Archipelago

We are not of steadfast earth, I mean continents.

If you insist on such solid places, I will say we are the sheer cliff faces from which we fling ourselves.

We are an archipelago, someone is always sinking.

If there is no storm brewing, one just passed.

We have not had solid ground in 35 years.

We moved from the mainland long ago.

We remember what is gone.

We’re knee high in what will drown us.

We were born catching our breath.

No. Continental shift is one thing we need not fear.

The Minotaur's Memoir: from the Book of Asterion

 ,but, despite the tensions we were soldiers first and Kreet was the land that bound us both, the unwilling and the blind.

The hour before sunrise is the coldest. The wind picks up and the chill settles on the bones. You can run for the whole hour and not feel warmed up inside. But any time away from the camp is a relief. Especially now with the prisoners there. The enemy prisoners. We prefer the 1am duty. The guardhouse is noisy until 11pm anyway and the chance of being hauled away for some dirty job is high. At one in the morning the world feels like a peaceful place. The lights in town shimmer, the lights of the main road hang beneath the horizon like pots of fire. Once a barn owl swooped over our heads as we sat in the grass smoking a cigarette, cupping our hands over it carefully to avoid detection and putting our heads between our knees to suck in the smoke and hide the soft glow. We felt it before we heard it. It sounded like something big breathing out over us. We felt a quick rush of cool air on our necks and then heard a swoosh. Between feeling the owl and hearing it we had rolled away and were aiming at the blackness behind us. After a kilometre we started laughing uncontrollably and sat down again and smoked a cigarette but coughed a lot through laughter. That was one of the happiest moments from that time. It bound us and allowed us to remain friends after the difficulties later. That we could laugh together gave each of us permission to forgive one another later.

There was this evening in the beer garden. Blokes getting drunk and forgetting stuff they had seen or done and finding absolution in the wordless confessional of alcohol.

We have to fight to hold onto our land, Kreet is ours someone said. Maybe the beer had given me courage? Maybe the guilt of silent collusion got the better of me?

Is it really our land? I said. The Company officer, the one who had forced us to leopard crawl over slate and laughed as we had bled, was there. Like dogs we were eager for his approval. We imagined he had become a friend.

You’re crossing a line he said.

A veil of distrust descended over us. Things continued as normal after that but dialogue strained as if emerging every time tired from a long journey through an internal labyrinth where pre verbalised thoughts were considered according to possible interpretations and consequences. Everyone became cautious, having to hold the thread of the original thought while surveying the various landscapes that began to form and take shape as a result of the words spoken. Conversation collapsed under the pressure and became chatter skimming along the surface of things: the weather, physical ailments, safe complaints about people mutually agreed upon to be fools and the camp dog, Asterion. It was always safe and comforting to share stories about Asterion’s antics as if talking about him bridged the abyss deepening between us.

That was all a long time ago and Kreet is reclaimed now. Those who were once prisoners now lead and those who used to lead have been imprisoned. I wonder now if we were soldiers protecting the land or minotaurs prowling the imagined idea of a country in the subterranean labyrinth of some nameless terrain in wait for a name change? The friend with the owl now farms the land and I exiled myself from it.

The new country has a name but I have become weary of names for land. Also there is nothing new. There or here. So how does one talk now about place? The words I have are from a different time? The ears that would have understood are gone, if they were ever there. There are leaders here, but I’m not sure yet whether they lead soldiers or minotaurs.  I was a minotaur once.  Now I look for Asterion instead. There is always an Asterion.  I only saw an owl once. There are prisoners here, they are everywhere. Here the street lights do not struggle against the dark. Days are much like nights, just with slightly sharper shadows.

The end of the world: policy & procedure

I don’t care about the planet or my children’s future. Not my words. Stay with me. An empty tin of dog food was found in the bin (now called the general waste bin). Apparently it should not have been there. It ought to have been rinsed, washed and dried and THEN placed in the recycling bin. I know, I’m a very bad person. I’ll get over it. My family, however now cast suspicious glances at me whenever I am in the kitchen. Big Brother has nothing on them. They think their observations are discreet, but I know they’re watching. It’s a dystopian nightmare.

