Archive | September, 2014

The Bones – Part 3

30 Sep

bar

4.

Some people always have to give you the run-around. They reveal a few things, then back off, gloat at you, tell you it’s meaningless anyway.

It’s a way of making themselves feel important.

People want to be cornerstones – not stepping-stones. But when you think about it, what’s a house without a staircase? You’d be better off not building it in the first place.

The life of a journalist is a misery from start to finish. You go out there to get the story, but the story grows and in the end it’s bigger than you; it would take your whole life to tell it properly, the way it deserves.

And that’s why she always ended up telling her editor she needed time off. She had to cool her heated mind, she had to immerse herself in silence, sit in the moonlight for a few weeks, let her thoughts settle back into some kind of fermenting harmony. And smoke good cigars.

Wyre was right, it was like a barrel of maturing whisky. The men she’d had were all bad, one of them had been toxic, and her instinctual drives were all enemies that came whispering in the night; enemies such as the myth of the child, the myth of the milk in her breast, the tinkling waters of the river, the oasis, the soft bed guarded by a fierce man who loved her.

Lies. All lies.

Henrietta had never got the distillation process right.

The whisky came out smelling like an old shoe.

Later, she went to a small boarding hotel and asked if she could pay for a shower. The gummy man behind the counter grinned as if it was funny and took her money, but when she turned on the shower and stood there trying to clean herself, the water came out all grimy and full of small globules of black tar, which melted against her skin and left her sooty as a chimney-sweep. She dried herself, went back and roared at the old man, then went back to the camper van and wiped herself down with wet tissues.

Afterwards, while smoking a cigar outside, she decided that when investigating a town of shits, one had to go to the stomach sack and greater intestine, where the shit was made.

5.

She saw Arty Simpleton as soon as she stepped into the bar that evening. He was unmistakable. What was it Wyre had called him? A tub of blubber with pork-fat eyes?

It wasn’t a bad description.

He was sitting on a tall stool at the bar, apparently engrossed in conversation with the barman, but not so engrossed that he stopped himself from turning round and giving her an invasive stare.

She ignored him and ordered a cranberry vodka. The barman was vaguely hostile, everyone in there was hostile and they were all men.

She couldn’t help turning her head slightly, and shooting out, in her best New York voice: “If you have something on your mind, buddy, keep it to yourself.” It was a good ploy, she had found. If you really wanted someone to talk, the first thing you had to do was tell them to shut up.

Arty did not wait long to open his ugly mouth: “Oh, not much, thanks. I’m not big on unpacking myself, and I don’t go to other folks’ homes and make them unpack themselves, either. I have some scrupulosity about that…”

“Fine with me, I only came for the truth.”

“Yeah,” said Arty Simpleton. “The truth about nothing.”

“An empty cemetery? You call that nothing?”

She let the cold vodka dribble down her throat, and momentarily enjoyed the feeling of watching him squirm on the end of her skewer. But she had not figured on the way his rampant stupidity rose up like a one-armed zombie. “A few old bones, who gives a damn about ’em? If all I can say in two hundred years is ‘Hey, these are my bones and you better go to my grave every week and holler out your prayers’ – then fuck me what a sad man I’ll be. ’Cuz when you gone you gone. See?”

Arty nodded at the barman, who brought him another large hot chocolate smothered in clumps of whipped cream. “I don’t drink, lady. And I ain’t no Muslim. That’s a double negative.” He burst into strenuous laughter. No one else in the bar made a sound, though she heard a chair scraping in a corner and a drawling voice: “Shut the fuck up, Arty…” After that, the bar went back to its usual state, which was rather like the recovery room of a psychiatric ward, where the patients were brought to recuperate after their hysterical outbursts had passed.

She decided to change tack, for the moment. “What about the robberies?” she said. “You issued a statement in the local press.”

“You bet,” said Arty.

“I was confused by it,” she said, deviously. “On the one hand you’re saying to any robbers out there that if they come back you’re all willing to fall on your swords rather than hand your money over. That’s passivity, in my book, Mr. Simpleton. But on the other hand, you’re telling them you’ve bought enough weapons to start a small war…”

Arty stood up and his stool scraped agonizingly against the floor. “Come on guys, let’s show her the real story!”

A couple of semi-intoxicated amalgamations of dirt held up by their trousers stood up and flustered along beside Arty and Henrietta, as they went to a door at the back. Arty flung it open with some pride and flicked on the lights.

Inside was a long gun rack studded with carbines, pump-action shotguns and semi-automatics; even a long sniper’s rifle.

There was a long exhalation from the Oilers, as if they were looking at their pride and joy, which in a real sense they were. Guns were like jewels to them or chronograph watches, intricately made; precious status symbols.

The colour had risen into the congealed fat of Arty’s cheeks. “We got night patrols set up.”

“And day patrols too, right Arty?” someone added in a squeaky voice.

“Night, day, noon, you name it,” said Arty. “Any robbers come out here again we’ll blow ‘em away.”

“So you all got together and paid for this? To protect yourselves…”

“You bet we did,” said Arty, flicking the lights off again and closing the door.

Henrietta sat down and waited for him to recompose himself before she threw another pebble into the pool.

“Let me get this right…you buy guns and even go out on patrol to protect your property. But someone comes in the dead of night and digs up your cemetery and steals the bones…the bones of your fathers and mothers…and all you have to say about it is ‘fuck that’ and ‘nothing happened.’ Am I right?”

“That’s right,” said Arty Simpleton, slurping his whipped cream. “You know what I do, lady? I drill oil and I tap it and I salt my money away, that’s what I’m about…”

“Okay, that’s understandable,” said Henrietta. “You don’t care about your ancestors, but what about your kids? What are they going to do in this place after you’ve gone, what are you leaving them?”

