The man in the field
[ fiction - february 13 ]
My current short story? I’d rather not talk about my current short story. When I feel badly about my writing, I read someone else’s short story, and always pick someone whose brilliance creams the critics’ knickers. This is not the pursuit of reading delight but the narcotic of masochism. I think it’s something in my mother’s spiritless disinterest that has seeded in me. I can visualise her leading me into a bookshop, selecting a book and saying, “See, this is a real writer, not a hobbyist like you”. When she’s not around I willingly do her job for her.
Perhaps she has a point, perhaps not. I may be deluding myself. Or just be doing mummy’s work for her. She is a woman who feeds on diminishment. Many who have encountered her have left pale and lost. So perhaps this low mood is nothing to do with my work but is the old motherhood spell reminding me who has the power. She has colonised the lives of everyone she has met it seems to me, her mark left even after the briefest encounter. Every moment or experience in life – whether it be an explicit threat or just some banal but unasked for nicety from the checkout girl, is as a call to arms; she is forever primed to conquer absolutely everything. This complex is something she may share with Alexander the Great, but he at least had the decency to take it onto the legitimate battlefield. Language is not needed to make the rules and your transgressions crystal clear. That is certainly one of her great gifts. Or perhaps I do her a disservice. However, we were vigilant children, my sister and I, always trying to sense what mood mummy was in and what was needed to avoid the death sentence. I always thought my sister had clarity on the family complex. She called mum The Terminator. It didn’t do her much good though. She may have had clarity on mum but that was all the clarity she had. Mum drew in all her clarity like a black hole and left her nothing for anything else.
I know that on some mornings my dog sits and stares at me - for how long, I don’t know – possibly an hour, probably minutes, but she sits with her most helpless expression, her ears pulled back, and by one of those mysteries of providence I wake straight into those deep, black eyes with their look of sweet abandonment. She lets her cutenesss sink in for a beat before the paw comes up, and no matter how tired, anxious or hung-over I am, she knows I am putty in her paws and my day is subject to her schedule. My dedication starts as soon as she wakes, which is as soon as it gets light, which in these summer days is almost the middle of the bloody night. Everything in the day points towards the Richmond walk. There is pre-Richmond and post Richmond, and on days when the Richmond experience has to be skipped, it leaves an existential hole in me and a bewildered look of mild abuse on her furry black face.
I drive at the speed limit these days. It seems an optimum speed that is calm, no matter what the limit is – a psychological speed that induces a state that is automatic and relaxed. Drive above it and the alpha waves are ruffled, drive below it and the horns go and I fly into road rage. On the nose produces a hypnotic serenity. The old Alfa purrs along like a leather and metal womb, pulling out and floating all the way to Richmond with Roxy perky in the back, casting her glossy eye on the passing verdancy of Barnes Common and the cricket pitch at the end of Putney, where the buses have their own little grass verged turning circle, which I always found terribly sweet; the sort of thing that would have fascinated me as a kid were I brought up in Putney; the sort of thing that becomes a childhood fetish, then a sense memory of childhood, then an icon of a vanished age; the shudders of a Routemaster spinning round the little circle, the sudden cut of the engine into a fifteen minute silence, a magic and precious lacuna in the day of the London Transport bus driver and conductor: the driver unfolding his copy of the Daily Mail and slowly dragging on a Players No 6; the silhouette of the conductor on the bench seat at the back with his (her) shiny ticket machine balanced in his (her) lap as he (she) has half a sandwich and a squint through Tit Bits (Cosmopolitan). The silence and peace of the leafy terminus suburb, a haven I suppose from the ill mannered passengers, the noise and bustle of the Kings Road and Piccadilly, where the two fingers and the ‘up you’s’ from passing dry cleaners vans and punk jay walkers in pins and kilts are de rigeur. Time passes in the silence of a sleeping engine, of an empty cricket pitch, a distant spaniel flicking its tail across the common, nose fastened to the ground hoovering up the smells in the grass (they’re always spaniels in Putney). Then the checking of the clockwork watch, the careful wrapping up of the sandwich paper, the rise and movement to the platform, the hand on the vertical pole and the lean out into the soft air of Putney, the aim, then the basketball shot into the bin on the verge that is practised on a daily basis and could ruin or make his (her) day, the turn, his (her) arm going up to the bell, the ding calling the driver from his terminus reverie, and in the driver’s cabin there is a ritualistic folding of the Daily Mail into a long slim packet that sits between the wheel and the windscreen, the bending of the driver’s shape to the starter button, the big engine shaking awake and that regular thumping noise that huge, old diesels used to make. The tick over under the red, vibrating bonnet, sounds asthmatic, or like a giant smoker. The driver kicks up the revs and its racket bursts into the misty plains of Putney Barnes and I’ve become Muriel Spark.