I’m not against recycling. Let’s get that clear. But, the rules that are emerging around this enterprise are doing my head in. I can only speak for my municipal district, The Shire of Wanneroo, WA. I used to feel good about throwing an empty water bottle into the recycling bin. My enthusiasm was premature. One does not deposit the entire bottle in the bin (recycling bin, not the other one). No. There is a procedure:

1. Remove lid and place in general waste. I don’t get this, it’s plastic! But, there you go? Perhaps recycling plants have had complaints from employees about the strain that undoing lids causes them. Maybe, heaven forbid, nails have been chipped. Possibly they roll onto the floor and present OHS tripping hazards? I don’t know. I no longer care and my family are tired of my ranting, so I grudgingly comply.

2. The plastic ring that is attached to the lid, the polymer noose around the neck of the bottle must be cut, removed and like the lid, be placed in general waste. These worm like bits of plastic are likely to be mistaken for a snack by aquatic creatures. But, there you have it. Not to be recycled.

3. The bottle may now be placed in the recycling bin. No! Are you mad?

4. Remove the plastic label and place in general waste, it’s soft plastic and soft plastic cannot be recycled. Really? Yes, really. Other soft plastics suffer the same fate. I’ve since learned that whilst plastic bottles crush easily they are not soft. Soft plastics include any plastic bag or wrapper, the kind we sea floating in the sea or garroting unfortunate seagulls. General waste only.

Kevin Mcleod (of Grand Designs fame) appeared in an excellent documentary film called Slumming It in 2010. He spent a week in the Mumbai slum of Dharavi and during this time visited a recycling plant where over 90% of all plastics, and other stuff, are recycled. I’m just saying …

It would appear to me that we are not yet where counties like India are. Recycling offers employment possibilities and maybe, if the authorities took it as seriously as re-elections, they would make the process easier and not harder for us. I know of someone living in another Perth suburb where general waste is no longer collected, only recycled waste. What?

In the words of Yoda, do or do not do, there is no try. If we’re going to recycle let’s recycle. If I sound like a grumpy old fart, sue me. I have spent hours that add up to days that become weeks and over a period of 35 years may have accumulated to at least a few years, patiently adhering to the absurdity of bureaucracy. Don’t be afraid of climate change, rather fear the behemoth of bureaucracy that threatens to bury us with policies and procedures. Right now, I have an empty tin of dog food to process for recycling.

5 Reasons why you should not read this.

1.

Because it’s not another diluted version of chic urban zen in point form. I am not chic and don’t do points.

2.

Because you saw a number and imagined bullet points that usually signify a quick read. You know, the kind that leave you unfulfilled but proud of yourself for attempting to do something constructive.

3.

Because you can’t help yourself from reading further, just in case the secret to life unfolds at the end. Sorry. Still looking myself (but this isn’t the end …).

4.

If you want to read something worthwhile, get a book. Something tactile and heavy, where just by the weight in your hands you get a sense of the labour and life energy that has gone into bending and shaping sentences. Where the words on the page are there, like iron wroughted, steel hammered. Where you are confronted by the work of a smith, not a frustrated suburbanite with a flexible aposable thumb.

You should not read this because it says nothing. It is a cultural artefact of this age of immediacy and nutshell enlightenment. It represents the low point of human evolution and reminds you that you are right there in it. How low we have all sunk.

Now go and watch a movie on Netflix, sip an almond milk latte, free of everything except substance and forget that this ever happened. You never came this way to be reminded by Sisyphus that you’re pushing a rock up and over and down and up again over the beige hill of your dreams long since buried beneath the to do lists and shopping lists that have come to define your existence.

You see, my friend, I don’t write to entertain. I write to scratch, to dig into the skin. To remember that earth is a place of dirt, mud, stone and heavy winds that blow cold and if all we do is try to stay warm then we forget who we are.

5. You should not read this because if this is where your existence thus far has brought you, there is no pot of gold here. The rainbow you thought you were following is just moisture in light viewed at a particular angle.

Christmas 2019

Twenty cycles bent to the scythe of time,

the pageant of peace, dollar shackled, passes again.

The unloved ones look on in hope and,

wait,

for God, for anything.

Shortlist for Overland Fair Australia writing competition

I am proud to have made it to the shortlist.

The Banquet’s end

It is a universal truth that there exists between man and inanimate objects a mysterious. Astute observers of humanity, such as Woody Allen speaks of the “innate hostility of inanimate objects to man.” I concur. My contribution to this dialectic is a response to one of humankind’s worst inventions-the public toilet roll dispenser. Where they fail in utility, they succeed as effective metaphors of modern existence. They hold within them the promise of ease-of-use but despite their failure to deliver, they continue to keep us hoping that next time it will be easier and better. It seldom is.

