Rhubarb

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When mischief is brewing in her mind she licks her lips involuntary, usually in twos or threes.  When she flirts, she scratches an old ear piercing and thinks of gameshow themes to slow the pace of her heart – sometimes she misses sentences when the object of her desire is talking.  She remembers a game her ex used to play in their shiny office building – walking into one of the elevators and, rather than turning around to face the doors, actually standing in front of them, staring into the compartment, making eye contact with everyone.  That’s how they met; the doors opened and she saw twelve anxious people looking towards her for help, and the back of a man’s head.  She stood alongside him and the pair of them, shoulder to shoulder, stared, grinning as everyone began to examine the condition of their own shoes and watches.

Now she drives home over country roads, barefoot even in winter, the car heater blasting her toes.  When she gets home, she will perch on her bed and rub out the corrigated pattern left on her dirty feet from the pedals.  Coming home in the fog, as the road undulates, the lights from other cars will dance up and down like spirits warning of peril ahead.  Diving between low-lying mist, she imagines herself as a fighter pilot flitting in and out of cloud cover to shake off the Volkswagen MiG or Audi Spitfire hot on her tail-lights.  She increases her speed, so the white painted lines in the centre of the road disappear under her car to the beat of her music, as cats-eyes wink her seductively home.

Lover’s Spit

Clouds XXIII

Kneeling in gravel surrounded by plastic fumes, you search for beauty wherever you can.  She stared at the sun through the prick of a steel gable, rusted from disinterest, and took one last deep drag to the filter before flicking a dog-end towards a mottled drain.  He sits uncomfortably on upturned crates, the jagged plastic leaving a distinctive pattern of civilisation’s streets on his arse cheeks.  He looks up to a single light, brighter than the moon but as artificial as the polyester shirt covered in sweat and grease that causes him to itch on Fridays.  He avoids the neon glare of glasses on a stone boulder face and instead looks for landmarks, as subtle as the teeth in a comb.  A silouetted hillside, one single mound more than just a trick of the tired eyes.  He can smell pet food everywhere, even around a drunk colleague who sips Jack Daniels in the staff room at 3am whilst the TV plays static in his face.  A man waiting for a ghost to emerge from the noise.

She is torn between the warm carpets and the cold reality.  Separated by two doors are two distinct lies – professionalism and happy workers.  She bridges them both as she rams her hand down another toilet, dreaming of June and two weeks when she can take off all her clothes, change the locks and sit in the executive office playing on a decrepid Game Boy.

He emerges to dawn, as she leaves to the same.  The sun sets on one day and sets to another of hope.  Both of them are surrounded by detritus.  He walks alone through the paper and plastic of a forgotten retail park, she drives past warehouses with hollow windows, where the sun shines through trying to find signs of life like a beam searching for atoms.

Both will hear the cymbals crash.  Pet food smells, lorries, terrible strip clubs and milk cabinets will become irrelevant.  He flings open the doors and allows the rats in, his skin covered in a layer of icy sweat, hair all nonsense now.  She welcomes the erudite man with a genuinely fake smile, as her sabotage begins havoc and metal crashes against each other.  Toilets overflow with shit and paper, sinks explode in limescale and hair, oil seeps from gangrenus industrial wounds.  Railway tracks buckle in a futile but meaningful show of support.

As they leave, they tune into a memory.  He remembers fucking her in front of a roaring fire, his great spermatic climax occuring just in time for the accusing headlights in the driveway, the frantic scrabbling of clothes before the parents amble back in.  She remembers all those games of pool in the dingy pub, beating him again and again, refusing his pathetic cock and weak shoulders but entranced by eyes that burned with passion.  Together they meet in a stolen car, and as the cymbals crash again and the guitars burst into a wall of noise, they are spectacular again….

….as they always were.

