In the café it will be alright

The front of the café is all glass window, peppered with notices and advertisement cards and posters for shows from last summer. There is a heavy door, and it swings back quickly as I enter. Above my head someone has pinned an American license plate. Las Vegas, Nevada, it tells us. So very far removed from this place that it is almost a perfect mockery here.

I walk past the rows of seating, long ago clad in salmon pink vinyl. The corner spot is the most popular and it gathers the unsettled folk. One sits there now, dark hair hiding half their face and a worn hand another portion. Coat collar pulled up, restless eyes. He doesn’t stop nervously watching the room. I’m watching, too, but I learnt to do it so that no-one can easily tell. Use the corners of your eyes, nothing direct or fixed for too long beyond your own space. Gaze at nearby objects with a faraway look, and note the sounds. They’ll always tell you more than you can see, often before it’s too late.

Moving up to the counter, I recognise the man behind it. He’s often here. Always deft, with quick and definite movements. Neatly trimmed hair. A hi buddy, and hello madam, to every person who walks in there. Cheerio, and see you again soon, to every person as they depart. Even you, later, though you hold your breath a bit until they do. For just a little while we all belong.

What can I get you madam, as I pause to look at the menu. An efficient but friendly voice, and they are patient if you stumble or stutter. No articulated frustration, no demands – beyond the question that reminds you of what you need to say here. You weren’t sure but suddenly say something that you’d been half-thinking of. You watch them writing down your answer in their catering code, and yes – it is okay. Your silver coins for a coffee, with carefully frothed milk tipped into a waiting china mug. A ticket stub for your fried breakfast, cooked on a scoured griddle. A few orders are in at once, and they’re lined up and sizzling.

Here you go lads, and three breakfasts are served up to the table nearby. Yours follows. The table ketchup is oddly orange and translucent, so you opt for brown sauce. Good with the bacon, better with it dipped in egg yolk. I wait, carefully resting, as you eat.

A lady who’s had better years, let alone days, coughs and chokes behind you. I pause, then look round. She’s okay though. Eating pie and baked beans with a spoon, scraping up the sauce as she goes. The lads are talking football over bacon and fried bread. We listen to their banter. The thing is, the louder one says, is he’s just got no accuracy. Yeah well, the dark haired one replies, they won’t sign him when they’ve got… a door crashes, and I sit up. The politics of the teams are drowned out. From the back kitchen someone speaks loudly, briefly, in Mandarin. They bustle, more meals emerge for us. Here you are, madam.

Golden wood panelling runs up the walls to the ceiling, catching my gaze as the noise rises and I try subconsciously to filter some of it out. A newcomer, a gent, is greeted. He picks up a few papers, orders a tea. Finds the corner spot now empty, and drops in to the booth. You watch him for a little while, wondering whether you could ask for the crossword. Someone behind me is leaving, tall and in blue jeans and just a white t-shirt. You are huddling in my coat, fingers still taking warmth from the coffee mug. See you mate, says blue jeans, with a wave. See you soon, the reply. Outside he nods to a passerby as he walks away, another person he knows here. They all know each other here. Coffee clouds spiral. It’s quieter again. A few more come and go, some staying and some not. It’s never busy but it’s never quiet.

The sky’s cleared a bit outside, and I weave between the people and the water droplets falling from the overhang. The light has picked up, making the trees sparkle a little where they’ve collected the morning rain, and you’re glad. It’s strange to be locked away from so much of it now. My car is there, reassuring and unassuming. Still seems an odd extravagance, just waiting there for me. I turn on the radio, lock the doors. Toto’s Africa is playing. I relax, and you smile. No-one knows you’re here. It’s safe, safe for now. Spinning the wheel one-handed, I circle away, and we enjoy these moments. It’ll be alright. It will be all right, in the end.