We didn’t live in Putney. No 6’s and Tit Bits (Cosmopolitan) were dad and mum’s days, but not their style. Dad was a Dunhill man till mum forced him to quit, which seemed to leave him bad tempered the rest of his life. Particularly when she started again. My abiding memory of their relationship is of his stare of existential disappointment at his inability in the past to spot what kind of woman the vivid young lass he was marrying would grow into. He hadn’t read the contents list on the packet, and for this omission damned himself. It was the most powerful expression of attachment between them in my entire childhood.
There’s no corner of Richmond we haven’t explored, no little byway we haven’t taken. Each part promotes a different feeling. We favour a walk for a while till the charm dims and then simply move on to another part. The park is big enough to provide endless alternatives, and when we have exhausted all the different walks and return to the first, it seems fresh again. Nothing tires here; nothing grows stale. Weather, light, seasons, skies add their atmosphere to an infinite mix of experiences producing feelings of freedom, content and a slight hint of the spiritual. Though we don’t walk it at the moment, Two Storm Wood promotes a sense of well being whenever we cruise past on the long road to Pembroke Lodge. I suppose because Marty was with us when that was the preferred walk: long spring and summer evenings tramping through the wood behind Roxy and up past Holly Lodge to sit and watch the sunset over the western ridge and encourage Roxy to chase the rabbits. Happiness is this? Moments? Minutes sitting together watching the light sink over the approach to Heathrow? It was wonderful for a while. Then it subtly became not wonderful. Roxy still runs up to every blonde with a ponytail in the park. When one of the other flat owners puts their key in the front door, she’s up, nose and ears at the ready, tail switching. They go up the stairs. The ears, tail and head drop, and she waddles back to the sofa or her bed in an undisguised expression of antici-pointment.
In Richmond Roxy metamorphoses from domestic to slightly wild animal – deer, fox, rabbit scents, and the chase for a squirrel that’s always got the drop on her pull her away from the human duty of being a pet. For me there is a fleeting touch of the spiritual on my agnostic/atheist outlook. Clouds, sky, the sweep of the wide vistas, the distance at which humanity shrinks to ant like dimensions but still retains the unmistakeable stamp of human contentment, all that bollocks actually calms and touches some ‘other’ in me. Whatever that ‘other’ is I cannot say. It sits in the corner of the eye and disappears whenever you look straight at it. So I don’t bother. On other days it bores me fucking rigid.
The number of wagging tails is testament to it as a place where pets play the games of their ancestors, and people who can pass their days in anxiety or defensive sourness temporarily find the peace in themselves. When the dogs chase squirrels, they do it for fun; they know these are not killing fields. But when the deer cull comes around the dogs wander the park in a subdued state, aware of man’s terrible dominion.
The cull is a few months off. The deer are still visible. Come November they disappear until after it’s over. Then we see them again, staring from distance, stunned, innocent and persecuted.
Where to go Roxy? Low, white cloud produces a drowsy soft light and the bright greens of early summer are rich but sleepy. It’s not a day for rigour, just a gentle walk and a coffee at the trailer café. We tramp off for the big wide spaces that lead to the woods spreading up the slopes to the Royal Ballet School. She’s older now, still spry and fit, glossy and beautiful, but not the endlessly energetic sprinter she used to be. You don’t get older girl, the squirrels just get faster. There’s a lot of time savouring the joys of the mature years, pausing and sniffing, being caught by sounds that lift the ears out like unfolded wings. In these wooded spaces she’s an animal with a passive human vocabulary she chooses not to use, trotting ahead, ignoring me, suddenly stopping like a statue to gather the landscape into her beautiful, wet nostrils.
I’m watching this display of dogness when out of nowhere a depression bursts through me again. It’s a physical sensation when this happens, like a virus winding down my systems. Not the endogenous depression that leads to suicide, more the gravitational pull of self-pity and doubt, the writer’s angst; that state that leaves one defenceless against all the bad messages. The good messages arrive in Teflon coats refusing to stick.
My agent’s a good chap, though. He says, “I don’t want your head going there..” he knows. “Get over yourself, this too will pass, it’s not as if the world swerves you completely; there’s stuff in the pipeline etc., etc..” – it’s all true but I wonder if the pipeline is where pipe dreams are kept? “I don’t want your head going there - you’ve got a radio play to finish” But I hate radio plays. “Not there, not there!”
