Friday, 24 October 2014

Windows On The World

Sometimes during the chaos of prepping tables for breakfast I’ll get five minutes of peace, and I’ll walk over to the windows and look down over the city. On a certain kind of spring morning, when the rising sun paints the South Tower with a certain kind of pale fire, I find myself transported back to my first shift. I’d never been up in a plane, never even been to the top of the Empire State Building, and it was a struggle not to drift off and spend that first day staring out at the view, trying to spot our house on the far side of the river, pressing my face against the glass in an attempt to look directly down and pick out landmarks from our former neighbourhood.

I quickly realised the latter was in vain – even if physics hadn’t stopped me from peering down the side of the tower, nothing remained of the streets on which my brother Asim and I were raised by our Dad. He’d owned an electrical goods store in a district that was all electrics bar the pawn and liquor places – Radio Row, they called it – and we’d lived in a dark but spacious flat above the shop. I remember the day the Port Authority guys came around to talk to Dad about the towers, about the offer they were going to make him to pack up and move – it seemed generous at the time, though looking back it was probably loose change to them. Still, Dad was doing chemo at that point, and Asim was locked up for his first armed robbery, and with me struggling to look after the shop on my own Dad saw it as an answer to his five daily prayers. He didn’t care that Radio Row was going to be levelled. Looking back, I’m not sure I cared either.

Between the payoff and Dad’s savings we were able to buy a house in Jersey with views east over the river, and to pay for a live in carer for Dad, who we set up in a first floor bedroom by a window overlooking the old neighbourhood. Dad only left the house over the next four years to go back to hospital once in a while and hear that the cancer had either retreated or returned; he slept a lot, and when he wasn’t sleeping he sat in his armchair staring out the window at the towers going up. It was an obsession for him: he joked that he wanted to live long enough to see them finished, which in the end he didn’t – he passed away the summer before they topped out.

I quit my job at the bakery and spent the following months alone in the house, sitting for the most part in Dad’s old chair and watching the final pieces of the towers being lifted into place. A lot of things were going through my head, not many of which I can remember now, but there were definitely times when I wondered if I was losing my mind, and I knew that people from the old neighbourhood were starting to worry about me. One day a friend who worked in construction called and said that they were weeks away from opening a smart new restaurant on top of the North Tower, and that he could get me an interview if I was interested. I’m not ashamed to say that I hammed it up in that interview – I didn’t mention Asim’s latest stint behind bars for fear of blackening my card, but I went into our forced relocation and the levelling of the old neighbourhood, and of Dad passing away before he got to see the towers finished; I even mentioned the drunk driver and Mom dying when I was nine, which is something I hadn’t talked about in a long time. I’m not sure what came over me, but in that moment I realised that I’d never wanted anything more than to work on top of that tower.

On an April morning six weeks later I found myself walking down West Street in polished shoes and a smart white shirt, and stepping into the lobby of the North Tower for the first time – my name was on a list, and the receptionist smiled at me like I couldn’t have belonged there more, pointing me towards the elevator that lifted me straight to the 107th floor. And there it was, that view to the rim of the world, the sun rising from the depths of space itself, its rays ricocheting off the South Tower. I stood there staring until my supervisor came over and barked at me to get in the kitchen for a briefing – there was a lot of barking in those early days, as no one really had a clue what was going on: none of the chefs had spent more than a few hours in the kitchen, and the menu remained largely untested.

Less than an hour later the doors opened and they began filing in: fresh faced boys in sharp suits and ties racing over to the windows to peer out over their new dominion, high fiving each other over the tables, waving actual wads of money around. This was their world, I reminded myself as I stood to attention, concentrating on maintaining an affable smile as I moved between tables taking orders, careful not to break into a run as I hurried to and from the kitchen. I remember thinking that there were an awful lot of cocktails being drunk given that it was 9am, and a mingled sense of empathy and relief when a waiter who wasn’t me dropped a tray of breakfast plates to a resounding chorus of high school cheers. But I don’t remember much else until the hordes had thinned down to a few solitary diners making deals over bottles of champagne, and my supervisor came over and touched me on the arm and told me to take a break. I went over to a quiet corner and stood looking down at the sprawling circuitry of the only city I’d ever known, all the interconnecting pathways of my history visible at once, and I knew then that I had found the one thing that could save me.


It’s hard to believe, but that was almost thirty years ago now. I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, a new millennium is looming on the horizon, and I still can’t seem to move on from the restaurant. I long ago went from waiting tables to overseeing daily operations – long ago became that guy who goes around touching the arms of waiters and telling them to take a break. I still sleep alone in Dad’s old room, still look up at my workplace from his window first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Sometimes I catch myself in the mirror doing my affable work smile when I’m alone in the house. I guess it’s part of me now.

Not much changes in the city. Crime is down, the streets are cleaner, but the bankers still high five each other over tables, still get drunk on cocktails at breakfast, still wave actual wads of money around and occasionally laugh in the faces of my waiters. This is still their world, and as far as they’re concerned it always will be. But the more time I spend looking out at this shimmering city, the more I find reassurance in the fact that all of this will one day be gone. Yesterday in a flash storm I watched as a tide of rainwater ran down Schermerhorn Street swallowing up parking restrictions painted on the side of the road, and I thought: one day nature will reclaim the earth, and none of the signs or superstitions that we use to insulate ourselves against the big questions will protect us. The great calamities of humanity fall into cracks of forgetting between the generations, and so we go on living in imaginary bubbles of security, convinced we can build towers so tall that they’ll never need to come down. But of course everything will have to come down.

