Sunday, 15 January 2017

The doll


The young woman sits in her flat, fantasising about firemen as she has done many times before.

She has reverted to the standard scenario of 'toe stuck in bath tap; downstairs door locked; firemen forced to enter via upstairs window by ladder; water still pleasantly warm in bath, etc.' because the real event, when it happened, was profoundly unfulfilling.

He didn't look like a fireman when she chatted to him in the pub, but the somewhat over-weight, middle aged, married man that he became when off duty and out of uniform, without the huge yellow helmet hiding his receding hair-line.

It had all been over and done with in a sweaty and hurried, drunken struggle, and then he had left immediately to avoid having to fabricate an over-elaborate reason to explain his lateness to his waiting wife.

She had agreed to join him at the archery sessions he held on the following Saturday, but was regretting it. She did not want to repeat the experience, and had no interest in archery whatsoever.

Drifting between fantasy and reality, she becomes aware of a persistent and insistent sound coming from the street outside. A dog is hoarsley barking down on the pavement, and the unchanging volume of it tells her that it is not moving.

She imagines it to be tethered to a lampost, waiting for its owner to come out of a nearby shop and tries to ignore it, but the barking continues for too long, so she summons a mental picture of the street outside her front door. She remembers that there is no post of any kind near enough for the dog to be tied to, so she rises from the chair and goes to the window to investigate.

Down on the pavement, there is an old, large and mangey-looking dog with some indistinct object at its feet. It is staring straight up at her and when she reaches the window, it momentarilly stops barking as its eyes meet hers, then it continues again a little more persistently. Some people walking past pause briefly to look up at her. She wants to explain that this dog is nothing to do with her - she has never seen it before - but decides to go down to see what it wants.

She opens the door and the dog immediatelt puts his head over the threshold, drops the object on the mat at her feet, then turns to walk away in the direction of the station. It is a child's doll.

She takes the doll upstairs and throws it on a table before putting on the kettle to make some tea. When she has the tea in a cup, she goes back to the table and picks up the doll again to examine it more closely.

It is extremely well made for a toy, and the clothes on it are of a microscopically fine and intricately made exquisiteness. She finds a magnifying glass in a drawer and looks closer still. She has never seen fabric like this.

As she turns the little doll over in her hands, it slowly dawns on her that there is something extremely unusual about it. She rolls the thing around through 360 degrees, trying to focus on the minute weft of the fabric. She thinks she must have missed something, but she cannot decide what.

Then she understands. There are no seams on the cloth of the doll's clothes. The only way they could have been made would be to weave the fabric around the doll itself, which would have been impossible.

Feeling slightly faint, she puts the doll into a drawer with the magnifying glass and runs a bath.


Saturday, 14 January 2017

The arrow


What's all this about a dead child and Mr Punch, I hear you wonder? Well, I will get to the beginning at some point, but in the meantime you may find it helpful to know how the child came to be killed.

A young woman arrives at a large country house to take her first lesson in archery, having been talked into it by the lascivious leader of the club, in the pub the previous evening.

The targets - or 'butts' as they are called - have been set up on the large swathe of grass which is the lawn to the rear of the house, and various members of the club are standing around chatting before actually beginning to shoot arrows. There is a massive cedar tree to the rear of the shooting positions, and the butts are set - about 100 yards away - just in front of the fringe of a dense wood.

The owner of the house - an elderly and solitary man - oftens allows various local community groups to use his extensive estate for activities, including - and this is important - charity fetes with Punch and Judy shows for children on the lawn.

The youngest member of the archery club is a somewhat disturbed and taciturn youth of about 17 who wears ex-army camouflage jackets and trousers. The club leader has taken him under his wing in the hope that he will be diverted from less wholesome, solitary activities, and has discouraged him from bringing in items such as American hunting knives for unwanted 'show and tell' sessions with the rest of the group.

The young woman waits for a break in the proceedings until she can safely move her position to 30 yards of the butts, then - under the tuition of the leader - shoots off the first of a few arrows, actually managing to hit the large straw discs with the paper targets pinned to them. Everyone else loses interest and forms huddled groups to stand around talking at the rear while the novice is trained. None of these groups include the outcast young man.

The leader is called away on some domestic business and delegates responsibilty for safety to an older member, leaving the group to its own devices. They ignore the young woman and set up from 100 yards again to loose off arrows using the modern reflex bows, which are festooned with awkward looking weights and counterbalances. They are all very experienced and consistently hit the yellow centre of the targets from that distance. The young woman stands no chance of getting an arrow anywhere near the butt, let alone the target pinned to it, so she stands around doing nothing.

She considers leaving and going back into town, when the taciturn young man appears at her side holding a very strange-looking bow, and suggests she try using it.

The bow is much shorter than the reflex bows of the others, is a matt black in colour and seems to be fitted with two strings. The young man points out that there is, in fact, only one string which is threaded around a series of pullies, converting the weight of the pull from 30 to 100 pounds - far greater than the young woman would be able to draw on an ordinary bow.

With the lad's help, she looses off three arrows. To her amazement, the second one hits the edge of the distant target with a sharp smacking sound. The third - although it seems to her to be dead on target - disappears noislessly.

