A wild slim alien


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Garçon

If he knew the word, its connotations, this Englishman abroad would surely use it. Agitated from the moment they enter, he wears a crew-neck jumper over his shirt despite the heat and gives off the distinct impression that he never relaxes. His family are on guard. At a distance, so are we. The waiter takes his brusqueness, his expectancy that all will talk his language, in his stride. The whippet-thin bulldog is sure the food will be crap. His wife explains patiently to the middle child about reviews and reputation.

Halfway through the meal, the youngest gets a fit of the giggles. Stop laughing, says his father. But the boy’s too far gone. Tell him not to laugh. His wife refuses to scold her son for laughing. There’s hope for him yet. I imagine him one day laughing hard and uproariously at his father. Who may land one on him, but that would only be proving the boy’s point. And by then the boy will be big enough to lamp him back.

The eldest says little, preferring to observe. We are part of her observation, a comparatively quiet family. At one point our eyes meet. Perhaps she’s wondering about a father like me, while I consider hers. When she does speak, it’s with the voice of a different class. She’s a private school girl. There she has learnt tact. She won’t laugh at her father, at least not to his face, but she will frequently be embarrassed by him before she makes good her escape. Already she’s embarrassed. She knows he’s what she might learn to call uncouth. Or – an arsehole.

Can we get a taxi? The waiter won’t condescend to check. He says, At this time? and shrugs. Bulldog huffs off, his family snaking behind. I wish them luck.

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Mindball

This is how you play. You strap on a headband with three electrical sensors which measure your alpha and theta brain waves. Alpha waves are detected when you are that tricky mix of wakeful, relaxed and alert, while theta waves register when you are drowsy – too relaxed. Fixed to a table is a long thin plastic tube in which there is a little ball. A player sits at each end of the tube and the ball is controlled by your brain waves. Then it’s like blow football, only using your mind instead of your lungs and a straw. You try and push the ball to your opponent’s end by emptying your mind of all distractions but remaining alert. I started off well, focussing on the ball alone; but better able to become absorbed than I was, and for longer, my daughter grew into the contest and began to force it back. That, and the fact that two teenage boys came along and started a conversation right by my ear, which I couldn’t block out (tellingly my daughter could). Well, I wanted to know what they were saying. It was a nothingy conversation, the one explaining to the other the way the game worked, then suggesting they move on to a less busy exhibit, but my focus was shot. My daughter pushed the ball all the way to my end of the tube. I didn’t let her win; she beat me fair and square. I said, you must have an emptier brain than me. – It’s easy, she said, it’s like being on the sofa at home watching telly. So there may be some truth in what I suggested. Of course there is, she’s just a girl, and her mind is clear and brilliant. Overfull, mine is foggy and dull in comparison.


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Strawberry cream cake

Cake

I’m partial to the richness of Terran cuisine. My daughter likes to bake. She no longer bothers to weigh the ingredients when mixing them; cakes come out of the oven just so. I eat a lot of cake. It’s a wonder I’m still a slim wild alien.

She makes one for her mother to take into work. Only the following day it’s forgotten; an emergency cake run is required. Mounted on a circular baking sheet, the strawberry-topped cream cake slides about on its plate like a curling stone on ice. I attempt to wedge the plate in the passenger seat footwell using map books, but despite driving carefully, it still flies off the plate at the first bend.

My driving is a standing family joke. But theirs is an outmoded notion, based on my formative years as a driver. Alright, I still have a tendency to think of a car as a mobile hi-fi, but it’s only in the last six years that I’ve driven regularly. I’m so much closer to 10,000 hours than I was.

Outside a school, mothers look on aghast as a lollipop man steps into my path – I have to brake suddenly. He’s ancient, and when he scowls at me, it’s like an imp from the buttress of a gothic cathedral come to life; centuries of locked-in scorn is unleashed in my direction. Forgive me, I had eyes only for the cake. Fortunately the damage is limited to one toppled strawberry. The rest of the journey unfolds without incident. The cake is safely delivered, swiftly demolished, and greatly admired.

The moral? When driving, pay no heed to the easily ruined cake in the footwell of the passenger seat. Or, should you have a prolific apprentice baker in the house, buy in a stock of cake boxes.


