Cathedral Close

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Yellow Cathedral

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished article, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his determination, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread with an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

Grapes of Wrath

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It is never going to be the most promising of conversations.  I fact, it would not be  a conversation at all if I were not at a loose end, or if I had thought to dispose of the bowl of grapes on the windowsill of my office a day or so sooner.  Why am I in my office on a fine afternoon – perhaps the last fine afternoon of a dwindling summer?

I am taking refuge.

Downstairs, my significant other is preparing soup.  I stay with it as long as I can; I inhale the odours of nameless boiling things, the rancid steam, suffer the metaphorical Cheshire Cat grinning at me malevolently on top of the bread-maker and dog Honey sitting grinning equally mischievously in ‘food corner’- that place she always occupies at times of high risk, on the off chance of a dropped morsel.

I endure.  I choke.  I leave.  Make like a tree and…

In the blessed peace of my office, beside an open window wherewith to scent the first nip of autumn, I turn on my computer, settling down to write.

“Good stuff, this!”

Startled by the interruption, I turn.  “Sorry?”

The voice comes from that bowl of once edible grapes.  “See, what youze don’t unnerstand is, jus’ how bootiful this is…”

A pair of black antenna appear, waving somewhat aimlessly, from between two moldy and rather shriveled fruit.  A foot appears, dragging down one of the antenna.  “Neez a wash, man.  Neez a wash.”

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Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Some might require more visible evidence, but experience comes to my aid.  This is indubitably a wasp.

“You’re drunk.”  I say, groping beneath my desk for the can of ‘Raid’.  Just because this wasp happens to be vocal, doesn’t mean I can’t spray it into oblivion.

“Drunk?  Me, drunk?  Tha’s against my religion, man!”  The antenna reappears, refreshed, and gropes its way over a penicillin-rich specimen that has clearly been its host for a good twenty minutes of gorging, before I appeared. A black and yellow face comes into view. “I never drink, me.”

“No.  You eat rotten fruit instead, and the sugars have turned to alcohol.  Ergo, you are drunk.”  I have found the ‘Raid’ and am ready to end this conversation in the way most of my encounters with wasps do.

“Oh!  Oh, tha’s right!”  He sees the canister, my finger on the aerosol button. “Tha’s it.  Do that.  Do what you do to all of my people.  Nuke us, man!  Kill us, jus’ ‘cos we’re black and yellow.  Don’t give us a chans to say nothing.  Don’ allow us a voice!”

“I’m not killing you because you’re black and yellow.  I’m killing you because if I don’t you’ll sting me!”

“Issat right?  Wha’ f you deserves to be stung?”

“I still wouldn’t want to be.  Anyway, why should I deserve to be stung?  What have I done, apart from provide you with those grapes?”

“You and your kind, destroyin’ all our nests, driving us away, generations of waspicide.  You oppress us, tha’s what you do, man.”

“Only because you’re so aggressive.  You can’t handle your drink…”

“I told you!  I said, I don’ drink!”

“Alright, you can’t handle your rotten fruit.  You’re stoned out of your mind, you’re loud and argumentative, and you turn violent. If I give you half a chance now you’ll sting me.  And why?  I can never understand why.”

“Why?  WHY?  Becoz…becoz it’s like he says…”

“Who says?”

“The Vespam, man.  ‘Is bloody ‘Oliness – he says – he says iz our duty to go out and sting the infiddle.  Yeah.  So I’ve got the courage to fly into the face of the sticky mist and thrust me sting into yez as many times as I can before I drop, see?  An’ then I gets virgins.”

“Virgin wasps?”  I sound incredulous.  I might be forgiven.

“Yeah, well summing like that.  Right tasty queens anyways.  So tha’s why I’m out here, man.  I’m goin’ ter get me own nest in Paradise, see?”

“What’s wrong with your nest here on earth?”

“You kiddin?  Thousands of us stuck in a li’l paper ball waitin’ for youze to come along and exterminate us? (he struggles over the word ‘exterminate’).  An’, an’! (he flicks an antenna for emphasis) soon as you gets rid of us you moves the bloody bees in.  Bloody bees!”

I look at him accusingly.  “You’ve built a nest in my loft again, haven’t you?”

He goes defensive:  “Not sayin’.”

“Yes you have.  And your Vespam’s turned you out of it because you’re an old male and ….

“Nah, nah!  You got it wrong, man!  Iz a holy war, see, an’ iz our priv’lege to sacrifice ourselves for the cause.  Until you stop building beehives all over our land we’re goin’ to keep comin’ at you and stinging you, see?”

At last the pieces come together in my mind.  A mile to the south of my house a landfill site has recently been closed:  the area has been turfed over with meadow grass and yes, several beehives have been installed there.

“You come from the old waste tip at Westbank, don’t you?”

“We was dispossessed, man.  We was driven out!  No sooner we gone, that the bees move in on our land.  The bloody bees!”

“I might prefer wild bees over you, but I’m not going to build a beehive in my loft!”

“Vespam says….”

“I don’t care what your ‘Vespam’ says. Bear in mind he’s sitting comfortably in the nest he’s turned you out of – at least until we destroy it.  You should get back up there – demand to be let in.”

For a moment I wonder if I might have carried the argument.  He shifts about on all six feet, rubbing his antennae over his big compound eyes, a pattern of movement I take to be consistent with thought.  But then…

“Nah!   ‘Is ‘oliness said it’d be like this.  Infiddles is very persuasive, ‘e says.  They’ll promise you all sorts, ‘e sez:  proper hives, reg’lar rubbish, lots of fruit.  Don’ believe ‘em.  They’ll ‘ave you workin’ yourself to death to feed a fat cow of a queen who pumps out kids at about two a minute; loadin’ your legs up wi’ pollen from pretty flowers so you nearly rupture your wings flying home to fat mummy?  Tha’s jus’ a typical human answer, isn’ it?  You think about it, though.  Whose goin’ to clear up your rubbish then?”  The wasp stabs at the fruit beneath his front legs, which have now emerged in pursuit of his antennae.  “Good, this.  Can you see those pink elephants?”

