Saturday, 28 March 2020

The Butterfly



The following short is an allegory on the theme of diversity.  Any similarity with a certain leader of the free world is completely intentional!

He was certainly a crowd pleaser.  They hung on his every word, mopped them up like sun-dried leaves the first soothing raindrops of an autumn shower.  It mattered not one jot that it was a finely crafted formula:  the operatic pause for silence to settle, the deliberately off-beat opening remark to grasp the throat of attention, the pistol-crack punctuation of a locked and loaded index finger, the escalating triplets of verbs and adjectives, the gradual, brick-by-brick construction of the inevitable gradient upward to an applause-drowned climax.  And the gaze, always that gaze, which sought out the windows to the soul of select disciples across a sea of acolytes and devotees and, in those individual intimacies, captured the spirit of each and every one, singly and uniquely.  It worked every time.  Pure, unadulterated theatre.

Why, then, couldn’t he do it?  With such clear stage instructions why was it not he who was making the keynote address to a packed audience?  His was the very script.  The ‘Nationhood Project’, the theme for this speech, indeed the whole campaign, was his brainchild, the only natural progression from the policies of his father, the former King.  Under the government of the old monarch the country’s borders had been rolled back to allow it to become the meeting place of all cultures.  People from across the known world were invited to come and contribute to the building of a multifaceted, joyously – riotously – varied land.  The dream had been fulfilled and the Prince had inherited a wondrously vibrant patchwork quilt of a country.  To take the work forward the Prince, now King himself, had set himself the task of synthesising the many strands of the nation’ marrying all that was best in every civilisation represented in the kingdom.  And to do all this whilst maintaining the integrity and identity of all peoples.

His, then, the manuscript, why not the leading role?  There was, of course, the very practical drawback of the young King’s dreadful speech impediment which could delay the departure of any sentence for, in his eyes at least, painfully protracted eternities.  It had bedevilled him from the moment he made his first, faltering attempts at an utterance.  The more his words stumbled and staggered, the greater the stress.  The greater the concern, the more littered with fractured syllables his speech.  Voice physicians eventually recommended that the young Prince take all steps to avoid anxiety of any form.  But the more relaxed the boy was, the happier he became and, with joy, excitement and, thence, a further tumult of excruciatingly truncated and tattered sentences.  Public appearances would become a torment for the unfortunate man.  But he insisted that his voice would be heard and a spokesperson was employed to deliver his addresses.

Quite fortuitously, fate conspired to make of this necessity a happy opportunity.  The old King had long held that a land of all peoples could not justifiably be ruled by one being, woman or man, the hereditary representative of one family, and so had sought ways to devolve the reins of government out of royal hands.  The campaign being now enacted, a fundamental part of which was the speech just witnessed by the Prince and countless dozens of others, was the next phase of this devolution.  The man at the stump, latterly the Prince’s spokesperson, was now his champion for the ‘Nationhood Project’.  He felt that he could not have chosen a better.

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It was a matted, lush mass of greenery on which his gaze fell that morning; a cornucopia of pulsating plant life all vying for supremacy, climbing and tumbling one over another in seething, wild exuberance.  And he was not pleased with what he saw.  He throbbed with frustration.  All was meant to be order and rectitude in his province; a designated place for everything and all things neatly and obediently constrained to that allotted space.  That was how a kitchen garden was meant to be.  That was how it was designed.  That was how it always had been in the past.  But the last several seasons had seen a growing, overflowing invasion of weeds; unwelcome interlopers, crowding out the crops and sucking the life out of them.  Grasping, snatching goose-grass that caught at his heels like the insistent claws of a horde of mendicants.  The turned-milk clots of cow-parsley towering smugly in the stifling afternoon heat.  And the insidious bindweed, striking with the speed of a serpent, twisting and knotting outward and upward, throttling the life out of even the hardiest, its ominous white trumpets sounding the malevolent note of victory.

The gardener had spent countless, back-breaking hours tending the beds, meticulously turning the soil ever deeper and ever more assiduously in an attempt to uproot, discard and eradicate every last trace of the hateful weeds but they returned stronger and more rapacious it seemed, reducing the harvest to a malnourished, misshapen, pathetic handful.

It had not always been thus.  In his father’s day, and in the time of his grandfather, the garden had prospered.  Even allowing for the gilding of memory, the harvests had, surely, been more plentiful, fruit, leaf and root-crop all perfectly formed and bursting at the seams.  The gardener allowed himself a smile of reminiscence.  Those were the days indeed.  And as he pondered the rubicund yesteryear a strategy sprouted, indistinct at first but, with further consideration, taking hold and finally blossoming.  In the past lay the secret of the future it was clear.  The strains that had been planted by his forbears had been, though less refined, and, because of this, more robust.  He would seek out sources of the original examples and stock the garden with these.

