Who am I? Who are you?

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write and direct a half-hour film for one of the big motor companies – long gone now – based in the north of England. During my researches which involved, amongst other things, spending a couple of days being taken around their massive plant by a one of their technical guys, I was shown into an odd little room. It was rectangular, about six metres long by three wide, and about three high. There were no windows and just the one door. The walls and ceiling were completely covered in what I can only describe as being like the reverse side of hundreds of egg boxes – thousands upon thousands of small brown pyramids pointing out into the room. The room was an anechoic chamber. Not many of them around. But its name, I guess, is self-explanatory – i.e. as far as can be made possible, no sound whatever penetrates this room from the world beyond its closed door.

What its function was in a motor-manufacturing plant I’ve now forgotten. But I was so intrigued by the idea that my guide offered to let me spend ten minutes in that room, on my own, with the door shut. I jumped at the chance. He indicated to me the one item of furniture – a plain wooden chair – and left me sitting on it, saying he’d be back in ten minutes. The door closed behind him. Th e silence that immediately descended was so thick if felt almost as though it had hit me. In our normal, everyday lives we don’t encounter silence – not a real and total absence of all  sound.   

 A very strange feeling came over me. Not only had the world around me suddenly changed quite dramatically, but it seemed also that my relationship with my own self was shifting in some odd way. Visually, my world was a claustrophobic, virtually featureless brown bunker. And the more I looked around at it, the more it took on a sense of being an intangible, abstract nothing. The only sounds I could hear were that of the blood pumping in my veins, and the strange creak of muscle and bone as I moved my head. Clap your hands or call out – and the sound seems to travel nowhere; it’s dead; it has the bizarre feeling of not having left your hands or to have emerged from your mouth. For nothing bounces it back. Then the mind, in an attempt to make sense of this, starts to go to some strange places – like – as nothing bounces it back, is that because there’s nothing out there anyway??

 This is all seriously weird and disorienting. Some people apparently have come close to panic in these circumstances. I tried hard to get my head around it both at the time and since. And it was with something of a shock I realized that unless you’re one of those among us who are born profoundly deaf, your own view of yourself and who you actually are is dependent to an enormous degree on the echo – aural and visual – that constantly bounces back at you from the world around you. Take all that echo away and – well, who are you? Are you who you thought you were? And are you that person only because of your relation to the world around you?

 OK, I’m John – or Joan – Smith and I’m twenty. Or forty. Fifty, whatever. But when I think about it, I wasn’t John or Joan until my parents gave me that name. Until then, I existed nameless. Yet still very much ‘me’. And I guess my name anyway, is no more than a convenient label; something by which others can identify me. And I can change it – in the UK at least. I can call myself pretty well whatever I like. If the fancy takes me, I can be known hereafter as Heironymous Buggins. So my name is not part of the essential ‘me’. So what is?

 My job? (Assuming I’m lucky enough to have one) My three-bedroom house and my nice car? They’re part of who I am. Or are they? Like my name, those things can change. I could lose my job. Or do some entirely different job. Then maybe we’d move to the Outer Hebrides, get a camper van and sell the car. So those things are not part of the real ‘me’ either. And I suppose by the ‘real me’ I’m starting to think of as that something that has persisted despite all these changes. Because something has.

 OK – got it! My memories! They are permanent. And mine. Nobody else’s. 

I was just thinking of that wonderful summer holiday you and I had in Scotland.

It was autumn. Not summer. The trees were all those beautiful golds and reds.

I’ve never been to Scotland in the autumn.

Yes, you have – don’t you remember? – it was that summer when you had the operation on your foot and couldn’t drive for a couple of months so we put it off to October.

Ah no. You’re getting mixed up. That was the summer before. I know that because your mother came for a couple of weeks in the early part and the three of us spent a week at that lovely pub – The Crown – in Dorset.

Was that the name – ‘The Crown’?

That, or ‘The Kings Head’.

Mmm. You’re right.

Good to look back on lovely memories, isn’t it?

 And so on and so on. What memories? What do we actually remember? What can we recall faithfully? Others there at the same event can be guaranteed to recall it slightly differently. And at best we recall bits here, bits there. Most of the things we remember, we eventually forget.

 So memories are out. But ‘I’ – whatever that is – is still there throughout. In the spaces between the memories, that ‘I’ is still there in the background. Or the foreground – I’m not sure which. 

But if memories are out – what does that leave me with? My body? That’s promising. My body’s been there from the time before I had a name, right up to this minute. And it’ll be there till I die.

Wait a minute – what have I just said? ‘It will be there till I die’. Sounds a bit like I think ‘I’ and my body are two different things. And anyway, why do I refer to it as ‘my’ body? Like ‘I’ own it. I use the word ‘my’ only for things that are mine; things I own. And if ‘I’ own ‘my’ body – like I own my computer and my bicycle – it’s clear that at some level of my being I see ‘I’ and this body as being separate. Oh dear. And as I think about it – the body I have now is not the body I had before I had a name. Nor is it the body I’ll have when I die. The reason being that the cells in the body are constantly being regenerated. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus about how often the whole body is replaced in this way. But it’s clear that the body I live in now is either wholly or partly a different one from the one I had before I was called John. Or Joan. Or whatever. Heironymous.

 Where does that leave me? ‘I’ can’t be my body. I’m not my memories, my home, my car, my job, my name. All those things are just elements in a sort of story. Yet something – some will-o’-the-wisp – has persisted uninterrupted all the time from my birth through all these other events and changes across the years. And it’s here now too as I write this.

 

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 6

Here is the sixth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is –https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/

15.

‘Dear Frank,
Thank you for the kind invitation, but this time I won’t if you don’t mind. I think I’m starting to come to terms with this, at least as much as I’m ever going to. So it’s best I stay here until I’m back on my feet emotionally. Then perhaps I’ll come. That’s if you and Martha will still have me.
‘How could he do this? That’s the question I keep asking myself. What had he been keeping from me? In saying that I’m assuming it’s of his own volition. I daren’t think of the other possibilities. You hear such dreadful things.
‘Now the bye-election’s well and truly out of the way, interest from the Westminster clan seems finally to have faded away. I’ve heard nothing from that quarter for a time now. I had become heartily sick of going over the whole thing yet again for some inquisitive nonentity making out he or she was devastated.
‘You asked about Barney and me. We’ve had our ups and downs, but who hasn’t? Generally it’s been a close and trusting relationship. That’s one of the reasons why this whole thing is just so incomprehensible. We’ve been together over sixteen years.
‘HJ came to see me a while back now. Thank you for the introduction. What a strange little man. Have you noticed his shoes, how incredibly highly polished they are? I suppose he knows what he is doing. He seemed mostly concerned with that person B claimed to have seen in the garden. I’m sure in reality he was a figment of B’s imagination which could be quite fertile, as you know.
‘People are friendly enough here in Ludlow but I don’t know any of them well enough to talk to about this and I still get stared at in the street. I would have hoped they had better things to think about after all this time. I had considered going down to London for a while. I love the London flat, but if I were there I’d still feel at risk of odd people dropping round when they had nothing else to do, drinking my gin and going over it all again. Here I feel safe from all that.
‘Thank you for your kindness. Love to Martha. I’ll write again soon.
‘Ellen
‘P.S. I may email you – if I can learn how to do it. B hated the computer and I never touched it, but I feel almost drawn to it now. It might be a window on the world. I must sign up for a course. Watch this space!’

16.

I emerged from Lime Street Station. It was my first ever visit to Liverpool. In different circumstances I would have been eager to look around. But the priority was to find somewhere to lay my head that night. I had no intention of stopping someone and asking them. Cabs were out – the drivers talk and peer at you in their rear-view mirrors. I figured the best thing was to walk in a straight line till I came to a hotel. It’s a big city, there had to be plenty.
I’d walked for no more than ten minutes when I came upon one of those hotels that has minimal services, but reasonable rooms at reasonable prices. That’s the sort of thing. As I approached the double doors I caught sight of my full-length reflection in the glass frontage. I wasn’t a pretty sight. I just had to hope they wouldn’t hold that against me. I pushed on the door and stepped resolutely inside.
The attractive young lady on Reception greeted me without turning a hair. I presumed the birthplace of so much rock and pop was pretty much at ease with the disreputable and odd-looking. I gave the name of ‘Brown’, home address – 126 Endell Street, Halifax, West Yorkshire. I was rather pleased with myself – there was no number 126 in Endell Street. Or there hadn’t been, back in the old days. She accepted my cash payment for one night plus breakfast box left outside the room at 7.30am. Then smiled, handed me one of those flimsy key card things, and said with a delightful Liverpool lilt, “That’s brilliant.”
I went up to my room. Took a few minutes to settle in, then went out again to find the shops. It was time now to get myself a wardrobe as opposed to a disguise.

