Tuesday, March 07, 2006

In the stacks

I went to the library today. It was a compulsion that drove me there. A feeling. A need... I climbed the stairs, three flights, to the top floor. Its darker there, lonelier, moodier - like me. Its different. There’s no hum of computers. There are no teens doing research. No librarians shushing or printer squealing loudly as they spit out ream upon ream of useful information. Its warmer. More comforting. More alone.

The old stacks are stored there. Newspapers for generations that never made it to microfilm clutter shelves, gathering dust. Books, old books, older than me, some older than my parents, piled high upon shelves. Their bindings are fading, the spines are cracked. The pages are yellow with age, printed lightly with the oil of thousands of fingers that have caressed them over the years. It smells soft here. Like paper, of course. But of age. And time. And knowledge. It smells of memories.

I wander through the shelves, row upon row of them. I squint my eyes in the yellow light of overhead bulbs, shaded windows high near the ceiling and the seemingly endless towers of shelves full of the thoughts and researches of people long gone. I breathe deeply, pulling the smell into me, resting against them on occasion, hoping to pull it onto me somehow. My fingers trace lightly the covers. They run the ridges of uneven pages with my own special brand of love.

I look there, unsure, almost, what it is I am looking for. What it is that I am needing. I know I will find it when I am meant to, its how it always is with me and books. With me and memories. With me, and everything I touch. Wait. Hope. Everything comes in time. I am not drawn, as I normally am, to a corner this once. It is a shelf in the middle. High up. I must use a step stool to reach the book I am wanting.

It is pale blue, and large. Much larger than a normal book. It is heavy in my hands despite its age and its soft crumbling pages. It is bound tightly so that I hear a soft crackle as I open it. My hands flutter over the pages lightly. I do not look at the title. I do not look at the author. On occasion I will stop to read, though, soft words, almost soft enough to be smudged away with my hand were I to choose to do so.

As I turn the pages I see a woman in a picture. She is standing on the edge of a bluff, her hands at her side, her hair pulled away from her face. There is a building behind her. A tall one. And dark. The black and white of the photo seems to enhance her grace. It enhances what looks to be fading light. The trees in the back of it seem both comforting and intimidating in their strength at once. I begin to turn the page, but something makes me look closer.

She looks like me. So much like me it is frightening when you begin to press the resemblance. The hair. The eyes. The mouth. She even has that look I hear about myself so often, as though I am lost in a though or a memory of the past that only I know. I trace the outline of her face, lightly. I feel a stirring in my chest. I feel a tightness in the corner of my eyes. I feel like I am aching, burning. Like I should slam the book shut and run from this room and forget about this woman who is so like me and this book that has called me to it. Instead I cry. I shut my eyes and on the inside of my lids I feel the heat of tears slipping down my cheeks gently as I see for the first time what this woman does.

I can see mist rising in the distance, cool wind ruffling my hair. I feel the chill of the evening coming. The sun resting behind me on my shoulders. The grass is wet beneath my feet. I smell the rain. And I turn to the building, the tall dark house behind me and I feel more than I am prepared to.

She- I am walking back to it, heavy in my chest, my eyes swollen from tears. I approach a door, one that is old, wooden and nicked from the abuse of weather and time and children running through it without care. Crossing the threshold seems almost too much to bear, though, and I lean on the doorframe and try to breathe.

I collect myself and go up the stairs. Once, twice, a third flight of stairs again and I cross into a room with another heavy door, a cold stone floor and a bed made for lovers. There is a window, a great open window that looks out on the bluff I have left, the forest, the lake that shimmers beyond. I approach that window tentatively. I can feel the sobs rising again in my throat and m chest as I do.

I reach it, and as I do I fall. In my grief my legs can support me no more. I lay my head against the wall, dark stone, so cold it nearly feels wet. I weep. My fingers run over the wall lightly, tracing the pockmarks and lines. It feels grainy and wet against my cheeks. I hear myself moan lowly. I cry. As I do I close my eyes again and I see something. I see what she is missing. I see her pain, my pain. It is brief, all to brief.