“Well I’m leaving them a shitload of dough to start off!” said Arty, slamming down his cup. “We Simpletons have been in this place for five hundred years, lady, so don’t you come here telling me I don’t care about my ancestors, though I tell you I do not care a barrel-pin for a sack of old bones…”

He stared into the gnarled wood of the bar, then added laconically: “Anyways, what fucking kids you talking about? Ain’t no fucking kids round here last time I looked, all I got is a nephew and he’s lucky enough not to be born here.”

“So Oil Town’s not such a great place, then?”

His red-rimmed eyes grew heated. “Oil Town is the best fucking spot on earth! I wouldn’t change it for nothing!”

“The heat, the desert, the flying sand…the lovely filthy water…you love it all, do you?”

“That’s right. It’s my home; I love it.”

Henrietta smiled, filling up with pity. “Oh you’re a sorry collection of instincts, aren’t you, Mr. Simpleton?”

“Now hear me good, lady journalist. You think you have something to say about a place you know nothing about? You think by writing it down it’ll change anything?”

She thought about it. “Yes. In the long run.”

“Oh, Jesus, in the long run we’re all dead. And then some asshole comes and takes your bones. Just so you’re clear about it, if I saw the folks what did this I’d take my gun off the wall and have a pot-shot at them ’cuz they deserve nothing but lead. But I won’t see ’em because they take care I don’t. And I’m not going to let them take my composure from me, ’cuz bones ain’t my core area. I’m a driller and an oiler and that’s all that counts for me. Anything else is decoration.”

Henrietta felt, for the first time, a sort of despondency creeping into her system; an area of glum darkness with a whispering voice inside it, telling her it was all futile. These men are right, said the voice. Everything is gone, everything is broken, nothing can ever be whole again, nothing works and nothing ever will work.

She sat on her stool, breathing the glutinous air with difficulty.

“Hey Arty,” someone piped up from a table at the back. “You gonna tell her about the spruce-jumpin’?”

“No,” said Arty. “No I ain’t gonna tell her.”

“Tell her, Arty, or I’ll tell her,” said the barman.

Arty seemed to waver, or maybe it was just the hot chocolate and cream making him oozy and pliant. “Go ahead, I’m not stopping you, if you want to talk about stuff that don’t make no difference no more.”

The barman’s face split into a big grin and then, while wiping glasses and bustling about, he started talking. “You know, lady, this guy here, Arty, he got the mind of a true original. He don’t care about a thing, not even his own skin, and he won’t stop at nothing to prove a point.”

Henrietta tried to show interest, but her mind was swaying.

“Why is that?” she said.

“Oh ’cuz he used to stand on a tall rock and jump off into some trees and catch hold of a branch and then hang there like a damned tree-rat twenty metres off the ground. Know what I’m saying? And he did it for dares, he did it to prove stuff.”

“Once he jumped to prove to Daisy Lopez that he loved her.”

“Shut the fuck up about that!” said Arty, his face turning livid.

“I already know about it, Wyre told me,” said Henrietta, who knew the only way to get one’s story was to stir up the hornet’s nest.

“I’m not saying nothing about Daisy Lopez. She’s history…”

The bar was jumping now. Everyone was laughing, tears running down their cheeks. Some were banging their tankards against the tables. This was a highly specific kind of steam-letting going on, she knew. Depressed people used laughter to let out their anger and disappointment, and nothing could be sadder than the sound of a roomful of broken souls.

Henrietta’s head was spinning terribly now. She wondered what kind of screwy vodka this was.

The barman’s poison-ivy face loomed close again. “We can’t do the spruce-jumpin’ no more, ‘cos they cut down the trees forty years ago or more. They’re gone…like Daisy Lopez.”

The laughter intensified.

The barman continued.

“The timbers ain’t all bad. I used them for roof-beams on my extension, and every time I look at them I think of Arty here, he was still a slim stripling in those days, fit as a bug he was, you should have seen him throw himself off. Hey Arty, you should have joined the army and killed yourself some Chinese, you would have made a General for sure and then you’d have yourself a nice little wife who appreciated your killing ways and your pot of gold and garden full of grass and Oil Town wouldn’t have been in your compass, you know…you’d be free of it…free, know what I’m saying, man? There’d be grass under your feet and cold water to drink without no fucking ice machine…”

Henrietta had a final lucid moment.

She saw the barman standing before her, his shoulders hunched up to his ears, wiping his glass so energetically that it broke in his hands and sliced his thumb open.

The bar went silent again, as he wiped a rag round the gash, cursing as he did so.

“I don’t fucking care about no goddamn grass under my feet. I’m wearing my fucking boots anyways,” said Arty. “What fucking difference does it make?”

And then Henrietta passed out.

 

Go to Part 4 here
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2,

 

The Bones – Part 2

17 Sep

2.
The Oilers were shocked when they heard that Wyre had gone to the foreign journalist to spill himself. It was like him, of course, he was a turncoat and loser whose family had never played by the book, which admittedly was hard in Oil Town because there was no book. The most effective laws, the Oilers knew tacitly, were those that had never been written down, and therefore lodged in the system like an evil solvent, building up in people’s fleshy gizzards. Those things weren’t really laws, they were principles. Most of the Oilers believed that Wyre’s origins were cussed from the very start – Oil Town was obsessed by bad genes, a more popular topic than the weather or football scores.
His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jeremiah, a freed slave, had been given a small freehold by a grateful employer, whose daughter he’d saved from drowning. On this patch of land he built with his own two strong arms a solid wooden cabin with two rooms on the bottom and one on top under the slanted roof-beams; and good windows with carved splash-boards and a pretty efficient-looking roof with copper drainpipes that still worked fine. He also extended an already fairly decent apple-orchard, and was known for his fizzy cider which he sold in earthenware pots.