For all that, I seem to spend more and more time thinking about my childhood on Radio Row. Asim is gone now too, and in his absence I find myself endlessly replaying those summers: the water fights and fleeting schoolyard romances, the comic books and television shows and the magic tricks Dad used to goof up after dinner to make us laugh. Recently I’ve started dreaming that I’m standing on top of the tower, looking over the edge at a point where the ribbed metal disappears in an enormous drift of cotton cloud, and in the dream I know that if I leap into the void I’ll vanish in that cloud and reappear in the old neighbourhood, Mom and Dad and Asim waiting for me at the table as I run home to dinner through darkening streets, the dusk sky purple. I know how silly it sounds – the wandering mind of a lonely old man – but I always wake from those dreams feeling like everything is going to work out fine.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Brixton Hill

Photography by Mike Urban

On the 133 down Brixton Hill,

En route to Guy's to meet my Dad,

Whose operation has been postponed till afternoon

And who is wandering around the Shard, angry and hungry and under instructions not to eat,

I raise my hand,

And a fraction of a second later

The me looking somewhere unspecified on the CCTV screen raises his.

And it feels that this is somehow important, this gap,

Like the 21 grams supposedly unaccounted for in the human body after death,

Seen by some as evidence for the existence of a soul.

The me on the bus feels no more or less real than the me on the screen,

But this infinitesimal void in between

May contain something like truth.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

When You See Me Again, It Won't Be Me

I try to avoid writing opinionated reaction pieces without waiting for the perspective afforded by a few days passing, but I claim special dispensation in this case. Twin Peaks is my weakness, my guilty pleasure, a silver thread running through the last 25 years of my life that I occasionally pull on to contact the kid at the other end. I attend festivals, collect memorabilia, have interviewed cast and crew members, David Lynch included, for a number of articles over the years. I’ve never stopped watching it, at least once a week returning from a particularly dreary day at work and popping on a favourite episode over dinner. ‘For Cyrus, a true fan,’ it says inside the gatefold of my season one box set, ‘from Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper)’. Why, then, while other true fans around the world flood social media with a tide of celebration, does the news that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost plan to air a third season in 2016 fill me with despair?

Part of it is selfish defensiveness of the sort that many die-hards carry against modern remakes of their childhood icons. I was 11 in 1990 when the pilot aired on British television; I remember sitting in my bedroom watching Dr Zhivago on a boxy black and white television that had the brand name of my mum’s curlers burned into the plastic casing, and flipping over to BBC2 in time to hear a voice introduce the UK debut of this American show I’d been hearing so much about. As the pilot progressed I remember feeling as though I was sinking into another world – that chill Northwestern town, its population of odd but believable characters, its universe played out in signs and riddles, dreams and visions, with music always in the air. Over the coming months my brother, my best friend Spencer and I never missed an episode, often reconvening to watch the weekend repeat, discussing our theories amid the safety of a spider web strewn boot room at school that we called the Bookhouse, on whose cold brick walls we scrawled symbols and code names in black polish.

Yet it’s not just nostalgia that informs my lifelong attachment to Twin Peaks: the show remains a towering achievement, a Trojan horse of artistic integrity somehow smuggled on to primetime television, rendering obsolete overnight the televisual output of the 1980s and helping to define the creative decade that followed. Its surreal humour, its blurring of the line between of picket fence naivety and moral darkness, its powerful undercurrents of sex, drugs and supernatural violence – these things continue to echo in the age of Netflix and HBO. The dream sequences in The Sopranos, the abstract narrative in Lost, the pagan ritual murder and existential dialogue in True Detective; it's possible to argue that none would exist had Twin Peaks not redefined the very notion of what television was capable of.

Yet despite its enduring legacy, and for all the show’s extraordinary popularity at the time – before long Lynch was appearing on the cover of Time magazine, his female leads on the cover of Rolling Stone – things didn’t end well for Twin Peaks. Lynch and Frost were granted a second season on the condition that they reveal Laura Palmer’s killer early on (some claim the network feared lawsuits if the ‘whodunnit’ hysteria gripping the world spilled over into copycat killings); having done so, both lost interest in their creation, leaving to pursue other projects while Twin Peaks descended into farce and self-parody at the hands of mostly inept guest writers and directors. By the close of season two the show had been shifted to a graveyard Saturday night slot, audience figures had plummeted, and though Lynch himself returned at the eleventh hour to direct a mesmerising final episode – ending on a cliff-hanger of such terror that my brother and I were rendered speechless until lunchtime the following day – it wasn't enough to persuade the suits to commission a third season.

Amid all this it’s not hard to see why Lynch and Frost might feel compelled to return and finish the job. This isn’t a cynical money making reunion: both are aware that the worldwide Twin Peaks community has only grown over the years, that something about the show is still shifting units and filling festivals, the latter always attended by a few costumed and quote-armed kids whose own parents were teenagers when the pilot aired. Perhaps there’s a sense of guilt at work, that the creators somehow let down the fans and the cast, one of whom described to me a feeling, prevalent on set during the deteriorating second season, that Lynch had shown them the Garden of Eden and then abandoned them in Purgatory.

Regardless, this doesn’t justify risking a reprise 25 years after the red curtain came down. That strange world that Twin Peaks occupied, somewhere between innocence and experience, between heaven and hell, between the 1980s and the 1990s, has long since been swallowed by the tide of passing time. During Twin Peaks’ first airing the online community consisted of a few disparate chat rooms; now we are an audience in thrall to simultaneity, to quick edits and countless alternatives and the sense that there’s always something more important happening on the next channel. How will the new Twin Peaks play? If Lynch and Frost make concessions to modern attention spans they’ll be seen as selling out; if they write and shoot with the earnest whimsy and glacial pacing of the original, then they risk holding a mirror up to how much we’ve moved on. Either way, it seems doubtful that they’ll be able to recapture the original’s mix of small town innocence and feverish sexuality, its horror or its humour or its human warmth. Lynch’s one return to Twin Peaks, the feature length Fire Walk With Me, is now hailed by some as a masterpiece, but bombed on its release for many reasons – its unremitting darkness, its feeling of being hacked together from a dozen different screenplays – but chiefly because it attempted to show on screen that which had previously been left to the viewer’s imagination, namely the double life of the late Laura Palmer. As David Foster Wallace wrote in an essay penned on the set of Lost Highway in 1995: ‘Laura was no longer “an enigma” or “the password to an inner sanctum of horror”. She embodied, in full view, all the Dark Secrets that on the series had been the stuff of significant glances and delicious whispers.’