It was a huge, pedestrianized shopping precinct, packed with people. I had constantly to fight a temptation to look over my shoulder. In this day and age, when you set out to disappear, you soon realize what you’re up against. Every step you take is monitored by a closed-circuit camera fixed to the wall of a building or up on its own pole like a stork’s nest, swivelling, zooming in. Across the country, uniformed voyeurs must pry, twenty-four-seven. Looking for what? Petty malcontents? Pickpockets? Down women’s cleavage? Drunks? Malingerers? Benefit cheats? While the wheels of big business and the City grind us all to fools with impunity.
My heart suddenly hit the walls of my chest. Outside a newsagent’s shop – Christ – a hand-scrawled news placard – ‘AWOL POLITICIAN – STILL NOTHING’. It was near the end of the day and what few newspapers were left were clipped into a rack on the wall. I daren’t look at them, yet I had to. I sidled over to them. The story, though not the main one, was front page on two of them. And those two were folded so that only the first few lines of the story were visible. While trying to give the impression I was looking at something in the shop window, I screwed my head and eyes around to try and read the top one.
“There is still no news of the whereabouts of Barnaby Marechal, Member of Parliament for South Melford, who has not been seen since delivering a talk three nights ago to a local business people’s association in Carlisle. Mr Marechal, regarded as something of a maverick within the party, is popular with the public. A close friend of the Marechals, Mr Frank Lippincote who called in the police after being contacted late at night by Marechal’s wife to say that he had not returned home, told this paper that there was, as yet, no reason to be alarmed. “Mister Marechal, regarded by many at Westminster as something of a maverick, is given to doing things very much his own way. His often unorthodox behaviour can sometimes be – ”
The rest was hidden behind the rack. I walked quickly away. ‘Can sometimes be’ what, Frank? I’d have given a lot to know the end of that sentence. I headed towards a large Marks and Spencer’s. And ‘maverick’, eh? Seems you don’t have to stray far off the beaten track to be ‘a maverick’ these days.

On the way back from the shops I bought a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of red wine. I took them, along with my shopping, to my room. As it seemed ever more likely I was actually going to go ahead with this brainstorm, I tried to think through, while I ate, the practical problems I was facing. I was looking at a mountain. I tried to bring order to my racing thoughts. My mind however, does not take readily to order. I ended up juggling a plethora of more or less random concerns.
Where was money going to come from? There was plenty in the bank. But I had no way of getting my hands on it. Holes in walls, cheques were out. Anything involving my name was out. Everything today involves your name and/or your address/phone number/email address. I still had most of those few hundred quid in my pocket. But my bank accounts were effectively redundant, I could cash no bonds, sell no shares, sell no property. I was marooned on an island of my own making.
Another thing – what, in the long run, will happen to my property? The flat in London is in Ellen’s name. But what about our lovely farmhouse in Herefordshire? If I manage to evade discovery permanently and never, ever reappear as who I was, I will be considered dead after – I think it’s seven years. In which case, everything would go to Ellen, being at the moment, the sole beneficiary of my will. A will which, as things now stand, I can’t amend. Which means that Matt, assuming I ever find him, will get nothing from me on my death. Had I planned all this in advance, instead of simply jumping off a train one afternoon, it could all have been very carefully thought through. On the other hand, had I planned it in advance I doubt I’d ever have had the courage to do it in the first place. I finished my meal in a state of great agitation, feeling guilty and vulnerable. I found myself almost wishing I had religion. If I believed in a God I presume I’d at least feel less alone.
I picked up my glass of wine, took it with me to the window where I looked out into the Liverpool night. An impressive clutch of neoclassical buildings were bathed in amber floodlighting. Traffic swirled around a busy junction like reflections of lights on water. Beyond that, the brightly lit proscenium-arch-like entrance to Lime Street Station across which passed the silhouettes of pedestrians – walk-on artists in this amateur film of my life.
A strange inner silence was rising up in and around me. The scene before me became just moving images on a screen. My agitation dissolved. I stood very still and held all thought away. The image before me sank deeper and deeper inside me until it was almost as though I experienced it not simply as a sight somewhere out there in front of me but as part of my own self. Or was I part of it? I couldn’t tell. Nor did it matter. It felt like a jumping-off point. A moment before birth.
I slept well that night. I took it as a good sign. Perhaps after all, I was doing the right thing, or at least the best thing in the circumstances. Sleep seemed also to have clarified my thoughts. As I sat by the window with my breakfast box, chewing on its depressingly unappetising contents, it came at me out of the blue – there was a source of money – money I had once vowed I would never, ever touch. But in making that vow I could never have envisaged these circumstances. Martin Cosgrove. Do I hear Dad’s laughter from the grave? Cosgrove – family lawyer since the year dot. Good man, old school, discreet, utterly trustworthy. And a gentleman.
There was no phone in the room. My mobile was in two separate pieces. There was however a bank of public telephones in Reception.

“Martin?”
“Speaking. Who’s that?”
“Bernat. It’s Bernat.”
“I’m sorry – Bernard – ?”
“No – Bernat. Bernat Horvat-Marshal.”
Long silence. Then a muted, “Goodness gracious.”
“How are you, Martin?”
“Bernat. Well, well. after all this time! What – ?”
“Martin – listen. Before we go any further, I have not rung you. OK?”
“Sorry. You what, old boy? You have not – ?”
“I have not rung you. This phone call has not happened.”
“Right.” He thought for a second. “OK. I think perhaps I understand.”
“I’m in a public box in a hotel. I’m going to keep my voice down and I have to make this quick. I need to see you ASAP. And I need money. Real money. Think about it – I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Just give me a second to get my head around this. OK. I think maybe I do.”
“But I can’t meet you in your office. I can’t meet anywhere where there are people.”
“My house? It’s out of town in Woking. A reasonably affluent part of – ”
“But you have neighbours, don’t you?”
“Is that a – ?”
“Suppose they see me arrive? Or leave? No, it’s got to be out in the open. Wimbledon Common. Streatham Common. Primrose Hill.”
“In that case, I need a minute to drum my fingers on my desk. Er – think, think, think. OK – how about this then? Two average elderly gents sitting by the river with fishing rods in their hands. Wouldn’t excite a lot of interest, would they?”
“Go on. Where?”
“Do you know a place called Laleham?”
“Near Staines?”
“That’s the one. I sometimes go fishing there on a Sunday.”
“Sounds good. When can we do it?”
“Where are you? And how much money have you with you?”
“Liverpool. And nowhere near enough.”
“Do I presume you don’t have a mobile phone?”
“You do, yes.”
“It would be useful. Dare I say, essential?”
“Nor do I have a place to live.”
“Dear, dear, Bernat. This is somewhat off my map. First, I suggest you get a mobile.”
“That can be traced.”
“I have a couple of old ones. You’d better have one of them. I’ve got an unused sim card around somewhere. I can put that in one of them and courier it up to you. How long can you keep going with the cash you have?”
“Two or three days. But I really need to get back to London and get myself a cheap room somewhere. Then I can – ”
Martin chuckled. “I think you might look a long time for a ‘cheap’ room.”
“I’m not thinking Highgate or Dulwich.”
“Kilburn. The Harrow Road even.”
“OK. So where – ?”
“Listen. Get down here and book yourself for one night into any really cheap hotel. Can you bear that?”
“I’m getting used to it.”
“When you’ve done that, let me know where you are – use the mobile I’ll send you – and I can have cash round to you in a couple of hours. Then you can go and find a room at your leisure.”
“Martin – I’m in awe.”
“It’s the crime fiction I read, Bernat.” He laughed, a little self-consciously. “Once that’s done we can fix up our fishing trip.”
“And Martin – I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but I have to stay utterly off the radar. I caught a glimpse of a newspaper yesterday and I seemed to have almost star billing.”
“A forty-eight hour Tube strike starts here today. A woman in Surbiton or somewhere has given birth to quads or quins – one or the other. You’re cold potatoes. And incidentally, worry not – I won’t ask what this is about. If you want to tell me, that’s a different matter.”
“There’s a whole lot of stuff I need to talk to you about.”
“I can imagine.”
“No Martin, you can’t. You really can’t”