But he kept himself to himself, sat around smoking his pipe and reading books. Books! He worked less and less, of course, they all did. Once the oil boom started up and he drilled in his hay meadow and found rock like tarred sponge, he had enough to keep him in food, clothes, candles, books and anything else he wanted.

The apple trees grew tall and bushy, then dry and diseased. Finally, a hundred years later, they were felled by his great-grandson Richard, who was a keen wood-carver. The house was still filled with his sculptures of eagles, foxes and wash-bears.

Wyre was just the same as his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather – the same obstinacy, the same dogged reluctance to belong. His beard fluttered in the breeze like trailing lichens. He always had a cigar in his mouth, and where the smoke rose there was a brown streak of nicotine that had dyed his facial hair from the corner of his mouth across his cheek.

Wyre did not shower very much, none of the Oilers did. The water had largely dried up and most of it was contaminated with oil. You came out of the bathroom filthier than when you went in.

To be honest, Henrietta hadn’t been too taken with Wyre either, when he first showed up.

The dirt on him was mythical in proportion, even the smell had scared itself away. His skin lay folded like yellow leather over his misshapen skeleton.

When he came back the following morning she liked him better, reminding herself that most truly unpleasant people make a very good first impression – unless they’re thugs. Wyre was not unpleasant and not a thug either. He was just bloody ugly. But his eyes were alive and darting, with a whiff of humor.

He waited outside without knocking; it must have been about nine thirty in the morning, which is a civil hour. She was making a cup of tea when she felt the rich smell of a really good Havana coming in through the window.

It made her happy. Henrietta was a lover of the brown weed, and she was glad someone else was too.

“Morning.” She stuck her head out of the door, and the moment hit her; the moment when her undertaking crystallized. “So you came back, I wasn’t sure you would.”

“You smoke.” It wasn’t a question. He offered her a hand-rolled magic wand, encapsulated forest, sun and rain.

“Thanks.” She sat down and lit it. “So..?”

“You asked about the bone people.”

“And you know where I can find them?” she said, continuing last night’s conversation where it left off.

Wyre looked flustered, and his way of showing it was a flurry of puffing on the cigar. Finally he sank back in his deckchair. “That’s what I came to tell you. No one knows where to find them. But I know they are there, that’s what I came to tell you. I know they are there.”

“Where?”

His smile was like someone who has lost everything, and was now reconciled to his wistful soul. “Yes, where?”

Henrietta was not impressed. “That’s all you know?”

Wyre pointed indistinctly at the rolling sands. “I can tell you they’re out there…somewhere. And that’s all I know.”

“You don’t know a lot, then.”

“No. I don’t know a lot. Do you?”

Henrietta thought about it. “I don’t know a damned thing…”

A few weeks earlier she had woken as always in her metal bed by the window, and parted the curtains to look out at the city waking up, the flatulent buses, the intensifying streets, an ant-hill stirred with a stick; ruminating clouds hanging motionless above.

She had felt tired of the view; of the perspective, in fact.

This was also the slant she put on it when she spoke to Andy, her editor at the newspaper. “I need to see something new,” she told him. “I can’t just hang about here all the time.”

“It’s what everyone else does, Henry,” Andy told her, standing wide-legged before her, fiddling with his colorful braces.

“Yeah but I’m not like them,” Henrietta said. “I can’t make a life out of trying a new Chinese restaurant, or…you know…going for a blind date with a well-hung Ukrainian.”

Andy grinned. “So what’s your big idea this time?” He sat down in his revolving chair and put his feet on his desk, because that was what newspaper editors did, apparently to demonstrate their complete disregard for hygienic recommendations.

“I want to go out to the Oil Basin.”

Now Andy was looking perplexed. “There’s nothing going on out there. I thought you had something interesting in mind.”

She walked up to the big plate glass window and looked down twenty-three storeys to street level, as always with a flashing image in her mind of an aircraft flying right into them, forcing her to jump, flailing her arms and falling, falling…

She recomposed herself. “I’ve heard rumors of natives out there, in the desert. Bone people, they call them.”

“Oh give me a break! Give me an honest story, Henry, go to Scotland, drink lots of Scotch and write me a piece on the Loch Ness Monster.”

“They come into the towns at night and dig up the graves.” She turned round and glared at him. “They take the bones.”

“Even if it’s true…so what?”

“I don’t know if it’s true,” said Henrietta.

Andy shrugged, and then, knowing there was no changing her mind and anyway Henry was the best reporter he’d ever had, added: “When are you leaving?”

She checked her watch, spun round and on the way out called over her shoulder: “I’m already gone.”

The only sort of job Henrietta could hold down was one you could walk out of – anytime you liked.

After they had finished their cigars and drunk two more cups of coffee and eaten a couple of blueberry muffins which she’d brought in a tin from the city, Wyre showed her the cemetery.

There wasn’t much to see, just a ragged line of razor wire partially buried under a bank of sand, which had built up along the fence-posts.

Inside, on account of the sand, they did not use headstones any more, and anyway – at least the way Henrietta saw it – the idea of putting those people’s names there seemed vainglorious. Once they died you were better off forgetting them; all they’d ever done was ooze argumentatively in their chairs, chomping on their burgers and filling the air with intestinal gas whilst issuing their stinking words, usually something to the effect of how such and such a person should be shot and another strung up; occasionally if a politician threatened to raise the taxes they’d howl in protest. Such people were best thrown into the ground and covered up, like landfill.

To mark the graves, the sexton or whoever did the job, drove long pieces of metal into the ground – old pieces of railway track, for the trains had long since gone, just like the trees. And metal was cheaper than wood.

Wyre stopped and lit another cigar. “The only advantage of the desert,” he said with a wink, “is you can’t set fire to it.”

Henrietta was already bored by the cemetery, which was non-descript to the point of derision. “There’s nothing here.”

