sondersojourn

Words and stuff.

Wind and water

It was five years since the oceans had burned away and he missed them dearly. Not for the fish or boats. Nor for the waves or the smell of salt. He didn’t miss their size, for the land was bigger now. And he definitely didn’t miss the thought of their inky depths and the dark secrets kept deep below where even light abandoned hope.

No, he missed them for their wetness. Nothing’s ever wet anymore. He thought that was the biggest shame of all. Dry, everywhere was dry. Dust and sand and rock and bleached bones. Even the people were dry. They no longer sweated, their bodies adapting to the scarcity of moisture. Withered husks, shambling around a desiccated world. A shame, a damn shame.

Yes, he missed grass, but more than that he missed the early morning dew. Yes, he missed the cold, but more than that he missed the condensation on windows. Yes, he missed a  drink, but more than that he missed the satiation of liquid. All that was now is dust. And all that will be is dust. An endless tide of choking particles, burrowing into the smallest of cracks, gnawing from within. Exposed surfaces relentlessly buffeted and scoured.

Rain! Honest to God, wet-through drowned-rat-looking rain. That feeling, ironically, burned within him. The desire for rain that would soak you through to your core and bury itself deep in your bones.  He kicked the ground and – without any surprise – a burst of red dust billowed. Oceans, rain, rivers, snow, mist and fog. A fantasy now, of course. But one he returns to often — a dream haunted by dreams.

He sat below an overhang of rock high up a cliff facing North. The wind changed hourly, but for now it blew from the South, and he was protected in his little nook. His hands were chafed raw. Cracks on cracks split across his knuckles and every movement of them split them again. He sighed heavily, adding to the bitter wind. He could feel his body and mind flaking away, joining the swirling ever-present dust.

He sat there, cross-legged, for a while. For how long he couldn’t say. Lost in looping thoughts, loose and disconnected. In time, a low rumbling rose in his ears. At first he thought it was another rock slide or crumbling of a nearby cliff. But the sound didn’t stop. It grew and grew. Rising in volume into an almighty roar. He stood and leaned out from the ledge. Something was wrong. Is this the end, he thought? The final shout of a dead world?

Something was wrong. Wind. There was no wind. Not even a gentle breeze. For the first time in years his ears weren’t being whipped. His eyes scanned the horizon and what he saw broke his heart. Coursing along the valley in the far distance, stampeding and churning across the floor — water. A rising tide of foam and waves a hundred metres tall was crashing and tumbling. Tears filled his eyes, a feeling long forgotten to him. He stared as the water thundered and rumbled, spreading to fill the entire valley. His legs gave way beneath him and he collapsed to the floor.

He lay there, minute after minute, hour after hour, watching the water grow. He lay there with tears streaming down red dust-caked cheeks. He lay there praising every God and deity and belief he could imagine. He lay there as he dreamed his last dream, and until the wind rose again and took him away.

I tried

Let’s write a haiku

But I can’t count very well

So I’ll run out of

Pieces of me

I see myself in shards like glass. Some broken and some whole. I lie scattered and strewn, pieces lost beneath pieces, mingled together in their shattered remains. Parts of me are still, forgotten and dusty, untouched and unmoved since the time they were cleaved from my body. Others are free and shiny from use and reflection, their surfaces accustomed to care and touch. Some are hidden, purposefully locked and stashed away, the light they hold too harsh to be seen or remembered. A small few take pride of place, displayed starkly where I can always see them, sparkling reminders of the person I strive to be. 

These pieces of me, my shame, my memories, my fears, they are with me always. I carry them everywhere I go. Sometimes they fall like rain, piercing my flesh over and over. A gale of glass forcing me to relive whatever parts break my skin. Flashes of emotion, of moments and distorted remembrances, burst in my skull at their touch. Once, the shards melted and ran as shimmering liquid. Pieces merged, formless and incoherent, in an overwhelming tide that dragged me down beneath confusing waves. I drowned that day, gasping on the mess of myself. 