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Grass is greener

A believer secretly doubts God and does devilish things when she thinks He’s not looking. An atheist is desperate to have God hold him in His heart so that he is no longer obliged to hold himself.

A teenage boy wishes he could dress like a girl, while a teenage girl, already dressing like a boy, doesn’t know what the fuck she wants, but it sure as hell isn’t this.

A professional footballer wants to be a child again, for the game to be like it was when he was a kid kicking about the parks – endlessly enjoyable. A boy wants to be a professional footballer, at the centre of the action, of the world, blissfully unaware of how such a life may limit and challenge him.

A public sector employee wants the risk and the possibilities of the private. A private sector worker wants the absence of risk and the security of the public.

A married man yearns to be unmarried and free; a lonely single one dreams the full dream of love and the ideal of 2.4 children, or whatever the average is now in the postindustrial Western world.

Another unmarried man wants to be his idea of a woman – soft and cosseted and owned – while a married woman wants to be her idea of a man – free and reckless and amoral.

An old woman wants to be young again and noticed. A young woman wishes she was old, so she could escape the eyes which follow her everywhere she goes.

A dog wants to be a cat, so he can exit via the flap, while the cat wants to be a dog, because frankly she’s bored of the immediate locale, and that fucking dog gets to go on family trips and pee on lampposts all over town.


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Wild blubbery aliens

We heard about them from the man in the hut serving a huge old wind pump once used to drain the Broads; one of those people who vocalises everything they think. On the last day of the holiday we parked up again by the pump and walked in rain for nearly an hour to reach the spot on the coast he’d described. I don’t think my daughter really believed there would be that many. But then neither did I.

Grey seals

We breasted the dunes and looked down. From that distance, if you stumbled upon them without knowing they were there, you might think that they were rocks, because they blended in with those which form the groynes on this quickly eroding coast; and perhaps because they were lounging post-prandially, there wasn’t a lot of movement. 300 grey seals, actually a variety of colours, spread across four sections of beach. An amazing sight. Carefully we edged to within about ten metres. Any closer and they lumbered nearer to the swash.

Grey seals

Seals are strange creatures; fatty blobs on land, swift and true in water. Though the grey’s scientific name Halichoerus grypus translates as ‘Hooked-nosed sea pig’, there was something canine about them; they seemed both alert and inert at the same time. They didn’t make that ‘arf arf’ circus seal sound, instead producing more of a keening ‘oooo’, which I imagine translates as ‘mate, watch out for that slim, shifty camera-wielding biped at five o’clock from you’.

Greay seals

My previous sighting of seals in the wild consisted of a single bewhiskered pinniped swimming close to a jetty in St. Ives. I never dreamt of seeing 300 together so close to human habitation. My daughter was thrilled. For once, on a walk, we had delivered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Grey seals


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The hill of broken amphorae

The rescued amphora fragment was just a broken pot; but one that lay at the bottom of the sea for 2,000 years. Likelihood is that it comes from a shipwreck, and that in itself would be a tale. But then there are all the individual stories which brought the people on board to that disastrous moment. Who survived, who perished, what else was lost besides oil or wine? Great loves and small progressive steps forward, manacled slaves, families plunged into poverty at a stroke?

I’ve never been to Rome, but if I ever go, I know which place I’d visit first. Forget the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel, I want to stand on Monte Testaccio. A mound of pottery fragments which when whole held olive oil, it’s a mile in circumference, 35 metres high, and comprises an estimated 53 million amphorae, all once handled by people with tales to tell. Through the soles of my feet I’d absorb those oily stories: matriarchs cooking their way through the loss of sons in foreign lands, traders losing everything as a result of shipwreck, and the pot smashers and stackers who raised up that mound fragment by fragment – horny-handed Romans daily risking cuts from terracotta shards as they broke up the amphorae.

The stories don’t end with Rome ceasing to dispose of its pots there. The hill was the scene of jousting in the Middle Ages, while in the nineteenth century Stendhal visited and it became a place of festivity upon which the saltarello was danced. There too Garibaldi defended Rome against a French attack. On Good Fridays it even stood in for Golgotha.

Time made something beautiful out of what started life as a tip. It’s hard to envisage that time will do the same to our rubbish dumps, but it may.