“Yeah. That’s the whole point,” said Wyre. “Someone dug up the bodies and took them away.” He pointed to a recently erected mound, planted with a few wilting bushes. “They left the heads, the feet and the hands in a pile. We put a guard on the place. But whoever came here only came once and made sure they took what they needed. If you’re going to break the law, do it once. Don’t be a recidivist.”

Henrietta reacted to his use of that word, recidivist, and looked at him with curiosity. “Where did you go to school, Wyre?”

“We don’t have schools here, we have a building with a teacher and some students sitting there, but they make sure no one learns anything. I stayed at home and read books.”

They stood in silence, gazing at the bleak scene, buffeted by a blast-furnace wind.

“They must have come up here in the night when it was stormy, so no one heard them. We figure they left with no less than two hundred skeletons and corpses,” said Wyre, with a mischievous grin.

“Why would they do that? Who are they?” Her eyes narrowed analytically, but they collided with his fuzzed, yellow pupils, which seemed almost naïve in their simplicity.

“Now you’re asking me things. Lots of people ask things but there ain’t no point if you don’t have answers.” He puffed, keeping his eyes on her. “That’s what people do. They ask. But they never bother finding out.”

3.

There’s only so much you can do in a cemetery. You kick through the leaves on the ground, except here there were no leaves, not even any twigs.

From time to time Henrietta stopped and perused some dusty bunch of plastic flowers. The custom here seemed to be to tie a couple of pastel-coloured roses to the iron posts, where they dangled in the wind and wore themselves ragged.

For the most part, there were only pieces of frayed plastic left.

Oblivion dwelled out there in the desert, it blew in and filled people’s minds, drove them not to madness but insignificance.

Wyre followed her at a discreet distance and eventually, when he felt she had finished snooping about, spoke out: “That’s my house you see down there.” He pointed.

She saw a roof scarcely visible across the dunes. Like all the other Oilers, Wyre kept a bulldozer parked outside, to clear the sand after a blow.

Lazy people had steep dunes round their houses; they didn’t bother to flatten out the sand, just pushed it away until it started building up. Once every few months they paid a heavy-duty guy to bring a big machine and do the job. That was why, in the local dialect, a “sand-topper” was someone who did no work.

Wyre’s garden was reasonably clear, owing, he explained, to a rise in the ground onto the prevailing wind, which diverted the sand. As they walked up to the house, Henrietta noticed a few skeletal tree trunks, flanking the path in straight rows. They made an eerie impression on her. “Apple trees,” he told her, “at least that’s what they used to be…planted by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather…I should cut them down, but I like to remember things, even things I never saw.”

When they stood before the sunken, wooden house with its grey, sun-bleached timbered walls and carved gables, she looked at him and said: “Are you the kind of guy who invites women back to his house and rapes them?” As soon as the words came out of her mouth she wondered at herself, wondered why she always had to be such a crazy bitch? Wyre didn’t take offence, in fact he hardly blinked. “I’m not, but some of the others might. You can’t rely on people here.”

“So why the hell should I trust you, then?”

He shrugged. “If you don’t want to, don’t.” Then went inside.

She followed him, of course, because once you pick up a piece of string you have to figure out how long it is and where it ends. And as soon as she stepped over the threshold she was reassured by his house, which was far neater and more homely, somehow, than the man himself.

There were plants everywhere, plants carefully tended and scarcely alive in spite of it, half-wilted and shriveled.

“These could do with some water.”

“Yeah.” He rolled his eyes. “Thanks, I know. I do what I can for them but it’s never enough. People like to drink oil, but plants don’t.”

They sat down in the main room, which was lined with deformed paperbacks, all at least a hundred and many two hundred years old.

Wyre tossed her a can of beer and collapsed into a leather armchair that formed itself comfortably round his body.

“Okay, time to come clean,” he said, snapping his beer open and sipping it with a grimace, and adding under his breath “Shit! I hate beer!”

“Clean about what?”

“I guess you came here to unpack yourself?”

She laughed. “Unpack? In what sense?”

“In the only sense. You must have had something you was carrying.”

“Don’t we all?”

“No one carries anything round here. I don’t either. You’re in a majority of one.”

“Majority?”

“You exist. We don’t.” He drank again, grimacing and repeating to himself: “Shit I really do hate beer.”

“What do you care who I am?” she said. “All you need to know is I’m after information, and my newspaper will pay you if you help me get it.”

“Pay me!” said Wyre with a twisted face. “How you going to pay me? I have money and I don’t want nothing.”

“You must want something?”

“No. All I want is to know who you are,” said Wyre, getting off the difficult subject of himself and moving onto far more fertile ground: the analysis of someone else. He’d have liked to tell Henrietta that he hadn’t spoken to anyone the way he was speaking to her – not in twenty years. But he knew it might be counterproductive to tell her. She might clam up, that’s what people usually did when you told them you liked them.

“I’ll tell you what I see,” he said. “I see a tall, handsome man. A big-shot. Good car, good clothes, always ready to flash his Visa card. But never sharing his time, never giving you what you want. And I see you having hopes of things working out…He’s the kind of man who wants a woman on his arm to make him look good, but he’d like to hang her up in his wardrobe with his coat when he has no use for her. Someone who makes promises, and they’re so damned sweet, the woman ends up thinking there’s something good in him, and it’s going to mature like a barrel of whisky. But when you tap it off in the end, it’s gone sour.”

“You seem to know all about it,” said Henrietta, unnerved about the accuracy of Wyre’s description. “You should have been a woman.”

“I practically am a woman,” said Wyre. “That’s why I almost laughed when you said that thing about raping you. I couldn’t rape you if I tried…”

He stopped and she waited, then finally said, “Why not?”

“’Cuz I don’t have my privates no more. I had an accident when I was a kid. I had a friend who drove a car into a wall and a piece of metal went through me. It sort of finished me off down there. I never touched a woman.”