He begins to rotate his wings, letting me know the time for conversation is at an end.  The tail of his abdomen twitches eagerly and his head lowers for the effort of take-off.  He launches himself forward.

My hand points the spray, my finger presses the button.  He flies into the mist, and his cry of “Vespula is Great!” is all but lost as the gum binds his wings.

I watch dispassionately as he squirms and dies because he is angry and aggressive and I cannot love him.  Nevertheless I hope he finds his ‘virgins’.  He deserves that at least.

The clatter and crescendo from the kitchen tells me that soup has been achieved.  So, distracted from my original purpose, I take up the bowl of moldy grapes and prepare to descend.   On my way downstairs, I wonder, idly, whether it is possible to have a beehive in my loft?

Small World Reflections

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It is the fate of some of us to live in a world peopled by dragons, unicorns and goblins. Yes, this is my opportunity and I will let my secret out: I am such a one (In my case an occasional pixie may also make a guest appearance, though rarely more than once, say, in every week; scarcely worth mentioning, the pixies).640px-Leprechaun_ill_artlibre_jnl - Copy

Now generally speaking this is not an inconvenience.  The creatures of the Nether World do not exactly dominate my existence, no:  it’s just that from time to time, in certain phases of, say, the Moon, or when Jupiter aligns with Mars, they are especially active.  They come out to play.  And their celebrations, though so discreet as to escape general notice, are usually to my cost.  Allow me to give you a recent example.

On Monday morning I am late for an appointment in town, so my normally sedate but very even-tempered car is politely asked to hurry a little.   Nothing unsafe, you understand: just a brisk, business-like ten miles through traffic light-strewn suburbia.

Let me explain to those unfamiliar with our quaint British ways that we mount our traffic lights boastfully on posts over here.  We offer them up for admiration, for the bold, artistic statements they make – we don’t string them across the carriageway on wires, as, for example, in the United States – as we should, of course.  If we did it that way there would be no opportunity for goblins to make their homes within the hollow posts and I would not have a problem.

In the last twenty years or so whole families of goblins, reputedly from the Irish mini-travelling community or from Eastern Europe, have taken up residence in the poles of traffic lights throughout the land.  The system works, I suppose, effectively.   The head of the family is employed by the local council to operate the lights, throwing a simple switch to give best advantage to the traffic.   At least, that is how it should work.  But goblins being goblins…

From within the foot of the pole:  “Michael, me darling, who have ye got up there?”

Michael, from his lofty position by the switch:  “I t’ink that the auld writer-fella from the valley moight be on his way…”

“Well, that’d be grand!  Stop him for me, will ye?  I’ll get Fergal here to hitch a ride with him into town.  There’s a few things I need from the Goblin Market.  Fergal, are you list’nin’?  I’ll just be makin’ ye a list.”

I am close to making up my lost time and the road ahead is clear. The traffic lights at the intersection ahead are on green and there is no-one else in sight.  Happy in my universe I increase my speed a little (naughty!).  The traffic lights change to red.  I stop, grump, grump.

Michael, atop the post:  “Fergal, will ye hurry up man!  I’ll be havin’ to change them in a minute!”

Mrs. Michael, from below:  “Patience, Michael, I’ve not finished me list yet!  We’ll have not enough victuals for the Moon Feast.  Hold him up for a bit, will ye?”

My fingers drum the steering wheel: tap, tap, tap.  From a perfectly clear horizon to my left a large lorry suddenly appears, bearing down upon the lights from the road currently favored by a green.   Free to pass through, it enters the intersection intending to turn right and gets stuck, its driver unable to force his big machine through the turn.

My light changes to a green.  

The junction is blocked by the lorry.

I cannot move.

My light turns back to red.

By corrective maneuvering and a waved apology, the driver gets his massive charge under way, so with the next ‘green’ I am free to proceed, though not before I might think I hear the faintest, most barely detectable of taps upon my roof.  I may recognize it, but where’s the point?  I am late.  I drive faster.  Above me, Fergal clings to my radio aerial with his empty shopping bag streaming behind him in the wind, muttering complaints.

My appointment is at the top of the town, the Goblin Supermarket is at the bottom.  It is as I approach the lower end of town that my car’s perfectly maintained engine develops an ominous knock.  I stop to investigate.  I drive on.  The knock has vanished, and so, incidentally, has Fergal.

I am late for my appointment and there is an atmosphere I cannot dispel because goblin intervention is not accepted as an excuse for my tardiness.  When the meeting has drawn to a torrid conclusion I take my car to the garage.

“I was hearing this ‘knock’ thing.”

The mechanic takes it for a drive:  “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Well, there was something.”

“There isn’t now.   Must be an intermittent fault.  If you hear it again…”

“I’m sure it was there…”  I persist, even though I know ‘intermittent fault’ is polite garage-speak for ‘you are imagining it’.  I am not prepared to admit the truth.

“Well it isn’t now.”

But I know it will be.  And sure enough, it returns, as soon as I reach the lower end of town on my way home.  This time, though, I am wise to its cause.  I ignore it.  It gets louder.

I continue to ignore it.  It becomes louder still.  Finally when I refuse to pull over and I am halfway down the valley road a set of traffic lights in front of me that has just changed to green changes instantly back to red and I am compelled to stop.   Let me emphasize, I do not actually see him, or any more than suspect his presence, but I know a very sweaty and out-of-breath Fergal has hauled himself back onto my roof.

When I drive away it is no surprise that the knocking sound has vanished, nor am I more than mildly pleased that every other set of traffic lights is green and I reach the last set – Fergal’s home set – in good time.  They, of course, will be red:  I expect it.

The lights are green.

There is more than a little of the Fergal within me.   I chuckle to myself because I know a mistake has been made.  Impervious to knocks from the engine, squeaks from the suspension, flashing LED lights and warning bleeps I increase my speed.  In twenty yards it will be too late to stop safely!   With fiendish grin I set my hands on the steering wheel, envisaging the panic inside that post as someone runs frantically up the little spiral staircase to lunge at the switch.  Too late! Ha ha! I am through!