Those unanswered questions that may seem the most obvious reason for a third season – Is the good Dale trapped in the Black Lodge? Did Audrey die in the bank vault? – are in fact the kindling that has kept the fire burning at the heart of the Twin Peaks community all these years, providing raw material for fan fiction and speculative essays and furious debate in online forums. The sense at Twin Peaks festivals is hard to describe, but there’s always a feeling not dissimilar to that at a wake: the grateful celebration of a beloved life cut short. In its final conflagration and decent into chaos, each of us witnessed Twin Peaks fall apart before our eyes. It wasn’t easy at the time, but over the years we have learned to love unconditionally even the worst actors, even the most hackneyed characters, even the lamest, most desperately tangential subplots. Twin Peaks fans have individually and collectively put the show back together, carried it within them and nurtured it, allowing it to grow into something without beginning or end, where there are no authorities anymore, only the source material and the individual’s interpretation of it.

I should finish by saying that of course Lynch and Frost have every right as the creators of Twin Peaks to return to the town and reanimate the story; I should also add that I don’t think for a second that they plan to go in there demolishing dreams or scrupulously tying up loose ends. I’m sure the contract with Showtime will have been carefully structured to allow them to flex their creative muscles, to be surreal and sinister without rhyme or reason, to relive the sense on set that Frost once described to me as “the inmates overrunning the town”. I just fear that it’s too late – that Twin Peaks was a moment in time and space that will be endlessly revisited, but never convincingly recreated. The actor Ray Wise, who played Leland Palmer, pre-empted such sentiments in an interview in 2005. “I’ve always felt that Twin Peaks was meant to burn very brightly for a short period of time,” he said. “Almost like a comet. Very hot, very intense, very passionate. And then it burns out and disappears.”

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Single Pixelated Frame

When I finally get around to putting all this down on paper, I will open with the impact: 30 seconds after 8.46am EST on 11th September 2001, an instant that I imagine frozen in time; a tower and a plane and a section of pale blue sky snipped from their surroundings and pinned to a slide for closer inspection. On the other side of the world, my friend Jim and I sun ourselves in Soho Square, tucking into a tray of triangular sandwiches that we’ve bought from Marks & Spencer on a whim. There follows an interlude of suspended disconnection, sirens swarming in a New York sky filling with smoke and shredded documents as I walk casually back to work, stopping to buy a roll of mints that will turn up in a jacket pocket weeks later, causing me to write in my diary on October 3rd:

I found those Polos again today, shattered in their packet but still together, and I wondered whether I should eat them or keep them. Whether I should plant them. Whether they might grow into a tree, and the tree might bear an answer.

I threw them away.

There’s the text message from Alex that I pause in the office doorway to read (Check the news. Speechless. Al). There’s the moment between the first and second towers falling when a plane banks dramatically over the British Museum and seems to point itself at my window, and I sprint down seven flights of stairs and out into the street, staring with incomprehension at the shrill blue sky as the plane swoops overhead and is swallowed by rooftops. There’s the point that evening when I realise I’m locked out of my building and am forced to walk from Peckham Rye to Brixton to sleep at the flat of a friend, who sits beside me watching looped newsreel footage of the attacks until I surprise myself by uttering a terrible thing out loud.

“I wish I’d been there to see it,” I say. My companion responds with a look that will become all too familiar over the coming years.


There’s an alternative opening that springs to mind. It’s two weeks later, and I’m sitting in a lecture theatre in the journalism building at Cardiff University. A man called Mike Ungersma is standing at the front of the hall and warning ranks of new students not to be fooled by the pyrotechnics of the event that they all believe will determine the course of the new century. Every generation has its event, he says – the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbour – and while all seem momentarily to redefine the parameters of plausibility, all are ultimately proved to be rocks in the river of history – causing more ripples than most, but doing nothing to slow the current of passing time.

I take notes like the rest of the students, but like the rest of the students I struggle to believe what he says. In the cafeteria we group around tables littered with styrene cups and flapjack wrappers and pore over papers still bearing front page images of the attacks, a television in one corner relaying newly discovered footage of the planes going in, the towers coming down. Conversation warily circles the upcoming war in the Middle East; the students seem already to be mentally measuring themselves up for helmets and flak jackets, testing their faces-to-camera. All appear to view the ragged and still smoking hole in the New York skyline as some sort of portal to a dramatic future in which they call the shots.

Except me: I can’t stop thinking about the past. Like the shockwave that travelled down and then back up the towers following the impact of the planes, the import of what I witnessed that day is only now starting to make sense. In Cardiff I begin to understand that what I had seen unfold on screens in the Time Out television department, dozens of co-workers huddled in tearful groups, occasionally running out with hands clamped over their mouths, marked an end of innocence. I hadn’t known it at the time, and so I had stared transfixed as the cameras panned in on falling bodies and the slow motion pancaking of the towers; I had scoured transcripts of frantic phone calls, read everything I could on the passage of the flights, the mechanics of the collapse. I’d gone as far as rewatching films that I knew featured the towers in a cameo role: light-hearted romps for the most part, Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah dining at Windows On The World in Splash, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy taking the stock market by storm in Trading Places. I had found myself awestruck by the air of impenetrability they exuded, barely a window visible amid the gleaming steel. I would pause the movie, picture where the planes went in, wondering which parts had been recognisable among the rubble. Like staring at the sun, unaware of blindness setting in.