Ode to a banquet’s end

When in haste to this enamel throne I come,
the world behind me, I am, as made, alone here, undone;
my kingdom’s laid bare – its mystery revealed:
all human endeavour’s are a folly unrivalled, 
while the high and the lowly are at table divided,
men’s stations at banquet, are at toilet suspended.

But after thine bowels for thee here have toiled,
Alas, now be warned, the encore is spoiled,
this paper dispenser would have you stay soiled.

Were Dante alive now his inferno would tell,
this plastic contraption’s the first ring of hell.

MJ Scallan

The dogs of midnight

This short fiction piece was published in the bezine’s September issue on Social Justice.

Follow this link to read it: https://thebezine.com/portfolio/the-dogs-of-midnight/

Thank you for your continued support of my work.

Mike

Notes from a window

I do not know her, the old lady at the window. But, she is familiar to me. I see her almost every day when I approach the cross section. I look for oncoming traffic, then look for her. It has become a habit. She is consistent (a necessary requirement for a habit to form). I do not know if her looking out of the window is the result of habit or the lack of alternatives. She sits to the right of her window. (would it alter the narrative if I called it the window?) So, now I have designated the window as hers. Naturally, she does not own the window. Ownership in old-age homes are a complicated business. Usually it is strictly limited to private possessions: blankets, clothing, books, toiletries, jewellery, false-teeth. Unlike their owners, these items retain value. They are handled with tenderness, treasure-like, as if the care shown them might somehow reach the dead. Perhaps we treat their things as sacred in the hope that these gentle gestures might have retrospective powers. Maybe kindness in the present has currency in the after-life. Nevertheless, domestic rituals emerge around the debris of life. Clothing and blankets are held up to the face, breathed in to detect traces of the dead. Unopened cakes of soap sit in drawers scenting underwear, rosaries gather friction, grief adheres to old toothbrushes, broken spectacles, roughly scribbled champagne corks and postcards from Egypt written in illegibly elegant script. The physical disappearance of someone is shocking. These objects absorb the after shocks of their leaving. As for the places where they lived; in old age homes a bucket of disinfectant, wide open windows to release the miasma of death and a lick of paint re-sanitise the venue for the next itinerant. Ownership may be complex in old age homes, but the simple certainties of death and departure compensate for it. I do not know the contractual details of her facility. I know there are places like these where inmates are expected to purchase a space that is recycled every time the current owner/s die. A safe investment that just keeps giving.

In First World countries we tend to pack the aged and infirm away when their maintenance outweighs their value. One must contribute positively to the GDP to warrant state concern. Otherwise, one finds oneself gradually removed from society. Folded up like well worn tablecloths and placed in the back of the linen cupboard, until the next Salvo’s run. In Third World economies, the aged are generally valued and, if not valued, at least respected. Those who struggle for material security understand the emotional and spiritual value of people. They know that dignity is priceless and owed to their parents who have struggled to hold onto it all of their lives. The aged are respected for being there, for having carried on, teaching their children that value lies in endurance, not assets. They build their lives on people, not money. They have community where individual well-being is everyone’s concern. We, on the other hand, are a loose collection of cocoons. Each of us spinning silk and blind to the world around us.

I knew a man once who did a brave thing. I did not understand it as such at the time. I was young and had not yet been called upon to endure anything more than my adolescent neuroses. He lived on a large piece of land. We flew over it once in a small plane. We had travelled in a straight line for ten minutes and all the time it was his land beneath us. It was beautiful, rugged, arid African Bush. The memory of it fills me with nostalgia. In the evenings Impala herds settled around a thorn tree near the home. He had resettled vultures that were endangered. One day he walked out into the bush, undressed and then shot himself in a place where he knew the vultures would be. I believe he was a brave man. In the end he understood a thing or two about real value.

She, the lady at the window, has draped over her knees a crocheted patchwork blanket. Coloured squares of lilac, blue, purple and pink are bordered by yellow. The palette of severe bruising. I’ve not seen her do anything but sit and look out of the window. I have willed her to lean forward, possibly smile but it feels like a prayer, more for my sake than hers.

Her curtains were drawn today. If tomorrow the windows are open wide, I will be sad.