I give way to laughter, to wild, demonic laughter!  There are no more traffic lights for two miles and the knocks and squeaks cannot intimidate me!  I throw the car through corners, imagining those little hands clinging desperately to my radio aerial, driving faster and faster; but then…

It dashes from a small paddock to my right; and once I have seen it, my eyes won’t let it go.  Brilliant white it flares, it flies, it flashes; it prances with strong neck arched and golden horn thrust forth like the sun-child I know it to be: it leaps the hedge, it bestrides the verge… 

Fearful I should hit something so royal and so fine I slam on the brakes,   My car drifts for a moment, collects itself, then convulses as another car with brakes not quite so sharp hits it from behind.

The impact is loud, the silent moment which ensues complete.  As the dust settles, a small, squat creature slithers through my window to stand before me on the dashboard and we meet, face-to-face, for the first time.  How do you describe ugliness so profound it defies description?  I shall not try, except to say a liberal quantity of mucus is involved.  Fergal leers at me, waving a stubby, bulbous finger in admonition.   Then he winks.  Then he goes.

Apparently the car which collided with me is a police car.  It seems I was speeding.  The officer writing out the ticket also thinks I stopped needlessly and dangerously.

“But I had to stop – I would have hit it!”

“Hit what, sir?”

“Why, the unicorn!”

“The…unicorn, sir?”

Yes, of course the bloody unicorn.  There it is, lying as statuesquely as any wild horse has ever lain upon the grass verge, watching as I am given a breath test.   But the policeman won’t see it; nor does he seem to notice that Stephanie, the girl who lives four doors down from me, is cradled against its chest, her long golden locks mingling with its soft white mane.  Now I do feel it might be being slightly misled in this regard, because I’ve seen the way she behaves with her boyfriend and he at least is less than celibate, I can tell you.   However…Unicorn for goblins

At length the police car turns around and leaves.  I am reading my new batch of literature as it passes, but I do glance up in time to see Fergal, full bag of shopping on lap, seated comfortably amid its cluster of blue lights.  He gives me a cheery wave.

As for me?  Well, I drive home in a car which now has a genuine knocking sound, and count myself lucky that the fines will amount to less than a month’s wages.   From now until the end of this week (the end of Moon Feast) I shall only travel by taxi: my car is being repaired, anyway.

I feel it is time for all of us whose minds are open to creatures from the lower world to gather together and proclaim our beliefs.  What about you?  Have you any stories to tell about your encounters with pixies, or dragons, or maybe the odd Jabberwock?

NB:   Some who read this post may accuse me of sizeism.  I wish to make it clear I have no prejudice against PORGs (persons of restricted growth) or their freedom of movement throughout the European Union, however ridiculous and misguided I may believe it to be. 

 

 

 

Of Life, Love and Latex

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This is the future, and you saw it here first.   This is how it simply has to be.

You see, I think we have to face the probability that in fifty years, when we return in our next lives, (which I for one confidently expect to do, as a powerful, intelligent and successful man), medical knowledge will have far surpassed those sad boundaries of cursing and nursing and hard beds which are our present lot.   

‘Prevention, not cure’.   Historians of our future will fritter away their Doctorates trying to trace the originator of the phrase.  When they discover his or her name, it will be vaunted, sublimated, placed on the same high pedestal as Washington or King.  University Degrees will be awarded in it.  He or she will become the hero of a new age.

In practical terms though, what will it mean?  Well, I offer you this.  From the age of, say, twenty-five we will be encouraged to watch ourselves carefully in our mirrors each morning, anticipating the exact moment when our youthful beauty, firm muscle tone, and bright keenness of eye conjoin.  When we have selected this vital hour at the summit of our powers, we will submit to an intense examination of our mental alertness and if, after the usual test of five minutes we have solved the required twelve intricate mental exercises successfully, we will  make our way to Progenitor Labs, Inc. to have ourselves modeled.

Personally, once I am booked in, I see myself comfortably ensconced with a magazine that will ensure I achieve the best results for certain of my assets. I will sleep while DNA samples are taken, tissue typing is performed and my internal organs are x-rayed in three dimensions.  I will be weighed and I will be photographed (I must remember to ask for copies to be sent to my friends) and I will be painted over with delicious warm latex.

Then, wearing a discreet monitor implanted painlessly beneath my skin I will go home, and apart from maintaining a monthly payment to Progenitor Labs I will think no more about that day.  I may well forget it altogether.

Progenitor Labs., though, will not forget us – any of us; nor will our medical insurance companies.  They will be listening to our tiny, bleeping monitors as they tell of the wrinkles that are etching into our complexions, teeth that are decaying, joints that are wearing down, hearts that are faltering.  When we visit our dentists a new tooth will be there waiting, grown from samples drawn by Progenitor:  if our joints ache, replacements exactly tailored to our physical shape will be grown and ready.  We won’t need to feel the first flutter of arrhythmia; a telephone call will have already summoned us to the operating suite where a new heart and arteries exactly like our own await.

Of course there are certain extra services for which I may choose to pay – like replacement of firm body tissue and a transplant for that fresh, strong-featured youthful face – recreated from the latex mold Progenitor have stored for me.   And then there are remedies of a similar nature for those awe-inspiring sexual powers…

Immortality?  Certainly, of a kind.  There may well be limits, but rest assured the reincarnation waiting lists will get significantly longer, to a point where those who control these things may be forced to operate a selection process, even a clearing house for the allocation of new souls.  You might find it very difficult, for example to get a placement with parents in the south east of England, or Los Angeles – much easier to accept a more minor role in the north of Scotland, or maybe Nebraska (sorry, Nebraska!).

A price is necessary to the accelerated pace of evolution:  there will always be those who have to pay for the good fortune of others.   With my future-eye I foresee a couple of major scandals clouding the horizon of the year 2094:

‘Progenitor Labs file for bankruptcy…creditors told to expect low return on their investment.’

