Here is an event which it has become my duty to declare:
all my life I have been searching for the world, then, while it hurtled through space at roughly 107 000 km/h with a spin speed of aproximately 1670 kp/h (it matters where on the rock you stand) then … this flower smaller than a small coin, caught a bit of the flare that fumed and spat from the sun eight minutes ago, and held it, like a promise, and though we move and in that movement find the earth to be such a place where pain and grief find us, no matter where we look, then also we must remember that it will pass. Everything passes.
And we are little more than caretakers of brevity called upon to do the impossible, to make a life with a brief spell on a brutal rock. But, here is where we have surprised, even ourselves- we have found beauty where there ought to be none. Are we not remarkable? Are we not better than we thought?
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 thewindow?) 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.
There are low hanging clouds tonight. They look like steam. The city cooks us all, devours us and you wouldn’t know it but for the likes of me so I will do my bit for the illusion of progress and mimic the ritual of success. I will move without purpose. I will begin now, here, by standing. No one likes a reclining dude in the city, except if it’s lunchtime in a park and you have expensive shoes and unholy socks which display to everyone that this is a deliberate rest and not a stupour, not a cry for help or the decline of a once respected soul. Steam clouds, ice cream clouds, I scream at clouds. I feel like a hot turd meting out my miasma. People look for clouds during lunch break or smoke break but who notices clouds at night? Vagrants and poets thanking God for the cover of darkness, cursing him for the cold but grateful the noisy city workers with their high heels clakking, their cappucinos, their $500 suits and dresses have gone home to give the city dwellers some peace. Hope Malevich comes by tonight. I want to show him my black square of night, just behind you between the bank and the hotel, the road and the billboard. If you look up from where I am now there’s a perfect square of sky. I only see it unblack for a short time before sunrise, before the arrival of the masses, the walking dead as my mate Jude and I call them, the one’s who think they are safeguarded by their suits and distance from the bitch of bad timing and one more for the road. We catch you sneaking glances like the buildings catch the sky between loathing and compassion depending on how your day has gone so far. See the disgust in your eyes, the same looks i avoid in shop windows. The streets are a hall of mirrors at night. We’re all passing through, but we pass variously.
It is said she burned with holy passion. I do not know. I know she burnt. It is said that flames purify the soul. Hell must be free of blemish. It is said she heard saints speak. I hear voices. Who speaks i do not know. She heard them before she burned to a crisper version of her former self. Voices. She scared us because we hear them too. But we fear fire more. We impure ones. She spoke too freely. Damn her. There are things we know to be true and there are reasons for the great silence. We all have voices, thoughts. The voices. If you knew what mine said. It is said she was loved. It is said they respected her. Still, they watched her burn. Is this what burning love is? They must have heard the wood crack and spit back her fat. Some were sickened as they salivated at the familiar smell of roasting flesh. I always notice the one who vomits first. I want to say to him: What did you expect? A spiritual cleansing at the spectacle? A symbolic demise? No mess? The devil in a cloak to descend with her? No. He ascended an hour ago to take up his seat next to Beaufort and Cauchon. They who commanded I do my duty. With their mitres and gold they cross us. Their light. Let the games begin. I do not hate them. The heretics i burn. It is theatre. I am an entertainer, the hand of God. I am the distance between their thirst for blood and the blood. I am the interregnum. They demand satisfaction, protection, justice. But not one will step forward to do the work that delivers it. They are not bad people. They are spectators. They are mostly ordinary. Ordinary spectators hoping the warmth will pass on a degree of purity. She burns for hearing the voices of saints while dressed as a man. Heresy. Hear say, here see? It’s not her we kill but thinking. Thinking is a voice and now we fear it. Tonight we will all sleep speaking prayers to drown out the voices. They, I … I burn her. I release her soul and I lose mine. I have earned the right to say these things having despatched souls for twenty years.We are mostly all ordinary, the burners and the ones who burn. These are the two types of people in this world; those who burn and those burnt. The pure and the purified. Only gold holds back the flames. To hold gold others must burn. We must eat and they hold the gold. I think of today as an exchange. They are buying the security of purity and the soul is a weighty substance. None dare burn those who burn others. They are exempt from the fire, for they are the voice of God and are jealous of other voices. Will it not always be so?
