“I don’t want to go blind,”
That’s what you said.
You just came out with it.
“I don’t want to go blind,”
I was knackered from the drive,
with a mouthful of tea,
savouring the moment,
you and me,
you picked your moment and launched.
We’re in your garden,
radio playing through an open window,
just like all the Saturdays I remember growing up here.
You were breadwinner,
tower of power.
The BBC had just liberated us from the gloom of The Light Program,
launched Radio 1
‘Flowers In The Rain’
Local boys done good,
Dug a tunnel of sound,
escaped under the wire
And thanks to you there was always a radio playing somewhere in the house.
So I caught it,
the ticket out of here.
You gave me that
but what can I give you now,
averting my eyes,
shuffling my feet in these immaculate limited edition Spezials?
It’s not the kind of thing we do in our family is it?
Heart to heart.
Let our guard down.
It’s uncomfortable, a buzz. You have always surprised me.
“This eye has gone too far for it ever to be good, but they’re trying to stop the other one from getting as bad…”
You’re talking low; for my ears only.
Mom’s in the kitchen talking,
“…I don’t want to loose my eyesight, Karl.”
I’m fiddling with my mug,
I drop my head and rotate it self-consciously between fingers that left here at the age of eighteen to make art because they were crap at making music
and the feet were shit at football.
I’m in the dark,
groping for something familiar,
This is a secret I don’t want to know; don’t have tools to deal with.
You never showed me this one on the map, Dad.
Back in Essex, at the side of the road, I listen to the rhythm of birdsong carried on a low curving wind. A thick fog had erased the world when I woke up this morning. It’s slowly lifting, unveiling a melancholy horizon. Henry Moore was whittling last night leaving behind lumpen forms, staring down at leaden feet.
A solitary pheasant meditates, perched on a rusted fence. Its head is a full-stop searching for the sun, its eyes black as jewelled pins.
There’s a new influx of tin bulls, beer cans, plastic bottles and fast food cups re-populating the grass verges.
Blissfully unaware of the inevitable.
There’s nothing left alive that remembers the slaughter, no records of the massacre.
Discarded objects stretch out in the sun,
Hands behind heads,
Soaking up the rays,
Convinced they’ve made it to paradise.
Dazed teenagers dressed in funereal black, congeal by the side of the road, waiting to be carted away.
Bewildered, hands in pockets, blinking, adjusting to the light as they emerge from bunkers of extended isolation. Dressed for spring they are defiantly unprepared for winter.
There’s a new kind of lager can lying in the grass, like a private jet.White, red and silver.
I’m thrilled to discover it, luxuriating in the weeds, the luckiest can in the world. Lobbed between mowing seasons, immaculately timed to miss the industrial knives. This one has got until spring to enjoy heaven. J.G. Ballard will drop by to read bedtime stories for objects jettisoned from cars. Seduced by its fabulous livery, I fantasize about painting something precious I own to look the same.
Photographing it forensically, I map its trajectory. A marker of history. This one reveals its origins as Poland.
“Oh, Poland?” I nod sagely.
“Yes,” it replies, a little nervous.
I like Poland.
The dragon of Kraków, with the smoking nostrils, that lives by the river.
The man who danced in the sky above thousands at the Gdynia ship yards when we played after The White Stripes until the sun came up. He was revealed at dawn, clinging to the top of a yacht mast, raving his nuts off like the legendary Burger Van Man of Belgium, so possessed by our music that he shut up shop to dance on his own roof.
Six feet further along the road I find the can’s twin. Tweedledee.Two tin men in search of Eden in the heart of Essex
Now the mist has completely gone. Above the horizon, William Blake pierces brooding clouds with diagonal shafts of light. Solid as steel, translucent as gelatine. It’s a visual cliché I never grow tired of. I wish you could see it Dad.
How much longer have we got?
I keep turning the mug in my hands hoping it will reveal an answer, but it’s just a
mug like me. I wish I was a doctor,
not a dancer.
I wish I was Superman.
I’m not ready for the Iron Giant to be dismantled.
“It’ll be ok, Dad”
“What does the doctor say?” I glance up at you, hoping it’s another of your typical jokes where “I really hope you don’t come to visit it us” means “I miss you”
and “I’m sick of the sight of you” means “I love you and wish you didn’t live so far away.”
