I saw a ghost once, the man with the obnoxious tattoo interrupted, steering the story somewhere else completely, and despite what you say, in my experience, ghosts are quite beautiful, he continued, and this story, he interjected, might go some way towards explaining the provenance of my unfortunate tattoo, which, believe me, I am aware that you have been clocking the entire time, though I’m surprised with some of you being sea dogs yourself that you’re in any way perturbed by amateur pinwork, what’s the matter, boys, never seen an unidentifiable on the arm of an old salt, well, let me tell you how it came about, and what it is, if none of you have guessed yet, and this requires us going backwards instead of forwards, but at least that way we’re dealing in verifiable facts, am I right, in things that have actually taken place rather than flights of fantasy or confidence tricks, not that I’m saying you can’t see the future, and I do think it’s a skill to be able to see the past and see it clearly and it’s true, if you think about it, that there might well be as many alternate pasts as there are potential futures, if you were to add up all the eyes that have taken in the same scene, all the brains too, and all the different parts of the brain, for that matter, and memory, too, memory too comes into it, I’m not saying anything controversial when I say that no two people remember the same thing in the same way, am I right, lads, memory colours the deal and the colours are often rudimentary, just as this tattoo on my arm is a little, well, a little roughly sketched, I’ll give you that, and we’ll get to that, believe me, but first just like our faceless friend The Oddity here, he said, and he pointed his chin towards me, his awful chin, it occurred to me, even though I was the one with the hideous face, supposedly, and he continued with a date, it’s 1936, he said, and the war hasn’t even begun.
Sure, there’s unrest here and there, there are signs up ahead, is what I’m trying to say, but back then it was still possible to be romantic, to look to the future with something other than trepidation, you might say, it was still possible to swim naked in rivers and to make love to young girls on the banks, in the grass, in the summertime, without a care in the world.
In 1936 I had decided to do nothing, nothing at all, for the space of a year, which is harder than it sounds, believe me, doing nothing, there’s always the urge to be productive, even for a bum, it’s hard just to waste and to wander, even though it’s not a waste to stop and smell the roses, the weary roses, is that a poem by your man, I think it is, the point being that most people are absolutely terrified of the snail’s pace that life moves at, the way one second collapses into another like a slow-motion avalanche, the way that waiting for a whole minute to pass gives you butterflies in your stomach, that a month gives you a terrible sense of vertigo when you have no fixed route through it, that years, well, let’s not even talk about years, and so we have these people that we send out to experience the flow of time and to report back to us, you know, when I say us I mean the archetypal Joes, the working stiffs, the timetablists, the nine-to-fivers, the avoiders of time, the sleepwalkers, let’s say it, the zombies (I shuddered and looked at the young boy in the pyjama top as he said this), and the people that report back, well, we call them artists, musicians, writers, and we also call them bums, chancers, drop-outs, scroungers, no-goods, derelicts, fools, though secretly we envy their bravery, the courage they have to sit and do nothing for long stretches, their ability to feel the passage of time, because it hurts, let me tell you, but what hurts even more is love, love hurts, boys, let me tell you, let me underline that, you should try being a bum in love, an artist with a broken heart, a derelict with a devotion, a poor pining writer on a bench in a park in the afternoon staring at the newly sprung daffodils, their sad heads nodding pointlessly in the wind, and somewhere else, somewhere out of sight, lost love, well, there is nothing worse, let me tell you, and that summer, well, this is the trap I fell into, and maybe now you are starting to see the significance of my tattoo, that idiot scar, you’re thinking, but I doubt it, you’re not there yet, though rather you are, you just don’t realise it yet, so I mentioned the girl on the riverbank and this is a true story, it really happened to me, but it also seems like a fairy story or what is it they call it, an epic, an odyssey, though on a small scale, you realise, but one day I am lounging on the riverbank, it is the summer of 1936, I have gone to my favourite field, a stubble field, you might call it, a rough field, but nevertheless one that leads down to some beautiful flowing water and one that was secret and one that was unknown to anyone back then except for me and a few lazy cows, one that was surrounded by trees on three sides and one that looked out to more fields on the other side of the water and at one point a ruined castle, its tower just visible above the tops of the trees, I had spent many afternoons there, evenings too, whistling to myself, carelessly smoking, under the eye of God and no one else, that’s what I would tell myself, and sometimes I would get into the water and swim naked and then lie back down in the grass in the sun and fall asleep, I had no money, I was dirt poor back then, I had left a job in the shipyards, a good job, some might say, a job where you had no fear of time or the future or tomorrow, a terrible job, others might say, depending on your outlook, which is to say depending on how you were born, because I believe that bums are born to be bums just as much as kings are set to be kings, and here I was naked in the grass, King Bum, born to it, and it’s another one of those endless days, those glorious processions of hours like a gift, a gift that’s hard to swallow, for some, the gift of eternity, is what I’m saying, and I lie back, I always remember it, I hear this splashing noise, soft, splashing water in the silence, and I sit up on my elbows, at this point I’m smoking a long piece of dry grass for the hell of it, and I see this figure, this vision, floating downstream, it’s a woman, a girl, and she is floating on her back, slowly swimming downstream, the angel stroke, she’s doing the angel stroke, I’m telling you this is for real, and the water is silver in the sunlight and she doesn’t see me, she is looking straight up at the sky, not even watching where she is going, and I say to myself, bugger me, it’s the ultimate artist, the ultimate bum, and I marvel a