I made a new shard today. Different from the others. Unlike the rest, I can’t see this one. More than black, it absorbs all light, its presence only known by the absence of what the mind thinks should be there. It’s a mirage, distorting the air around it, questions pulsing from its place of rest. 

It begins to drag neighbouring shards towards itself. They try to resist, clinging to each other in false hope. But today is the day I become whole. The day the disparate portions of me are bound together. The day I start to live again. 

Apples and onions

“I mean, when you think about it, what even is an apple?” James said between crunches. Juice ran down his chin and fingers. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and rubbed it on his jumper. He raised the apple up to the light, staring intently, his brows knitted and close.

“I mean, really get down to it. Has an apple always been an apple, or is it only an apple because we decided to call it an apple? Why not a blumble?”

Triss turned towards him, seeing his eyes were fixated on the apple in his hand.

“Blumble? Really James what are you on about,” she said.

“No, no hear me out. Would the nature of an apple change if we started calling them blumbles?”

Triss leaned back on the sofa, blowing out air as she sank into the cushions. She looked at the apple in James’ hand, eyes squinting in thought.

“It would still be an apple,” she said, “it’s only a name. If I start calling you Slarpslarp, it wouldn’t matter. You’d still be you.”

“Aha!” said James, spinning round to face her. “But that’s it though isn’t it? Would I still be James? Am I only who I am because of my name? Who knows how much influence it’s had over my life. The act of calling me Slarpslarp would immediately stop me from being James. James is dead, long live Slarpslarp.”

“OK, OK, I’m following you.” Triss replied. “A follow-up question then as you’re eating that apple – when does it stop being an apple? At what point does the concept of the apple cease to exist?”

James stopped mid chew, his mouth hanging open.

“Now hold on,” he said. “You’re on to something there,” he swallowed noisily before continuing. “So, like, it’s all still there isn’t it? The apple. All the different parts, all chewed up and gross getting digested?”

“I guess,” said Triss. “But, does that make it an apple? Doesn’t it need to be all together to be called an apple?”

James steepled his fingers, holding the apple in his teeth. “Mbbff”.

Tess sighed, hands folded over her eyes. “Idiot. Take the apple out of your gob.”

“Sorry, sorry,” James said, taking a giant, crunching bite. “OK. But it never goes away does it? It might be this goop inside me, but it’ll transform into something else. The essence of the apple will become something new, but it still an apple.”

“Right,” replied Triss, nodding. “And it’s still everything it was before it was an apple – the sunlight on the tree, the water in the ground, the minerals in the earth. It was all that stuff before and it’s on its way to being that again.”

“Exactly! And in that way, aren’t we all apples?”

“All apples? OK you’ve lost the plot now.”

“No, wait. I’m getting all existential.”

“OK, go ahead, go ahead.”

“Right so,” James paused, biting his bottom lip. He looked towards Triss, their eyes meeting. She couldn’t help but laugh at the intent look on his face.

“C’mon James, what are you getting at?”

“OK. Right. So, we’re all apples right? We’re all connected to everything. We’re a part of everything. Everything an apple was and is and will become is just….us? We’re everything.”

A long silence followed. James turned the apple over in his hands, the open flesh starting to brown in the air. Triss swung her legs over the sofa, propping her chin in her hands.

“I mean, a little bit wanky, but I get you,” she said.

“Yeah,” James said. “A bit wanky, but I stand by it.” Another pause as he finished off the apple to its core. He chucked it across the room into a bin and said, “We should write a book.”

“Hah. Yeah alright. ‘Triss and James explain the universe’.”

“Not a bad title.”

James moved and sat down next to Triss. They fell backwards together deep into the sofa, staring up at the ceiling.

“You know what? I heard apples are exactly the same as onions, apart from the smell,” said Triss.

“Really? Bollocks.”

James looked sideways at Triss, his eyes sparkling.

“What?” said Triss. “Oh no, James bugger off. No.”

He leapt up from the sofa and dashed for the door. “I’m doing it!” he shouted. “I’m getting an onion.”

“What a pillock.” Triss mumbled under breath as James’ heavy footfalls slammed downstairs. She sat up again, ears turned towards the door. She could faintly hear his voice coming from downstairs.

