Knowing about these books is not enough.

Who Won?
The grizzled cove came into town under his chimney hat. In those days, the purveyors of queer medicine rode ramshackle wagons swaying from side to side, ill-balanced between large leaning wheels, hauled by horses as small as mules. Horses that looked like giant rats from certain angles. Even his whip was as untidy as the wagon, its end frayed and with handle wrapped in stale open-pored leathery skin.

He had come to sell you something you ordered via the good offices of Wells Fargo and several telegraph poles ending in his (god)forsaken warebarn near the thistly thirsty canyon. You watched his wagon teeter into view between rocks that looked as if they had been placed there by a secondary scenery crew for a black and white Tex Ritter film.

As he got down from his creaky perch at the front of the wagon, he patted the scrawny beasts in horse-hide. And he waved a garish box in front of him for you to inspect. Up close, breath smelt more between you both than when separate, no doubt.

You do not know what he thought of you, as there was no description in his eyes. Nothing to pick out you and your hovel as backdrop. Nobody was alert enough to see you were almost dead in the sweating sun.

“You wanted this?”he asked with his contorted drawl.

You nodded as best you could. Difficult when you have scabs on the chin and something indescribable where the chin rested.

“Is it easy to win?” you managed to release from between impetigo-glued lips.

Yes, sit down and we shall try it out, you and the cove in the chimney hat with queer medicine to barter. To save one of us from the last gasp saloon.

He opened the box and a spark disrupted your misery for a nonce as you saw it contained hybrid items enough to fit out Snakes & Ladders as well as Ludo and, laughably, for this weather, Draughts. With bright colours and a shaker that rattled like diseased lumps inside a skull. Amid the endless whining of thistles and autonomous thirsts. Hissing snakes and snapping rungs.


“Who won?” you asked the new air between wads of fresh spittle.

But as ever, nobody was there to describe any outcome, sadly, except you. So why ask, you ask, this time silently.

All that you heard were the ghostly echoes of sporadic dice and crepitations of sand scraping across your dead skin.

Then, maybe, the trundle of a wagon sloping off for another game with another poor soul like you.

Then, even you left me. You, too. Left me moving onward within airless horse-hide toward the sickly rocking horizon. The Weirdmonger’s wagon hauled behind me.

Death in the Attic
It was meant to be in the roof, of course. But that was not a given, because there was no easy way to find a door upwards into its cavities. Hey Joe, the latest hit by Jimi Hendrix, was playing on Pick of the Pops when Mrs Omaha again mentioned the status of her home’s attic.

“It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?” I asked, knowing full well the answer to my question. Since she had reached her 70th year, she had specialised in recurrent identical statements, all of them referring to the supposed missing attic.

“Let’s spend the night together.”

That was not Mrs Omaha - or, me, for that matter. It was the next record being played on the wireless. It was considered to be a very naughty record in those days. I need not tell you it was by the Rolling Stones. Or perhaps I do. Matthew and Son was soon to be the next one. And Mrs Omaha’s cat she called Steven wound itself round the chair leg, mewing against the noise. Not very good wireless reception, with there being much static on the medium wave, no doubt caused by someone electric-mowing outside somewhere. The much complained-about neighbour. The static sounded even louder than the mowing.

After a long considered delay, and with brows creased, Mrs Omaha elicited a noise herself. A ptcha or a tut. Not sure which. A cluck of the tongue, at least. That filled in for a thousand words I had heard from her during previous visits. Over cups of tea and choice iced slices.

Steven was now upon my lap - to make a change, I assumed, from curling up like a black rose on hers. Those thousand words, by the way, incorporated references to an attic in this house, one which she once told me when I first visited her she knew as a child, sometimes even as a young woman. Never much beyond that time of her life and never earlier than her third birthday. I guessed that was because memory never existed that far back, never much before the third birthday, and now upon her 70th year, the memory she retained did not seem to last much more than as a moving part of time stretching from twenty years ago to about a week ago.

