Future perfect

He’s in the garden, digging. He says,
In two weeks we’ll have tomatoes.
I think how future-looking he is now,
how fearless of the things needing done
for the red, juicy end. He digs, things grow,
we’ll enjoy them. They’ll have been reaped.
Spuds, carrots, berries, beans, lettuce;
all growing in the past’s dark loam,
under the present sun, tied neatly to a stake
of the simple future. It’s all about will.
But I know the future has increments;
there’s sweat, blood and bone, and blisters
before red tomatoes roll on a white plate.
I’ve dug my whole soul into a patch of earth
and got back poor fruit – savourless, blighted;
or I am, from the effort. No dynamic lifter’s needed
when you don’t mind digging. He’s future;
I’m future perfect. I’ve come off the vine
sun-scorched, bitter, scarred by the tight twine,
little of it worth the time or will.
I’m sour by the time the salad’s out.
I want to find myself in the further future,
when the terrible pruning, separating, uprooting,
will all have been done, blotted out like a macula,
and there will be red fruit on a white plate
and I will have been spared that awful growth.

7/7/2005

7/7/2005

In a dark tunnel one hot July morning
our lives were perfected in a blast.
In the tangle of dead and dying,
the forms on the floor, the dark,
lost legs in the quiet smoke,
many things were blown into history.
All that we were was suddenly the past
of a single, shared, infamous moment.

Four offers of marriage had been had.
A new flat, two new jobs,
a head-girlship had been had.
The words, ‘Everything’s going to be fine’
had been had.
A calypso song called Signs of Christmas,
an escape from Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan,
many children – living and planned – had been had,
as had the ambition to circumnavigate the universe.

This was the past.
The present, a few brief hours of stumbling darkness
to the lighted station of the future,
before it was over, and all that we were was past, perfect.

Microfiction: Britannia

She bought Britannia Good Day biscuits from Pandya’s corner shop – one packet was £1.27 and did for lunch and sharing. Biscuits weren’t good for pigeons, but bird seed at Tesco was 70p a kilo. She asked Ravi Pandya once if he sold bird seed. He looked at her as if she were mad. She laughed and took a packet of Too Yumm Baked Stix Masala and hoped he would forget it.

She tried not to open the biscuits before she got to the park. Every day was a different park and she tried to think of the birds in each place as family, all slightly different, all exhibiting quirks that reflected the area they lived in. On Mondays she took the bus down to the Embankment and sat in the Inner Temple Gardens when they were opened between 12.30 and 3pm. If it was wet, she went to St Clement Danes and read the inscriptions. Tuesday was Russell Square, or the British Museum if wet – she could walk that, at a pinch, though it was hard not to start eating before she reached the bench facing Stuart House, where her father had once worked so many years ago. Wednesdays were another walk, to the churchyard of St Pancras Old, or the Library, if wet. On Thursdays she resigned herself to spending more and took the tube to Lancaster Gate for Hyde Park (though not in summer, when the grass was replaced by a moving carpet of young Americans). If it rained, she went to the orthodox cathedral. On Friday she went to Holland Park, or the Design Museum if rainy. On Saturdays, out to the Thames Barriers. On Sunday she slept the hours away.

‘How come you buy so much of these biscuit?’ Ravi said once. ‘Don’t you eat nothing else?’

‘Tesco doesn’t have them,’ she said, avoiding the question.

‘You need to put on weight,’ he said. ‘Get fat. Get a husband.’

She tried to reply both flippantly and finally, but it came out sounding mangled and shy. She fled.

Usually she took a book to the parks, something both thick and dense, although if the summer was warm she allowed herself to peep over the march wall of prose and try poetry. When she had moved into the flat at St Silas’ and begun her circuit of bird-feeding, she had liked Dickens as the bridge over the hours. Like the Britannia biscuits, it was cheap, sweet, and cheering. After five years she began to tire of his mawkish happy endings and started reading the Edwardians – Forster, Galsworthy, James. No happy endings – ambivalence, even, towards the idea of an ending.