“Oniiooooooon!”

She smiled and shook her head.

“Idiot.”

 

The Hunt

Her breath misted in the air. Quick, brief bursts in time with rapid breathing. The silvery clouds rose, draped themselves in moonlight, and were taken by the wind. Her feet blurred across the ground, eyes tracking every possible obstacle. Arms pumped methodically, pistons powering her forwards, forwards, forwards. Through a field of tall wheat she ran. Stalks hitting her face and arms, hard shells scratching at her legs.

A glance behind her, a momentary lapse, a rock unseen. She fell, hands thrown out protectively, and a sharp crack hit the cold night air. She made no noise. Pushing herself up, with a crunching and grinding of bones, she kept on running. Guttural calls echoed across the fields. They were closing in on her.

Quicker now, she passed through the thinning wheat and into fallow land. Thorns snagged and tore at her, but left no mark. Her nostrils flared wide, drinking deeply from the air – a smell registered, one she knew well. She smiled with bared teeth. Nearly there. On she ran, trusting her nose to lead the way. Her breathing continued harsh and fast, but there was no sweat on her brow. Not even a flush to her cheeks. Her head was full of the smell now. It filled her mind, rolling and draping over her like silk. It promised comfort and safety to its chosen believers.

A building loomed out of the darkness. Low and broad, it squatted on top of a small rise. It was made of heavy stone encased here and there with thick growths of vines. The smell was everywhere, she could see it leaking and pulsing from the building. She ran into the miasma, enveloping herself in its embrace. She stopped in front of a dark wooden slab built into the stone. There was no handle or hinges, yet it slid open. A figure, cloaked in the black of night stepped forwards.

“What do you bring to this house?” said the figure. The words were clipped and harsh, neither male or female.

“I bring what is needed.” She replied.

The figure paused, shadows rippling as if it was turning its head to listen. Faint shouting muffled in the distance, bouncing across the stone building. She turned and looked back to the way she had come. In the faint moonlight she could see her pursuers were nearly here. Their loping forms lumbering across the earth.

“I hear and see your gift. You are welcome here.” said the figure. It moved out from the doorway, followed by two more shadows. They stood beside her and waited – customs must be observed. She looked at each shadow, their forms seemingly flickering between real and smoke. She raised her arms and shouted;

“I offer you our need. Together, let’s take what is ours.”

The shadows became real. And terror followed with them.

Where I’ll Be

Far away, but close in mind, there’s a place I long to be. It’s a place of misty mornings over still water. Of stirring bird song muffled against the fog as it hugs the trees. A rising sun breaking through in a thousand rays, each one a story. The warmth and unending adoration of dogs, ruffled and joyful each day they rise. Rolling green and rugged stone. Brooding cloud, black coffee and whisky. Strong wood and a content life. Dark nights and light hearts. The innocent calls of children – my children – exploring in wonder and learning. Creaky boats on an old pier. Cold beer and warm words. The companionship of love. The kind of love that knows no stopping or slowing. A love that builds, day after day, into an immovable creation. It’s a place where my heart has always belonged and yearned for, but has not yet been.

Far away, but close in mind. I know the place I long to be intimately. Every part of it detailed, yet unexpected. Each day new, but the same. I walk it in my sleep and I see it when I’m awake. My feet have trod across the damp morning grass, have felt the lapping of the water and the soft tread of the sand. I have smelt the trees and the earth and the air. My ears have heard everything, yet always listen and take comfort. I know my children; their personalities and quirks, their laughter and their hurt. And my love, I know her best of all. I am me and I am free.

Far away, but close in mind, I’ll get to where I know I’ll be. No matter the time, no matter the road, every step I take is a step closer to the place I long to be. Far away, but close in mind, I hope you’ll share the journey with me.

Porto – Day 1

I recently travelled to Porto, Portugal. Here are my little scribbles from while I was there about the city and its people.