She waited.

“But you know…what is a man?” he said. “In the village they call me the dickless wonder…”

“That’s not nice.”

“The one who drove the car used to be my friend at school, he’s called Arty Simpleton. Outsiders laugh about his name, but the Simpletons are a big family round here. Arty finds it funny now, what happened to me; he felt bad about it in the beginning, I guess. I mean, he was tanked up on booze when he drove into that metal spike. But now he’s turned it around. He tells people I had it coming to me.” Wyre looked at her, with a slight air of warning. “If you go into the bar you’ll see him. He’s a six-foot tub of white fat topped off with a shaved head and a pair of pig’s eyes so close-set you’ll think you’re cross-eyed when you look at him – people tell me it’s a sign of stupidity and I believe them. Arty reckons he’s a bit of a gentleman, which means he wants to give women the benefit of his attention. Until he gets bored of it, he gets bored pretty fast, and then he goes back to the bar.”

“You’re very charming,” said Henrietta.

“I am, yeah, but he’s not, so just avoid him if you run into him.”

There was a long silence. Grains of sand rattled against the window panes and the wind whined round the gables like an itinerant child.

Henrietta steeled herself and then said: “Look, I need a four-wheel vehicle and I need a guide. I’m going into the desert. Are you willing to do it?”

“Oh, you know…everyone wants the desert.”

“Meaning what?”

“It’s the ultimate, everyone wants the ultimate. In theory they do; they like the idea of it. But in practice they prefer to do nothing.”

“Listen Wyre, you seem like a man with a thing or two on your mind, and that’s fine with me. But I didn’t come here to talk, I am not here for your story. I’m here to go into the desert and find the bone people.”

Wyre’s eyes filled with anger. He eased back in his chair. “No, you listen,” he said. “I don’t give a shit about your Enlightenment ideals. There’s not going to be any progress here, you are not going back to your home on earth…or reaching your destination…or improving yourself…or achieving the revolution. The Revolution Will Not be Televised, okay? This is not a project, I’m not the means for you to do what you wanted…I’m…”

She cut him off. “Like I said, I’m looking for a guide and all I need is a yes or no.”

“I’m not prepared to say more than maybe,” said Wyre. “I never do anything with people who are a pain in the ass.”

“Neither do I,” said Henrietta.

“You know, I was waiting for someone like you to get me going,” said Wyre. “Now that you’re here, I realize I don’t need you.”

“I’m starting to feel the same way.”

Wyre seemed pleased with her; something about her alacrity. “I hope you don’t try and make me like you, it won’t work…” he said.

“Don’t worry yourself about that…”

“Because I really don’t like you much.”

Henrietta decided to play his game. “Don’t worry, I don’t like you much either. I find you sanctimonious…” Putting on her coat and focusing on the practicalities, she dropped her voice and said forcefully: “How long do you need to make up your mind? And when would you be able to leave?”

“I don’t know,” said Wyre. “It depends on you.”

She walked out without saying goodbye but she left the door open, and heard the wind slam it behind her.

 

Go to Part 3 here.
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Go to Part 1 here.

The Bones – Part 1

14 Sep

oil derrick town

1.

Oil Town was not a town at all, it was a long road skirted on both sides by corridors of buildings the colour of dust, ochre paint caked onto corrugated iron and left to peel away, like some rebellious canvas by a pop artist; except here there was no art–only graffiti, which seemed an after-thought; words scribbled down by someone drunk or angry. The place didn’t even have a name, at least no one had marked a name on a map because there was no proper end to the town and no beginning, just that long wavering road, a vein seeking its way through cities, suburbs, across vast wastelands and eventually looping round on itself once it reached the desert. Oil Town was a rudimentary shelter for those who slept in grimy beds and then rose to tap off the night’s haul, fill the barrels one by one. Oil black and priceless surged from the ground like a dark, smooth snake.

The way it had all begun is clear enough. We all know the story, yet like so many things, once we lift the lid there is a whole world beneath, smothered by familiarity.

Oil Town was once a green sleepy valley famous for its cantaloupes and orchards. When the locals started realizing there was oil down there, great underground lakes simmering under rock, they began to drill. Some had a hundred acres and some had less, but the land was not relevant any more, it was what lay underneath that counted. Overnight, the proprietor of a cabbage patch might be richer than a farmer with five hundred acres.

As they drilled and grew wealthy, they cut down more trees, built labyrinthine connecting roads for the trucks, knocked up an army of corrugated sheds, imported more foreign slaves.

And the town sprouted, the town that was not a town; the town with no civic buildings and no court house–the court house was the desert.
A few centuries had passed since the first pumps went up; and now the sands stretched to the horizon, making it near impossible to cultivate food, which did not matter, as there were always cars and trucks to bring it in from other places – streams of traders coming in to buy; they knew there was cheap oil to be had in Oil Town, where it still oozed out of the ground.

The people in Oil Town had long since grown lazy. They had entered into folklore and were proud of it; they were the “Oilers”, they drank and smoked and were even unconcerned with sex. The era of sex had lasted a century more or less, until they abandoned the topless bars and bordellos, which fell into disuse. But titillation remained as a relic of days past: photographs of mirthless women gyrating their plucked groins.

Oilers were not known for their migratory habits either; they liked to sit, possibly under a single surviving bush or on a lone green patch of grass watered by some sub-soil system into which they’d sunk a share of their considerable wealth. But such things were rare; for the most part the Oilers had dispensed with nature altogether, there was no use for it.