She sat, eating cheap Indian biscuits in an English park reading English novels about British India. The recursiveness of it helped to temper her awful sense of failure. When she had the energy, she meant to get a job, to work her way up and out of the council estate in which she was drowning, but every morning a heavy surge of fear pushed her over, a kind of homesickness – though for what she could not say, because there was no home any more, anywhere – and she made for a green place, and the birds whose frail existence and momentary interest in her crumbs were something like love. Their little grey bodies, with their iridescent crests and bobbing, busy hopefulness were at once doctor, priest, nursemaid, and friend to people like her, floating unwanted around the day-ward of London. Hope and interest and love, all for the price of some biscuit crumbs. She was under no illusion that the same people who favoured poisoning the pigeons would happily poison her. As she headed home in the London twilight, footsore and windblown, looking at the people coming out of hospitals, offices, shops, who were more than human grout in the mosaic, she could find no reason to disagree.

She would stop at Pandya’s and buy an MTR ready meal (on permanent special at £1.85) and go home. It was a good night if the tuxedo cat which lived in Chalk Farm Vintage was in the window, its fur pressed discreetly in an explosion of softness against the glass. She would go home to the frightening grey concrete and rubbish smells, the sudden shouts and unloved corners, and get into bed, weary as a runner near the end of the race, and think of how it would be to be loved by the cat.

NaNoWriMo 2022: My opening

As a way of addressing my total lack of stimulation at my job I’m trying NaNoWriMo for the first time. I’m less bothered about getting to 50,000 words than by getting something out at all. This is the opening scene of the novel I’m trying to write. It’s not going very well. I have a full and elaborate outline which calls for people murdering people, others falling in love, much sex, flying around a post-apocalyptic planet, and scenes of heartbreaking farewell. All I really want to write is long, intellectual conversations about the pleasure/suffering asymmetry in ethics and why we should all agree with Schopenhauer. I’ve managed to pull off what very few have achieved: combining all the disadvantages of self-indulgent autobiography, genre fiction AND a philosophy textbook. There’s going to be an amazing bidding war over who DOESN’T get to handle this smoking turd of prose.

*

The old gymnasium had been planted with quinoa, the floorboards and joists pulled up and the concrete slab pickaxed through by the first group of Returners, nearly fifty years before.

Muir fell among the roots and looked up at the tall green spires of amaranth, pointing to the roof of mismatched window panels like deformed hands. They had not yet reddened. He realized, as his heart slowed like a dying generator, that he would not see them ripen. A part of him, remote from the wires of pain wound around his abdomen, wondered what he had been injected with. It seemed inconsistent to have guarded the seed vault for two decades and not to know which of its deposits had been used to kill him. Then his body arched and he retched, scooping up a mouthful of soil and loose roots.

The spasm passed, his heart wandered a little, then slowed further. Around Muir closed a green world of leaf and spire, unripened seed and soft, many-times sifted soil. Blurrily, he saw the feet of his killer turn and go.

Twenty years before, he had left space and returned to earth to make some kind of amends for the wreckage wrought by his species. He had loved the earth and sorrowed over it, longed to be taken into it again and released from the exhaustion of steering his measuring, wondering, sensate meatbox through places, sensations, mined fields of thought. I’m going to the green, he thought. And I have been so wrong.

And then he was gone.

Pinfire

Now, in the Anthropocene, it is not only language which has changed, but the very structure of language. It changes in the same way that the world has changed, evincing our mighty stranglehold over all things. It changes because of this stranglehold.

Take metaphor. Take the language of the night. Once, we looked into the night sky – a vault which was the constantly-present and absolute limit of our species – and named constellations for familiar things. A lyre, a crab, someone pouring water, an emu, a saucepan, crosses false and true. These habits of metaphor made sense of the randomness up there, brought close the unimaginably far, rendered familiar the impossibly strange. We overlaid a space that was not ours with stories so that we could turn our faces to the heavens without quailing.

Children with no knowledge of the constellations still fall into this habit. The stars are pin pricks in the curtain of night, fire seen through the thick but much-scarred welding screen behind which matter is beaten on the anvil by some incredible hand, an Artificer whose forging and bellowing makes all that is. That pinfire in the celestial velvet is evidence of a great scheme into which we are factored, but which we did not conceive.