And

‘Pet food scandal – Milton Ward Cryogenics implicated’.

(descriptions of the author are subject to exaggeration and bear no relation to any persons living or likely to live)

Hot Sauce in the Grass

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The crow being on his lamppost early this morning, and the window of my office being open, we Crow on a lamp posthad a brief conversation which was really more of an ice-breaker, because we haven’t spoken properly since the Pauncefoot Pigeon affair.  I mentioned his obvious prosperity.

“Never known the like, mate.  It’s these fine evenings, see?  I mean, just look!”

So prompted, I looked down at the grassy recreation area opposite my house. It was strewn with litter:  half-eaten kebabs, pizzas, bags of oily chipped potatoes, all displayed in open invitation.

“A boy’s just got to open his beak and it falls in!   I tell you, I need to lose a few inches or I won’t be able to fly high enough to reach the nest!”

As if to demonstrate his point he launched (or rather toppled) from his perch on the street lamp and flapped soggily away.   End of conversation; beginning of a thought.

Well, perhaps less of a thought and more of a journey – a journey back to my earliest memories of morning; waking up to the sound of the electric milk-float as it hummed up the street, the clinking of milk bottles on doorstep after doorstep.   Paul the milkman came from the Channel Islands.  His milk round was his livelihood and his life; delivering the full bottles, collecting the empties to be washed into recirculation back at the dairy.  He was one of several workers with similar missions performing their morning rounds:  a postman whose name I have forgotten, a bread man (Jim, I think he was), and of course, a roll-call of paper boys and girls.   The ‘pop man’ came twice a week, with wares dispensed, like the milk, in glass bottles which we collected for return, earning two or three pence refund for each bottle.  His vehicle was electric, too.

We had coffee bars, social gathering-places where we drank weaker or stronger coffee (‘can I have it milky, please?’) from china cups that were washed and used again.  There was no ‘fast food’ in the city of my earliest years; no takeaways or sandwich bars, therefore little or no discarded wrapping; even newspaper tended to be recycled through charities.  The police patrolled on foot; mostly ex-services men with weighty presence whose local knowledge well equipped them for the war on crime.   Our parents bussed or pedaled to work because cars were expensive and not always efficient.

My school uniform had to last for at least a year – the shoes that went with it were inexpensive, all-purpose and had no particular brand.  There were no ‘trainers’.  I possessed very few electrically-powered toys and those ran from batteries, not the mains.  The very concept of carrying a battery-powered telephone around with us would have been greeted by laughter – why on earth would anybody want to do that?

We bought food at local markets, because ‘supermarkets’, again, did not yet exist.  We ate frugally, our diet honed by the strictures of a recent war, leaving little to waste. We drank water from the faucet.

This week I have driven at least eighty miles purely to cover journeys that public transport fails to provide.  I have parked on acres of sterile concrete to visit huge, expensively lit ‘malls’ where I may buy my milk in plastic canisters, general comestibles shrink-wrapped into pack sizes too large for my needs, even beer in tins over-wrapped into groups of six, or twelve.  I know the highly-priced perishables I pass by have only made it to the shelves because they look attractive, and a third of them will be thrown away unsold.  Even water, a staple of human existence, is sold in plastic bottles. I have passed shoe shops selling trainers for children at prices as high as three digits, people holding congenial (sometimes otherwise) but meaningless conversations with four hundred pounds-worth of under-used technology glued to their ear.

Every street has three or more ‘takeaways’; you won’t need satellite-guided navigation to find one, just follow the paper trail.  Their proprietors have learned ways of charging more for beverages by disgorging them from slow, power–thirsty machines into polystyrene cups. 

I rarely pass police on foot anymore.  Mostly they pass me at extravagant speeds in sixty-five thousand pound cars kitted out with computers and radar.  I never hear the morning tune of a milkman, or any form of electric delivery vehicle.  The milk bottle is dying, the glass pop bottle with a refundable deposit has passed on long since. The jobs these services created are gone, so Paul’s and Jim’s successors are probably the recipients of State benefits.

Our council have allotted us three separate bins so far in the name of ‘recycling’.  We are supposed to put some types of rubbish in one, some types in another, anything left in a third.  A special diesel lorry collects the contents of the first two once a week for sorting in a central depot where it is baled, and either sent to a wharf-side in Rotterdam, or in some cases, I am told, shipped all the way to China, while someone decides what to do with it. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We can certainly furnish them with an excess of rubbish.  Plastic milk canisters, several drinks cans, unimaginable amounts of food wrap, food waste, dog pooh in plastic bags as well as acres of paper that have been delivered by our overloaded postman, peddling goods in which I have no conceivable interest.  The three bins, by the way, are very large and made of plastic.  No-one has ever raised the issue of recycling them.

Accepting the futility of railing against change, my mind is moving on to other things.  The crow is back on his lamp standard.  He has a huge piece of kebab pinned under one foot, which he pecks at moodily.

“I mean, really!  You’re a bit of a sci-fi nut, aren’t you?  Can you imagine what a Martian would think if he looked down at you lot and heard you talking about recycling – saving your planet and stuff?  Hypocrisy?  He’d laugh ‘is little silver boots off!”

“I suppose if you look at it that way, we’ve made a bit of a mess of it.”  I say, humbly.

“Not your fault.  Well. It is, sort of.  A fault with your species, I mean.  When the earth’s falling in on your head, you make the hole larger.  It all started goin’ wrong when somebody up there decided to bring you lot ashore and leave the dolphins in the sea. Big mistake!  But there you go, it’s an ill wind – worked out well for us corvids; you should be thankful we’re here to clean up after you. 

“This hot sauce is a bit of all right, innit?  I might take some home for the kids.”

“Do you think there’s anything we can do to put things right?”  I ask.  He is quite a wise old bird, after all.

I’ve never actually seen him laugh, but I think I have come quite close to witnessing it now.