Once or twice some robbers from afar had tried their luck, riding in with sawn-off shotguns to raid the place – empty the coffers of Oil Town. But Oilers kept money locked up in safe deposit boxes and were intractable to say the least about giving up the combinations. Three Oilers were shot dead in the first raid. The robbers, as one might deduce, were not gentle types and their machismo could not bear the snub of these fat, singlet-wearing, cigar-smoking grubs who would not hand over their spondoolies and preferred to die than give up their money, ’cuz if someone takes your money, what the hell are you? That was local reasoning. What are you if you can’t show up a thick wad, wet your grubby thumb and peel off enough to pick up a car or two or a couple of exotic dancers? And why spend your life struggling for it, if some lazy bum with a gun can just come along and get it off you?

After that, the Oilers took full-page advertisements in the local press, announcing to any would-be robbers out there that if they decided to come back to Oil Town, they should bring plenty of ammo – because the Oilers had brought in a consignment of semi-automatic guns and this time they’d fight back; they didn’t give a shit about living or dying. It’s about the spondoolies. If someone tries to take your spondoolies you give up the ghost if you have to. You take a bullet for the sake of principle.

But then there was the unmentionable problem of the desert pressing in, maybe also the oil running dry underground, and it was not difficult finding certain half-drunk individuals muttering in some bar that the desert was what we had made; the desert was coming back for us, would blow through our windows and under our doors. While burning with alcohol, sodden to their very brain-nodes, the Oilers sometimes tacitly admitted that all their drilling and cutting and building and mucking had created the most perfect wilderness known, where really nothing could live now except clever, specialized things: snakes and lizards and beetles and burrowing ants. Rats also, rats with long ears and thick white fur. And spiders that rolled up their legs and bounced like hairy balls down the night-cool dunes.

But what the hell is a man supposed to do? – that was the catchphrase. Society sure don’t give a shit about us! That’s why we keep pumping that shit out of the ground! ’Cuz you want us to do it! See this hand, see this skin all smudged and black? I was born this way, and I won’t change till the day I die!  

Deserts are crackling hot by day and, by night, cold with nothing but the stars overhead. There were still stars in this world, palely blinking up there, cold as bottled hydrogen and wistful as diamonds free of their underground penury.

Oil Town has no history and everything is commonplace. Even a man cut in two by a falling winch, his brains left spattered across the ground like sobrasada will not give cause for any great outcry; quietly they’ll take him away and throw him in a scoop in the ground.

For all these reasons (and more) it was slightly ominous to the Oilers when a camper van drove into town one day and parked right outside the bar. A journalist got out, a tall, good-looking woman with cowboy boots and a leather bandanna across her head and a liking for good cigars, it seemed.

Her name was Henrietta – an old-world name which had doomed her to a life of being thought clever (she was) and also slightly sexless (who knows?) – but for the most part people just called her Henry, which seemed a favourable compromise though not to her.

Henry kept her neck straight (some would just say it was stiff) and spoke incisively in a way that occasionally made male colleagues feel diminished in her presence. She was also groomed, had intensely blue eyes with something like passion glowing in there, and kept her hair clean.

These were unusual traits in Oil Town.

The Oilers had their own theories. A woman like Henrietta doesn’t come to Oil Town at all. Certainly she doesn’t show up in a wide-rimmed hat and sunglasses and well-cut leather boots.

She doesn’t walk into the bar and say: “I’m doing a story on the bone people.” She doesn’t do that!

In other words, the mere presence of Henrietta had upset the world picture of the Oilers. The way she walked in with such confidence and ordered herself a cranberry vodka and sipped it with something like relish; then spoke very politely but at the same time invasively to some men standing there at the bar, who weren’t so uncouth that they couldn’t hold down a conversation with a woman like her, but were still buggered by her somehow, buggered about her being physically there, living proof that there was something beyond their town.

“I’m doing some research on them; would you be willing to make a statement? Did they take your family’s bones?”

What a damned question!

People shrugged and explained to her that there were no bone people, it was a made-up story.

But she persisted.

And after a few days of waiting, snooping, sitting in the bar, making enquiries, the Oilers began to see her camper van with its satellite dish and glowing lights as a weird force of premonition.

Something was bound to be learned from this development. It seemed written in the stars this lady would not leave until she had found what she was looking for.

Henrietta was not, in fact, so relaxed about parking idly for four whole days without getting anything done. But she knew the Oilers were turgid people; she knew only rank cunning and incredible patience would wear them out.

So she sat in a collapsible deck-chair outside her camper van every evening, drinking cups of tea and occasionally smoking the odd cigar.

This fascinated them.

On the fifth day a small weaselly man named Wyre knocked on Henrietta’s door.

It was towards sunset, and there were churning starlings swarming somewhere, out of sight. And moths fluttering in the cooling air.

Henrietta opened the door.

“Yes?”

As soon as she saw him standing there, bow-legged with a wadded long coat, she knew her wait had not been a complete waste.

“I know what you’re looking for. My name is Wyre.”

The two sentences did not seem connected, and Henry thought to herself: either this guy is a misfit or he just likes to get to the point.

“Hi, I’m Henry…” she said, but there was a questioning note in her voice; she didn’t want to be rude, but she was reluctant to invite him in.

“I know what you need.” Seems unlikely, she thought – but an attractive concept nonetheless. “The bone people, they’re out there, they exist. In the desert.”

Henrietta looked at him. “And how would I find them?”

He grinned, and she noted with relief that he had good teeth – there’s something shiftless about men with bad teeth.

“You wouldn’t”, he said. “No one would. Unless they got very lucky.”

“Well let’s hope I am lucky then”, she said.

Wyre looked at her and he said: “You could be.”

“And you, Wyre. Are you lucky?”

“I never have been up until now, but things change.”

 

Read “The Bones – Part 2” here.
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.

eBooks or noBooks?

8 Sep

We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

This morning as I sat down to quickly scan through 851 Twitter updates, it was like listening to a large flock of parrots in the leafage. An astonishing number of people had retweeted an article by Henry Porter in the UK Guardian: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.”  Oh, and guess what. “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” And finally: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” You know what?  I’m starting to believe that Jonathan Franzen is not wrong. I’m also wondering if anyone actually read Henry Porter’s article, or did they just skim it and think it looked like useful tweeting material?

