As If They Were Flowers: an Arrangement of Nostalgias

1. Unsavory matters.

Sitting beside the bed for what he considered a time more and more unfairly prolonged and boring, and darkly playing scenes in his mind of the long-deserved and complete abjection of his family after the annihilating telling-off, itself requiring a length of time, that he was looking forward to giving them about themselves while he held their fascinated attention like a basilisk, a telling-off the memory of which would have a long-needed admonitory effect far into the future, and which was the necessary result of their too lightly taken decision, taken without even their usual token consultation with him, to send him upstairs to watch over his grandfather, and, insult added to injury, of daring him to not even think of stirring from there before being relieved; young John rummaged in his own nose with his little finger and finally pushed out a string of slimy snot. To see it to better advantage, he raised the fingertip it was swinging from to eye-level, then tried to thumb the string off onto the shiny floor but it kept getting onto his thumb instead and had to be rehung several times, till tired of failing, he brought his finger down and vigorously rubbed most of the snot onto the floor, and then rubbed the rest of it from where it clung to the finger, into the palm of his other hand till the snot was dry.

His grandfather, one to be disgusted on behalf of the floor and the rudiments of hygiene, had not seen any of this from where he lay supine on the bed, and while it was going on, had unhurriedly, and unnoticed by his grandson, raised the full length of his arm upright, and from his wrist waved goodbye to the world. But the world hadn’t budged, and having accepted this after giving the world several prolonged seconds to change its mind, with a slow discouraged sigh he’d let his arm down. Objectively he acknowledged to himself, objectively the gesture had been a little premature though he expected and accepted the imminency of the pre-millennial demolition and dissolution of his own wearisome body, a hovel housing lusts which refused to die out although they were starving and undeserving and incapable of resuscitation even if succulent succubi were to twine moaning voluptuously round every part of his body while a thousand dancing houris in front of him exercised their fleshly provocations upon him.

A golden sunbeam suddenly appeared, slanting between the floor and ceiling and lit-up the slow floating motes that were in it. Bypassing them, both pairs of eyes focused on the window through which it had come. It was not the Virgin Mary that appeared in the window, but the angel Gabriel. However, the visit was a very fleeting one, and neither of the occupants saw him. But who did? I, the writer of this story. Granted, neither the widow, in another story, nor her cruse knew of the height of glory that fountained up in the ambling preamble to a tale of white fountains, and white-tipped mountains that stayed reared up like fanged waves overhanging dwarfed ships. (I refer of course to a tale about which I have just told you all that is known.) Granted this is irrelevant now that the world has changed.

Again and again, during the sleepless hours when the wolves howl and the steeplebells, sound in the mind of memory, are solemn quiet — richness rising upon richness of colors riotous — I’ve opened the door and looked out at the night. Fragrant, clad in a shawl of colored fungi, the weeds fulgent, the garden plot leans out towards the trees at the end of it, far and away from the rose-red city half as old as time, dwindled with distance amid its green pastures in which my boyhood was spent. I see what the darkness hides.

God knows what forsaken eyes have lifted themselves to the heavens and God knows how hands have beseeched — but what does it matter? The wind in the willows and Sally in our alley are no more. Ruin upon mile of ruin wherever my mind surveys. The realities of the past are a ruin or swept away altogether but the mind’s eye holds them all in their perfection and I tread with care on the ground I worship, mean though it is with scraps of dull rusting tin and broken glass and bearing nothing, as yet, for nothing is the great pregnancy. I often talk grandiose like this to myself. It passes the time.

It did not pass like that in the old days. After a stint of work, I sometimes sought out the lonely and abandoned suburban railway sidings and empty boxcars, and railside gravel growing grass like hair growing out of a scalp, each in its own bit of space, growing green, nature again taking back what had been wrested from it, and giving me hope for its life despite its destruction by the products of civilization; life again taking over, and in the vast reaches of time, destruction and creation alternating; and we humans, mere morsels of time, growing and diminishing like cooked rice ladled and heaped spoonful by spoonful into a bowl and then eaten away spoonful by spoonful too. And there, deplorable and attractive, the pleasure of my being alone and the sad loneliness of everything there, representative of my doomed life as I saw it, was sweetened by the sugar of restful peace displayed by the slowly rusting reliquary metal monuments of the disused products of civilization there and the stirrings of the invisible winds and here or there the stirring of a leaf of grass, green, green, the color of restfulness. And so, in a painting of grass, the deadness of the non-living, inorganic and toxic paint, brings up in us the memory of green, green grass, and that is what we re-act to, and then say it is a good painting. A conclusion a day keeps the mojoes away.

Isolated sidings no unshaven hobo ever visited; sidings isolated in hot summer airs, and the air tired out and stilled after an afternoon of just baking itself in the pervasive sunlight while the insects’ passionate never-ending stridulence repeatedly swelled as it rose, and died down as it fell, till it was smothered and muted by the oncoming dusk that made everything in sight more and more indistinct as it imperceptibly thickened. And to squat there on the cooling rails, and see and sense the darkness thicker in some places than in others when it had completed itself and become charged with being, and look through the mind’s eye at the neglected gravestones sticking out at all angles and recalling dead friends of many years ago and the redolency of flowering weeds and… But that’s a route I don’t mean to go down.

No, I mean to travel to another place; but standing in my way like an obsession, unavoidable and always there, are mountains like church spires, clustered like the fingers of a hand; and overarched and backgrounded and lit up, in my memory, by a crescent of sun as huge and pink as a slice of melon. That cluster was in reality a castle where a princess lived who was as pretty as a picture and overpowering as a dream. And she was a dream. She was the dream of young John, who in his dream was forbidden by his wicked grandfather from having anything to do with her. In reality, she was a girl who lived in the same street as John, whom he had never spoken to (I’m referring to the girl), though he had never spoken to the street either, though he’d often greeted the few people in it that he knew there. This street was really an alley between the backs of rows of attached houses whose fronts had doors that were only used by strangers, and visitors who practiced a social formality, throughout their rare and uncomfortable and short but too long visits, rather like a rope bridge that had to be carefully crossed; and going back to the sentence about the girl in the same street as John, whom he hadn’t spoken to, he hadn’t spoken to himself either, that is, aloud, though he did speak to himself sometimes in his thoughts, but it was a ghostly sort of voice compared to his real voice; no, I mean the girl was the one he had never spoken to, though her beauty was the magnet of his attention whether he saw her or not, but as many know, and many of the many of those who know are men and women who are married: Beauty is a promise that is seldom kept. Beauty is a painting.

