Skills

Today, we are practising Skills. Shopping! Gene’s favourite. He dashes down chalked aisles, swinging a basket piled with imaginary food.

Nurse pouts out advice from where she mopes against her magnolia wall.

“Christ. Gene, give her the money… The money.”

Outside, the world is a flurry. It roars; clashes. People scrape together. Doctor frets at keys strung onto a length of chain.

Everywhere people try to decide between choice and the illusion of choice.

Gene holds an empty packet of corn flakes, its top taped closed. He is basking in the blue of the ceiling and its fluffy, painted clouds.

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The Devil’s house

The house at that corner sags into its tangled garden of brambles. Ivy strangles one of the windows and gropes towards the chimney pot. From where they stand, Suzanna can see a triangle of yellow curtain falling across one of the windows. Behind that only black shadow. That was a child’s room, Suzanna thinks and the thought causes cold to skitter across her skin. She shivers. Beyond that little sliver of yellow a void squirms. A huge, sucking mouth of wet blackness.

Suzanna’s grandmother suddenly curls her thin fingers around the little girl’s upper arm and turns her to face the old, abandoned house. ‘See the house there?’ She says. ‘See it; it is haunted; possessed’. Suzanna feels the same fingers of dread scrambling over her skin.

The whole village knows that the house is cursed. Indeed, many years ago, when grandmother was a young woman, she and some friends crept into the house jut before dusk and scattered flour over the floor in the top bedroom. ‘That bedroom there,’ says grandmother, pointing to the window where the tatter of yellow peeps out from behind rotten frames.

‘When we went back the next day, the flour was full of footprints. Cloven hooves, like a goats, but only one set’. Whatever had walked there that night had done so on two feet. ‘See’, says Suzanna’s grandmother, ‘that’s proof that the Devil strolls through that house at night.’

Suzanna is older now; a tall, blonde, elegant woman, who I have met at least twice at dinner parties. She lives in Britain and the possessed house and her grandmother’s small Polish village are anecdotes – dark-edged fairy tales to recount across the white clothes of Middle England’s dinner tables. Britain has a large Polish population, and the stereotype is a nation of dispossessed plumbers and builders. But you do not have to dig beyond this easy banality to find how readily we English will accept Poland as a land of dank pine forests, where silent peasants stand watching suspiciously from their austere doorways. We dinner guests all sit and listen, transfixed.

It is a perfect story. Suzanna tells it well. She tells it in a way that is half belief it, half gentle mockery. It is that dose of the incredulity that makes it all the more believable. She is reaching back to be the little granddaughter again, suspicious that her grandmother is pulling her leg. Yet that crust of disbelief is a thin veneer over her darker childish faith that eldritch forces stalk this world.

While I believe the story of the story is true, I do not believe that the old house was imbued with the presence of evil; that the devil was callow enough to trot his foot prints through the flour. Instead, this sounds like a mischievous tale told by a grandparent to scare and beguile a child. That malicious act of love: abusing your position of trust to tell a tale that will live with that person through their life – so much so, they are telling it to a relative stranger twenty years later, on the other side of Europe. Although I doubt it is a conscious thing, it is an amazing thing to transmit that feeling of wonder and the excitement of real dread to someone for whom those emotions are real and vivid and alive. Probably in the way that Grandmother’s own grandmother gripped her arm and pointed to a ramshackle old place, falling in to ruin, and told the story of the foot prints in the flour.

Then again, this is me placing my own reasoning on the tale. I would tell it because it was scary, not because I believe it. I think it’s fun to be scared. Nothing more. Perhaps Suzanna’s grandmother told the story because she believed it was true. It is not so extraordinary that people believe in the supernatural is empirical and real – a measurable and discoverable force. I work with a young man who grew up in a deeply religious household. He believes in spirits, in the real worldly existence of demons. So when Suzanna’s grandmother grips her thin arm, her fingers squeezing hard through the material of the little girl’s coat, and whispers a story of the little group hurrying from the house, their hands white with precious flour, it is not a story to amaze and startle. Perhaps the whispered words are a warning: stay away from the devil’s house. For what is more precious and irreplaceable in this world than your granddaughter’s soul?