Why I don’t publish regular posts

I admire writers who are able to publish weekly or even daily. I’m just not one of them. To the readers I have gained, thank you for your time, I know how valuable it is. I believe that I should explain the way that I work in case my lack of visibility is taken as a lack of interest.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about pieces I am busy with. The thinking happens in the form of editing, revising and sometimes walking away from a piece in order to return with greater perspective. I don’t like rushing an idea. I usually work on several pieces at a time. I currently have over a hundred draft pieces and at least two longer term projects, a novel and a collection of various types of writing, including drawing.

Perhaps if I had the luxury of writing full time I might publish more? However, my day job as a teacher does take up a lot of my time, and I don’t mind because I love teaching. The tension between working at teaching and working at writing has over the years become a creative tension. It works for me, I guess it has to. During intense periods of marking and preparing, ideas will flicker and a brief pursuit follows. The ideas gestate and mature and are moulded into shape.

I have come to view writing as a craft and have developed a deep respect for anyone who becomes a master. Blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters, wordsmiths and all the other smiths are cut from the same cloth. Passion for perfection drives us, discipline steers us and a completed work disappoints us. We persevere.

Love’s labour is never lost.

So, my friends, when my posts aren’t appearing please know that I have not forgotten you, I’m hammering away in my workshop.

Many thanks for your support.

Mike

Last lesson of the day: welcome to the real world.

Image: The Burghers of Calais, August Rodin

It’s the last lesson of the day. My students file slowly in, like Rodin’s Burghers. I decide to shelve the lesson I’d planned (a Southern Gothic sojourn through To kill a Mocking Bird via Childish Gambino’s brilliant This is America and Rammstein’s Amerika. I was going to start with a question. Where is America outside of text? It’s not happening today. I was really looking forward to it. But, this could be more important. Something tells me things are about to get real!

They’re unusually quiet, too quiet. They’re not even trying to look interested. I don’t blame them. They’ve just written a test, the third in as many days. They write another one tomorrow and exams begin next week. Days like this I feel more like a production line manager than a teacher. It’s a lesson in time management, at least that’s what I try to tell myself. But, I can’t say that to them and that makes me wonder whether it’s the truth. What exactly are we doing here? Them, me, all of us? My career as a teacher has brought me to this class on this day and it doesn’t feel right. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. 

I know the standard response to this scenario. I’ve heard it all my life: “They’ll survive, they’ll have to in the real world. We’re preparing them for the real world.” 

The “real world.” I’ve always wondered where that is exactly? I know what is implied by the term. It’s a reference to the working life, you know the one. The five day week of 7–12 hour workdays to pay off the mortgage that has us strapped to banks until we retire, or die, or retire to die. The world of interminable responsibility, diminishing energy, flagging passion and expensive annual holidays where we travel far to bicker and fight with the people we bicker and fight with at home, that world.

I thought we only had one world?

Why do we lie to our kids? Why do we tell them we’re educating them to think for themselves, and when they do we punish them. We tell them to follow their dreams but by the time they reach their final school year they’ve forgotten what that was because we’ve only taught them how to write examinations, not how to turn their passions into a livelihood. We tell them they can be whoever they want to be but at school we train them to be just like us, focused on what needs to be done to get the money to get through the next week, month, year. We’ve trained them to chase the carrot. First it’s year 6, then it’s year 12 and the school leaving certificate after which it’s either University or an apprenticeship of some kind to get the car, then the house, then, … then it’s holding on for dear life until they have kids, while holding on tighter, getting them educated while dealing with career crises, mid-life crises, deaths, relationship collapses and while we’re losing grip they’re bursting into full bloom and they’re wide eyed and eager to live and you, after just barely getting through the same bad day you’ve been having everyday for the last 10 years, you catch them by the scruff and say “wait until you get into the real world!”

You don’t see the light fade from their eyes straight away, that takes time. But, if you’re lucky, and you’re a teacher, one day you look at them, and you see the light flickering in their eyes and you put aside the curriculum and tell them you’re taking them outside to sit or lie in the sun while you read Walt Whitman or Shakespeare sonnets to them. If you’re lucky enough to do that you grab the chance because you can feel the light flicker inside yourself too, and, sometimes you just have to sit in the sun and read poetry to get it back. At least for a while longer. It’ll fade in time. After all, the world out there is real, it sucks up light like a black hole. I guess that’s how Shakespeare imagined Denmark was for Hamlet.