By now some people will be wondering whether young John and I are one and the same person.

Of that, later. What troubles me now is that I haven’t brought into this chapter any of the really unsavory matters the chapter heading promised. That’s because I want to end it on an upbeat note. Because All’s well that ends well. Except one doesn’t really know how something ends, does one? Because all endings are really arbitrary landmarks on an endless landscape of life and death: a gateway’s lichened pillars marking the end of a neglected driveway on an estate, a spectacular courtship ending in a marriage day like a Broadway spectacular; and then? And then, eventually, death; and then? An infinity of thens, some good, some bad. And then, after all that, it ain’t over, as they say, till the fat lady sings. And that lady must be very hard to pin down with a contract, because I haven’t seen her yet. Just now, because an unsavory ending casts a pall over what precedes it, I do not want to spoil all I have already told you, so I will not add on here the unsavory matters promised by this chapter’s title; and would rather end it, and leave you, as I shall, by not even telling you about the fragrant shady tree under which I stretched out, at ease on a green sward at whose foot a brook ran nattering peacefully by. A fragrant greensward, fragrant of rye, of wheat and of whiskey, as my mind wandered away, a triple cargo of triremes, passing shadow, silver dishes, salvers, unlike any known in the orient, defined, desirous, triple-headed, and all alike; but still a rural scene, a sweet especial rural scene. And then I found I was in a procession of close-knit couples, pencil-thin from a distance, that wound slowly for miles across the flat land all the way from the horizon behind us, and we paced, two by two, into a great hall which must have cost a fortune, it shone so, crusted over with stars and jewels. And when I was separated and had stepped aside and was covered in earth, Dame Welcoming, who had been expecting us, saw my companion and made her much welcome and said to her, Now you are free from your fleshly cocoon, you can play like a butterfly.

2. Singular Things.

Well, Fame, you old rascal, what are we to do with you? Shall we throw you away? And have wine, women and song, and ginger hot in the mouth, no more, but crawl around miserably, lauding anonymity while longing for recognition, talk up a puff of breath skywards, talking to a puffing person who has just run up in the chill air, asking for an autograph and asking us to supply the paper.

Oh you poor neglected old women whom Fame too has neglected, women brave and bent, and shrunk with age, and all alone hobbling indomitably along a road to a nearby store and then back home; do you, whose utmost hurry is no more than a snail’s pace, know how lucky you are, whom greed for wealth no longer covets and sex is interested in no longer, free to do whatever you want again, like a lucky child, and indulge your curiosity, ruminate to your heart’s content, without drawing to you the attention of anyone whose gender-driven eye routinely roves like a fly looking for a resting place? When the fine parchment of her face had become like an distant expanse of wrinkled sea, my grandmother used to say, Second childhood wasn’t so bad. It’s third childhood that’s troublesome.

I’ve known you over a long time, haven’t I, Fame? you old liar. You promised me happiness for ever, and wasn’t I hung, drawn, and quartered? Wasn’t I hung on the wall of a national gallery, and drawn by cartoonists, and quartered at the Ritz, and wasn’t I the only one ever heard of who enjoyed being hung, drawn, and quartered (the answer is No); and then I was pilloried, wasn’t I, and cast into oblivion but swam back over Lethe and, strangely enough, became a pillar of the community again and was cast in plaster of Paris for a statue which was placed in an obscure walk in a public garden where oblivion straightaway settled over it like an undisputed inheritance, and then didn’t the community again discard me and wasn’t I forgotten again? One of the first things I remembered after swimming Lethe when, as you might say, I was toweling off, was this quote which I found in an abandoned book in a pub called The Cat and the Canary:

"From one point of view, people are points of view. And always and only to be seen from each point of view is that gift the living can never get rid of, the present, and this present flaunts itself before us like the waves of the sea and eludes every non-initiate’s attempt to hold it still and order it around. Everything we are aware of takes a fraction of a fraction of a second to reach our awareness and so ’the present is an amalgam, of selections from the past and expectations of the future, with no existence of its own’, and is clamped over our awareness like a mask grafted onto a face; and is so jealous, it won’t let anything else approach us, blinding us to everything else like a blinding light staring into someone’s startled eyes; and its greed is such our more than five senses must feed it incessantly twenty-four hours a day to stop it from dwindling into nothing before you can say Jack Robinson or any other name in the phone book."

What I myself think is something like that, but I’m going to give the thought to John’s father. Of course the writer of what you’re reading doesn’t think this at all, I doubt that he thinks. He made me but I’m the one in charge. He thinks he’s writing this but I’m the one who tells the story. For example, at the moment, he’s looking at the words story and looking and wondering what to say next and feeling rather dull in his head, and the chair he’s sitting on feels a little too hard under his thighs, and what little feeling’s in the rest of his body isn’t exactly pleasure, but what it is he doesn’t exactly know. In short, he’s a mess. Whereas I… need I say more? I have a life of my own, dancing over hill and dale; and when I’m tired, eating Wensleydale cheese and knockwurst and sauerkraut and balancing cups of coffee on the tip of my nose. A regular three-ring circus. And if I want I can have an audience and bring it to its feet, cheering or with its heart in its mouth, or have no audience at all. But more of this kind of stuff later. Time for a break. But I must tell you — all this dancing over hill and dale, I’m not sure if the writer didn’t have a hand in this. But the rest is alright.

But now I want to tell you an unsavory matter. Are you ready?