Again, I do not believe that it was the devil’s feet, part of me does not even believe in the scattered flour. I think that we grant agency to things, motive and intent beyond their solid objectivity. An argument erupts, a disease strikes, people die. And why? The fact that there is no reason, no agency behind people’s lives can be more terrifying than a foolish devil, slinking back to hell to scrape flour off his hooves.

What sort of story is it to say that was the house where Patryck and Marta lived. He became sick and died. Marta moved away. See, there is his grave, there in the church yard. Now no one wanted to live in the house where Patryck died. So the house sits empty. Wood warps, the house begin to slouch on its foundations; it looks cold, untended. Now it is an unlucky house. Tiles slip from the roof, birds live in the rafters, people can sometimes hear their noisy avian lives: the sudden scratching and shuffling; the house creaks as it settles into its dereliction.

One day a board breaks with a loud crash. All of the people in the village freeze, caught by the sudden violence of a sound from such an empty place. It is no longer Patryck and Marta’s house, it is no longer unlucky. Instead it is cursed. Grandmothers clutch their granddaughter’s arms as they walk past. Beware. Three brave children steal a small sack of flour and the next day find the empty house is alive with creatures (who now sit in their nests licking flour off their feet). Our minds create their own uneasiness about a place where the humanity has left, but the structures remain. As if the house itself should disappear along with its residents.  But their own beliefs mean that they don’t see the birds, only the dark and sinister edge of emptiness: feel the shudder that says it is the devil stamping infernal patterns across the floor at night.

Feet

After five years, he just happened to be walking down her street?

He’d not noticed at first. He’d been following his feet.

As he rounded that familiar corner, passed McDonnell’s bakery, he realised he’d been footsore for a long time.

Your mind may wander on its own way. But feet, he thought, always want to bring you home.

What had been Bow’s Hardware shop was now a block of flats, but the creaking sign above of The Sailor’s Rest still rasped on its hinges.

By the time he saw number 15, with its blue door repainted red, he was running.

Privacy

Curiosity is why you and I own curtains but are irritated that other people own them too. The fact that it is such a driving force behind how we interact means that we’ve really been tarring cats with a brush that, for a long time, we’ve been wielding from deep within the blackest depths of our own personal tar bucket.

Our inquisitiveness is a raw, roaring force that surges within us and means that it is necessary to create its antithesis. This, we named privacy. While each of us is happy to excuse our own nosiness as, at its best, concern or, at its worst, moral outrage, we are equally ardent at erecting as many walls and trapdoors round our own private lives as possible, so that other people’s curiosity, or ‘meddling’, can’t get in. Looked at from this point of view,  the whole of human society is an ongoing scuffle as each of us pushes fleets of busy noses out of our affairs, while at the same time desperately jostling to find the tiniest of cracks in someone else’s defences, where we can have a good poke of the snout at what’s going on. This unruly and exhaustive nasal jousting also means that, despite the aphorisms, curiosity is very seldom idle.

Privacy acts as a buttress against all this squirming intrusiveness. Of the two forces, curiosity would appear to be the stronger. For one thing, it has existed in a natural form for far longer than the human species has been laying one bipedal foot in front of the other, in order to have a sneaky peak at what animals the tribe round the corner are painting on their cave walls. Its existence probably extends beyond the point, hundreds of thousands years ago, when primitive Mud Skippers wondered just how different the dry bit was from the wet bit and thus began the terrestrial colonisation of Earth. Whenever curiosity started to sniff around, humans certainly welcomed it into our repertoire of motives with alacrity. Once we had it, we wasted very little time in adapting it to better suit our own purposes. It is perhaps because we are so good at it – or are so trapped in its thrall – that we had to create privacy, to at least try to stay some of curiosity’s new, improved avarice.

Certainly, animals seem to have a hold on their sense of curiosity. Their need to have a quick look under that rock there is balanced with a slice or two of caution, in case ‘under that rock’ turns out to be a bit bitey or stingy. On the other hand they seem oblivious to privacy. For a good example of this, think of your dog’s complete ease at defecating in full view of a bus queue of school children. Compare this to your own bashful adventures to a train bathroom; an experience as fraught with anxiety as if one was attempting to play a trombone without waking a room full of sleeping puff adders. It is your sophisticated idea of yourself as a separate and divisible entity, apart from the whole, that fills the trip to a train bathroom with a dreadful obsession with the reliability of the electronic lock and its disposition towards yawning open to reveal your ablutions to a carriage full of commuters.