An attic, she said, that could be reached from one of the landings at the top of the stairs. Full of bric à brac, she said, and old toys she played with from the ground zero of her life. I don’t now remember which of us first used that rather odd expression, but it seemed to suit a certain no man’s land of life before memory was able to begin.

I had gained the impression that the Omaha family had closed up any such attic following a police investigation about an event, deliberate or accidental, that had occurred there. But I never managed to get her to clarify it to my satisfaction. It was something I am sure she ached to tell me - if she could. But I did wonder whether there was a scar left where a door or some other sort of hatch had been sealed up. There were two main landings to consider and I had often, whilst on reliefs, stood at each position staring up at the ceilings and imagined all manner of shapes and sizes of decorative realignment. I had also stood outside staring up at the top of the house to gauge where the attic must have been when it was an attic.

“I am a believer.”

That again was neither of us speaking but just the last record on Pick of the Pops. The number one record that week by the Monkees. (Double e not -ey.)

I heard the loud click as Mrs Omaha switched off the wireless after the record finished. Even so, I tested out the thought as I stood on the optimum landing examining the optimum ceiling, repeating the words of the last title.

Mrs Omaha called up the stairs, asking if I was alright. I did not reply. I had clambered up somewhere she would never find me, as if I wanted to be the last memory she ever had.

The last sound had been just the cluck of a tongue. Oh my, no one ever died in that house. Only memories of them and who they were, or still are.

I crouched up there on the open rafters with Joe. Hopefully, Matthew, too. Maybe others. Surrounded by the purring of Steven. One night all of us together, at least. I shall go eventually even higher towards the roof and change the main title to a new one. It never represented a familiar enough song you could sing, anyway.

The mowing suddenly stopped outside.

Seventy Skeletons
The crew of them came for me. They somehow told me that their on-going job was to cast a net for everyone who was celebrating their 70th Birthday. I looked them straight in the empty eye sockets and asked how they knew I was 70 today? One of them clicked and rattled and shook its jaws like castanets, as if it knew something I didn’t know. A sound and look that patronised me, a supercilious attitude of superiority over a mere human being like me who was still alive, if barely so at my advanced age, an age that had advanced one ratchet of years that very day. Without further delay, the crew gathered around, one of them hauling me up by the armpits upon bony appendages. Another pincered me in my most vulnerable spots with fleshless fingers. Yet another held my head in position with what had once been its own huge yawning mouth that had no jaws left at all. Lifted thus not upon a crew but now a cage of bones, I found myself upon a stretcher or rack of tessellation into the open sky... “Why, oh why?” I shouted. “Because you are seventy,” they answered in unison, despite their apparent lack of lungs or sound-boxes. I then saw God, Himself a giant skeleton, as I was hauled and heaved slowly, ever so slowly, towards His opened bones of arms. “Seventy, Heaventy, Heaventy Poo!” the skeletons sang. This is death, I thought. Until I realised I was dead already and had become part of the interwoven skeletons lifting my body up, lifting me up, as if forever. “Seventy, Heaventy, Heaventy, Poooo!”

Black and Right
Black and Right
Black and right, black and right,
Back to night, back to night,
Empty well on the left, coloured in light.

What did he say? Sounded like lines from nonsense nursery rhyme verse. But does a nursery give out sounds like nonsense? Quite easily, she replied. When a nursery full of toddlers hold sway. A whole sway of tiny human beings learning to speak for the first time, speak if not talk. To talk is to interact. To speak is to hold forth as if to oneself and if anyone speaks back, so much the better. However speech as noise can impart emotions at least, he says, a sort of communication more meaningful and target-seeking than real words. Even music means things. Sheer music with no words.

White and left, white and left,
Hard right then left, stood bereft.

What did she say? Sounds like a couple of lines from a song, a recent one by Scott Walker or by David Bowie from the depths of Heaven, he says. She looks askance. Can Heaven have depths? She stares at him. He stares at her. Silence can hold a wealth of meaning, richer than noise, richer even than targeted meaning itself. We have regressed to nursery school, he with a shyness, she with an arrogant look. We then return to the grown-up world, wondering what was said last and which of us said it.