Yuggath! Now that’s pretty unsavory. But you don’t know what it means. So here goes. Bell-a-ra-phon. Juggah jugger. But there’s no point in my wasting my time if you don’t understand. So let’s get back to John’s father. He’s five feet two. A square man. Two of his feet he uses for walking. Three are spare ones, and he begrudges any use of them at all. Work is anathema to him. I’ve told you the thought I gave him, but when it seemed to naturally occur to him he rejected it and wondered aloud what had come over him. He’s decidedly ungrateful, don’t you think? His wife thinks so too. Does this make her Chinese? No. And she did not belong to any oriental sewing circle. The sound of the words So too is not limited to some oriental languages so far as I’m concerned, and could be the title of an ur-tale of a visitor with godlike powers, who said Sow two and they did and four arose out of the ground, a rose and a lily and a geranium and something else, and that something else grew and grew and became a man, and that man was a woman because some thought it was unfair for there always to be a man first, and so that was how birth came into the world. There is a learned commentary on this, but it is written in English, and some things are better when not understood.

Now all this is a far cry from the magnificent beginning of this story, even if I say so myself. I often say so myself. It’s like dancing round and round in a circle. But look, there’s John’s father, and his wife’s slaving over a hot stove, and moving pots and pans to right and to left and backwards and forwards, and filling and emptying them, and the result is food and he doesn’t like it. He tells her again how he took a turn for the worse when that thought came to him and blames both the feeling and the thought on her cooking. So now they have a row. If there were an empty pond around, they would fill it with their noise. A few of the nearby neighboring women stopped what they were doing in their kitchens, put down whatever was in their hands, began to look refreshed and as if they had taken out a new lease on life, and hurried to their windows to see if they could see anything concrete. One or two even went out, not trusting their hearing at a distance, and pretended to feed the pigeons.

When I remembered this the other day, I suddenly realized I was sexless, neither man nor woman nor anything else. I decided to be a woman.

As a woman I’ve had the most extraordinary adventures. But after a few days I don’t know if I can handle it. I think the writer has very little experience of women.

For instance, I was standing at a shop window and making a few faces in it to check a few minor adjustments (which I had just made to my appearance with the aid of the reflection) for my overall strike-em-dead-with-one-blow effect, when I saw a man staring very hard at me. Not having been a man either, I didn’t know what to make of it. So I pretended to be absorbed in a pretty red dress, that was on display there and going nowhere, so it was easy to do, and he kept on staring, and I stayed a bit longer than I would have done normally, to see how long he could go on doing that and what else would happen, and he came up to me, and he said, You’re not Melissa, are you, who used to go boating, down in Reno? I said, I didn’t know they had boating in Reno. So he said, Then it can’t be you, and started to walk off. But then he turned round, all flushed, and said, You don’t happen to have change for a five pound note? I said, Oh you’re from England, are you? He said, In a manner of speaking I am. So I said, What d’you mean? So he said, It’s a long story. If you want to hear it, why don’t we have a drink over there, and he tilted his head at a watering-hole across the road. After he managed to save my life, so he said, by clutching my arm so I couldn’t cross the road though no traffic was coming, because, he said, You never know where they’re coming from, we finally made it inside.

The publicans and sinners, who were congregated inside this chapel devoted to drinking, noisy talking, and the silence of the solitary who like to be solitary in company —

3. Away, away.

I savored my drink and suddenly the description, of the people I was with and that was going on in my head, stopped. I savored the drink several more times. Mmmm. But still having no idea after that of what I was going to say to my pick-up who was proving less than interesting, I turned into a man, to his consternation; and in the middle of his story, which he had been recounting to the floor, he turned to me and his mouth fell open. But by then I was thinking about my conversation with the worms who were eating me under the mound in the great hall, a conversation in no human language, and gave only the most desultory answers to his questions about the woman he had come in with and whom he thought I resembled.

Some of it went like this. He asked, How long have you been sitting here? Me, As long as you have. And to the worms I said, It must be very satisfactory to be presented with a delicious supper. He asked, Is that an offer? I said to the worms, Go ahead. Enjoy yourselves. And he and some others began to order.

I had said supper because that is the meal the English eat after dark and it was dark in there and these were English worms and the writer of this assures me I’m a well-traveled man although I have no memory of actually being in England. But I have read about it. They have stiff upperlips on which they sometimes flourish moustaches which become quite contorted when they get worked up and their feelings get the better of them (I am talking of the men only of course, the women wear moustaches and beards only on stage), and their young men are charming and dashing (the dashers say, Dash It in a deprecating way) or they are boors or football hoodlums, and everybody is very polite and in public they only talk about the weather but in private the hearts of some seethe and yet are coldhearted at the same time, and it is this admixture of cold and heat that enables them to endure their long and dreary winters with the aid of pubs and hot water-bottles, a typical compromise, at which the English are good, having alcohol by day and water by night. And they also have tea at any hour of the alphabet and kippers which they sleep with and muffins which the women wear over their hands in winter and are handy to eat, and so they are well-fed and warm and watered, and they have fish-and-chips because it is a well-wooded island, Oh, and they have the Beatles which bugs some people but whom others would only spray with flowers. Ah, England, my England, Cadbury’s, Nestle’s, Terrys, compromise, Buckingham Palace and the Tower, and Dickens and Shakespeare et Al(Bert, Victoria’s consort), and (note the relationship between their religion and the weather) Church-chill. Mar-ma-lade. Mar-ma-duke. Duke of.

And I loved England with such fervor, that I love you burst out loudly through my lips.

While my pick-up was gathering his wits, the worms remarked, We English worms envy the worms of better-governed countries whose frequent wars provide them with much more food. And they did a dance representing sorrow. Then the altos among them sang Handel at the Albert Memorial and Hyde Park Corner where Peter Pan gave an impassioned speech and the Thames flewed softly past the houses of Parliament whose impassioned inhabitants were more overcrowded than those in any slum, and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland were problem children and London was Queen of cities all as well as Victoria and Alberta and other common wealth, and hooray, hooray, marching to Georgia, and the floor of a bar is not a particularly comfortable place to lie on while being asked to pay an enormous bill.

I was reprimanded by the writer for being drunk while on duty. He said I was the most wayward, unreliable, and recalcitrant narrator he had ever come across and that, if I were real, he would have sent me to a psychiatrist because, he said, in his admittedly dark but justified opinion I had a multiple personality disorder. And I could have said to him in my defense, Blessed is the man that sitteth not in the seat of the scornful, but refrained, being aware that my very existence depended on him; and like a slave, I kept my mouth shut.