One evening in late October, I find myself rushing upstairs during a documentary on 9/11 that I’ve been watching with housemates in Cardiff, lock myself in my room and sit shaking with sobs that I stifle with a hand against my mouth. Soon after that the dreams start, every one of them the same: me staggering around the streets of midtown New York in prismatic dawn light, siding up to cops and commuters and begging them to take heed of the tragedy about to unfold in the skies. No one listening – being brushed aside like a bum or a madman over and over, until finally I look up and see a plane cleaving towards the first tower, and know that it is too late.


Again the impact. Thirty seconds after 8.46am on 11th September 2001; American Airlines Flight 11, floors 93-99 of the North Tower. Or rather, not quite. It’s not the moment of collision that I keep returning to so much as the one immediately before it. In the way that traumatic events leave survivors obsessively reliving last moments – scrutinising mundane details for signs of the monster waiting in the wings – so I find myself compulsively searching for images and descriptions of this one: the plane so close to the tower that no sky separates the two, the silver face of the building as yet intact, the people inside still going about their business, hands full of phones and papers and first cups of coffee.

There’s the one clip, of course. French filmmakers trailing a fire crew. The fireman standing in anticipation of a shot, looking a little bored. Raising his head at the roar of an engine, one hand instinctively rising to hold a helmet in place. The camera following his gaze, swinging left in time to catch the towers framed by buildings. The plane bearing closer.

This is where I pause the video. At first I thought it was an attempt to prolong the inevitable, to relive that age of innocence before the impact changed everything. Now I’m not so sure. I remember reading Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, one of countless books I’ve picked up due to an association with 9/11, and being overwhelmed by the ending, in which Safran Foer plays the event backwards in slow motion – the reverse blossoming of flames as the explosion contracts inwards, fuel running up lift shafts and stairwells and back into the plane as it slides in retreat from the building, papers returning to their piles, phones and fax machines and human forms reassembling and righting themselves. Glass and steel cascading upwards and forming a perfect mosaic to fill the hole as the nose retracts, the surface of the tower intact again, the plane once more outside the building.

For a while it made me wonder if there wasn’t something magical realist in my own fascination with the moment of impact, as though in pausing and stop-motioning I was seeking proof of moments between moments, exponentially sub-dividable until time does indeed start running backwards. But the more years that pass, the more I think it’s a fascination with the symbol itself – its sickening beauty, the perfection of its dread mythology. A tower and a plane and a section of pale blue sky; a vision of Babylon, thousands dying unseen inside twin tombstones, flaming angels leaping into the abyss. And somewhere in between these ages of innocence and experience, frozen in a single pixelated frame, an eternally suspended silence into which I cast questions like stones, and receive no answers.

Thursday, 19 June 2014


Originally published by Hotshoe, photography by Timothy Briner

I’ve been asked to tell what happened between Gary Osborne and the Kirchner kid in the Walmart car park back in the summer of 1992. They tell me Gary is in trouble, but no one will say what sort. Truth is I haven’t spoken to Gary more than a handful of times since we finished school that summer, but we were tight at the time, and I was there when it happened, so I’ll try to tell it the best I can.

Gary’s folks lived in a run-down shack on Lyons, which is still about the roughest part of Lightwater. Every morning Lou and I would meet at his front door and walk with him to school, and every morning he’d lift up his shirt to show us cigarette burns and fingernail marks left by his mother the night before. We were a team back then, each of us running away from something: for Lou it was her dad, who had been drinking heavily since her mom left; for me it was the hole left by my brother Lawrence, who had died in Iraq the previous summer. Grief filled our house like fog: everywhere I looked I saw his face gazing back from pictures, and I felt sure I could hear his voice mumbling through the wall next to my bed when I woke in the middle of the night.

Mostly, though, I think we were escaping Lightwater: the dirt roads lined with blinking bar signs and church billboards advertising redemption with 1-800 numbers; the gun nuts and the gang-bangers, the overweight and the out of work waddling like zombies in and out of fast food restaurants. We created a world of our own to escape the smothering sadness of this dead town: we built a fort in the woods, vanquished imaginary enemies, signed contracts of lifelong friendship with blood drawn by a penknife from our thumbs. When dark set in and we were forced to turn home we’d walk arm in arm, whistling songs as we went, whispering reassurances at each other’s front doors.

Then one day the Kirchner kid turned up in class. He wore a sequined jacket and a single silver glove, and he was so small that his spats and white socks swung above the floor. The whole class was in hysterics, calling names and throwing stuff at him, but he never so much as turned around, just sat facing the front until Mrs Mayfield walked in and put a stop to the chaos. Rumours began circulating that he lived alone with his mother, that the pair had moved from Memphis after his father, a bank clerk, had been killed in a heist; others said the kid was being treated for cancer, something that gained credibility when he started wearing a fedora hat to school a few weeks later. But mostly we were obsessed with the rumour that the kid’s mother had once worked for Michael Jackson, and that the singer remained a family friend. Kirchner reputedly claimed that Jackson had visited the family home in Memphis soon after his father’s death, and that he would be coming to see him here in Lightwater any day now. I paid it no mind, but it whipped the school up into a frenzy: some of the younger kids started following him around like a prophet, as though the Christ-like figure of Michael Jackson might materialise by his side at any moment. But mostly it was just more ammunition for the bullies.

