Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Lost Jockey

The jockey was lost in a forest, a forest deep in winter. A minimalist forest which also seemed as if it had recently been touched by a wild fire. A fire that had spread indiscriminately, torched the foliage on the ground and left some blackened stumps which pristine snow now covered, but the evidence was there for the trees were bare and brittle. A light wind might cause them to snap or disintegrate into wood chips, and yet they were still standing. Still rooted where they'd probably been for hundreds of years. In the exact same location. With no branching out for they grew up not outwards. Stretching for the sun with its jaundiced light, all of them perfectly shaped as if pruned by nature's hands to a standard regulation.
The jockey nor the horse noticed this detail in their present surroundings; both too consumed with seeking a way out, praying for a sudden clearing and a return to a landscape they recognised. Otherwise, from a cursory glance, onwards or backwards, it all looked much the same. Perpetual. White under eye and hoof with parallel lines of naked trees. The few leaves suspended here and there unobserved, as the combination of the black on white and the eerie light was deeply unsettling. Discomfiting to their accustomed steely verve, which in itself was strange, because had the jockey been in full command he would have seen that him and his racehorse complemented the backdrop beautifully. Their colours echoing the black and white forest like a game of backgammon, draughts or chess and they were the pieces in play.
But the jockey was unused to feeling this lost and the dark racehorse was sensitive to the increased slashes of his rider's whip and his ever-tighter squeezed thighs around his sides. The displacement that both felt was uncommon. And although they appeared to move as one, they were not as one. Man and beast were separate, not joined together as would normally be the case. Their forward motion and rhythm was not fluid. It was disjointed, irregular, one a fraction out of sync with the other, except that neither knew which one was at fault or who should adjust to correct it.
The jockey, despite being a Grand National winner, had no experience of this kind of affair, and the racehorse had long-forgotten his experiences in the hands of a novice. There was no situation that compared nor could alleviate their alarm. The ground they found themselves travelling was more punishing than a manicured racecourse. Even at their great speed, which the jockey enforced, the horse was wary of unseen obstacles and the jockey was irritated by this minuscule hesitation, hunched as he was over the horse's back. The horse yearned for his trainer and a dirt track, an amble in arable countryside, and not the torture of the jockey's never-ending pumped adrenaline. But onwards they rode. And rode. Pushed to and through the limits of their own fatigue.
Until the same thought occurred to both of them as one, horse and rider, man and beast: were they missing magical openings in this unchanging forest? If they both slowed, what would they see?
The horse decelerated to a trot and the jockey relaxed and sat back in the saddle, his grip on the reins and the whip loosened. Their breath and sweat mingling, rising together like mist in the cold air. Weariness making itself felt as each gradually returned to their rested rhythm; man and beast entirely spent in their own manner. And as they calmed, the silence of the forest made itself known, seeped in like a chill and made both of them shiver for they had come to a complete stop too quickly and so the quietude that was natural to the forest to them seemed supernatural. There were no sounds, or at least none that man and beast could discern even though they both listened intently. Neither was there any presence of animal, bird, or plant life, except the mostly leafless trees.
Now at ease the jockey surveyed the winter, almost burnt to a cinder, landscape and realised the picture was not at all how it appeared. Like wallpaper there were places where the pattern didn't quite match and it took on a 3D effect. He realised these were exits, openings to God knows where, which had escaped him and yet always been there.