Doesn’t this all beg a question, though? Why do we need to defend ourselves against curiosity? After all, curiosity is what got us to the moon, meant Britain adopted curry as its national dish, and discovered DNA and exactly what the twisty little bugger was up to. ‘I wonder what it’s like up there?’ curiosity says. ‘What is cardamon, anyhow?’ ‘Why does my youngest look exactly like my friend Graham?’ But you see that’s curiosity’s public face. It’s the collection of good causes curiosity desperately quotes at you, when you catch it browsing through the folder of Downton Abbey erotica that you’ve composed under the pen name EarlCrawleyLoveSponge342.

You see, it is only where we have secrets that suddenly we need privacy to shield them from all that boundless curiosity that’s bouncing round the world, putting its muzzle into every crotch it can find and having a sniff.

After all, what are secrets other than the expressions of your heart’s desires; your true self, naked and raw, blinking in the cruel light? Who wouldn’t want to protect that small, shivering child from the razor-like glare of the world? Even those who, to quote Bob Dylan, have got ‘no secrets to conceal’ cannot free themselves from being pursued by curiosity’s snuffling nose. Reality TV stars, whose stock in trade is that they are open books, and fill the world with the pitiless unceasing yammering of their every thought, are not immune.

One would think that curiosity would lose interest in them fairly quickly, as it already knows that Kayleigh and Jo-Jo have been seeing each other behind Zee-man’s back (as would Zee-man, if he watched the show). But the reverse is true. After all, once these individuals start down the existential path of being nothing more than a series of noisy public exposures, everyone suddenly longs to know more. Even after numerous incidents of scrofulous public nudity and yelling, the priapic snouts of Paparazzi cameras still stalk them from nightclub to Gala dinner to private beach resort. Journalists paw through their rubbish, like tramps with expense accounts. No matter what they reveal, our curiosity is there, begging for more. It’s as if, with every revelation, we think ‘if they are willing to tell us this, what aren’t they saying? ‘ One can only assume that, as a society, we have tacitly agreed that we need these fatuous absurdities to distract curiosity, while everyone else goes about our business in peace. That they serve a similar function to throwing fish heads into the sea to distract sharks.

If that’s how curiosity treats people who really don’t have anything worth hiding, think what it would do with the rest of us! No wonder each of us shoves that secret life away from the world and no matter how pure or noble, we treat the expressions of our own hearts with the same distaste as if they were a cheese sandwich that has been left to fester under a teenager’s bed.

That said, the miserable truth of the matter is that, once revealed, your dark secrets will prove to be as boring and anodyne as your public life. Curiosity isn’t bothered that you bury these pennies as if they were gold, it only cares that you are hoarding them. The Wizard of Oz is an old man behind a curtain. It is the curtain that makes him powerful, once that has been pulled back, he is as tediously human as Dorothy. But while the curtain of privacy hangs over the secret, terrible thing that you do in private – something anomic and perverse, like eating cheese with chocolate, scratching your bum and then sniffing your fingers, or worse, composing poetry – you will hear the terrible tick, tick, tick of curiosity’s claws passing the other side of that draped velvet curtain.

And how horrifying will it be when the fabric is ripped back, the curtain hooks rattling against the rail? Ah, well that would be telling.

(This was written in response to The Daily Post subject Privacy: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/privacy/)

The hundredth day of the expedition

That day we reached Elysium’s front doors. Randall makes crude remarks to a waitress on the terrace.

Two burly men in black, tight-fitting tuxedos root themselves in front of us. Their solidity is immutable and we go no further.

I snatch one dismal glance past a rock-like shoulder. A young woman tilting her head back to laugh. Succulent light glosses her silk dress. Nothing more.

As we trudge back to our campsite, suddenly weariness floods out of my heart, like blood. It is a jumbling torrent and I almost crumple onto the dirt track.

But man, that waitress, Randall whistles.

Clown College Valedictorian

He’d found it somewhere in the smashed up village.

A clown’s foam nose he shouts, popping the grubby red bulb on his own conk.

The younger guys laugh at Lafferty, in his greasy fatigues, the ridiculous nose stuck in the middle of his dirty face. But he and I, we’ve not been talking, so I ignore him.

