Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Sleepy Head

High up in a tower, that shadowed all the neighbouring towers, Sleepy-Head lived alone with her mother. Sleepy-Head had a body that was spindly and sallow like the stem of a plant deprived of light. Looked at one way, her features were incongruous with the delicate, oval pallor of her face. Look again and you might find yourself thinking differently. Whilst she had a bump on the bridge of her roman nose and a small gap in between her two shiny front teeth, she had lips so ripe they may have tasted of cherries and eyes like hot cocoa. Her appearance mattered not to anyone beside herself, however, as for as many of her thirteen years as she could remember she had had only her mother, Wide-Awake, for company and apart from a few windows looking out of their home on the thirty-seventh floor, no other experience of the world beyond.

Sleepy-Head ached to go outside so she could encounter for herself the taste of the wind; the sound of wet grass; the smell of laughter. Her mother proclaimed it to be too treacherous a place for her to enter as yet. With Mother Wide-Awake it did not matter from which angle you gazed upon her crags and creases; her looks were as cold and gravelly as her character. Despite her mother's view, Sleepy-Head continued to ponder the question of how people left the tower in the hope that one day soon she would too. 

Sleepy-Head had once believed that people must be able to fly, for she had watched the way birds travel on their wings and although she could not fly herself, she knew flight was possible. Lately, she watched people from her window as they appeared from the bottom of the building and observed that although she still did not understand how they made it there, she could no longer be certain that people flew.

She began to lie awake in her rickety old bed, concentrating on the sounds beyond the confines of her room. Sometimes she heard other people's babble below her and from them she learnt a great deal. But more often she heard the grumbling, growling and moaning of a curious being on the other side of her wall. She had become accustomed to its snaps and groans. There was a rhythm to them; the growls raised and lowered, culminating in the clunk of jaws closing. The creature could not be malevolent, she reflected, as she often heard people conversing with it. This, she realised, was how people travelled up and down the tower.

Every day Sleepy-Head cleaned the house from top to bottom, not having the courage to stand-up to Wide-Awake who would appear suddenly at the same time in the evening and inspect her efforts. No matter how hard Sleepy-Head grinded, by the next morning her labour would always be undone and the house as dirty as ever. One day, she waited until just fifteen minutes before her mother was due to arrive home before beginning her chores: She frantically embarked on her cleaning. Wide-Awake arrived to find Sleepy-Head beetroot-red in the face and soiled with dust. Removing her coat, Wide-Awake scuttled a finger along the mantle-piece.

Sleepy Head faked a long, wide-mouthed-eye-rolling yawn and exclaimed, Oh, Mother! I certainly have been working hard in your absence, Im just about ready to fall asleep upright!

Wide-Awake exhaled sharply and began to scrutinise the inside of the oven. She stood up straight and looking around the rest of the room announced, Why, I have never seen the place so clean! You must have worked yourself nearly to the death doing all this.

She kissed her daughters cheek, which sent a chill down Sleepy-Heads back, and stroked her hair with a skeletal finger, smiling all the while. Would you like to stay up and eat with me or are you going straight to bed?

Oh, to bed, to bed, said Sleepy-Head, and sleep well, Mother!

Without changing out of her sooty clothes, Sleepy-Head wriggled under the bed-clothes and lay with her mouth covered, suppressing her delighted giggles. She tried to adjust her eyes to the darkness.

From the lights that danced before her a figure seemed to emerge dressed in white and then fell away like an ember. Beyond the wall she heard the comforting sound of the creature purring and burping.

Later that night, when she was sure her mother would be asleep, Sleepy-Head crept from the house for the first time ever. She tiptoed down the tunnel and found herself face to face with the creature she had spent so many years listening to through the wall. As if by magic, its jaws began to open with a recognisable clunk. Knowing that she had no choice she stepped quickly inside the creatures mouth, hugging her arms around herself. Her stomach churned and her skin prickled hot-cold with sweat at the anticipation of what laid below.

Overwhelmed, she sank down and squatted on the sticky floor. She stretched her thin cotton dress tightly over her knees and began to chew furiously on her fingernails.