The lad laughs and explains that she has has hit the gold centre, but the middle of the straw butt has been weaken by the many perforations of previous arrows, and her arrow has gone clean through and out the other side. It is somewhere in the wood behind, and she is given a metal-detector for use in the bracken and bushes, then sent to find and retrieve it. All shooting is stopped for her, but the meeting is due to be ended anyway, so the members begin clearing up and rolling away the butts as she enters the wood.

At first, she wears the headphones of the detector and sweeps amongst the foliage in the path of the arrow, but eventually she takes them off and uses her eyes rather than ears.

In the early Summer heat, she starts to lose concentration, falling into a dreamy reverie and noticing various fungi and small, delicately coloured flowers before she remembers the aluminium arrow she is supposed to be looking for. A minute later, she finds it.

Just as she loosed the arrow, a child had disobeyed the instructions of its parents, and briefly - very briefly - had slipped through a forbidden portal into the world of humans, just to see what it was like.

The arrow hit it and literally pinned the boy to the earth - the Earth. There would be no chance of the child returning home. The parents would have to come looking for it.

The young woman tries to process what she sees on the ground, but cannot. A miniature human in bright clothes, skewered against the moss by the rogue arrow.

She leaves the wood and - for want of words - says that she could not find the arrow and has to go home urgently.

The taciturn lad is furious with the woman - all women - and vows to find the arrow as soon as he can. Why should he buy a new one?




Friday, 13 January 2017

The sphericon



Now, where to begin? The most common - and most irritating - response to an opening line like that is, why don't you begin at the beginning? as if it were that simple. Not many things go in straight lines between birth and death.

Ok, I will just paint in the background with a broad brush to give you a slightly greater chance of glimpsing the nightmare world inside my head, but don't blame me if you have a job finding your way out.

An Irish priest is staying with his friend, the abbot, in a large, ancient and semi-commercial Cistercian monastery. He has been working for some time on the concept of perpetual motion using kinetic energy, and has made a prototype machine in the shape of a sphericon, powered by the movement of steel ball-bearings within internal chambers with gravitationally operated valves which open to allow the balls to run to the opposite, lower chamber, the valve of which is open too, but quickly closes as the sphericon lurches upward - a bit like a mercury switch. The shape of the sphericon means that the object moves both side to side and roughly in a straight line. It has a tendency to go off at tangents, depending on the terrain - like me.

In the middle of the night, he makes his way to the vast, circular Chapter House of the medieval monastery, because the floor area - although somewhat uneven -  is large enough to test the sphericon for the maximum possible time it might take the thing to run out of momentum without bumping into furniture.

He places the little plastic object somewhere near the centre of the huge room and sets it off with a gentle push, then makes his way to the edge of the Chapter House to take up position on one of the bench seats which run around the whole circumference. He is hoping it will be a long night.

The low light, the late hour and the rhythmical clicking noise that the sphericon makes as it wobbles around have a soporific effect on the elderly priest, and he nods off to sleep within ten minutes.

When he awakes, the sphericon is still moving and clicking, but he notices that he is not alone in the room. On the far side, he sees a monk seated on the bench, his face and head covered by his cowl. The only exposed parts of the monk are his hands and feet, both of which are almost inhumanly large.

The priest clears his throat and begins to speak to the monk, apologising for not noticing him enter and - not knowing the time - expressing his hope that he was not interrupting any imminent meeting. He does not recognise the man, despite numerous visits to the monastery in the past.

Unnervingly, the monk ignores these nicities and begins a softly spoken, tangled account involving the accidental death of children. The priest begins to fear for both his safety and the sanity of the man, and so attempts to change the subject by asking him what his prime duties at the monastery are.

The hooded monk says that he is in charge of the gift shop, and begins to list all the items sold to the visiting public there, one by one. He does not stop until he has named every single item, but as he speaks he rises to his feet and walks over to the sphericon, watching it move around as he lists the entire stock.

The priest catches a few glimpses of the monk's face under the hood, and his features are grotesque. His enormous nose curves droopingly downwards, almost touching his equally grotesque chin, which rises sharply upwards to meet it. He looks like Mr Punch.

The monk resumes his rant on the vulnerability of children, equating the sphericon to a baby which the preist has brought into the world -  a baby which is small, delicate and vulnerable - and as he does, he raises one great foot over it.

To the priest's horror, the monk brings his foot crashing down on the sphericon, sending bits of plastic and ball-bearings spinning and rolling across the huge stone floor.

The priest awakes with a start, realising that it was the cessation of clicks that woke him. The sphericon has stopped moving.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Our bathroom wall

Well we like it anyway.

Stand still


There are blizzards forecast for tomorrow and I am supposed to be driving to high ground.

Are you the sort of person who likes to get out in it and have fun trying to get through blocked lanes, or do you prefer to stay at home indoors near a heat-source and read a book, sometimes looking out of the window to see how much worse it is getting?

You can probably guess that I fall into the latter category. I don't mind going out and playing, but I don't like going out in it and working. If I had a Land Rover I might feel differently, but I usually park my car on a cul-de-sac hill to make sure I have the perfect alibi.

