesting’ realisation. It’s ‘interesting’ in so far as I normally have something to say about things. I pride myself – not ‘pride myself’ so much as take a certain degree of satisfaction that I take pains not to let leap into smugness – in being able to find words. I like words, I love – nay, adore! – them. I use more words than necessary. What is necessary? I get admonished for being verbose. What, pray, is verbose? I say things for the sake of saying them. Thrice. I use language people don’t understand, but I get tasked with making things understandable, as a job. I like that. I like ironies, I like perplexities, I like conundrums and calling them conundra. I have said so before, but I like saying things again. I like repetition. Repetition.

In the game of love & chance – I like ampersands! And I love interjections, or little asides… –  I am particularly useless, but I have of late started to enjoy that fact. It used to trouble me. Astonishing men like my trombonist right here and right now used to send me down a spiral of remorse and regret about what I knew not. About not having loved. About not having lived. About not having taken the chance. Now that I’ve taken the chance once or twice and then thrice or several times more, and notwithstanding the fact that this has sometimes but certainly not always paid off, and now that I realise that a ‘girlfriend getting texty’ is just exactly the kind of thing that would drive me up the wall, even if it were a boyfriend as handsome and delectable as her boyfriend right now, I can smile at the man’s beauty and charm and listen to the resonance of his torso and admire the sounds he produces from his instrument and say to myself: that has nothing whatever to do with me. It’s wonderful, and wonderful for him too. And I wish him to really, and genuinely, fare well.

I love that kind of love. It’s taken me maybe thirty-five years – five heptades! – to get to this point, but I’m now at a point where I can absolutely love a man like that and know his life has absolutely nothing to do with me beyond the set of fortuitousnesses that brought us together in this context, at this moment, for this short period and then let that be as it may. And should our paths cross again, then so much the better, but it would still not mean anything else or anything more or anything less. And should we become friends through our paths crossing further, that too would be just that, and it would be just fine. Trombone man shows me that I am all right. He is marvellous, in my mind; and let that forever be so, and I am perfectly all right about that.

We part and go our separate ways and I think of it or of him no more and I am where I once was and where for a long time I longed to be anew: unencumbered and free. I use these words a lot, I now find, it must mean they have become important to me. I see on the social network that he’s doing something exciting with his trombone and his musician friends and the band somewhere and I am deeply happy and unreasonably proud. I have no cause and no reason to be proud, I have nothing to do with his or any of his colleagues’ achievements, but I still feel a little proud of him and of them as if it had something to do with me. And maybe it has something to do with me in as much as I know him and we’ve once tangentially worked together (worked on the same piece, at least, for a very short while) and so at least in as much as everything is really connected and this therefore perhaps really also connects us it may have a tiny little something to do with me, and that thought alone makes me happier still.

And now the words are there and they are no better and no worse than any other, and that too is just fine and dandy. All words need not be weighty and grave. Some could do with being a bit more poetic probably than they are, but mostly they merely need to ring true.

Paris

For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to the tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening of Thursday 18th August, from London. In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning – aflush, aglow and awonder – from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to wonder whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh”, and I note on the tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good if not quite a lot better can be done, actually.” The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. I now, listening to myself then, sense I can maybe today do a little what I never could then, although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though it came incredibly easy to me: indulge myself, just a little. Now, I feel a warmth to me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…

I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988’, and try as I might I could not find a train listed to Grenoble anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness all that surprising that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my European mind was entirely reasonable then.) So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office to start over again, and here I fared a little better because while I still was profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.

I must have already had a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which looked plausible. It was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give this much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains and so I was maybe just a tad tired.

Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased and the lights went off. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station – all dark, all empty – obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night. Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacker rucksacks, and I felt laconic and unperturbed, as far as I can recall.

Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside, and while some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping a few feet next to him on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night’, I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again and those of us who had or thought we had trains to catch were let back inside. Now, what on the tape in my still a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep) I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at trying to find out how to get to Grenoble from Paris.

I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon. To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so after asking a few more people I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle. By this time I can barely keep my eyes open and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours rest on the pavement outside and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag, and I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed and asks me if I’m lost. ‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes’, I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of it may be, but the price flashes up on the machine and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. But before I can really explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.