“What, you mean like when you all tried to agree about using less fossil fuel?  And the result of that was?  Frackin’, mate – f*****n’ frackin’!  A way to get more fossil fuel!” 

He begins a peculiar foot to foot dance, which I put down to bird-like hilarity.  “I know!  I know!  Here’s a good idea, innit?  You want fast cars to finish off the few jobs you’ve got left faster.  So…so…I know!  Yeah, I know!  Let’s extract more fuel from the ground and burn it so it goes into the air!  That’s a good one, innit?   You pull all the combustible stuff from underneath you until the planet shrinks like a prune but it won’t matter ‘cause you’ll all be dead anyway, unless you can breathe carbon monoxide.  Oh dear!  I can’t stand it!”

He flies off clutching his kebab, and my eyes follow him, admiring his ability to stay airborne even though he is clearly suffering from a powerful stitch.

He is, after all, possibly the only genuine recycler we have left.

Firefly

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Firefly 2Once there was a world of bright air and conversation; once there was a house, its rooms filled with laughter. There was a woman whose arms were soft and consolation swift; a melee of children, a barking of dogs, a cat that would lay across his knees, singing to him.

Once there was a bed where he might wile away hours in sleep and dreaming.   He no longer sleeps.  The mist that has closed upon his mind has drawn a veil across his memories – all are faded, all gone; wilted like the last rose until only the naked briar is left.  There is a cold wind in the briar.

Now there is just a chair and a room, and beyond it there is silence.  Through the watches of the night he sits nursing his pain as he has done for countless nights, contemplating the chasm beyond the walls.    Somewhere out in the ether sits a firefly of change, but it will not dance yet, not until a darkness deep enough to glorify its light has descended.  As dawn smolders into the flame of morning it withdraws once more, waiting.

He also waits, knowing (or is it hoping?) it is there.  Hoping it will come to him as it did the summer he died, five years ago.  When his heart gave notice, that warm green afternoon, it danced for him, and though he felt welcomed by its light, he could not follow where it led.  Jolted back to existence, he was prevented.

When he asked the man with shining skin and smiling stare why he should be made to stay the man spoke of a higher plateau where the hibiscus of his youth would grow again and the sweetness of forgotten scents, the smell of woman and the cry of wheeling rooks was eternal.  The open path where he walked once, that person said, was waiting, but he might only earn his place there through suffering.

Are you suffering, shining man?  Do you really know what suffering is?

The window curtains are grey with morning.  Soon ‘Twice Daily’ will come to draw them, to wash the humiliation from a body which although attached to him is no longer his.  There will be food and pills and she will leave.  For the hours until another night his rebellious heart will keep beating.    He will struggle to catch each fleeting breath, reaching within himself to tear out the gossamer strands that clog his lungs, his instinct for survival denying him the final rest his head cries out for. 

But oblivion will not come to him – not for another day, and then another, and so many more; while all the time the firefly hovers just beyond his grasp, patiently waiting.

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Just recently a lady I knew well ceased to breathe.  I could not grieve for her passing because to me, to all of us who knew her, she died four years ago.   She died the night her heart surrendered.  She was eighty-two.

Once, upon what some would say was a less civilized time, she might have lingered a few hours, or perhaps a few days, then passed with her family around her.  Everyone would remember her for the light that shone from her before she was stricken, and the world would move on.   Once.

Instead, those who loved her cried for help.  Instead, she was revived.   Her chest was cut open, a pig’s valve was sewn into her heart and the tubes that had been clogged with the years of living were replaced.   Her body was returned to life, and life became her prison.

Did she live longer?  Certainly, yes.   Was the time valuable to her, an active, practical woman who loved to go out, to tend her garden, to keep house, to walk?   When she could no longer do any of these things, did she live longer?  

I cannot say that any but the very best of intentions brought her back from the precipice, or that we should not stand in awe of all that medical science has achieved and can do.  I would be wrong to question the motives of any who strove to save her and give her those few extra years; but I do wonder whether we fully understand a cliche we use too freely and too often:  ‘the quality of life’.

Somewhere along the way, in our ardor to progress, to make advances in medical science, something has gone wrong.  A balance has failed, we have tipped over an edge of reason into an abyss of our own creation.  It is time to step back and look again.

It is time to consider, since we now have power over life and death, how we should use it.

Ye Tak the High Road…

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scotsmanThis Autumn – very soon now – the Scottish people will be asked to vote either to stay in the United Kingdom, or become an independent nation, thus severing a bond tied in 1707, and a history that extends much further, back to the days when the political alliances of sovereign nations in Western Europe were still being formed. 

It’s a long history.  It was a difficult and intricate alliance which was simplified by union; and now a Napoleonic Scottish politician wants to make everything difficult again.

It would be foolish to argue that 300 years have brought unity.  They have not.  The instinctive mistrust an Englishman feels when confronted by a man wearing a skirt may be part of the explanation, or it may be something rather more visceral.

We do not even wholly share a mother tongue.  Our conjoined languages have eroded national identity somewhat in the area known as the Great Glen (the wide fertile lowland area between Glasgow and Edinburgh) but as anyone who has traveled further north will testify Scottish is a very different means of communication.

If you believe that England and Scotland share a common language read any poem by Robert Burns.

The Scottish are a creative, innovative race.  Logie Baird started the idea of television,  Fleming discovered penicillin,  James Watt built all sorts of interesting things involving steam and we are deeply indebted to Thomas Telford, without whose canals we would have nowhere to deposit our used shopping carts, dead cats etc..  Anywhere in the modern world you will find accomplished Scottish engineers and artists who have wandered from their homeland, and will do almost anything to avoid going back.

Scottish food is, at best, edible.  Porridge, the national breakfast dish, a kind of lumpy wallpaper paste, must be eaten with salt, not sugar.  No-one outside Scotland has ever appreciated this apart from Goldilocks.  haggisHaggis (the less said about the ingredients the better), is mealy and chewy in a cloying sort of way, while Black Pudding is – well – Black Pudding.  Mealy and chewy…..