Bench Lovers

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The two figures are curled on the bench as neatly interlocking as a jigsaw piece; like the perfect flat face of a newly repaired wall.  In front of them is field and ocean, ships passing in the daylight and the soft hiss of chopped corn stalks.  On the coast road, cars pass silently, threatening to crash into each other but always remaining transparent at the point of impact.  It’s the game they play.

He can smell her shampoo as he kisses her parting; she washed her hair just for this meeting despite trying to appear casual by dressing down.  She adores his faint odour of sweat through his cheap deoderant and several layers to disguise any shivering.  She knows he is nervous, and even as she rests her head on his chest his heart threatens to give her a thumping black eye.  Move your ear to the centre of his chest.  The breaths are erratic.  He’s too young for a heart attack.  So you grip the fabric of the hoodie in a tight fist and you feel the heart change up a gear.  Her elbow may or may not be brushing against the first signs of arousal in his groin.  Even through the layers, the faintest glimpse of skin on skin is enough to set him off.

He is trying to calm his breathing down, trying to appear nonchalant as he speaks but his sentences are broken up by pauses and halting full stops.  He can’t get the words out as his lungs are full of air.  He’s certain that his heart is thumping into her ear, but she doesn’t mind.  She nestles her head in deeper to the chest cavity, nevermind the metal zip of his hoodie pressing into her cheek.  He fidgets to try and hide the beginnings of an erection from her hand which traces dim circles in the area of his bellybutton.  He could pass it off as the fold of his jeans for now, but not for long.

There is a strange irony at work here.  She is succeeding in remaining cool, but if the roles were reversed he would feel her heart leaping from between her breasts.  She doesn’t need to speak, she just curls up passively and enjoys his reaction.  He knows this moment is special so he tries to distract himself.  Take himself out of the moment.  A train rumbles past on the nearby railway line.  A cyclist glances towards them and ploughs across the field.  He remembers a football game, a video game.  But then his nostrls catch her scent again and he has to take a deep breath, raising her head.  He holds it.  She looks up and smiles and he releases, shakily.  He’s now trembling, that mischevious shiver he encountered the night he lost his virginity.

Her fingertips drizzle over the hems of his jeans.  She feels his hips twitch but avoids his lap anyway.  Now is not the time.  It’s nice to feel desired but this is peaceful – caught between a railway line, a shipping lane and a main road.  But it doesn’t matter.  Nothing matters except this metal bench.

He doesn’t want to fuck her now.  This is part of the reason for his awkwardness.  He wants to dance her across the fields.  He wants to carry her across the stumpy corn, sprinting with her piggyback.  He wants to drive her through a darkened city in an open-top sports car, to release the adrenaline.  All this feeling is trapped inside him, as he sits still with this calm, purring creature in his lap.  She absorbs it into memory.  He is looking for the release valve.

Together they watch the sunset, as he takes a lock of her hair and twirls it around his finger.  His damp sweating skin curls it into a perfect cow lick and he allows it to fall back onto the rest of her head, a single thin crescent moon against the poker straight brunette curtain.

Behind them, driving past, I observe their silouettes for a split second.  A collection of limbs and parts black against the sun, as much a part of the metal bench as they are each other.

I smile, I drive on.  I’ve been there before and I’m sure I will be there again.  I just hope that I still feel that virgin nervousness.  The trembling.  The dry mouth.  I never want to take these cliches for granted as a checklist.  They must always be terrifying, and special.

The Introverts Of The World Cannot Unite

Why are you so quiet?  What’s wrong with you?

A colleague at work asked me this last week.  It’s an interesting question, and to be fair to her, it isn’t the first time I’ve had it thrown at me.  It’s also quite tricky to answer.  Usually, I settle for a shrug and a smile.  Sometimes, I’ll simply say that I am always quiet.  If they don’t ask why, they’ll give me an unsatisfied ‘okay’, then instantly forget it and ask me again at some point a few months down the line.

