TWO STORIES OF YOUTH
by Ian Bishop
I hated the dinning room, detested the kitchen. Other rooms, and a couple of short corridors, were places I became lost. Every minute in the house seemed an age of dreariness. I’d hang about, sit down, pace around, try to look as if I were somehow locked into a thought, considering an idea, a possibility, while caught in the stair-well: up against ceilings, through open doors, throughout all floors, the smell of cooking reigned. Cover pot and leave to simmer. I recall those instructions from lips, in books, as if all parts of life were captured inside, bubbling, babbling, bubbling, troubling. Sat around the table my parents would serve up promptly, so eating could keep cooking alive, and when memories faded, cooking could start all over.
Cooking was king. Eating was queen. I’d hear them leave, then return, trip after trip, dragging in potatoes, piling vegetables, filling fridges, slapping fresh meat down on the slab, filling jars of sugar, flour, pasta and rice and a thousand more of their ‘must have’ family favourites.
I’d be in a corner; sat by the window in my bedroom or a window in the lounge; perhaps the dark end of the dinning room which between meals was empty like a lone stone chapel. I’d stare, always staring, as if gluing myself to the surroundings, wishing I’d become one of the objects: a wall; a doorframe; a shadow. I waited for something deep down to erupt–not from inside me–but from the depths of a green valse or the brown wood of a dinning chair, something knocked in by a clattering outside in the street, fractions of a lullaby when the sun shone and cut across the room. The harder I stared, the harder the room glared, and paranoia flared like pieces of sun. A grill or a frying pan may have just filled the place with rancid burning fumes. Or maybe coffee captured the floor; soup in a pressure cooker hissing. My head would become hot and I’d have to stand. Then it helped to pace around the place. A frame of my stare would stay in my head like a cardboard box caught between tenement blocks. I’d have to move on quickly. My days were thus a cacophony of dreariness from the staring, to the pacing, to places in-between, each and every one fragranced by lungfuls from an awkward orchestra of smells: the bacons, the hams, the lambs, the trifles, custard tarts, jams.
Meal times were rapped out on the base of a pot, accompanied by shouts of Dinner! Lunch! Breakfast! They shouted because they thought I’d not heard the pot. They rapped the pot because they thought I’d not heard the shouts. This was their court: cooking, eating, rapping, shouting. Check for salt, pepper, thickness, rareness, correctness. A little wine from the cupboard might be used last minute (from a tiny bottle like olive oil for ears) to track down morsels that had stuck to the bottom of the pan; boil them off, collect them up, bring them back to the fold: ‘for they are by far the tastiest pieces!’
Once the raps and shouts had started, the scene would fill the bottom hall as a factory lets off steam. The whistle blows, the workers flow. Their house, their world, their perfect process of perpetual godliness. I greeted my parents’ hilarity with grumpiness, as was my way. I could have been the jester had I given off a little less gravity, had I skipped, tried to act out the buffoonery. But those royal meals (three a day, sometimes four) – attend or have your head chopped off! – failed to relieve my deep depression (mid-afternoon, maybe late evening, large cakes would appear sandwiched with buttercream held high on plates with rims like stetsons). They looked to me, my parents, for a sign–just a glimmer–of joy, as I appeared amongst the steam and the engine, they would keep-up their tempting, as if they thought they just had to tickle the right place inside, but their delight was my morbid disinclination. Food was a lighthouse keeper who loved to hear the splintering of hull upon the rocks below. A stormy morning that circulated dark holes like those kitchen gadgets chop-up waste.
I ate very little.
My mind reasoned, from one side of the plate to the other, then back again. It tried to balance what to eat and what not to eat: as if all this was quite a normal procedure. Some of my criteria were based on what I thought I could possibly endure, most was random and rested on eating very little. My attempt at rigour served only to further cloud my mind, and like a hurriedly trimmed moustache, a balance would not materialise, just a lack of understanding as to how such a method could possibly fail to come up with an answer.
What I did eat, I ate in small mouthfuls, mindful of being watched––for I was certainly in the wrong––mouthing morsels when I knew full well of the disgust. Halfway through a meal (time could be tracked by counting my fidgets) I’d leave and start pacing, surveying the objects in the house: the large vase by the window, a perfect polished sideboard, or the cotton sacking that covered the lounge chairs––as if they spoke––could speak––would speak: Tell me! Tell me! Tell me! Meanwhile the meal I’d left on my plate looked on, imagining me, eating me without mercy, becoming fatter, fuller, stouter, while I became thin.