4. Aweigh, aweigh!

O colorful. Colorful what? Colorful streams of my childhood, red, pink, green. They sailed away on maps: bizarre cinnamon trees, parakeets like swarms of large flies; excerpts. A mythology invented by my mind, an eruption of fanciful parakeets I had seen in a zoo where the lion and the lamb, as prophesied, lay together in peace, separated only by iron bars; where mingled the real and the abstract, cousins and giraffes, playpens and playboys; ultimate arguments and iron bars, Mars bars and miniature railways; targets and tar streams, forgetfulness and forget-me-nots. I loved to play under the trees and examine the ants. I knew more botany when I was four than I know now. When I was knee-high, I saw more. I lavished my spirit. I spirted and evanished. Triggers were all, and I shot (the water-pistol I had found) — at miasmas. Am I raving? Less now than I was sane then. But to my parents I was John, withdrawn, chary of answers, unlikable though they tried. John was my other self, not my real me. That was then. Now I — exuding a bluish vapor, a trailer of pink flesh; a painter; pink.

Some people, could they cut in, would say, Zowie! Wow! Holy cow! — What’s going on?

And taking my cue from them, I ask, like a cloaked and tophatted barker advertising the hidden contents of a tent behind him at a fair, if this wasn’t a symphony, a sympathy, a surrounding, an organon, triple-headed, Cerberic, decidedly unfair and unlike anything else ever described under the sun and moon? Not quite, but a tail, a discovery of the very truths that I was, that I am, that I will be; and none of it real; all a sham, a makeup; but it had a Trudeau whom I admired, and a reason to live; for reality is so disappointing and joy so fleeting, a lasting disappointment broken only by — sofas and mugworts, intestines, decidedly, pallor, looks and overcooks, calls and rolls, nothing there. Enough of that, let’s return to the mundane world.

Grandfather died, and now his beakish head lay in a box along with the rest of him, and black-clad people walked to it, and glanced or stopped, and walked away. But what were the dead to me but the chains of my existence dissolving and leaving me free? I went to that girl the next day and spoke to her. What I said doesn’t matter now. It was a triviality. But she responded and yet there was no hope for us. For how can a well-brought-up eleven-year-old boy in a civilized country support a wife in the style she is accustomed to? Even if they went Dutch?

A doomed love! Yes.

A "Romeo and Juliet!" No, an iced-over bud on a bare twig, with an expanse of sky frozen above it. Drink to that if you can!

Pastoral inconveniences swollen to enormous complexities now invaded my mind. I studied agriculture in books thrown away by a nearby library that wanted to be known for its other holdings. And soon my expertise outshone the sun. I went about in a dark cloud of knowledge with nothing to vent it on. I fumed, a Vesuvius with a plume of smoke. I avoided that girl as if she had offended me. The crust of my character thickened. I became haughty. I was like a blighted coral reef. But as seen by others, I hadn’t changed. I had become ordinary.

5. What’s it all about, Alfie?

Curtains are diseases of the mind (of course not). They hide the most crude lusts (as they should). Lusts of the mind (what mind? You think you have a mind? What mind?). The mind that parades its fantasies (so what? Curtained windows and locked doors, and faces and words, prevent anyone from knowing what’s going on inside). And the mind is convinced that it must have these fantasies acted out by the body (now you’re talking, and while you’re at it, tell us about them). Well (go on). No, I can’t (of course you can). I can’t (you can). You are my fantasy (at the moment I am only a someone that can answer you, and not anything else. What am I? Tell me more about myself). You are everything I didn’t have but wanted (what did you want?). I wanted to stop the moon from following me when I first saw it spying on me, which frightened me. I wished my father owned the corner candy store so I could have more candies like the owner’s little girl had, awash in plenty. I wished that when pennies fell from heaven (a trick my father played on me when I was small and that excited me) that it was real so we wouldn’t be poor any more and suffer from it. I wished I had as big a toy railway track and stock, as a boy I was once taken to visit (stop right there. You’re talking about the deadly sin of greed). And now I wish to go to bed with every woman I’m attracted to (wait a minute, is this the writer or the narrator speaking?) Neither. I am narrator number two. I want my rights. I have been shamefully and completely repressed till now (oh boy. Trouble, trouble. But how can I tell which is which?) I’ll whistle when I come to you (alright. But how do I know if this isn’t the first narrator tricking me?) By my blue een and silver shoon! (That doesn’t prove anything.) I know. But I’m in disgrace. I want a chance to prove myself again. Just one chance. Just one more chance. I’ll do anything the writer says (he says you’re a sniveling good-for-nothing devil of a narrator who has bedeviled the whole story till now and you can go earn a living some other way. He says go sweep the streets) I can’t. To get a job, you need documents to prove you exist. He knows that (he says find a crook who’ll forge them for you). You need real money for that (he says forget it, he’s had enough of you, go away. Anyhow, I knew who you were all along. I am the second narrator). May you be cursed by the same diseases I had. Curtains, please.

O death! O murder! O destruction! You pussycat. You dog. Come to me and help me put an end to narrator number two, the usurper of my rights. Witness, you readers, if I have not been a faithful servant, if I have not helped an incompetent writer incapable of telling the simplest story, and kept him going and in business with various ruses and distractions, so that those readers who were willing to, could put up with the enormous delays in the telling of this story which I must tell you is still far from clear, so far from clear in fact that one wonders, and I for one wonder, if this is a story at all, and not just a collection of anecdotes, emotions, and miscellanies or rather mis-sillinesses, like an informal English garden, beautiful, at times, I grant.. And not only that but to engage an unproven narrator, with only a little repartee to his credit, to replace me, the greatest, a veritable Mussolini and Messalina —

Ah, here he comes. Prepare to meet your maker, narrator number two. A pause. An awkward pause. What mean you? You know very well what I mean. Put down this dagger that I see before you. I can’t. Why not? Because you saw it before me, and I haven’t seen it yet. You lie, you dastard! (They fight.) And I say, you die, you yellow-bellied custard. They fight. They flight. Whose jugular is this’s that runs blue blood and creams the floor with pus? Yours. You lie, you dastard, in your teeth! You lie, you dastardly costive custard, I have no teeth. And if I had, the better to eat you with, I’d have used them ere now, yummy yum yum. They fight till they are both tired out. They fight till they are both tired out, you dastardly line-pinching dastard. Let’s rest a while and turn-on the TV. What’s this I see before me? Can’t you read a script? We’ve already done this. Besides, be logical, how can you see something before you existed? Word-curler, tuner upper, waste-coat wearer, were-were weaver, veritable icon, misplaced fancier, tribunal by buffet, indefinite zone, killer spiller, truck loader, undefinit nit nit, tribunal spiller, luck gatherer, ug-ug, er, huh, what, vivification, clumsy, tightness, looseness, ug-ug. Huh. They lie strewn on the floor. They lie strewn to bits on the floor.