Carrie in the river

I reached out and touched her cheek, her cinnamon brown damp hair. Carrie, I whispered, but she ignored me still. I leant back, not knowing what to think. Suddenly reminded of the time she’d sunk purposefully to the bottom of the river, dark water and hidden currents. She’d risen at last, to my chiding – and told me it was alright, as it was okay for actors. That in the depths she’d trodden the boards that were silt, moved under the lights that were just bubbles flying through the water. That as long as you knew how to act wherever you were, you’d be okay. I’d shaken my head and pulled her up the bank, dripping and shivering and grinning. She’d given me a hug, all mischief of course.

Carrie grasped at everything – seeing it all as one and the same, and so very vital. Reached out to anyone who had ever surrounded her and took them in. Gave them warmth and comfort, her love and care. Some loved her back and some hurt her as people will do. She never stopped, not even once, to see if she could pick and choose. To pause and find something in the spaces inbetween.

I’d told her once that there was a difference she just wouldn’t see. We’d argued about that, sitting on the worn wooden bench in the little meadow behind the houses. It was a place for days that were lazy, as well as the cool of late summers and their early evenings. Watching mists roll in, listening to the faint roar of life ebb and flow in the river there. Talking and disagreeing but trying to see what the other was saying. Startling the birds when we left, as we’d sit out until the moon rolled around. Carrie and me, all those times together.

Life, she had said, was just all that was given to you and all that you knew. That is our everything, she’d insist. I’d shake my head. There’s something else, I’d retort. Something that remains once you’ve taken away the words and the people and the things that have happened to you. She’d go quiet sometimes then, though I didn’t know what she thought of. She didn’t talk much of times from before, just shared glimpses. Always bright happy moments, which made me wonder what filled all the gaps. No, she’d reply briskly, there’s just what we’re given and what we find, and that is our life. I’d pass the bottle, the flask, or the paper cup, depending on what we’d brought along. The old dry grass rustling under my feet as I finally stood, declared to the stars just what I thought of her perpetual contrariness, and we’d finally collapse in giggling heaps. Sweet Carrie. That had been part of your everything, too.

We’d once shared all the same ideas, but one day I decided I had a new understanding. It had burst upon me, and I’d tried to tell her in so many breathless words as I danced along the riverbank. We’d disturbed a heron that night, and decided it was auspicious. Every word we shared was newborn, fortuitous, and would be carried aloft to new lands. I talked and talked of how I could see all those I knew and all that had happened to me, and yet also see set it to one side! That there, underneath, was something exquisite and alive. In my breathing, in the sense of my pulse. Life, all on its own, raw and undemanding and endlessly whispered. Free of all that had gone before and all that might come.

No, she’d always tell me, that’s just your blood echoing. It’s biology, it’s not special – it’s not other-people special. That’s what she used to call it, and I remembered the evening light falling on her face as she said it. Carrie would reject this every time I spoke to her of it again. It was somehow all too dear to her, and she wouldn’t let anything go. Thought all her obligations and fears and loves as inescapable as the pulse in her wrist. She seemed to be waiting for someone else to carry them for a while, if they could prise away her child-like little fingers. As if someone could do that, in our heads, where time runs amok and we’re the ones who shuttle it to and fro. Binding the threads, snapping frayed ends and locking away the parts we do not want anyone to see.

This evening, back here and so long since that night, I recalled her words on the phone earlier. A brief conversation unlike all the others. Meet me there, she’d said. I want you to be there first, and I’ll come and find you.

I’d gone and sat for a while, enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon. Kicked at the dust under the bench that was partly us and partly the earth that had come before. Watched a dragonfly dart, the ash trees gently nodding. After a while I’d gone for a walk, wondering if this was some prank. Circled the meadow, tearing some seedheads to feel the sharp husks as I rolled them between my palms. Teeth, she’d always called them, trying to bite us before we eat them. Birds had called out, flew on, and eventually come round to roost. I mused, and mulled, and eventually left. Decided to call in at hers on the way home, still wondering what she’d meant, or whether she’d just forgotten.