Having just purchased two bars of splendidly wrapped bars of dark chocolate which were in a state of specialness and therefore acquired with unexpected gain, Elmore Slowdrizzle proceeded to exit the store in his usual state of deliberate panic. While standing in a queue of weathered proletariats short of hands and patience Elmore thanked God for inventing the Swiss who begat chocolatieres who begat the notion of placing finely dessicated coconut, delicately shred orange and fragrant whisps of mint into thin slabs of chocolate. He marvelled at how, in these modern times of drive through food and internet shopping he willingly risked the inconvenience of rush hour traffic and road rage to buy these bars. Was it even the Swiss? This must surely be one of those enduring mysteries of the ages? To think he might die without ever knowing the truth. How bleak life was. So many unanswered questions, so few queues to ponder them in. Answers never interested Elmore, everyone had plenty of those. But, good questions, now that was a different matter entirely. Chocolate is perhaps the only good thing to come from colonization. Perhaps he might amend his note of divine gratitude to include the Spanish? He should learn Spanish. Who first used mint? Did they not also deserve an ounce of gratitude? Gratitude delays gratification. There are simply too many things to be grateful for. Elmore yearned for a simpler life. Would gratitude for chocolate imply a complicitness in the 20th century and post truth decades of cocaine smuggling, the second wave of colonization? Strictly speaking, it could not be the second wave but the first North American wave after the first Spanish wave. Wave? Seemed like an odd word for the colonial adventure that delivered smallpox, syphilis and general genocide to the New World in exchange for gold, tobacco and chocolate. Not the fairest of swops. Chocolate is not an innocent indulgence. Not anymore. Now, some 500 years later he finds himself in this shop, in this human chain of consumerism because of Spanish Imperial notions of heaping up wealth with superior steel and germs. Crossing the threshold of the store he was accosted by an official patron of a charity organisation who thrust upon Elmore a pamphlet and ignited 30 years worth of lapsed Catholic guilt. Elmore thought it improper to ask the first question that came to mind. How would blind children play cricket? Would it not constitute an unfair advantage to their opponents? Might it not be dangerous, indeed, even lethal? He assumed that all of these questions had been cafefully considered prior to the clearly labour intensive process of bringing to the storefront the two fold up tables, the tablecloths, reading material not to mention the efforts of finding volunteers (also work weary), appropriately sized neon yellow T shirts and peak caps which would all have to be collected, unpacked, transported then unpacked again by the men whose work schedules would need to have been carefully manipulated in order for them to be here. Most likely they began their duties smiling but these seemed long gone and had given way to something else. They operated with the passive aggression volunteers most likely feel justified to adopt after 2 hours of friendly begging with nothing but patronising dismissals from passers by who have suddenly answered calls on their mobile phones whilst pointing apologetically to said devices. Elmore did not wish to display this customary rejection but neither did he wish to engage in discussion which would conclude with his guilt for being a fully sighted, otherwise challenged human being after which he would complete a debit order in duplicate to the sum of $20 a month he did not have. He therefore hastily presented the custodian of the unfortunate children with $5 and his best smile.
Sorry mate, we can’t take donations, only debit orders, the man yawned with a gesture. It was a gesture difficult to define. The one might use to gently prevent an aged aunt from filling ypur glass with chardonnay. Elmore’s panic began to surge through him in waves. A more suitable use for the term.
I‘ve just purchased two bars of coconut dark chocolate, it’s delicious. Would you like a square? While Elmore immediately recognised the inappropriate nature of this invitation it was all he could say that might defuse the incredibly tense moment and he immediately relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. The man’s response somewhat bewildered Elmore for he did not expect the man to be surprised. No, more shocked than surprised.
No thanks, he said and walked past Elmore to confront the next wave of shoppers.
Should he offer the man’s assistant proseletyser a piece? He had been watching the whole affair and might feel neglected. As Elmore took a step towards him the man quickly darted off in pursuit of an elderly lady pushing a trolly while simultaneously straining against it for support. She found her mobile phone with remarkable agility.
As he made his way through the car park and crossed the road next to the park beyond which his home stood Elmore regretted not purchasing three bars of finely crafted Swiss chocolate to delay his next visit by a bit longer. Was it even the swiss? When did coconut first encounter Europe?
In the quietude of his dimly lit home with only the dull hum of his air conditioner Elmore settled down to two squares of coconut infused dark chocolate and a cup of Earl Grey tea with just a dash of full cream milk. As the chocolate melted on his warm tongue he smiled and then frowned. Why had he not thought of thanking the Aztecs? To amend for his shameful lapse of misdirected gratitude he returned the uneaten slab to its silver foil and retired, unsatisfied to bed. Modernity does not guarantee perspective he thought and slipped into a dream of bloodied, metalled conquistadors disembowling gentle Aztec chocolatieres.