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The result of this, the first ‘Peoples’ Election’ was really never in any doubt.  Quite apart from the oratorical prowess of Francis Taverner – ‘Countryman’ Taverner as he preferred to be titled - and the self-evident endorsement of the King for his ‘Nationhood’ manifesto, the campaign had been exquisitely choreographed.  Though a self-professed ‘man of the peoples’ Taverner was a man of no mean means.  He, through his family of course, owned a fair number of strategically situated wayside inns and hostelries at which the hustings were held.  The events were trumpeted amongst the inhabitants in close proximity to the taverns through the broadsheets produced, conveniently, by members of another branch of the Taverner clan.  And complimentary ale, as advertised in the broadsheets, was provided to the audience suitably thus swollen and already favourably disposed to the Taverner cause.

Countryman Taverner, and now ‘Premier Minister’ Taverner, won a massive mandate from the peoples and lost no time in cementing his position.  Even at his inaugural audience with the King, the first of the planned weekly events, Taverner was hinting, not at all speculatively, at the need to increase the agreed lifespan of a government.  Nationhood was an onerous and complex project challenging minds and hearts.  Change would need to be gradual that it might flourish from sound foundations.  Consistency and continuity in approach would be crucial.  All of this the King heard and understood readily.  The Premier Minister was pushing at the already half-opened door of the king’s approval.  So when the first sitting of the new ‘Governing Body’ brought forward, discussed and passed, without amendment, a bill which would double the time between Peoples’ Votes, royal sanction was a mere formality.  The first building blocks now securely in place, Countryman Taverner and his team could set about Nationhood with a vengeance.

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He ran his hands softly over the fully laden trug that had been placed with almost sacramental reverence – a sacrificial offering if you will – upon his work bench.  His hand hovered hesitantly over a prime exhibit, then moved on, this action repeated several times the hand falling at last, a choice finally made, upon one of many in the selection before him.  He held it up at arms-length to the fragile light rotating first to the left and then the right, drinking in each and every last detail of size, shape and shade.  He gently rubbed his thumb over the surface and softly pinched between that thumb and a forefinger proving the intricacies of texture and consistency.  His face puckered with undisguised disappointment as he tossed the undersized, malformed excrescence back into the tray to join the rest of what was a truly underwhelming display of fruit and vegetables; a cross section of the first crop taken from the ‘heritage’ seed planting.  It was an unmitigated failure.

The planning and research had taken moths; debating and, seemingly endlessly, discussing precisely which varieties would be trialled, fixing upon the desired attributes of each, tracing back as close as possible to the origins.  Acquiring the seeds, cuttings and bare-roots had been a nightmare.  The care and attention lavished upon each planting and the countless hours spent like novice expectant fathers waiting for the new-born shoots!  All of this heartache and toil for a bunch of knobbly mutants more like a knotted septuagenarian’s foot than garden produce!

As he turned his gaze back to the garden, the wind sighed an echo to the man’s melancholy, and the tide of weeds still swirled and eddied amongst the asphyxiating beds.

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What was clearly needed to take the project forward was a framework, a trellis of concepts around, and upon, which all the varied peoples of the realm could coalesce; a value system which was in no way a statute of limitation but that solid basis from which to take flight and soar, ever upwards and onwards………….

Countryman Taverner was composing his purple prose as he paced his official quarters, his eyes incandescent with almost manic, inner animation which threatened, at any moment, to gush forth like an uncorked hot-spring.  What sweeter source on which to draw than the proud past of that great nation of theirs – all of theirs – plumbing the abundant well of history, mining the priceless ore of tradition and majesty which stood outside of time and laughed in the face of short memories.  Yes, he quite liked that.  Taverner called immediately for the editor of the family broadsheet.  His skills with the pen would plump up the pillows of the Premier Minister’s vision for presentation to the Governing Body and the public beyond.

At the weekly ministerial audience his royal highness, faced with not merely the bare bones of an idea but the flesh, muscles and sinews of a well-rounded proposition, attempted protestations of ‘consultation’ and ‘inclusion’.  These were swept aside on the swollen bore of Taverner’s enthusiasm, his majesty and his comments left bobbing in the Premier Minister’s wake as he strode out of the chamber and headed directly for the House of Government.  Every word of Taverner’s typically pugnacious performance was cheered by his supporters until the rafters of the building throbbed.  As a boulder rolling down a hill the Premier Minister accrued momentum, crashing to a shouted crescendo barely audible above the acclamatory din of his followers:

“……………Therefore, I commend this to the Governing Body and from here we shall take it…….to the PEOPLE!”

The new set of ‘Nationhood Values’ were to be woven into the fabric of everyday life.  They were incorporated into school lessons.  All legislation was proposed, and written, in their context.  They were proclaimed regularly in broadsheets.  They peeped out between the leaves of books both fiction and fact.  University theses were written about them.  History was re-presented with them as the backdrop.  The king even gave his permission for a new version of the National Anthem taking the values as its theme.  And all new immigrants and existing residents who could not, with at least two pieces of documentary evidence, prove their status as ‘Nationals’ for two generations back, were required to swear an oath of allegiance and pass a short, written – purely procedural – test having the Nationhood Values as their basis.

