It’s been such a long time.
Do you remember when you told me there were special fires raging at the bottom of the Mariana Trench? I said, how can I believe you? Then you drew yourself inward and by the end of the evening it was the world’s biggest deal to get a full sentence out of you. You mustn’t be so sensitive. But I’m sorry nonetheless.
Late last night, a man sat holding a cardboard sign I couldn’t read in the shadows under the railway bridge, gently waved me away when I stopped to find him some change. Like a negative faith in everybody, stored up throughout the day, was still being expended person by person. I hope you don’t treat me like that. Here I am reaching out to you. Don’t wave me away, it would be unkind.
There are things you don’t know about me. Things I’ve never shared. In a Shrewsbury vicarage I was woke by a storm, a storm for pity’s sake, and I thought the end had come. A common notion of mine then. I’d been betrayed by the eye of my mind, you see, which hence swelled up and burst open. So even as I queued in the post office I squinted at service windows through flickering holograms, icebergs and painted devils and volcanoes, playing and replaying. We can still be friends though, can’t we? After an admission like that?
I know all about friendship. When I used to ride on your back I’d think to myself, this is what friendship is all about. Every movement you made causing the air to surge about me, more air than I’d be able to breathe in a hundred years. Hard, high-up air that hit me in great cold blocks, almost knocking me to the ground. We haven’t done that for years though.
Cast your mind back if you can, to when you spoke of fires illuminating the rayless ocean depths like underwater suns, and how you swam in the brilliant light. And I gave you that look a person gives you when they know you might be pushing it a bit, but they can appreciate it’s being done to please them. After that you hardly said two words. Just answered my questions as if I was asking them for the answers, rather than offering them up as framework around which to build a chat. It was never my intention to hurt your feelings. I hope you can accept that.
I texted a scientist, you know. For help. Don’t laugh. This was back then, in the heights of silly season. Concerning a certain feeling I was dying to get shot of and whether they could shake it out of me. Would they kindly cure me, in full, and with a scientist’s authority. Bless me though, it must have slipped my mind completely that, as a child, the scientist would scan the big papers with a magnifying glass, looking out for trouble. I clean forgot the hours they’d spent in dust-lit corridors, dreaming of how life might be, after it happens. They replied, it’s a wonderful feeling, isn’t it? And the bus continued lurching along the high street.
Listen to me. That evening, when you got a bit overexcited, and told tall tales about enchanted fires, we shouldn’t dwell on it. The past is the past. It’s gone now. But it’s still here, isn’t it? What a pickle and a mess. And as I made the face I could see I was hurting you, but I couldn’t help myself – because who’s to say what happens when people get away with it? I’ve never got away with it, if that makes you feel any better. Like the landlady’s anecdote, which I repeated back to the landlady the very next weekend. Later, in fits of shame, I would cut off a lock of my own hair and bury it in the garden. It was a clear night, and cold as all hell.
It was cold last night too, and clear as a sink, and after the man with the sign dismissed me, I carried on along Holloway Road, shifting between outlooks like going up the dial on a radio. It never settles. My attention span is in tatters, it turns out, even on personal outlooks, and oftentimes I live between the frequencies. In white noise and chirping interference. What’s your personal outlook saying these days? I hope it’s cheery. Can you keep a grip on it? Or does it fly away in the wind, first chance it gets? Is it dark down there at the bottom of the ocean? If you write back you can tell me.
Remember us, picnicking up amongst the toppled letters of the Hollywood sign, looking out over the city wreckage? What scenes. I could have stayed there for weeks, with you. You asked me if I was who I wanted to be, and I mumbled and stammered and changed the subject. Asked what your favourite train station was. Not sure, you said. What’s yours? Doncaster. No explanation. You may still wonder about that. Well I know the incoming tracks are streams, subsidiary rivers, and I know the platforms are a floating village, but that’s all I know. A wrong ’un forced me to drink a sip from his beer on platform three, way back when. It tasted like cigarettes. And in answer to your question, every now and again.