Genuine. That is honestly the first word that comes to mind. I’ve been in Porto less than four hours and I’ve had half a dozen full and proper conversations with people. Not people hawking anything or wanting my money (except for the most friendly and energetic hash dealer I’ve ever met). And though my grasp of Portuguese is pathetically weak, these lovely people have humoured an already very red British lad.

One lady, running a tiny little cafe outside the flat I was staying in where I popped for a quick after flight espresso, tried her English on me as much as I tried my Portuguese on her. I have no idea how old this lady was, but her wrinkles had wrinkles – and they were all from smiling. As soon as she guessed I was British (not a hard one to figure out if you knew what I looked like), her face lit up. She told me she had just started learning English because her Grandson had married a girl from Manchester.  There was her, going through her entire menu in English, asking “Is right?” after each item. And then me, stumbling through the five-word sentence to ask for a “black coffee, please.” She was a delight.

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Each encounter after was much the same. The hash-man I mentioned earlier was this guy hopping from foot to foot declaring, in English, he had “the best hash ever to escape the confines of the arse of a Moroccan.” An interesting pitch and, depending on how much booze I had that day, I thought I might try to find him later. Then there was the waitress at this small restaurant down a cobbled street (I had cod and potatoes in a sauce I don’t know but will forever dream about) who immediately told me everywhere I must visit in town. I had paused my music to ask her for a table and she saw I was listening to ‘California Sun’ by The Ramones. We became immediate friends – discussing the entire discography of those pioneering Americana punks. She disagreed ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ is their greatest track – everyone’s entitled to be wrong I suppose.

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TimeOut told me to go to Livraria Lello – famously the world’s third best-looking bookshop. I’ve no idea about the first and second, but they must come with some sort of sexual gratification, because Livraria Lello is bloody stunning. Apparently the staircase was the inspiration for the grand one at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Sure, why not. I’m certain the whole place has been the inspiration for a great many things. With a ticket to enter (€5) you also get a discounted book. On the advice of a dear Portuguese friend of mine (Sara, if you read this, you’re the best), I picked up ‘Message’ by Fernando Pessoa, an acclaimed Portuguese poet (a gift for a pretty awesome person who loves poetry).

Back to Livraria Lello; bloody brilliant place. A couple of hundred years old, the building is stunning. A tourist hotspot for sure, but not a trap – more a celebration of literature and the calming nature of books. The staircase is busy though. My gormless mug must be in a fair few holiday snaps. Adjust your face accordingly if visiting.

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I had a little tootle down the road to the Clérigos Church. The bell tower, the Torre dos Clérgios, is 75m tall. It’s a dominating sight across the skyline of Porto – in fact, I used it as a reference point for where I was in the city for the rest of my stay. Started in 1753 and finished in 1763, the church was designed by Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni. It’s a damn impressive building. Baroque motifs are always fun – grand scale and over-the-top details. Definitely a place to visit.

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I wandered around and ended up on Rue de Cândido dos Reis, a night-time haunt of tourists and locals, but the sun was still out when I was there. I was struck by how, for such a small city, (300,000 people), Porto is full of life. And soul. The architecture is a blend of Mediterranean and Italian, with a few Moorish influences, and is all unblemished by garishness. In a word, it’s cute. I could, incredibly easily, be an old man in Porto. Under the eaves in the shade with a sea breeze, watching the world go by with an espresso and a tall cerveja. I’ve always been an old soul – and Porto seems to understand that.

 

The Great Beast

Shimmering threads fell from its body as it moved across the inky blackness. Falling neither up nor down, they floated and twirled sending their light into the nothingness. The being took great strides into the vast expanse, leaping and stalking through the blackness. With each movement, more and more silvery strands shed from its body. They began to dance with each other, taking on life and momentum of their own. Spinning, looping and threading around and around. With eyes, immeasurable in size, the great beast tracked the movement of the threads, calculating a pattern only it can perceive.

It watched for an eternity, light blazing in irises that could swallow universes. It waited. It waited as the strands began to coalesce, their dance forming into a rhythmic pulse as they bound themselves closer and closer together. A sphere formed and immense heat oscillated from its centre, vibrating in waves of song. The great beast tuned its ears to the noise, honing in to the melody.