Whenever I hear the afternoon play on the car radio I feel the will to live ebb away. I am deep in a commission of a short story of mine for that gap in the afternoon where life seems to slip into a post lunch coma and is filled by the afternoon play. An adaptation for radio by the author of his short story… My agent had to fight for me to dramatise it as the Beeb wanted to employ one of their hacks to produce the familiar audio wallpaper. Whenever I think of the underdeveloped fee the will to live ebbs right to the horizon. To me the radio play is the written arts in perpetual ebb tide. To expose my failures, inadequacies, cowardice, witlessness, limitations and delusions in this low tide is masochism. Writing a radio play is an exercise in aiming low. And since I find it almost impossible to do, in my case it is an exercise in aiming low and missing.
An actor once told me that he spends his life desperate for a job. Then he gets one and is happy for ten minutes. But it’s usually not a good job, just a job. So he gets resentful. Then he falls into a mild depression. Then his depression mingles with anxiety as the start date approaches and he realises he will actually have to do the job. Then as soon as he begins the job he starts worrying about being out of work and the cycle starts again. “The only decent bit is the phone call from the agent saying ‘you’ve got it’. It’s downhill from that point on.”
We’re skirting the trees and the slope falls away to the flat plain where the rugby fields stretch to Sawyers Hill, and the long road between Roehampton and Richmond Gate. The thin, white limbs of the rugby posts stretch up like strange radio receivers, still, and silent, as if they are emptying the sky of all sound. They are disturbance catchers, sucking all the threats up and only allowing the bellowing of deer in rut to travel across the park like fog warnings from unseen lighthouses. The effect is of a silent land rolling quietly away under the clouds. The park is a high plateau and the big English sky always seems close. Figures are dots in distances, cars Dinky toys gliding noiselessly along roads, cyclists distant irritants in miniature locked onto the pedals of their fetishist machines. I hate cyclists. Those aggressive twats in Lycra contaminate the serenity of this park. Overdeveloped sense of entitlement and self-righteousness in oodles is what they have, just because they’re on a bicycle and not in a carbon farting car. The right to view cars as interferences to their self-expression in Lycra is sacred. That they have preference over every living creature in this old park - even the deer – is axiomatic and theirs is the moral right to hold up the traffic when they please by riding two abreast or bust that speed limit wide open by flashing past Beamers and Audis down the hills at forty miles an hour. There have always been cyclists in Richmond, but now they are multiplying like locusts and have become a plague. Once they were mild eccentrics pursuing a pleasant and healthy pastime. Now they are wheeled fascists. With their stupid helmets they look like insects with plucked wings. The more absurd a man looks the more respect he demands. Instead of a deer cull one could have a cyclist cull. Snipers up on the hills. “Chap in the red and yellow Castelli men’s presto bib. Three rounds. Fire!” Ah bliss. Holed and bloodied Lycra, a carbon fibre front wheel slowly spinning to a halt. Then peace across the park again.
Engine sounds never reach you. I watch the cars shuttle along Sawyers Hill and hear nothing. Way ahead of me just where the long slope from the woods meets the flat of the rugby pitches is a man, distant and tiny, but even from this range he disturbs me. He is dressed in white jacket and white chinos, his hands clasped in front of him in some quasi-oriental hippy-shit gesture, looking up madly at the sky while moving with dance steps, one way, then the other, side-to-side, front then back. He’s several hundred yards away. Perhaps he is practising Qui Gong for schizos, but his insanity is threatening my Richmond tranquillity. I hate nutters. One of Thatcher’s dirtiest tricks was closing the loony bins to let these people inflict the rest of us with guilt when we complain because a schizo has raped a British Legion Widow and we want the bins back. I can’t take my eyes off him and all sorts of murderous scenarios play through me. I wonder if he will see me, come for me and stab me. It’s tragic that such a bizarre idea is not far fetched these days. Life in London is now lived in the presence of violence, real, imagined or potential. There have been murders a couple of streets away since I inherited my aunt’s flat in the green-wellie part of Fulham, and on the common where I pee-walk Roxy there have been stabbings, rapes and several years ago in my aunt’s day, another murder. The Labradors, Jack Russells and terriers are constantly under threat from strutting knobheads from the estates with their pit bulls. The cops are meant to remove these dogs but the same old shaven heads with the shoulder rolls and pristine trainers turn up day after day and the rest of us have to keep our civilised creatures on the periphery of the park, while the community cops ignore them and stop old ladies from riding their bicycles across the common in a pathetic pretence of policing. My cousin is in the army and has on several occasions offered to shoot the pit bulls and the owners too if I have any bother. He’s enough of a psychopath to do it, and I keep that as a comfort should any one of those big-jawed things go for Roxy. Sometimes the underclass gets a bit too cocky, and like the beautiful deer of Richmond, (and the cyclists) they should be periodically culled to keep the herd healthy and the common free of hostile dog shit. You can see they love their dogs and the dogs love their masters, however, Hitler loved Eva Braun but that didn’t make the invasion of Poland acceptable.