Some days I forget about my old mate, but then you’ll pop up again without any warning. Do you swim when I’m not thinking of you? Or will you drop like a sack of stones. Like a sinking province. I’m only exploring options. Trying to understand us. Who’s in charge out of you and me? Maybe neither. A third thing. Something dumber no doubt. Unknowing. And with less regard for our welfare than we have for each others. Less even than we have for our own, if that were possible. I’m speaking for both of us now. Does that bother you? That I would speak for both of us?
We’re in there for good. You realise that, don’t you? You, lying your head off about waterproof fires, and me, manfully enduring it. Do you reckon that pleases me? Because I’m telling you, it doesn’t, and I can promise you that with real promises. It’s a bad one. Dreadful, actually. And are you ill, socially? Because what, exactly what, am I expected to do in that situation? Act like I don’t hear you? Fall down faint? Shake you by the hand? No no no. My move was already made. I could only follow the guidelines, clearly stated. And it’s selfish to the point of psychopathic. Of you. Rude, to have arranged us that way. Total opposite of manners. Well. Hey-ho. It’s over now, and we aren’t arranged that way any longer. But who am I kidding. We still are, aren’t we? What a bother and a bore. And after I tutted, pretending to be struck by a thought – something pressing, and louder than silence – I knew. But couldn’t kill the process, because who amongst us would be as reckless? We can’t un-write the code, not at that level. What are you, a mad person?
OK, I’m calling a truce. Peace. An end to admonishment. Peace and tranquility, that’s the ticket. A simple matter of shifting perspective. Less of the bad. Focusing on the nice now. Because there are nice ones – and you know I appreciate those nice ones, don’t you? Good, solid bubbles with the rainbow film. A hanging jar of polished gemstones, worn about the neck. Heavy treasure.
One summer I took a trip with Richard. A day trip, to see the country’s first roundabout, and mark its centenary. What a treat, right? I so wish you could have made it. You would have had fine fun with us, as we made procession up the second stretch of the Broadway, known to the bossiest teens as the Never-Ending Road. A road so straight as to have been laid by the realest Romans. The true believers. And no one suggested it, but we walked under trees you wouldn’t argue with. Trees you hold your hands up to. Trees you don’t question for a split-second, with leaves that sizzled in the wind. Singing into the breeze like water-features. Like salon hair. It was warm that afternoon. Positively lulling, I can tell you. And because I’ve known Richard a long time, almost as long as I’ve known you, soon enough we fell inside ourselves. Real casual, like. No big thing. Myself, measuring the tall trees, using the houses as a reference, like I know how high a house is. And Richard beside me saying, good evening, esteemed faculty members, hello ladies, and gentlemen also, it comes as no little honour to be addressing you here tonight, but well you should remember this, and now, for something completely different, charge your glasses, and I must bid a grandiose evening, to all and sundry, I cannot stress that strongly enough. As the roundabout came into view I interrupted his flow to say, oh wow. Look at it, Richard. Look.
If I want to, I can take comfort from it, and a satisfaction calling on pride, that I will always be there, forever walking up the Never-Ending Road, to never reach the spindly wildflowers, planted there on purpose, and never to pose by the sign that says UK’s First Roundabout, eternal Richard next to me intoning, good evening – can you hear me at the back? – at long last I am able to say a few words of my own, but before we get started, I’d like to welcome myself to the podium.