With Martin’s phone in my pocket, I caught an early train to London. I booked a room in a hotel in the Kilburn area – a place calling itself ‘Wiltshire House’. By comparison, the ‘Welcome’ in Wigan bordered on the genteel. The cash from Martin turned up at nine-thirty the following morning. I set off to find myself a bed-sitter. Like he had said, they weren’t cheap. In fact, given the state of most of them, they were criminally exorbitant. But I had cash, and by the end of the day, with the help of an agent I would not, in other circumstances, have trusted any further than I could have thrown him, I was the accredited tenant of a bed-sitter. It was on the top floor of a seedy Victorian house in a street just off Kilburn High Road Road. It was mean and it was depressing. But I could hide away in it with more confidence than in any middle-class enclave.
Taking up almost the whole of one side of the room, was a huge double bed. It would have slept a family of four. By the way it sagged in the middle, it looked like it had. I tried hard not to imagine what might have gone on in it. It had ugly wooden posts at each corner, on which I hung articles of clothing and my shopping bag.
The ‘kitchen’ – as the agent had described it – was simply a partitioned off slice of the same room with a mini electric oven and a cheap fridge which had no freezer. It was cramped, ill-ventilated with just one tiny window. Boil a kettle in it and it steamed up. Cook a whole meal and you’d risk getting trench foot.
A couple of houses along the road, a viaduct carrying the Underground trains crossed the road, vaulting the rooftops. Every thirty seconds or so in the rush hour, the whole building shook as another loaded train juddered by virtually overhead, rattling windows, glasses and crockery.
I shared this top floor with two women. The older one I guessed to be in her mid-forties, the younger around her late twenties. I never saw them apart. Their clothes were so lacking in colour, it seemed that had to be by design. The younger one had very short hair, cut like that of a boy in the 1950’s. From their room which was right next to mine, no sound ever emerged – no radio, TV, music, no animated voices. Were it not for the fact that they’d said in unison a rather timid, ‘Good morning,’ to me the day I moved in, I might have thought they were profoundly deaf. There was never a man around. Although not on that account alone, I sensed they were lesbians. They intrigued me, and via what little contact I had with them, I liked them.
I shared with them the bathroom and the cramped little toilet across the landing. At first, the toilet sort of bothered me. Though I’m not sure why. There was always a can of air freshener in there. And a spare toilet roll. Being the newcomer I was to bed-sitter living, I had to think about what protocol there might be around toilet rolls – especially as the others involved were two women. I could hardly expect them to provide me with toilet paper. And to take my own personal toilet roll in and out with me seemed distinctly mean-minded. The next occasion on which I was the first to start on the standby roll, I left a replacement.
It worked. That’s how we carried on – whoever was the first to start on the standby roll, supplied the replacement. The arrangement was never referred to. A discussion with the two women about toilet roll arrangements would likely have embarrassed them hugely. And me, for that matter.
It had been an odd experience. Challenging in its way. And I was pleased with myself. I’d navigated my way successfully past what might have been an awkward social impasse.

The only other resident in that house of whom I was ever aware was a man who lived on the ground floor. I would glimpse him only occasionally when his coming in or going out coincided with mine. He was anything between early thirties and late forties. Though beardless, he looked permanently unshaven with thick, heavy brows. His black hair was long and his clothes never looked really clean. He never spoke. His eyes were black and quite unreadable. He gave me the impression of repressing some terrible anger. His proximity, fleeting though it always was, occasioned in me a troubling uncertainty. Unlike the women next door, he appeared to have no regular hours. There was never any telling if or when he’d be around.
In the time I was there however, he did me no harm. Nor anybody else I was aware of. I decided in the end that he was perhaps just one of the disturbed and disturbing individuals whose presence was par for the course in that stratum of society. How remote from the lives of ordinary people had I, along with so many in the Westminster village, become.

For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk

And if anyone reading this knows the wonderful La Bruschetta in Crystal Palace, London SE19 – there’s a free copy in there. Or there was. It may well have disappeared by now!

 

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One sunny afternoon

England, one afternoon in Spring. It was sunny, with very little wind. I was the only walker on the path that runs along the ridge of the hills at that point. On my left, only a few kilometres away to the south, the sea with a brilliant sun reflecting off it. On my right, inland, a huge stretch of green and rural England.

 I turned off the main path and took a smaller one that led down through the thick woods that clothed the sides of the hills. A few metres down this path, I branched off again onto a very narrow and little-used track that dropped steeply downwards. I often walked this track and knew it well. There was a deep silence in those woods, broken only by the songs of birds – especially at this time of the year when migratory arrivals from Africa were still settling in – and the occasional rustling above me where whatever breeze there was stirred the topmost branches of the trees.

 I knew many of the trees along that path; I knew the eccentricities of the path my feet had to negotiate. In places it was hardly wide enough to walk on, and at one point dropped dramatically away on one side into the deep crater left by a Second World War bomb ditched by German aircrew to help speed their getaway over the Channel after an air raid on London seventy kilometres to the north.

 I was about a quarter of the way down this track that day when I had a sudden sense that I was not alone. I had company. But I’d heard no footfalls; there was no evidence whatever of another person. Strangely too, I felt no need to stop and look around. I just kept walking. And as I walked, this sense of some other presence alongside me grew. There was no dismissing it; I knew – with a knowledge beyond all knowing – that it was there, that it was infinitely benign – and it was real. Tears came to my eyes. I knew not only of its presence, but also that it was not, in itself, an entity – it was a one-ness; it extended through me and into everything around me – the trees, the grasses, the wild flowers, birds, insects, the sky above me and the earth at my feet. Everything was one; everything, I was aware, is interdependent on everything else. It brought to me a feeling which I can only describe as bliss.

 Along with all that, I knew two other things. First, this profound thing, whatever it was, would be with me for only seconds. Also, I knew instinctively not to ‘think’ about it. Not to use my mind to try and understand, analyse and label it. It was coming from somewhere where the mind does not reach. Direct the mind on it, and it would be gone. I tried therefore just to ‘be’ with it, and stay with it until it had gone.

 How long it lasted, I don’t know – I had no sense of time. But looking back it was probably a minute at most. I felt it fading, and with it went my tearfulness, until both were gone. And there I was, once again, just a bloke walking down a path in the woods. But something had changed.

 I can’t explain it. It’s beyond explanation. It confirmed for me what I’d long felt – that we, and everything in the world around us and beyond, even out to the furthest stars, are all one indivisible entity.

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Scuffles in the playground

There’s something going on in the UK at the moment. Perhaps you’ve heard about it. Something that’s exercising the newspapers and politicians no end. But to listen to the banalities spouted by both lots (with a few notable exceptions) you’d think it was some sort of playground spat or scuffle. But no – that’s just the level to which the debate (‘debate’?) has descended. What we’re actually engaged in is trying to decide if this country – i.e. the United Kingdom (bit of a misnomer these days) – should remain as part of the European Union; or if it should get out and – as those who want to leave so nostalgically refer to it – go it alone. You know, like we did during the Battle of Britain. When we stood alone against Nazi Germany – Great Britain’s finest hour. Well, partly Poland’s finest hour as well – many of the pilots in that battle were Poles. Indeed, as it’s reputed they were some of the most accomplished and daring, I suppose it’s possible that without the Poles we might have lost.

Anyway – UK  in or UK out? Who knows? How’s the average Brit to know or form any sort of informed opinion? Half the government are on one side shouting “Yah-boo” to the other half of the same government who, in turn, shout, “Yah-boo” back. It’ll encourage immigration says one lot; it’ll have no effect on immigration says the other. It’ll mean Brits will lose jobs; it will make British jobs more secure. It will set the economy back; it will give a boost to the economy. It will mean – well, you can go and and on. And they do. It’s meaningless.

In the end, I think for most people, it’s going to be a gut reaction. The politicians’ blathering carries little weight. And in any case, who, these days, trusts politicians? So – with such a dearth of trustworthy opinion around, I suspect the average Brit will vote on a gut reaction, and that that won’t really slot into place until the day of the referendum itself. I’m not going to say which side I think will prevail. I’ve no idea. All I do feel, very strongly, is that if we come out, it will shoot the final hole in the hull of an already foundering ship – the S.S. Great Britain.

The original wellspring from which came the idea of a united Europe, was not an economic one. Its origins lie deeper than that. They lie in a movement that crosses centuries and has probably been going on since further back than history can see. Social groups have always been getting together – usually as a result of prolonged conflict – with others to form larger social groups. This very island, at present called the United Kingdom or Great Britain –  whatever you prefer –  was once, a mere two thousand years ago, home to umpteen separate tribes. They fought each other. They slaughtered each other. Until the Romans appeared. Then they fought the Romans but the Romans were better armed, better trained and altogether better at it – and won. They pulled all those disparate groups together – more or less. The island was set on a road to unification on which, despite the eventual demise of its Roman conquerors, and despite being shaken by almost endless conflicts since, it has never seriously turned its back. Would anyone want to return to a tribal Britain?