Empty and middle, empty and middle.
Hard nothing, then a muddle of middle.

We had said it together. He with a swagger of pride, she crestfallen and done. The words matched, but our emotions did not. School sweethearts, now we are old. But who will be the first to go? Who will be the first to never come back?

Back and light, back and light,
Dark is black, sometimes white.

Back where, he asks? She is silent and sad, so silent and utterly sad. He had not spoken at all or she had not heard it.

Black is not black, white is not white,
And wrong the only middle between left and right.

The nursery is empty, the nonsense is dead, and meanings have left the room. Talking is unheard, speaking unspoken, and faces just the ghosts of those we once hoped to be.

I know I’m right, I know I’m right.
Back hard on the left, stood bereft.

Which of us is me? Which of us is either him or her? And who asked you to ask us, anyway? Nonsense is best, after all. That is what we do best, after all. After all is said and done. And what is left is just the music. Sheer music in the middle of muddle.

Neither left or right.
Nothing is black, nothing is white.
Black to write, black to write,
Empty well on the left, coloured in night.
Leave foot forward, left then right.

The Lifeboat
Tell me, who called the lifeboat?
I visualised a surging sea with a shape that upped and downed within it. Not a whale or shark, but something that desperately tried to float rather than sink, sink, then sink again.
Tell me, who called the lifeboat? The question came back. I called the lifeboat, I said. I called it to rescue me from my sea of sleep, the waves of such a sea coming in and then going out, going out and then coming in. Not a dream but pure sleep, a sleep as black as the sea that I imagined the lifeboat was now threading like a submarine with the sailors clinging to its outside, instead of being asleep within. I tried hard to wake not from a dream but from a sleep that subsumed me with its surges of darkness, clogging my throat, blinding my eyes, an enormous earworm within my head.
Yes, I called the lifeboat. But who needed to hear my answer to the original question and were their own ears deaf to my deafening cries? Then I heard a loud thud, not a thud thud thud, but a single thud, clearing the earworm from my head. A thud indicating the sound that had awoken the lifeboatmen to my call. They had been stirred from their own dreamless sleep and now awoke to the distressed soul that had called them to man their lifeboat and send it slipping down its ramp into the sea of sleep - my sleep.
They ran through the streets towards the ramp where the craft awaited their manning. One fell and broke his knee. No point in continuing his story. He will not reach the lifeboat. Another skipped into his girl friend’s house, thus trying to avoid the surging sea of someone else’s sleep. Two men, including the cox, eventually reached the lifeboat, but two was not quorum enough to launch the lifeboat. You see, three was the legal minimum. So, I awoke and ran through the streets to join them at the lifeboat.

Ripple Across The Pond
The Atlantic is disarmingly called the Pond, where Tentacles born in America can often reach our shores in Britain, or if not Tentacles, at least a ripple or two carrying what many consider to be the infections of a planet’s soul that first find root on the other side of the so-called pond. Recently, the opposite happened when Tentacles rooted in Britain created their own ripples against the grain of the jetstream and sent infections the other way and, in a sense, outfaced any higher card that was shuffled and dealt towards us. In fact our single most powerful British ripple across the pond created a foul entity in America that was later sent back to hold our hands and infect us with what might be considered its ‘dirty chicken’ deals of trade and exchange...”

Jermaine ceased rattling the keyboard with an echoing sense of subconscious frenzy. She thought better of sending her missive in case, by sending it, she became part and parcel of an insidious two-way stream of ripples that were competing at this very moment in time. A moment as symbolised by a smaller pond that she could see in the garden from her window. A phenomenon of ripples she put down to freakish gusts of wind or at least ghosts, not gusts, that left no mark on her sight other than those patterns of ripple shaped into tentacles of water that clashed in the middle of the pond.