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His brow as deeply furrowed as a fresh ploughed field, his fingers steepled their tips close to lips which muttered only to themselves, the man was perplexed at the rank perversity of nature.  How could it be that those plants which were the sole focus of so much care and attention faltered and failed whilst that host of weeds, not treated merely with contempt but with outright antagonism, were thriving?  They thwarted him at every step.  No matter the cultivars selected, the marauding hordes of briars were their match and more.  Tilling and sieving?  The rye grass returned thicker than ever.  The thickest and best applied mulch was punctured with ease by wild elder.  If only he could conceive of a way to fracture the seemingly irresistible cycle of growth which perpetuated the weeds.  As he pondered, his eyes followed lazily the staccato dance of the butterflies over the flower tops.  He drowsed at the heady drone of the bees and half-heard the cheeky background chit-chat of the wild birds.  As his musings pushed him to the very precipice of slumber, the man was suddenly more awake than he had ever been before.  Plain as day was the answer!  Nature herself was the culprit.  In the ceaseless shift of wildlife, she was her own propagator.  Stop this and the wheel of life which delivered remorselessly the nemesis of unwanted growth would be broken.  He would build a barrier around the garden.

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The problems looked like they were piling for Francis Taverner.  The project had stalled and revenues were slowly, inexorably, declining.  To one like the Countryman, not greatly given to nuances, the two were obviously linked.  If only all would think as one, they would act as one.  Thus, more efficiency.  Less time indulged in argument and arbitration.  Less waste; more gain.  The siren logic was seductively compelling.  When the issue was stripped bare of decorative obfuscation, the spare flesh of detail and nicety flayed from the bleached bones of reality, the real nub of the problem was the ‘Non-Nationals’.  By definition, their traditions were different.  Why, it was that very nature which had motivated the old King and, latterly, his son, in the philosophy of ‘no barriers’.  Which was all well and good in theory; at the level of philosophy, but this was the real world.  This was business.  No-one was saying that this difference was bad it just was and, thereby, an impediment to progress.  And the more Non-Nationals there were, the greater the impediment.  The Nationhood Project had done nothing to reduce the numbers of people seeking entry into the kingdom – not that this had ever been its motivation, of course.

The ‘Culture Re-assignment’ pilots being carried out in the western regions of the country had shown great promise.  The live-in, full-board intensive programme of assessment and re-alignment for those finding Nationhood challenging had begun to yield results, even if they had ruffled the odd liberal feather or two.  A comprehensive review and analysis could wait, Nationhood could not.  The full introduction would begin immediately.

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The logic had been impeccable, irresistible but, ultimately, flawed.  The barrier, though stout and impermeable, had not prevented the fecund germination of the pernicious weeds in the garden.  They still teemed around, amongst and atop the cultivated beds.  Insolent mounds and torrents of them.  The slow burn of frustration fanned into the licking flames of anger as the gardener surveyed the post-apocalyptic scene.  And, as he fumed, he spied, pirouetting on the breeze, a pair of butterflies surmounting the barrier to settle on the full bosomed flowering of a muscular clump of dandelions; this pair closely followed by a quarrelling quartet of sparrows who promptly nestled on the ivy-choked bough of an apple tree.  In an instant the decision was made.  The barrier must go higher.

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No amount of focusing the minds and hearts of the peoples seemed able to slow the pace of the decline in the kingdom’s fortunes. Those selected to partake of the Culture Re-assignment Programme had grown embittered at what they saw as a decidedly discriminatory process.  The balance of the population looked on and saw not victims but pariahs, leeches on society who did not change because they would not change.  They saw not investment in these people but a waste of ever waning resources and revenue.  Demonised and, therefore, inevitably, stereotyped, these people had to be stamped out and their ‘like’ not welcomed to the kingdom.

Countryman Taverner heard the rousing mutterings of discontent and allowed himself a self- indulgent smile.  The Nationhood Project seemed to be bearing fruit better, and sooner, than he had expected.  Sure now of unqualified popular support for his actions, Taverner let it be heralded, through the medium of his family’s broadsheet and notices posted at each of their taverns, coaching inns and alehouses, that a raft of measures would imminently be set before the Governing Body to include, but not be limited to:

The compulsory repatriation of all of those deemed unable successfully to complete the Culture Re-assignment Programme

Proof of National status to be extended to two generations residency.  Those deemed not to be compliant to be detained and repatriated

The closure of all borders to Non-Nationals with immediate effect for an unspecified period of ‘National Re-assessment’

To ensure the integrity of the borders a perimeter barrier to be constructed along their length.

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The enemy was routed.  All that remained were ragged remnants and withered scraps where once there was a superabundance of growth.  The plan had been executed.  The barrier had done its job.     

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Countryman Taverner was a name that would be remembered.  His Nationhood Programme – ‘his’ for he had made this specific abundantly, increasingly and inescapably clear in all communications on the matter – by his measures, was an overwhelming success.  The borders of the kingdom were unbreached.  His was a nation whose culture and identity would remain undiluted.

