Monthly Archives: October 2007

A long intimacy

Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone.

— Henry Green


The face collector

There are hordes of people in this city, and many more faces. Formal stitched-up faces; faces worn in safe rooms, where they drop and fall into their natural folds; faces worn for too long, until they wear like old suitcases; smooth faces always quickly exchanged — even these I’m learning to respect.

I became a face collector out of boredom, almost out of malice. Most days I felt as if I’d been locked in a bare room. I slept badly.

All faces were masks to me then. I started with masks of authority: they were easy because they were blank or hard surfaces. With experience I made them crack and collected the tired or angry faces that emerged. At my worst I started in on the faces of my friends and family, pinpointing what I told myself were lines of weakness, amassing expressions like an anthropologist gathering totems from primitive tribes. Soon I’d assembled a mental gallery of frozen faces — nervous, prim, laughing, buffoonish — which I flicked through when I couldn’t sleep.

I stopped after I first had the dream. There were so many of them: they sat on a long bench in a park strewn with detritus. In the distance small stick-like figures were picking at the objects with long forks to no apparent purpose. I walked along the bench trying to find a way around it. They had all fallen forward into their hands. The ones I came close to sat up. I looked at the receding wave of cupped hands in horror, making a shuddering effort to stay with them, because I sensed the flayed heads that were waiting for me if I raised my gaze. I walked through the rubbish as quickly as I could, but the bench only stretched farther.

They’re gutting this town

They’re gutting this town. A new corporation clad in steel and glass is moving in, buying up land and buildings, opening up the streets and making holes down to the underworld beneath our feet, where men in blue overalls are replacing the tangled old intestines, which not so long ago conveyed the future, with sleek new cables and pipes. All the corporation’s employees wear blue. The tradesmen wear blue overalls and the office workers wear blue suits and ties. The corporation has no logo. Instead, it has patented its own shade of silvery blue, which it has given its own name. Soon half the town will be the same colour. They’re tearing out the old shops’ entrails and wiping all their different faces off – from the sombre old jewellery facades to the smirks of hip young storefronts. On my street they’re demolishing a block of flats that was once appallingly modern, and today when the blue men climbed off their machines and swaggered home they left a wall that only last month was shared by four flats on either side. I can see it from my window now, with its patchwork of paint and wallpaper, even a mirror that still hangs from it; I can see it struggling to trace the shape of the structure it no longer occupies and to bear witness to the lives that have moved elsewhere. Old pipes stick out from its sides, dripping their last digestive juices onto the rubble below. Past afternoons still cling to it: the smoke and dinners of many years, the pinch of nails, the knocks of annoyed neighbours, the sweet smell of babies, the acrid smell of anxious schoolchildren, the pungent smell of the beds of adolescents… I’m waiting to see what form the new entrails, faces, juices and smells will take under their new coat of silvery blue and steel and glass. How will they ooze down through the new cracks, how will they assert themselves now, how will they outlast the image this time?


When we were young

From time to time we meet to measure our states of mind against one another. We’ve done this at least once a year for two decades no matter where in the world and how far apart we’ve been. No one else will do. It has to be us because we’re part of each other. When we were young we wanted to go to the dogs and drag each other down. After we moved apart we wanted to disappear in solitude. We’re bonded for good or ill and have to meet from time to time. One will contact the other. If we don’t meet we both feel we won’t know ourselves fully. When we were young we were stupid and we knew we were stupid. We knew we were callow and to make sure we knew it our elders told us over and over again. But we couldn’t help cringing at ourselves. We wanted to get older so we could benefit from our hard-won experience. And now that we’re growing older it’s as we knew it would be when we were younger. We look back on our younger selves and cringe and are thankful that we’ve grown older and can benefit from our hard-won experience. And as we look back on our youth our lives become fresher because we don’t see them from the point of view of a imagined future when we’ll be able to see them from a truer perspective. Our lives are newer just as we knew they would be. Now we can meet and laugh though not quite in the way that we imagined.

The vast night

Often I gazed at you in wonder: stood at the window begun
the day before, stood and gazed at you in wonder. As yet
the new city seemed forbidden to me, and the strange
unpersuadable landscape darkened as though
I didn’t exist. Even the nearest Things
didn’t care whether I understood them. The street
thrust itself up to the lamppost: I saw it was foreign.
Over there–a room, feelable, clear in the lamplight–,
I already took part; they noticed, and closed the shutters.
Stood. Then a child began crying. I knew what the mothers
all around, in the houses, were capable of–, and knew
the inconsolable origins of all tears.
Or a woman’s voice sang and reached a little beyond
expectation, or downstairs an old man let out
a cough that was full of reproach, as though his body were right
and the gentler world mistaken. And then the hour
struck–, but I counted too late, it tumbled on past me.–
Like a new boy at school, who is finally allowed to join in,
but he can’t reach the ball, is helpless at all the games
the others pursue with such ease, and he stands there staring
into the distance,–where–?: I stood there and suddenly
grasped that it was you: you were playing with me, grown-up
Night, and I gazed at you in wonder. Where the towers
were raging, where with averted fate
a city surrounded me, and indecipherable mountains
camped against me, and strangeness, in narrowing circles,
prowled around my randomly flickering emotions–:
it was then that in all your magnificence
you were not ashamed to know me. Your breath moved tenderly
over my face. And, spread across solemn distances,
your smile entered my heart.

— Rilke (trans. S. Mitchell)

She destroyed his image

She destroyed his image. She destroyed their friends’ images. She destroyed her own image. She was left with an empty room and a handful of holiday trinkets. She destroyed those too. She lay on a rug and fell into a deep dreamless sleep. She awoke the next day. She went outside and saw him walking down the street. It was high noon. The sun was strong and everyone else in the town stayed inside. They walked together for a while in the bleaching light.

He walked across the border

Luck was waiting for him when he walked across the border into a new country. Fear covered him like a cage. But the air there was cleaner, the strays were friendlier and the inhabitants didn’t look at him as though they were trying to see through his walls. They let him wander anywhere: in the square at high noon where he swelled with smugness; in the shadows of passageways where even his sins fell short of their mark. Because they looked at him with indifferent sympathy, because they questioned him out of a dead society, he asked to become their student. They told him that wasn’t the way it worked. But they let him stay. When he drank and pointed at them they let him shout. When he fought against the bottle they let him do it his way, though he fought drunk. When he refused even his own help they let him alone. When he accused them of spiritual theft and every other crime he could think of, they said, There’s nothing to steal here: everything’s already been given. The cage began to lift. He failed into their world and grew accustomed to their concept of mercy. They said that mercy must turn in on itself afresh every day. He learned for himself to draw open the curtain first thing in the morning. He learned not to mock what he saw outside his window. This was in another country where the laws that had crushed him didn’t apply, or where the same laws crushed him differently, so that he was crushed not by solitude but by mercy, and every noon, broken in his idleness, he went back to the square where he knew he’d be counted in. And every noon his initiation was complete.