I look down in front of me at a neat pile of dog shit, in the middle of the broad path that has been mowed through the bracken. Is it Roxy’s? She must have dumped it when I was watching the nutter in white. I used to ignore her shit in Richmond, but they put out signs asking us to pick up because dog excreta is not environmentally friendly in the same way as deer, rabbit, or green spotted woodpecker mess. Originally I was mortified at this discrimination against the Labrador, the finest creature in nature, but I always pick it up now, and carry it on the long march to the nearest bin. She senses my dilemma and comes bounding towards me wagging her tail with that expression on her face that looks like a smile, as if she’s done something naughty but knows she can charm me into forgiveness and helpless love. Right on the broad grass path, Roxy. Can’t be missed. Couldn’t you have gone into the longer grass where I won’t find it? She noses me, and the tail switches back and forth. She’s talking to me. Is it hers? Is it yours? She jumps and noses me again. Should I pick it up? It’s a long walk with a bag of shit in one’s hand. I’ll get it on the way back. Definitely. No, I will. That determines the walk, it means I have to come back this way, but that’s okay. I’m quite principled about dog shit. Children in need, African genocide, redundancy in the civil service leave me untouched, but dog shit brings out the best in me.
Further on she goes into the longer grass, squats and has a crap. So the other shit isn’t hers. Good job I didn’t use my only bag back there, otherwise I would have to leave my own dog’s shit and disgusting though it is, one has a certain attachment to one’s own dog’s shit. But other dog’s? Oh no. I pick up, scan the wide horizons, peer into the darkened copse beneath the Royal Ballet School and see a wooden bin through the trees glowing in the corridor of light on the road where there is a gap in the trees. Off we go into the woods where everything becomes soft, sepulchral, and all sound fades. We’re now in cover and can look out on the long stretches of flat ground where the nonny in white still does his soft shoe shuffle. We turn away and climb the slope to the road that passes in front of the White Lodge, birthplace of Eddy the Royal Abdicator and now home to the golden boys and girls of the Royal Ballet. What a strange experience to lodge in this place and combine education with splits and leotards. How does the Second Law of Thermo Dynamics square with the foutté jeté? I cannot imagine what a day at this school must be like, or what kind of person it produces. Do ballet dancers shop at Asda?
Many years ago when Roxy was young, we were coming along the ridge behind the school on the return leg of another wander through the magical mystery tours of Richmond Deer Park, when the idyll of man and dog in landscape was broken by a cacophony of industrial noises emanating from somewhere round the back of the White Lodge. It was impossible to imagine what these hideous sounds were, so we deviated to the rear of the building, and there discovered half a dozen young Nureyevs skateboarding. I was astonished. I had never thought of these young aesthetes being into the same things as other twelve year olds.
Today there is no movement behind the big windows. Perhaps they’re doing trigonometry or dissecting frogs. I wonder if their vocation is their choice or mummy’s and what does daddy think of the son in tights? Even in these Billly Eliot days does he still feel uneasy at the lathe or the computer when a colleague asks which school the boy’s at? I ponder these sort of things and all their implications as Rox and I step up to the rustic dog waste disposal solution - a carpentered bin, rather attractive too – and sling in the waste product of last night’s dried Organi Pet and broccoli, and we’re all fine and dandy again. In the wood, with her twenty yards behind, nose down in a crush of young fern, the walk spreads contentment in me. The magic of this place is working. Perhaps in ancient times this was a healing ground, a place of holy men and shamans. It certainly has a healing quality on me. It is a lacuna in the mess of London. I love that word lacuna. Onomatopoeic; it is what it sounds like; say it – la coooonaah. The lacuna of Richmond where stress falls away at the gates, but flings itself back on whenever we drive back through.
We head off under the beeches and oaks towards the open grasses with the nesting skylarks. She’s supposed to be on a lead here to protect the nests, but I know she will stick to the path, so I let her run free. The coffee stall by Pen Ponds car park beckons from the other side.
She won’t drink water from the steel dish that’s laid out for dogs, because she won’t share a dish with other dogs; she has certain standards; she is Kennel Club after all and shouldn’t sit at the same table as the canine hoi-polloi. I have to ask the beetle browed Rumanian woman who runs the kiosk to refill the dish with fresh water. She does happily and Roxy still won’t drink, so we laugh in a pan-European good neighbourly way and I settle for a black coffee and two bags of crinkle cut crisps (cheese and onion, salt and vinegar) and take them to the far bench under the tree as far away as possible from Romanian conversation. I have difficulty with garrulous types of limited vocabulary and heavy accent. The retreat to the outer edges of the café area gets Roxy’s attention and she pads after and sits nose up in a beautifully poised demonstration of Pavlov’s classic conditioning as the glutinous globules between her forepaws, thicken, multiply and slowly link up.
