Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Horse With No Name

When I was a boy, an old native Indian gave me a horse's head. A tiny silver charm, that fitted neatly into my palm, and was inscribed with these words on the back: Horse... Give Me Power.
It's long gone now; it disappeared many years ago on the first part of the journey. The sun burnt a hole in my trouser pocket, just wide enough for two of my fingers to wiggle through, and so I imagine the horse's head dropped onto the sand, or bounced off a hill or a rock. Although lost to me now, I've never forgotten the rough feel of it. By touch alone you could make out the horse's head: short jagged points were its mane, a slight bump was its forehead, a round tip was its nose and mouth, a strong curve its powerful neck, and a protruding lump the turquoise stone set in its throat. It was about the size of a standard fifty-pence piece, only thinner.
I thought it was girlish, but I held on to it anyway; I never shown it to anyone, not even my younger sisters. I carried it in my trouser pocket and began to hang about the Indian. He kept a tin shack as a native American shop on a piece of London wasteland, which now I think back was strange in itself, but as a kid you accept these things. He was ancient with braided silver hair and leathery skin - his cheeks were as creased as a parched desert - and he dressed casually in a shell suit with a pair of worn moccasins. He said to call him King, but I've no idea if this was his name or not, and his shop was a mishmash of feather headdresses, toy bows and arrows, dream-catchers and animal skins. He never seemed to have much custom being kinda off the beaten tourist track.
The barren land in front of his shack was like a parking lot. He owned a gold Ford Cortina, a pale orange Avenger and a white imported Mustang, although none of them were taxed or roadworthy. We'd lean against their hoods or sit on the narrow strip of asphalt, he in a hide-upholstered armchair and me on a wooden stool, and pow-wow about all sorts of things from weird dreams we'd had to lessons of survival. I learned a lot in those years, including how to drink and smoke.
Then one day I turned up as randomly as ever and King, and mostly everything about him, had disappeared. His tin shack stood empty and all his cars were gone. I thought perhaps he'd got ill, or died or finally been moved on by the council. I sat in his abandoned armchair, smoking a little weed and knocking back the cans of Foster's I'd brought him. I fumbled the horse's head and must have fallen asleep in my inebriated state as the sun was going down. A hot breath disturbed my comatose. At first I thought it was just a sultry breeze, but then there came another short puff with a snort. I cautiously opened my eyes and found to my surprise a pair of cavernous nostrils flaring at me. In fright, I jumped onto the seat of the armchair to be eye level with 'IT'.
The 'IT' was a dappled grey stallion with a thick platinum blonde mane and tail, and which seemed to me taller than your average equine breed. The horse positioned  itself sideways on and impatiently stamped its front right hoof, Get on! Get on! I hoisted myself against its side and swung my leg over its bare back. I squeezed my thighs and we took off, with me clinging perilously to its strong neck.
The land shimmered ahead as you imagine it would in a desert heat wave. In this dream-like place, it was blisteringly hot and the horse kicked up dust from the ground, but the air was a cornucopia of sound. Birds chirped and insects buzzed all around. I lost track of time as if my body was alive, but had gone underground. Perhaps it was an just for an hour or for days... I threw myself off when the desert turned to sea and let the horse run free. I blacked out as the ocean licked my face, only to find myself slumped, back in the now vacant parking lot, over a rocking horse that resembled my anonymous steed.
*Inspired by song of same title written by Dewey Bunnell and originally recorded by America