She was lying still, in the hallway, her mother sat near her. Just staring. The paramedics had cleaned her up and were about to take her away. Her skin was cool, not my Carrie at all, although I knew that cinnamon hair. It wasn’t meant to be like that, all dull strands and dampness. Her mother asked me, did you know? As if anyone could ever know this. As if I could explain what she thought of living, and how that might be a reason. As if everything she wouldn’t set aside could ever add up to this.

I want you to be there first, she’d said. How could I ever know why or what she’d meant? How would our place in the meadow ever know, or the ladybirds we had caught or the rabbits we had chased to keep them safe. I knew there was no sense to it, or to any of my thoughts right now – but I wished she could at least have seen it all as I did, just the once. Perhaps then she might have figured out how to be an actor in the water for a little while longer.

Morning lake

Plumes of mist slowly rose from the cool waters of the lake. A frost had touched upon the surrounding treetops, and we all stood under the brightness of a hazy winter sky. I smiled. It was a perfect stillness, tracing this mystery of the lake’s living surface. The strands of vapour were scattered but numerous, and they gently rose and billowed in unison. The water below was otherwise unmoving and held a clear vision of the sky. A delicate reflection, reminding me of porcelain poised and waiting. I lifted my eyes to the deep nest-like branches that encircled us, seeing colours where I had not expected them. A fringe of pale gold bulrushes stood tall and rigid. Long bleached by autumn rains and days of fading light, their ghostly framework was all that remained – the soft and living stripped away. Shifting in the breeze they felt coarse beneath my fingertips. I strode past them, their shadows on my path and their rustle in my wake.

Soft, dark clay pulled at my feet as I rounded the bank of the lake. All so very quiet except for a bird, my breath, the wind. Cool air and colder water lay before me. I watched as the tiny cloud forms swelled and drifted up from the lake’s surface. I did not understand it, yet it was beautiful. Happening just beyond my touch. A sacred thing that would linger until the sun rose and diminished it, or fell and obscured it.

The rewards of winter that you would not think to find – moments of such wonder, tucked idly here and there. It was no friendly season, nipping as it did at our fingers and toes. Easier for some than others but all felt relief when it passed. That this season might work a magic of its own was easy to forget when it must be sought out, and the bared teeth looked over. We stand in our trembling paper-thin skins and reach into the throat of it for our satisfaction and joy. What creatures are we, truly?

I stamped my feet, further thoughts gathering in my brow but not yet welcome there. Here were my moments, safe and still and spectacular. Breathing out slowly I joined the lake in its game. Shifting to and fro, the waters claimed me too.

Jukebox

A whimsical song playing from an aged, scuffed jukebox. I remember the rough red carpet, years of spills and thoughtless movements poured into it. The pool table, the felt never intact and smooth, a forever odd assortment of yellowed balls and broken cues surrounding it. We played with them nonetheless, the obstacles an added challenge. I recall our neighbours who lounged in the adjoining room, a television forever broadcasting old films and distant dramas. One tall lad who would pad through most evenings in his pyjamas, carrying a mug of tea – always amicable, always ready for sleep.

The jukebox took pennies, so we’d endlessly play all of the 20 or so songs upon it. Pop and indie tracks from our recent years, singing of country houses and deserts and walking on our own. Sometimes we felt forlorn for a few moments and listened carefully to such tunes, as if they had any truth about them for us. We were never alone. We had each other, and the golden wood staircase and the echoing little corridors. The thorny shrubs that threw their hands up to the windows and tapped to come in when the wind blew. When we gathered inside we were a toothsome grin and a head of sleek black hair, a knowing look that masked only insecurity, a quirky smile and a bellow of a laugh that accompanied frequent quips.