To my mind, the European Union is one of the most remarkable and positive institutions ever created. After the bloodiest war in the troubled history of this planet, a small group of nations said, “OK. That’s it. Enough.” The continent had torn itself and its inhabitants, physically and emotionally apart in an appalling, insane way for centuries. “Let’s call it a day,” they said. And for the first time in world history, a band of nations agreed to forget fighting each other and to try and find a way of living in peace together. That small number has grown and grown and now stands at twenty-eight.

In the debate in the UK about whether to stay or leave, many, many things are uncertain, even un-knowable. However, one thing – and perhaps it’s the only thing – is certain. It’s unthinkable that any country in the European Union would declare war, whatever the provocation, on another in the Union. If we in the UK remain where we are, we are part of that now huge – population over 500 million – territory of peace. It’s an example to the rest of the world. Remember the London blitz? Remember Dresden? If you’re too young, no problem – look at the TV news tonight or any night. It’s still going on – the killing, the pain, the destruction and despair. Is that what you want? Try reading ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’; watch the film ‘Stalingrad’, or ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, or ‘Paths of Glory’.

If I have a choice of whether I want to be in that group of peace-seeking nations, or be on the outside, labouring under some nationalistic delusion about ‘going it alone’, having my country back and being able to secure our own borders, blah, blah,blah – well, I don’t have to choose. I want to live in peace; I want my children and their children to live in peace. And that I believe, is in any case, the direction in which the world is starting to turn. However much the opposite may appear to be the case, I believe our world, driven by an instinct far more profound and meaningful than anybody’s economy, is slowly, laboriously, painfully growing together. It’s the only way we’re going to survive. Without it, we’re a doomed species. I want to stay in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 5

Here is the fifth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is – https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/

11.

The interior of the house in Endell Street was green. Everywhere painted green. An oily green which had been applied over layer upon layer of previous colours so that the mouldings on all door and window frames were smoothed to a shine. And washing drying – always there was washing drying. Towelling nappies, babygrows. Everywhere the smell of baby powder. I hear his crying in the night, waking us from sleep. Me first, most times, being the lighter sleeper. I walk around in the night jiggling him up and down in my arms hoping he’ll soon go down again, then sleep, letting me get just a little more. The floral wallpaper in the bedroom, with those strange, orange leaves. The sounds of late-night people outside, going home. That’s where he began. So that, I guess, is where I too should begin.
In this age of the computer I should be able to do it all from my armchair. It’s all out there. Information on everything imaginable. But I hate computers and the only one I have – in my study in Ludlow – hates me back. I’ve had it two years and have hardly used it, and then only when I’ve had no other option. Most of the time at Westminster I got others to do that sort of thing for me – often a little grudgingly, but I made the most of my ignorance, smiled nicely and applied a little charm. It worked. OK – it’s all very well. But that way you either forget how to do things for yourself, or never find out in the first place.
I know how to read, write and send an email. I can look up a website. If I had to, I might even figure out how to use one of those memory sticks. Beyond that I flounder. I could learn. I could take a course. But I couldn’t sit with other people in night school or an internet café. I’m no celebrity politician but my face is still enough known for me to be recognized. And even if all that were surmountable, there’s another thing. Computers aren’t that clever. Despite their mind-numbing speed and ingenuity, they can be manipulated – so I’m told – by any devious chancer with the appropriate technical know-how into coughing up all your personal information, down to credit card details and which keys you’ve pressed on the keyboard. That on its own would be, for me, a deal breaker.
Where does that leave me? Halifax. Endell Street. Number 26. I need to see the house again. To look at it from the other side of the street. The privet hedge that bordered its front garden. The irregular raised lines in the road which marked where once had stood the outside walls of the wartime air-raid shelters. The recreation ground at the end of the road. With the two slides – one for the ‘big kids’ and one for the toddlers. I used to take Matt on the toddlers’. Put my arms around his warm little body and hold him tight on my lap as we slid down. That slide wasn’t much taller than me, but to him it was an Everest and he loved and was terrified by it all at the same time. “Again! Again!” I wearied of it long before he ever did. I never knew in those days what all that meant to me. As I think about it now I’m often overwhelmed with such sadness I feel sometimes my heart will break. God, what have I done?
I have to go to Endell Street.
12.

Stella was working class, her father a bus driver. We met when we were both at Oxford. We had a fling. We spent a lot of time walking hand-in-hand through Christchurch Meadow, punting on the Cherwell, drinking in the town pubs and doing the things undergraduates do. We also spent a lot of time in bed. In those days it was not easy. Colleges were gender-specific, as the toe-curling jargon goes. Trinity was all men, St Hilda’s all women. The opposite sex was banned from undergraduates’ rooms after about ten o’clock in the evening. It was a brave or desperate couple that ignored it. But then, in those days, most of us were pretty desperate, if not actually brave. If you were caught, the person of the offending gender would be summarily kicked out of the building and the other, as likely as not, booted out of the university. Or at best, rusticated, sent down, summarily sacked.
After our first swift, guilt-ridden and panicky encounter in my cupboard of a bedroom overlooking The Broad, I found us a hotel – a mile or so up the Iffley Road. It was a fleapit. But during our six months together it served its purpose. The end came when Stella suspected I was two-timing her. I was. The lady in question being Licia Harper-Downes.
Licia was a postgraduate student at Somerville College and daughter of Sir Gregory Harper-Downes, a faded member of the landed aristocracy. It had, said Stella, to be all-Stella or no-Stella. I didn’t like ultimatums so opted for the latter.
She was a lovely woman, Licia. Strong, proud, sexy and with great integrity. I liked her a lot. But in sheer emotional maturity she was in a league beyond me. We lasted a year. I hardly noticed in those far off days qualities she had which when I look back, cause me even now to regret just a little her passing so soon from my life. But I was lured away by Susie – a curvaceous, flirtatious sexual plum. She hung ripe from a very willing tree. All I had to do was reach out and pick it.
Susie worked in one of the huge vehicle manufacturing plants at the far end of the Cowley Road. They were powerhouses where men earned huge wages. They ran 24 hours a day, weekends included, as they struggled to meet the global hunger for British made. Laughable now. Susie and I met in the Post Office in St Aldates one Saturday morning. One of her heels had broken off. I persuaded a nice lady cashier – it was easier in those days – to lend me some glue and a roll of sellotape with which I stuck the heel back on again, enough at least to get her home.
Susie was cheap, ebullient, provocative, just a little coarse and a pathological flirt. She was irresistible. She’d probably had it off with half the shop floor, and if she hadn’t, that was the impression she set out to give. She was good for a thrill. That’s what we had, and that’s all we had, and it burned itself out in a couple of months. I entered my last term at Trinity – my Finals’ term – womanless. A good thing.
After our split, Stella and I had avoided each other for the final eighteen months of our time at Oxford. But something of her was always with me – some trace in the air, some will-o’-the-wisp. I would find myself thinking about her at odd moments – sometimes even when I was in bed with Susie. I’d wonder how she was, what she was doing, who she was with. So it was with utter astonishment, about a year after we’d both gone down, that I bumped into her in a pub one lunchtime – in Halifax of all places. I was nine months into a management trainee course in that town and she was visiting a client on behalf of the textile company she worked for some fifty miles away. She was as delighted as I was. Fate, it seemed, had brought us back together.