Eyes. A smile. The whispered word love. A warm laugh.

I pull sharply away, gasping, and I can see myself again surrounded by the stacks. The books and newspapers surround me. My hands are wet from the tears, I’ve had my hands over my face. As I look down I see my tears have fallen to the page and the image of the woman is dimmed. She is a faint blur now, a house and the setting sun are all you can really see.

I close the book lightly. I walk to the shelf. Slowly, heavily. I feel as though I am grieving. I slide it back to its place, high up. Away from the ground. Away from the prying eyes of those who would not know to look for her. I walked slowly out to my car and sit there with the sun streaming in through my windows.

In my head I hear it, that word, love. I hear the laughter. I feel so cold. I finger the edge of my shirt. What did I see. Why did I see it? Why am I so very sad?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Untitled - chapter 5

OK. I've started with this, so I think I may as well continue. Here's another chapter from my - still untitled - Nano novel.

Fresh original material to follow.


Previously in our exciting serialisation: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4


Later on that evening, I find myself sitting at home in front of the telly idly browsing the internet on my laptop. I’ve managed to resist the temptation to visit Friends Reunited, but I find myself at “google” doing some ego-surfing – entering names in and seeing what comes up. Apparently I am a Scottish Painter, a Californian realtor or a baseball player, depending upon whether you consider me to be a James, a Jim or a Jimmy. Needless to say, I start to tap in the names that have been floating around my head since I left Charnborough earlier in the day. I start with Chris – if for no other reason than I got home and picked up that batman comic. I still have the same copy that we used to read together at school.

Chris didn’t start at Charnborough until we were both 10 or 11 years old. We weren’t initially in the same class, but we were sat together at mealtimes and quickly became firm friends. Perhaps we both liked rice pudding or something. Charnborough’s grounds are bounded by a wood on one side and a river on the other side. At some point in the past, the main river channel was diverted around the woods and the playing fields, leaving a boggy remnant river-channle running though the woods. Of course, for an eleven year old boy, this is absolute heaven. We had a long break in the afternoon, between lunch and any classes that we had in the afternoon. Almost every day without fail, Chris and I would pull on our boiler suits and Wellington Boots and head out to the woods, where we would play gangs. This game was large, timeless and mainly formless. If there were any rules, then nobody had troubled to write them down. It was a little bit like ‘Lord of the Flies’, I suppose. Packs of children formed into gangs and either formed uneasy alliances with rival groups, or fought bitter running battles with them using sticks and fir-cones as weaponry. Each gang had a base of operations. This wasn’t as elaborate as it sounds. It was just somewhere you could hide your sticks and where you would hang out. Some people used a circle of yew trees, some people used small clearings. Our base was great though. Down the bottom of the school grounds, out past the swimming pool and beyond the tennis courts, almost at the furthest point within the school grounds, there was a tree growing near to the small trickle of a stream. The stream itself was pretty good: it was just at the point where the little stream flowed into the big marshy expanse of the vestigial river. What made the location great though was that there was a big root from the tree stretching out from one side of the bank to the other. It was broad and flat and was a perfect bridge. You could almost see Robin Hood and Little John duelling on it. It was a point of great strategic importance, where the gangs running out of the woods would meet with the bog-waders, and it was our base camp. We spent hours there.

I would never say that I was a natural leader. I’m not even sure what it means or what it entails. What I do know though is that Chris and I were right at the forefront of the best gang in the woods. Everyone wanted to be in our gang, and the other gangs didn’t have a chance. No one could outsmart us, and no cache of sticks was hidden well enough to prevent a lightning infiltration. We were legends. There was a brief period where we were both more interested in roller-skating in the gymnasium, but we soon went back to the woods, hanging up our skates until the dark winter evenings drove us indoors after tea.