The time of these metaphors is almost over. Soon we will need a new language because the old one, with which we made homely those frozen dark drifts of space, will no longer do. The stars are not pinfire – in fact, they are no longer even stars but the house-lights of more people living up there, flying, ballooning, and jumping from the limits of the world.

The hollows and dust seas which we called a lunar rabbit, a pock-marked face, a hare, a man, are already strewn with our litter. Soon there will be canyons of roads and freeways. There is an Asteroid Insurance Policy which will crash craft into wandering rocks that have the temerity to threaten us. There are already probes – the gall of the name! – taking our ceaseless chatter, our scribblings and golden toys, out of the solar cul-de-sac and away.

There is no need to make homely the vastness of night with figurative speech now, because we have conquered both the tenor and the vehicle of the metaphor. Now the pinfire across the face of the sun, or the night sky, is men and women, crammed into a tin can spinning on the solar wind at 27,600 kilometers an hour.

We can do all things, except stop ourselves. When we have lost this habit of metaphor we will be truly masterful and truly vulnerable. Pity the people who, in the next Stone Age, must relearn that slippery and fluid spell.

There is nothing behind the curtain – there is no curtain – any more. And in blithely filling the place of a god who never was, we will come to long for him, because He alone could stop us.

Hackman

Hack for taxi,
tack for Faxi.
Brass tacks.
That’s that.
— Mark Haddon

It was what I desperately didn’t want to be, and what I’ve seen too many people become – hackmen, academic taxi cabs, out for semester hire, churning out screeds of nonsense articles which mix and match theories with texts like a Chinese noodle shop. Three words – Masculinities in Deor (it’s actually the title of a thesis someone talked about at the dreadful, long-ago Wednesday seminar at Oxford) – encapsulates that hackneyed existenced of the young humanities academic. It’s the opposite of everything a snob like me thought universities were about, as I went for my second doctorate. Hack lawyers, hack writers, hack teachers – yes, yes, and yes. But hack scholars?

I obviously thought I was bloody Gandalf or something.

I didn’t want to spend a career clinging frantically to an untenured post by writing ridiculous articles for the sake of publication points. I didn’t want to write about others’ work, and contribute to what I realized was a great, parasitic game under the guise of ‘scholarship’. (Really, how can an intimate knowledge of all the werewolf stories from Lower Saxony in the thirteenth century, and their French translations, be called scholarship? It’s like a game in theatre sports.)

I was afraid of being continually rated.

I was afraid that I was already failing, although academia is now so varied and so bastardized that you only fail by thinking you have.

Once, there was just enough that you could, conceivably, know it all. You stood in a proper relationship to the paucity of knowledge and the majesty of many questions. Now there’s so much published, and so little of it knowledge in any real sense, that we can’t sort out the good from the kind of nonsense writing that amused Edward Lear.

And yet, ‘Oh, you have to read everything.’ Said by a supervisor in an cultivated off-hand manner as she looked out the window of her set at the green lawns of her college.

What was the attraction of it all, I wonder, that I have measured out my life in hot, page-smelling rooms where bleary envious eyes look for your soft underside? I hope it was more than a preference for quiet libraries and pantomime gravitas.

Now, of course, the joke’s on me. That’s what graduate study teaches you: that you can be right; that you can see clearly; that you can value knowledge and perhaps even develop an idea of what that is, and you’ll still die poor, little, and ridiculous. Twelve years on and I’m not even a hack teacher but a hack tutor, explaining English literature to Chinese high schoolers in their silent, endless ranks.

It’s enough to kill you.

Triphane

Three times he has had the chance to escape. Or perhaps we should say, three times he has been aware of the cleavages deep within himself and recognized that he can save himself by following one rift. Why can’t he do this, eminently sensible and eminently human course of taking the safe path? Perhaps because it is so human, and he is not – not quite, though he cannot say whether he is less or more.

The first time was in his childhood. Sitting among the old men and their scrolls, he asked questions about their reading, reacted to what they said with a child’s candour. What’s the use of studying all this law, he said, waving his small grubby hand at the scroll. If we know it, if we have it in our heads, why do you have to write it down?