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The strategy had worked.  The gardener surveyed the battlefield and was not pleased.  For in that desolate ground no birdsong lifted the heavy drapes of silence.  No wanton bustling insects jousted with the senses.  Victory was complete and empty.  Nothing had grown.

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Statistics would record that after only twelve months of the Nationhood Project detention and deportation for Culture Infringements were at an all-time high; numbers of emigrants dwarfed the number of immigrants; costs for policing the borders had trebled.  With time it would also be noted, amongst others, that those choosing to study geography and languages had reduced in number; there was a diminution in the variety of produce at market; and spending on innovation had fallen dramatically.  A pall of sterility hung over the kingdom like a miasma at the dying of the day.

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All had dwindled, stillborn.  But not quite.  For in the farthest corner of the plot, all but hidden from view, one scant blossom had survived.  The gardener heard, but did not feel, since he and his garden were immune behind an impenetrable barrier which circumscribed the area, the sudden awakening of the trees outside; an urgent gust which carried with it, up and over the tall fencing one single, solitary butterfly.  Like an autumn leaf it tumbled, breathless, and all-but-broken, to the floor.  It rested, gathered strength and, finally, fluttered to the sanctuary of the one, remaining plant.  There the seeds of new growth were planted.

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There would be no butterfly in Taverner’s kingdom.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Another excerpt from 'Jig Doller'


This is another excerpt from my novella 'Jig Doller'

'One afternoon he was wedged onto a seat in the municipal park, knees splayed, elbows resting thereon and pushing up forearms as pit props to a very heavy head.  His eyes, overhung by straggling brows which sieved the sunlight, brooded unseeing over the lawn before him.  A flashing detail to his right, too peripheral to be seen with any clarity, broke into his ugly reverie.  Without shifting his precarious house of cards, he skewed his vision in the direction of the interruption and made out a small gathering of children seated like acolytes before a messiah.  Their gaze was fixed upon the stooped figure of an old man with skin the colour of weathered teak who was sat astride an old tea chest.  In a voice which seemed to be dredging up from beneath the turves themselves he was crooning a song to the beat of which three dolls were dancing, somewhat erratically, before him.  The audience was transfixed, breaking their reverential silence only to gasp or whoop with delight whenever one of the trio executed a particularly sudden or outlandish manoeuvre.



Slowly, painfully, Joe unfolded himself and rose, rather hesitantly, from the bench.  He shambled over toward the entertainment, coming to rest at the back of the gathering, weaving slightly in the tepid breeze.  Several of the children looked round uneasily at his approach but, as his mooring was several paces behind them, chose to ignore him and return their attention to the show.  As he watched, Joe felt the stirrings of an emotion that he only vaguely recollected.  He could not recognise it.  Time had not treated it well.  But it felt good, wholesome and steady.  And then the show was over.  The aged performer stood up, stowed his troupe and its dance floor away in the packing case, and moved off – Joe did not notice where – and the small crowd, suddenly animated, broke up and dispersed, chattering merrily into the onrushing evening.  Joe too turned away, somewhat saddened, and ground out the distance back to his inimical household.



Quite by chance – or, at least, that’s what Joe professed to himself – there he was again next day, on the same seat in the municipal park, at exactly the same time of day, observing a small knot of children begin to gather on the  grass away to his right.  A slight tingle of their excited anticipation seemed to communicate itself to Joe even at that distance and, before he could give the matter any thought at all, he was wandering over to wait with them.  The group in front of Joe had probably doubled in size by the time the gaunt, black man appeared before the crowd and set down the old packing case he was carrying.  From the recesses of the box he fished out three painted dolls and a plank.  Deftly he flipped the tea-chest over and set himself down upon it.  The jointed limbs of the dolls jerked in brief, uncoordinated spasms as he positioned them on the plank.  The chatter of the children lulled to a low murmur, then ceased altogether as the old man, eyes half closed, began to sing, at which point, as if by magic, and in perfect time to the music, the three dolls began to sport and play merrily upon the plank..  As the voice rose, the steps of the puppets became more pronounced and the enjoyment of the audience more audible.  Joe was totally consumed.  He was the adult, appreciating the dexterity of the jig doller; his uncanny ability to perform the several tasks of his art to perfection at the same time.  He was the child, thrilling to the kicks and waves of the dancers.  And he was the embittered old drunk, his heart warming, ever so slightly, at the innocent joy of the youngsters who were being so royally entertained.



Joe would have been unable to explain why, but that evening’s trek back to the house seemed less doom-laden than of late.  The several night caps he gulped back before retiring had recovered some of their savour.  Though the nightmares which infested his bedtime hours still doused him liberally, their curdling violence was, to some small degree, moderated.  He slept a little.



It was only after several visits to the park that Joe plucked up the courage to sit amongst the children to enjoy the dancing dolls.  His presence was a distinct novelty to the youngsters but his obvious happiness so chimed with their own that their acceptance of him was soon complete.  Joe, for his part, experienced a deep sense of sincere fraternity that had never before troubled his existence.  He chortled his amusement along with theirs.  He swayed in unison with choruses.  He echoed the whoops of delight.  And he felt the disappointed satisfaction that descended with the completion of the show.