We were good friends, but we went to different Public Schools in the autumn of 1987 and we began to drift apart. Unlike many of my friends from Charnborough though, Chris lived quite close to me, and we stayed in touch for a few years and saw each other a couple of times. We were both bright and were awarded scholarships to our chosen schools, but Chris was always more interested in art. He was a talented painter, but his real interest lay in sculpture. Even as a twelve year old, when the rest of us were trying desperately draw something that looked even vaguely like the bowl of fruit in front of us, Chris was spending a lot of his spare time in the art room mucking about with clay, papier mache and chicken-wire. This was, of course, an interest that he shared with Carl. Carl was a good artist, certainly good enough to be awarded that art scholarship, but for him that was always the second-prize. He lacked a passion for the subject that Chris so obviously had, and he consequently lacked some of the inspiration. I can remember we had a class exhibition once. Carl had painted a Picasso-style cubist take on a fractured electric guitar. Very clever, and pretty sophisticated for a twelve year old – certainly better than my pathetic offering a set of drawings of a industrial sized spatula I had nicked from the kitchens - but I thought it was a little mechanical. By contrast, Chris has produced a series of drawings and paintings of something as simple as a pencil. At first glance you would think that Carl’s cleverness would win the day by miles, but actually it was the sheer inventiveness of Chris’s pencils that won the day. You would never think that you could look at a couple of HBs and feel inspired. I think it was because of this that although Carl and Chris were friends, there was always an edge of tension and rivalry. Perhaps there was a similar air of tension between Carl and me, only I totally failed to recognise it and to read the signs.

Carl gave up art as quickly as he could once we got to Public School, but Chris kept it up. I bumped into him one Christmas at the Central Milton Keynes shopping centre as he was coming out of WHSmiths. I’m pretty myopic, so I nearly didn’t notice him. We were both nineteen by this point, and Chris was wearing a large dog-tooth overcoat and was sporting a mop of black hair. He grabbed me:
“Hello Jim. How are you doing?” I probably looked confused. In situations like these, where I am taken unawares by someone that I know, I generally find conversation awkward. In this case though, I was really pleased to see him.
“Chris!” A slight pause, as I blink at him. “I’m good thanks mate. How are you? Your parents still round here then?” His dad was a stockbroker, I think, and they lived in a large house just the other side of the railway station.
“Yeah. Same old same old.”
“What are you up to?” This was a good question. I had last seen him when my school cricket team (don’t get excited, it was only the 3rd XI) played at his school, and I had bumped into him. Since then we had both left school, and it seemed a reasonable assumption that he had gone on to university.
“No. Art College” Ah, of course. That made a lot of sense. “You?”
“Art college? Bloody hell. I’m at Warwick. Modern European and Renaissance History.” I didn’t really want to talk about my degree, and now he’d revealed that he was at art college, I felt very conventional. Prep School, Public School, University… and probably on to civil service and then death, I should think. “How’s art college?”
“It’s fucking brilliant. I have to go to a few technical classes, but basically they leave me to my own devices and I’m able to generally muck about.” He started rummaging in his pockets. “I’ve got something here actually”. His hand came back out of his coat holding a small sketch pad. It would have been easy to assume that he was about to show me a drawing, but I was suddenly hit by the horrible stench of dirty ashtrays. I began to fear the worst.
“I’ve been working on this for a couple of weeks.” He began to open the sketch pad, with fingers that I couldn’t help but notice were stained yellow and had nails bitten down to the quick. In the middle section was a kind of collage (forgive me if that’s not the correct technical term). It was a kind of mosaic like design made entirely of used cigarette ends – the rollup kind. They were dirty, and they stank, but they looked amazing. “What do you think?”
I held my breath and looked a bit closer. His attention to detail was amazing. The pattern on the page was really quite inticate, and I think that the butt ends may have actually been smoked to a pre-determined length. It was the kind of art where you imagined that the artist had made a sketch before he began, and had been working to a plan.
“It’s bloody amazing”.
I wasn’t surprised to find out that Chris had taken up smoking. In fact, when I went round to his house a couple of years before, he had been surprisingly dependent upon his Embassy, and I had marvelled at quite how he hid his habit from his parents by burying the butts in the garden. Judging by the beautifully tended roses in the flowerbed, this struck me at the time as a remarkably short-sighted hiding place. Perhaps he hadn’t cared. He was certainly still smoking now.
“Yeah? It smells a bit” I was pleased he had noticed. I had a quick look at him, and in spite of the stench coming from his sketch book and his dirty-old man coat, he was pretty clean looking.
“Yes it does. Perhaps it should be exhibited behind glass?”
“Oh no. The smell is the reason I’m doing it.” This is why he was an artist, and I was studying history at University.