But if she was not sending what she had typed, why bother completing it? Just leave it with those dirty chicken deals hanging in the air. Why bother even to delete what she had written already? What was written was written. Go on to more constructive projects, she thought, away from these recent obsessions of hers concerning tentacles and ripples. The psychogeography of her mind that had been instilled by the surprisingly dark politics of the moment. Every moment ends soon enough, when its spate is spent, she thought, but did not type what she thought.

The sun was setting, and the air silent. So not gusts after all. Still light enough to see the keyboard without using the room’s lamp.

“A penny for your thoughts, Jermaine,” said a smiling face from outside the open window, now blocking her view of the rippling pond. The residues of the sun as a corona around the human features of expression and identity.

Jermaine had already looked up startled, lifting her head away from the keyboard she was now intending to start rattling again.

“Is that you, Gilbert?”

“Who else? You would surely have got a shock if it had been anyone else.”

A ghost then, not a gust, Jermaine thought, thought without typing it down. Gilbert, her husband, had died two Christmases ago, and this was the third Christmas in a row she would spend thus alone. She typed the word ‘imagination’ slowly, letter by letter, as a sort of deliberate doodling of delay before she answered. This word did not fit the rest of her missive about the political world around her. But she would delete the delay later. She smiled to herself, a smile to match the smile on the face she had not seen on the face outside the window, this widow by the window, half-blinded by the rays of the low sun as she had been, always was, when Gilbert visited.

She turned to the side of the desk where her laptop sat and picked up the pack of cards sitting precariously there. She shuffled them, then picked one card at random from the other cards and handed it through the open window to whoever or whatever she knew as Gilbert.

“Try that one, Gilbert. Maybe that one will work. One day, the card will be the right card to outface any other card.”

The now darker shape of Gilbert by dint of the sun’s own demise managed to manhandle the card clumsily away from Jermaine’s fingers and then attenuated into a smaller shape, or was it growing more distant rather than smaller as a shape? She thought she could see the shape throw the card into the pond. But she was not sure if a gust had taken it instead.

With tears in her eyes, she returned to the keyboard and deleted the word ‘imagination’, leaving ‘dirty chicken’. A name of a card game to go with other card games like Old Maid or Happy Families or Patience or plain simple Snap? However simple, such games needed their own bespoke rules. Rules that could not break or be broken.

The rattling continued for a while even after Jermaine’s room and its outside grew completely dark. Then silent. Like Tentacles Across The Atlantic.

Blue Bells in May
Nearly next Christmas. The small child in its pushchair. The bars of the pushchair’s frame hung with small bells that the traffic deafened. Bells that were once Christmas decorations. Evidently they had been painted blue, it now being long since Christmas when most decorative bells were silver or gold. The child’s father pushed the pushchair ... or the pushchair pushed the father. That sort of day in May’s Britain when things may go in reverse, or everything seemed just so much trouble and the child that had only been a baby last Christmas grizzled and screeched by turn. The father was a single parent now. The mother was still at the beginning of last year, trying hard not to think of the future with the father. If it were not for the child, things would be or would have been so much simpler. In fact, at the beginning of last year, she had no child out or in. The mother had bought the bells, the year before last in the father’s future, when they were still not blue. The bells, too, were still gold or silver, to hang on the tree. She wonders inside how she may avoid any future with the father, even then. She smiled as she felt a gentle weight upon her lap. Or within her lap. She saw a small gurgling child or baby touching the bells with curious longing and pent-up excitement. But too young to know it was Christmas very soon. It appeared to raise its mouth for a kiss. Marcel in Proust. A sort of goodbye, or a sort of hello. Too young, too, to know which colour was which.

Trick of the Trade (2)
(Jeremy wiped his forehead as he stood up.)

Hot in here (he said) too hot to think of much other than this single thought. Most times I mix all my thoughts up and free wheel with fears, hopes, desires, even, and oh yes, call them what they are, worries, grievances, dreads, nightmares of hate, yes, a whole mess of of aberrations and confusions. I suggest it is impossible to have a single thought, as I claimed at the beginning. Just to think of the heat, and nothing else, as I wished to do BECAUSE of that heat. However, there are various tricks of the trade to help one shrink all our thoughts to one thought, to produce calmness in a wild human mind, as all human minds by their nature usually want to be. But it is too hot even to think at all. So for the moment I give way to the honourable lady.