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Spring rain

We’re having the shower room done. For reasons too enervating to detail, it’s taking forever, and I’ve been forced to wallow in baths while the work is completed. I don’t especially like baths. They belong to childhood, to a freezing cold house with no shower. Shivering, I would scorch my feet in too-hot water upon testing it; after long immersion, my skin emerged as wrinkled as a prune. These days when I’m scurrying to get to work, baths take too long. Most of all, I don’t write well in them. They’re too soporific; don’t clear my head and induce a trance-like state as showering does. As I wash myself from tip to toe, ideas magically descend; ‘coming down like love, falling at my feet, just like spring rain.’ (Yes, I often sing too. Be glad you can’t hear.) Showers open my writing mind, allowing me to muse poetical and make connections from which a tumble of words will follow, once I sit down naked to rat-a-tat-tat them into the laptop.

So I’d been missing showering, until a holiday last week allowed me to write under water again, and dream this up. Of course ideas and sentences do come to me at other times in other ways and places, but running aside, none is more likely to birth new linguistic lifeforms than ten minutes in the shower.

The old shower at home had an abrasive power. With the pump that drove it decommissioned (health and safety), I’d been worrying that the new one might not do the trick. The holiday reminded me that such anxiety must seem mere minutiae to anyone who isn’t a writer. It’s a given that the new will work just as well as the old, and further sets of 300 words will begin life in the shower.


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Glass-bottomed boat

Amphora

Tanned and muscular, Mario could not have been more Greekly masculine; but he was infinitely patient too, and his boat was glass-bottomed.  It allowed you to see what would otherwise not be seen, down to the depth beyond which the human eye could not penetrate.  Through panes which light and water rendered jade, I saw starfish, octopuses, loggerhead turtles, a mysterious underworld of shoaling and sand and rock and weed and murk.  The prism of the glass was our fish eye, and we were an underwater creature with an excess of limbs.  When I raised my head I saw Ionian blues and sun-baked land and cliff faces carved into irreproducible forms by wind and water.  In their lee we dived and swam into caves lit from below by the sun striking through the water to reflect off white sand.  Mario’s boat took us places we would not have otherwise gone.  From the depths he retrieved the handle of an amphora, unseen by human eyes since the time of the gods.

Looking through the glass, I thought of Momus, the god of raillery and mockery, who wanted windows set in the breasts of men, the better to see inside their hearts.  If I wasn’t already awildslimalien, I might have called this place Glass-bottomed boat.  For here is where I lay open my heart and let you inside my mind; where also I try to see inside the breasts and foreheads of others.  Of course I can’t see inside of everyone; I’m no Greek god.  But if I have anything of a gift for seeing where sight alone doesn’t take you – into the idiosyncracies of the relationships of others, across boundaries of sex and species – then I feel I should make use of it, and give back what I have been gifted.


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300 words on not writing more than 300 words

Recently WordPress suggested that posts be tagged ‘longform’ to enable readers drawn to weightier fare to find it more easily.  What an ugly word.  I’m not doing that, even supposing it did mean losing countless visits.  But with all the competing verbiage around, I have wondered how well-read my longer posts are.  So I’ve decided to try writing shortform.  I learnt the discipline of working to word limits while writing reviews for a listings magazine.  If I remember correctly, I was paid £14 for 300 words.  Didn’t seem a fortune at the time.  Now it feels generous, for what it was.  Imagine if I got £14 for 300 words here!  My U alone would be worth £56.

Everything I’ve ever written has been thoroughly considered.  I need to force myself to give in to the here and now.  Any finessing will come in attempting to squeeze what I have to say into exactly 300 words.

Only me being me, I’m going do it 300 times.  Over time, to no particular deadline.  300 x 300 = 90,000.  By the end, I’ll have a book.  I can’t help thinking in terms of books.  They’re what I was bred on, what I always aspired to write.  So much of what I’ve written has been in the form of parts of something larger, a book to contain it all.  The web has changed everything.  Like water through all but the most watertight system, words find a way to their readers.  In comparison, a writer can start to believe that what books do is hide words away.  But I am still in love with the book, and I want one all of my own, like the Clash wanted a riot.

300 words.  That’s all.  No other prescription.  Anything as a subject.  How hard can it