*One of my favourite authors on the subject is Sir Ken Robinson. Check out his TED talk here . His book Creative Schools is a must read for anyone who cares about learning and education. 

“Why we are never lost.”

Renaissance map makers wrote the words terra incognita to indicate land (terra in Latin) that was unknown or unexplored (incognita in Latin). By the 21st century there is little left of the world to map. But what do we mean when we say the world?

In some abstract way we imagine planet earth. However, the world is never more than the square metre around one’s feet.

We can never inhabit all of the world (unless you are a super-power) and yet we often speak as if we are intimate with all of it. We speak of how the world is when we can only possibly know how it is for us. How do we form our view of the world? Knowledge of current world events does not constitute knowledge of the world. We hold bits of data in our heads and imagine we know so much.

Other brave people have explored and mapped the globe, but to me it remains largely terra incognita.

I can only hope to know my self, the terrain within. It is difficult terrain and I am not always as brave as I ought to be. I am also not immortal. Time moves on, areas are left unexplored. I grow older, become less curious and more tired. That was yesterday though, today I could take on the, uh, world? Oh dear, it seems we do use the word a lot. It’s figurative you see, the world is an idea, not a place.

I do not know the world, and what I do know is very little. Therefore I cannot assume that what I know of the world is in any way a true reflection of the world. An apple is only knowable to me. It is never the same apple for anyone else.

Some nights I tame the beasts that confront me on the dark plains. some days they shred me.
I am of the ground, terrestrial, but I am unknown terrain. I am, in the words of Whitman – large, containing multitudes, and now I must map myself. Terra incognita was my name before my parents chose the one I have carried all my life. And everything gets worn down with time. Skin loses elasticity and wrinkles form like valleys. There are tectonic plates right under my skin. Joints ache, bones become brittle. Blood coagulates when it should not, arteries block, lungs must heave for air, the imagination weaves webs over the present, and reconstruct the past. The brain becomes atrophied.

My name is so thin in places you can see right through it if you hold it up to the light. It’s the same light I have been walking towards all my life, sometimes running to, sometimes away from but, mostly to. Once my name was new, freshly knitted it kept me warm for a while. Now the chill gets in quicker. People have been using it all my life too. My name, not the chill. When I hear it now it is like a bell clanging a labourer back to task. I used to associate my name with possibility. Now it like someone calling my name in a doctor’s waiting room, I expect bad news. So I’m changing it back to my original form name: terra incognito. Because I still feel unknown, unnamed and unformed.

One would expect that with five decades of breathing there would at least be an incremental increase of basic knowledge beyond the skill set one has accumulated through years of trudge. But no. There is no greater insight. One becomes not so much content with one’s life as resigned to it. If accepting your lot is the beginning of enlightenment, I may levitate soon. Currents still spark from the neurons in my brain. I still have fire in my belly.

There is pleasure in travelling through unknown terrain. Mapped and well signed land makes travel easy but the journey tedious.
Happy is he who can embrace the labyrinth of absurdity that is being. Being is not a set of coordinates.
One is never really lost.

https://medium.com/p/why-we-are-never-lost-b11a8eab2f6f?source=email-c99624de6846–writer.postDistributed&sk=4c7151c10c4faf7511bf6e30b6693e41

How to watch a sunrise: morning

I was going to title this piece something minimalist like “morning” but I’ve found that adding ‘How to‘, to anything seems to gain readership. It’s one of the things a writer does, write and then find readers. So, firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this and to those of you who regularly read what I put out, thank you. I do not take your continued support lightly. I am currently exploring another writing site that hosts some worthwhile content, it’s called Medium and you can click on the name to take you there, after you’ve read this. It’s well worth exploring since it caters to a variety of genres.

Morning

It’s 6:30 am. I’ve been up since 4:30 grading English papers. My students appear to be struggling more than I realised. Now I am. Self doubt rises. After the 10th paper it has convinced me I might better serve the community in some other way. I start an internet search for local jobs, anything … postman! That sounds appealing from where I sit. Bukowski did it.