(He sat down sweating profusely. Even the green leather seats seemed to be sweating And up stood Susan to reply. Her security badge hung round her neck. Dressed formally despite the heat.)

Thank you, my honourable friend has raised a very important point. We need to explore every avenue of the mind. Why it is so crammed, so utterly befuddled at all times of the day and night, yes, I use the word ‘night’ advisedly. Even if one is not tossing and turning with worries just before darkness turns into dawn, the consciousness embedded in the mind is still full of thoughts some of which think thoughts for themselves. Thoughts thinking thoughts.

(She sits down and Jeremy returns to his feet.)

I thank my honourable friend for her valuable thoughts. She has the wisdom of the ages. Although I am not impugning her own age! (He laughs, and wipes his forehead again.) What I shall say is that we need to implement a sieve. Not. a physical one, necessarily, although a wartime helmet with holes drilled in it like the one I am wearing would be ideal, as so many people who are emptying their thoughts so efficiently are those who might actually remember the war. ....... No I will not make way. I want to make progress. Oh, OK. I give way to the honourable gentleman.

(He sat down, glistening and glowing in the chamber’s lights. Joseph stood up and started speaking.)

Is that sieve one of the honourable gentleman’s tricks of the trade? It seems a ludicrous suggestion, even for this chamber. (Laughter.)

(Jeremy stands up again, with a new helmet on his head, one with a central spike pointing upwards.)

Point of order (shouted a voice now upright having been sedentary for centuries.) Dear Mr Speaker, is it possible for this House to regard a trade deal as a trick? I think it impossible for Hansard to know that the honourable gentleman is wearing such a helmet without him saying so. I request that you instruct him to remove it or actually make it known verbally for the sake of Hansard that he is wearing one. Brexit be praised.

(The whole chamber intoned a repetition of Brexit be praised. Like a response in a church. They forthwith trooped into the hot lobby to be counted. One in one out. The trick of the trade upon which democracy is based. But there were now not enough thoughts to go round for any clear thinking at all. The Speaker remained on his rostrum shivering. Shivering sometimes comes with a fever. Trick of the trade, but no treat.)

Trick of the Trade (1)
I must tell someone. There were telltale signs on her body – the handprint-shaped bruises around the rib cage, the mouth, at that time still full of two tongues. Hers and someone else’s. She had evidently died during the act of lovemaking.
In all, the body showed evidence of a mutually violent passion, rather than an act of rape by either party. It was difficult to be absolutely certain because I was merely looking at one side of the story, as it were. If there was another body, there was no sign of it, neither its presence nor any mode of its exit from the flat.
Needless to say, being a churchgoer, stumbling upon this sight in my own flat, I was more than a little shocked out of my mind. But, of course, there was some need to say it....
Without further thought, however, I knelt beside the bed, palms pressed together, like fleshy moth wings, and have called upon you God, rather than the police. I suppose I was administering last rites, in the desperate hope that it was not too late. Trying to neaten and clean her body, too, ready for your attention.

The following Sunday, I could not find my usual church. This was most disconcerting because I had been attending it since I was a small child. Where it should have been was a block of flats.
Somewhat in despair, I gave myself the benefit of the doubt, becoming convinced that it had always been in the next street. The first street, however, turned out to be longer than I remembered, with rank upon rank of unbroken terraced housing eventually arriving at the park gates. I knew all along that the church was nowhere near because I could not see its spire, which would have poked up higher than the TV aerials.
As a child, I had dreamed that the church was really a rocket ship. After all, it looked like one, despite being old-fashioned and bedecked with stone gargoyles. I’d heard of sending monkeys into outer space … but statues and icons? If Mrs. Smith had been cleaning out the pews when it happened, she must have gotten an almighty shock.
I shook my head in disbelief. Was I really thinking these things? Perhaps that incident during the week was taking its toll on my mind. Which was not surprising. I could hardly credit that the police, when they eventually arrived on the scene, were almost giving the impression that I was the chief suspect in a case of murder. After all, they said. Who else was there? It was my flat, wasn’t it? What was the dead woman doing there? Not surprisingly, I was dumbfounded at their damned nerve. They put my behaviour down to shock. Grunts and wild gesticulations.