Picture Credit: The Lost Jockey, 1948, Rene Magritte

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Prince and the Bell Pepper

There was once a princess and she wanted a prince, but then he must be a vegetarian prince. A real vegetarian, not a flexitarian, a pescetarian or a meat reducer, but a full-time abstainer of meat, which yes, includes fish, molluscs and crustaceans. And to be a real prince he must be a decent cook for in this enlightened day and age there were no kitchen slaves, and princesses although trained did not want to be held responsible for every repast and every growling palace stomach.
Unfortunately, real vegetarian princes were thin on the ground, as rare as the jewels on the King's crown: not to be found just anywhere. But then this particular princess hated dating. Any dating, even organised dates conducted at a royal speed where she would be obliged to pass down a line of prospective suitors proffering to each a gloved hand and a few strained polite words as her mother, the Queen, looked on.
The Princess, in the past, had been accused of coolness because she failed to react to romantic gestures. In fact, any gestures with romantic overtones made her uneasy: she refused to accept them for what they were and questioned their authenticity. Why? What's the agenda? And despite being a princess she disliked any light being shed on her. But then she detested those that planned adventurous, supposedly fun, dates where she would have to participate, have her sportsmanship assessed. What was wrong with a cup of tea, a walk, a talk, an art gallery? She would really rather skip what everyone else thought was the good bit, so she could be herself instead of feeling as if she might descend into clumsiness at any given moment. Therefore, her attempts, at best, had been half-hearted: agreed to, but not altogether enjoyed, and the few frogs she'd kissed had been eventually dismissed for their carnivorous or all- consuming nature.
She considered it her duty, as did her parents and their diminishing kingdom, to marry a prince, but she had no intention of losing who she was in that negotiation. The very idea of marriage seemed like a form of decay, a whittling away until perhaps one day the person before the mirror was unidentifiable. An imposter, with the soulful light that used to play imprisoned in the glazed irises. Along with fearing this outcome for herself she feared inflicting it on someone else, yet brushed aside these dreads as her pre-any-commitment jitters for if she found a prince who shared her principles she was sure these concerns would clear. 
So she beseeched the few palace retainers to cast an ever-wider net but there was always something wrong. Some irritating habit the princess couldn't possibly live with or a disparity in opinions or interests. The princess was on the verge of giving up when disaster struck in a distant province. There'd been an sudden outbreak of influenza which meant the Head of State was too unwell to welcome a foreign prince who was due to visit their shores any day. Could the King possibly help? Being a benevolent King, he agreed, to which the Head of State's PA replied that the prince, on arrival, would be conveyed to the palace. As an afterthought, he added, oh, and he's vegetarian. My apologies again for the inconvenience.
Two days and three nights later, during a wild storm, there was a knock at the town gate which the old King answered to find a rain-soaked, yet debonair prince behind. He heartily greeted the traveller, ushered him in and then left him in the Queen's capable hands who was convinced he was not a vegetarian prince and needed to be tested.
The Queen took the prince on a tour which ended in the kitchen where she laid out their stores: meat, fish, vegetables and grains, remarking to the prince that even guests prepared their shared evening meals. The prince upon hearing this instantly rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands, then ignoring all other foodstuffs on the table chose a red bell pepper to roast over an open flame. A carnivorous prince would never have done that.
The princess was persuaded to make him her husband. And the roasted pepper, in case you were wondering, was eaten and enjoyed.
Now this is a true story.

Picture Credit: Peasant Burning Weeds, Vincent Van Gogh

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Semi-awake

A contemplative evening led to a restless night.
The sort where you twist and turn, throw the covers off and pull them back on, continually shift your sleeping position and your head on the pillow; in short suffer a mild bout of insomnia before seeming to drift into the land of nod and the beginnings of a very strange dream.
Write it down, people say. But I think they mean when I immediately wake, and not sometime during the course of the next day. Why would you keep a pen and pad beside your bed? For this purpose, you imbecile. Yes, but even if I did, I wouldn't think to reach for it straight away. Who has the time or the mental capacity for that matter when your brain's coming to? Obviously not you.
And in case you're wondering, this conversation is not aimed directly at you, the reader. It's an internal dialogue being held between I assume the left and right hemisphere. I can't think who else would be doing the talking... unless it's my stomach, the seat of emotion, conversing with my soul, wherever the latter lodges.
Anyhow, what was I saying?
Ah yes, dreams and how to catch them. How I try to catch those that I can't shake, those that made a lasting impression the following day, but even then it's hard to convey what I felt and what my inward eye saw. Words cannot help in this situation, written or spoken. They fail to adequately express what I want: the realness, the lucidness, the semi-awakened state. For that's what I was: semi-awake.
Can then what I'm about to describe be considered a dream?
Wasn't it more an hallucination?
How can you judge when I haven't begun?
Good question, although I will say that unlike your run-of-the-mill dreams or vivid but rapidly fading imprints I had no need to claw back this vision. The memory of it stayed; in fact it lingered for several hours.
That particular night, after much lying on my back and staring vacantly at the ceiling or contorting like a circus act, I curled up in the foetal position on my right side and finally felt the familiar drag of sleep. Sweet, delicious sleep... much longed for sleep...
With my eyes closed, as you would imagine, my mind, without any preliminary unconsciousness, instantly illustrated me on that brink: in a longboat, sitting upright as if I were the Lady of Shalott on my way to Camelot, minus the watery surrounds. Instead, the boat was laboriously climbing a steep slope on a mechanised track; clanking and groaning with every intermittent pause and renewed effort. Ahead, the peak and a patch of milky sky, with high ochre rocky formations on either side. Of course, it occurred to me that this was a theme park ride, although I had no basis for that assumption, but still I had little fear of the resultant plunge. I was ready for it. I welcomed it for I realised the deep pool of sleep would break that eventual dive.
In the instant that was about to happen I felt a light pressure on my crossed arms, a pressure that I was very aware came from outside this dream, and synchronous voices imploring me to “Wake up! Wake up!”
I grumbled aloud: Why now?! with other words of complaint I will omit, despite knowing I was talking to thin air, there was nobody there, yet the urgency to comply was unmistakeable. The mischief had been made, the trick had been played, if that's what it was, and I'd unwittingly fulfilled the assignation.
The moment of sleep for that night teasingly lost much to the delight of some imps.

Picture Credit: The Lady of Shalott, 1888, by J W Waterhouse