The truth about Scottish cuisine is that no-one eats it, least of all the Scots.  Their true national foods are Fish and Chips.  And being Scottish, their interpretations of this essentially English dish are imaginative  – hence chocolate bars and even chocolate coated ice cream fried in batter (think Baked Alaska, then try not to think too hard) – in fact anything as long as it is accompanied by chipped potatoes.  

Pizza and MacDonalds also feature heavily.

The United Kingdom (i.e. England and anyone who can get a word in edgeways) is particularly fond of Scotland for two reasons:  whisky, and oil.  These two products define the English way of life (drive to work, drive home, get drunk) and we are loath to see them as anything other than an inalienable right.  To be forced to import them, with all the attendant duties and expense, would be a travesty.  For this and other reasons in the event of a vote for independence I see the re-building of Hadrian’s Wall as becoming a necessity, otherwise cross-border smuggling will run rampant.  As a matter of personal preference I shall also press for the area between the Antonine wall and Hadrian’s Wall to be declared a bagpipe-free zone.

The truth is, I will miss the Scots if they leave the Union – not because the annual armed raids across the border to Wembley Stadium will cease – they won’t.  Football between England and Scotland will persist, and if anything, the fan activity will become even more aggressive:  (Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle on the cost of demolishing London’s old Wembley Stadium:  ‘Why didn’t they tell us they wanted it pulled down before the last international?  We’d have done it for nothing!’)frankie-boyle and not because of (speaking behind hand, sotto voce) the whisky.  Since no misguided sense of patriotism will convert me to English wine, I’ll still be drinking it; in fact, I may set up an agency for a little quiet cross-border activity, if the vote tears us apart.

 

No, I will miss the self-deprecating Scottish humor, the wonderfully relaxed approach to life and work, the warmth and the hospitality, almost as much as I will miss the guy always seated at the end of the bar who proves that if we are separated by our mother tongues, we yet share the language of drunkenness.  If he becomes an immigrant it won’t be the same somehow.

 

So come on, people of Scotland, don’t close our joint account – vote for a United Kingdom.  We still need your money.

 

Hey, Jimmy!   Ah bliddy luv yooo!

The Beautiful Game

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Football ( or Soccer, if you prefer) is often called ‘The Beautiful Game’.   I forget who first conjured the phrase – possibly it came to prominence around the same time somebody dreamt up that one about ‘the British Police Force is the best in the world’, or some such.   Personally, I can find nothing in football that is beautiful.  I can find very little in football that can be called a ‘game’.

All right, my antipathy for the sport is well-known.  I can be found railing haplessly at the TV on any given Sunday, searching vainly through the channels for something – anything – which does not depict professional sport.  But I do have real (and growing) cause for concern, and I will tell you why.

The backcloth, of course, is the World Cup, currently reaching a climax in torrential floods of nationalism all over Brazil.  So many of the young people I reach during my work, erudite, intelligent young people on their way to university or to apprenticeships in the next few years, are obsessed with football that any attempt at conversation on other subjects is ruled out.

 I don’t mind.  I like to acquire enough background knowledge to converse on any subject, which is why I in the course of one session I responded readily to a mention of the tackle which floored Brazil’s Neymar and broke a vertebra in his spine.  I had seen the tackle, in which a Columbian player running at full tilt had apparently rammed his knee intentionally into Neymar’s lower back.  It was clearly a foul in the worst sense, but one the referee chose to ignore:  why, I can only surmise.

But that was not the reason for the chill that ran up my spine in this discussion.  When we agreed the tackle had been designed to eliminate Neymar, Brazil’s young rising star, from the competition, and I suggested that this had little to do with sport my young companion shook his head. 

“Well of course, you do anything you can get away with.  That’s the game, isn’t it?”

Is it?

I soon established my young companion wholly condoned the practice of fouling to cause injury, ‘diving’ in the penalty area where any foul will result in a penalty kick at goal, and feigning injury to gain a time advantage, or get an opposing player sent from the pitch: all fair play in his estimation if you want to ‘win’.

This young man is on his way to university to study for a business degree.  He is one of the next generation of industry captains who will be selling to us, producing goods for us, selling and buying shares in the market on our behalf.   Personally, I will be very careful to watch his progress.

Today Neymar gave an emotional press conference in which he revealed that if the contact on his back had been a few centimeters higher he would have been paralyzed for life.   An attack such as the one he suffered, delivered with such cynicism, would be punishable by a jail sentence if it happened outside a football ground.    Yet the ‘sport’ of football seems not only to tolerate this kind of gamesmanship, it positively promotes it.  The skills involved in the sneak tackles – the exaggerated swan-dives and the agonized protestations of innocence are clearly not haphazardly attained:  they must be taught.

And as they are taught, so they teach.  The next generation will believe that anything is alright, as long as they can get away with it – anything goes.   If too many are in front of them in the queue it is alright to trip up, back elbow, bludgeon and maim, either literally or figuratively, those who separate them from their goal. MH900439553

So where do we draw the line – at the devious, the underhand?  And who will be there to draw that line, to kerb the outrageous, defend the victims of this kind of injustice?  If ever an indictment of our TV-focussed, parentally deficient society existed, it was on that football pitch last week.  The ‘beautiful game’- a picture in our attic, perhaps?

The Perfect Bear

“M’Lord when you look so disdainfully upon this tree you see only the ravages of age.  I?  I see magnificence – a monument to the centuries.  Allow me the privilege M’Lord and I shall create for you a thing of such beauty from this tree!” Anton Beneskja said grandly. “It shall be my greatest work:  it shall be transcendent!”

Lord Percival Fortesque regarded The Briarley Oak, forest giant and pride of his country estate, with some doubt.  “Ravaged, m’dear?  Immensely grizzled, I would say.  Hideous, certainly: its nine hundred years have not treated it kindly.”

Anton smiled.  “Yet it still grows.  Had I that gift in so many years unsightliness is a price I would gladly pay.”