It’s not good to be introverted and quiet.  Thoughtfulness arouses suspicion.  I remember one summer, sitting in a beer garden with a friend.  Our conversation had lulled, not out of boredom or a loss of connection but simply from us having said all we wanted to on a particular subject.  As the silence grew into the tens of seconds, I started enjoying the bright colours from the hanging baskets of flowers hooked just below the pub’s guttering.  My friend, perched opposite me, said something incredible.  They said Whenever it goes quiet, I can tell you are thinking, and it unnerves me.  

Everywhere I have worked, I’ve usually found myself the quiet centre of the raging storm.  I seem to wander from one enthusiastic group to another.  I sometimes stand in the hotel, as I have stood in warehouses and sat in offices, listening to voices all around me, cutting across one another, three or four different anecdotes sweeping past each other like two crashing flocks of birds.  I hear all their conversations, even though they are only focused on their own.  I connect the dots in my mind, finishing sentences, watching the body language as one person clearly grows tired of the story they are being told and wants to be away.  Like chaotic moons, one person may abruptly throw themselves out of one orbit and join into another one, leaving the storyteller searching the room for a pair of eyes.  They see mine.  They realise I have been listening.  They smile continue their story.  I smile back.  They are satisfied, having finished their point.

What’s wrong with you?

It was quite emphatic.  It wasn’t a caring enquiry, more a demand or an order.  In aggressiveness it was above an arm around the shoulder and just below me gatecrashing their wedding and clubbing a baby seal to death in the aisle.  Of course, the real answer is that nothing is wrong with me.  I am probably at my most content when I am quiet.  If I’m talkative, it means one of two things.  Either I’m in a really good mood and want to make a connection, or I’m in a terrible mood and want to make a connection.  The cape and the security blanket, both wrapped around the collarbones but with different conotations.

Someone talk!

I feel sorry for people who needs constant noise, people who are scared of their own thoughts.  Walking along in silence, running through an old memory or a favourite song, and the person (or persons) next to you start to get antsy.  And they say it.  Someone talk!  Someone say something!  Quick!  There is a difference between solitude and isolation – not physically but mentally.  I desire the former; these people are terrified of the latter.

Being a relatively well rounded individual, I like the energy from a crowd.  I love gigs, even if I’m not interested in the band on stage.  I love people watching a busy street, preferably from a high eyrie with a cup of tea or a glass of something stronger.  But then, I’m happy to leave it all behind.  As I did on that moors walk – twenty miles and I said nothing except a few mutterings to myself and a couple of loud swears at some cows.  The other morning, before work, I sat in my parent’s conservatory listening nothing but the drumming of the rain and the soft scratch of my pen on paper as I sketched out a bit of Art Wank.  It was bliss.  I’m an only child, who spent a good deal of his time growing up living inside his own head.  Had I lived in a chaotic household of siblings and tantrums, things might be different.  Or, perhaps, I might be more withdrawn.  I don’t know.

I’m not sure why people find thoughtfulness so disturbing.  That is what it ultimately boils down to.  When these people are on their own, they complain that they are bored.  When there is another person present, they demand chatter.  Can they not just be bored in the company of another person?  Or is it paranoia?  Is it a fear that the quiet person sitting across from them is silently assassinating their character?  I can say, from my own experience, that it is certainly not true.  I’m way past that awkward teenage desire to please everyone, and I will no longer endure anyone’s company that I find disagreeable.  Rather than sit there and stew, I’d prefer to make my excuses (or better yet, be honest and cause a scene) before walking away.  If I ever have a drink, or a walk with any of you and I go quiet, I’m not thinking about disembowelling you.  Trust me.

I’m not going to be suddenly become an extrovert.  If I try, it’s too ungainly.  If we share a common interest, I can be passionate and fiery, and I won’t back down or slink away from a good debate.  But if there is nothing to be said, I enjoy the quiet.  It’s a shame other people cannot join me in this.  But, as the title says, The Introverts Of The World Cannot Unite.  Sometimes, we just want to be left alone.