A man arrives with two kids, broadcasting his upper class by dress, demeanour and that particular kind of hair native to the toff that seems to have descended with spaniels from a common ancestor but tripped into a separate genetic fork, floppy, unostentatious, thick and glossily neutral. Human-Spaniel hair. He has all the concomitant parts of his genus; charming, attentive and concerned, but a subtle disturbance in the kids keeps them away from him. There is also something incongruent about the way he has dressed for the big skies of Richmond. His shirt is Jermyn Street pink, his sweater red cashmere, even though its summer. This man is an antique even round the Cadogans. His accent is Cadogan, but I get the idea for some reason that he is local, a Richmond man, a poor cousin of some substantial name consigned to the more expensive 0208 parts. Perhaps it’s the expensive but colour un-coordinated blue corduroy trousers that define him as some sort of displaced soul. There is something apologetic and defeated in the blue cords; they are a particularly insipid and lifeless shade of blue. But he has that jolly rugby boots enthusiasm and talks vigorously to the stallholder as if he has been looking forward to this chat all morning. The private school twang rings into the Richmond air with all the clarity and confidence of a class born to inherit big bonuses. His girls are not interested; in fact they seem actively disinterested in tea, ice cream, daddy or the day in the park. They have about them the air of children enduring a chore; as if this walk is what daddy says is good for them and they must anyway or mummy will be annoyed. They would much rather be perched in front of C-Beebies or the X-Factor. One of them has daddy’s Barbour on back to front and runs up and down with her arms out like a heavy plane trundling down a runway making airbus noises. The coat stretches down to her ankles and her little body is marked out in low relief as the resistance presses the coat against her when she runs. It is not a day for Barbours anyway. Another incongruity. He’s not a man of summer. Except I suppose when he’s abroad, when, no doubt, he wears cream chinos and a cravat. Her sister is off in some private Idaho by the bins behind the Bulgarian/Romanian’s amenities stall. The Romanian/Bulgarian stallholder speaks now - harsh, nasal, incomprehensible, eyes burning gleefully beneath the monobrow, but they seem to know each other; there is an odd intimacy; very odd, incongruent almost - I doubt they first met at an Embassy ball in Sofia and he helped her with her visa. He burbles on about “that pasta recipe you gave me..” and I realise they are talking about cooking. She knows the girls, because she calls the daughter in the Barbour – I think she calls her “Jessica” and Jessica – if it is she – dutifully walks up to the stall and is handed one of those nutty bars that seem so healthy, and I hear the Romanian/Bulgarian tell her to share it with Harlot. Meaning her sister. But obviously she isn’t called Harlot, so what can she be called? Charlotte? Carlotta? Jessica says something and the Romanian and daddy smile, then Jessica darts off to her sister, Barbour spread, looking for lift off. Immediately she is caught up in whatever sister Harlot is caught up in, and they spend some time scrutinising the grass closely and chewing the bar like a couple of ruminant fairies. This image is enhanced when s burst of sun irradiates their curly blonde hair and transforms them into stand-bys for a Millais re-run. I guess from the body language that Harlot is the studious one, the one with the intellectual curiosity, and Jessica the artistic one, the one heading for trouble. Sure enough, after a short while, Jessica’s attention span exhausts itself and bounces her away from her sister back into her Barbour Eurobus, flying hither and thither down a path towards the tar road and back in loops and dips, while Harlot stays bent and concentrated over whatever of nature’s little treasures she has discovered in the grass near the generator.
The Romanian is gifting daddy another recipe and he receives it with intent listening and questions to clarify details, and a narrative of what I think is being played out occurs to me: he is unemployed, a crunch casualty, formerly of EC1, possibly unemployed long enough to have settled into the new routine as house husband with a wife who has had to go out to work from a home freighted with the stresses that such an anti-tradition in the traditional classes must generate. To maintain standards and keep discontent levels at a minimum he comes to this secret tryst with an exotic, though by no means attractive eastern lady, not for illicit purposes but for recipes, to keep the working wife as happy as possible when she comes back from a hard day at the whatever. There must be a sense of delaying something in these homes, of some inevitability being stuffed down for as long as possible before a second and more devastating crunch hits. Waiting for Godot on a big mortgage. This would also account for the slightly out of kilter quality in the relationship with his kids. That something unnatural has happened, with all its strangeness, and unspoken but de-crypted threats shows in their serious, little faces.
I watch. Watch his expressions, his buoyancy with his Black Sea friend, her enthusiasm and absence of English deference, each grasping a vital and vivid interlude in the drudgery of their days. She speaks to him as an equal although he is obviously a bit of a toff temporarily down on his luck. He defers to her as an authority although all she is is a crisps saleswoman with a funny accent.