But, I know I won’t. The same way I secretly know I’ll probably not do so many of the things I said I would: like skydive (why did I even say that?), like ride to Key West on a Harley or travel the world in an old panel van or climb Mt Kilimanjaro, swim with dolphins, smoke a cohiba in Havana, talk books ‘n stuff with Stephen Fry, or … the bucket list disappears beneath an endless pile of essays. No. I won’t become a postman. I would stroll rather than walk, forget to post the letters, talk for too long to lonely people waiting for news from someone, anyone. I’d be a rubbish postman. I owe the bank too much. I am locked in for life.

Soon I am approaching the shadow world I know only too well. The bull that lives there shudders, ready to charge. Its front hooves rake the ground, it snorts. I make a cup of coffee. Sit outside, knees propping up my elbows, the coffee has little appeal. I get Macbeth,

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;

I breathe in too deep, cough. I look up.

It is immense. How did the sky stretch so wide? Has it always been so? So high (it seems daft to state the obvious. It feels I am noticing it unfold from space for the first time) and so low it feels that if I held up my arms I could stir the colours like I was Monet and God. Something within, that unidentifiable aspect of ourselves that is lost in the day to day doingness of things alerts my senses. I want to find words and the voice from that inner region grabs me by the scruff of my nightgown and says: “just look. Just feel. That’s all you need to do.”

So I do. I lose the need for words. I soak in the glorious warmth of burning pastel light. As the light grows brighter and the sky shifts to blue I take out my phone again and start finding the words. I can’t help myself. It is an impulse too ingrained. If I have not squeezed words onto the page, it never happened.

But, soon the moment will strain under the weight of the day. Pressed cold, olive like, the essence of it anoints me. Not as king, my kingdom is overrun by barbarians who have taken my crown and placed a number to live by in its stead. No, I am anointed as something better than a king. The sun anoints me renegade, maverick on walkabout in a world gone mad. I grade the papers with my old eyes. The ones that prompt the tongue to say

“here are your grades, but what is more important, I saw you loved the book and that will stay with you longer. Trash the paper, let’s read. Let’s read about sunrises and mushrooms and walls and old men on blasted heaths and then you may stand a chance.”

“A chance for what they will say”.

To which I shall reply: “If you can hold onto a poem longer than your mortgage contract then you might just survive this life. Then, scattered randomly through the interminable days of drudgery ahead of you, there will be sunrises that will take your breath away and remind you that in the light of that, nothing else really matters.”

“Why you should thank your mother.”

“Why you should thank your mother.” by Michael Scallan https://link.medium.com/8XbijeBJAW

The philosophy of cupboards: a memoir.

People and countries are much like cupboards. They contain much but most of it is forgotten. These dark spaces create the illusion of abundance, unpacked they reveal the superficiality of our existence. We keep things we don’t need and forget too soon what we have. On the other hand, opening a long forgotten drawer is like finding gifts you forgot to enjoy. Cupboards and drawers have been an important part of my life.

Not everything needs light to grow. When I was a child I found an old slice of chocolate cake in the furthest recess of my cupboard. I had hastily hidden it there when I was interrupted by my brother. Clearly I had forgotten to eat it. Months later it had grown fur. I recall considering whether it might be salvaged but I threw it out, I was not that brave. The mould had prospered in the dark. Much like the political ideology of apartheid. Much like me.

But, it is those who live in darkness who are most afraid of the light. So it was in the Dark Ages in South Africa. Of course, as a child, I did not see that, how could I? We lived in Plato’s cave, watching a fire we were told was called truth, recoiling from the shadows crawling the walls. But even when people call the darkness by another name it remains darkness. Eventually children will find language, no matter how well it is hidden. They will discover all the hidden things. Eventually a hand will reach into the furthest corner of the cupboard.

In the shadows of the cooling towers and through the incessant thunder of the turbines I discovered that if you stray from the road into a corn field in winter it gets cold quickly and one is easily disoriented. If the corn is high and the leaves are dead and brown and if there is wind moving through them, the noise becomes deafening and frightening. It feels like the end of the world.