The descent was painfully slow: she willed to be plummeted to the ground. Then suddenly lights were flickering and the grumbling began to lessen: the creature was resting. Sleepy-Head jolted up from her squatting position, the jaws opened obediently to display a tunnel much like the one that had led from her home. Noticing greasy paper-bags and drinks cartons littering the floor she asserted this was not the same tunnel she had just come from. Uncertain as to the creatures mood she crept away from its mouth and down the tunnel towards a large window. To her amazement she saw things she had never seen so distinctly before.

She saw vivid green and the carefree blur of children. She could not tell quite how far away they must be but they seemed so much closer than before and she could not wait to embrace it all. 

Sleepy-Head thrust open the window with only a small amount of difficulty and with a soaring sense of expectation and elation greater than any she had ever felt or would ever feel again, manoeuvred herself onto the ledge. Fear was far, far away and so she jumped: her arms held out wide as she descended; she felt her dress billow up and flutter at her sides like wings. A man below her looked up at what he thought must be a bird.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

another fairy story

    In ancient times that were ancient then and even more ancient now, the city of Be’ersheva- Mother of Sheba, the city of Abraham, Father of the People, the City of Seven Wells, was a place of importance and a centre for trade, as is the case wherever an oasis springs up in this dry, unworkable place. The city seemed old but it also seemed new, for it was both of these things to at least some people, at least some of the time and it moved and swayed and throbbed, shimmering amongst the already shimmering desert beside an ever-more shimmering oasis. 
   This was a place that clamoured with a mixture of joy and severity. A place where all kinds of people from miles around met to trade and catch-up. ‘Oh, yes! This is the first time in a long time, friend!’ ‘So good to see you, so good, and your daughter?’ A meeting point for people who had been travelling to discuss their plans and decide where-to-next. 
It was in this city that a man and a woman met and fell in love, as men and women are bound to do. 
   The woman of this story was an Amira, a princess, of the important Ai-Hawa, tribe of the wind, who met cyclically in Be’ersheva to buy and exchange goods of all kinds. The Amira Ai-Hawa, was an unhappy princess. She longed to be as free as her name and on one particular trip to the city she decided she would go for a walkabout apart from her family. So Ai-Hawa followed her father to the market place and waited until he was safely engrossed in business talks and then slipped away into the crowds. Ai-Hawa passed through Be’ersheva’s expansive and bustling market. There were fruit, vegetable and textile stalls in abundance. She ran her fingers through baskets of grains and pulses, all the while remembering to watch her head for hanging baskets hanging high, and fruit and vegetables that tumbled like acrobats from containers on poles. Old men smiled, laughed, squawked and cooed like birds and monkeys and as they laughed pomegranate pips fell from their mouths, landing at her open toed feet.
The man was Abiel, the son of an equally important family, known colloquially as the House of Many Doors and he was affectionately known by the people as the Prince of Closed Windows because of his mother’s over-protective nature. Now Abiel was a grown man he wanted to be as free as the wind that called at his bedroom window and so he began to seek this freedom in the town’s baths and opium dens. It was in one of these particularly reputable establishments that shortly after leaving her father Ai- Hawa- overcome with intense curiosity- found Abiel totally benumbed upon a sofa. And wellaway! The pair beheld each other in the way that two beautiful people behold one another. And wellaway! They began to speak like young lovers do, saying thus and thus.
Abiel said, ‘Young Amira, let us not beat about the bush, will you marry me? For if we make haste it can be done in a matter of days!’
Ai-Hawa laughed and said ‘a matter of days? Your people surely don’t marry in the same way as ours!’
‘Then how?’ he asked.
‘Like this!’ she replied and lay down on the mattress beside him laughing still. She looked at him deeply whilst they caressed for a very long time.