Imagine that, he says, trying that hard so people like you; all that effort just to be an idiot.

Trouble is, he says, people fucking hate clowns. And he lobs the dirty orb back into the rubble.

Attack of the killer sheep

“Your sheep’s dead.”

We’d get that call regularly – phone calls or people popping round to the house in order to break the sad news.

“Oh, okay. Thanks for letting us know. Which one is it?” whichever family member answered the phone or door would ask.

“The big one.”

By which they meant Igor. He was old when we bought him, traded down to smaller and smaller farms as his age increased, until he arrived with us. He begrudgingly ambled down the ramp of a small horse trailer to examine his new domain: five fields blotched with gorse bushes, and 50 ewes of varying ages and states of ill health.

“I give him a month,” the farmer we’d bought him from said. By which he meant before Igor turned hooves upward and we’d have to drag his bulk back onto a horse trailer and send him off with the Knacker Man.

Although he was old, Igor was by no means decrepit. He had the pugnacious look that elderly East End gangsters acquire: nose flattened, ears chewed; the broad, lumpen face of an old fighter who’s been hit plenty of times but never been put down on the canvas.

He eyed each of us suspiciously, his bulk braced, ready for a show of ovine force. He didn’t last a month. He lasted six years. After all, the work he’d been contracted in to do, which was servicing the 50 ewes, was far from hard. Away from a larger flock, he was the only ram, and the more advanced age of our sheep meant he was not having to participate in the more demanding task of chasing and seducing shy maidens. This was an easy gig for the old bruiser.

At the top of lane that leads to the farm, there is a small triangle of grass and stinging nettles that we rented. This is where Igor lived with some of the more ancient ladies who enjoyed a softer, slower pace of life, away from the main flock. It is perhaps best to think of this pasture as a sheep retirement home. Igor was put here to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the younger ewes. (He may have been old, but Igor showed a dedication to his work.)

This lane is small, muddy and narrow, but a fair amount of human traffic – horse riders, farmers and ramblers would all go past each day. Each of them stopping briefly to note the dead sheep and then hurry to our house to report the corpse. Having received the news, one of us would don Wellington boots and wax jacket to trudge the ten minute journey up to the field to check Igor’s vital signs and discover if he’d had finally trotted off to the big meadow in the sky.

Invariably, he would be laying there, a mound of white like a crash-landed cloud, with crows fighting over the big, ugly banquet that his corporeal mass offered. Each of them squawking, flapping and pecking, eager to get past the woollen wrapper and into the meal itself. Whoever had walked up to the field would lean on the gate for a few moments, to see if the massive frame was moving at all. No, it seemed immobile, not even the slow rise and fall of his breathing. Next, you clanged the field gate shut and clomp over the field, while the rest of the small flock took themselves as far away from the two-legged interloper. Even with all this commotion and the alarm of the other sheep, the mound would stay placid. Maybe this time. There was a simple test that still needed to be performed. You place your hand on Igor’s back. Nothing. Then a gentle tap with the toe of your boot on his behind. And then another, a little harder than the first. Then, foot back as if you’re going to take the cup-deciding penalty at Wembley, and…Whack.

The white hummock would snort and slowly shift itself on to its feet. All the time giving you a look that promised a future full of malice and murder, before giving one of his growling, smoker’s cough bleats and returning to his corpse-like sleep. The crows would noisily decamp to nearby trees, ready to play the waiting game again. “Soon, maybe, soon” they shouted at each other.

Back at the house, Mum would shout from the kitchen “This time?”

“No, just sleeping.”

The shearer hated him. Every June it was a contest. On shearing day all of the flock was gathered in our barn. Each sheep is separated from the main body and funnelled through a passage made of gates tied together with baling twine, into a small penned area, where the shearer waited. He, with a Judo master’s precision, then grapples the sheep onto its bottom, its legs sticking out in front of it and a look of confused disgruntlement on its face, like an old matron having to travel to church in a motorcycle side car.

