Thursday, February 05, 2009

hickory wind

People say I disappeared some time in the eighties. They said one summer I moved in for a while with a lady friend, whose name might have been Maisie or Lily, in a distant village that might have been Upper Langtry. After that... My face must have become indistinct. Conceived in that sylvan niche it slowly dappled yellow, sepia...

That year grew older. Squirrels chased through the glades, the leaves rusted and thinned, a postman clomped with his breath steaming...

I wish I had really been there. When I came out, it was raining. I walked through streets of self storage and wholesale freezer outlets, tile warehouses, getting steadily wetter, not knowing where I was going or even where was north. There were some women outside a launderette, and I cadged a ciggie. Eventually I struck a waterfront. Here there were less cars and more people. I was young and nervous about my accent. I didn't know anyone. I was in a faraway city, but I had no idea in my head of going to the place formerly known as home.

I made some choices that morning.

You're swimming again in pea soup in a flame-shot bare glazed

It could have been that I went up to a crowd of straights along that riverside and swallowed my accent. Maybe someone would have taken pity and put me on the right road. Not long after, I might have been trained up, boozy, married to someone giggly and spending my life paying off mortgages in South Wales. Didn't happen. And since that day I never have talked to straights ever again.

Along a waterfront there are always wildfowl, flotsam, and riverside characters. On the first day you don't know who's a regular, but on the second you do. I went into a boarding house with two guys. I don't remember their real names. Larry looked, or was, twenty years older: a stick-thin boozer, shirt with no buttons. He was cursing drunk, but he brought a woman home. She also put up with the smell of his feet - his shoes outside the door made me want to throw. Brian was young, younger than me even, and nearly as shy. He showed me his record collection: half a dozen LPs, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Little Richard. It was fifties stuff he liked. It was the real thing. I said to him, what about Chuck Berry. But he's a coon, said Brian, hadn't I realized?

The first day I sat behind my locked door and watched my sink drain out. It was blocked. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Around midnight Larry came home and spent half an hour trying to open my door. I lay still as a corpse. Finally he realized that he was trying to get into the wrong room, but it had worn him out and he slept on the stairs. That's where his workmates found him after they'd got sick of pelting his window with stones. It was funny to think he could hold down a job, maybe I could too.

I started that day in a frozen prawn packing factory. I was put to cleaning the place. They were worried about food poisoning and no surprise because the pallets were often left lying around in the yard. I used this thick, transparent gunk to plaster over every inch of floor, fag-butts included. The gunk was coloured pink so it wouldn't show if it got into the prawns.

Then I was a grave-digger for a while. That was an evil, very hard job. A grave is seven by three and seven-eight foot deep and you didn't use anything but hand-tools. Nobody spoke, you are not really allowed to talk on that job, and apart from the back-breaking effort I felt very suspicious of my companions and they were suspicious of me because you cannot do that kind of work if you're all right in the head.

By that time I was rooming with a spade called Eddie. I don't remember his real name, so I'm naming him after Eddie Cochran. He lived in a very nice, quiet gaff near the top of a highrise that was well out of the city centre. He was a croupier at the Mecca Ballroom, about 40, sophisticated, liked his red wine, read books about politics, liked his Jackson Five and his Al Green. He was pretty good to me. He was at work until midnight. A couple of times after midnight he passed by the railway station and picked up stranded teenage boys. They often missed the last train if they came to town to see a gig. He brought them home with him and we sat up for a while relaxing over a glass of wine and listening to Al Green. Eddie took his shoes off and took his tie off and sat there with an open shirt. He'd persuade the boys to stay over. There wasn't a spare room, but one boy (the uglier) could have a spare single in my room, and the other one could bunk down with old Eddie. All I could think about was how it was the middle of the night and my back was aching and I wanted to go to sleep and I was having to lie awake chatting to a schoolboy who was worried about his mate. I told stories about the rings I found, the gold fillings. I said once there was a mistake about the site and we cut right though another coffin and a woman's arm fell out, though really this had not happened to me, it was just something I had been told. The city was making me ill.

The second time it happened, voices were raised in the other room, the boy just wasn't having any of it. Eddie had a face on him, he gunned them back to the station in his Saab at four in the morning. That was when I decided to get away. Yes I was disgusted by Eddie's behaviour. Deep down I was disgusted. But what made my mind up was the raised voices. Eddie was taking too many risks and I couldn't afford to be anywhere near this. By the time his Saab roared back into the estate I was already hiding in the trees with my bag. After he went inside I legged it. I'd succeeded in really shitting myself up and was thinking this monstrous Eddie would come and find me and kill me because of what I knew.

I hitched a lift out to a deathly quiet town that I'd never heard of and later that day I hitched back in and I went down to the waterfront because I couldn't think what else to do. It was a warm afternoon for the time of year, I sat on a bench with my bag and watched the swans. A guy with a briefcase came over and talked to me about the mission of Christ. I was starting to listen when suddenly of all the million people in that city who did I see but Eddie walking down the quayside. He never saw me, but when I flinched he did turn his head around. Then I left that city for good and never heard any more about what matey was trying to lay on me.

You look for someone to talk to you from behind their screen, so that it will turn out that, after all, they're just like you. That means you're up with them, we're all pilgrims and we share - no, not our knowledge, our ignorance. You call this tolerance. You think the difference of people arises from the way they yield to their different diseases, each one taking the path of least resistance. If the difference meant that they knew something, then you might not tolerate it.

10 Lambert and let's get off.


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