If He Were There

Our father liked to walk about the house barefoot. It should not have been something unusual for a man to do in the sultry heat of Guadeloupe, but with him it had become an obsessive caprice. The floor had to be clean. He instructed our mother firmly on this matter. She was to make sure the floor was well-swept during the day, ready for his arrival home in the evening. He had a particularly intimidating way of ensuring she did this.
As soon as he got back from the office he would balletically remove his shoes, whilst almost mid-air between the entrance and the inside of the doorway. Then he walked with his bare feet touching the tiles from the porch to the kitchen. Our father would do this, as he did most everything, completely silently. He had a particular way of walking; like a nomadic wanderer, lifting his feet in the sand. Perhaps it was the influence of our geographical antecedents; the pugnacious Carib, who defended our island against the Spanish colonialists so successfully for nearly a century. Or maybe that was just what my father’s tall, graceful build led my imagination to believe.
He stalked into the kitchen to deposit the shopping bags; as he did this, he felt under his feet for traces of dust. You could have sworn the air stopped moving around him as this ritual took place. It was a pivotal moment in the day, upon which the atmosphere of the ménage depended for the rest of the evening. If our father was satisfied, the family could relax and enjoy a jovial time with him; playing games and telling jokes. If he was not satisfied, he would return to the kitchen and with ceremonial dignity present the dustpan and its guilty contents before our mother. All this before he had even said ‘good-evening’ to any of us. 

As a result, for several days after, our mother would pay special attention to this duty and all of the children of the house would be inveigled into helping her in a last minute clean each night before our father arrived.

I returned home one evening, after a long, hot, lazy day at Pointe-a-Pitre fishing with my friends. We often spent our time in this way, not having to worry about food or money, as the fish we caught on the nearby beaches provided us with both. Otherwise we would cook the vegetables we had found in the forest on a wood-fire, eating them surrounded by fellow intruders: Iguana Delicitissima. By seven in the evening the temperature had dropped to only 77 degrees. Our father entered the house and began to make his journey from the porch to the kitchen. Once again, the air stood still around him; stiller than before and we knew something was amiss.
He moved as if traversing the breadth of the island. In a few swift steps he felt the mountains crumbling underneath him, he felt the moist earth below the tropical vegetation, he felt the desert and he felt the beach I had played on that day with its black, volcanic sand.
He swiftly began to sweep the house. From the kitchen our mother must have already been aware; did she hear the sweep-sweep of his furious brush? Sweep-sweep on the tiles. Maybe she just sensed it. There was something about the way she attended the calalou on the stove; her back remained turned. She seemed quieter; more pensive than usual. What crossed her mind? There was a still and silent communication taking place between our parents and all any of us could do was wait.
Then he appeared. Like ear-wigs jumping from a piece of rotten fruit, we scattered. The presentation of the dust was something we would settle to watch from a distance on this occasion.
One and a half metres in front of her he stooped as if to place the dust-pan on the tiles. He did this silently; without a word, as always. But something was different.
Did our father realise what he had done? Our mother realised it. Long before he even appeared before her, with every sweep-sweep of his brush her mind had been ticking over. Stroke, stroke. Another revolution took place; gained momentum from its foreboding. Invisible to us she had begun to tingle, not just with fear, but with angry trepidation.
We were still lingering on the edge of the scene. I pulled my sister behind me, taking a further few steps back. I was clinging to the doorframe now; and my sister to me. I was determined to be a witness, no matter how small; no matter how great my fear.
We were frozen. Our parents stood facing one another. Our father tall and slender; smooth and dark, like the Carib warrior that was latent within him. Remaining as still and stony as one of their zemi idols, while our mother seethed and smouldered like La Soufrière.
Our father’s hand continued to stretch out, unfalteringly offering the dust to her. And we were there: frozen.
A fly moved its way around the rim of the pot of calalou on the stove. Large, bulbous eyes occupied most of its alien head. The membranous wings twitched and its swollen antennae bristled. The raised layers of the circus formed a shield above the abdomen. And again, with wings twitching, filmy and thin; the fly suddenly parachuted into the air.
I felt the wood splintering under my fingertips and for a moment longer my attention was caught by the fly, spiralling into the garden where the rough scales of a gecko drew along the ground beneath a flurry of poinciana and hibiscus. Gecko doesn’t mind a bit of dust but he does carry evil spirits. The fly spiralled away from our sheltered grove within Pointe-de-Pitre towards each corner of our butterfly shaped island and then higher, above the two wings of Guadeloupe. Our parents had always been separated by the fact that they were from two different sides of the island but at that moment, as they stood facing each other- she from the mountains of Grande-Terre and he from the rainforests of Basse-Terre- the gulf that separated them was greater than the river that separates the two. I felt for a second that we kids were the channel that joined them together. Another fly moved around the rim of the pot.
“Reiver!” She made to knock the dustpan from his hand, but stopped and shouted instead: “You want your damned floor cleaned just how you like it, then get a servant!” Feeling the burn of her words which seethed at him like the sap of the poison Manchineel our father dropped the dustpan.
There was nothing else to be said. Our mother left the kitchen and wandered to the end of the garden, her muttering a furious fly-like buzz. Two pairs of eyes wandered after her through the open kitchen doorway, which left off the latch, slowly slid wide open. We surveyed our barefoot father standing in the dust for a moment, who, although unaware of our presence, was too sad to watch any longer. Curious of our mother’s whereabouts we slunk away; conceding, we knew who had won that battle.