“They caught the one eye too late. They think they can stop it getting worse, but it will never be good. The other one they’re injecting to stop it getting as bad.”
You say it matter of fact, like talking about a shift at the factory. But I know how much you hate needles.
You look like a boy, turning to a parent for hope and a way out. Not that your parents gave you either.
“There were nights,” you told me, “when I was in that house on my own, when rainwater would run down off the bank at the back and through the house like a stream and there was only one gas lamp in the living room. Well, you could hardly call it that. It was a room with paper hanging off the walls. And if the meter ran out of money there’d be no gas, so no light. And I was too scared to be in that house in the dark on my own.”
As a child I always felt safe in the dark with you around. Nothing and no one scared me when I was with you.
“On nights like that,” you said, “I would rather sit outside freezing, until one of ‘em staggered home from the pub”
In Essex the trees get naked.
Sloes cling to branches malevolent with hypodermics.
The Acid Queen.
Did I offend her? Back in 1983 when we shared the same German TV show? Me in that band with a squiggle for a name, mad with excitement that she had agreed to have her photo taken with us. Me like a tiny child at the best Christmas-birthday party, howling along the corridors of that TV station shouting her name, demented, until word came back the photo was off. But the madness continued for years. The writing was on the walls, the hinges were coming off, but I never saw it.
Did you Dad?
When you open your eyes, what do you see now?
I follow my shadow up the road,
It’s long and black,
Inhaling sweet wood smoke from a bonfire in the timber yard,
A cherished memory of summer holidays gathered around campfires in the forest with favourite Aunty, chain-sawed logs for stools.
Cooking things on pointed sticks of pine and hazel,
tools you taught me how to find and fashion.
Dark summer nights out under the stars, the cosmos pushing its face through clearings in the trees. Favourite Aunty living off-grid in the woods, generating power with an old diesel engine, recounting the plots of Hammer Horror classics to widen our little eyes, transfixed by the lilt of her voice. I never heard of her going to the cinema but she knew every film intimately.
You weren’t there on those magic nights but I felt you close, protecting me from bad stuff waiting to drag me off into the dark.
I’m writing to you as I walk Dad.
Trusting my feet know where they’re going
The muscle memories of months in the fields,
Roads less travelled that I know by heart, bringing you with me.
The noise in my head subsides as mud, deposited by the colossal wheels of fabulous machines, piles up along the centre of a single track lane that leads me away from the noise of the world.
A chainsaw howls on the other side of a forest.
A heavy whiff of boiled sprouts wafts from fields erupting with green leathery things.
The earth is rich, rutted with parallel lines, Picasso’s dirt phase.
The chainsaw stops moaning. A cool wind rustles the leaves of an old oak overhanging the lane, whose branches tickle a solitary telephone line strung between wooden poles.
The poles are branded with the dates they were planted.
Most have been replaced since the turn of the century but there’s still one around here somewhere that’s been on this lane since before I was born.
I come across it once a year. It moves around to avoid being replaced, dancing since before my first breath.
Do you remember the day I was born Dad?
I have a black and white photograph of you beaming, looking cool
as a rock star, holding an ugly baby boy safe in your arms.
‘Check this out!’ says your blissed-out face‘
This is the best feeling in the world!’
I know that feeling.
Down the lane we travel, away from the road where blacked-out cars defy death and seven deer, the colour of manila accountants folders, stand rock still, assessing me from beyond a pumpkin patch, where gilded carriages prepare to erupt.
The sound of running water in field ditches is concealed between blackthorn hedges.
A lone crow laughs.
Three pale crab apples lie in the road waiting for wheels to juice them. I lift each one gently, placing them on the grass verge like Christmas tree baubles. They thank me. I walk on, feeling faintly holy.
An invisible yapping dog describes a path of sound through the fields beyond the trees. I stop and listen to make sure our trajectories won’t intersect, tasting a wind that carriers the rich earthy tang of waterlogged fields. Tastes like nostalgia, the kind that takes me back to you and me walking in the forest where favourite Aunty practiced voodoo with jam tarts, leaf mould, oak, pine, and mud.
You’re stooping down next to me so our eyes are at the same height, pointing an impressive finger towards an imperceptible thing in the distance.
“Look at that,” you say
“I can’t see anything, Dad.”
“Yes, just between the twig and the stone.”
The power of your eyes back then was astonishing.