My parents were repulsive. Shovelled their food in: further, further, fuller, fatter.
They lived for nothing but to cook and eat and cook and eat. They were Hydra: those tiny creatures that glue themselves to rocks and plants at the bottom of the sea where they wiggle tentacles attached above their mouths, take in every morsel they care to, swallow them down whole and digest each scrap. If a delicacy proved dangerous: Hydra was quick to poison. When prey was right, they’d opened up their mouths, engage their stomachs and UUUHHH!
Nothing has happened. Not ups nor downs, just flats. The fat flat of the land, onwards, outwards, up into every corner, every crevice, every horizon. And I’m always here. Full. Undigested. Sat at the table I never left; like a terror still lived from the night before–sudden–clear, every nuance, every grimace. My thoughts were never thought in reason–I sulked them–fought with them under the burden of my phantom belly. How could I be calm and straight forward when I felt I was always nearly about to have the flames sucked from me. I’d scowl; my leg tremor ticked. Yet my parents were functioning beings–functioning with food! But surely I’d seen them do something besides. They had lives, got up and about in the house, outside the house, with things to accomplish, plans? And they’d had lives: work, jury duty, holidays. I’d often observed them talk the talk, walk the walk––although––after a meal they’d sit the seat –– then the sacking talked! It squashed and shrieked and creaked and dived down to catch them.
After dinner I’d join my parents, television on, me merely making a dent while pot washing was still to be done. Their tentacles––quiet for a while––would soon start to twitter with a fancy for finding what was still to come. Little chuckles and splutters, handkerchiefs for dabbing the corners of mouths and the tips of noses. When food-full my parents were calmer. Less strychnine. Longer breaths. It must have spoiled digestion, me leaving so abruptly in the middle of their mouthfuls. I think they counted, gave me a fair chance, a playground game; then they’d shout:
Halfway through! We’re only bloody halfway through!
The disciplining of their hearts. The hub in the hubbub of their day. They wore that table like an ancient trinket or a bracelet, a ring of sacred faces etched upon their patterns as if they were engaged in some cosmic interlocution. There was nothing to do but sit back down and wait (as if grace were contractual) for the end. Eventually I’d collect the plates and pots and cutlery. My job was to take away slops and scrub-up the crocs.
I flunked that too.
I don’t want to wash-up! I’d exclaim. Or make such torment getting through a quarter of it I’d be able to slink away; I knew they’d seen at least some discipline for the day: and what could they say? I failed the test: I always failed the test.
‘Just look at yourself!’ My parents said. And I did. Not the ‘Get a job!’ – brick laying, car timing, bread mixing, porter, driver, tester, sorter, grinder, part timer, fixing the paper with pencil and eagerly phoning for vacancies – kind of looking.
I had a feeling. I’d always had a feeling. And I’d go along and look at it in the mirror.
Christine worked in a book shop I walked into. An overnight visit to Nick’s. I’d left his place in a daze and dosed down the street to the bus stop. On the way the bookshop entrance was on a tight corner; it scooped me up. Narziss stayed a scholar and a monk; Goldmund quit cloisters for a sea of blood and lust; all wrapped-up in a ruined monastery closeted by silhouetted trees. The book seemed just the thing. Toppled on the end of a stand. I’d never really liked a book, held a book, chosen a book, school wasn’t like that. Christine was a looking kind of person. Through Transport, Psychology, Religion she fixed and picked me up in her look. Some people walk peering down or somehow into the midst, but Christine was a looker. She was a mover too. A moving person, gliding from Poetry through History to Philosophy, she looked at me again, as if a second fix might further inform the first. In her look I thought she saw the world in a come-as-you-are kind of a way. She may have read every book in the shop but she didn’t care. I felt her energy: a glass-as-full-as-it-is kind of person. As I clicked through the checkout her eyes caught me once again, looking from Fiction A-G, triangulation perhaps, or just making use of any shots she might have left. I paid for my volume and fell back out into the curve of High Road. She stood holding a pile of books. I made out the title of the top volume: Canal Travel in Victorian Britain.
Christine was easy to watch. So were the trees I’d noticed since I’d starting leaving home for walks and occasionally staying a night on Nick’s floor. They were thin tall populars, then turning off the lane, large oaks and beech. Like the trees she was easy to see again and again, and again and again her image struck my mind. I revisited the book shop several times. Christine was always busy, yet always noticed me hanging around Classics, as if I knew something. (I knew I liked the black bindings and the paintings of faces and pillars that adorned their covers). She’d do something with her face, a greeting, like a pout but her eyes would hit me first, then she’d further impress with a soft hiss of lips which bought light to her whole face. I’d forgotten images could travel like clouds. One minute episodes of dank and murk, the next–without warning–a rough breeze, a shifting, a glimmer of light.