What you sayin', Bertrand?


This is an exceptionally long post. It is actually essay-length. If you’ve read any of my other longer posts then 1) well done for getting to the end and 2) be a bit worried because this one’s even longer than the others. You might want to pop to the shop and get a few supplies in before starting. I wouldn’t bother “sitting comfortably”, just phone work and tell them you’re taking the day off.

I’m no philosopher. I ain’t pretending to be clever or muffin, so if you were here for the advanced class, then I’m sorry but you’ve actually stumbled into Philosophical Ponderings: the Advanced Remedial Level by accident. You may know from some of my previous posts that I’d been banging on about thinking about the old M.O.L. This is, obviously, not something that I have begun wondering about recently. As a child, I spent so much time on my own thinking about why we were here; where we came from and generally being a bit serious that I occasionally used to experience momentary black-outs when considering the enormity of things such as, quite how long ago the dinosaurs were and how amazing it was that we’re here at all. Now I am aware that this M.O.L is a question that isn’t exactly new, a bit like Michaela Strachan, it’s actually pretty old, never goes away for long and pops up when you’re not expecting it with a seeming pretence of youthful novelty. “The meaning of life, you ask? Well gosh, I wasn’t expecting that, I’ll have to get back to you!” I was fully aware of the unoriginality (vanity, even) of what I was asking and I’m not pretending in the least to have anything of any consequence to say on this. It had just been that a series of events had conspired to get me a-thinking about “IT ALL”. Y’know, you’re bumbling along, thinking things aren’t the best they could be but you’re doin’ okay, you’ve been working hard, the worst is over, you have survived adolescence and university mostly unscathed, notched up a few more notches on the old bed-post than you would have liked to in the process but generally you know how to make your hair “work” and you’re even beginning to get better at doing things like making conversation with other people’s grandparents and you have a pretty high success rate with poached eggs, la-dee-dah, you think to yourself, I am some sort of actual grown-up. And then no sooner do you reach this sort of moment of self-realisation, just like the heroine of a Jean-Luc Godard film, BANGCRASHFUCK! It all goes wrong and you hit the usual mid to late twenties we’ve grown apart-heart-break followed by “all I had been working towards, all my hopes and dreams are shattered” ennui-slash career crisis. That was a bit heavy. I think it might be time now for something like this:
[Insert lol related joke here]
So when I give this really long self-deprecating and overly self-conscious disclaimer about how embarrassed I am to be asking this question, I guess what I’m really saying I’m bothered about is not the question itself but that despite the fact that we ask this question to ourselves so often, there is so little security-cleared advice on the matter. In everything most of us do we are wondering, “Why am I doing this?” This applies to our careers, our children/our un-children, arguments with boyfriends, the decision to exercise or not exercise, the question of whether to practise our ukuleles or trawl the internet for pictures of kittens with humorous captions? What does it all mean? Should I worry about any of this? Even if you pay by the hour to find the answer to that question, you’ll never get one. (That would be unethical, obviously.) So now, back (briefly at least, don’t worry, there’s another tangent right around the corner, in fact, less of a tangential corner and more of a Thelma and Louise tangential canyon), yes, so back for a moment to the list of three pieces of evidence I mentioned some weeks (now, months) ago that I would like to present to the M.O.L jury (sorry/not really sorry for repeating myself- oh and by the way if anyone has any suggestions as to who might be on the M.O.L jury panel, please let me know, I’ve had a think and I’m creatively stumped… I’d imagine that choosing the jury would be something like deciding the panel for X-Factor, not all the members of the panel should be experts in the field… this shouldn’t necessarily be Project Runway: The Philosophy Season- I’d like to think outside of the Tupperware on this one. It also makes me think of that ubiquitous magazine Q&A question: “If you could invite anyone alive or dead to a dinner party… who would it be?” Where some numpty always says something like, “Ooooh, I’d ’av: Nelson Mandela, John Lennon and Martine McCutcheon.”) Anyway, the official line-up can wait, so for now consider the following to be recommendations to you my dear jury of six loyal followers and an unspecified number of lurkers that read this blog (I know you’re there even if I don’t totally know who you are [although, I sort of do]):