The grass was short and sweet in summer, and then the winter rains long. In light and dark we’d venture in to this dimly lit corner of our world. To play our games amidst puffs of blue chalk dust and the click of balls on cues, tables and floors. Listening to our jukebox music, watching others come and go. Finding words to please ourselves and jokes to tease one another, all for the cameraderie we hunted after even as it emerged in our footsteps. Our worries were there, but not sharp things that could overcome us. For some of us it was an easy respite from all that had gone on before. There would be a tomorrow, and the winding path, and the musk of old cornflakes and forgotten cola. Some laughter, some music, some conversation. And the promise of it all over again, whenever we wished to reach out for it.

Time takes the ocean

Once there were the oiled waters and the lapping of the sea. Coils of black kelp ever moving, and a thick silty sand that rose too readily around our feet. A sickly foam, bubbles ripe and undivided upon the surface. The ocean that was a waste, holding all the times we had made hateful.

A scuffed feather reminds me of this – a single discard amongst a drift of little waves, fetching and calling, rolling in mere inches at a time. Pieces of cuttlefish, and lines of nonsense traced in the sand. Rounded pebbles lying high and low, haughty and bruising in grey and golden splendour.

There’s a shift in the winds and my oily sea is forgotten. The brine has the air, the very best of smells and a sharp reminder to the lungs to breathe. With it comes clarity and sunlight, all that lies far from our madness and decay. It is what comes after, when the rest has fallen away.

Air, light, and the bright blue water rubbing our toes and washing over our ankles. We come to it, drawn and unsuspecting, and it feeds us delight. Our sadnesses fall away for a while, our arms reach up to the gulls. A single moment it gives us that we did not have before. An untethered space that does not fit in our mosaic, drifts over our crumbly and well-trodden paths. Reminds us of something new, something untouched. Clear and powerful and utterly beyond our petty manipulation.

An expanse of salt, of all forces intermingled and no edge between here and there. I breathe in the ocean. I lose my boundaries, my past and future. On the scale of a fin our importance is held, in a handful of water our bonds are contained. Light shimmers, water falls, and the sand blows away.

Moments and the machine

It’s 3pm on a Friday. It’s 3pm and the folds are starting to shut down, the meshwork layers falling back in on themselves in a mass of minute electronic arrays. We gather them in as we do every time. The processes have fulfilled their daily cycle, and we bring them back round to the start. These vast metal folds form the heart of our machine that it is our toil to manipulate. Weights and balances. They’re here and we’re there, working through our control hoops, endless movement under the lofty cavern walls. Winding in the thick coils of unrelenting cable, tying up the weights for another day’s shift. Feeling the grit under our feet, the slick metal under our hands, the grit forever in our eyes. The machinists.

By night we sleep, although we do not rest. We look after the machine. The machine that takes time and feeds it back to you who know nothing of us. It will catch up the air-born whorls of moments that drift, spare, far from the world around you. It will cast them to where you, unheeding, may pause and take hold of them for a little while. Every time you stop to look at the shifting skies, feel the breeze on your upturned face, or take the sea air deep into your lungs from the safety of the sand-dusted shore; we were there for you. Us and our machine, giving you the moments of your life wherein you’ll find beauty and wonder.

Without us you’d have no daydreams, no idle minutes spent lingering in faint charm over the clouds in your coffee. You wouldn’t appreciate the laughing child on the swing, stoop to admire the lovingly tended tulips, or marvel at the glint of a river winding through your valley. You are all caught in a steep sharp process of survival, and cannot see or feel outside it without a little help. It’s the machine that makes little pockets of unfettered time for you.

You might call it clearing your mind, or pausing to take a moment. Dwelling upon the unnecessary that will not further your future nor mine. To briefly become aware of the seemingly non-essential, yet being at one with it is everything. Doing this does not come to you naturally, nor with ease. We machinists, who are separate from you in the world, make it happen. Our weighting machine, that we built piece by piece. That folds and unfolds, that moves and swings the balances. Reaches out and gathers time for you. Tended by us who gave up the everyday process of just surviving. Survival was the original machine, and now we work for another that helps free you who remain. We serve you, the unheeding. You who never know why there is that which glitters scattered around the core of toil each of you endure.