(Urgently.) Curtain. Curtain. Curtain.

(Urbanely.) Applause. Bow, bow, bow. Applause.

(Critically. In a loud whisper, so the audience can hear.) Why do you say applause?

(In a hissing and hurried aside while smiling expansively at the audience.) Someone has to say it. Or the reader might think there wasn’t any.

6. Untitled as yet.

Another short chapter, that was. I’m obviously running out of invention. I’d better get back to the story. But what the storyline has to do with anything else in the story, beats me. And, you know, that bit about the truck loader? It strikes me as an unnecessary slur. I’m a former truck loader. I like truck loaders. I was a former truck loader myself. I don’t want the labor unions to get on my case. It’s part of every writer’s education to be a truck loader, as well as a waiter, a barman, a journalist, a poet, a professor, a longshoreman, a bum, homeless, and a rootless bohemian. Pass this passage around.

If you haven’t been a roofer, you haven’t been a writer. If you haven’t been a wronger, you haven’t been a writer, If you haven’t been a buzz-saw, you haven’t done a thing. And looking around, this way and that, it’s all down below or it’s up in the air. Gardez vous. Gardez vous. Little sony Clemanteen. All fall down. I cracked my head that time.

Just when you thought it was over, it started again, didn’t it? They say water finds its own level, and so does water on the brain. They say there’s a drought, but don’t you believe it.

The hospital I’m in is quite a nice place. They say I’m likely to be there for at least another three months. There’s a waterpipe nearby that makes a gurgling sound that is quite comforting. I am the Wizard of Oz; and over the rainbow, I live in a tree, a log in a fog, a rootless cosmopolitan. I haven’t heard that phrase for years, or call me liar, a born lier borne on a stretcher to that land from whose bourne no colleen bawn or traveler returns with terns crying and wheeling overhead. But whether born a lyre-bird or just plain lazy is beyond my comprehension to use a phrase one of my schoolteachers used whenever confronted with a student’s answer whose derivation, seemingly out of nowhere and the vasty nothing, was puzzling to one with such a limited experience of life as is given to teachers of that sarcastic and self-justifying ilk, and instead of being proud of such ignorance teachers like that should get down on their knees and thank God for giving them a use for their ignorance and providing them with a living by means of it. So I used to think, till I became a teacher, and like mourning becoming Electra, sailed out in my billowing academic gown in front of a sea of young faces whose hungry mouths looked up and were not fed but had been prepared by their upbringing and previous education to be trampled on and buffeted by the brilliance of my sallies and alleys of wit and repartee, and my cargo of knowledge that dumped out there was rendered useless and worthless by my own habitual inability and abysmal ignorance that could only show them the knowledge and not show them its proper use and how to make value accrue to it.

But I give all honor to and keep in ever-living, never-dying memory that one teacher, like a teddy-bear and no rough Bruin, or perhaps a-Brewin’ though no tippler, and no leftover though influenced by Leavis whom he had studied under. This Brewer hailed from The Isle of Man with its taleless cat and its three human legs sticking out of a hub and running on the spot or about to run away one after another, like the equidistant spokes of a wheel with an invisible rim that’s whirling round and round. His dialogue with me did most to encourage me to set my own heady feet exploring in the direction they willingly went along in from then on, with unexpected interruptions on their way. Fancy writing that, and I’m not so sure it’s any good; but I leave it as a crude memorial to a good teacher.

7. Credo.

But now the narrator’s hospitalized and out of the way, I can get on with the story.

Despair had struck our young friend down, like a blackness rising to engulf him, down in the well of loneliness he was in, up to his ears and then over his head. The stars, strewn at random by the hand of God, shone but lacked luster; and in the further heavens, the gods (the other ones) could be heard cynically laughing. Appetite is all, and rules the world; and its unforeseen consequences control our brittle lives. And just when there seemed no way out for him, the heavens opened and a spaceship appeared. But it did nothing for him, and it wasn’t till the rains came and threatened to drown him that he got out of the well and was lucky to be confined to bed with pneumonia for only six weeks. His parents sued the town for providing the well with inadequate safeguards, but they lost on the grounds that it wasn’t the municipality’s and even if it was, the municipality could not be held responsible as the well had been adequately placarded with warning signs, and even if they had been rendered invisible by reason of having fallen down or being covered by graffiti the parents had not met their burden of proof by convincingly showing that this had happened before young John willfully and imprudently entered the said well. And as to his evidence about the spaceship, that could hold no water either, as we had only his word for it, and if anything, it would throw doubt on everything else that he had said and lead us to anopposite conclusion favorable to the municipality. Nor should sympathy for his obvious youth and immaturity; and his heartbreaking circumstances which I must remind you were due to his own remissness, allow one to come in with any other verdict than guilty, I mean not guilty. Nor, if anyone should think no more proof was needed on the plaintiff’s behalf, had it been shown conclusively that his pneumonia was due to being in the well and not due to his being in the rain after he had got out of the well. So once again I ask you to find the municipality not guilty. Thank you.