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That Aphex Twin, I hear you say.  All that weird bearded-faces-on-women-come-to-daddy-screaming-morphous-bipeds-monkey-drummers-with-cocks-on-the-snare?  Drill and bass, all gruesome and carnage?  Well, he is also capable of simple beauty.  I vote this song, Avril 14th, as the Anthem For The Introvert.

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Connections.

Whilst driving home from work the other day, I had my windows down and I was playing some Joy Division on my stereo – the song Digital to be precise.  As the traffic slowed, I pulled up alongside a white van with a middle aged man inside, one arm hanging out in the sun.  As we drew level he looked over to me, and gave me a big thumbs up and a bigger, toothy grin.  Joy Division mate!  Yeah!  Then another hokey ‘thumbs up’.  I smiled and laughed as the traffic moved away, and in my warm buzz I stalled the engine.

Connections.

 

Me And JG Ballard

It was a hot and humid day in early June 2009.  I took my bike out and I rode out of my village, over to the next one and onto a long bridleway that followed the boundary of two vast fields.  The landscape was almost completely flat except for two hills that flanked me – one topped by a church and the other by the bumpy ramparts of an old fort.  On this bridleway, long and straight as far as the eye could see, I knew I would be totally alone.  I also knew that I would see anyone else coming long before they saw me.  I rode out until I was in the middle of this part of the trackway and then, feeling confident that I wouldn’t be discovered, I took out my camera phone and I recorded a video blog.  The first part remains – me talking about my experiences and frustrations at being unemployed.  But I also talked about someone else, and that video has sadly long since been lost. 

JG Ballard had died a couple of months beforehand, and I finally felt compelled to talk about it.  It wasn’t that I was completely choked up and strewn with tears; the delay was more in understanding exactly what had happened.  JG Ballard had died, as had many other authors in the past.  Why should this one feel different?

Myself and JG Ballard had a difficult beginning.  As a late teenager/early twenty-something, I read a couple of his works and admired his spirit whilst dismissing him as a one-trick pony, with all the snarky late-teenage rebellion that inhabits every confused nineteen year old mind.  It didn’t matter that I’d only read about two or three of his books; as far as I was concerned he was talented but too caught up in writing dystopias.  A hack, who’d found his niche and then stuck to it.  And because I was nineteen years old, and had penned a couple of unpublished short stories, I obviously knew everything about literature. 

Things are different now though.  I’m 30, and approaching 31.  Post-pubescent insouciance, I now appreciate Ballard properly.  As I grew up, he left that unfair categorization and entered my self-penned Holy Trinity Top Three Of Authors.  Finally, he exploded out of that constantly shifting and swapping triumvirate to become my favourite author, and my personal pick for The Greatest Author Of The 20th Century where he remains to this day.  Other authors have written books more emotionally personal to me (Iain Banks – The Crow Road) and other authors have written books I consider more perfectly executed in form and function (George Orwell – Animal Farm).  But on sheer imagination, use of language and just the Total Autherian Package, no one comes close to JG Ballard.  No one.  

I don’t think Ballard is given enough credit for his foresight.  When we think of authors with amazing foresight, we usually come down on people like Huxley, or Orwell and his nightmarish 1984 with it’s use of a Big Brother, constant surveillance and the ghettoisation of the working classes.  But Ballard foresaw many societal breakdowns of his own.  Sometimes the targets were slightly wrong, but the message was the same.  In novels like High Rise and Kingdom Come, we saw societies that had everything, had a standard of decent living and etiquette, revert to a basic state of instinct and reaction.  Reading a novel like High Rise, documenting the inward destruction of a tower block community, you need to remind yourself that this isn’t some post-modern commentary on the poor inner-city communities that are now ubiquitous with gun and knife crime.  It was written in 1975.