I saw a Magpie Lark doing this strange thing. It was walking around in small circles at the base of a tree with its beak in the soil. I was sitting in my car and this was in a car park with a row of those municipal trees that look like they’re dying, tied with thick rubber bands to a pole on either side of the tree. They make the tree look like its been stuck there as a punishment. The Lark stopped a few times and looked me straight in the eyes and carried on. They’re gutsy little fellas, fraida nothing. Then I saw it peck at something and swallow. Ants maybe. Once I saw a flock of pink Gallahs circling overhead and it looked at first like they were chasing a long necked bird, maybe an Egret or perhaps a duck. Not sure, had a long neck. Then they turned and the long necked bird followed so they weren’t chasing it. It was a clear day and the sun was still high in the sky cos as I followed them I looked into the sun and nearly blinded myself. I watched for several minutes and they were flying together, not at each other. Maybe the long necked bird thought it was a Gallah? Maybe they thought they were Egrets or ducks or whatever. Maybe they don’t think. It was strange cos usually animals don’t seem to mix like that, or play like that. Or maybe I just don’t get out much. It felt good to watch, made me feel hopeful. Next day we were in Kalgoorlie, in the town centre near that absurd little statue of the kid, Saint Barbara the patron saint of miners, with the story written on plaques on stones in a circle around it and there were these two women shouting and swearing at each other and I was eating a pie for lunch but straight away I lost my appetite. I felt bad for them, for everyone and wondered if it was cos I was raised Catholic or me just being crazy or if everyone felt the same. Truth is I watched some of the people watching and some of them were smiling and that disturbed me more than the shouting and swearing. One night after supper we were walking down the main street and there were all of these homeless blokes setting up for the night in the doorways of shops probably to get out of the draught that comes through town and is probably cold. They all asked us for money and the first time I gave a bloke the coins I had in my pocket then he asked for a cigarette so I gave him a couple and then next time I just ignored the bloke and carried on walking and felt bad for doing that. All the way back to the hotel I was involved in this internal dialogue and justifying why I never stopped each time and again wondered if all people passing someone homeless feel this way. Guilty for not helping every time and is giving cigarettes helping? Engagement with people is exhausting. Whatever you do and wherever you go there’s always this post-mortem of events and thoughts and shoulda, coulda, woulda and makes me just want to never come into contact with people ever again and reminds me why I enjoyed watching the Gallahs and the egret or duck and the Magpie Lark.
Before this, before we even got to Kalgoorlie we passed through Coolgardie and maybe that was where we saw the Gallahs, I can’t remember and does it really matter where they were cos they were in the sky as we watched. But, as you enter the town there’s this little house on your left that you can’t miss cos it looks like someone’s spent forever turning a refuse tip into a work of art. It’s all rubbish composed and arranged in such a way that you have to stop and if you don’t you wish you did and spend the next five kilometres thinking maybe if you turn back it won’t be too late, then don’t, then it is. But all around this house there is the strangest collection of everyday objects: hub caps, safety helmets, pots, cups, plates, baths, lengths of pipe … It’s like an alien landed and began gathering anything related to human daily life and left before he could do whatever he was going to do with them. Strange how everyday objects just piled up feels strange when that’s what we do anyway, collect and stockpile stuff. The mystery of the place lingers cos there’s no indication of what it is or why and I guess locals could tell a few stories and it was probably just some eccentric person who after losing their job or partner started this project to keep busy and maybe before the person died it looked better than it does now. There’s a visible history of someone’s life here and I would’ve liked to talk to that person cos they woulda been interesting and I reckon they would’ve been grumpy as hell or friendly and all smiles. It was after that we saw the Gallahs and the Egret or duck. After leaving the house I felt sad that we were just walking through someone’s life work. What was he thinking? I got the sense of a him from all the car stuff but girls can like cars too I guess but whoever it was I felt how full their hearts must have been as their hands placed each object here. Now it’s only stuff, or is it? I see stuff all the time but with this stuff my first thoughts were of the person behind it. So, no, it’s never ‘just’ stuff. Things are crutches for life in a world where everything’s always falling down or apart or both. We prop up our hearts with stuff, the sorta crap that helps bring meaning to the absurdity of existence and if the stuff looks crazy, why shouldn’t it? and in our ordinary ways we are all a bit crazy like Gallahs and Magpie Lark’s. He was a brave fella the bloke who lived in this house. I reckon he was brave cos he was honest and generally, we don’t like honest, we like to think we’re better than we are.