It must have been a month later when Joe, having gravitated, by degrees, to the front row of the audience, approached the old dance master as he was decamping at the end of his performance.  He wanted only to see the dancing dolls close up but, in that, it seemed to him as though he would be asking for the world and all of its riches.  He felt the full weight of a crushing refusal before he had even begun to fashion the bare bones of a request.  Joe physically faltered.  The old man looked up and beckoned him forward.  Joe tottered haltingly on, as though being dared to look over the sheer face of a dizzying cliff, then stopped again within touching distance of the dolls which lay sprawled now upon their dance floor.  The puppeteer studied Joe momentarily, then a pair of plump-pillow lips first pursed then ballooned a brilliance of ivory and occasional gold.  Without a word being spoken Joe’s cracked, shaking fingers were suddenly being masterfully, but gently, moulded into control of the dancers.  The packing case seat had been vacated and Joe was installed upon it.  Timidly, gnawed with embarrassment, he began, unconvincingly, to beat the plank upon which the three performers limply stood.  At first their movements were slight, frustratingly haphazard.  As Joe plied the plank with greater confidence, but with no demonstrably increased skill, their steps became ostentatiously arrhythmic.  Joe’s initial diffidence had all but melted and he was hammering away at the plank, dolls’ arms and legs flying madly in all directions, when he noticed a solitary straggler from the audience watching intently.  The brio and bravura of Joe’s performance crumbled.  Now anxious to be rid of the dolls, he looked round in alarmed confusion for the old man whose place he had so rudely usurped.  He was nowhere to be seen; had vanished as though never there.  His entrails knotting and convulsing with panic, Joe groped blindly for what to do next.  His first thought was to upturn the tea-chest, throw in the dolls and their plank and, leaving them to their fate, escape as quickly as his raddled legs would permit.  But the eyes of the child were still upon him, now almost expectant, demanding.  From some dark corner, Joe felt impelled to salvage a shrivel of dignity.  Sweeping together as much of the dry husks of self-control as he could find, Joe stood, dislodging, in the process, the beam on which rested the dolls, fought for his balance, clung onto the dancers, then leant precariously over the tea-chest and wrestled it over.  With another lunge for the floor he recovered the plank and put it, along with he dolls into the box.  Trying vainly to make the pantomime of minor disasters look as though it was part of a well rehearsed ritual, Joe took up the tea-chest and, studiously avoiding the gaze of the young onlooker, struggled away across the park.



Joe was desperate not to be noticed but managed to achieve quite the opposite effect.  His already laboured gait was accentuated by the awkward load he was bearing and his attempts at haste only made matters worse.  The plank, protruding from the mouth of the tea-chest seemed intent on tripping him and the sharp edges and corners of the box bit at his shins and ankles until Joe could feel his broken skin catching then freeing, by niggling turns, on the nap of his trousers.  Pedestrians gave him a wide berth as he zigzagged brokenly along the pavement.  He breathed a huge sigh of relief – between groans and gasps of pain – as he rounded the corner into the alleyway behind the street on which his house stood.  The latent, furtive shame which had drawn him onwards dictated that he hide the package at the back of an outbuilding in the yard, just as he had, in recent times, concealed from his sisters the bottles of whiskey which he would seek out at later, more propitious date, and unseen moment, in order to introduce them to the house.  Having covered the dolls, board and packing case with an old tarpaulin and still sweating profusely from his exertions, he hobbled back round to the front door and, attempting a sang-froid which was manifestly beyond him, he rattled his key clumsily into the lock and let himself in.  Dreading that he might come face-to-face with a glacial inquisition, Joe tried to creep noiselessly down the passageway to the parlour.  In the silence, the dead thudding of his insensate feet seemed, to Joe, to reverberate throughout the house like a series of dinner gongs.  He cringed into the walls and so proceeded, in small bounces, along the border of the corridor to the darkened room in which he could, at last, claim asylum. 



Still wrapped in his overcoat, Joe deflated into his armchair and sat motionless for a few moments staring upwards toward the ceiling.  He felt himself beset by a tortuous conundrum – the more intractable for being one of his own making.  He had taken possession of the jig doll show and now, for no valid reason that he could think of, he felt horribly committed to doing something with it.  Equally forcibly, he felt himself totally incapable of actually doing anything with the contraption.  Indeed, now that he thought about the dolls, ensconced in the darkness in the old storeroom, he felt strangely intimidated.  Having wandered around the issue more than several times, and having poked it sharply from numerous angles, he made the momentous decision to do precisely nothing.  And slid from his pocket a half bottle of whiskey which, without the assistance of a glass, he duly despatched, thus blurring and soothing the irascible edges of the problem to that fine line of drowsiness over which he gratefully stumbled to his usual restive slumber.