I think we went for a quick drink, but we were soon wishing each other a Happy Christmas and promising to stay in touch. The next time I saw him was a couple of years later on the telly. It was around Remembrance Sunday and it was one of those short five-minute talking head pieces that they sometimes insert into the evening schedule. It had already been on for a couple of minutes before I realised what I was watching. It was Chris, holding an old leather football, and talking straight into the camera. I think he was reading from someone’s diary, and it was the entry about the time during the First World War when there was a ceasefire at Christmas and some of the soldiers left the trenches to have a game of football with the Germans. He was very good. He looked much the same as he had when I last saw him, and as he spoke I could almost detect the ashtray smell of stale fag ends. That made me smile. I thought he was probably still at art college and but I had no way of contacting him, so I think I sent him a Christmas card to what I hoped was still his mum and dad’s address. I didn’t get a reply, and I quickly forgot all about it.

So I googled him. I popped his name into google and sifted through the results to see if I could find him. This often isn’t as straightforward a process as you might think, and it sometimes takes a good deal of persistence to find the results you are looking for. Not this time though. Either because of his slightly unusual surname, or because he had a good search engine strategy, Chris came up as the very first hit on google.

When I was about six, I wanted to be a motorcycle policeman. I was at that time very fond of a plastic police helmet and goggles set that someone had given me, and liked nothing better than to put them on and hare around the house on my bike pretending that I was involved in some terribly exciting high-speed chase. By the time I was a little older, this dream had fallen by the wayside, and I was now determined that I wanted to become a barrister. I have always been argumentative, and I think I liked the idea of standing up in a courtroom and taking part in the cut-and-thrust of the debate (for the same reason I also briefly thought it might be quite fun to become a Member of Parliament). I was dead set on studying law at University until I got speaking to a lawyer at a careers day at school. Apparently law degrees were extremely tedious, and I would be far better served by studying a subject I was really interested in instead. Wise words. I studied history at University and somehow my dream of becoming the next Rumpole of the Bailey quietly disappeared and I ended up working in IT. Does anybody really end up with their dream job, or do we all drift into something temporary and look up after twenty years and wonder what happened? By the looks of his website, it looked as though Chris was living his dream.

According to the little biography I found online, after studying for a BA in Fine Art, Chris had gone on to gain an MA in Computer Related Design from the Royal College of Art. That was all very well, but I was the proud owner of a Masters degree in Medieval History, and I wasn’t working as a historian, was I? Well, it turns out that Chris had chased his dream a little harder and was now working as “an artist and designer based in London” and “his work has been exhibited internationally”, including apparently the Grand Prize at some international art festival in Tokyo. I was very impressed. There was some other stuff on there too, things that he had been working on. His area of expertise was in man’s relationship with technology, and examples of his work included watches that didn’t tell the time, and mobile phones that couldn’t receive a phone call.