Because it’s the Lord’s way of talking to us, kid. It’s the instructions for making the world the way the Lord wants it.

Like an architect’s plan? Like his notes?

The old men fall silent, struck by this. Yes, one says slowly, the law is to the Lord what the plans are to an architect.

But why, he persists, would WE need them? Wouldn’t they just show us how far from the plan we’ve gone? How much we’ve failed?

But then his father is behind him, sweeping him up off the rug, half-relieved, half-angry, saying There you are, do you know how worried we’ve been? We had to come back for you – everyone else has gone on ahead! Why didn’t you tell us?

Outside, his mother held him very tightly for a long moment, pressing him so hard against her that he could hear the double thrum of her heart and that of the child she carried. Then she pushed him away and looked at him with wan eyes. Couldn’t you have spared a thought for us?

He saw that he had been moved by something larger and greater than simply ignoring time, or an interest in the old men’s eager arguments. Some veil had been thrown over him that closed off the rest of the day and the world and for a while caused him to drift along on an unseen current like a seed blown by a strange wind. This wind was some other, fearful part of himself that he was only rarely aware of. It felt like the short sounds made on the shofar before the greater blast. He himself, he thought, looking at his hands and seeing them with foreign eyes, was and was not this greater thing. He ruthlessly ignored his parents’ fears, their love, their small and hard lives, even his own boy’s body. As for the means by which his everyday self and this greater, whispering thing, were connected, he could not understand it.

He mumbled something to his mother about business and fathers, made promises he hoped to keep, and ran up the line of travellers, hoping to find friends.

He remembers this conversation, and the fatigue in his mother’s eyes ten years later, when he sits on an outcrop looking over the desert, feeling the same fracturing he had felt as a boy. It is many times worse now. He has seen his sisters and sisters-in-law double over, gasping, at the raw shock of bones separating from bones as their skeleton was reorganized around their first child. Perhaps this was what his soul was doing. The second presence he had felt in the temple, closing off the world and brushing the sand away from a path he had never known was there – but which his feet seemed already upon. It is remote, frightening, inflexible, loveless. It whispers that none of this waterless world around him is worth much or for long.

He crouches on the outcrop and longs for something to eat, but he has sworn not to, until hunger has made clear the two voices whispering on either side of the fracture within him. Wild thoughts come and go; stones shimmer and become bread, then stone again. Rock hyraxes skip about like devils. A leopard emerges from a cave and stares in surprise, like a prince waking from his cool sleep to the sight of a beggar, and stalks off.

He wrestles with the other plane of himself. What do you want from me? What’s the point of you – I’m a simple man, meant for a simple life. Leave. You frighten me with myself. I could throw myself off this cliff because I fear what you’ll make me do. But the voice whispers back Do it and angels will catch you. There is no escape from me, because I am your very self. I sound different in the same way that your mother sounds different when she talks to herself. What I want; what I planned – you’ll do.

Weeping, despairing, he asks why this plan involves only suffering and a terrible death. He dreads it, even as the shadows fall across the desert like vast wings. I haven’t asked for any of it! I’ve never asked for anything.

But in the cool night a voice, sounding like a father such as Joseph has never been, assures him. All the kingdoms of the world, and a death worse than any he could foresee.

Ten more years and the voices have separated entirely. He prays to himself, begs himself not to make him go through this thing which looms, both absolutely unbearable and absolutely necessary. It is necessary because only its unbearable nature makes it work. Nothing short of the torture and death of his exhausted body, which was once the little boy rolling on the rugs in the temple, stirring wood shavings in the sun, the dark reflection in the leopard’s eye – only his death can save a world he is only half-convinced deserves saving.

Now, in the night air he smells the perfume of an almond tree someone has planted in the olive grove. The third fracture is clear now. A striation which connects the two planes of himself, this birdlike thing of faith or confidence, which flits between the cold remoteness that forces the cracks, and the man who tires and loves and weeps and cannot follow his friends into old age. He slides down a tree and crouches on the ground, his legs shaking, his stomach watery and protesting.