The second hand morning acknowledged Joe with distaste as he wrestled himself free of the old armchair and made for the kitchen where he confidently expected to find, thinly disguised as a jar of pickles laid down for Christmas, a bottle of cheap, blended but perfectly potable whiskey.  However, though he rummaged at the back of the cupboard over a phalanx of guardian chutneys; though he emptied the contents of the shelf out onto the table and inspected each jar intimately; though he balanced precariously atop the lame, old ladder-backed chair with the thinning raffia seat and thrust his head into the cupboard; though he did all these things, Joe was unable to find what he had hoped would provide the early lubrication of the day.  Surrounded by the rubble of his excavations, Joe was forced to conclude that the sisters had intervened.  Shaken, and shaking, he slumped down into the chair and rubbed his abrasive chin with uncertain hands.  He had no great desire to encounter the two women gloating icily – as doubtless they would be – over their victory in this latest skirmish but he felt ill-prepared, in his dry state, to attempt a bid for freedom through the back door.  As he pondered his predicament with growing anxiety, a vague, vagrant recollection stumbled across him.  There had been, in the store-shed in the yard, a collection of old bottles.  Quite possibly, amongst them, there might be a little something to ease him onto the streets.  This ray of hope glowed but briefly since this particular train of thought brought back to him a vision of three dancing dolls, a packing case and an old plank, all lurking menacingly beneath a tarpaulin in the same outbuilding.  Ensnared in a completely disproportionate maelstrom of contrary forces, Joe froze, great gobbets of sweat brimming from every pore.  The sudden sound of two sets of feet like lugubrious drumbeats moving evenly down the passageway broke the impasse long enough for Joe to snatch up his coat, spill into the cobbled yard and tack deliriously across to the gate breaching it just as two grim faces loomed across the kitchen window. 



Joe’s credit was still good at Macey’s where a double served to restore a measure of equilibrium.  From the softer side of a second large one, he could readily agree that his fear of the dolls was totally irrational.  His dread of the two sisters, however, was not and was to be heeded at all costs, but that was a different matter.  No, the puppets had no hold over him, he concluded, and he would do with them what he wanted, in his own good time – which wasn’t now.'

I hope that you have enjoyed this sample from 'Jig Doller'.  If you want to read the whole story get in touch with me at bob.elvis@hotmail.co.uk.  I look forward to hearing from you.


Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Memories of Mother India 2018




This is another poem from the collection 'Memories of Mother India'.  It was written whilst I was in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar.  The spiritual nature of this experience is practically indescribable.  The poem is the closest I could come to explaining my feelings.  The poem was written pretty much as a stream of consciousness.

If you like the look of the poem and would like to receive a fully illustrated electronic copy of the collection, please e-mail me at bob.elvis@hotmail.co.uk giving me your name and the e-mail address to which you want the collection sent.  All I would ask is that you make a small donation to the Heal project which is dedicated to providing health and education to underprivileged children in India.  Their web site is www.healcharity.org  I will give you the address to which you should send donations when you ask to receive a copy of the book.  Please help me to support the work that Heal do.


Thoughts at the Temple

The Golden Temple Amritsar 18 February 2018



My excitement at seeing you again

Is like the tingle of the newest suitor

But I am ashamed of my leaden soul.








My heart is like a stone that barely beats;

Once only with the warming of the sun,

Again with the cooling of the moon.

I see you and it resonates

With your music and thumps

To the rhythm of your drums.

I am beyond happy.



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Before you I feel like a disused lamp,

Dry and without light.

Seeing you fills me with your chrism and,

If only for these few short hours,

I am lit again and shine.



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Your oil fills me

To overflowing and

You drip from me

Tears of joy.




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I wash dishes,

I peel garlic,

I roll roti

With people whom I cannot know.

And yet they are more friend to me

Than my neighbour.



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I cannot tell you

Why I am moved.

But here I find

Some inner parts of me

That I can scarcely

Recognise as my own.

I am more than complete.





So few commitments to belong

Yet I am scared at my inability

Even to undertake these minimum

For life.



--------------------------------------------------------



But three things

And no recompense required

Other than I be what I am already

With integrity.



--------------------------------------------------------



I shall be blessed if

I can give

With a generous spirit

That which I would never miss.



--------------------------------------------------------



I am no joiner of herds.

The company of people scares me.

You do not ask that I belong

But that I be,

Wholly.  Correctly.  Simply.



--------------------------------------------------------



I do not want to leave this place.

Let me wander in the crowds,

Wash, clean, sweep as I might,

And let me think again.



---------------------------------------------------------




The complex is so simple here.

My drug-dulled mind

Flows freely with all.



---------------------------------------------------------

I must leave, I know.
What can I take
To sustain me
That I don’t already have?

































































































































































































































































































































































Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Elegies

In keeping with the theme of funerals, much on my mind of late given the turn in my working life, here are a couple of elegies.  The first one is actually mourning the loss of a former self, the second I wrote in remembrance of a dear friend - and someone for whom I worked as a gardener.


Elegy



I miss him.

Not as that white hot keening wail

Which was the initial parting of we conjoined souls.

In all his gold and purple pomp, he was

Possessed of brimful confidence not yet blighted

By that cancer, wisdom.

His irrepressible resplendence and vigour

Inked in my shadowy silhouette.