I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they’d had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, coming up three decades later. And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man – with a smile, two minutes of his time and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money – has made the world a much, much better place. Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…

9 Memories of the Future and of the Past: Walks on Water

Linearity, unhinged. The flashforwards keep coming: not premonitions. Memories of things that haven’t yet happened. I have no explanation other than that I’ve stepped outwith the continuum, I know not how. Time and space disjointed. Perhaps that’s what comes from not taking either too seriously, ever.

I walk through the snow in Kensington Gardens: about three inches of a softish sluggish powdery white that has its own decorative whimsy, now that it is sodden and trodden through. People have spent the weekend rolling snow balls and leaving them dotted around the park. Plus the occasional snowman. Mostly though only accumulations of snow the approximate size of an average snowman’s rump.

I wander and ponder my diagonal position in life. I use too many words, I am told. Frequently. All the time. Words words words words words words words. I use seven when one would do. But would one do? Would one word, would one word do? Would it now. And would it do what? And for whom? And says who? Rhythms and patterns. And repetitions. Nobody likes them as much as I do, it seems. Relishing words, the love of words, words in their own right, to no end and no purpose, propelling no plot, describing no thing, put there for their very own sake. Superfluousnesses:

Abundance.

Words for what they are, not what they’re worth. A picture paints a thousand words; a word, when pictures in their thousands fail, may say it all. Nobody gets that. It follows that nobody gets me: I am my words, that’s what I am, they are me. I’m little else, nothing. Else. Really. I am obviously not my body. The ways in which I neglect my body are subtle, I don’t actively abuse it. I don’t damage it, or only slightly, sometimes, and not wantonly. I’m not vain, though I am, I perceive, as I tangent the bedecked lawn with its broad traces of snowballing on it, a tad narcissistic. I don’t want to be, but I am a little in love with myself. Damn, another unwelcome insight. But I have to be a little in love with myself: I’m single and somewhat singular. If I don’t love me at least a little then nobody loves me at all and that would be heartbreaking, sad. The differential between lone and lonesome; lonely, alone. Now that I know I am troubled, troubled I see that nobody knows the trouble I see. In all likelihood it is true: I do have a bit of a Messiah complex as well, but then so did Jesus.

I remember walking through the snow in Kensington Gardens once before, though there wasn’t as much then, snow. There was ice, however, on the Round Pond and my girlfriend, my girl friend, then girlfriend, and I came up towards it in deep conversation and we liked the idea of walking on ice, it was a London Park in January thing to do and I was new to London in January and she was visiting me and we tested the ice just a bit and found it sufficiently strong and so we started crossing the pond. There was magic abroad in the air, or would have been, had I felt towards her quite as she did towards me.

She was, I believe, in love with me, deeply. I liked her. And found her likeable and attractive as a human being but I wasn’t ‘attracted’ to her. We came to the middle of the pond and looked around and enjoyed the ducks and the geese being comical and clumsy, and then we walked on, and shortly before we reached the other side we happened upon a sign that said DANGER THIN ICE and we laughed and we came off the ice and continued our walk, talking.

That’s how young we were, how unencumbered. I’m a little in love with that boy, that lad, that young man. I was never really a lad, I don’t think, I was hardly ever a boy, I was a very young man though. I certainly was never a guy or a geezer. I was earnest and a little pretentious, in fairness; maybe a lot. And possibly just on the borderline end of the autistic scale; maybe just eligible, by today’s standards, for On-the-Scale-Asperger’s, though of that I can’t now be sure.

And now I know that within seconds I’ll be sitting opposite him, that exact young man, of exactly that age, who still, I imagine, thinks of that girl as his girlfriend, even though he already knows he can’t love her, not in the way she loves him. Shall I tell him? And if I tell him, shall I tell him also not to walk on the ice, as it’s nowhere thick enough and he and his girl friend might die? That would be the responsible thing to do, surely, to warn him. After all, this isn’t just about me any more, this is also about her! Imagine how I would feel today if we’d crashed into the water in Kensington Gardens and both of us had drowned. Or worse still, if I had survived, so I could feel something, anything at all today, but she had drowned, and try as I might I could not save her?