Some of you are greedier than others. Taking in so many glances and whispers, awash in a slew of stilled beautiful instants, and so often startlingly aware of it all. New cobwebs amongst the dawn thistles. Attic mirrors, hand-written letters and pressed flowers from a summer long ago. A spring magnolia morning, the rustle of reeds, and the flick of a stickleback’s tail. There are others who do not care for these moments so much, seeing what they could wander into but turning away. They do not know what this may mean for them in the end. The industrious business person, the occupied and fretfel parent. The man huddled under the bridge, the woman crying in the cold house. The disturbed, the egocentric. Some trapped by duty or habit, some by circumstance or fear.

How did any of us come away from there, to here? You may ask, though it’s not a path you’ll ever tread. It’s a place in your mind where you push, and there’s a new direction you know only by the feel of it, and you’re taken away by a guiding hand. To where the asphalt is pattered by strange impish feet, and there is a mind to the wind and a sense to what happens. A place of meaning, and mystery, inexplicable yet without a single chance occurrence that carries no import. A place where the world makes sense for you. A place where anything at all is absolutely possible, from your brightest dreams to your darkest fears – yet it all turns at its centre on a preordained wheel. By weights, and folds, and long, long cables turned by machinists long forgotten who cannot rest. In the between place outside the process of survival, surrounded by wonders we cannot touch.

Spare a thought for us, once in a while, when you feel the sun on your face. When you watch the raindrops splash, or have your breath taken away by a chorus of perfect song. When a loved one opens your heart and there is nothing but light between you. Just spare a thought, and we’ll know, and for a fleeting instant we’ll have a moment of our own.

Sunflowers

It’s the time of year when I recall the sunflowers, standing strong and true and blazing. When the outside does call and oh my, the sunshine.

It’s bright and hot and the heat will sink deeply into your skin, warming you through like the best of fires in winter. It relaxes, too – eases the muscles, softens our skin. That’s part of what I like. That and the smells the sun brings forth, so different to the cooler and damper days. Which very much have their own distinct array – of wet leaf and rainwater, of damp stone and cool, pine-laden airs. This is spice and salt though, this sun-bright day. Warm pepperyness mingling with the heavy earth, hints of oil and bitumen amongst the faintest overlay of garden rose and
musk.

The sunflowers tower above them all. The scents, our heads, the waves of heat rippling from midday ’til night. Then cast in their fringed shadow and for a moment not seeing them at all, I wonder of if. If this should be said, or if this is repeated. If I’ve already spoken of the rainwater scents and the hoot of an owl, of the deep blue shadows of the night. If I’ve told before of the overhead starring that takes us up and out of ourselves, our land, our world. Of whether in repetition there will be weariness, and that it would be better to lie quietly in awe. To say little at all – but as if differing moments were ever the same, as if their true descriptions might ever weary!

Ifs and whethers are shaken away. Gleaming canary-gold petals catch my eye again. The air is stirring here under a near-blinding midday brightness. There’s a flourish of branches from some silver-tinged tree that hints of willow, but grows like apple. It is duly hacked and shortened each year, only to bounce back with a mop of leafy springing shoots each Spring. It’s often home to the songbirds in the area, who chirp even as our saws and grinders whine into the summer air with a hint of nostalgia.

Grass mowers, woodcutters and rotary timber saws are the sounds of a summer childhood. My summer childhood. A continuous thrum of machinery noise in the background makes a welcome accompaniment to warmth and light. Crushed slate pressing into my shoulder blades, the bitumen softening under my fingertips. Smelling pine sap, finding dried old cherry stones.

Funny, the things that can make up a pleasure and a memory. Peeling blue paint and staring at the tips of white shoes. Girlish smiles and sudden laughter. The sunflower nods and the summer ticks on, the delight of life unutterably precious.