Trouble lay ahead. Doesn’t it always. Mother had become more British than the British. She seemed to have acquired the belief that if, like us Marshals, you owned your own business, had a big house, a large car and a lot more money than most, then something in the air in this land automatically elevated your social status.
I loved my mother. But her snobbery hurt and embarrassed me. She’d had grandiose plans for me. Her only begotten was to sup at high table. His path into adulthood was to be Rugby School and Christchurch College Oxford. Thence onward into the Civil Service in which he would become a famous diplomat, perhaps an ambassador to some ‘important country’, as she put it – whatever an ‘important country’ was.
But already I had punctured many of her illusions. ‘Rugby, Christchurch, the Civil Service’ was a mantra, burned into her brain which irritated me even in my teens. I asked her where she’d got it from. It was meaningless.
She drew herself up to her full height. “It is well known in all the world,” she replied with a splendidly vacuous hauteur, “that Eton, then Christchurch College, Oxford and the English Civil Service is the best.”
“The best what?” I’d asked.
“The best education – what you think? The best there is in the whole world!”
“So where does Eton figure in, ‘Rugby, Christchurch, Civil Service’”?
She thrust her still beautiful face into mine and hissed, “You want not to go where your father went?? What is the matter with you?”
I made Rugby. Dad had been educated there – and we had money. They appeared to be the main requirements. I didn’t make Christchurch College, Oxford or the Civil Service. I made Trinity College, Oxford which was just as good and more than I’d ever hoped for. As for the Civil Service, I made no attempt. At the end of my three years at university, the thought of working in an office, travelling to it en masse, decked out in bowler hat and striped trousers, looking forward, at the end of it all, to a glass or two of sherry and a carriage clock, filled me with dread. I applied for, and was accepted, as a management trainee with an engineering firm in Halifax.
“For pity’s sake!” shrieked Mother. “Not content with doing some working class thing, you go to live in the North!” She spat the word out as though Halifax were only just this side of the Arctic Circle. And with that, Mother’s dreams for me were almost in tatters. Though not quite. That was soon to come.
Dad was no more pleased than Mother, though for different reasons. I had long ago made it plain to him that, despite the pressure he put on me, I was not interested in working alongside him in his textile business which he’d hoped I would ultimately take over. Industry had never attracted me – so I’d claimed and so I’d believed. Dad’s round of conferences, hotels, big lunches, lobbying dressed up as entertainment, golf, dinner parties with freeloading sycophants, long-haul flights and never-ending office meetings was no more my idea of a life than the Civil Service. So when I announced I was, after all, going into industry – but not his industry – I felt the depths of his disappointment. Even so, he had the grace to mumble, with just a suggestion of a smile on his face, that at least – as he put it – I’d joined the boys.
I’d surprised even myself. But the fact was I’d had no burning ambition to do anything in particular – par for the course with the vast majority of us in Oxford in those days. All my personal associates, with the one exception of dear Licia, acknowledged they wanted a career. They just didn’t know which one. There was no pressure. In those days, it wasn’t a question of ‘if’ you got a job – simply of which job you would get. Consequently, the criterion generally became what convivial, well-paid working life could one achieve, doing whatever, wherever. And that is the impression I got of the Halifax job, from the then Careers Office in Oxford. For a traineeship it paid well. Halifax, as I discovered when I went for the interview, was an attractive town, and it was far enough from Northampton for the parents not to be tempted to come a-visiting too often.
Then to cap it all, there, by one of those chances – or is it? – which fate throws in from time to time to confuse you, I meet in a pub one lunchtime, my old flame, Stella. We met up again after work for a drink. We went on to a restaurant and from there to my small bedsit. She returned by cab to her hotel in the early hours. We were on the road to being, once again, an item. A month later, I announced to my parents my intention of marrying her.
That was the final nail in the coffin of Mother’s dreams. Her only begotten son really was going to be carried off and cared for by another woman. And a working class woman at that – the final indignity. Right up to that moment I think she had somehow, despite all the evidence, deceived herself into believing that the life she had so long wanted for me – and therefore for herself by proxy – one of prestige and society glamour, independent in most practical senses of Dad – could somehow, in some fantastical, never-never land still happen, thus bypassing the wasteland into which she saw herself otherwise headed. But that closed the door on it. Before her lay a future of making small talk with a bus driver’s family.
Stripped of her illusions, she was devastated. She had little to fall back on. Her marriage was one in name only; her wounds from the past were still open and weeping. I feel even now a great sadness. For all her overweening pride and authoritarian arrogance, she was at heart a hurt, confused and seriously wounded little girl. She did only what she could do. None of us can do more.
13.

The rain pounded on the window.
“Draw the curtains, Al!” she whispered hoarsely. “The curtains.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “They are closed.”
“Not properly, they’re not.”
He rolled off the bed and scuttled across the room in his underwear. He peered out through the narrow gap between the cheap, floral curtains.
“Hurry up.”
“Still pissing down.” He drew the curtains together. Then hurried back, dragging his Y-fronts off as he went, and throwing them with a flourish across the room.
“Oooh!” she exclaimed gleefully, “look at that!”
“Full of eastern promise, my dear.” He scrambled onto the bed beside her.
“Now there speaks a real advertising man!”
“That’s me. Always on the job.”
Shrieking with laughter, she threw her arms around his neck.
He nuzzled into her. “You know what they say about real admen, don’t you?” He took one of her nipples gently in his mouth.
“No. What do they say? Oi, karamba! Tell me quickly before I lose interest.”
“Let me show you.” He took one of her hands and placed it gently between his legs.
A little cry escaped her.
He grinned. “Life is short. And lo, the bird is on the wing.”
“What?”
“Never mind.”
“Come on then, big boy.”
He lowered his body down and slowly, gently entered her.
Her head went back, her eyes closed.
“Christ Viki, you feel good.” He began to move gently.
She groaned quietly.
His movements speeded up a little.
“Not yet. Not yet.”
“I’m not.”
“Gently. That’s it. Ooh, Al.”
He took a deep breath. Paused.
They remained still. The rain beat on the window and the thin roof.
She put her lips to his ear. “You,” she whispered, “are the fuck to die for. Did you know that?”
He moved once more.
She responded, and though unsure of each other and a little out of sync they were nevertheless moving towards a more or less joint climax when her eyes shot wide open and her body beneath him went rigid as a plank.
“Christ!” He froze. “What??”
“Listen!”
“’Listen’? What d’you mean?”
“That noise.”
“Noise??”
“There’s a noise – listen!” She pointed to the wall just behind her head. “There!”
“It’s the rain, for Christ’s sake. Come on.” He moved again.
She tried to extricate herself from under him.
“Fuck’s sake Viki, what the – ?” But then he too heard it and stopped. He stared at the faded wallpaper above their heads.
Viki’s eyes were wide. “What is it?”
He moved away from her. They both stared at the wall.
“Al?”
“Sounds like an animal.” His voice was shaking.
It came again. A short, whimpering cry. Then a long, guttural cough.
The hairs on the back of Viki’s neck rose up. “Jesus Christ.”
Al bit his lip.
“Do something,” she whispered.
“Like what?”
“I don’t know.”
They looked at each other. The rain battered the roof.
“A man, Al? Is it a man?”
Al put his ear to the wall. Then pulled back, grimacing.
“Let’s go!” Viki was off the bed and throwing on her clothes. “Get dressed! Let’s get out of here.”
“We’ve got to do something!”
“Like what? You said there’s nothing we could – ”
“I didn’t say there was nothing – I said – ”
“Fuck it. Let’s go.”
Al, protesting, started to dress. The sounds continued. Viki shoved her feet into her shoes. Then grabbed her briefcase, went to the door and flung it open. She looked back at Al struggling into his jacket. “Get a move on!” She ran out through the rain to the car. She didn’t have the keys. She stopped and looked back. “Hurry up! I’m soaking.”
He came out shoving his briefcase under his arm. He slammed the door behind him, went to run towards her, then turned back and went to the window of the next room.
“No Al! No!”
But already he had his nose to the glass.
“It’s nothing to do with us!”
He turned from the window and stood looking at her. His face was ashen. He made no attempt to join her.
She ran back to him. Went to grab him by the arm, but he threw both arms around her body and tried to manhandle her towards the window of the next room. “Look! Look in there!!”
“I’ve got enough problems!” She tore herself free. “Let’s get out of this place.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Stunned, he allowed himself to be led back to the car.
They got in. He switched the engine on then sat staring ahead.
“Al? Please, let’s go.”
“This isn’t right.” He turned to her. “There’s a man in there. And what looks like a lot of – ”
“Drive, eh? Just drive.” She reached across and placed his hand on the gear lever.
He took the wheel. Put the vehicle in gear.
“Al,” she said, reassuringly, “it would fuck everything. Your job. Mine. The whole works. They have staff here. It’ll be alright.”
He put his foot down. The black Jaguar took off, throwing up water and gravel. Splashed and rocked over the rain-filled potholes, narrowly missed a small blue car pulling in by the office, and swung out onto the main road.
14.