Eventually he separates from his culinary muse and heads off for the hill that skirts the Isabella plantation and stretches up towards the low Richmond sky. At the top beyond the horizon there is another refreshments amenity run by a Serb or Slovakian. Perhaps the kids will have another free Nutella and daddy will harvest more recipes till he has a range of Balkan dishes for the breadwinner when she comes home exhausted. Lets hope she isn’t on Weight Watchers.
As they diminish in the big landscape I see the family dynamic playing out. Jessica continues her Barbour flights, spinning and dipping, while Harlot and Daddy walk together, clearly in conversation, and suddenly the sun bursts through again and brightens the grass to almost luminous green and turns them into silhouettes with haloes round the little girls’ hair as they make their way up the broad path rising towards the light, and I suddenly see me and my sister as little ones, specks of futures bumbling up towards some unknown thing beyond the summit. I sink into sadness; I can see our own dynamic played out in ever decreasing dots that move across the bright green. There ahead, on her own is Sylvia my sister, like Jessica, detached and separate, but Sylv wouldn’t be buzzing about in a happy game in her head, she would just be separate and I would be the one walking alongside dad, the one with whom he feels less awkward. Even the name is morbidly appropriate, Sylvia, Sylv a wood, sylvan; she should have been at home here with the green spaces and woodlands, but she was never at home anywhere, except perhaps where she is now. Everything was a struggle. Mum’s bluntness with her shocked me, even as a kid. Dad tried, he was as okay with her as he could be, did his best, always did the right thing, but you could see that given the choice between saving her or me, he would automatically press the button with my name on it. It wasn’t anything he ever said, just an absence in the eyes; a slight bewilderment and disappointment that the daughter he had wasn’t what he’d hoped for, and he didn’t know what to do about it. And there it seemed to be playing out in front of me again, in another family. I wanted to tell Blue Cords, ‘never mind the bloody recipes, look to your other daughter, little things can be the signs she may be on a terrible road.’
There is the occasional day when I don’t think of Sylv. I think. I think there are a few days when I get through without thinking of her. Not many, but some. I think. Although thinking about her is so automatic, perhaps I do and just don’t notice. Dad died two years later. It killed all his anger, all his misery, and gave him real sadness instead, though he could never actually admit to it. It’s a hell of a way to get real, and I suppose he couldn’t deal with it. Even when he was dying he had no interest in himself. Part of him was always somewhere else, on another horizon, like the ones the tiny silhouettes on the hill are climbing towards.
It happens to you. It does.
Dad was three months shy of sixty when he died.
Mum? What the fuck? She took up smoking the day the cops told us. Just said to one of the cops “I don’t suppose you have a cigarette?” and lo and behold one of the cops did and he gave her the packet. Good man. What a job.
I identified her. It seemed cruel to expect mum and dad to do it and thank God they didn’t because she was a mess. Her flat was on the eleventh floor so the impact didn’t do a lot for what remained of her looks. When I came home mum looked at me and said. “Was it her?” and I said yes and she said “Damn” very quietly and walked into the kitchen. Dad sat down in the armchair. I had the impression they had been standing in front of the fireplace all morning waiting for me to come back. I sat on the sofa and there was no sound from that house for some time before Dad eventually said “There’s some soup if you..”
Roxy is looking past me, over my shoulder. Her ears are up and the nose is twitching on overdrive, and I am brought back to the present by the grins of two Park Rangers at a table under the oak tree staring unabashed at me. I look at Roxy. “What is it?” She smacks her chops, looks at me momentarily then resumes looking at whatever is over my shoulder. I see she’s nervous so I turn and am staring straight at the chomping muzzle of a twelve point antlered male red deer approximately two feet above my nose.
“He’s after your crisps,” laughs one of the rangers. Christ, I think, crisps? They’ll be moving into the suburbs soon.
“I don’t suppose I should give him one.”
“Not unless It’s sweet chestnut flavour” adds the other one flatly, a small man in a flat cap and northern accent, sitting in a hunch blowing his hot Rumanian coffee and keeping his flat wit warm. Flying the flag for Yorkshire terseness down south.
I really don’t know what to do. I just stare at the deer and he stares at me. His breath snorts out in a great blast and riffles my hair. Fifteen hundred pounds of muscle and antler after my cheese and onion, and I’ve been told not to give it to him. He snorts again and his breath slaps my face. It’s quite pleasant; if you’re a dog owner you don’t mind animal breath. His eyes are intensely beautiful. I reach up to stroke his nose but he rears away.
“He won’t let you touch him,” says the bigger ranger.