Which brings us to what happened in the Walmart car park. It was a Saturday afternoon, not long before the end of the school year, and Gary was in a black mood. His mother’s abuse had lately slipped into behaviour that left no marks on his body, and which he refused to talk about. We were seeing less and less of each other outside school, which I suppose is what happens – Lou would soon be heading to university in Texas, and I was preparing to work for my uncle’s print shop in Calvary. We’d met for breakfast at McDonald’s, after which we planned to head to the forest and dismantle the old fort, and the air had been heavy with the sense of an era ending. After leaving the restaurant and walking through the car park we’d seen the Kirchner kid sitting on the curb like he was waiting for a ride, still in his sequined jacket and hat despite the heatwave, and Gary had just flipped – stormed up to him, started throwing accusations about his dead dad, about this Michael Jackson bullshit. I remember how bright it was, blinking through the heat haze to see the kid look up from under the rim of his hat and then go back to staring at the curb, and the next thing Gary was launching a series of kicks and punches, beating him in the body and the back of the head, the whole thing shimmering like a mirage, like one of those cartoon fights where all you see is the occasional fist or foot poking out of a cloud of dust. I remember being unable to move, just standing and watching as Lou tried to pull him away, and him hurling her to one side and continuing to kick the kid, who was now lying on the floor. In the end a couple of army recruitment scouts saw the commotion and intervened, by which time a sizeable crowd of onlookers had gathered.

Anyway, the rest you know. Gary was suspended, and the kid stayed away from school for the rest of the year. I saw Lou occasionally between classes, but we didn’t speak properly again until August, when we heard that the kid had died during treatment for cancer. She was working tables at Pizza Hut, saving up for college, and I was already manning the storeroom at my uncle’s print shop. We met one Sunday morning, picked up a bunch of flowers and walked to the Kirchner house to pay our respects. His mom sat us on the couch, gave us milk and cookies, asked about our relationship with her son, then led us to his room, where a dozen candles were burning around his bed, and a Michael Jackson CD was playing quietly on the stereo. I remember the opening chords of Liberian Girl starting up, and at that moment glancing over at a corkboard and seeing a photograph of Michael Jackson and the Kirchner kid, arms around each other, smiling for the camera.

That was the day the heatwave broke. By the time Lou and I left the house it was raining heavily, and we walked without speaking through deserted streets to the edge of town, led each other by the hand through the forest to the old fort, where we kissed for the first and only time under a canopy of trees flashing with lightning and echoing with distant thunder. I guess that last part isn’t exactly relevant, but I sometimes feel it’s the only truly bright moment in my life – nothing but darkness leading up to it, nothing but darkness after. I dream about it often, and sometimes when I wake in the middle of the night I still hear voices through the bedroom wall, only now they’re our voices – Lou, Gary and me. I guess I never did escape Lightwater after all.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Chattering Man

There is a man standing in the middle of the desert, and his teeth are chattering.

Two things tell me that he is in the middle of the desert. Firstly there are dunes on all sides, similar to the one that he appears to be standing on top of; a marbled panorama of sun slopes and shadow faces and elegantly coruscating peaks, the whole scene feathering endlessly outward towards the horizon. This is the first thing.

Secondly, the man’s clothes – ragged strips of what was once a white shirt trussed about his shoulders, khaki trousers hanging in ribbons around his ankles, everything stained with dust and sweat. No shoes. Unshaven, of course – cheeks hollow behind a rough beard. Face and forearms burned to the point of looking almost scaly, as though he were only half human, half returned to some slithering desert animal. His wild eyes kaleidoscopic, and his teeth chattering, the hollow clatter of bone on bone echoing in the heat haze.

This man has been appearing to me for weeks in what I warily refer to as visions. There has been nothing sudden about his appearances: there have been no spilled coffees or embarrassing screams; I’ve not glanced in any mirrors and found myself looking instead into those spiralling eyes. It’s more a transmission than a visitation, something I can tune into at will on quiet tube journeys; as though he is there waiting, and always will be.

The more time that passes, the more convinced I become that this man has no history; that there was no plane crash or prison escape, no archaeological expedition from which he became separated. I doubt that he belongs to any nation or century, and were I capable of looking down to inspect the sand around him, I doubt I would find any footprints leading to this place.

I have begun to think that the man is instead a symbol of what it is to glimpse something so enormous and absolute that it renders the human body a broken vessel, the functions of sight and speech redundant, the world in which we once lived an endless plain, beautiful and terrible and ultimately uninhabitable. Perhaps he is a warning against accidentally unlocking a part of our unconscious minds capable of understanding that which we call the universe: to go from flippantly meditating on the scale of the cosmos to tripping a switch in the brain and suddenly seeing the whole thing in parallax: the nebulous star factories and the spiralling arms of pulsars stretching light years into space, the twisted forms of galaxies colliding, innumerable worlds simultaneously being and not being, countless civilisations raised and returned to dust.

Perhaps the man symbolises what it is to leave behind notions of time and space, the tinnitus whine of a few centuries of superstition and religion, and to momentarily stare at the whole thing in an awful ellipse of simultaneity. I think of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, of a description I once read of those early days in which he and his friends would sit in their London flat tripping on LSD, each moving closer to a vision of the universe unravelling, the star heart of the whole thing beckoning them inwards until one by one they would shake themselves free and claw their way back to what they had previously known as reality. Except Syd, who would be smiling and weeping, eyes still closed, skinny limbs sprawled awkwardly as the infinite part of his mind unlocked and he floored the controls into the flowering heart of the sun.

Syd who ended up a broken man, his brain ‘fried’, as the papers like to put it, locking away his adult life in his mother’s house in his hometown. Looking like a ghost in those few pictures snapped on the grey streets of Cambridge, his bicycle with a basket, his once wild eyes seemingly empty.

A warning then, but a warning applicable to the human world only – a world measured in minutes and described in diaries; a world in which a car can be referred to as ‘big’ or ‘small’, where the sun appears to sink and then rise behind the horizon. In the grander narrative of star factories and spiralling galaxies, such warnings are presumably just more white noise drifting into the ether along with Hitler’s speeches and NASA’s proclamations of peace; in such a world perhaps it makes mathematical sense to sacrifice the faculties of speech and sight to stare momentarily into the spinning eye of the universe. But this is not the world we live in.

