Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Body Talk - Short Story

Though I think this story was written after 'Bind', probably in early 1988, it owes more to the kind of writing I had been doing 1984-7 particularly for my school magazine. In particular the trick at the end was an essential for what I produced in those days. However, there are other elements which situate it. My father was a fanatical gardener and as well as his huge garden rented three allotments. They were very much as described here and the work I did on them was similar, though not with this outcome! For some reason though I loathed gardening, I fell in love with the allotments, I think it stems from that weird affection in me for small, almost mundane things of life, that have been important to people throughout the 20th century. It was like the way that I always wanted to go home with precisely every child in my school just to see what going home the way they did it was like. I suppose it is a sense of connection to people that counteracts the loneliness that I felt for so long or perhaps a recognition that society actually consists of lots of lonely people coalescing. I suppose I also felt a connection to the past both within my family and to ordinary people who had derived pleasure from ordinary things. I found it so difficult to derive pleasure from even the extraordinary, so I was somehow jealous of those who could do it, I still am.

The flipside of this connection to the ordinary is the main character, not the 'I' but the woman. I know precisely who she was modelled on and in fact she has now appeared on television and is a proper author. I was not saying that she had any dubious tendencies, it was just that to me she represented my even greater dream which was Oxford. Like Michael Moorcock and Philip Pullman it was a city I fell in love with at first sight and would wander around in deep affection for it. I suppose it was always the unobtainable for me, but for an author it is a wonderful realm and you do feel you can step into something magical; it has real and literary history. Anyway, this woman who I had known as a sixth former went to study at the University of Oxford and I failed my 'A' levels. Yet, on a visit I ran into her and she was a rower and there was golden sunlight after rain and I had tea and took lovely photos. So effectively she became an embodiment, the kind of local goddess for me that represented all those Oxford fantasies. The quotations uses in this story were actual sentences the woman herself had said to me.

So this story despite quite a hard edge, was actually about bringing together the two central tenets of my wistful longings of my late teenage years. I was not attracted to the woman, rather she represented a kind of link to a society that I imagined stood behind it, wonderful literary women that I might have met and gone on punts with and made love to in wood-panelled rooms (think living the movie 'Oxford Blues' (1984)). Thus, to put all of this wistfulness into a rather easy twist story was an antidote to simply drowning in wishing for a life I was in fact disconnected from.

Body Talk

I walked slowly along the earth footpath, it was dry from the summer, now more a grey colour than brown. The path is as wide as a man, running between the playing fields on one side and the allotments on the other. It goes all the way down to the small woods, my destination. It was the middle of the morning and no-one was in view. I stopped and glanced through the chain link fence over the allotments. I could scent a bonfire, a bit damp and certainly smoky. The breeze was blowing it away from me, but it was there and it meant someone must be around.

“Hello,” she said, “come to join me?”. The sudden sound of a voice surprised me. I stepped a little closer to the fence and pushed my nose through one of the links to see more clearly. Now I could make her out, a short way off, the opposite corner of the patch to the bonfire, the bit where it got damp.

I watched her at work. To me she looked like any of the current model of young females. Her shoulder length hair was kept out of her face with a loop of springy material. Her clothes seemed like someone else’s. The sweater was dark blue and far too large, the top of the jeans she wore, dirtied with earth, sprouted from beneath a belt which held them to her body. Everything had a musty air about it as if it had been forgotten until she had needed something to wear that morning. The only thing that stuck out were the green rubber boots, they had a new feel about them.

The woman was scraping mouldy leaves out of a wheelbarrow. I guessed she had ferried them there from the large pile yellow lorries dumped by the gate every autumn. I had occasionally rooted amongst them. I guessed they were swept up from the streets as there was always wrappers and even the odd glove mixed in with them. She began spreading the leaves thickly over a narrow stretch of earth, freshly dug I guessed. She looked over at me again and smiled. “What am I doing down here? I bet that’s what you’re thinking” she spoke cheerfully.

