The night sleeps tight and thick as ink, wrapped around the house, head tucked under its tail. On the top road, a solitary car’s headlights thread a needle through its matted fir without it waking. The night dreams alone, fathoms deep, sensing the approaching sun coming to slit it open like a diver’s blade splits an oyster.
Not body tired or poetic soul tired, just disconnected from my own mains supply. I’ve been great for months, slipping into the start of every day with ease but this week when the alarm goes off, I’m rattled. I don’t know where the hell I am. I’m tipping backwards down a well when I open my eyes in panic, grabbing at the sides. A wiry voice calls to me from a long way off. ‘Alarm!’
My eyes open. It’s still dark. Frost glistens on the roof. It’s going to be bitter out there today. This bed is seductive, soft and warm, I’m cradled in the oyster’s flesh. It’s the kind of place a man could loose the will to live. I force my eyes wider.
There were mornings I woke up alone and wished I wasn’t, mornings I didn’t and wished I was. Someone’s breathing beside me, where am I?
Who’s in my bed?
We go back a long way and that’s good …right?
Stabbing about in the dark beside the bed I silence the alarm. The breathing continues in a steady unbroken rhythm. Yeah, we go back a long way…
I give myself permission to lie still for a few minutes longer, reflecting with fondness on the previous weeks where I’d slept alone on the floor of a box room down the hall, springing out of bed every morning at 4:00am eager for adventure, disturbing no one. Well, the adventure is losing its lustre. I’ve forgotten who I am, what I’m doing and what the point is. Remain sober – yeah I know that for God’s sake – what else? There must be something else right? …Right? …Hello? Anybody there? Nothing, but a familiar kind of nothing watching me, like an old adversary.
I’m still alive, so maybe, and just for today, I’ll focus on remaining sane.
The frost outside sniggers, slithering over the roof, shifting its weight, getting ready to mug me when I leave.
What day is it?
Monday felt like Tuesday.
Tuesday felt like Monday.
Wednesday I thought was Tuesday.
“Stop fucking with me!”
“What?” says a voice in the dark beside me…
The breathing’s stopped, the pin’s been pulled ready for the lob. I say nothing, nurturing an heroic solitude as I ooze out from under the duvet like warmed over toothpaste.
Gather up the phone, the jeans, the trainers and creep away, wrestling my old man shuffle into a young man swagger for the cameras.
“That was Dark and Long,” says the DJ as I turn on the radio to lift my mood. Fragments of the lyrics return like loyal pigeons, but only the dark ones. Six weeks spent at a hotel in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Alone, no one laying in the dark beside me, just the night breathing outside, trying to get in. And me struggling to remain sane.
Awake, listening to the sound of bullfrogs and railroad crossing bells up by the bowling hall at the opposite end of town from Pauly’s Sports Bar where country girls cruised in beat up cars, winding their windows down as I staggered home.
“Hey boy, wanna ride?”
Now I kiss you dark and long,
Shout your love,
The stars are black,
Your church is sweet tonight.
“Thanks girls but I’ve got an early start.”
“Oh, English! Never mind.”
Lock the bathroom door behind me, turn on the shower, strip and step in.
The scalding water stings, I’m a Roman soldier thrashing himself with nettles.
In the Kitchen
There’s an under-cupboard light on in the kitchen, a kindness to the cat who hears me enter and rises on extruded claws from her spot by the Aga. She arches like a ballet dancer, a fur shadow, light turned inside out. Her eyes widen to scan me, my personal mental health doctor.
“Hello CAT,” I say cheerily, aware that I wouldn’t be this genial if I’d walked in to find somebody already up.
“Hello,” says CAT, exactly mimicking the voice of a parrot mimicking me. Every morning, CAT experiments with different versions of ‘Hello’ until I squat down and stroke her.
“Its lovely to see you, how are you today?”
“Hello,” says CAT.
The dark is almost solid outside.
Spoiled only by weak light leaking over the horizon. It’s a precious moment, I take a mental snapshot – a reminder for later that at some point today I felt content. It’s warm and safe in the kitchen. The Oyster lets out a long low breath as it senses the diver unsheathing his knife. I sigh in empathy.
“There’s no rush, eh, CAT?”
CAT looks up at me,
“I really appreciate the stroking,” she says, “but have we forgotten something?”
We walk down the hall with her weaving in and out of my feet.
Put fresh food in the food bowl.
Change the water in the water bowl.
“There you go, CAT.”
She remains still, staring at her food, hungry and poised but ready to walk unless I dip my fingers in and re-arrange it, then, and only then, will she eat.
Back to the kitchen I pull up a stool, raise a spoon.
Check the train times, open a book and read.
Feed the mind with words, porridge for the body.
Check in with Sister K who sends pictures of her daily walk in the dark to fetch the morning paper. It was the one you used to take but can’t see to read anymore, Dad. Now it’s a ritual, like the changing of the guards, that must be performed according to tradition.
‘Do you know where this is?’ she texts, looking for obscure angles of the places where we grew up.
I know them all, miss them, ache for the neighborhood I couldn’t wait to escape when I was sixteen. Now I’m not sixteen and, this morning, I wish I was back there. Sister K doesn’t know it, but they’re the exact same roads you walked and wrote about in your letter to me Dad. Do you remember? Your Red Cross parcel to Los Angeles.