Guiltily I peered at my Kindle, into which last night I downloaded a copy of Lucius Seneca’s essays and an edition of Monkeybicycle magazine. I must have read at least fifteen pages from each of those two. Which makes me better informed than I was before, better read and more intelligent. Right?

Currently I have about twenty-five books in that small grey slab of battery-driven plastic, many of them unread. Franzen calls this “a lack of permanence” which (he implies) may eventually lead to failure in civil governance and the judicial state, but that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? Forgetting where my favorite bit of Seneca is located is not going to stop the Arab Spring, though it may in time turn me into a lunatic.

There is a tendency among humans to chatter, like monkeys crowding the tree-tops alongside the parrots. That is in fact what I am doing now, and the problem of social networking is that my chatter becomes your chatter, and before long we have all turned into that monstrosity (coined by Auberon Waugh, an English writer and columnist) known as the “chattering classes” – once a scathing reference to middle-class buffoons with the time and money to sit about worrying about nothing. Eventually it led to the invention of psychotherapy—I think I read that somewhere.

As we sit in our tree, arguing about the shape of this leaf or the angle of that branch, it is worth asking ourselves if we’re really getting to the heart of the matter. In debating the merits of eBooks, aren’t we just losing ourselves in detail? Surely the important thing is that the tree is growing straight, its roots reaching deep, no army of loggers on their way with giant chainsaws and monster trucks to chew the forest to pieces?

The eBook is not intrinsically wrong, it is simply a book in digital form. Only its gaseous cousin, the noBook, could ever be a threat to our liberal consensus. The noBook is the real problem of our age, leading to a nasty public addiction to inane twenty-four hour news bulletins, celebrity kiss-and-tell, “reality” shows, or out-of-tune singing and elephantine dancing, all faithfully recorded and transmitted over the airwaves like the ravings of a mental disease. Commercialism is advancing with all the confidence and inevitability of a virus. Every possible activity undertaken by humans – coffee-drinking is a great example – is being built into companies listed on the Stock Exchange. We used go to cafés run by families who kept their profit for themselves. They saved their dough and sent their children to college so they could learn about Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein. Now “the parents” work for eight bucks an hour or less, can’t afford children, and have never heard of college.

I have every sympathy for Jonathan Franzen. In an unguarded moment (no doubt to his eternal chagrin) he revealed that he does not like to have an Internet connection while he is writing. Like everyone else, he is addicted to this distracting show, this round-the-clock firework display of human consciousness. The mere fact that we all know about this habit of his speaks volumes for the invasiveness of the online world. We are dealers of tidbits, of samples and excerpts and scraps, tufts, feathers, dried bread and moldy cheese. We chew and chew, in the end it starts to taste like food. But there’s no meat or fresh fruit in this mixture, there are no vitamins, no B7 or calcium or potassium or zinc, our brains start breaking down. We develop tics and sudden silences, information goes missing and dementia becomes a state of mind, not a disease. One day we’ll all feel impotent without our portable auxiliary drives, also known as iPods, where we can store all the background information of our lives, all the hyperlinks and video clips and podcasts, all illustrative of… of… well… illustrative (I would say) of the need to shut up.

Back to Franzen, the fatted calf of his kind, relaxing in his comfortable Cartagena hotel at the Hay Festival: yes, Jonathan, no one can write in a storm of words. You need a bit of silence, a bit of thought. I agree. And you are entitled to your opinion like everyone else, even though the media’s insistence that you are “the Great American novelist” has earned you general opprobrium all over the world. There is no such thing as “the great American novelist,” novelists are not equipped with flags, they are stateless. And few, very few, are great and most of those are dead.

But it is not your fault that we are all chattering.

We have to keep it in perspective, we have to think about the roots, the trunk of the tree, the wind and the stars. Not whether leaves look best in autumn or spring, whether the oak beats the baobab or the sycamore’s a sophomore?

Back to fundamentals. Basics. Roots.

So, now for my conclusion on it all: I am much more worried about the noBook than the eBook. The way society is currently set up, people have time to read gossip, restaurant reviews and the lengthy and utterly inane clarifications of “financial experts.”  Television serves up a gravy of entertainment, and we need bibs to stop ourselves from looking like eight-month olds daubed in lamb purée and carrot mash. Ideas about our future society are presented by the likes of Mitt Romney or the Koch brothers, who pay for air time and in this way want to win elections. In fact they are closely emulating Amazon, the emerging behemoth that wants to own both the writer and the bookshop. Amazon will be broken up in a few years – this is my prediction of the week. Incidentally, it was a similar monopolizing instinct that led to the demise of the Hollywood studio system – directly responsible for some of the best films of the 20th century and not surprisingly coinciding with the golden age of America. Hollywood, now fragmented into virulent competing entities, is helpfully wading into the digital battle, serving up bland, lukewarm fare and wondering why the audience is disappearing. Even dressing up Meryl Streep to look like Margaret Thatcher doesn’t quite hit the spot any more. The audiences stay at home, watching television or surfing the net. Films are boring and cinemas a popcorn-stinking nightmare.

Most of the objections we hear about eBooks are technical. With time, Kindle and eReaders will become more sophisticated. Technology is easy, humans are good at it. What they are not so good at is using their brains in a constructive fashion, or making technology do what they want it to do.

So… eBooks or noBooks? Before I answer that, let me just check my e-mail.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, February 12th, 2012. View original post and comments here.)