If I can give my idiotic teenage self some credit, Ballard did revel in the dystopia.  But now I see that as just the background colours to the foreground brush strokes.  In a very-strong-almost-equal second place to Ballard’s trope of enjoying dystopias is enjoying people losing what they have, particularly when they have everything they desire.  Ballard’s anti-heroes and heroines are often middle-class and educated.  Many of them are in positions not just of financial and hierarchical superiority but intellectual superiority as well.  Lecturers, lawyers, people who earn decent money instructing their future generations.  In other words, these are people with a lot to lose beyond their polished door signs and car parking spaces.  These people are supposed to be examples.  As their world collapses they will denigrate themselves.  They will end up little better than beasts, covered in their own fecal matter, debasing themselves to a Stone Age level of social interaction.  Something in their minds will snap resulting in them reverting to their base instincts, a kind of reverse evolution. 

Ballard famously made this desire to see mankind destroyed, clear in a quote – “I want to rub the human face in it’s own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.”  It would be easy therefore to regard Ballard as an anti middle-class terrorist, someone who wanted to see all those Volvo’s used in hit-and-runs to inevitable prosecution, all those white picket fences drenched in blood, all those conservatories used as makeshift morgues for the dead of Daily Mail Britain.  This idea of educated, conservative people who end up losing everything and reverting to an ape like existence is a common theme – from the destruction of High Rise and Kingdom Come, to the sexual politics of Crash, and the general aesthetic detachment of Vermillion Sands.  In these stories, people have everything and leave with nothing but fire, death and destruction.  

I think a lot of this was wish fulfillment though.  Whilst I would never dream of putting words in Ballard’s mouth, because my words would be utterly inferior to his, I feel that a lot of his stories didn’t simply reflect a desire to see the middle-classes lose everything in an ongoing case of schadenfreude.  I think that Ballard wanted these terrible things to happen.  When he wrote a story like High Rise, he wasn’t just commenting on how a tightly packed community would eventually turn on each other.  After all, he deliberately handpicked the residents of his High Rise to be middle class and successful.  I think he wanted the beige and magnolia brigade to one day debase themselves.  I think he yearned for one lawyer or bank manager to smear themselves in their own dung and wildly swing an iron bar at passers by in the street until their imminent arrest.  I think, reading between the lines, when Ballard declared that he wanted to rub the human face in his vomit it wasn’t simply about making the human race feel debased or ashamed, it was about making the human race feel.  And if that feeling was to be affronted or disgusted or frustrated, then all the better.  

In theory, Ballard’s people (on the whole) have no reason to rebel.  This is precisely the reason why he wants them to.  The occupants of the High Rise have no logical reason to destroy their modern complex, but they do out of a desire to feel something more than exquisite champagne and pay rises.  Ballard’s dystopias are usually utopias with dissenting voices, which is surely a contraction in terms – if everything is perfect, why raise hell?  This is the crucial difference – a dystopic or totalitarian empire usually has a common enemy.  A utopia is supposed to be the paragon of perfection.  But what if we became tired of perfection?

This ultimately boils down to one of the many reasons why I hold Ballard in such high regard.  He asks questions without ever being provocative.  He examines the human condition without ever (really) having a forthright agenda.  I could go on for another couple of paragraphs about his ferocious imagination, I could continue about his tremendous foresight or his exquisite metaphors and similes, but I won’t. 

Because you don’t need me to diminish a man’s achievements down to a few token quotations to prove a point.  But here is what worries me.  I accept that Ballard was one-of-a-kind.  You cannot call someone the greatest writer of the 20th century and then expect someone to walk into his shoes.  But where is literature going now?  Even as I speak, someone is becoming incredibly wealthy on the back of yet another story surrounding a Hunger Games-esque heroine overcoming a tyrannical government.  With literature seemingly more and more enthrall with the movie industry, what chance of another Ballard being published?  Generic fiction – you have your idols…. where are ours? 

A few months ago, I stood in front of the WH Smith Bestselling 100 list and it was an utterly depressing experience.  Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Cookson, Cussler and James… it was a lesson in Safety In Numbers, with the numbers being next to ‘£’ signs.  I know that I am never going to be good enough to be the next JG Ballard.  What worries me is that no one else seems to be good enough either.