1. Lars Von Trier’s 'Melancholia'. I said you should watch this as I had fully intended to use one of my free Cinema City members’ tickets to go and see it before I had to admit that I had recommended a film I hadn’t actually watched because in the end I never managed to get out of bed in time. That was me admitting it, just now. So in place of an actual review of the film I’ll say that it’s something to do with the actress out of Spiderman who used to say she wasn’t going to give into Hollywood pressure to have her pronounced incisors corrected until she gave into Hollywood pressure and had them corrected, yeah, her, that Vampire-movie child-star, something to do with her and that bloke who wasn’t the short English one with a hammy Southern accent out of True Blood, but the other one- something to do with them and the end of the world. The fact that it’s to do with the end of the world is why I thought it might be appropriate evidence but, sorry to say, I still haven’t done my homework and it’s proving difficult to download illegally (not that I do that- except I do- note the sarcasm- course, I don’t- I do). Anyway, as I am rubbish and lazy, I cannot speculate too much about what answers this film might give us had I actually gone to see it but anecdotal reports so far say it’s incredibly dreary. On the other hand, I’m still keen to watch anything directed by a man famous for bullying Nicole Kidman as no one likes her really, do they?

2. So yes, we keep on asking but there seem to be no real answers, unless you want to, like, dose up on the, like, Prozac of, like, organised religion, man. Enter Mr Will Self with his Book of Dave. My instructions on this one were to “believe”. (Before I continue to rant on talk about the novel I just want to mention briefly that I was really sad to read in this weekend’s Guardian Review of Mr Self’s terrible illness. That’s all I’ve got to say on that, so back to Dave.) EXPLAIN THE BOOK. What answers does this satire give us? Perhaps none, other than the very important one which is not to trust answers that are spoon-fed to us with sugar by Mary Poppinses in dog-collars, obviously, and whilst you may not know the answers you can still comfort yourself by laughing at those who think they do. Which leads nicely onto my third piece of evidence and, hark, for quite a revelation it is!

3. Graniad article: I said to read it, and here this is where my original disclaimer kicks in again. Much like my previous sausage roll feminism this is juice drink philosophy, not freshly squeezed. But somehow, like choosing a bottle of Lucozade instead of a fruit-smoothie after a night out binge-drinking, it managed to help me to kick-start my day and cure me, at least temporarily, of my M.O.L hangover. This article from 2004, is a summarised version of ‘What’s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life’ by Julian “my real name is probably Baggins” Baggini. You may know him from other toilet-reading classics such as “The Duck That Won the Lottery: And 99 Other Bad Arguments” and “The Influence of Egg and Bacon Flavoured Crisps on 9/11* and Other Underwater Basket-Weaving Experiments”. I would imagine, although I cannot be sure, that he is probably friends with other intellectual-writing-for-Generation-X authors John Sutherland (“Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction”), Tom Hodgkinson (author of “How to be Idle”, “How to be Free” and “How I became idle and free by telling you how be idle and free but I hope to god, you never do or no one will buy my books anymore”) and that other Guardian darling, sneary-self-help guru, Oliver Burkeman with his new book, “Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done” which tells you so much about [what the book is about and…] what life is really all about in just the title that you really need not read the book at all but just go… well, gosh, I think that perhaps what this is going to tell me is that ultimately whatever I do in order to be happier, the most I can expect to achieve is to be slightly happier and get a bit more done, therefore…. maybe I should just stop worrying about being happier, worrying about getting more done, reading books that tell me to stop worrying, reading books that tell me to get (a bit) more done and just fucking well be a bit happier and get a bit more done. It’s that classic modern folk expression again, isn’t it?: JUST DO IT (I think it might have been something Beowulf said). Anyway, I merely josh about these writers as I like them all and besides I'm part of the tabbing generation who can’t concentrate on anything too heavy for long and would probably never read non-fiction if it wasn’t for Sutherland & co.

