My Little Empire

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Our hands clasp warmly, despite our mutual cold, as we push through the narrow door.  One small tinkle of that familiar bell signals our arrival – our place as refugees in a town of crumbling faces and grey buildings, where rusted cars compete for supremacy and hearts are broken against nightclub fire escapes.

Behind the counter a lady with a pair of beaming teeth and a row of yellow eyes bows cordially to us, her long black hair running like an oil slick down her shirt.  We release our grip and scan the shelves – column upon column of strip neon cuddled between deep brown wood.  Lone figures stand solemnly here and there on the fetid ugly carpet, noses deep in words; still wrapped up against the outside but here full of colour, glowing from their shoes to their foreheads.  Some corners have sickly lights, some have asthmatic candles dancing unsteadily on their wicks, but mostly the aisles are drenched in warm shadow – the kind of place you want to get lost in.

The Bookshop was our Sanctuary from a race that didn’t read, from a society that burned things it didn’t understand and a generation that preferred to stare at their own faces warped and reflected through tinted shop windows.  Inside this time capsule were the collective imaginations of thousands, gathered from the experiences of millions; an endless galaxy of connections and hearsay, of meanderings and meanings, of feelings and fears.  Inside The Bookshop there existed no fast right or hard wrong; you just simply were, and the words simply existed to be absorbed by those with the right eyes, or jumbled by those with the wrong ones too.  It didn’t matter.  As long as it happened, as long as a dusty page got to see light again, who cared what it meant long term?  What is any story without the tale and only the teller?

She nods her head and we descend into the cellar, down a steep, swirling and crackling wooden staircase.  In comparison to the warmth above, the cellar was always cold and reeked of damp.  But, with the exception of the coffee machine burbling away in the background, everything here was old and waiting to be found; a collection of orphans in their Sunday best with tags on their coats.  Second hand and classics, antiquarian and raggy vinyl.  The ceiling hung oppressively low, the wallpaper brown and ragged with war stories to tell.  Even the couches looked both homely and yet distressed.

We split up and scanned the titles; so many names who had made it, who had broken free.  Thomases and Annas and Gerards and Eves, names that would have otherwise been carved into a stone slab one day, and condemned to being weathered out of existence.  Here those forgotten names shone out in gold plated ink from tattered sleeves and shoulders.  Their bodies might lie in grey now, under overgrown and forgotten mounds, but I can pick apart their thoughts, run my finger over their words and kiss the dust from the tip of my finger.

I picked out something from an Augustus Ligier.  On Temperence And The Common Man.  I opened up the yellow pages, taking a deep sniff of the stale air.  Halfway down a page about the rucks of old navvies, how one beserker had taken hostage of an alehouse in 1855 with a coal scuttle and nineteen pints of mild because the landlord called time, she calls me over with pink cheeks buried somewhere between a hat and a scarf.

“This is filth” she tells me excitedly.  “Proper Edwardian smut.”  I follow her finger as it traces a wonky line.  She reads aloud to me.  Her pendulous bosoms left me in a daze as I mounted the footstool and awaited distinction.  She approaches me and, heaving away, I buried my lips over a single nipple like a barnacle attached to the hulk of Nelson’s Victory.” 

Snapping the book shut with a puff of fibres, she asks me.  “Do you ever mount a stool before you suck on a tit?”

‘I don’t think so?  Then again it has been a while…’

Her hands pinched my cheek through her fingerless gloves.  Awww.. you little barnacle. 

I swatted her hand away.  ‘Are you pendulous?  Have you ever compared your breasts to Royal Navy frigates?’

She cupped herself thoughtfully for a moment, scrunching up her nose.  “It’s weird you should ask me that…”

‘Really?  Why?’

“No reason” she smiled.  “It’s just weird.  You fucking weirdo.”

*

We take the shortcut through the cemetary home.  She points out her ‘favourite grave’; a coupled called Rita and Tom who she thought were called Ita and Tom on account of the ‘R’ going missing.  They died on the same day in 1973.  I hope they were holding hands when it happened, even if it was during a car crash, she always used to say.

We sit down on some old stones, having checked to ensure they didn’t have names carved into them, and compared our finds.  I had a small yellow and purple book with maps of Sub-Saharan Africa (just because I liked the hand-drawn maps), a copy of Mirabeau’s The Torture Garden, and a dog-eared flaking edition of Little Women bought just for the inscription on the inside cover – To Millie, with love from Mummy, Christmas 1901.  On page 65 I found a photo used as a bookmark; it was the top half of a distinguished looking gentleman in woodland, wearing a tin hat and a thick black moustache.  On the back, someone had written Alfie Ypres Nov 1914. 