The gnarled tree loomed before them, inscrutable; its elephantine boughs extending over their heads like a coming storm, its mighty trunk twisted as if to some summoning voice that called from amongst the mountains of the east.  “Indeed, Master; if you can improve upon nature…”

“If I can?  If I can?  M’Lord Percival, have I ever failed?”

M’Lord Percival bit a nervous lip.  There was no doubting the genius that burned within his friend.  In his life Anton Beneskja, sculptor in wood, had created many estimable works – his ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ Triptych (Commissioned by Pius XI himself) was a venerated exhibit in the Basilica of St. Boniface; and his quite graphic series of carvings ‘Beyond Innocence’ held pride of place in the Alpington Gallery.  A frieze the great man had hewn to adorn the banqueting hall of Malton House had been lauded as ‘inspired’ by all who saw it.

 “It would seem…”  Knowing those extraordinary talents, Percival hesitated in his criticism…”exceptionally ambitious.”

“Indeed so!  Indeed so!  A great enterprise, my Lord!  I shall call it;”  Anton proclaimed;  “The Perfect Bear.”

“All the same;”  Percival reasoned;  “to carve from a living tree?  This is the Briarley Oak, man, and I’m not sure, y’see, that either my ancestors or my heirs would ever forgive me.  If I were to agree, then why not take the tree down first?”

“Wood, Lord Fortesque, is a paradox.  We speak of it as a ‘living’ material, but of course it is not.  Wood dies when the tree falls.”

Fortesque was not of a mood to be lectured.  “Deuced cold.”  He murmured.  A brisk north easterly breeze was threatening rain.  “A bear, y’say?”

“And an affirmation of life: carved so the tree’s vital energies will be preserved. It will grow; it will develop the sculpture!  Perceive how those two mighty roots are spread like hinder legs with feet planted firmly upon the earth, and how they unify with the great barrel of that trunk, then how the neck supporting the thinner upper boughs – such useless things – forms a bole?  Hewn with my genius that bole shall become a head with mouth agape and rows of, oh, such fearsome teeth!  And now!  Now!”  The old man thrust himself forward, jabbing a finger towards the forest canopy:  “See how that one lofty bough, strongest and most ancient of them all, reaches for heaven?  It will be a mighty paw, reaching as though the creature were seeking to pluck the very moon from the sky!”

 Percival tried to recount the times he had listened to his artist’s impassioned exposition of his work, how often he had doubted.  As Beneskja’s patron he had been taken upon many such visionary tours of lifeless chunks of timber, and placed his faith, oh, so many times, in the maestro’s all-encompassing imagination.  Each time he laid his money down he did so out of friendship, or a gambler’s arrogance, or maybe for the love of fine art at its finest; to be rewarded, many-fold, for almost every adventure.  But this…..this would become a permanent feature of his jealously defended parkland.

Lord Percival Fortesque jabbed his cane into the turf.  He had been chilled for long enough and had no wish for a fever.  “Beneskja m’dear: you must kill the tree in such an enterprise, surely?”

“Again no!  I can work with the form of the tree, leave such bark as it needs to protect the passage of life-giving sap, keep the strength to support those limbs.  My bear will live in your forest, it will grow and alter with the years – my art will live, My Lord; long after you and I are gone.”

Fortesque tried, using all the resources of his imagination, to gain a picture of Anton’s intentions in his mind.  He could not.  “I shiver intolerably!”  His Lordship finally said; and he walked away, shouting over his shoulder:  “Very well.  Do it!”

So a spark that had smoldered so long in Beneskja’s mind became flame.  Thereafter he could think of nothing else:  commissions were left uncompleted, meals left uneaten.  He took to wandering the passages of his extensive home through the early hours, frightening servants as he often forgot to clothe himself on these expeditions.  He drew plans on walls, talked unceasingly of the tree until his mistress Gisette, incensed, began to throw things at him, and eventually left the house altogether.

Gisette came back, of course, she always did.  But when she did, the maestro was not at home.  Her maidservant was pale with worry.  Anton Beneskja had disappeared.

Gisette found him beneath a little roof he had made of wood for himself, nestled at the foot of the Briarley Oak.

“I shall sleep here.  I shall eat here.  I shall work here.”

“It will be too cold!  When the wild east wind brings snow from the mountains you will surely freeze!”

“I can build a fire!  I shall have wood, after all!  And perhaps, my love, you will join me on the coldest nights?”

“On such hard ground?  Am I so foolish?  When you turn to ice, be sure you pose nicely.  You can be your own last statue.” Gisette snapped back.  “I shall pay the household bills by exhibiting you here until you melt in the Spring!”  Gisette stormed off, telling Anton she would be in his house if he wanted to come to her.  One of Lord Fortesque’s servants would bring him food.

In fact Anton had no intention of remaining in his little hut more than a few days, while he studied the tree’s form and discovered the living veins that sustained it year by year.  There was little to detain him, as he saw it, once the essential sinew of the old beast was discovered and mapped; for he knew this must be protected.  Although much of the wood was dead and therefore of no use in his eyes his chisels and rasps would work close to living arteries.  It was essential he knew where to make each cut.

A week would pass before Anton began.  His gouge found an open end of grain which invited him to follow it, using the guile and sensitivity his years of dedication to art had taught him.  A sliver of the great oak yielded, prised away from a bed wherein it had slumbered for an age, exposing the lighter grey of long deceased sapwood beneath.

“Ah,” said the oak.  “That was a blow struck with wisdom.  You have no idea how irritating is the burden of atrophy.  You have relieved me of an itch that has troubled me for three centuries.  I thank you for that.”

Anton took a backward step.  He looked, but the carafe of wine Fortesque’s servant had brought him was still full.  Then he looked at the tree, which had not moved, or made any other sign of life.  Great artist that he was, he had often claimed that wood could ‘speak’ – until now he had never really been given cause to believe it.

“You spoke to me?”  He questioned the tree, incredulously.

“Is that so surprising?  I have existed in this glade nigh a thousand years while mortals have clustered about me, why should I not have learned your language of words?”