Our lives follow an emotional trajectory. We carry with us the memories of the people we love until we ourselves are just memories in the minds of others. We stare at the undulating grey sea and picture ourselves as children; we look up at the stars and smile, then look away. We embrace our friends warmly, shake the frail hands of our fathers for longer than we need to. We watch Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and weep, believing that we have seen a man encapsulate the human experience on screen. Perhaps we have.

As someone only marginally less sceptical of science and sense perception than religious dogma, I’ve long believed that the only promise of an afterlife I desire is an assurance that all this will go on long after I’m gone. Yet more recently I’ve been cradling a small flicker of hope that we might, in the moment of our death, be granted a single, totalising glimpse of the universe in its entirety, shedding the shackles of emotional consciousness and understanding existence in ways that cannot be put into words. By that point there will be no more diaries to keep, no more dinner parties to attend, no further need for the faculties of speech or sight. The man in the desert will no longer be a vagrant, no longer a fugitive from society; against my better judgement I indulge the image of him smiling, his eyes no longer wild, teeth no longer chattering, the sands around him no longer hostile or barren, but blossoming with the beauty of everything that lies above and beyond and within them, all of which is his, all of which may one day be ours.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Dark Matter

Dream I have written a potentially world-changing piece of music, and am desperate to carry it back to the land of the living. Wake to find the notes still in my head. After one round, realise it is the tune to ‘How Deep Is Your Love’.

Finish shaving. Constellations of tiny black hairs decorate the sink like a negative print of our galaxy. Reminded of a documentary on dark matter – the 70% of stuff in the universe invisible until recently due to its failure to reflect light, and tessellating previously disparate galaxies into an unthinkably complex whole. Try to dispel the unhelpful image of galaxies as remains of an enormous pre-cosmic beard.

Wait for a bus on Brixton Hill in biblical rain; my brown leather shoes, three days out of the box, are already tiger striped with water stains. Find myself watching a large puddle on the road, the report of rain on which seems to be tapping out a code; after a while, it becomes hard not to see a pattern emerging, as if the code were an SOS or warning on loop. Every passing car tyre shatters the surface of the puddle into a shimmering squall, tiny waves colliding until calm is restored and the rain begins tapping out its message once more.

Top floor of the 159, windows so steamed that the Thames looks like something from a Turner painting. All over the glass are fingerprints and handprints, signatures and abstract sketches, some looking days old. In black marker pen, on the grey plastic beside my seat, someone has scrawled the words: ‘Death is when you sleep sleep.’ I wonder how often, if ever, the writer stumbles across his work, and if the coincidence makes him feel momentarily as though existence is more than just a random assortment of sensory experiences.

At the studio find myself reluctant to work. Make tea, tidy up, spend an hour pitching for an article on the actor Harry Dean Stanton, whose documentary portrait – Partly Fiction – Spencer and I saw at the Curzon last night. Mention in the email that as a boy I was so obsessed with HDS that for two years I insisted my schoolmates call me Cyrus Dean Shahrad (none did). Wonder if they’ll think I’m making this up, and what kind of idiot they’ll consider me either way.

Spend another hour reading about the movie online. Most reviewers mention HDS in the back of his limo talking about how the fact that the earth orbits the sun at 17,000 miles per hour makes him nervous (“there’s nothing I can do about it”), or the drive back from the bar when he gazes out at the smog smothered Hollywood light show, noting that nothing matters because the earth will soon be gone (“and that’s not a negative concept… it’s liberating”).

Head out to buy an energy bar from Whole Foods, largely an excuse to cheer myself up by wandering past the Tofurkey products in the vegan aisle. Resist the urge to begin another text exchange with Spencer of song titles altered to incorporate the word ‘Tofurkey’ (‘Play Tofurkey Music White Boy’, ‘The Wrong N*gga Tofurk With’). Always seem to get the same girl at the checkout counter; always she looks at my lone protein bar and the twenty pence pieces I count out to pay for it with a mixture of pity and disgust.

Manage to achieve a negligible amount of something resembling work in the afternoon. At 5pm leave the studio and meet Daniela for coffee in Foyles. Brief discussion about whether her cappuccino is topped with a fern leaf or a feather, after which we spend a while deciding who has the worst tattoo among the various art students secretly sketching customers, unsubtle glances at their subjects revealing faces distorted with the seriousness of their endeavour. At some point find myself explaining my theory on the part of the self that in moments of crisis – a plane going down, a car flipping over – steps out from the shadow of the ego and makes time stand still, allows for clarity of thought previously cluttered by the accumulated detritus of consciousness; how I believe this accounts for the various stories of angels taking people’s hands and leading them to safety in moments of near death or disaster. Notice as I talk that Daniela is giggling and looking over my shoulder – at a waiter, it transpires, whose low slung trousers are revealing a sizeable builder’s crack as he gathers up cups. By the time we leave the fern/feather on her cappuccino is gone, replaced by foamy dregs that remind me of the froth that fringed the shores of Camber Sands when we played there as kids.

Harry Dean Stanton has a picture of the Milky Way on his wall; on it is an arrow disappearing into the nebulous starlight of one spiral arm with the legend: ‘You Are Here’.

Farsi class from 6-8pm, after which I walk through Leicester Square in the pouring rain for no reason. Pause outside the Pizza Hut on Cambridge Circus, where my brother and I once ate as children following a surprise trip to Les Misérables with our father, who had always been too busy at the hospital for nights out. Remember the excitement of racing to get changed after school, the flustered drive for the train; recall there being spots of blood on the collar of Dad’s shirt from surgery, and how quickly he fell asleep once the show began. Twelve years of living in London, and still the best memory of the city I have is of the three of us sitting at this window eating pizza after 10pm, looking out on to a rain soaked night like this one.