For a brief second, all times and persons collapse into one. There is a wholeness, the planes of self merge and open into a passageway out, out to life, to ordinariness, to anywhere but this night garden of terrors. Just as rapidly, it decoheres and his triphane self reappears. He becomes aware of firelight around him, a hand on his shoulder, lips on his cheek.

Half-Breed

When he returned, Kenneth had perceptibly changed. Measured against his earthbound twin, Tom, NASA quantified how much damage space radiation had done to him. Compared with Tom’s annual radiation dose of 0.5 millisieverts from space radiation, was Ken’s 200 ms. To their shared height of 182.6cm before the mission was Ken’s decrease of nearly 1.3cm, as his spine hollowed and crumbled with the weight of his own tissues. Samples showed Tom’s tissue micro-environment as tidy as a cabinet of wedding china. Cells stacked on cells, structures properly spaced, fluids moving about the interstitial spaces like London buses in Bloomsbury. Ken’s, on the other hand, resembled the playroom of an exuberant child.

Half-breed (n.) used of an individual whose parents are of different races. Offensive.

Now, it occurs to Kenneth that this is the first word he has looked up and had the computer read aloud to him, since he cannot see the screen any more. Perhaps it is the last word he will look up, since he is losing his language along with his sight.

There is something..he grapples, feeling out of sight for the words to front the feeling. He…stepping into a void, without words, without story. Not a man, any more. A half man, a half-breed.

Exhausted, he sleeps. The plaques in his brain, the cataracts over his eyes, the chaos in his tissues, the garbled transcription of his genes, continue to grow. He is turning into a computer’s first Christmas card.

Outside his room in the clinic, up the corridor, a researcher sits before another computer screen, a half-written paper quivering with LED. A NASA mug sits on the desk, a signed photo of Buzz Aldrin on the wall, and a hand-blown strand of DNA in aquamarine glass sits on a stand, catching the light. All acquired in his first years with the Artemis program, which he now thinks of as a gigantic act of hubris. Even NASA’s name – the idea of it, administering space. Administering what to space? Humans, like sugar pills, sent into that great cold void, to hang and tumble and undergo the slow crucifixion of their cells. And returning changed, depleted and scrambled, carrying something of space within them.

How can he explain that any more manned missions beyond low Earth orbit are madness? The commander has returned from a year in the new station – the better shielded, gravity-enhanced, improved station, and he is blind, demented, undone by the radiation which is immanent beyond our atmosphere.

In a moment of lucidity the astronaut remarked that space had made him more of a man and less of a human. Or was it the other way around? The doctor is not given to metaphysical speculation. But he has noticed that the addling of the man’s DNA, in processes both carcinogenic and generative, are not only total but also different in degree and character from other cases of chronic radiation poisoning that he has studied, from Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Zaporizhzhia.

So he sits there, on a bright spring morning, with the sky reflecting Clear Lake, which is out of sight beyond the Materials Lab. He and his patient, in their separate rooms, equally blind, trying to determine whether the man they sent up like a tribute to the abyss has returned something else, made half its own by space.

The nature of a thing is more than its biology. It is in part a subjection to environment, and the integration of some aspects of that environment into the thing itself. The cat, changed by domesticity, becomes smaller, sleeker, but also cruel and loving by turns, lazy, private as a bedroom. Man, in space, becomes blind, chaotic, empty, cold, silent, still.

Picture Jasper

Picture Jasper, sitting on a bench beneath the bare-branched trees in the little shopping precinct. He, like you, is admiring the little white blossoms which have begun to appear on the naked grey twigs and, like you, is also glad to believe that it means winter is giving way to spring.

Signs are everywhere and can be anything, and of anything. This is why language is perhaps more interesting than the real world. Unless you think of the real world as a sign of something yet more real.

Jasper does – or he’s considering it. He spends most mornings writing in his notebook outside, either on this park bench, or a cafe somewhere. He has few friends, though he is both witty and affable when people stop to comment on his writing, on the fountain pen he uses, or the books of poetry and philosophy he sometimes reads. He isn’t anti-social, though he is perhaps unusual. He simply has too much within his head to make a comfortable sort of friend. He gets on better with animals. He has two cats.