The deer walks round a couple of paces to stand right behind Roxy and the antlers and head have that graceful dip and return as he moves. Roxy swivels round on her bum, keeping her eyes on him. He stops and stares at me again. I know all he wants are my crisps, but I feel there is some deeper message hidden in his stare, something I will decode some time in the future, something that has nothing to do with crinkle cut cheese and onion – perhaps to take him home till after the cull in November, which I would gladly do if he would fit in the Alfa. But he won’t, and where would a mature Red Deer sleep in a first floor two-bedroom conversion in Fulham? Your antlers won’t get through the front door. Sorry.
He just stands, wavering above me as if he is seeking entrance but has a conviction that his likes are not normally welcome. This close you realise how huge they are, the big skull under the giant antlers, the bunches of muscle on the jaw and the chest and shoulders have a quite overwhelming scale that emphasises why we had to get smart and devious to survive, and I think those antlers must be heavy, must cause headaches or neck problems, is that why you always look slightly sad? A dog can look happy, but I’ve never seen a deer look anything other than slightly down. Is it the antlers? These bloody antlers, have you any idea what it’s like carrying these things with you everywhere? Trying to sleep with them? Only bit of the year we enjoy is when we’re rid of them. And then the bloody things grow back again, bigger than ever! There are also scars on his big body, witness to the fact that for deer this idyllic retreat is also a place of death and struggle, and that Charles Darwin did not write The Wind in the Willows. I can’t eat any crisps of course while his forlorn look is upon me weighing me down with guilt that we have the crisps and the power of life and death over them, that we are top of the food chain, and I believe his visit is lodging an appeal against the annual manifestation of the Darwinian pecking order in the dark nights of the deer soul when the cull is held. Left up to me, things would be different, but you’re at the wrong table and those guys over in the green ranger t-shirts there are not sentimental. So he stays for a while until he realises his appeal is lost. There is a turn that seems to take in the whole area in its sudden graceful sweep and he wanders off.
“I’m surprised he’s as cheeky as he is”.
“He’s desperate,” I say, “he wants to be liked.” They’re looking at me as if I’m slightly crazy, so I deliver the pay-off, “he doesn’t want to be culled.”
“He’s got a few months before that. He should be enjoying himself” says the big ranger, “making the most of it. He’s got the rut first, so he should be making the most of these weeks before the action starts.”
“He won’t be culled this year” comes from the smaller man delivered as if it contained a joke, a flat joke – if they’re from Yorkshire and have a trace of wit they all think they’re Allan Bennett. Words are potential for him, the fewer needed, the greater their potential. He seems to look down on them as he speaks them, as if he is on quality control.
“He’s got a few years left in him,” says the other, “He’ll be okay.”
By now the deer is standing on the tar road that ribbons towards the Ham gate. Both men are watching him and there is a conversation going on between them that I sense the deer understands. They are men who are the masters of the park deer, and this deer knows it.
“That’s where they’re culled. Just where ’e’s standin’” says Alan Bennett.
I looked at the tar path I have walked along many times. Kids cycle on it, riders loaf horses down it. The deer killing fields.
“We drag cake along the road to leave the scent,” explains the London ranger, “they come along. The rifles are up on the hill there wi’ night sights, so they’re shooting down into the ground.” He sips his coffee. “For safety.”
It’s the hill the dad and his kids were climbing and one Rox and I have climbed or gambolled down a thousand times. A lovely hill.
“Come dawn next day the cart washes the road down, but maybe he picked up the scent once and remembers. What do we know?”
“Maybe he’s visiting mum’s grave. Or dad’s. Or sister’s.” Flat cap is running with the idea. But there’s no cruelty in him, or in the other, just an absence of sentimentality. They probably care about these deer in a realistic and proper manner.
I watch the deer wander off. It would stroll forward then stop and look back, sometimes for minutes, then walk further off with that dipping motion that makes it seem as if it has hydraulic joints. Then it pauses and looks off somewhere and perhaps that big beautiful nose sniffs for something. For what? Other deer? To join them or avoid them? Why is it alone, I think? It is a picture of absolute loneliness, a beautiful animal in its wide kingdom with a feel of death blowing round its noble head. Loneliness is a kind of death.
It’s triggering stuff I don’t want. Come one Rox, let’s go.