That was her! She was walking the one-way system. I watched as she climbed through a coble of car exhaust and dirty buildings, pubs where time had long been called, flourishes of empty rundown premises – although a pop-up shop or two, fresh paint, smart new signs – small indications of rejuvenation. Even without seeing her face I knew. Christine’s moves were recognizable from miles away, at oblique angles, or tangled amongst throngs of shoppers. Maybe I noticed her presence because everyone else was standard, a collection of arms and legs out to lunch that walked and sat and spoke and hunched.
She was on a bus … reading a book! I daydreamed knocking on the window. The bus pulled away … but I kept the dream … not a clue what I’d do if it woke. That was my state. Town was my new found land. I was broadening horizons, pushing back boundaries – although home still ate me up – was too courteous to spit me out. I kept arriving back, leaving, morning, evening. I was learning to plan, to think, to listen to thoughts–just a little–through my walks. I’d always been a hoarder of great facts, I liked to learn but school had made me a fool. Often I’d fallen asleep, head on my desk, head on the wall, head on my knees. As I wandered around town, thoughts of those days reemerged, some facts, ideas, bits and pieces I’d gathered from lessons, more likely laying on my back staring up at the sky. It seemed to me there were facts, and there was thinking. Facts made me think. But thinking also smudged facts, clawed them back, took them apart. Most of my thoughts lurked, moved like trapped dogs, vanishing when the door opened, slipping back when I returned.
Could that be her? This was new territory! I was leaving the outskirts of town behind when I saw; far ahead; a figure; shoulders and a shoe propping it against the wall of a building. (I may have seen the figure smoking, perhaps just taking air, or maybe drinking tea). This was a busy road but the area was country. Still some distance existed between me and the figure from where I walked. The street reminded me of a Lowry, but there was no doubt it was her. I’d never glimpsed Christine so far from town, so close to my house. I knew the building she leant on. I’d known them as a child: cottages clasped together, so low it seemed the top gutter could be almost touched by finger tips. I recalled that the old man who kept the watch shop once lived in one of them, but he was long gone. The cottages had fallen into the past, forever there but mostly forgotten, out of mind, taken for granted, nothing to do with anything anymore, their ancient paint still peeling. I quickened my step and crossed the road, stooping along the pavement, that name unspeakable.
Hi. She said.
I followed her long green skirt into a largish stone kitchen. My eyes were filled with raven hair. In town I’d seen it tied back. Now she kept it off her face instinctively. Inside the cottage, cloth hung from ties strung beam to beam. A few pieces were hanging in the centre where the table stood but most were draped to one side under a lower sloping roof – space incorporated from an outbuilding, or an old-fashioned walk-in larder. Many pieces were bright, some neutral, vague greens, browns, a few contained heady swirls of a psychedelic mix. Parts of the kitchen were in shade, cooler, more withholding than areas that soaked up full sun. I had a feeling some bits were made for the shade. From the far corner, spreading out into the add-on, a series of large vats, some with their tops covered, others open, maybe oily, definitely murky. From where I stood by the table, the kitchen stretched to a sink where food pitted the metal of spoons and pan handles stuck out all angles.
Christine walked to the sink, picked up an old style kettle, the kind that would be hung over a roaring fire. She filled it and fired the gas ring.
I sat at the table.
She was saying I must be an avid reader the amount of times I visited Books Books Books. Christine was only in three days a week, the rest of the time was spent sorting out business. There were so many web orders to process and dispatch, it was crazy, and this being such a small cottage.
The table was solid wood. A deep grain ridged over its surface. I scratched a fingernail repetitively in and out of the curves.
So you live around here?
Yes. I half-mouthed.
She put down two cups of tea.
Looked into my eyes.
I recalled a seaside vista. The sea so far out walking there was impossible. Not a sound. Then my gurgling thoughts sprang.
Drains were a Great Idea! Although they smelt. Toilets too, with their U bends to keep out cholera while effortlessly expelling spent fumes. The bus station was in a low part of town, in a dip with the drains and the public lavatories. No matter how low the bus station, it always stood above the filth of the drains.
Water pumps … in coal mines … they were a Great Idea! Without a pump there’d have been not so much coal as slurry, and drowning miners. Tractors, cars, coaches, bread making mechanisation, trains, cities, cathedrals … Victorian Canals.