She put her rucksack down at her feet and pulled out her haul.  Lucia Berlin, Elizabeth Gaskill and… I put my head in my hands… oh god…. she’s clearing her throat.

“No seriously, read this bit…

Clarissa’s buttocks massed before my very eyes.  I could only see the enormous mounds of jiggling flesh backing towards me relentless, like pale tides.  Trying to gather my senses, I mounted the stool and awaited her on…”

‘Fucking stools!’

She tweaked my nipple.  “Don’t interrupt me.  I am trying to read you literature.”

She gestured with her hands.  “Lit-err-ah-chure darlhhing!”

‘How many stools!  Seriously!’  I tried to fight off her squirming hands, fumbling for my chest.  ‘Does this cunt not know that other furniture exists!?  Stop it!’

Her hands reached under my jumper as her fingertips grabbed at me.  Shouts and cries, boots kicking into the cold air, rolling off the stones and across frozen brown leaves.  Our laughter echoed around the cold stones, and those cold faces, as the rest of the world passed us by with indifference.

 

 

 

Flux – via FreeVerseRevolution

Golden Canal York

We wait patiently in a hot summer evening haze, expectant of some event or apotheosis.  Everything ripples before us; the horizon, landscape and the cold shells of the old furnaces undulating in this new heat, leaving us drowsy as though languidly awaiting the Rapture.  We’re reclined in a pair of old car seats dumped in the midst of a daisy and buttercup sea as all around us, yellows, whites and dainty pinks, Louis XVth greens and platinum silver rays flow like the tides, sweeping and retreating in disorganised order.  

She rolls up her skirt, pointing a toe into the heart of the Sun and plunges a small penknife deep into her calf.  Blood begins to trickle out from the slit, and I can hear hissing – perhaps from her in pain or from her fluids hitting the hungry vegetation around us.  I don’t ask questions though.  I just try not to stare too hard at the blossoming crimson below her knee, spreading over her ankle.  If I make this a Big Deal, I’ll probably be next.  

So I pass her another rolled smoke as she reclines again, allowing one bloody leg to cross the other.  I lay back into the creaking old leather instinctively fumbling for a seat beat.

The wind whips around us, eager to join, and I feel her smoke burning my eyes and tongue.  Around us everything has taken a day off – birds stand silently in trees, the few clouds remaining stationary in a rich blue sky like ocean liners.  She holds up a clawed hand, in the vague shape of F# and tells me, as only someone under the influence of powerful narcotics can, the importance of the chord progressions in Tonight’s The Night by Neil Young.  Strumming her hip and making gestures at the air.  And then you go dnng dnng dnng ng.  Ng nng nnnnnng.  

I point out the shadows creeping across our feet like burst oil across a clear sea.  The old factories and cooling towers loom over us now, once gleaming bright but now turning orange as the Sun sinks lower.  All I hear, other than her words and the wind, is the deep ringing of silence.  The buildings around us barely emit a hum, and I can hear every languid flick of her air, every crack of her spine and every crackle of burning cigarette paper.  

The evening sets in, deep terracotta, the little black silhouettes of birds now gathering on the ripe saplings dotted here and there.  She takes a deep breath and asks me; do you remember your finest moment?  I shrug.  Beating a one-legged kid at tennis in three sets of 6 love in half an hour?  Building a home-made parachute out of old sheets and leaping out of a tree?  Scaling the fence into the old factory and finding the cupboard full of glue and pornography that kept us awake and alive for an entire autumn?  She waves her hand dismissively away. 

“I remember… ages ago… you put on a pair of stupid glasses, jammed some flowers into your jeans and then hid in the toilets of a nightclub for an hour.

Until they played a track by The Smiths and you… just… fucking… emerged, dressed like a Poundland Morrissey, in the middle of the dancefloor, twirling daffodils about like a deranged helicopter, until the bouncers dragged you out and kicked the shit out of you.”

I laughed.  

‘Yeah… I was a dickhead back then…’

“Yeah, you were” she smiles.  “But you were also brave.”

*

On misty evenings even machines leave ghosts and echoes.  As I sit, surrounded by a damp curtain, I can hear clanks and grinding from mechanisms long since rusted beyond repair.  Nothing makes sense in this cold.  My fingers and legs stretch out before me, pale grey and barely emitting any light.  I perch uncomfortably on brown springs – the leather long since torn or rotted away.  Around me dead yellow stalks hiss and scream uncomfortably, whilst at my feet a wide circle of burned black punctures the earth like a missing eye.