What he was, I became.

His passing left me, in futility,

Picking over the incomplete remnants of our

Tattered banner.



I miss him.

Not as in the shop window,

That half-caught reflection conjuring anew

The subtle sedition of

What we had; what might still be.

If only I could take just one more exhausted step

Beyond that extra mile.

If only I could tie, still tighter to myself,

That half-jolt, heart-felt,

Ache of a dream.

Just a glance.

Pure chance.

Then,

Nothing.



I miss him.

Now as a life lived wholly

In counterpoint.

A Babel of

‘This I used to do.’ ‘This I used to be’.

Death by a thousand comparisons.

And with each new-found incompetence

He slips further from my grasp.

My ragged remainders scamper in the gutter,

The autumn dried leaves of a fractured dream,

Until there remains not one shred with which

To clothe my trembling nakedness.



 
No happy ghosts

We worked this teeming jungle, you and I,
By Winter’s bitter bite and sun-blanched sky,
Knowing that it lent us only fragile
Order for all our willing sweat and guile.
For ours was only stewardship and we knew
The soil bequeathed the riches that we grew.
Measure for glad measure by Nature’s ways
With harvest’s happy ghosts we spent our days.

Then you were gone but not forgotten.  Still:
Grasses do you homage where you walked,
Excited leaves whisper along your path.
Daisies lift their faces to be kissed
While laden fruit trees bow their humble heads,
And happy ghosts go haunting as they will.

Now time-blasted memories wither;
Street-corner trees whisper the calumny.
Tendrils
Snake their seasoned venom between
Your steps.
Bitter bites the bramble;
Acid the nettle.
There are no happy ghosts
In this sad garden. Anymore.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

India

On a recent visit to India I set myself the task of writing a poem a day.  I managed to do so and, along with wonderful photographs, the result is a small anthology (chapbook) called 'Memories of Mother India'.  It is currently under consideration by a couple of publishers in India.  Anyway, to whet the appetite of anyone who actually reads this blog, here is the first poem in the anthology:


On Contemplating a Trip to India



I met a man who couldn’t see,

‘It is the will of God’ said he,

(or so I was told, I do not speak Hindi)

‘He must curse his God most viciously!’

‘But no’, they explained patiently,

‘It is his lot.  He accepts it obediently.’

I believed the men implicitly.

‘Ah, he suffers not,’ I thought contentedly,

And walked away quite happily.

Who is the blind man?  Him or me?

(I hasten to add that the 'I' in this poem is not the author!  But the poem does derive from a conversation I had with someone before I went to India)

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Lamb - Christmas 2017

It's been a while since I published anything on this blog so what better way to break the habit than with a bit of festive flash fiction?  The immediate storyline is obvious but it is meant to be read on several levels.  Happy deciphering and happy Christmas!


The Lamb



He was even better when he had a drink or two in him – or worse, depending on your perspective; he entranced the customers at the inn for mother-maddening hours.  He frustrated my Mother to hair tearing proportions for the self same reason.  He was a sheep-farmer by trade, a storyteller by calling.  His flock seemed to ramble the country round but a nucleus of about a hundred sheep grazed the scrubby hillside to the South-West of town.  In his constant absence the burden of tending the flock and, by extension, maintaining the family’s scant livelihood fell upon my teenage shoulders.



Deaf to the haranguing of my mother, he would slouch out of the house and into the already blistering, late morning sunshine and, having stretched his arms skyward as though in salutation to his gods, soundly scratched at his hillock of a paunchy belly and looked around him in ceaseless wonderment at his tiny corner of the universe, amble at a sociable gait downhill to where our patch of barely cultivated farmland blended into the main road – the only road – into town.  Here he would stop and look with a mysteriously wistful, and knowing, gaze out along the road as it unwound in an ever thinning ribbon away from the huddle of households, shops and couple of inns corralled together in community around a central square and its well.  Then he would turn his eyes toward habitation and loiter languidly along the side of the roadway into town.



Though he had traversed the barely half a mile of countryside which lay between our home and the township countless dozens of times, and knew every inch of the journey like the intimacy of his very soul, he encountered it afresh each and every time like some small miracle.  His slightly rheumy eyes captured and fixed miniscule changes in his sweetly innocent world of wonders.  The unfurling of the tiniest petal was, for him, the magnificence of a finely wrought silken banner and he would stop with reverence before it, wrapt in dumbstruck awe.  He would kneel in the dust, hardly daring to reach out a parchment rough hand toward the delicate newborn.  With finely calculated deliberation he would cock his head, first to one side, then to the other, harnessing the niceties of the bloom from every possible angle thus available to him.  When he had drunk fully with his eyes of every vein and curlicue then, and only then, did he venture forward a gently cupped paw to the object of his astonished attention, parting slightly the fingers of his hand to form the notch - two protective digits on each side of a safe harbour - into which the stem of the flower could be slipped.  The blossom thus secured, with but the slightest breath of pressure, he would sense the satin texture of the bloom, moving it this way and that – always instinctively within the natural tolerance of the plant as though he had fused himself with it – even better yet to study every last possible perspective on the ineffable beauty before him.  All of this accomplished, with a deep sigh of contentment, he would withdraw his hand, rock back on his heels and draw himself upright before the freshest addition to his meagre portion of heaven.  In this way he could profitably consume hours together on his way to the inn furthest into the town.  No detail of the pilgrimage eluded him.  Each one bedded as a most sedulously painted image in the fertile oasis of his mind to be harvested and recounted lovingly at some later time and place.