There was a “contact” section on the website, and before I had time to really think through whether or no this was a good idea, I hit the link and started to write an email:

I keep getting email from people who I have absolutely no desire to speak to or to see ever again. Preamble, of course, to me sending you an email out of the blue, when I don’t think I have seen you since er… 1990 or something when I bumped into you in WHSmiths in Milton Keynes and you should me your sketch book filled with roll-up butt ends. Enduring image, but I remember the smell most of all… anyway.

I have no idea what triggered me to do this, but I have just searched for you on Google. Pretty impressive. I come up as a Californian Estate Agent or something, but you come up as you. Shit. I must sound like a stalker. I have a lot to thank you for – you introduced me to “The Dark Knight Returns” and knew that diamond was the hardest substance known to man because Adamantium does not exist.

As you could probably have guessed, I ended up with an office job in Nottingham. Anyway. Just thought I would surf the moment and send you an email. If you are anything like me and my Friends Reunited emails, you’ll just ignore me, otherwise I guess you will say hi.


It was a lot harder to write than I thought. What do you say to someone you haven’t seen for years? How much detail should you include when there is a very real chance that the person you are writing to has no interest in you or what became of you. The mention of diamond was a reference to the time that we had been opposing captains in the school General Knowledge quiz. It was a big thing, and was held on stage in front of the whole school. My team had got off to a terrible start, but I have always prided myself on the ability of my brain to hold onto all kinds of trivia, and we began to haul ourselves back into the competition. Time was beginning to run out and the scores were level, when the headmaster had asked the question “What is the hardest substance known to man?”. Easy. I got to the buzzer first and fired out the answer that was going to take us to victory. Adamantium. Easy.


Adamantium is the almost indestructible metallic substance that was used to give Wolverine his claws in the X-Men comic. As well as introducing me to The Dark Knight, Chris had shared his love of other comic book creations with me, including the X-Men. Sadly, like the X-Men themselves, Adamantium is completely made up. Chris, of course, knew the correct answer. Diamond.

We lost.

I was hoping that this event had been as memorable for Chris as it had clearly been for me. I supposed I would find out soon enough. I figured that the worst thing that could happen was that he would receive the email but wouldn’t bother to reply.

I sent the email at about 6pm, and by 7pm I had my reply:

Hi Jim

Haha the adamantium answer! Sad to say I still remember it quite clearly. You were quicker than me on the buzzer and my heart sank, only for you to make an uncharacteristic slip! It was Easter-time, as I recall, and we (the winners at least) were given Easter Eggs as our prizes. Do your parents still live around Milton Keynes? Mine do, so I get to visit the wonders of the shopping centre quite regularly. I have been keeping quite busy, as you may have seen from your google search. I have moved on a bit from roll-up butts and I am now making electronic bits and pieces. I studied for an MA in computer related design at the Royal College of Art, which I finished in 2000.

At the moment, I am working in northern Italy on a research project and then doing some teaching. Unfortunately, as it is the holidays for the students at the moment, the building is about to shut… What are you doing in your office job in Nottingham? The last I remember you were studying for an MA in Medieval History, but I could have imagined this…

Nice to hear from you.


P.S. We both have Carl to thank for introducing us to the Dark Knight and comics in general…

How long do you think it takes for someone to become so embedded in your life that you can’t escape them? My relationship with Carl had lasted twenty-two years, and it seemed as though there was no memory of mine that didn’t include him.

I didn’t think that there was much point in harassing Chris any more. His email was friendly enough, but I didn’t think that trying to meet up with him would serve any purpose. We had been good friends when we were at school together, but the friendship hadn’t really survived after we had left Charnborough. We had some sort of residual connection based upon our shared experiences of five years spent together at school, but it didn’t seem enough for me to want to try and spark up a new connection with him. Besides, he was in Italy.

Was he still technically my friend? If I emailed him back and arranged to meet up with him for a drink sometime, would we still find that the spark of our friendship was still there? Or had we run our course? Neither of us had felt the need to send a formal notice of our intent to terminate our friendship, but it seemed that it was more or less dead anyway.