My heart feels a jolt of guilt and remorse at not having saved her, though sincerely I tried, when I remember that we walked off that ice and laughed. And that laughter I remember completely. That is a memory of the past. It is real and proper and warm and good. We were a little in love with each other, perhaps, after all. That laughter, that unencumberedness. That not looking back on the ice in horror to check how thin was it really, that just walking on. Hand in hand. Laughing. I love him for that, I love her for it too.

The Snowflake Collector – 1: Barely The End of October

Up at the end of the valley, the far end, before it yields to the glacier which reaches down from the mountain pass, slowly receding now with growing temperatures, lives an old man who looks at the world still with wonder.

He is not as old as he seems at first glance, and much older than his years all the same, for he knows. He knows, deep inside, what holds the universe together and what tears it apart and what being these molecules, what being that energy means. He knows it but he can’t express it, and so he won’t. He won’t talk about it, he won’t, in fact, talk about anything much, he appreciates silence.

When he was young he used to meet up with friends for a drink and a chinwag, and then it began to dawn on him that much of what he was being told, and even more of what he heard himself speak, was an array of variations on themes: things he’d heard said and had spoken before, in this way, or that, or another. Self-perpetuating reiterations of what everybody already knew and keenly agreed on, or hotly disputed, as was their whim.

And so he let go, he let go of his friends whom he loved but could no longer bring himself to like, and let go of the circuitous conversations that did nothing but remind everybody that they were still who they thought they needed to want to be. He was tired. And being tired he got old, older than his years, older than his looks, older than the oak tree in the oldest garden. And he moved, once or twice first, then twice or thrice more, and each move took him further away from those whom he had been, had made himself feel, acquainted with. First the country, then the coast, then the foreign lands, then mountains, then the valley and then the end of the valley, in the mountains again. The remotest place he could find.

It was not that he was happy here, it was just that he was content. Content not to need to desire happiness any more. And here he sat and walked. Sat by the house he’d bought for very little, and walked over the fields and the meadows and up to the vantage points from which he could see the peaks and the woods and the villages, in the very great distance. He liked that distance: distance was space, distance was calm, distance was perspective. Unencumberedness. Distance was good.

Winter came to the valley and it was barely the end of October and going for walks now was harder because everything was covered in snow. And this being the far end of the remotest valley he could find, nobody came to clear the snow or pave the paths or even the lane that led up to his hut. So he was stuck, in a way, and he liked being stuck, it meant, in a way, being safe. Safe from visitors, safe from the desire to go out, safe from choices. The persistent demand of decisions, abjured. Simplicity. He’d craved that. And now, he had it.

What he was able to do still was sit on the bench in front of his hut and watch the world go by. Except the world didn’t go by here, it stood pretty much still. Or so it would seem. And he knew, of course, that this wasn’t true, that nothing stood still, that everything was in motion, always. He found it comforting. Disconcerting too, but comforting; and he’d said so. He’d said so and had been quoted as saying so too.

With each day that passed, winter became more present and more unreal: the snowflakes tumbling from the skies like clumsy, half-frozen bumble bees out of a freezer up in the cloud. There was something in him still that reminded him of the kindness of people, and he let one or two of these snowflakes alight on his hand, and they melted and ceased to exist. How sad, he thought to himself, how just and, yes, how poetic. And he recalled once upon a time being a poet, and that’s when he decided to capture and keep them. Not all of them, obviously, only some. And to collect them. To preserve them. He knew this was futile and went against nature, but therein exactly lay the exquisite sensation of thrill and deep satisfaction. To do something that was futile and that went against nature, but that would be indescribably beautiful. That was more than existing, that went beyond breathing and eating and sleeping and defecating and shaking in anger and dreaming and imagining and sitting and thinking: that was living. That was imbuing the accidental presence of clusters of mass-manifest energy in this constellation with something that surpassed everything, something divine, something purposeful and profound, something quintessentially and incomparably human: meaning.


> 2: His Task Would Be Immense