Every door was open to this most complex of simple men as he passed through the town.  He was welcome at every table should he wish to tarry awhile.  That he was quite mad was the common held view but it was an insanity born of a harmless otherworldliness which captivated everyone who came into contact with it.  And so, on occasion, as the mood took him, he would avail himself of the hospitality which was always his to take without asking, sitting, talking in a low voice, excitement crackling in his eyes of a nothing which, from him, sounded like everything imaginable, cocooned in an incalculably valuable nutshell.  When, at last, he came inevitably, but seemingly quite by accident, upon the inn, his arrival was greeted with an enveloping hug of brotherhood and a kiss on each cheek and he made his way to the deepest recess of the room where the bar met the back wall.  Here, in the shadows, he hoisted himself atop a stool to sit cross-legged, his back wedged against counter-top and brickwork.



There was never a lack of company and, no matter how small the audience, he would, in the same hushed, modulated tones, begin to speak.  As he talked, the words wound around one another until an unbroken thread formed the warp and weft of a rich tapestry; a story which flowed seamlessly and effortlessly, eddying at this subject , pooling at that; rushing a set of rapids here and trickling timorously there.  As he spoke, the crowd gathered about him swelled.  His performance needed no drink to intoxicate but, as if by magic, a tumbler of a local brew was always but an outstretched hand away upon the bar.  And this liquor he sipped at intervals, lubricating his tales as they grew with the hours.  He spoke of his encounters, each one fraught with interest, laced with intrigue and shot through with significance.  He spoke of what he saw, not so much describing the experience  as seeming to climb inside it; to round it out to its fullest sense until he became one with it; both seer and seen.  Truth became, with uncanny facility, the soul-mate of fable in which kings could become paupers and the lowest born royalty; the mean-minded were turned pure of heart, the damaged made whole and the pompously replete sundered.  Here were displayed the victory of honesty over the dissemblers, inner beauty and those who demonstrated it; all of life and that which it could be.



My Mother’s frustration with her absentee shepherd could not endure, for it was that man of visions who had enchanted her and, in spite of all, captivated her still.  Nor was I immune to his spell.  I had spent many childhood hours folded in the fabric of his stories.  However, the addition of years saw my more mature nature, heavily pigmented with my Mother’s pragmatism and sense of duty, prevail and I looked to our flock and maintaining our scarce income. 



I did not resent his storytelling – not exactly – but that night of all nights I was, however, piqued.  Our ewes were lambing and the predators were circling.  An extra pair of eyes, even if they were those of a visionary bard with a distinct propensity for being distracted, would have been useful.  But I had left him enthralling his audience with a vividly animated description of an encounter on the road with a group of strangers.  In my irritation, I could not see what of wonderment there could possibly be about just another three old itinerants and their flea-bitten beasts of burden. Who knows how far he had wandered down the lanes of a great fiction in his re-telling of the incident.  What was undoubtedly real, and truly sickening, was the savage slaughter of the innocent by the wolves and jackals abroad that cold, clear starlit night. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Radicalisation

There are as many opinions about how and why people become radicalised as there are people expounding them.  This completely non-sectarian and apolitical poem is born out of the theorising in a context of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs with a nod to Nietzsche  at the end. 


Anatomy of a Radical



This man says:

“I beg of you simple shelter

For we have stabled too long

Beneath a rough and rueful sky.”

This man says.



This man says:

“I entreat you, a portion

Of the bread and fish of your five thousand

That I might ease the belly of my morsel few.”

This man says.



This man says:

“I claim of you your dollar whose scent

Is more opulent than my prodigal peace of silver.”

This man says.



This man says:

“In the name of gods and justice I demand of you

Your sons and daughters that mine shall not forfeit their foreign field.”

This man says.



This man says:

“We must share the shade of your tree of life

That we might know the crowned jewels of brotherhoods and family.”

This man says.



This man says:

“Give us to eat of the fruit of your tree of life

That we might share with you your truth of truths.”

This man says.



This man says:

“Now this, my undernourished dove, my lately caged and wing clipped soul,

Must home and wrest back, with blood-tipped talons, its damned and denied, birthright.”

This man says.



This man screams:

Mine are the shelter, the food and the funds

And mine all your sons and your daughters.

Mine are the water the wine and the host,

Your buddhas your prophets and thrice holy ghosts.

Mine are the mosque and the many, many mansions,

Mine the ruby rich ransom of heaven and earth.

For mine is the kingdom, the power and the never ending glory’

As I have returned to lay claim to my destiny.

This uberman roars.