little, she makes me feel like an amateur, and as she gets closer I can see that she has long blonde hair and perfect skin, she might be twenty-one, who knows, it’s hard to tell, and I shout out to her, something ordinary, something banal, like, it’s a lovely day, or, watch where you’re going, or just, hello there, something that is lost to the mists of time now, and instantly she spins round and stands up in the water, which is above her waist, and she puts her forearm over her breasts, which are small and beautifully formed (now we’re talking, the young man in the pyjama top nods), and she looks at me, by this point we’re close enough to look into each other’s eyes, and her eyes are blue, sapphire-blue, perfect (just like her pert breasts, the young boy nods), and her lips are red and for a moment, for a second, which is all of the space of an avalanche, as I’ve told you already, her face is frozen, she’s caught in the teeth of it, she’s in love, I’ll go ahead and say it because I believe it to be true, I know they say you can’t fall in love in a second, but sometimes a second is all it takes, and now I know, I know from this perfect face and these perfect eyes and lips and I know from the eyebrows, how they arched, and I know from the way she dropped her arm and exposed her breasts to me (go on, the young boy nodded, go on yourself), although exposed is the wrong word, that’s too harsh and deliberate, surrendered her breasts wouldn’t be right either, revealed, no, displayed, not quite, can we get any closer to the beauty of this gesture with words, is what I’m trying to say (keep trying, the boy nodded, do your best), or even the beauty of her face, for that matter, and this is the incredible thing, that as she walked slowly out of the water towards me I swear it was as if she was flitting backwards and forwards between a naive young girl and a sophisticated older woman, you might say it was the way the sun caught her, the way the shadows fell, the state of my sun-addled brain, you might say it is memory now or you might say it is just the memory of a memory, but I can’t take that word, just, I can’t reduce it to that, it can’t be done, it was there and it was perfect and that’s when I realised we were caught between past and future, the two of us, we had stepped outside of time completely or more properly inside of time completely, we were occupying a second of a second of a second, which is atomic time, which is cellular time, in my opinion, you can’t put a watch to it, is the thing, and as she entered my arms and my eyes we fell into the grass and made love without a word or a sound (what more can you ask, the young boy nodded) and I tasted her and she tasted me and of course we tasted of the river and the grass and the soil but something else too, something that was uniquely us, that we made between the two of us, and that was also earthy and divine and afterwards (that’s all we’re getting? the boy protested) we ran around in the sun naked and we chased each other and laughed though we never said anything, well, anything of consequence, and anything that we did say is lost to the mists of time just like my banal introduction, the one that had started it all, and I never thought to ask her name, that’s the crazy thing, I never thought to ask her anything about herself, and I think now it was because we were locked in this cell, this vein, this bubble in time, and the whole outside world had no consequence, never mind anything as dull as who we were when we were in it, and we jumped back into the water and we leaped around and did childish things but then at other moments we embraced and fell back into the water and then at one point, as the sun was still high in the sky, which made it all the more heartbreaking, I let her go, I let her drift away without a word, she rolled onto her back and she resumed that stroke, the angel stroke, and she carried on down the river, and just as I thought she wouldn’t say anything, that she would leave the moment as silently as she had entered it, she said, goodbye, it’s the one word I remember, oh God, and she waved and she swam away and at first I was in ecstasy, I was overcome, what a remarkable experience, it was perfect, there was nothing you could add to or subtract from the moment that would elaborate it or make more sense or improve it, and I lay back in the grass and I felt myself blessed, King Bum, I told myself, and afterwards I walked for hours, in the shadows of the evening, down tree-lined lanes, and I sat by ponds in the dark, and it was after midnight when I returned home to my old parents’ house and I sat on the bed and looked out of the window and peered into the distance and that’s when it struck me, and when I say struck me I really mean it, you know what they say about Cupid’s arrow, how love pierces your heart, I felt that pain, a pain that is like being shot in the heart with an arrow, yes, but more than that, the heart bleeds, the heart is drained of blood and becomes more like a paper bag, a paper bag inflated by a mischievous child, and I knew I was trapped, I would never be a bum again, I was caught in time, in longing, I dreamed of this girl night after night, I was bereft, I would travel back to our secret spot again and again in the hope of meeting her, but all I ever saw were the flowers swaying pointlessly in the wind, the blurry treetops, the ruined castle, the stubble fields, I had such pain inside me, the minutes were a torture chamber, the hours were like the featureless fields themselves, the weeks and months lined up like an impossible assault course designed by a maniac, and I wanted to harm myself, to let all of my blood pour out, not just from my heart but to become a walking cadaver, a sleepwalker, a zombie (again I shuddered at the word), where is she, I demanded, where can she be, is she out there, is she a dream, is it possible, I couldn’t stand it, my peace had been stolen, the thought of doing nothing tied my stomach up in knots, threatened to burst the paper bag in my chest, that’s when I knew it was all over, I would never tease out another minute, never enjoy an empty hour, not now that she was gone, and I took a needle and some Indian ink and this is what I did, boys, this is the cap I put on the summer of 1936, this is the scab, can you see what it is now, can you make it out? I’ll tell you what it is, boys, it’s not a harp, no, it’s not the gates of heaven; it’s the bars on the window of a prison cell. But look closer, boys. You’ll find the bars are made up of arrows. That’s how I did it, I imprisoned that moment inside me forever. And then I went and joined the army.
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