Another eternity passed, but time has no meaning here. The song grew in grandeur and complexity, pushing out the corona of colour to distances unknown. Suddenly, and without warning, the great beast sprang up. It charged, head reared, directly at the sphere. Fangs forged of stardust bit into the sphere’s now polished surface. With tooth and claw, the great beast attacked its creation. Rend and smash, bite and slash. It was a show of primal force never to be seen again.

After countless aeons of relentless brutality, a crack appeared on the sphere’s surface. The great beast renewed its frenzied attack, focusing on growing the thin fracture. Greater now, its ferocity split the crack into a dozen others, their lines tracing a maddening pattern across the sphere. The cracks split and multiplied at a terrifying rate. The great beast raised its maw and, with one last bite, shattered the shell completely. All became white. For the briefest of instances, existence was bathed in pure creation, expanding instantly to everywhere that will ever be.

As quickly as it was, it wasn’t. White was replaced with black, but not the original nothingness there was before. It was now a different black – black studded with sparkling points of light. The great beast, exhausted beyond comprehension, waded into the velvety matter. It swam past clouds of colours, light-years across in size, bright patches against the dark background of the universe. Stars in their billions fell across the sky. Galaxies formed, reflected in the eyes of the great beast as swirls and spirals in multitudes.

The great beast carried on for a while, checking and tending to its child. Nurturing and caring for the development of all that will be, while it still could – the act of creation was a mortal wound. Time passed this way, the great beast becoming weaker and weaker, until the first planets produced their first, raw prototypes of life. The great beast saw this, the rise of fledgling life, and knew the time had come. If it could feel, its sadness would drown everything. If it could talk, its words would be ruin. With a last burst of energy, the great beast leapt across the heavens and joined the darkness from where it had come.

Conversation – Part One

There are probably three, maybe four, moments in a lifetime that change the entire course of your being. These events could be infinitesimal. Like how the light on a particular summer afternoon casts vertical bars through shuttered windows as you lie down on the floor, causing a cascade of thoughts and feelings you’ve never experienced before. Or they could be massive and permanently life-shattering – a fire hungrily consuming everything you’ve worked so hard to build and own, the flames hardening your soul as they eat and eat. Below and beyond, small, large and anything in between, these events have no determined size. Every second of every day, someone is in the middle of something that will change their life forever. Even if they don’t know it at the time.

The course of my life had always seemed set. Predetermined and rigid, like a mold I was to be poured into. I didn’t mind this at all. In fact, I thoroughly loved my life. Each step I took was already laid bare before me, easy and accessible with no major choice to make. The extent of my freewill was whether to have a cappuccino or latte – but looking back, I wonder if even that was true. It was a comfy life, one with the right amount of every constituent part to make a productive and content person.

I had a childhood with the right amount of friends, an education with the right amount of success, a family with the right amount of connections to get me a job with the right amount of money. I had the right amount of children with a wife where we shared the right amount of love and arguing. My house had the right amount of space and a garden with the right amount of flowers. I was and had the right amount of everything.

This life of mine carried on, seemingly forever. Time ticked by with no sign of changing. My story was, as far as I was concerned, done. It had been written, edited, printed and published. No new editions. No updates. But then, then I had a conversation. ‘The Conversation’ – the one that took my book, tore it up, swallowed the pieces and spat the mushy remains right into my face. An event that changed everything.

One Day

Every day starts the same, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It begins with a sound, the rhythmic tapping of rain on glass. Blowing louder in waves, receding slowly in drips and drops. I listen for a while, eyes closed and ears focused on the erratic patterns. I imagine being away, far away, trapped on a tempest-tossed boat. With each surge of rain reaching my ears, the boat sinks lower and lower into the angry churn of a vengeful sea. The rising water carries fear with it. My breathing quickens, harsh and short. A tightness forms in my chest. As if some beast of the deep is curling its long, barbed tentacles around my ribs. All at once, and with crushing force, their grip constricts. I can’t stop it. Nothing can. It happens over and over again.