But his writing. If you could sit on the other end of the bench and read it from the corner of your eye, it would be a fluid stream of words, almost without spaces, as Greek used to be written, as he tries to transcribe the tones and motifs that drift through his head like an orchestra tuning up. It’s not so different from what you or I write, but Jasper is unusual because he writes more, much more, than we do – almost as if he were trying to empty himself into the words that just keep on coming. He is often exhausted by the endless fact of himself, and wonders how much can actually be caught and carried away by words, like fruit in baskets. Is there no end to himself?

The words are signs of himself, as the blossoms are signs of spring. Like spring to the blossoms, he produces these signs and they are a part of that greater thing, not simply a mark arbitrarily signifying it. If the blossoms vanish, spring is diminished. A part of it does not occur. If Jasper stops writing, he is diminished. A part of him – he could not say which, or even how it is separate from the rest – would cease.

What he wonders, day after day, on his bench beneath the blossoms, is this: is he a word in the language of the physical world? Arbitrarily representing some greater thing of which he is also a part? What does he say – and who or what reads him? A collection of people – do they make a sentence? And what is his relationship to all the other physical things around him? The clouds, these trees, the minah birds, that little white dog which looked at him with such understanding right now?

If his writing signifies him, and Jasper signifies some greater thing, can we think of the hierarchy of signs going inwards, to the words of thought, or outwards, to this thing which he senses beyond the spring? He fears that he has been wrong about God, in whom he does not believe. Perhaps the Word is God. Perhaps he is less than his writing – that much, at least, rings true.

Jasper considers all of this, his hand moving ceaselessly across the page until, before your eyes, he begins to thin and fade, to merge with the blossoms above and around him, white as the clouds on the blue page of the sky.

Prosepoem: Hawk’s Eye

At 2,000 feet I may have wheezed fuck off at the headmaster. Sick of my bitterness and gasping, they left me, my teachers and classmates, at one of the false summits on Ben Vane, and drifted on ahead. I floundered in my own miasma like Owen’s soldier. Mist trickled down my Gore-Tex; from my socks a resentment began to rise which has never fully left. I tottered about in the curtain of clear grey drops, sat in a slippery howff and thought. The mist cleared. What would I look like to a hawk, hanging in space, watching without sorrow, hoping for meat? Neither Loch Arklet nor Loch Katrine cared that I had been given complete charge of myself. Loch Lomond did not remark it, nor Beinn Bheula. Wobbling, dizzy, appalled by the drop and the agony of going either up or down, I feared and cringed to the power of three thousand feet. I could fall and fall, folding with the schist and sheer, all gone on that bright day. Up in that high place, I feared; I never thought to beg or seek. That is no triumph, just the crude forces of life revealing themselves to a child. Hours passed. I stomped down on jelly legs to the minibus and sat, deaf, to the scolding. You cannot hand someone their life at twelve and then try to take it back.

Prosepoem: Ultralite

Liv was halfway to the playing fields on Marston Ferry Road when Simon caught up with her, still rumpled and close-smelling from bed. She walked on irritably, dawn on the Woodstock Road turning Marks and Spencers pink. These were the private hours, the flogging, flying hours when the forcing happened, Liv’s secret dwindle footfall by footfall as she raced the kilos which prevented ultimate flight. The ultralight day depended on these hours, she thought, the girl translucent, the slender-armed silent envelope of skin. They did not include Simon, with his English teacher’s gaze and his brown-eyed sympathy. On the field a small crowd watched a man fill his balloon with gas, the jets roaring and blasting; Simon watched Liv as the vast thing bellied and swelled, great and light at once, a body of flight and dreaming-drift wrapped in a little nylon. It swelled, rolled, wobbled, bowled, striving upwards. Weighed down by Simon’s sympathy, Liv could not run. They stood there on the field, fearing the heavy day ahead. A girl sick for thinness and a balloon sick for the sky, both filled by air and the mantra like jets burning it is enough it is enough. The pink dawn became day-broad and flat. He should have kept sleeping, she thought.