I said nothing, people are always telling me to be quiet, so this time I did not voice my opinion. She continued. “Well, as Fiona used to say, when everything, every day is so mental you’ve got to do something physical to keep you human. She used to run, though, long distance. You don’t win medals for digging.” She smiled at me, almost as if I was a child and turned back to her work.

The tools she was using looked like someone else’s as well. They were too large for her and now I could see she was probably a bit smaller, a bit weaker, than the women I had watched working the land here before. She panted as she used a rake to spread the piles of rotting leaves across the newly dug land. Then she rested for a moment with the handle resting on her shoulder. I could sense the sweat, and noticed the glow on her face. It was a warm day for autumn, but even so, it was clear that she was inexperienced at such work, not a regular here.

Suddenly she spoke again, but I felt more to herself than to me. I paid little attention and instead gazed over curiously at the small birds looking for worms disturbed by the digging. “But down here its good, you feel like you’re out in the country. In a garden you’re divided by fences, with only a neighbour on each side. Here it’s like the middle ages, everyone working the same land.” She straightened up, rubbing her back, and glanced around. I focused back on her, anticipating that her look would be expectant, seeking out a fellow worker. I had seen the people down here when it was busy, waving and calling to each other. Today the place was empty, but surprisingly that seemed to reassure her.

A train rumbled by on the track up the embankment that formed the far boundary of the allotments. I watched it go by, relishing the few moments’ excitement of its speed. I yearned to run alongside, but then it was gone and everything was quiet again.

She looked up at me again but returned to her raking. “Well, the trains, they are the barrier between here and the town.” she swung a hand behind her towards the tops of the tall buildings in the distance to illustrate. “They keep me in my century. Down here you get so carried away in your thoughts. I always think up good stories. But I hate them because they are all me, or me disguised, doing things that have happened to me in the past, writing them down it’s more like a diary than a story then. No skill, no skill.”

She walked over to the tattered waxed jacket she had discarded on the floor and pulled a notebook out of one of the large pockets. There was the stub of a yellow pencil rammed through the white metal spring at the top that held the pages together. “Poetry is the thing. Not this jumble of words they pass off as it nowadays” She waved the notebook at me to emphasise her point. “Proper poetry with rhythm, but it’s so hard.” She said with a mix of sadness and frustration. She tossed the notebook back on her jacket and returned to her rake.

“But here is where I could write it.” She said. “Look at those clouds.” I followed the line of her arm, upwards, past the hand dressed in a brightly coloured glove, to the sky. Pink clouds lit by the early autumn sun swept over us, pursued by the grey-white smoke of her weedy bonfire.

“Clouds like candy floss,” she muttered, “the smell of this stuff.” She pointed to the shiny black and brown rotting leaves that left a tangy taste in the back of the throat as steam rose from their decay. “You, and the bonfire, and the country feel. All good material.” She picked up a spade this time. This too was a little large for her, she had to stand on it and step it into the ground to haul the earth up. She scattered the dirt over the pile of leaves. It looked like a real mess, not the way to properly bury something but even she just kept on doing it, progressing along the plot. “I talk too much, I must be boring.”

There was nothing else to watch here. I had tired of it, I remembered my walk to the woods, they were a lot more interesting. I stepped away from the fence and turned back the way I had been going. A new smell stopped me. The smoke and the rotting leaves had concealed it before. I knew it from past occasions, digging myself in the earth or exploring woodlands. I turned my head to watch her again, but she did not notice me this time. Fingers protruded from the earth where she dug. She was now hurriedly, nervously, spreading the rotting leaves over the purple, smelling hand, and brushing soil on to it with the end of her spade. Once it was covered and the smell had been muted, she resumed her digging but did not press down as hard this time, so not cutting the earth so deeply.

Bored, I trotted on down the path. “Bye.” she called after me.

My stomach felt empty and it seemed so long to dinner. As I reached the edge of the wooded part I cocked my hind leg and sprayed the tree. I then got up a sprint on my four squat legs and chased down some birds pecking at the earth. They broke and disappeared upwards into the branches.

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