Stella peered emptily from the train window. Patches of late winter snow lingered under hedgerows and in the corners of fields. Leafless trees stood out against an overcast sky. She looked down at the small child, asleep under a blanket by her side. He rocked gently back and forth with the train’s movement. One little hand lay outside the blanket. She touched the tiny fingers. They flexed just a little. He didn’t stir.
She resumed gazing out of the window. Her mother was still on her mind. Scarborough seemed a nice enough town. Just around the corner there was a nice view over the sea. The staff appeared quite caring. And her mother liked them. She didn’t like many people these days. It was obvious she was fading. Simply sitting with her in that sweltering room was a form of torture. Her sight was poor, her mind wandered, it was hard to understand what she was trying to say. Then she would stop in mid-sentence as though someone had turned her switch off, and stare into space.
“Mum,” Stella would say.
No response.
“Mum?”
Then a sudden, “Eh?”
“Are you alright?”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“You were saying something.”
“No. I didn’t speak.”
Sharon’s Dad had to be carried these days by a nurse either side of him. From his invalid chair to the table. From the table back to his invalid chair. To bed, to the toilet. Is that how it was going to be? She prayed not.
The train slowed down as it approached Halifax. Surprisingly, almost on time. The child stirred. Stella picked him up. Then made her way awkwardly with him and the folded pushchair along the corridor.
On the platform she flipped open the pushchair and sat him in it. Tucked his legs up and wrapped his blanket around him. Woken suddenly from sleep, his face began to crumple. She chucked him under the chin. “Not long now, munchkin. Soon be home.” She set off towards the barrier.
She was cold. She had no winter coat. One wheel of the pushchair wobbled and squeaked. It embarrassed her. She had been meaning to oil it. The big clock over the booking office said just after six-thirty. If they were lucky and got a taxi fairly quickly, they’d be home by seven.
The child whimpered. She reached forward and tucked the blanket further in around his neck.
They joined the taxi queue.

The newsagent on the corner was open.
“Drop us here, please,” she said. “I want a newspaper. We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
She paid the driver, went into the shop and bought her newspaper. Then set off down Endell Street. There were no lights on at number 26. She was disappointed. He’d said at breakfast he would try to get back before her and put the heating on. On the other hand she was an hour or so earlier than usual. They’d forgotten to let her know her mother had been booked for the physio, which meant that she – Stella – had not needed to stay on till they served dinner. It was a relief. Watching her mother pick at her food with hands she couldn’t control was too distressing.
The hinges of the garden gate squeaked. Something else that needed oiling. At the front door of the house she lifted the child out of the pushchair and planted a kiss on his cheek. Balancing him on her hip she put the key in the lock and opened the door. She was surprised to see there was in fact a sliver of rather dim light beneath the closed door of the living room. In her hurry to leave and get the train this morning, she’d probably forgotten to turn the little table light off.
With her free hand she dragged the pushchair in off the step, and leaned back against the door to close it with her weight. Then stopped, stared at the strip of light under the door. Shadows were moving across it. She frowned. Sounds of movement. Silence. Then an unthinkable horror. Struggling to control her breathing, she clutched the child closer. Approached the door, reached for the knob, hesitated, then in one movement, grasped it, twisted it and flung the door open.
The only illumination was the soft glow from a small table lamp on the TV in the far corner. In this half-light, at either end of the table by the curtained window sat two people – Barney and a young, dark-haired woman. They both had the look about them of people who had been where they were for no more than a second or two. The woman’s face was flushed, her long hair in disarray. They both looked at Stella with simulated openness.
“Stell!” said Barney, brightly. “Hi. And Matty. Hi, Matty.”
The woman mumbled something inaudible.
Stella looked from one to the other. “What’s going on?”
“This is Miriam,” said Barney, clearing his throat. “From work.”
“Oh yes?” said Stella, cradling the child’s head in her hand. “And what’s Miriam doing here?”
Miriam herself made no attempt to reply.
“Ooh,” Barney gave a dismissive wave of his hand, “there were a few documents needed dealing with. You know – urgent stuff – and we thought it better to bring them here. It’s a madhouse at the works with this new contract on the go, and – .”
“Documents?” Stella looked around. “I don’t see them.”
“No – well we’d largely finished. And – ”
“In this light? You were working on documents in this light?” And to make the point she reached to one side and switched on the overhead light.
The pair at the table blinked.
“Or perhaps you have very good eyes, Miriam.”
Miriam’s face had turned white.
The boy started to cry.
“Poor Matty,” said Barney. “He’s tired, look.” And he stood up and started towards Stella and his son. But she raised a hand and stopped him.
The boy stopped crying and looked at his father. Stella pressed his small face to hers, transferring his tears to her own cheeks. “Well,” she said to Barney who stood, thwarted and spare, in the middle of the floor, “at least you did what you said you’d do.”
“I’m sorry. What do you – ?”
“You said you’d try and be home before me. You were.”
He went to speak, but no words came.
She studied him with a contemptuous, hurt despair. Matt, overwhelmed with the vibes, began to howl.
Miriam scrambled up from her chair, knocking it over. She bundled her coat up in her arms and made for the door. On her way, she snatched up from the carpet a piece of black, lacy material. Shoving it under her coat, she hurried from the room.
Stella pulled Matt closer. Barney reached out to touch the boy but she held him off.
The front door slammed.
“You too,” she said to Barney, indicating with a sharp movement of her head the direction of the sound.
Barney’s brows knitted.
“Go!” She pointed back towards the front door. “Get out!”
“Wait a minute. It’s not what you think. If you’ll – ”
“Get out!! Get the fuck out!!” And with her free hand she aimed a blow at Barney’s head, catching him on the lip and drawing blood. As he spun away, Matt began to scream and kick.
Barney, blood running down his chin, stood looking in wide-eyed disbelief at his wife and distraught son. This could not be happening. This surely was a corner of hell.

 

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Great Britain’s finest hour. Not.

I’m not sure how to begin this. It’s not easy. It’s not easy because I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of the British. And I’m one of them – born and bred here.

This period in our history will surely be written up in the years to come as one of our un-finest hours. The greatest migration of war-ravaged, deprived and hurt human beings since the Second World War is on our doorstep. Yet for most of us – if the opinion polls are to be believed – our door will remain shut. There is no room at this inn. Apart, that is, from the risible numbers which our Prime Minister has said – in tones of crocodile magnanimity – we will take in over the next five years; and those will all come, not from the desperate and homeless at present struggling, on foot, with their children across Europe, but from those already in organised encampments in Syria. That’s nice. Neat. Less human despair in your face that way.

Most of these refugees, migrants, immigrants whatever you prefer to call them (‘human beings’ is a term seldom employed) land in Greece from utterly inadequate and unseaworthy boats that have carried them (having been robbed of inordinate sums of money by traffickers for the privilege) across the often turbulent ten or so kilometres of sea between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. Those that make it, that is. For hundreds don’t – not while they’re alive at least. We all saw the picture of that small boy lying face downwards on the beach, dead by the lapping waters.

Inside the head of each one of these desperate people is a universe as big and as important as that inside each of our own; the UK Prime Minister’s inner world is no bigger or more important, nor is Barack Obama’s, Madonna’s, Kim Jong-un’s or the Queen of England’s. We are all of us, when the chips are down, just ordinary human beings with the same basic needs – food, shelter, warmth and companionship. It’s what these people have lost and what they are seeking.

Of course all these thousands, old and young, making their way on foot with their families and their paltry possessions across the continent strike fear in the hearts of many in the UK who feel their own lives may be about to be turned upside-down by people from alien cultures. That’s to be expected. But those fears have to be managed. It is beholden upon governments, with the interests of the country at heart, to do so. In the UK however, nothing approaching that has been attempted. Indeed both government and opposition (the latter with some notable exceptions) have played on those fears, seeing in such policy, a means of entrenching their own power and their own chances of remaining in power after the next election. Shocking though it is, our elected leaders appear to have no problem using human misery and pain as bargaining chips. There are words for it – cowardice, immorality, callousness. Such leaders demean profoundly their own high office.

If the will to deal with this situation were there, we’d deal with it. And feel a whole lot better about ourselves in the process. But it’s not. And the UK’s rabid and often vicious right-wing press, taking its cue from the politicians and from the bigoted obsessions of the press barons who own those newspapers, openly drum up as much fear and opposition as they can.

It does not have to be this way. I believe that every single human being is good at heart. With many, that goodness is buried deep, which means the greater effort has to go into releasing it. But it’s there. And if those in power had the moral conviction, the gravitas and the drive one would dearly love to see in such people, that same goodness and willingness to help could be marshalled and used to give these fellow human beings shelter and hope. In so doing, we’d all feel better about ourselves. Years ago, when I travelled widely in some of the of countries from which this human tide is at present flowing, I’d sometimes be asked by a local resident or tradesman who heard me talking, “Are you American?” “No,” I’d reply, with some pride, “I’m British.” Were I asked these days, I couldn’t answer in the same way. I think I’d just say, “No.” And leave it at that.

Posted in Governments, Human intolerance, Life, love and living, Refugees | 2 Comments

‘Albatross’ – Extract 4

The third extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is – https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/

10.