After a while I walk on to Trafalgar Square, my new leather shoes now ruined, and catch the 159 home. It’s not until the bus is passing over Westminster Bridge that I turn and see the words scrawled on the plastic beside me: ‘Death is when you sleep sleep.’

Sunday, 26 January 2014


Originally published by the Quietus

Howling wind wakes him before dawn. He slides across the futon, feet finding carpet. He hadn’t expected to sleep. He tries to recall his dream – thinks it may be important, under the circumstances – but has only a fleeting sensation of part of it having taken place on a train. He lets it go, switches on a lamp.

Standing at the kitchen counter he eats two pieces of toast from a loaf bought as he drove into town late last night – the expensive stuff, studded with seeds. As he eats he looks out the window at the darkened courtyard, pot plants upturned and trees twisting in the wind. He thinks back to the summer his mother bought this flat as a holiday home, how she’d joked about the pensioners that populated the place, the minimum age required for purchase; how she and his father had entered what she called ‘a grey area’. He’d ignored the joke at the time. They weren’t old.

He washes and dries his plate, reassembles the futon, switches off the boiler before locking up. Outside the cold air claws at him – he hadn’t banked on it being so cold. Wind wails in the trees and unsteadies his footsteps as he walks to the car. Once inside he sits a moment with the heating on, breathing on his hands and looking out the windscreen at a crescent moon and a single star in seeming alignment over neighbouring fields. He keeps the lights off as he rolls down the drive, turns them on once he is out in the country lanes.

He catches himself smiling in the rear view mirror. The act of driving is such a rarity that it never fails to spin him back to the summer day when he’d passed his test, driven alone to school, pulled into the car park to find Lucy Sanderson standing by the language department, arms full of folders. He’d parked beside her, leaned out the window and asked if she’d wanted to go for a spin – so unlike him that he felt he might burst into flames as the words left his mouth. She hadn’t said yes or no, just looked around and climbed in the passenger side.

He’d driven out the gates and down the hill. After a couple of minutes he’d switched on the tape player, and the car had rung out with the album he’d prepared to listen to in celebration after the test, but had forgotten to play. Down at the New Amsterdam, staring at this yellow haired girl Mr Jones strikes up a conversation. He’d turned and looked at Lucy, who had caught his eye and laughed, her blonde hair dancing in the breeze from the open window. He didn’t want to look too long for fear she’d disappear.

When he felt they’d gone far enough he’d turned around and driven back to school. Nothing said between them, not even when he’d dropped her at the language building and she’d picked her folders off the back seat and stood outside, leaning on the passenger window a moment and smiling quizzically in at him. Then she was gone, skirt swishing as she disappeared into the red brick building, and he was back on the road. Lay me down in a field of flame and heather, render up my body into the burning heart of god in the belly of a black winged bird. It was only later that he’d considered the possibility that, had he tried to kiss her, she might not have refused. Might have allowed him. Might even have encouraged him.

He’d known then that Lucy Sanderson wasn’t like the others. She never taunted him about his towering size or his geological slowness, never mocked him for his academic underachievement despite his bookishness, despite his head full of useless facts, despite the claims of certain liberal teachers – those that didn’t laugh at him along with the students – that he might be some sort of idiot savant, in possession of some uncanny academic power that might land him a place at Oxbridge (claims they had quickly distanced themselves from once his exam results came through the following summer). She’d been 18 then, which made her 36 now. He pictures her as a doctor or lawyer, tries to imagine her husband and children, the whole family gathered around a dinner table or Christmas tree.

He’d kept an eye out for her in town that summer after school, days he’d spent in the library, wearily toeing the line that he was still researching potential careers despite his reading being limited to the religious practices of ancient Egypt, his area of interest at the time. He’d kept an eye out for her in the public park, where he’d sat each lunchtime with his Walkman and his sandwiches until the afternoon he was attacked by a group of boys who’d been expelled from the year below him. And he’d kept an eye out for her on the bus home, seated at the front with the old folk and adopting their slumped demeanour, the cynical way they watched the town roll by – the rain coloured multi-storey car parks, the office blocks to let, the people swarming like insects in and out of openings. A town full of dead ends, though even then he’d sensed the presence of something endless and nameless beyond the clouds; even then he would sometimes imagine himself kicking free of the earth and swimming upwards to meet it, the towns below him shrinking to single cell life forms, lungs bursting as he fought to escape the atmosphere and break into the infinite beyond.

It’s almost 6am when he arrives at West Bay. He picks a spot in the middle of the deserted car park, tries to buy a ticket from a machine that isn’t working. Thinks about leaving a note, decides against it. He passes unlit pubs and tackle shops, pauses at the spot on the harbour where he had once sat as a child dangling for crabs. Remembers how they had circled a while in the bottom of his bucket before stopping and just sitting there, waiting for the end. How the thrill of catching them had paled in comparison to the wonder of tipping them back into the water and watching them scamper away.

He follows the path to the seafront, stands with his back to the wind and looks out on to the rolling black ocean. A handful of lights from fishing boats wink like stars on the horizon, the first hint of sunlight creeping through cracks in the cloud. Behind him, the wind rattles a sign outside the stand where his grandmother had once bought him ice creams. He remembers her telling him how she and his grandfather had come to this beach at dawn for a walk on the morning he’d been sent to the war, and found themselves surrounded by couples seeking solitude for tearful farewells of their own. He looks out at the sandstone cliffs rising in columns over a spit of shingle to his left, finds himself picturing dozens of couples walking like ghosts in the shadow of the rocks, embracing amid spray from the waves.

He thinks of his father lying on the floor of the garden shed, surrounded by fragments of the plant pot he’d been tending to when a heart attack had killed him where he stood. He’d been in his bedroom reading about how souls were ferried across the mythological River Styx when his mother’s cry had reached him from the end of the garden. He had earmarked his page before descending the stairs, Dante’s description of that mournful crossing echoing with every step.