There’s an invisible car parked in the dark outside the house this morning. I know it’s there because, out of the corner of my eye, I see the flicker of a break light that shouldn’t be there. I act like I don’t see it as I spoon the last mouthful of porridge in; I got to keep one step ahead of the two crocodiles inside it watching me. It’s the first time I’ve been followed by crocodiles, which is, let’s face it, an honour. If I’m getting this kind of surveillance, I must’ve moved up a league. That, or the reptiles have run out of big hitters to trail since…
A light over the breakfast bar starts flickering, transmitting messages in crocodile. I make a mental note to add it to the growing list of known traitorous objects in my house and type, change light bulb into ‘notes’ on my phone.
Check the time, close the book, stack the breakfast bowl in the dishwasher. Put on a scarf that was bought for me with love, a winter coat made by a friend, and ski gloves (though I don’t ski) that built snowmen for laughing children, before they became teenagers who couldn’t wait to escape. Zip up the coat, pull up the hood, step into the airlock, unlock the door, cut the umbilical cord and float out into the freezing bight of space. I feel alive out here, growing frost crystals, stung by needles, amped up on oxygen.
Well, that’s alright then, right?… Hello? …Anyone?
The crocodiles have gone. I don’t sense them anywhere near, but hear the sound of blade against shell. CAT sits in the kitchen window, adopting an archetypal cat pose.
“Hello” she says, still looking after my mental health.
The ice on the windscreen of the car is enameled onto the glass.
Takes too much effort, too long to scrape off, messing with my delicate schedule. A fine ice dust showers up my sleeve, my fingers freeze ‘til they hurt. Just like you, every morning in winter, getting ready to drive to the factory when I was little Dad.
In the Disco
I point the car towards the station and drive, drilling tunnels down avenues of trees with headlights that bleach the colours out of everything, luxuriating in the privileged warmth of a heated leather seat.
I’m driving my fantasy machine through a video game, an illuminated laser-light-show-21st century-dashboard. I’m a nightclub on wheels, a podium dancer dressed for arctic expeditions, invisible to the sleepers in the new builds on the edge of town. Checking my mirrors for errant reptiles, I maintain a modest speed so as to be able to swerve suicidal pheasants. Muntjac, still as stone, stand half out of hedges along the roadside. Reflectors instead of eyes, they are tiny robots, muscular, mechanical and threatening.
Coming back along this road from fetching a take-away one night, we found a baby lying in the road, hit by a speeding car, contorted unnaturally on the white line. Mom was close, nudging gently with her nose to ‘wake up’.
I turned around and went back, having seen what becomes of animals left to be repeatedly run over. I put the hazards on, mother and baby in the headlights. I wasn’t sure if she would attack but couldn’t leave the child to be minced. She retreated, conflicted, watching as I gently lifted her baby, blood running through my fingers, and laid it in the grass beneath the hedge, away from the road.
At The Station
I call you from a freezing deserted platform, standing in the yellow crosshatch at the edge of the rails.
On the opposite platform, the air ripples and parts as a wolf dressed in men’s clothes steps through. It swaggers on two legs, sniggering.
Instantly I’m in East Berlin before the wall fell. Bleak, grey, all the colours boiled out and everything covered in a meagre blanket of snow, deceptively sub zero.
“Hello,” the animal says mimicking the voice of a parrot. It grins, turns to face me and crouches, preparing to leap across the rails just as the Birmingham Express hammers through.
Ten carriages pass and the wolf’s gone… to New Street and beyond.
As the lights of the last carriage disappear around a bend, red lights turn green. Frost shifts its weight, sparkling over everything, revealing a familiar vehicle parked alone on the far side of the car park. A light pops on inside, a crocodile grins, the other gives a cartoon salute and they roar with laughter as headlights come on and they start driving towards me.
I transform the phone into a camera and point to shoot, but they evaporate, before my thumb makes contact with the screen, so I take a picture of my feet, waiting alone on the yellow crosshatch and post it on the first WhatsApp group that comes up.
A friend responds immediately.
She knows me well, suspects I’m standing at the crossroads with the wheels coming off and starts nudging me out of Berlin and into Barcelona.
‘You win.’ I text back.
‘I give in!’
‘I’ll go with that!’
“I love Yellow in the morning’ I post, through gritted teeth.The Fingers of my right hand are freezing,
The phone is still ringing, as an image of a Wolf replays in my head, riding an express train to your exact location.
It keeps ringing,
I’m about to hang up when you answer.
“Hello Dad,” I speak first to give you time to line your words up.
Using the voice I practiced with the cat this morning I ask,
“Are you in the car on the way to the hospital?”
You don’t sound like the you I’ve know all my life.
This is a new you, Alexander Graham Bell making the first telephone call, a sound that’s thin and crackling, distant, yet equally miraculous. The operation on your throat removed the threat to your life but with it all those rich tones that I aspired to when I was young.
“Yes, we’re sat in the car park waiting to go in. We’re early”
No pressure to rush through life anymore eh?
“Are you off into London?”
“Yeah, I like getting up early in the dark Dad. It reminds me of going out on the oil tanker with you in winter. I used to love getting in your car, because you always warmed it up first (remember?). Then you’d wrap a car blanket around my legs, and bring sandwiches and flasks of soup for later, but it was so bloody freezing in that lorry when we’d climb in at the depo! Damn! Remember?”
You laugh and I know it’s landed.
I cherished every second that I rode alongside you.
Looking down on shoals of giant luminous koi swimming ahead of us in the fog.
I need to tell you this before you go,
It’s my best gift.
Because I know you’re scared going into the op.
Afraid that, this time, you won’t come out.
I want you to take this memory of something fantastic we once did together with you and hold it tight like a child clutches a toy to ward off fear.
Please call me when you get out. Let me know you made it.