I’m on my fourth can.  Once upon a time I put a hand on a shoulder, and felt the warmth evaporate my fingerprints, absorbing them into her constellations of freckles.  I looked into deep eyes and floated – always floated – even for someone who could never swim.  

I look up at the sky these days and it doesn’t feel empty, just overwhelmingly crowded and noisy.  I remember the days when I could eloquently scream and cut through the white noise with ease, setting my target for the heart of the Core and exploding with confidence, sparks dancing from my shoulders as my emotions brought down mountains.  Now I fumble over broken words that bounce pointlessly away like airgun pellets against a Battleship.    

 

The noises don’t intimidate me anymore.  If I hear the grumbling of a ‘78 Rolling Stock Diesel vibrating under these rusted springs, if I see its shape rolling past in the fog, I can pretend that it is meaningless.  Just the ridiculous echoes of an old time bouncing off the walls for perceptive ears.  Except everything feels so numb now.  Nothing is rich anymore.  Nothing burns, nothing hurts, nothing excites.  When a forgotten past bleeds into a forgettable present, where can one exist? 

I finish the fourth can but it won’t be the last.  I am too cold to stop now and the dawn is at least another couple of years away.  As my feet stamp and crunch into the black soil I have a vague memory of auburn hair smelling faintly of cigar smoke and pollen.  One leg raised against the dying sun, blood streaming from a single wound and forming a pool at our feet, as all those whites and yellows, Louis XVth greens and platinum silvers were slowly drenched and drowned in her deep, oppressive red.  

*

Eventually she began to lose consciousness.  Even as the smoke rasped my lungs I could tell that she was in a bad way.  Her eyelids ashen, her sockets sunken, her flesh pale and old.  The blood that once streamed now patted rhythmically on the stubborn head of a Buttercup, determined not to be deterred, unflinching.  A deep pool of red formed a circle at her feet.  The ground beneath us gargled like a drowning swimmer.

She told me; when I was a kid I was obsessed with Space Oddity by Bowie.  I used to listen to that song over and over and over and over again on my little kiddie cassette player.  And then, when my parents got pissed off and wanted to sleep, they’d hide my tape player.  But it didn’t matter to me.  I knew that song.  I knew the lyrics.  I could feel every vibration of every note in my ears.  So I would creep out of my bed when everything was quiet, go to my bedroom window and stare into the night sky imagining that Major Tom was real… that he was actually floating out there in his old tin can, just a dead man perfectly preserved in a vacuum, endlessly orbiting the planet.  

I wonder what happened to that girl who didn’t look at the floor but looked up to the sky.  

She took another deep drag and lifted her toe up to cover the sun.

What happened to the girl who believed in Major Tom?

*

I wonder that as well.  I wonder what happened to the boy who believed in the girl who believed in Major Tom.  There is no wind now, but I still hear the hiss of the dead stalks around me.  I remember, only just, when this meadow sang with colour.  

I cannot keep the flowers alive with memory alone.

(Originally posted on freeverserevolution, with thanks.)

Bee Jams – Jimmi Campkin — FREE VERSE REVOLUTION

Sitting uneasily on the remains of an old washer-dryer, I look up to the sky and toast the world. At my feet, dead yellow grass paws pathetically at my shoes. I light another cigarette and blow smoke into the day. It is nice to feel involved in some small way with this wider conscious, even […]

via Bee Jams – Jimmi Campkin — FREE VERSE REVOLUTION

Starlings

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She told me; I want to tell you three things and I want you to shut up whilst I’m talking.  Holding up a hand, she extended a finger as she counted.  There’s a dream… a memory… and a verdict.  They are connected, but I don’t know how. 

The bridge creaked in the wind, bustling through the narrow valley below.  Our bare, dirty feet hung into the abyss, as curious animals peered up to see whether we were a threat or just angels.  I passed the half bottle of warm liquor and she ingested it with the grim determination of someone enduring minor surgery without pain relief.

She told me that she dreams about The Boy.  How he always appears in the background; leaning on a postbox as she walks through 1920’s Berlin, or in the seventh row of a Stones gig she imagined she attended.

She told me about a memory of The Boy hijacking a car to impress her but realising he couldn’t drive.  So she took the wheel and got them far away before the car alarm attracted too much attention.  They dumped the car; to stop him feeling too disappointed she nibbled his ear until he got erect and left him alone to finish the job.

The verdict is… that I should’ve saved him.  I let out a disguised cough; this is anodyne for such a sharp mind.