With the flattering references to the jury left out, that is a brief summary of the closing argument of the defense; and if John’s family had won this case, this would have been a different story, and John would have led a life of Riley. Strangely enough, though no-one has ever done a life of Riley, everyone seems to know about it, and John would have rolled in the hay, and gone at it in the ditch, and when the husbandman came back, hidden in the tub, and stifled in the clothes-closet, and quaked in fear under the bed, and hidden among upright petticoats, for such was the life of Riley, and he would have eaten beeswax and honey, and butter and bread and jam, and eggs and ham and bacon, and French fries, and fish and chips, and potatoes roast and boiled, and that only for breakfast and for starters, for that was the life of Riley, and at school he would have used his pea-shooter to annoy his enemies, and thrown inkblots onto their clothes and danced on their sandwiches, and pulled the hair of the girls he was attracted to, and grinned, and cheeked the teachers, and taken days off from school out of boredom, and gone fishing and squashed frogs, for that was the life of Riley, and later he would have kept a generous board and invited guests of all ranks and fed his hunting dogs at table and joined them under the table when he had drunk his fill, and snored to his heart’s content till well into the morning and after the maids had cleared the night’s work away, for that too was the life of Riley, and he would have dined well, in the financial district, and been listened to when he held forth, as he invariably did, and done risky deals without turning a hair, and been well dressed, and addressed respectfully by all and sundry, and have the prettiest secretaries and assignations with them and other women whom he had merely to glance at for them to lose all knowledge of their whereabouts, for that was the life of Riley, and to be the life of the party, the president of the club, the big fish in the bowl, and be known for it, and cheered by all but a few miserable sobersides, that was the life of Riley, and in his old age to be hale and hearty and indulging even more wildly while admitting at appropriate times to being a miserable sinner, that was the life of Riley; and after being born of poor peasant stock and married and divorced three times, to die with a whip in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, while in the act of mounting something or other, that was the life of Riley, and yet withal a genial man, a generous man, with an ear and an open purse for the poor, who loved him, and one to help a friend who had fallen on hard times over a stile, most of which he owned; and two, to give a hand and an arm to a damsel in distress for a short time, such was the life of Riley.

8. A waste of time.

Bucketfuls Of Blood, A Love Story was first published in 1932 and then republished in 1948 and 1972, 1973, and 1974 (after which the publisher went bankrupt), and as those of us who don’t have Alzheimer’s will remember, it totally eclipsed what we now think of as the outstanding books of that time. It was so popular and so avidly handled and read time and again by the public and the paper was so cheap that very few copies survived and it is now a rarity. It was followed by A Blot on the Escutcheon, Part 1, and A Blot on the Escutcheon, Part 2, in quick succession, and then by the suicide of the author in such murky circumstances that even now, a quarter of a century later, the mouths of the investigating officers are still zipped up. And it is doubtful if we will ever know the true circumstances as even the ones who did the zipping along with the officers were found in the East River of New York by lowly scavengers for concrete blocks belonging to one of the families of the Mafia who naturally won’t talk.

John also read swashbucklers, that buckled under swatches of colors and clothing that rustled and brightened in the sun as the ladies in them displayed and revolved the colors of their temperaments, like one, two, three, four, repeated again and again, and punctuated with collusive laughter and whisperings, and whose heroes never sat still for a moment but were always swinging from ropes across great halls or the decks of sailing ships and taunting whoever was in charge even when their lives were in danger surrounded as they were by perhaps fifty or sixty enemy minions who kept appearing in smaller batches out of nooks and side passages in failed attempts to foil the progress of each hero as he got nearer and nearer to the lady of rank (but sweet-smelling) whom he rescued and who recognized him as not the attractive youth of lowly stock whom the social conventions, of the time she was in, would never allow her to marry if she was to keep the perquisites that accrued to her rank and would be hers, when she inherited, and would be married to the hero who after all would turn out to be her equal in worldly things but who had had to disguise his princely birth once it was divulged to him by an elderly faithful retainer who has sworn to look after him, over the beringed and tear-bedewed hand of the prince’s dying father who had been foully murdered by the villain who was very skillful at swordplay but who only exerted himself when he himself found it necessary to take an active hand in his villainy but who otherwise was seated at a table loaded with viands wrung from the palsied grasps of starving peasants whom, ho ho, he was supposed to nourish and protect.

Yes, I too feel this last sentence could have been longer; but Keep the reader hungry is my motto.

Another favorite of John’s was Riders of the Range. Nowadays no-one knows the difference between a book of fiction about cowboys in the Far West and muleteers in the mountains, as neither are much read, but in the old days Mrs. Ryder brushed her earthen floor with a brush that smelled of sage; and in the sagebrush, which was a bush that was always being ridden over because they didn’t have insurance in those days and all attorneys wore sixshooters, they chased the buffalo that belonged to other people and herded them if they captured them, till the buffalo objected and ran amok and had to be killed by the good cowboys who had already killed the bad cowboys for which they were thanked by the sage Indian chiefs who were friends of the sagebrush and used it as tobacco, which made them very wise. One of them was called Tonto and he rode a range of horses which varied from pie-bald to tart-hair. Tart-hair was a mutation from the tartar tarpon wich they rode up and down the steps depending on how high they wanted to be, and some of them crossed over and became Rushin’ Injuns, which was about the time they harnessed steam engines wich was another form of horsepower and some of them drivers rode hundreds of horses along them railroad tracks, pullin and pullin, I guess they was pulling their tails to slow them down, and some of the injuns was hundreds and hundreds of hoarsepower, and their whistles got hoarse what with all that whistling and hollerin’ what they always does when they’re corralin’, or carolin’ as we say, them horses about Chrismas time. For horses are very musical and if theydon’t like the sound of a thing, they say Neigh, but if they like it they whinny and snicker which I reckon, bein’ mathematical minded, means Yeah and Yeah again. Two-yeahs-days, in my dialect wich I allus use for you city dudes, was the day when this happened most, aind Wednesday was the day when the gals from the local cathouse, because they were fond of animals, got married, and it was named after Ness Day what was famous in her day for night hollerin’ and they say she was so kindhearted she left a hundred dollars to a poor injun that was jus’ passin’ the door when she died and he didn’t have time to thank her as there was a posse after him on account of somethin’ he did or didn’t do, and he had to hightail it out of there ’cause he’d already exhausted the lowtail, ’cause as a precaution injuns always travel with two horses, besides the horses likes the company, and them that likes horses likes to give them it. Now I’ve said nothing about oats, ’cause they was always eatin’ fresh grass even among the sagebrush, ’cause it’s a curious thing but them there sagebrushes seem to love the grass and encourages them to grow all round them so they look like some gal in some foreign country what I’ve seen pictures of but I don’t believe it ’cause, unless she was a presumin’ kind of gal, no gal ’d wear anything that the horses would eat up. Now if you was talkin’ of rats, that’s another thing, ’cause they’ll eat anythin’, an I even heard of a rat that ate a cat’s paw, but that was after the cat was dead, but most rats, I reckon, aren’t equal to fightin most cats else why — but you must excuse me, I got some groomin’ to do, pree-parin’ this young cowboy who is marryin’ one o’ them gals I told you about. I told you they liked animals. Make yourself at home.