Anyway, you go back to her and I’ll go back to, back to, back to Baggini, (a careful consonant/vowel swap still isn’t fooling us into thinking your real name is more exotic than it is BAGGINS). But good gravy, and juice-drink philosophy aside, I think the man might be onto something. He begins with an oft-related anecdote about a taxi driver who once had “that Bertrand Russell in the back of his cab.”

I feel, though, that I can maybe sympathise with Mr Russell. Let me use another two hundred-word tangent to explain! [I’ll use a different font and indent the text in desperate  hope of maintaining your concentration.]

Back in 2005 when I had begun ‘seeing’ (amongst other verbs in the present continuous… funny that ‘seeing’ is the one we tend to focus on, perhaps ‘touching’ is too crude, ‘smelling’ too subtle, ‘hearing’ too friendly?) a man we’ll call Mr. Rochester (or something funnier, but no comparisons to Bridget Jones and Mr Darcy, please) he used to call me sometimes when he’d remembered that he had a girlfriend who he could use his mobile to contact, when said mobile wasn’t lost under a pile of damp washing and pizza boxes, that is and ask: ‘What you sayin’?’ Now, at the risk of endangering my impossibly cool reputation (and I must stress that this was SIX years ago- we didn’t even have The Internet, Ukuleles or BlueTac then, for god’s sake, NO-ONE was that cool) but for quite some time this question left me rather puzzled. In fact, the question and my ensuing bewilderment were possibly indicative of some deeper miscommunication at play in our relationship but leaving that aside I was quite confused and for several weeks and months whenever Mr. Rochester asked me: “C* (*Insert real name here), what you sayin?” or “What you sayin, darlin’?” and I’d just reply in a way, which may have accidentally implied a lack of interest, “well, err, nothing really, Mr. Rochester,” when really, despite my Peckham ““roots”” I just wasn’t street enough at that time to comprehend what I now appreciate to be a wonderfully inclusive greeting (rather Batmanghelidjhesque, you might say).  So, using my own experience, I think perhaps when the taxi driver asked Bertrand, “What’s it all about?” he was probably just caught a little off-guard, a little out-of-touch linguistically, much as he might have been if he’d been asked, “Bertrand: What you sayin’?”

Now this is the point I got to on the 27th October and since then I've tried several times to finish this piece. All I really needed to do was summarise Baggini's article but I kept being stumped. Probably because, as he says himself, explaining the meaning of life in a cab journey is quite a tall order, and now here I am trying to juice-drink-philosophise his answer even further when you could just go off and read it yourself (-do). Second I was disuaded by trolls' comments on my blog. But third, I was just too busy all of a sudden, very happily living my life, happily not caring about the M.O.L. 

What Baggini basically says is that satisfying the M.O.L comes in two ways... looking for answers in a forwards direction and answers in a backwards one. Looking backwards is actually unlikely to help much, as 'life's purpose, if it has one, is not given to it by its creator', but this does not mean that life has no meaning. 'Meaning', however, does not necessarily belie long-term goals which unfortunately it often turns out we choose for the wrong reasons... we do things for the sake of other things, we study to pass exams....we work to pay the mortgage. Life can have all sorts of meaning, but it is meaning in terms of values, day-to-day values, of which we can make our own personal list (Baggini offers us Woody Allen's "Groucho Marx; Willie Mays; the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony; Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato-head Blues; Swedish movies; Sentimental Education by Flaubert; Marlon Brando; Frank Sinatra; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo's; Tracy's face") and of course, we all have our own lists... so on that note, go make your own list, have a cup of tea, sit back and enjoy some of the beauty that life has to offer for nothing's sake but its own... Here's something to start off your list {skip to 4:45}:-