We’ve had some corkers too, you and I. Sans Richard. Sure we have. We have, haven’t we? Yes. We have. Yeah, yeah. I mean. Well of course we have, it’s already been established. Hollywood. Right? So that’s one. One in the bag. Positive there’s more. Has to be. Come on now. Think. Breathe. Still thinking. Count up to twenty. All the way. Let’s not panic. One sec. I’m just. I’m summoning it, so be easy for a minute. Hmm, let’s see now. Ah. OK, got one. Trashing Marseilles. That was amazing. Oh what a splendid day. Smoke and broken glass. What a triumph. Trampled kiosks. Missiles arcing down. Truly seventh heaven. Our natural element. You, blowing the parachute men off-course. Dandelion seeds in the stinking air. Me, skipping along the evacuated boulevards. Taking the cafes apart. Breaking them back to their components. Gutting them, no less. What’s better than that? Nothing, that’s what. Name one thing better in this life than to find yourself doing-in a patisserie. Hey man. Point your atomic flames down here a minute. Let’s double-bake these croissants. Let’s render them inedible. That was teamwork. The actions of a partnership. Two sides of the same terrible coin, rolling through the streets, destroying livelihood and altering the landscape. When, right in the middle of everything, you stilled your thrashing tail, wound down the destruction and quietly asked me my opinion of the Saint-Charles railway station. After some thought I said, I like it. Overall I’m a fan. Fan of the whole network, if you must know. Though what I’ve always found strange is the announcement sound, the jingle. So odd that it should be in a minor key, and finish hanging on the third like that. It’s mental. And you said, it isn’t mental in the slightest. Why not? I asked. Because life is serious, you said. And it ends unresolved.
And so my dear old pal Godzilla, it’s been a lifetime. It’s been several. How are you, on the inside? Lately I’ve found myself reflecting on last we met. About the fires, and how you agitated in your chair, tapping the arm with excitement, eyes like chrome spinners, ranting about the power of the light, sufficiently bright to make it like you never swam but flew through thickened air, you said. And I won’t ever know if you lied, but that’s the way I behaved. That’s how I treated you, just to be safe. After that you exited the rounds system and bought your drinks solo, avoided my gaze, grunted your goodbye as we parted. You silly old fool. You shouldn’t get so het up about conversations, it’s ridiculous. But I’d hate to think that I spoiled everything.
The skies were pinking, threatening dawn when my head hit the pillow last night. And whoever shall hear those words and say to themselves, that was this morning, not last night, he or she must be cast out, to scour the lonely deserts without provisions or a compass. Because you wouldn’t have said that, would you? Not in a million years. You’d have thought twice and thought again before converting my nights to mornings, against my will. You, who aren’t stared down upon from electric clouds or half-deafened by the groans of falling mountains. You, who isn’t a scoundrel of the lowest order.
There are things you don’t know about me. Things I’ve never shared. In a Shrewsbury vicarage I was woke by a storm, a storm mind you, and I thought the end had come. Giggling with fright, I rushed to the window to see what it would look like, at last. The thunder and lightning were dead overhead so the booms and flashes were joined together, and my eyes were filled up with halos.
So there I was with my friends, in the roughs. I’m getting to it now. We were hiding, as always. All hunkered down on woodchips and wet leaves. When one of them said, it’s going to happen just after midnight. During the fireworks. The computers are going to set off the bombs. It won’t even need bombs, said another. It will just stop. They all nodded Yes.
And I said, please lads. Be pals. Be good pals of mine. Don’t squat down there with your grave nodding. Like a load of old badgers. Don’t do that. How can I make my way in the world with you doing that? Nodding away, like a congregation of pigeons. Ancient elephants. It makes no sense. None. Now, sort it out lads. If it’s coming, then what are we doing? Shouldn’t we take to trees? Why are there no burrows dug? The ground is soft enough. Fellas listen, should we not make a bonfire of our hooded sweatshirts? You dogs and beetles. Right. Put up your hand if you’re still a virgin, and cross your fingers for an even number. Don’t blush. For heaven’s sake, you’re the ones doing all the nodding. You’re the ones agreeing to it. You’re the ones aspiring to a lifestyle of looking over your shoulders at the atmosphere. You’re gagging for it lads, you really are.
From across the circle the scientist put their finger to their lips and said, shh. Simmer down now. Simmer down.
Anyway old petal. I should sign off now. I do most sincerely hope this letter finds you well, and I’ll leave it up to you if you want to write back. Please do. I sense you won’t though. In which case, goodbye old owl. Old edifice. Farewell old honey-pot. I won’t see you again. Until such time as the reports start coming through on the wireless. Tarnished steel voices, newsmen on the brink of tears. And I’ll put down my washing and think to myself, it can’t be.
Photograph by Rebecca Ribichini