‘Darling Ellen,
Hello.’
Just ‘Hello’? I’ve dropped out of her life. And all I say is ‘Hello’? What else should I say? – ‘Good morning’? It might not be morning when she reads it. If ever I send it. ‘Good day’? But I don’t ever say, ‘Good day’. I don’t say, ‘Hi’. And it seems to need more than just nothing. So let’s leave it at, ‘Hello’.
‘Darling Ellen,
Hello.’
First – I’m well. I haven’t been kidnapped or taken hostage or in any way hurt. In fact, nothing bad at all has happened to me. I’m dreadfully sorry for what this must be putting you through.
I don’t really know how to start this.’
And that’s a fact. I get up and look out the window. Wigan is busy now, and about its business. I am very ill at ease. I jump at the slightest unexpected sound – a car backfires in the street outside, footsteps along the corridor. Nobody who has ever known me could possibly have the least idea where I am. Even so, I am in constant fear of the telephone ringing, of a knock on the door.
The implications of this thing are unthinkable. Even so, I think of them.
Money. That’s going to be the problem. Holes in walls, cheques – out. Anything involving my name – out. No cashing bonds, no selling shares. Just a few hundred quid cash on me. Where is it going to come from?
He picked up the croissant he’d taken from the dining room at breakfast. Sat down to eat it. He looked again at the few lines on the paper. People were about to get hurt; everything he had worked for and built up was about to have its foundations pulled away. He was staring into an abyss.
‘I really don’t know how to start this.’ Beside the paper, his pen. With leaden fingers, he picked it up.
‘I don’t know when I’ll send it or even if I’ll send it. But assuming I do, then when you’re reading this please try and remember that however hard it may be to believe it at this moment, I do love you.’
He stared at those last four words. Leave them in? Take them out? Everybody uses them. What do they mean? The truth would be better expressed by saying that he had, during the course of their relationship, loved her. But he left it as it was.
‘In all the time we’ve been together, there is something I should have told you and never did. One day – I wonder if you remember this – way back in those weeks just before we were married, we went shopping at Liberty’s. (You bought that hat you took with you when we went to La Palma). On the way back to the house in Turney Road we sat for a while in Brockwell Park. It was a hot day and there was honeysuckle in the hedge near where we sat. You called my attention to its scent in the air.
‘We were discussing the plans for the wedding, when I said that before the actual day came there was something I really had to tell you. You looked apprehensive. I suppose it had sounded a bit dramatic. Do you remember this? Then you said to me – you almost whispered it in fact, “What? What is it you have to tell me?” But as you said it, I saw the uncertainty in your eyes. I hesitated, fearful of what you might think of me once you knew. You might even change your mind about the wedding. Even so, it had to be done. But then, when I finally managed to open my mouth to tell you, you reached up and put a finger to my lips. You smiled and said, “No, my Barney. No. I love you. Don’t tell me anything. Just marry me.” And I did. I married you and I never, ever told you.
‘Ellen, I have a son. His name is Matthew. I have not seen or heard of him for over thirty years. Nor have I, in all that time, made any attempt to contact him. I have no idea where he is – or even if he’s alive. The last time I saw him he was a child of three. And yes, I was married at the time. And you didn’t know that either. When I was a younger man, driven by ambition, the guilt and the regret was not so difficult. But when I met you and felt for you as I did, the reality started to come home. It weighed ever more heavily on me. When we decided to marry, I knew then I could keep it to myself no longer. Hence that day in Brockwell Park. But you put your finger on my lips and silenced me.
‘I told myself I’d put it right after the wedding when we were settled. But still I put it off. The more I put it off, the more difficult it became. The time came when I started to think that if I ever did tell you, you’d leave me. Eventually it seemed my only option was to make a decision to never, ever, under any circumstances say anything – then for all practical purposes, he would cease to exist, even to me.
‘But that’s not the way it works. I think about him, I dream about him – he is the man in the garden. There have been many times recently when I have found it difficult to do my work. My life without him is not the life I was meant to live. I have to try and find him. I hope you understand, but I can’t blame you if you don’t. I have been no father to him. Yet he is mine and I am his: he may be missing me as I am missing him. He meant more to me than I ever knew. Please try and understand.
With love,
Your Barney xxx’
I sat back, read it over. It made uncomfortable reading. Even a long-abandoned son seemed hardly sufficient reason for leaving one’s wife, ditching one’s whole life and disappearing. Was I perhaps finding something attractive in the prospect of vanishing? Of starting all over again with a completely virgin slate on which I can write just and only what I like? A man with no baggage.
I read it again.
No. Ring her! I’ve decided. Put all this back in the cupboard. The lunchtime drinks had gone on – they do. She understands all that. I missed the train, etc.,etc., blah, blah, blah.
But – there are roads in life from which, once you’ve set off down them, there is no turning back. Wherever Ellen is at the moment – London or Ludlow – she will already be seriously concerned. She has probably rung Frank Lippincote and Frank has probably been onto the Chamber of Commerce at which I gave my talk. The police will have been notified. Various people in various places will already be wondering and gossiping. My office at Westminster will be a hotbed of goggle-eyed speculation. Workwise it will stumble. But only for a day or two. Then things will resume just as they were before. We are all of us, in the end, as wind across water.
No, I cannot go on as I was. With each evasion a little more of one’s real self is pared away. And I’ve pared away more than my fair share in my life. The wheels of this thing, whatever it turns out to be, are already turning.

He stood before the mirror. It had those ugly brown spots in its corners – damp spots, mildew or something. Open-neck shirt worn rather untidily beneath jumper, along with shades and ruffled-up hair. It still didn’t go with Savile Row trousers and John Church brogues. But already it was hardly Barnaby Marechal M.P. Until his hair and beard had matured, a carefully considered shopping expedition should take care of the rest.
He planned to get hair gel, jeans and a jacket. Perhaps some trainers. Certainly some other shoes. Each of these items would have to be bought in a separate shop. He must not hang around in any one place. Whatever he had to say to people such as shopkeepers should be as brief as possible. His middle-class southern accent would be instantly noticed and remembered.
Once he was satisfied with his purchases, he would leave Wigan and make his way to some other town. It didn’t matter where, but he had to move on from here. He had spent over an hour the previous evening wandering around in full Barnaby Marechal mode. Any one of the hundreds he must have passed in the streets might, if pressed, recall seeing him.
He was surprised and quite taken with his own shrewdness. He had a twinge of what felt suspiciously like excitement. He checked out of the ‘Welcome Hotel’ and took a cab to the North Western rail station where he’d jumped off the train the day before. He sat back in the cab.
Look out of the window. Don’t get your face too close to the glass. What goes on in this town? People in cheap clothes. Cheap shops, boarded-up shops, an amusement arcade, betting shops, women in headscarves pushing tots in pushchairs, men in vans smoking, drumming their fingers on the wheel at the lights, youths on street corners. And me, in this cab. What had I been doing? Did I once seriously persuade myself I represented people like these?