Getting Igor sheared required a group effort. The first year we had him, Dad said to the Shearer “the new ram’s a bit mean, you might need some help.” The shearer smiled the smile of someone who had just been patronised and was now more than happy to throw some patronisation back. He reminded my father of how long he’d been a journeyman shearer of sheep, of his long acquaintance with our family, as well as the other farming families of the area, how he had – with the grace of a martial arts black belt – manhandled literally thousands of sheep, and just because we seemed a little bit awed by our new ram, we were seriously underestimating the skill and knowledge of livestock that he brought with him, along with his motorised shearing machine. With the satisfied air of a man who had done some first class patronising, he took up position next to the wrapped packs of wool and the dangling umbilical of the shearing machine.

We chased Igor down the lane of gates towards the shearer. Igor skidded to a halt on the greasy, dung-smeared wooden boards that acted as flooring in the shearing section. He eyed the shearer, the shearer eyed him back.

“Him,” the shearer whispered.

It could have been professional pride or mere hubris that decided the shearer’s mind. With the resoluteness of the congenitally brittle-boned stepping into a wrestling ring, he put one hand under Igor’s chin, the other on the ram’s back leg and twisted the animal on to its rear. Igor went over and for a second both man and sheep weighed their surprise at this turn of events. Then, with the flick of the shoulder Igor righted himself, flinging the shearer onto the feculent floor. Happy that the natural order had been resumed, Igor stood glowering at us all.

“We usually work in a three person team – two on the legs and one on the head,” my dad said from his place behind the corridor of gates. “Yes, that might be for the best,” the shearer agreed for his new position staring at the shed’s rusty tin ceiling.

Before we continue, I must warn you that Igor did not share any character and motivations that one would recognise as human; sheeply thoughts occupied his sheepish brain. The world of nuance that balances ethics and action, the rainbow state where it is possible for someone to ask ‘Is this the right thing?’ has an ovine population of exactly zero. Sheep and humans inhabit the same space, well sheep live in fields and barns, humans live in the houses next door, but the worlds they populate are different. After the fact, Igor would have given no more thought to the event that I am going to relate now and his role in it. It is up to soft-hearted humans to chronicle his crimes , or indeed to call them crimes at all.

You see, he was a murderer, too.

Every year, just when the weather begins to promise spring, we’d take Igor mumbling and complaining out of the top field and move him to the field with the main flock. It was time for him to earn his keep.

However, Igor may have been as full of seed as a cheap orange, but after a couple of years, he became complacent in his roll of farm stud. If he wasn’t so cussedly vital, we might have suspected his age. Instead, like a king surveying his harem, he had become complacent. He knew that the flock was his alone and was safely so, as he was the undisputed ruler of the farm. With that, he stopped servicing the ewes with his usual alacrity.

A mighty king in his dotage can look back at the sons and daughters he has sired and know he has fulfilled his regal destiny and secured his kingdom. Rams on the other hand, are there to do a job. Albeit, one that comes naturally to them.

If they’re not performing, then there’s no baby lambs coming. And, while sheep don’t know it, unmoved as they are by the year’s trek across the calendar, lambs happen to a timetable. Not as precise as the one trains run on, but its requisites are the same.

Raddle punctuates this timetable. This rectangle of oily crayon, about the size of an old tobacco tin, is fixed on a ram’s chest by way of a harness. As the ram goes about his job, the gummy colouring is rubbed on each ewe’s back, and so the farmer knows when that sheep might be expecting her lambs. Each week the colour is changed. So as he travels from rear end to rear end, the ram leaves an unctuous map of greens, blues and oranges behind him.

In his complacency, Igor crept through the flock like a lazy pointillist. Dots of raddle appeared so slowly we might never get the full picture. At the rate Igor was operating, lambing season would stretch across several years.

To look at him, happy and relaxed, albeit with that underlying mien of anger, it was easy to see that he was asking himself (in his sheeply, non-human way): why should he apply himself with any vigour? After all, who builds warships in peacetime? Who thinks about umbrellas when it’s sunny?

Dad made some phone calls and the next Saturday a Range Rover arrived in the field, pulling a shiny, scrubbed-clean a horsebox.

“Meet Sebastian”, my father said, as he opened the box’s back ramp and let it swing on oiled hinges to the grass.