We lived in a village. That sounds too pastoral, too Dickensian. We lived in a house amongst similarly designed red facebrick houses where other workers lived. There were large cantilevered, plastered flower boxes jutting out of the wall beneath the main bedroom window of each house. They were big enough, if unplanted, for two boys to hide in. Constructed during the 1960’s and 70’s, the houses accomodated the families of miners who worked in the power station. Worker accommodation close to the means of production. My father and mother worked there and later on, so did I. South easterly winds blew ash over the village, I’m calling it a village. When it rained the running drops left grey ash streaks on cars and windows. Everyone complained about the ash.  Some days everything was covered in a fine layer of ash. The patina of sacrifice at the altar of the gods of consumerism. Heavy rain left the world looking clean. Light rain left streaks the way mascara stains the face after crying. It was beautifully bleak. The way Van Gogh’s potato peelers are beautiful or Whistler’s trains steaming in cold mist are simulatneously solid steel and ethereal. Sunsets set the sky on fire against the black coal dumps and over the gashed countryside scarred to extract carbon. I read later on that industrial skies are red from the iron content in the air. Iron oxide reflects red light. We had an iron sky.

On one side of the village we were bound by a railway line that cut the veldt to the west and stitched a sutured track to Richards Bay. (I had no idea where that was but it sounded warm, far and blue). To the north and south was farmland, as far as the eye could see, fields of corn (mielie fields we called them). Three hours south east was Barberton, where my father and I were born. Where I was formed. What do you call the process of becoming? (The town is still there but now it is like a thing in the far corner of a large cupboard). We left after my grandparents died because, though my parents wanted to keep the home, they never had the money to hold onto it. (Money strengthens one’s grip on the world. Without it, life is an interminable letting go). I never wanted to leave. I remember the last night in the house, in torchlight and with a pen knife, I carved my initials onto a section of the floorboard under the bed. I collected stones, seed pods and leaves from every corner of the garden. They remained in my bedroom cupboard until I had to leave that home too. Cupboards are made to accommodate our attachment to the world. A world I seemed determined to archive piece by piece. I still bring back stones from places I visit. I have only succeeded in relocating minute pieces of the earth. That childhood trauma of losing a place instilled a fear of loving a place. We always leave or lose the places we love. People too. A few stones in my pocket lessen the loss. It is delusion of course. For we move on and lose our connection to the land, the symbolic pebbles end up in a cupboard somewhere, forgotten and ultimately discarded.

The roads leading to the village were dark at night and always broken from the incessant traffic of heavy coal trucks. The coal dust powdered over their brake lights making them invisible and we lost a friend who drove into the back of a truck. She was placed in a cupboard in the ground. “Please God watch the coal trucks” became mother’s mantra when I was travelling home at night. Another time our school bus drove into the back of one and our neighbour’s daughter nearly died. We hated the coal trucks.

On Saturday nights everyone went to the “Rec Hall” (community recreational hall) to watch movies. Westerns were our favourites. Charles Bronson was my hero. My brother and I and our friends always got front row seats. Mrs Harley patrolled the aisles with a torch to ensure no hanky-panky took place. If there had been it probably happened up in the lighting box where the older boys worked the projector. We all aspired to do that job. By the time I was old enough the films had stopped and people were leaving because the power station was shutting down, being “moth balled” they said. Essentially they would shut the doors, switch off the power, lock up and leave. One big cupboard.

Before the village shut down it was our wide open world and we loved it. Despite the overarching fear of God and communists (I grew up feeling personally responsible for the Anglo-Boer war and the moral decay that apparently surrounded us) there was music. Once the Buddy Holly Story was going to show. Then I did something or said something wrong and my parents said I could not go. I remember the quiet rage I felt. I retreated with tears to my bedroom and stepped into the cupboard. I closed the doors behind me. I sat down on the cool floor and found a box of pencils and began breaking them in two. The smaller bits were harder to break. I remember how that fuelled the rage. I stayed there for a long time. I found comfort in the isolated darkness. I still do. Cupboards store stuff, but also memories and pain. Later, older, tired and somewhat broken I faced the cupboard of my youth and found that in the interim years demons had taken up residence there, replaced the pencils with sharp memories, and were waiting.

Cupboards are really just reconfigured trees used for storage. The earliest examples belonged to wealthy people, working class people had no need for them. The cupboard enters popular culture on a wide scale in the 17th century. By the late 18th century, with the industrial revolution and the rising middle class that it spawned, economically elevated humans sought to do what they had hitherto been unable to do, luxuriate in their dwellings. They traded labour for money for things. At first they were needful things like items of clothing and cutlery. Once needs were met, desire set in, took up residence and like a perpetually hungry child demanded attention. Cupboards soon become symbols of excess, status symbols. Their compartments held a darker purpose. Secrecy was domesticated. Now cupboard space is as important as real estate. We have a walk in cupboard. With the lights off it feels strangely comforting.