He booked his two cases and his classic-fit Crombie in at the Left Luggage. Then set off in the direction of a sign which pointed to the ‘Town Centre’. He stopped and looked in the window of a Red Cross charity shop. He had never been inside a charity shop. He imagined they did well in places like this. They would take a suit, wouldn’t they? And his shoes. That would off-load in one go his outward signs of affluence. He would do that on his way back.
A little further along was a newsagents-cum-general-store-cum-off-licence. He hesitated, then stepped inside. What a cornucopia! An Aladdin’s cave. Cheap and cheerful goods overflowed the shelves, obstructed the floor, hung from hooks on the walls. Toothpaste, toilet cleaners, cake decorations, plastic dustbins, batteries, condoms, buckets, saucepans, ladies’ tights, strong beer in six-packs, children’s colouring books, curtain rings. Bewildering. And quite exciting. What, he wondered, would Ellen make of it? Ellen however, was a Fortnums woman. He bought a jar of hair gel and moved on.
He found a public toilet. It smelled of urine, disinfectant blocks and stale cigarette smoke. He braced himself, went into a cubicle and locked the door. There was no mirror so he was forced to do his first hair gel application blind. He pushed three tentative fingers into the cold jelly and excavated a blob. Rubbed it into his hair which collapsed into a slippery mess. He tried to knead it into some sort of shape. What shape? A wave? A roll? There wasn’t enough hair to do much with anyway. And without a mirror how would the beginner judge? He settled for a general prodding of it with the ends of his fingers.
With an ear to the door, he waited until he was fairly sure there was no-one else around, then emerged to check the result. Above the one hand basin was a dented metal mirror. He looked in it and peered at himself between the scrawled red letters of ‘Fuck the Pope’. He looked ridiculous. The gel had plastered the little hair he had all around his head, like gloss paint. With the dark glasses he looked like a close-up of a fly. He was about to dodge back into the cubicle and try again, when he heard voices. He adopted what he hoped was an expression of calm nonchalance, resigned himself to looking bizarre and headed for the exit. He passed a father and young son coming in. Neither gave him a second glance.
He continued on towards the city centre. Nobody took any notice of him. His confidence grew. He wandered in and out of shops. Local commercial radio pounded out a wall of drivel. He bought a pair of blue jeans. The material was paper-thin. The shop assistant was surprised he didn’t want to try them on. “No problem,” he said. “They’re my size. I’m standard.” He went into another public toilet and put them on. They were tight round the waist, loose and floppy everywhere else. He pushed his elegant suit trousers into the clear plastic bag which had contained the jeans, left the cubicle and strode back out into the street.
He came to a skip full of builders’ rubbish. Added the plastic bag containing his suit trousers to the pile. Someone might spot it. Wear the trousers. Or sell them. He walked on.
At a stall in a street market he picked up a pair of trainers and a long, loose-fitting canvas jacket with more zip-up pockets than anyone could ever seriously need. He put it on over his sweater. It hung almost to his knees. Then took off his Church’s brogues and with some difficulty, pulled the trainers on. They gave off an unpleasant, even slightly offensive odour. “They look grand on you, love,” said the stallholder, a big woman with a snake’s head tattooed on her upper arm. “I’ll wear them now,” he said. She produced a blue plastic bag, and giving him a very curious look, slipped his brogues inside. “Thank you,” he said, taking the bag and walking away. The cheap trainers cramped the big toe on one foot and tilted the other foot outwards, straining the ankle. If he ever got used to them it would surely be at the expense of his feet.
His reflection in a shop window brought him to a sudden stop. He saw an old man. Unshaven, wearing standard, cheap, ill-fitting clothes. The shades, their quality counting for nothing at this distance, looked like a brave attempt to pass himself off as his own person, a one-off, elderly maverick. But he was just another old man – fragile, muggable. That the transition had been that quick, that the risk of misreading him was now that great gave him an unpleasant jolt. ‘This isn’t me! I don’t really look like this.’ But he did, and they all passed him by without a second glance. Gone now was Barnaby Marechal, M.P., M.A.(Oxon).
Uneasy, and with his burgeoning self-confidence set back a notch or two, he continued on towards the train station. Despite the obvious success of the physical transformation he had wrought, he began to be troubled yet again by the entreaties of his conscience – if conscience is what it was – and forced to go once more through the rigmarole rehearsed already a hundred times – Ellen, and should he have done such-and-such, or what if he did some other thing, then would she, or wouldn’t she, and if this and not that, should she, should he and what if and what not?
He passed an old-fashioned ‘Gentlemen’s Outfitters’. Then stopped, frowned, went back and looked in the window. A display of hats. Quality hats. He’d never worn hats. But he had long half-entertained a notion that well-chosen, quality headgear on a man projected self-esteem, a certain dignity. And there, in the centre of the display, on a dummy male head of surreally handsome proportions, was a flat cap in shiny black leather. Set at a nice, cheeky angle, it looked good. It had character. And he had now the freedom to wear just what he liked.
He went into the shop. Pointed to the hat in the window, and said to the rather elderly male assistant who approached him and sized him up with unconcealed disapproval, “One of those please.” But even as the words left his mouth he knew he was in trouble.
Taken aback by the diction and accent of this ageing ragamuffin, the man moderated his approach a little. “Head size, sir? What’s your head size?”
Barney had no idea. And he couldn’t be trying on different sizes of hat with this man standing chatting to him and scrutinizing the effect. Get this over with. But all he could think of in answer was, “Standard size. Medium.” It wasn’t going to do. This man wasn’t going to just take the hat from the window and give it to him. He was old school.
The man gave an ingratiating chuckle. “I’ll need to be a bit more precise than that, sir,” he said, and smiled as he reached for a tape measure.
Barney was trapped. What a very foolish idea this had been.
“If you wouldn’t mind then sir.” The tape measure encircled his cranium. The man’s eyes were inches from his own face. Thank goodness for the dark glasses. The tape measure was removed.
“Right sir,” said the man. “We’ve a selection of caps. I’ll go and bring you one or two so you can – ”
“No. That one. I want that one. Or one exactly the same. Please.”
“Well, we’ve a variety of styles sir, and you might just find something there that tickles your fancy and – ”
But Barney had caught sight of a full-length mirror. Staring back at him was a crackpot, a circus freak. What inane farce was he making of his life? What to do? Turn round and get out? A sudden inspiration. He looked down at his wristwatch. “Ye gods!” he exclaimed. “Look at the time. I have a train to catch in five minutes. Just give me the hat, eh? Quickly as you can.”
“Well – er -” The man scratched his head. “I’ll need to try it on you sir, to make quite sure – ”
“You measured me. I trust you.”
“Nay, I can’t let you take a hat away sir, without even – ”
“If it doesn’t fit, I’ll not be back to trouble you. I live a very long way away.” He jabbed a finger at his watch. “Look at the time! It’s that – or no hat. Which?”
The man bit his lip.
“Please.”
The man turned and made his way to the shelving.
“How much?” Barney called out.
It was expensive. Barney threw enough cash down on the counter to cover it.
The man came back with a cardboard box and was about to open it when Barney took it from him. “There’s the money. Thank you. Don’t worry about the change.” Tucking the box under his arm he hurried out of the shop.
The man watched him leave. Scratched his head. Frowned. Then looked down at the money on the counter. There was virtually half as much again as he’d asked for. He hurried to the door, yanked it open, looked up and down the street. But whoever he was, the strange individual had already been swallowed up among the shoppers.
He closed the door, and went back to take a closer look at the money. It crossed his mind that maybe he’d been the victim of some sort of scam. But the money looked genuine enough.

Barney walked quickly and kept going. He slowed down only when he thought he’d put a safe enough distance between himself and the hat shop. What a cock-up. That man would remember him for the rest of his life. Probably dine out for months on the story. And he might even contact the police. Thank God he’d gone in there after he’d camouflaged himself in all the cheap stuff. But apart from the splendid hat, the good thing that had come out of it was the discovery that his old, old ability to fudge in tight corners had not quite deserted him. It might come in handy again some time.
He turned a corner into a narrow side street of little old Victorian terraced houses, their front doors and sitting room windows fronting the pavement. He stopped, looked around, then took the black leather cap out of its box. It caught the sun. It was rather beautiful. He set it carefully on his head. A woman in pink curlers watched from an upstairs window. He adjusted it till it felt comfortable. Then pressed it gently to his head. That brought the hair gel into clammy contact with his balding skull. But the cap fitted well. The man had known his business. Barney peered at his reflection in someone’s front window. The hat looked cool. As for the rest of the ensemble – he guessed he looked as good or as ridiculous as anyone else wearing what he was wearing.
He collapsed the cardboard box, walked back to the main road and continued on towards the North Western train station. Down a side alley he spotted some commercial waste bins. He lobbed the flattened box into one of them. And at the same time realized with a nasty jolt that he had left the plastic bag containing his brogues in the hat shop. He shrugged. He wasn’t going back.

At the left luggage he retrieved his overnight case, briefcase and his classic Crombie. Standing in the cramped station concourse and getting the heavy coat on over the long canvas jacket, which he was wearing over his thick woollen sweater, which he had on over his shirt, worn over his singlet was not easy. He was watched by a small boy who eyed his contortions with a curiously apprehensive deadpan. Barney turned away and continued facing a wall. He could feel the boy’s eyes still on him. The nosy little squirt would no doubt recall him with enthusiasm if he were ever asked.
He buttoned up his coat. Picked up his cases and set off towards the ticket office. He was soon perspiring freely. He was trussed up like a Christmas turkey. What if the hair gel melted – leaked out under his leather cap? Then black dye from the new hat streaked his face and forehead? And now his unshaven stubble was starting to itch. He felt utterly inadequate. He cleared his throat before asking the woman in the ticket office the destination of the next train due in.
She looked up from her scratchcard. “Up? Down?”
“Pardon?”
“Which direction? Up or down?”
He struggled to figure out which was which. He gave up. “Doesn’t matter.”
She frowned.
He winced.
“Liverpool, Lime Street. Eight minutes.”
“Single, please.”
Keeping one eye on him, she took the money, printed the ticket and handed it to him. “Platform Two.”
He nodded his thanks.
Curiously, she watched him walk away, his two small cases banging against his legs. Something about him didn’t quite add up. Should she say something to somebody? She shrugged and went back to her scratchcard.
Barney struggled up a long flight of steps, then down another to get to Platform Two. He put his cases down on the ground by his side. Looked up and down the tracks. Stuck his hands in the pockets of his coat, closed his eyes and took a very deep breath. He would need to get his act together a lot better than this.

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