Now what was that? If I believed in tele-writing I’d say narrator number two had a hand in that, wouldn’t you? Or perhaps there’s a narrator number three. Ah yes, I see a deathly figure mumming around, beckoning me with a bony crooked finger. Come hither, bony finger. Let me taste you. Yum yum yum. Hm, genuine enough, tastes like chicken. Okay, bony finger, what d’you want? And don’t tell me you want nothing. I’m tired of hearing people say they want nothing when all they want is everything, which naturally they can’t have. I’ve heard of, but never believed in the existence of anyone who had everything, Have you? Because when I do hear it, whumph! there goes the wheel turning, and what’s up’s down and what’s right’s wrong, and Mr. Dearly Beloved is down in the dumps and the whistle is a weasel and a teazle is a towsle and so on, you know the routine, I’m sure it’s happened to yourself. So okay, bony finger, tell me the truth. You want my attention. That’s more like it. But none of your monkey business. Don’t mislead me, or you’ll pay for it afterwards. How? I’ll break your bony finger, that’s how. So now you’re satisfied, are you? No more beckoning? Oh, you only wanted to annoy me. I see. Well, you succeeded, and now you’re satisfied, are you? Good for you. D’you want more? Of anything? Like roast beef, to fatten you up. Or a terpinkle to teasy-weasy you. You don’t know what that is? Well, I don’t either, but I just thought something different might satisfy you.

What you’ve just read (above) or heard read to you, is an example of imaginative writing unequalled, in worth or worthlessness, in the annals of writing, in which I am well read, so I know what I’m talking about, — and for which I charge the same, in relative value, in England as in the United States. I have yetto make my fortune because only a few of the few who read are aware of this piece of writing and have any money to spare, so, yes, I am in favor of economic revolution. As the old dialect song goes: Let those who care, have mare; and those who don’t care, have neigh mare. But I think this should apply to more than horseowners.


Johnny used to say, Telling the truth is a sort of boasting. Better keep quiet. He said this although he was always saying how he kept quiet when someone said, This fish stinks, or, A bottom is not a top, or, What spins, falls down eventually, and he kept quiet so many times, James Hall used to puke whenever he heard Johnny keeping quiet.

Garbuncle the One-eyed stood guard over Torrenville. He heard the screaming of bat-eyed pterodactyls. He saw with his own eyes the huge Galumpher galumphing up the hill. He was called One-eyed because the helmet he wore over his head had a hole in it that enabled him to see better when cross-eyed. Would I were world-wide, he sighed, his eyes aloft in heaven. By heaven, I would bite him with my teeth. I would pursue him, to the uttermost rim of the earth. By heaven, dung me for a beetle, if I don’t fling him over my shoulder. I’ll up and heave him, if I were at a table in an inn and a hundred of his fancy-nancys were a-coming at me with their toes crossed. I defy their foul bills. I cross my arms. I look at them. I disguise myself. I argue. I triumph. I let down, gently, the enemy. I triumph again. I quote quotidian. I quintle Quintilian. August, I know no bounds. Augustus, I arise. Triply, I lay down. Down is a disguise. Gritafilty is a disguise. Grumps is a disguise. I have you, I have you not. Whatever my meaning, it is right. And right is wrong, or I’m a farthing. Worth a homunculus, triptych in autumn, worth a tuppence, rising to thrupence if I can get him to sign his defeat in paper, in runes, ruins of an age to be purchased by a quagmire, atriple terror, organized, despised, and triple-terrored for an infinity of time struggling to materialize like a lovely loony Lizzie terrorized by the country (county of Cork), of ravishment, true love, despite dessert and infinity; away, you cargo, gonads of adversity, displacement of electricity, nonsense of non-bastardy, last of the iron castles, terror of the trivium, tercastle, triplet, exordium, and at last victorious. To which the hills and woods made reply, I grant you a Garbuncle, a ladder, to heaven, looking; a lust, not to be hurted; an example, not to be herded; an uncommon triplicate, dreamland in miniature, a golf course, a run , an exotic, prepared to die. Echo, you caves, and acclaim your conqueror, concurrer, granted an interview beyond excoriate triludium, impificate, personalized, desirable, beyond two fleas, a rendezvous.

And I knew I had him when he curtled and curtsied and waltzed and weasled and widowed and truckled and lay low. And above was beyond, and I grew tired and sat down, and I counted twenty of them, and not one was an eagle, not one was a bogey, alive, alive O, but the bitter bit-winkle, the hit a-twinkle, the salamander, intruding and feeling, the let-up, the down-cast, the tri-fordium, arabella-’d, and exited, by ones and twos, till you heard no more, and the hills and caves re-echoed, to the tune of Johnny Miller, and Johnny Muller came lunging home, in triplicate, like a castle, emptied, and abandoned, like a wanton, to the winds; which roared, and replicated, and towered, and sang, to a Volsung and a wanton, a bread and abroad. Granted the replication, the advancement, the genius of the place, lacking in aquarium, two-faced, Janus with a wide mouth and a narrow, too late to do anything about it, extra-squeezed, in sequence, and granted, an error, deciding, in duplicate, forbidden, forby; and furbished with enough excuses to get by, your honor, like a lackadaisical triplicate in forbidden Tai-shoong, which is why I went there and erroneously took on me the punishment of Ockoorvy and knew no better, butter, but luffed it up, and down, and luffed it up and caused and quitted and sang, again I quitted and sang and then I heard no more.

Such is the litany of Oomah the Wise One (minus the responses, of the hills and the woods and the caves) who stood on a stoop and cursed all and sundry who dared to come to her doorstep and stoop and listen while she chanted imprecations at the four winds. Carry them, carry them, O earth, to the farthest reaches of the moon.

For the components of this book are like the succession of one thousand views seen from the window of a fast-moving train, ever-changing and changing and changing, every time you look out of it, and never to be grasped, like the present, gone and gone and gone, like the sound of a gong.