“But you have no…..”

“What?  Mouth parts?  Tongue, vocal cords?  Of course I can speak, though you may not hear my words, but rather feel their presence inside your head.  Not every mortal can sense them; but then, not every mortal knows wood as you know it.”

Anton found himself unable to reply!  He paced back and forth for several minutes, allowing his freed mind to marvel at this phenomenon.  At last he began to speak in mono-syllables; pouring out random questions:  “Why?  How long?  Which?  Can you?  Have I?”

The tree smiled.  Anton could persuade himself he actually felt it smile!

“Be still!”  The old oak said kindly.  “This way of sharing knowledge is new to you.  You must organize your thoughts, discipline your mind.  Let your questions form.  Take some time.  We are trees – we have nothing but time.”

Anton did not return to his house as he had anticipated, in a few days.  Nor did he return in a few weeks, or a few months.  He built a fire against the winter, a screen against the east wind, and despite Gisette’s dire prediction he did not freeze to death.  For much of the time work was impossible – his tools too cold and brittle, his hands too bitten by the frost to hold them, but he stayed.  And in that time the old oak shared many secrets, and he gained more knowledge of wood than had ever been given to any mortal man.

One day in early March, as the first lances of sun sliced through the snow clouds and the ancient tree was busy nurturing buds he made a pact.

The tree had long known Anton’s intention to transform it.  “I am old and though you have given me new life I know one day I must die.  I will be food for beetles, a rotting carcass on the forest floor.  I do not want that to be my fate.  If I am to be a bear,” the tree spoke in his mind, “I will help you with your quest for perfection.  But you must use your genius to help me.  I would like to die as a bear.”

Anton needed no more than a moment.  He placed both his hands upon the tree’s wide trunk, saying:  “My lord of the forest, I will do all I can.”

Thus dawned a last, brilliant phase in the creative fortunes of Anton Beneskja, wood carver and sculptor.  His renewed genius was entirely centered upon the Briarley Oak which, as he had promised, was step by laborious step transformed into the fearsome image of a giant bear reared upon its hinder legs, stretching for the moon through the canopy of the forest.  No-one knew how deeply intimate was his relationship with that great tree, or how each cut he made, each refinement of form was inch by inch advised by his subject:  he kept that secret to the end.  Knowing him as she did, Gisette might have been best placed to discover the truth, that ‘The Perfect Bear’ was not, after all, entirely his work.  Yet she was accustomed to his conversations with himself when he was working, and so thought little of discovering him apparently talking to the tree when she came upon him unannounced.

“Ah, my Anton!  My shining star!  It is as if the wood could talk to you, my darling, is it not?”

“Yes.”  Anton agreed.  “And imagine what it would say….”

The months passed, became years.  Out of the deformity of the Briarley Oak inch by inch, cut by cut, a miracle took shape.  One morning in the third spring, at quite an early hour, the largest root became a paw, its claws clutching into forest loam with crippling force.  In that same year the union of root and trunk was transformed to become a broad and powerful haunch, and the excess wood that spoiled the angle Anton wanted for the bear’s back began to fall away.  So dramatic were these changes those who witnessed them swore the tree itself was changing shape, its boughs creating new angles, the bole at its summit leaning upwards more than before.  Everyone who visited the glade remarked upon the vitality of the sculpture – how very like a mighty bear it was become.

As for Anton himself, he became as much a part of the forest as the tree.  Working increasingly from ladders and burned walnut brown by constant exposure to the elements, he was barely distinguishable as he clung, ape-like, to a high limb.  He grew apart from his human associations.  Lord Percival, amazed at the sculpture’s brilliance, was inclined to visit often.  When he did he enthused, but Anton answered only with non-committal words and grunts.  When would the work be finished?  Not yet.  Did he need more money or supplies?  No, none.

Eventually Fortesque stopped approaching Beneskja altogether, preferring to view his remarkable carving from a distance.  Soon even Gisette was rejected.  The master lived by his work, and he lived only for his work.  It was his alone.

The years slipped by.  Tired of waiting, Gisette married Lord Percival Fortesque.  Now Anton was seen only rarely. Glimpsed at times amid the foliage of his tree he became the subject of superstitious rumor.  Some claimed Beneskja had become a sprite, that he would hide within the disguise of his tree ready to leap upon the unwary.  Others even suggested they had seen leaves growing from his body.  He could no longer speak in human tongue, they said.  Children were warned with dark tales.

At last in the summer of the seventh year ‘The Perfect Bear’ was finished.  Its presence in the wood had been so remarkable for so long it was impossible to be certain when Beneskja’s chisel made its final pass.  But the completed sculpture was a thing of power and beauty which fulfilled Anton’s promise.  And true to his promise it grew in glory with the years.

Beneskja?  Perhaps he left to travel in foreign lands, or to seek new avenues for his colossal talents; maybe he simply dropped into obscurity, his life’s work done.  No-one could say what had become of him and strangely for one who was a legend in himself, few took the trouble even to ask.

Then one bright morning the elderly Lord Percival and Lady Gisette, walking in the woods, came upon their glade to find ‘The Perfect Bear’ had gone!  There was nothing, no trace beneath the wide acre of clear sky the tree had left behind to show it had ever grown there.  They sought for signs of churned earth where its roots had been, called in experts to look for other clues, but all in vain.  The Briarley Oak, ‘The Perfect Bear’, had vanished.

A satisfactory answer was never found.  In future years a man from the village who was grown to become a poet recalled a childhood dream in which he stood at the door of his parents’ cottage and saw a bear rushing across the fields towards the dawn with an old man clinging to its back.  Still more time would pass before a group of mountaineers in the nearby peaks came across a cave well above the tree line which was, inexplicably, filled with huge baulks of timber – oak from an ancient tree.  But there were no signs the wood had been cut, or evidence of any human activity.

“It is as if” one of the mountaineers explained; “the tree just crawled into the cave and died.”

 

©  Frederick Anderson, June 2014.

 

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