My Haunted Bathroom

8 Sep

We are living in a time when there are too many writers and too few readers. Who said that? Well, I think everyone said that. And so, six months after publishing my first short story collection and exactly ten months before my first novel comes out, it’s reassuring to be able to access Amazon’s recently introduced Author Central service, which allows me to check on my sales figures without having to chase down the publisher, who can be a bit of an elusive beast. Right now, I can tell you, my short story collection is riding high in 559,052th place on the Kindle bestseller charts, out of a total of 800,000 listed books. Its high point was on March 21st, when it climbed to a whisker above 59,000th place. As for the paperback, well, Author Central informs me that a single copy was sold in America between September 12th and October 9th. This, in Chicago. Whoever you are, rare-spirited denizen of Windy City, I thank you! Do I deserve more readers? Well yes, I think I do, but so do a lot of people.

Have you seen any photographs of Neil Gaiman lately? He stares at the camera like a startled child, woken up in the middle of the night to have his diaper changed. Neil Gaiman never realized he would turn out to be Neil Gaiman, and now, like most successful people, he has come to the erroneous conclusion that he is quite good. To be fair to him I think he can be quite good sometimes, but the operative fact about him is that someone on the top floor decided his books would sell. They have, because they had to. But my reader in Chicago may be interested in getting beyond the debate on sales figures and hearing instead how I came to write my first book.

I had rented a small house on a remote island in the Mediterranean, where I found myself in a promising position – a paid position with a film company that never gave me any work to do, just faithfully paid my salary and occasionally asked me to spend ten minutes “doing the crossword” for them. There was never any running about, no gas bills to worry about, no friends using me as a clothes-horse for their ragged misfortunes – just long empty days flooded in sunlight. After a few weeks of sitting on the beach, staring fixedly at the ever-blue horizon, I realized this was my chance to write whatever came into my head.

The house I had rented was haunted by an old woman who lived in the bathroom on the ground floor. When I first moved in I was unaware of her, of course. All I knew was that I had a strange reluctance to use the bathroom at night. Finally, with some embarrassment, I asked a neighbor about it, and she confirmed that the house (a Medieval construction with bad plumbing and a staircase only fit for mountain goats) had once belonged to a semi-lame wyvern, confined to the ground floor.

She invaded my sleep, and I had a nocturnal succession of the most vivid dreams of my life, many of which ended up as short stories. The title of my short story collection, “Love Doesn’t Work”, was initially going to be “Voices of the Ghost Room”.

Once you start typing, it is amazing how quickly a book takes shape. I found myself waking up like a rubber ball and bouncing down to the market to buy an aubergine or a bag of octopus. By the time I had climbed back up to my little study there was a fully formed story in my mind. Fertile as a wild boar!

One night I dreamed of a monk standing by my bed, asking me what I was doing in his house? The clerical theme found its way into my stories, which were often about sexual guilt or the impossibility of spiritual redemption in a corrupted world. I read up on the Cathars, an obscure group of European heretics (mostly butchered by the Church about seven hundred years ago) who were pretty negative about one’s prospects of achieving any real bliss down here on earth. One of my stories concerned a couple who never had sex at all, preferring to caress a little sculpture with wooden spoons as a sort of distancing technique. They called this “mental sex”. Again, you see, I was finding metaphors to explore sexuality without actually writing about it. Then there were the dictatorial dreams, dreams of what I would do if I held the world in the palm of my hand – I invented a telepathic Hannibal with the ability to zap his enemies. In one of my stories I had an Englishman confronting an ex-girlfriend and her giant pet amoeba – he ended up burying his fork in it. Finally, I wrote a story in which the state of Texas was being swamped by a deluge of beetles. This, I know now, was a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive procreation. Ultimately the beetles caused so much damage that it brought on a second American exodus to Paris, where the locals referred to this new wave of American bohemians as “Sexans” (for obvious reasons, at least to anyone who ever read Henry Miller). This last story never made it to final draft (also, perhaps, for obvious reasons).

After four months I found I had a manuscript with a beginning and an end, and this was a revelation to someone who had rarely found an ending before. It had been a painless process, each story rising up in my mind like a bubble of swamp gas – perfect for bottling, it seemed to me. After removing two thirds of the material and editing what was left – which took me about a year – I sent off the manuscript to an American independent publisher and, several months later while enduring a freezing winter in Stockholm, a pleasant letter arrived asking whether I’d consent to having my stories published. I consented; and so, here we are a few years later, I have hit 559 000th place on the Kindle bestseller charts. Was it worth it? Well, yes, it was.

But I still wonder if the old lady in the bathroom fooled me with her imaginings? Maybe if I had written a normal avatar kitchen-sink drama about robot invasion, zombie breakout and scheming psychopaths colluding with Old Nick, I would have been with Neil Gaiman now, having a cold beer on the roof of some hotel. In Kuala Lumpur. I will never know.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, October 24rd, 2011. View original post and comments here.)

Here, Today

3 Sep

A development occurred.
Rock grew skin,
Water learned to breathe,
Scurrying things
Acquired the art of speech
And murder;

Our world seemed unlikely:
An elliptical ball
Repetitiously circling
In a place not defined.
We wondered why
Our eyes had opened here.

We knew nothing,
Not even whether
To count blessings
Or heap up bitterness.

Imprisoned in monkey thought
We lined up
On sodden branches,
Longing to have
Every thing while
Spending our days

Throwing nuts
At birds

 

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, February 22th, 2011. View original post and comments here.)

Morning Won’t Suffice

3 Sep

Like a boxer finding his feet

Gets off the floor

Or a ship buoyantly climbs

The crest with a groan

An unseen technician

Slides the dial, and here

Comes our plentiful

European light;

No scavenging hyenas

Or roaming hawkers here

To disturb our preening

Stillness. Only swans

Doing their best to glide

Like card cut-outs

Across the perfect stage

Where a man sits

Head in hands, watched

By sleeping strangers

Whilst he declares

“Morning won’t suffice.”

 

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, January 3rd, 2011. View original post and comments here.)

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