I found the church at last, tucked away in a nondescript cul-de-sac – quite close to where I lived, as it happened.
Yes, it did look a bit like a rocket ship – but a lot of churches do, don’t they? Except those with square towers, of course. And, oh, yes. Those newfangled Catholic ones with bits of sculpture outside in the guise of oblique builders’ scaffolding.
Today I was so much in awe of you, my God and Saviour, that I literally knelt down in the grounds of the church and made the rest of the way by crawling, in the process scraping off bits of my stockings, and then skin, and then splinters of my kneecaps. My high heels fell off first.
Once inside, it was certainly a useful trick of the trade to know how to pray in silence – unlike those tub-thumping hot gospellers who seem to do everything with their goddamn tongues.
Rest assured, dear God, I am not praying to you only on my own behalf, for that would be more than a little selfish. I am also pleading your gracious mercy and forgiveness for that poor deaf and dumb man whom the police ended up arresting from next door to my flat. He had lived there quietly for years. His loft connected with mine, it turned out. He was viewing ‘Crimewatch’ on TV at the time, I believe. From what I found they should be looking for a man who is made of plastic. So, even though I know the police are not easily fooled, I am still unconvinced of that man’s guilt. Or am I getting confused, Lord? Only you can tell, I’m sure. Hear my words, dear Lord. As you ready yourself for my arrival in your Heavenly church up so very high.
Above was previously published in the early 1990s, but significantly rewritten today.

Call Home
“When you are born, life is mapped out for you. Unless, of course, things change, even very small things changing, just one small thing being able to alter the course of your whole lifetime, and the whole world’s course will alter, too, alongside and as a result of your own one small change, huge swathes of human fate changed by your making any arbitrary decision, however trivial. This is not the same thing as any old butterfly effect in chaos theory, but what I shall now - for the first time - call the CALL HOME syndrome. You see, when you are about to make a decision in your life, you are able instinctively to call home first, calling back to the base point of your birth when life was originally mapped out for you, so as to check that you are not contravening anything untoward in it.”

I looked at him with some amusement. This was not pub talk, as we weren’t in a pub. His whiskers were afire with the sunset. His eyes dead serious. Older than me, but I knew experience did not necessarily come with age. Dependable experience, anyway.

He kept repeating “call home” as if it was an incantation.

“To call home is a smart thing to do,” he continued, thus breaking his thought patterns in the process, looking up, as he did, at the darkening sky with a stoicism that contrasted with his fingers playing nervously in his lap.

“And does home call you back?” I asked. I was half-joking at least.

“When most of us were born, there was nothing smart about communication,” he said, as if ignoring me. “You had dodgy connections, trunk calls, A and B buttons, an operator who put you through when she could, and a handle for cranking on some telephones. Life with its careful destiny was susceptible to such bad connections. Now, though, we have smart sophistication, and calling home is more decisive, longer lasting, with further potential reach, and capable of precise digital adjustment. This makes chaos seem more controllable. But in reality the call home syndrome is decidedly more chaotic than the mere rudimentary chaos we knew as children. Calling home now sometimes reaches beyond home, towards deeper and darker realms that preceded your home point, towards the tangled incoherence of your pre-birth machinations of trial mapping, and thus towards the tangled incoherence of the whole world’s mapping, involving all us others as well as just yourself. The butterfly becomes a monster, lurching from critical moment to critical moment.”

By now, I had ceased listening to his nonsense. I had already called home, and made sure he would never cross my path in the first place. Time for me to sleep anyway.


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