One of the things I love about deep snow is that it brings everything to a standstill. The muffled silence that snow brings to the countryside extends even into towns and cities, occasionally interupted by a snow-plough or 4x4.

Ah, you British - the Canadians say - a couple of inches of snow, and everything stops. Yes, that's the way we like it. The perfect excuse to be non-productive and opt out of the race for a few hours or days. Poor nurses.

In 1963, I looked out of my bedroom window to see two feet of pure white snow, and it was still falling. I think it was about two weeks before my school reopened. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

One warm Summer morning in 1969, I was walking down a country lane with a friend. We were on our way to a building site to begin eight hours of back-breaking work on a concrete gang, constructing a new filter-bed for a sewage works.

Suddenly, my friend stopped and began looking around him. "Look at the sun filtering through the green leaves," he began to muse, "Listen to the birds singing. What the HELL are we doing going to work on a day like this?" We turned around and slowly walked back in the opposite direction with the slightest trace of guilt tainting our spirits.

This is a genuine note sent to the employer of a Mexican worker to his boss, and was found by Richard Brautigan:

Dear Boss. I will not be coming to work today. I am not ill, I just feel too good to work. If I feel worse tomorrow, I will come.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A life on the open road


We haven't heard from Rachel since she went to Austria. Maybe she did forget the two-pin adaptor after all. I mean, we had daily reports from Russia.

I used the SatNav to find my way to the cottage on the fringes of Minchinhampton Common yesterday as it had been some years since I was there last.

Turn a sharp left, said the electronic voice, so I did. It was very sharp - I almost had to take two bites at it.

Turn right then right again was the next instruction. I looked at what it was asking me to do and thought that this could not be possible given the width of the lane, so I carried on against orders. Recalculating... Recalculating...

It told me to turn around and do it again. This was actually impossible, so I continued for 500 yards to a point where it was just about feasible to make the manouvre, after I had waited for the lane to clear of elderly dog-walkers.

Turn right and right again. I thought I could sense some irritation in the woman's voice. You don't listen to me, do you?

So I turned right and right again and the walls began to close in on me - literally.

"I hope there is a turning point somewhere down here," I said to H.I. who was hoping and praying that I would not have one of my signature melt-downs that occur when faced with these automotive situations. There was none.

We got to the end of the twisty, turny, 7 foot-wide lane to find a dead-end with our friend's cottage at the very end of it. There was nothing to do but switch the engine off and get out while we still had the space to do so.

Another elderly dog-walker paused long enough to say, "I bet you wish you had reversed down here now, don't you?" That was helpful.

Our friend said that when she first moved there, someone drove even further to the end of the lane and wedged the car so tightly between two walls that they could not get out. They had to call the fire brigade. I vaguely remembered her instructions to park at the chapel and walk the 200 yards to the house, but too late.

I only noticed the scars on the stonework of people's houses in the side mirrors as we left. We left earlier than we planned to, as I wanted to get out while there was still enough light to see the walls.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Commoners


Today I have to go to Minchinhampton Common. This place still has grazing rights, so driving over it sometimes involves giving way to cattle.

It doesn't really seem to have changed for thousands of years, but there are plenty of 17th century houses built on prehistoric earthworks. If you listen carefully, you could kid yourself into hearing Thomas Hardy-style 19th century fairs as well. When the circus comes to Stroud, they pitch on Minchinhampton. I didn't hang around long enough to see who took this photo, but it is a good one, eh?

Commons are dotted all throughout the U.K. I was brought up close to Chobham Common in Surrey. This was the chosen landing spot for the Martian invasion in 'The War of the Worlds'. Common land is usually on high ground, presumably so that - in troubled times - you could see people coming from a long way off, like Mars for instance.

Chobham Common has a feature which can be seen from a great distance away, called 'Chobham Clump'. This is a huddled group of Scots Pines which show dark on the horizon. Scots Pines almost always seem to grow on prehistoric earthworks, and were probably deliberately planted there for the sake of travellers going from high point to high point and trying to find their way through the dense forests of the valleys.

Most common land is enshrined by ancient royal charters and is sometimes referred to as the original 'no man's land'. If the nobility had hunting drives which the common people were forbidden to use on pain of death, then it was only right that they should be allowed rights over other areas to subsist.

During the Hundred Years War with the French, the King had a bit of a problem. He had to train the commoners to be Yeomen to fight the war, and that involved training in the use of the Longbow. It was too much to ask of hungry people to not shoot the occasional deer to feed his family, so the death penalty for killing one of the king's deer was temporarilly lifted out of expediency. It would be a shame to kill a man you had spent so long training to be an expert shot with a bow.

I can only think of one bit of common land which was stolen from the people by the government, and that is St George's Hill near Weybridge in Surrey.

Gerrard Winstanley and his band of 'Diggers' moved in and squatted in 1649, but eventually lost the argument and were violently kicked off by the king's men shortly afterward. All the legal proceedings were conducted in Latin - the laywer's and Church's exclusive language.

Today, St George's Hill is an exclusive estate with large houses and a golf course. It is where a lot of pop stars like to live.