You taught me how to see and taste the wind for memories.
“This place and this place, I remember as a boy,” you would tell me. Putting markers on the map, depositing it with me for safe keeping for a time you knew was coming.
A time when the body bits refused to play ball.
I’ll keep the map safe for you, and keep walking.
A crow squeaks like new leather.
A stag, protects his herd, growling from the heart of the wood beyond the big oak making a sound like a shovel scraping tarmac under the snow.
Three kindly witches in oversized clothes appear, bid me good morning,
Smiling, crossing to the other side of the lane to make sure we don’t breath each other’s breath,
“Lovely day” they chant, one after the other, then disappear, laughing.
A lone chicken moans.
A small dog snarls at me through a hawthorn hedge.
The chainsaw starts howling again.
It whimpers as I walk away.
“Don’t pull that one on me!” I shout back over my shoulder, as it chuckles to itself, then disappears.
Demons are out and about today.
A thicket of rose hips erupts from a blackthorn hedge, deep red and succulent, covered in dew, wreathed in chalky blue sloe berries, laughing excitedly.
The chainsaw reappears, howling long and hard as a cockerel starts crowing accompanied by a giant mechanical woodpecker smashing its beak into a tree trunk. It hammers so fast the blows blur into a hum that sounds like a moped climbing a hill.
A single rubber glove lies face down in a freshly tilled field chanting to itself. The earth is juicy from last night’s rain.
Down the lane we walk, turn right at the rusting fence that leans like a paralytic groom, arm around his best man’s neck, stumbling down alleyways, ranting at the night.
“I love you, maan!”
The big oak is turning, autumn bares her teeth to the sky as commercial airlines moan, fighting for survival above the clouds.
A small herd of deer breakfasting on acorns beneath the oak’s enormous branches are startled by our arrival and scatter into the woods where the buck returns to scraping the snow with his guttural shovel, growling louder as I approach, warning me off.
Did you ever close your eyes and wonder what it would be like if you opened them and couldn’t see?
A chestnut horse, believing it’s alone, sings to its self as it runs around a small field wearing a giant waste coat.
On cold mornings like these you’d start the car and leave it running. “I’m letting it warm up,” you’d say, blowing into your hands, returning to the warmth of the kitchen to collect your flask and sandwiches for a shift at the factory. Six ‘til two; two ‘til ten; ten ‘til six. We relied on every penny and you never let us down. Not that I ever felt poor or wanted more. I never aspired to a life on the other side of the tracks because I never thought it possible. We had the forest and the fields and weekend picnics in Wales damming streams, and paraffin stoves, and kettles with whistles and blankets to lay on to stare up at the sky.
There’s a black and white photograph of your old motor parked on a dirt track somewhere up in Wales. Bulbous boot lid up, like Alfred E. Newman waiting with his cartoon mouth open for a cartoon dentist to whip something weird out.
You’d stoop, toasting the palms of your hands in front of the gas fire.
“Are you picking Danny Crisp up?’ I’d ask eagerly, my little mouth closer to the ground than it is today.
Danny Crisp rode a motorcycle and smelled of leather. He was Jack Palance and Billy Fury. I had no idea what he did for a living, but he rode to the sound of mournful electric guitars, suspended fathoms deep in Joe Meek reverb. ‘Johnny Remember Me’.
Sometimes, I’d ride his motorcycle to school, squeezed between him and you. Your arms tight around me, protecting me, my little face squashed into the back of Danny’s leather armour. The smell of it infused with the aroma of exhaust fumes. The road rushing under us, white line flashing beside us in broken rhythms.
I felt completely safe with your arms around me.
Hidden from ordinary people.
Slipped into a crack where no one could see me.
Laughing with fear and exhilaration.
But always the comedown – what a bummer, slowing to park where the sounds of an unremarkable world would skulk back to fill the fissure we had opened up in time. Pulling me back to a reality I longed to escape and would one day.
Why couldn’t we have just kept riding that motorcycle to somewhere fantastic? The kind of place where the only requirements for a life of eternal bliss was a love of Lego and an addiction to stripes.