We’d never had a pedigree ram, a pedigree anything, on the farm before. Our animals were the motley rags of other flocks. The animals that other farmers didn’t have the enthusiasm to take to market were the ones that inevitably ended up grazing our fields. Sebastian trotted from the trailer like a prince, his fleece glowed golden, his manicured hooves making an elegant clip clop noise, instead of the harried clatter that usually accompanied a new animal’s entry to the flock. Sebastian was used to his personal carriage and the oohs and aahs that normally taciturn farmers would utter upon seeing him. We slipped a raddle harness on him, which he accepted with the noble indifference of a lord being dressed by his manservant. With that he trotted out into the field.

For us borrowing Sebastian was a win-win situation. Either the presence of the snotty new ram would throw Igor into a fury of sexual jealousy, whereupon he would propel himself at the ewes’ backs with renewed passion and spiteful abandon. Or Sebastian – the young and vital potentate – would tour the field, bestowing the flock with plump, regal lambs. As a family, we retreated to the fence to see what would happen.

Sebastian, his head held high, trotted further into the field. He assumed the haughty stance of all nobility surveyed his new harem. The ladies all turned to look at him and then went back to slowly cropping the grass. While the elderly flock greeted him with indifference, another gaze scorched across the grass towards him. Igor had spotted his rival. He did not like what he was seeing. To make matters worse, it was some posh git acting like he owned the place.

“Look, look,” my dad said, “he’s seen him.”

Igor lumbered into the centre of the field to face off against his new rival.

The two rams stood 10 yards apart and squared off against each other. Sebastian turned to the ladies, with a look that clearly said ‘Watch this, ladies. I’m going to batter this old…’

Clunk is the same sort of sound you achieve by clapping two big pieces of wood together – a dry, decisive plosive that hurts your ears a little bit when you hear it. It’s also the noise that two sheep skulls make when they make contact, at speed. Igor had seen his moment and took it, he attacked at full speed and head down.

Sebastian’s life as the fêted and rosetted darling of agricultural shows had not prepared him for the kind of dirty brawling that went on in the rougher pastures of Cornwall’s farms. It’s unlikely that he’d even considered the ugly old oik would even dare challenge him. Instead, the fight was what is known in fighting circles as a classic two hitter: Igor hit Sebastian; Sebastian hit the floor.

“Ah”, said my father. At the exact same moment that Igor’s head had connected with Sebastian’s, making that resolute clunk, my father was struck with an equally forceful realisation. Perhaps borrowing a costly pedigree ram might not have been such a good idea after all.

In fact, the prize ram never really recovered. He became listless and somnolent. He visibly drooped; he wouldn’t lift his head, his movements slowed. It became more and more obvious as the days passed that this wasn’t a psychic collapse caused by Sebastian’s swift and embarrassing defeat, but something physical. With that one sucker punch of a headbutt, Igor had shattered something in the other sheep’s brain.

We called the vet, but only to confirm what we already knew: Sebastian was scrambled.

Boxers who have had their brains beaten to mush get around the clock care, physiotherapists scuttle round them; specialists loom, brandishing clipboards reamed with prognosis and test results. Sheep, prize-winning or not, do not. They get loaded on to the van and make the journey from which they never come back. Which is what happened to poor Sebastian.

It maybe tempting to think of him as similar to Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his fateful tour of the Balkans – losing his life because of forces much bigger than he could hope to control or understand. You could think that, but it would be foolish. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is such singular purpose that it would not apply to the majority of people’s lives. The lesson is a simple one: sheep can be surprisingly dangerous; at least to other sheep.

As for Igor, well in some ways my dad’s plan worked. My father may have indirectly killed a prize ram, but Igor’s murderous attack proved to be a perfect cure we were looking for to solve his regal impotence. His raddle marks spread through the flock like measles spots.

The next year, my father went to market and bought a young ram – something ugly and mean spirited. Igor retired to the top pasture for good. There he stayed for another eighteen months, feigning death and then defying the crows by creaking to his feet again.

Finally, when the boot to the rump stopped working its miracle of revival and he died, journeyman shearers across the region rejoiced. Dad backed the van into Igor’s diminished kingdom and we grunted and heaved his body into the horse trailer. Each of us sweating and groaning to move the impossible lump of wool and cartilage up into the container.

He has old and he was mean – an unrepentant killer. But I like to think that across Cornwall, there are flocks of his ungainly, knobbly-faced progeny, cornering terrified ramblers against hedges, where their cries for help drift away to snag amongst the brambles and blackthorn.