Let Elia reJoyce with the lamb.

10. Ecbana and Far-far.

A running note, Ecbana and Far-far, over moonlit waters and moonlit ground, used to, to no avail, go and come, come and go; and the wind and the water, welled up, and heard, from afar, like a Lichtenstein, marmot, seen on a map and visited once in a while, but never again. Oh you heard, did you, what was going on? Off and up. Beyond, too far, not close enough, to be, grasped by the intuition of a flea.

Ab-ool-ee-ache-ah, last of the heroines to have her head shaven like Joan of Arc before being burnt at the stake.

Co-run-dom, foremost of the fearless, who in a trice, a twice, visited, and won, delimited, and lost.

Pul-ver-rise-er, who lost, forgot; and angst, unwound.

Trep-li-cate, who dated; and found another life.

Zoonds, who wound up and decidedly down.

Trunk-en, who truncated and fled the kingdom.

All these, unknown to story, rise, and resisted.

And abstractions insisted, They were not wrong.

And abstractions insisted they were right, and left. And left and right, and left and right, they marched like political parties in lockstep to the tune of Johnny Muller, and heard no more. The sweet voice of reason lamented, and the teddybear called out, but no one heard among the mob, but two did, and threedid, but could do nothing, and that was how nothing became nothing, a moth in a fix, a taste of vampire; exit Rus, in building, all expulsing.

Someone has said, I love, I love, I love.

The question is, What do I love? Independent of any views. To the contrary, What do I love? And to those who are pro, What do I love? And to those who can’t bear the repetition of What do I love?

Yes. It seems nothing. Love seems nothing. No more than a mouth-watering, a vapor; a trail, in a mist; a question, faint, in the air; an etherealization of Winnipeg, of tri-some, tripled, tri-plicate; implicate. And as meaningless, far away, and granted, the isle, given, givenchy (seen), givenchy (said), and all the perfumes of Arabia, not equal to love.

What you have just heard or read was a political manifesto of the Nobbut—fest-tea-cuffs, which John found on a train.

11. Love, once upon a time.

Mrs. Pinktoe lived in a shoebox somewhere north of Wyoming. Oh she was miffed, she was. She was small as a periwinkle and bright as a salamander. On her daily route to the post-office, she visited the trees and one or two grasses. Guess what she found there. Yes, a tree in a tin, a sardine tin, and its lid curled up so nicely. The tree was a bonsai, and there were bonsai people all around it. How happy they were! They were so incy-wincy and shouting all the time, you couldn’t hear them at all. I heard one once, but I had to put it into my ear, and then it didn’t sound as loud as the quietest mouse. My theory is they can’t hear each other, so they have to shout.

Well, on the way she met Violet. Violet’s face merely fringed the blackness behind her mouth when that was wide open; and when it was only ajar, whispers went in and out of it. Oh, she cried to Mrs. Pinktoe, are you out of it? What leisure! How happy! The triolets look up and down the road whenthey wish to cross it. So do you. Good luck. And off she went, with a flounce and a ta-rah-rah-ra, which she twiddled between her fingers, all a-lilt and off-key, but belittle her not, for there wasn’t a nicer soul around, and she was on the way to ask the actors to bite her, and what a sight that would be, for none of the actors could get their mouths round her, even though they stood on stools and she laughed, and laughed, till they too fell off their stools laughing, and it was so infectious, that even the blackness behind each mouth of theirs grew and grew, for they each had several mouths, the better to eat her with. Why, the crying of two ducks up aloft could not be heard. Such loud crying, but the laughing was louder and overshadowed all.

A cloud was passing. Dirck likes a good price, it thought. I’ll go ask him. And off it went till it was quite small, and then it wasn’t there at all. But Violet had seen it, and came up panting, and asked the trees if they had seen Dirck, and they said, Yes, no. I saw him yesterday but today he was not there. Oh you live in the past, she said laughing, and flounced away, but not before yesterday came and went again, came for another look, and went away laughing, though how it contrived to do it with no mouth, I can’t think.

But then everything changed.

Wix came to the cottage the witch lived in, in the little village. He heard the invisible whinnyings of horses and tipped his hat to a sawmill. What on earth would he want with a fat round worm? It was perched in his palm, and squiggled up at him. He was about to take his hat off again and knock politely, when one of the eyes on either side of the long-nosed knocker winked at him knowingly and raised an inviting eyebrow. That this did not mean anything to him annoyed the nose, so it flew up and hit him on his nose. As he stumbled about, the worm leaped off his hand and wound itself tight, round the doorknob, which turned, and let him tumble in. Dirck was in there and bound to the piano with bits of rice and spaghetti. The rice was very heavy and weighed him down, and even if he could have got away from the spaghetti, the rice would have kept him down.

How about the witch? She wasn’t in. She was busy gathering mushrooms which she used for soups. The poisonous ones she left alone, being rather afraid of them. But all the same, she was a powerful witch. It was just a little peculiarity of hers. Nobody’s perfect. As we know, because when Astragal, the old magician, walked the dark town, his black cloak flowed from him like a bell or else was wrapped round him liked a furled umbrella, and it made no difference whatever.

O love, love, love, be careful! The witch has returned and, Shazam! has turned everyone into the branches of a tree, including Violet who had followed hard on her heels and got in before the door closed, though it tried to keep her out, and the failure put its nose out of joint, and it got a cold, and felt miserable, and dripped and dripped.

Rat-let and Wig-let, arm in arm, encouraged by a dove with flirting wings, came down the road, and pretending to wipe the knocker’s nose, gained a surprise entry to the house of the witch, who didn’t see them come in, busied as she was with trying to light a large match to set fire to the branches so she could warm herself. Old age had made her feel cold. And they hit her hard on the head and knocked her out, and everyone became themselves again, no better and no worse; and the sky was a heartening blue and the breeze as cooling as heaven, as they walked back down the road. But didn’t the witch get up with difficulty and peer shortsightedly around for them, till she slipped on the match and accidentally set fire toherself and disappeared in a wreath of smoke, which soon vanished too? But their minds were already on other things, and they didn’t know this.

12. The adventure of John.

The End