I tell her; he is a severed portal to a place you want to be.

Where?

Anywhere but here.

The School For The Dying – Free Verse Revolution

Flower Steps

When I wake up, my room is a deep pink from the sunlight passing through the cherry blossoms that cover this place.  It never fails to give me a warm feeling inside, as though the rays are diluted through the petals and into the cells on my bare arms and legs.  It takes me back to a colder memory I often have from five years ago of a windy dock and a rotten jetty poking forlornly into the harbour, reinforced by a finger of steel pointing towards this pink dandelion island nestling in the middle of the bay.  I took the boat with other kids all looking at each other with the curious mix of shyness and knowing – that our sunken eyes and strong brows gave us all something in common we all knew too much about. As we sailed towards the island where my new school was apparently located, we began to see that this beautiful marshmallow floating in the rough ocean concealed bright white buildings, whose small towers seemed to furtively whisper to each other at the latest intake.

It took me a few days to realise why I was here.  Sitting through an easy math’s exam to determine our respective abilities, I finished early and glanced over my shoulder.  I was the second of five rows with a sixth row of kids all attached to trolley drips – thin hoses to noses and arms. After the exam finished I took a wrong turn down a corridor looking for a bathroom and saw another exam hall filled with beds and machines all bleeping in unison, the participants propped up and scribbling frantically on trays attached to the sides, with far more invigilators than we’d had in our hall, dressed in brilliant white.

I was now a permanent resident at The School For The Dying, an institution that allowed kids with incurable ‘situations’, as the staff euphemistically called it, to see out their education.  Anyone who couldn’t realistically continue their studies and who wouldn’t make it past graduation could be considered. Inhabitants stayed on the island in rooms of varying degrees of intricacy – mine was just a bed with a desk, drawers and a small sink and wardrobe – but others were the size of operating theatres with machines and instruments that meant we couldn’t have the lights on after 9pm every day.

I got up and stretched my thin limbs, shivering in the warmth from the window.  Today is a good day – double History followed by double Art and a single English Lit lesson that will probably be silent reading.  It took a while but now the rhythmic hissing of ventilators helps me to concentrate during the quiet reading periods. I also get used to seeing our single desks slowly become more and more empty as the school year progresses.  We all make friends as quickly as we can, because we know that our lives exist on fast forward.

I dress quickly, wash my face and prepare my books.  My classroom is just across the courtyard from this dorm block, but I take the longer way around so I can get a glimpse of the sea.  From the outside the cherry blossoms seem impossibly beautiful, until you are inside them and you realise they are blocking the outside world.  But standing on the right bench, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can see through the canopy and get a sniff of that salty air or, if there is a storm, maybe a splash of real, unfiltered water.

As I leave, I see Prof Maguire talking to a group of young girls.  I sneak away to the outer path, knowing that walking too close to the sea is technically forbidden – not that anything is really forbidden here.  Maguire is well known for scolding the girls who hide in the bathrooms to smoke, telling them it is bad for their health, but the arguments always end in laughter.  There are no real punishments here because no one ever really misbehaves. Life is too short, it seems, to spend it being a cunt.

The outer path is cut by curious feet to wind between the mass of trees that separate the school from the sea defences.  I tiptoe through the mud of a recent rainfall so my shoes don’t give away my location. The air is still today so all I can see is a noisy curtain of pink, but I can hear the roar of the ocean as it breaks on the rocks that guard us from storms.  I stand for a moment and try to remember a landscape that I haven’t already seen every day. I see the paths between buildings and I try to remember a street. I see puddles forming after rain and I try to remember seeing a lake, for real, not as a picture in a book.

Eventually I make my way to the classroom and take my seat.  There are not many of us left who are so close to the end of their teen years.  I have already repeated the final year once, so when questions pop up I keep quiet because I know the answers and I know the way to the answers.  A couple of the seats have been filled with new faces this past week, and the other empty desks sit sadly like dogs tied up outside a shop waiting for their owners to come back.

I lift up my desk lid, now covered in deep little carved marks, and add another one to the gathering army.  I wasn’t supposed to see my 15th birthday, so after I had passed that milestone I started carving little notches to mark my ongoing, bewildering march towards irrelevance and a little headstone on the mainland – my marble ticket home.  I have to carve them deep, the sawdust falling over my wrists, to distinguish them from the other lesions and scratches left by previous students who also marked their time, however fleeting or lingering, but it gets harder every day to have the strength.

I am 17 years, two months and six days old… and I am running out of desk.

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