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Woman At The Window

That woman was skulking at the window again!” the smugglers grumbled as they unloaded their cargo from the wagons.
The landlord's niece thinks we don't see her, but we do.” Said Harry the pedlar with an evil chuckle. He swung his lantern up so that she again withdrew sharply into the black damp room with its peeling wallpaper.
*
Jamaica Inn. Joss and Jem Merlyn. Aunt Patience. Mary and charlatan parson Francis Davey. Smugglers, wreckers and horse thieves...
Maria pulled herself out from her daydream, letting go of the scene she'd just created. She'd inserted herself as if she was in the novel: drawn to the goings-on outside her window and had conjured up Du Maurier's dark, fugitive world of moonlight, clopping hoofs, low voices and drizzle. Imagined herself in Mary's place, but without her boyish senses: she had been seen!
How was it that the scenes Du Maurier painted were more real than those in front of her? She was not Mary, she was not in Cornwall, and she was not in the nineteenth century!
She reluctantly dragged her full consciousness back to the view that could be seen from her hotel window: the bay of a Spanish seaside town, but as she did she spoke aloud the words of Francis Davey, “Yes, I am a freak in nature and a freak in time. I do not belong here, and I was born with a grudge against the age, and a grudge against mankind.”
Maria too felt that same grudge, like the stab of a knife in her side; she was a freak like Davey which meant that peace was still hard to find in the twentieth century. The opposite to Davey, she was not an albino so unlike him had no halo of white hair. She was squat, with skin as brown as a nut and coal-black curls, and she wore white with vertical stripes instead of Davey's sombre black. She disliked people seeing her up close, but didn't mind if they stared at her back. Her darker skin, she felt, was unsightly and her face resembled that of a pug's: eyes too close together and nose squashed flat, and so when she ventured outside she hid behind a white scarf.
The staff at the hotel were used to her peculiar sense of herself and eccentric nature since she'd been holidaying here since she'd been struck with a childhood fever. A fever which had left her lungs scarred, and which for the sake of her health meant abandoning England for six months every year. A life sentence of quietude where only novels were allowed to excite her, so that now even being abroad with people whose skin was as gypsy-looking as hers was not enough. She craved old-fashioned adventure: desolate landscapes, tossing seas, and unruly characters who intrigued and never reacted quite how you expected them to. Reality however only gave her peacefulness: blue rippled waters, a light refreshing breeze and a lone dingy. Calm and order. A sense of nothingness. Monotony and boredom.
Maria, as always under doctor's orders, tried to desperately hold on to this restorative scene, but like a caught fish it slipped from her grasp. The daylight faded, the wind blew harder and the lone dingy with the barely-filled sail became a galleon heading for the rocks. She could clearly see the wreckers waiting on the shore to launch themselves into the stormy seas and retrieve the floating goods: rolls of silk, cases of oranges, brandy and tobacco.
Her pose at the open window said she thought she should move, but was compelled to stay with her private picture. She was drunk and giddy, like the landlord of Jamaica Inn, on Daphne Du Maurier's words.
*Inspired by Salavador Dali and Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Lion's Tooth

The sleeping gypsy cured my mother's cancer. How do I know? Because she told me and I believed her.
Lesson one: Never for a moment doubt your mother.
Lesson Two: Don't belittle the feelings of those who walk with the shadow of death.
Of course, there was doubtfulness from relatives, friends and oncology, but for me her conviction was like a fairy tale. She spoke with so much clarity when she communicated this knowledge to me every night at eight o'clock on the dot when I sat with her. Her voice was faint, but the words she enunciated were crystal-clear and her eyes were glassy beads. I kept very still and quiet by the side of her bed transfixed by each new chapter. Sometimes, without realising, I held my breath until I had to wheeze as if someone or something had attempted to suffocate me, then my mother's head would turn with a look of concern and she'd say, “There, there, the spell's been broken.”
The doctors had either been tight-lipped about her diagnosis or vague and bumbling; it was nothing to worry about, just normal procedure. A little cut, a longer burn and an extensive course of tablets. She'd lose a little breast weight, gain a few tattoos and a scar. Hair loss, internal tissue damage and dead fingers were never mentioned. Yes, she went through all that; she had no choice in the matter, but knew that wasn't what gave her the courage to go on.
The night before a lumpectomy, scared, alone and lying flat in a strange hospital bed, she said she was visited by a huge lion. She was idly staring up at the ceiling panels when she felt a rough tongue lick the back of her hand. She thought she was dreaming, but the licking was accompanied by a contented purr, almost like a rumble of thunder, and then her fingers met thick matted fur. She slowly pulled herself up and to her right was a lion sat on his haunches; a male lion she said with a head as big as the one in Narnia who was hot and panting and obviously didn't belong in our temperate climate.
For thirty seconds they stared at each other without blinking, then the lion got to his feet and padded passed the deserted nurses' station before he stopped and looked back. She grabbed her silk dressing gown and hurried to catch up with him. As she walked behind, the glaringly white corridor warped into a dark, cave-like tunnel, which the lion somehow dimly lit for her with his swishing tail. She stumbled steadily after that amber light until the cave came out to sandy plain beneath a starry midnight sky. Her toes sank into the fine sand as the lion continued to lead her to who knows what or where. It was a journey that seemed strange and never-ending, and yet more real than when you're told you have cancer. And it was about, she said, to get even weirder.
The lion finally came to a stop when they came to a sleeping man who you could tell was one of life's wanderers, except this one looked as though he only roamed metaphysically. The lion sniffed and gently nudged him and when he failed to stir roared just like the MGM lion, before he gave up with a shrug of his shoulders and laid down to wash his giant paws and face. Maybe it was the lion's close presence or the sound of his enthusiastic licking which eventually roused the dark gyspy, Mother hypothesised, but whatever it was his eyelids still heavy with sleep began to hesitantly flicker, until his pupils fixed groggily on her.
He released his protective grip on his walking stick and turned on his side, motioning to the lion. The lion grumbled but obliged by opening his jaws wide and the now-awake gyspy pulled out a molar. Under the glare of the full moon, he washed the lion's tooth with water from a clay vessel, then made a small hole with a stone and chisel and threaded it on coloured string carefully stripped from his pillow. Wordlessly, as the rest of this task had been done, he handed it to her, gesturing for her to wear it around her throat or wrist.
As long as she is a bearer of a lion's tooth, the sleeping gypsy comes and strums Beatles medleys on his mandolin to make her stronger.