The noise builds, swelling with grey foam. Hidden below the crashing waves is nothing but inky black. After a while, following a dramatic crescendo, a hand finds mine. The touch is gentle, a summer breeze, fingers tracing whirls around mine. The waters around me calm. The beast lets go, tentacles falling away, sinking back and down. I open my eyes to see her, my wife lying next to me. As always, she’s still asleep. Her reaction is instinct, solidified by so many days, so many mornings, all the same. I stay in this moment for as long as I can.

It’s mid-morning now and our bellies are full. Granola and yoghurt – she let me have the last of the honey, no matter how much I protested. She always does. We sat on the covered porch with the remains of breakfast while the rain slowed to a few listless drops. A cacophony of biology replaced the voice of rain. Birds came alive again, emerging from their shelters and calling for others. Barks, yips and calls echo around us. The sounds are familiar, like a favourite song, each note expected and anticipated.

After exactly six minutes and forty-two seconds, she breaks the silence. Time for work and she needs to get ready. Like every day before and every day to come, I beg her to stay. To sit with me and watch the world go by. To dance to old songs in our pyjamas. To sit together and read our favourite books. To stay with me and be safe. And, like every day before and every day to come, she laughs. A warm laugh, reassuring and calm. She wonders what’s got me in such a strange mood. I wish I could tell her. She gets in her car and I watch her leave.

I’m at a coffee shop, one directly opposite where my wife works. I’ve been here three hours – time for another drink. I glance up at the barista, our eyes meet and I nod. No words are needed, I get the same thing every day. As the cappuccino arrives I see my wife coming towards the shop; right on time. I call to her as she enters and a look of surprise creases her face. I told her I needed space to work, and where better than our favourite, dingy coffee shop. She doesn’t truly believe me, she never does. But I know she’s glad to see me, she always is.

The next hour is the best of my life. We talk complete nonsense and about nothing of importance. There’s a drama at her work, someone lied to someone else and is throwing everyone they can under the bus. It’s a real mess. I barely speak, just listen. I watch the way her eyes grow wide as she reaches a particularly juicy part of the story. Her arms and hands become great stage performers – wildly reliving each moment and emotion of her recounting. I am utterly and completely fascinated. It’s a haggard story, old and battered with wear and use. It’s a story I’ve heard countless times. But with each telling, I find something new to love about my wife. She’s the most marvellous teller of stories, and she’s perfected this one.

Her lunch hour is over and it’s time to say goodbye, until later at least. The urge to beg, like I did in the morning, is all-consuming. I resist, as I always do. No matter what I try, she won’t stay. And I’ve tried everything. Over and over again. I can’t help the tears forming in my eyes, but by then she’s already left. It’s started raining again, hard and fast. Out of the window I can see the grey storm clouds darkening the sky. I know it’s coming, the moment I’ve been dreading. I can’t look away, my eyes are glued to the street outside the window. To where my wife is walking.

A screech and a muffled thump. That’s all there is. You expect something as horrible as what happened to be louder, to make its mark on the world to the same level as it does on your soul. But life doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t do grandstanding. People do, though, and a few are screaming right now. I rush out into the rain and see the vision of my nightmares. A shaking man leaning on his opened car door. A terrified child holding her mother’s skirt so tight the small knuckles of her hands are white as snow. A dog on a lead, curious as to why its walk has stopped. And a body, crumpled and broken, with a crimson crown. My wife.

The next part is blurry. No matter how many times I relive the moment, I take little away from it. Flashing lights and reflective clothes. A blanket wrapped around my shoulders. A car ride. Faded white walls and luminescent lights. Sad faces and sadder words. Then I am alone. It’s just me and her. Strange, how serene she looks. She was, and is, always beautiful – but it seemed wrong to see her look so calm and unaffected. 

My tears make a rhythmic tapping where they fall on her metal bed. I will relive this day again and again. I have done so for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why. It’s been years, decades even, of this constant horror and love and longing. And no matter what I do, nothing changes. Every day ends the same, and I wouldn’t change a thing.