He follows the promenade west, cuts on to the path straddling the ragged Jurassic cliffs as they rise towards Golden Cap. The wind tears at his clothes and howls in his ears as he climbs. Seagulls play in the currents of air that rush around the cliff edge, wheeling and diving and barking in what sounds like amusement.

Memories come to him unbidden, like a box of photographs upturned on a table and picked at random. He finds himself recalling how his father had set up a telescope in his bedroom on the evening of his tenth birthday, shown him how to use the constellation wheel and retired with a smile, leaving him to an open window and a clear September night. An hour later he’d marched downstairs to inform them that it was all wrong; that there were no constellations, no pattern to the stars – that it was just a visual fluke of Earth’s place in the universe. He recalls how his father’s face had fallen.

He remembers the weekend five years ago when he’d surprised his parents by accompanying them on a trip to the new flat, cramped in the back of the car with pot plants and a picnic hamper, his father stealing occasional disbelieving glances in the rear view mirror. The following day he’d walked with them to Bridport market, where he’d bought a 170 million-year-old ammonite chipped from the Charmouth cliffs he’d once clambered around as a child, and later they’d sat in Bucky Doo Square eating sandwiches, surrounded by tourists and pigeons like any other family. He’d been tracing a finger along the fossil’s polished spiral when he’d looked up and seen his mother and father smiling at him, hope like colourful bunting strung between them.

He remembers the day last year when his mother had come home in tears following a routine hospital checkup. He’d been researching Jacobean witchcraft trials at the time, and over subsequent weeks and months his reading had been interrupted by the doorbell and the phone as a procession of doctors and relatives called or stopped by. Once a day he and his mother ate dinner at opposite ends of the table like an estranged couple. There was no anger between them, just nothing left to say. He’d been holding her hand when she passed away in the hospice on the stroke of new year, ten days ago now. There were cheers and fireworks from the far side of the river, and in the stillness her face had flashed white and red from the light show outside.

That was the moment that he felt whatever had been tying him to the earth this last few years finally come untethered; felt himself floating high above the bowling alleys and the boarded up boozers, the sounds of cars and conversations flattened by distance. That was when he had finally glimpsed the vast otherness that awaited him on the far side, cosmic clouds like wings unfolding.

A sudden squall of cold rain, seemingly brighter than the air around it, starts without warning and stops just as suddenly. The cliff path is descending now, winding its way towards the beach at Eype. He walks side-on to avoid slipping on mud, bracing his feet against rocks, occasionally stooping to steady himself with a hand on the grass. At the bottom he walks through a small pass in the cliffs and out on to a shingle beach dotted with upturned wooden boats, their frames battered, paint peeling. He sizes them up before settling on a two-man tub with the name Eloise, lifts it to check for oars before flipping it all the way over. He takes its frayed rope in hand and drags it with great effort towards the water, breathing hard and fast through his nose, clenching his teeth as the sea rushes to meet him, filling his socks and trousers, tumbling stones cackling in the surf. He presses on, knows there will be plenty of time later to feel cold. A slackening of the rope tells him that the boat is now waterborne, but he doesn’t dare turn around, instead wades harder into the waves until suddenly the shingle bar drops beneath him and he is up to his shoulders, crying out at the shock, his brain fizzing with instructions, only some of which he can decipher. He forces himself to breathe, but all that comes are great open mouthed gasps, and almost immediately a black wave breaks against his face, choking him with salt water. His whole body has frozen in protest, but he manages to feed the rope through his hands until the boat is upon him, and slowly, with painful inefficiency, he begins to crawl into the tub. Halfway through another waves almost tips him headfirst into the sea, but he clings to the wooden pew and finally tumbles into the bottom, his back crooked against the oars, legs poking awkwardly over the edge.

He drags himself on to the seat and begins to row out to sea, frantically at first, exertion the only thing distracting from the crippling cold, his whole body shaking, jaw clattering. The boat pitches and lurches on the waves, whitewater spilling over the prow until he is up to his ankles, but the wind is with him, and he feels himself cleaving through the chop until suddenly the sea beneath him is calmer, the waves more gentle, and he knows that he is out beyond the breaking surf.

He lets the oars fall to his feet, sits back and allows himself a moment to gaze out at the rim of the world. The crescent moon and single star appear painted now against the pale coming of the sun, the first rays setting a crown of pink fire on the crest of Golden Cap. A single stone holiday home hugs the cliffs as the path rises from Eype – a postcard scene, but as he looks he sees only shelter, no different in essence from a mud hut or council flat, a painted cave or a castle. A place for life to survive, to look away from the infinite that roars on all sides. He thinks of the polished ammonite sitting on his mantelpiece back home, of Lucy Sanderson’s yellow hair dancing in the breeze, of the easy affection in his grandmother’s smile as she watched him devour his ice cream; he thinks of the crabs waiting patiently in the bottom of his bucket, of the drunk singing Auld Lang Syne in a nearby room as his mother’s hand had slackened in his, of the boys circling him in the park, spitting through bared teeth. All connected by a simple cosmic coincidence, their existence a side effect no different from heat, or light. And yet.

All you had to do was kiss her, he thinks. Lean across the car, put your hands on her hair. Let gravity do the rest.

After a few minutes he sees a light come on in the living room of the house. He clambers over the seats, braces himself against the stern of the boat, squints through the dusk and the mist of waves breaking on the shore. Standing behind the glass of the patio door is a boy, no older than six or seven, his small frame draped in a dressing gown. Up before his parents, presumably, scanning the channels for cartoons. He’s too far away to be certain, but he feels sure that their eyes are meeting, and in a split second in which the sea feels utterly calm, the boat completely still, he becomes convinced that the boy has raised his hand, and is waving to him. A moment later the world comes lurching back to life, salt wind howling and the boat physically leaning into the current that pulls it slowly, inexorably out to sea.

He waves back.