You would lift me off the pillion, set me on the pavement and hold my hand, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Danny’s motorcycle ticking over, biding its time. You walk me across the road and see me through the gates of that stagnant old Victorian school building smelling of disinfectant and vomit; a place where the bell instilled obedience and fear and where tarmac yards echoed with the squeals of pale skinned boys playing superheroes in identical grey woollen jumpers. My heart sank more every day there as I walked the walk of the condemned between the bins and aluminium boxes filled with unloved food that we were forced to eat.
I remember the sound of that motorcycle pulling away.
Of the feeling being abandoned.
In the desert of an ordinary world.
Danny Crisp was the pale rider.
Lucky Luke, a ray of light,
liberator of all youth imprisoned in small towns everywhere.Only he didn’t did he?.Liberate us I mean.One day he rode off and never came back.Silence.
Well, you supplied that
Who was it you bought my first guitar from,
small and black ,
when I was seven years old,
the same year I rode a motorcycle to school?
What stroke of genius made you decide to buy that for me?
What did you see that nobody else did?
What did you hope as I walked in from school to find it leaning against my bed, making me gasp, more even than the Beatle wallpaper you hung on my wall. Nothing that fantastic ever happened in our town. You – you made the leap, you made the fantastic an every day thing and I watched to see if I could tell when you were would do it again. But you were too clever a magician to reveal your sleight of hand.
The leap you made in buying me that little black guitar was enormous, it was the key that unlocked the path to the life I’m living now.
Could you see the future?
Or did you go down to the crossroads and cut a deal?
And if you did, what did you exchange in return?
Is the deal you struck being called in now?
Death by a thousand cuts.
I don’t think I could ever make a leap like you did. Not even with my university big brain. What breathtaking visionary genius.
That little black guitar was too hard for me to play, with its fat metal strings that dug into my fingers making them so sore to the bone that I cried myself to sleep with the pain. The sound it made when I tried to play it like I saw them skinny young men on TV was depressing, but the noise that came out of it when I laid my ear against it and scraped the paint off with my nails was sublime. The wires that sprung wild from the capstones on the headstock dug into my hands making them bleed and hurt for days.
“Watch your eyes on them,” you said and I do still, because you told me to.
Were you looking after your eyes, or was that the final deal you struck down at the crossroads? Your life for mine.
“Let my boy escape.”
Back in Essex, the leaves have turned yellow, tiny quivering hands in the wind.I film them.Six films.One minute forty seconds each.Excited to make art for no reason.
Just like you planned. Opening a door, releasing the pain, a cure for all emotional ills.
A sleepy-eyed bloke in paint spattered clothes strolls towards me carrying
a used tub of putty like its 2019. He’s barely awake, scuffing the ground as he walks.His mouth says hello but nothing comes out.He’s a cartoon lizard with alabaster skin. It’s been a long time since he’s seen the sun. Mr Somnambulist, the shuffler of dreams. I let him drift past, making sure not to let his shadow touch me. The demons are out today.
Clouds part as I walk back along the main road. The sky is blue for miles now and low autumn sunlight burns the side of my face. I fling my winter coat open, breaking a sweat. A tractor the size of a house bounces around the bend where cars drive as fast as lightning strikes. It’s armed to the teeth with spikes and pipes, massive appliances strapped all over, equipped to perform duties that mortals cannot comprehend. The driver is a grinning pin, tiny and relaxed behind the wheel, nodding with the pitch and roll of the tyres as I step into a ditch, nodding my respect.I am an insect. The monstrous machine leaves a whiff of fish. The whole thing is faintly comical, like a clown with an axe.
We’ve almost completed our daily circuit. The sky was heavy and grey when we set out but it’s done a Simpsons. Clouds have parted and the sky is blue. I’m standing at a crossroads where dirt tracks meet black top. Birds gather on electricity wires to watch. Word of a pending deal has spread, but nobody knows when or from which direction the dealer will come. There’s a warm breeze, not the kind dice are rolled in, so no deal today.
A mutilated lager can is drinking at the waterhole through ragged lips. It’s the same waterhole where the old can built his swimming pool back in the summer, before the farmer ripped everything to bits with his industrial mower. It’s calm again, a scene from The Lion King. A wounded can as companion for a King going blind.
Back in your garden, the sun’s still shining, my fingers are still fiddling.
The silence between us waits for an answer.
Down the street, through an open window, a radio is playing.
Herman’s Hermits sing
in saccharine voices,
“There’s a kind of hush all over the world tonight.”
Karl Hyde (Underworld)