Now they were a Great Idea! Industrial Britain: the up and down of goods on waterways, their locks and tunnels and horses and funnels …
I reminded myself a couple were killed when the car in which they were travelling crashed into the ramparts of our medieval cathedral. Great Ideas go wrong. They slump to EAT ideas. Loose their GRRR. Become everyday, or worse, drag down the everyday: they pollute the skies, pollute the seas, leave people trapped underneath the wheels. Outside our school a boy was knocked down by a car. When we arrived from lessons there was only a pool of blood.
My body was sitting opposite Christine. On a slightly wonky bench she kept wiggling in an attempt to make me smile. Although limp and awkward I was not reflecting the sickness of my stomach. I had been eating as prescribed: three square meals, unfortunately they were still square, stuck in my gut,when what I really needed was a different shape, something thinner or circular, something stomach shaped like I’d seen on biological charts in the hospital. How those pictures could possibly be me, or some kind of me, made me uneasy. As if we were roulette: risks calculated, odds and evens, probabilities … the weight of the world knocks–we watch–as the wheel spins, but nothing happens, just carry on–or something does–but in another way, for a different reason, or no reason, that gets a nod or a shrug. If you were uncharted there was no winning, no loosing.
We laughed, more than before. My stomach was looping like a fairground. I drank a sip of tea. Christine watched me drink. She’d stopped talking. Always the looker. She may of course have thought I’d taken a vow of silence, that I’d come from the monastery on the hill, sucked up by heavenly pursuits, to come back down and bring the good news, quietly. Or perhaps I’d escaped and was wandering, wondering how people live in the world. The whole town knew that the ancient building was up there – from parts of the road you could see bits of the wall – but no one had ever seen a monk. Not just silence then, but invisibility. Great when getting to know your deity, like looking through their belongings while you’re in feeding the cat. Perhaps they just didn’t exist and the building (their home) everyone had seen (well, bits of the wall) was just a tale, old and deserted, told to keep the children company.
Christine was standing by the vats, talking about dyeing. Batik, tie-dye, bhatti … there was such great satisfaction, she lectured, in the process of soaking; waiting; transforming. Primarily she was looking. Still it was the looking that I liked, although her voice wassweet. Surely it must be (and have been) the case that we humans looked first, talked later? She moved her body as if conducting the trails of material that were hanging over the beams. A few of the vats looked dead dull, as if a million years old, reused over and over throughout the centuries until now they still had something of those ancient years in their liquid. Others had the colours of berry bush summers. We’d had holidays that had been bright. At the farm, staying in the old gate house so we saluted the farmer and his wife each time they exited the estate. As a child I was always up staring out of windows. There was the pile-up on the bridge road one summer, tangled metal, crumpled people, what you’d expect, but we were first on scene, right behind, steam pouring, wheels still spinning. My parents just sat in the car and stared. Although I knew where not to look, I looked. That’s not a look that’s inspired. It’s a look that’s dragged out of you however hard you try to pull it back. Also there was the contamination one year (I was too young to even say the word). Our farm was closed a week into our stay and we had to move to a farm down the road (to friends of the farmers that owned the closed-down estate). There was a lot of talk about cattle and food chains and loud crying noises from animals in the fields over the hill that were keeping us awake at night.
My hands pulled material from around Christine’s outstretched arm, as if she were a machine producing the finished product and I the artisan still excited at the wonder of what dyeing could do. Why was she allowing me to scroll her material? Using her arm for display purposes? I remember it was soft, the cloth. Then she snaked some sneakily around her neck. How could I have followed? Moved from the table; stood-up; lifted my arms; led to play with dyed material on a woman’s body? By what magic was I doing something I had no control over? Had I said it was alright?
Now my fingers were employed draping a long cloth (bright orange, dark red circles) around Christine’s shoulders. She pulled her hair clear, it cascaded down her back. She no longer looked, my face was in her eyes, she slipped my hand inside her blouse. Between the layers of loose fitting material, she was in bed–yet standing up–in sheets peeled aside to find a place for me. My other hand instinctively thought of Napoleon: sneaked inside his uniform. This was the correct stance for a man of such position in the eighteenth century. But also useful if constant sensitivity in the stomach region were to cause you trouble: slip it in there and look for all to see as if everything was under control.
About the Author:
Ian Bishop lives in Kent UK and teaches social science in schools and colleges. His work has been published in Orbis and The Interpreter’s House.