I wander in a daze and suddenly Roxy’s seen a squirrel and goes after it. No abnormal thing except this time Roxy isn’t chasing so much as intercepting it. The dumb squirrel’s heading for a tree and Roxy is on a line to reach it before it reaches the tree. This is interesting. Let’s see what happens and what happens is unexpected. The squirrel sees the giant Labrador approach and tries a body swerve around but Roxy’s agile and supple even with her years - she’s always been a bit of a Labrador acrobat -and she twists like a fast fish and suddenly the squirrel’s in her jaws. I’ve never seen her do this before: I’ve seen her chase a thousand squirrels, I’ve seen her slow down if she is gaining on one to let it go, or pause because she’s got too close and the squirrel hasn’t seen her, stand and wait till the squirrel bolts then go after her: I once watched her run alongside a frightened baby rabbit, looking down at it, almost wagging her tail, before pausing to let the little thing go. It’s never been about killing or catching with Roxy, just chasing. The chase’s the thing, but here she is with a squirrel in her jaws, shaking it the way she shakes her squeaky ball when she retrieves it, and the little squirrel hands are held out and helpless in the great jaws. I’m a bit shocked at this behaviour; one of the things I had loved about her was her complete absence of aggression, but now she’s killing a squirrel. Suddenly she lets it drop. The thing is still alive and twitching on its back, its little hands, that look so human, like foetal hands, the hands of an embryo in a laboratory jar, are trembling in shock and pain and its little face and snout are looking straight up at Roxy’s giant black face as she peers down at it.
“Kill it!” I snap at her, but she just looks at me ears up and the tail slowly switching with her contentment and pleasure. I don’t know what she expects the squirrel to do but it turns somehow onto its front and pulls itself away only using its front limbs, like a miniature wounded man. So obviously Roxy has snapped its little back. “Kill it Roxy!” I say again but she just looks at me ears out like taxi doors wagging her tail. “Stupid dog”, I root around for a heavy stick, most of them are dried out and rotten and have no weight, but eventually I find a length of what feels like beech wood, a length of branch thicker than my wrist and heavy and bring it across to the squirrel, but now of course, I can’t find it.
“Find the bloody thing” I snap at Roxy but she hasn’t a clue what I mean, she’s just basking in her savage glory, standing pleased with herself, wagging her tail and waiting for my congratulations. Her big black nose that can sniff a crisp at three hundred yards is held proudly, but useless and unemployed in the task of finding her escaped quarry.
Then I see it, crawling towards a tree. It’s covered quite a distance and I’m tempted to let it go. But it’s injured. There are no facilities for handicapped squirrels, no crisis centres for squirrels with PTSD, so I walk up to it. I touch it. It’s trembling; its body is hyperactive with pain, shock, fear, early paralysis. A little living thing, helpless, finished, at my and Roxy’s mercy. The ground is soft under its head and a blow might not kill it, so I place a small branch under its head as a block, and it panics and manages to squirm away, pulling itself on its forelegs really fast. That annoys me. I’m trying to be as humane as possible and its is not cooperating, so I go after it and give it a battering just to make sure its dead. First blow hits its back and I’m sure it makes some sort of squirrel noise, then the succeeding blows put it out of its misery and half bury it. I have to make sure it’s dead and it’s a mess by the time I finish. Like Sylph was when I identified her. But it’s definitely dead now. I throw the stick away and turn and daft Roxy has run off fifty yards as if I might do the same thing to her. She stands staring at me, ears up from distance. “Where you gonna go?” Her hackles are also up. I just shake my head at her. “It was your bloody fault!” I call her but she won’t come. I call several times and she doesn’t move, just stares at me. So I just walk off towards the edge of the trees. She’ll follow. And she does. She stays behind for a while, then she gets closer, and finally she makes a fuss of me, all over friendly, putting up the truce signs, the don’t-do-anything-nasty-to-me signals and appeals with her jumps and wet nosed prods of my hand. I reassure her that I have no intention of battering her to death, but what got into her with the psycho squirrel killer urge? That was very out of character Rox..
As a child she would say “You’d like it if I was dead” and mum would say “Of course we wouldn’t” but as if she would. She could play the sub text and Sylph could read it. I’ve never forgotten the fear I felt whenever I heard this interchange. It was sadistic and masochistic, asking to be hurt to the very core and being hurt. Part of me even to this day fights against believing Mum meant it or Sylph kept prodding her to hear it again and know the words meant the opposite of what Mum felt. But she did. Sylv went absolutely quiet and disappeared whenever it happened, and was quiet for days. I never talked to her about it – except to shout at her and put my own boot in a bit - and as soon as I could I forgot about it till the cops called.
I wonder if mum ever recalls those moments under her glassy coldness? Is there some hot part of her that has to be cooled with ice in the heart? Is there an unbearable part that holds an image of a toddler getting the biggest shock she’s had in her four year old life and it sticking forever? What kind of vengeance on the world was that, Mum?
But I’ve had my own vengeance apparently. Reducing the weak to tears, getting some sadistic kick seeing the misery I’ve shot into them wounding them, if they’re to be believed. They weren’t four year olds though and they usually asked for it. Women have this fantastic ability to persecute a man by playing the victim. Watching Marty bewildered and wet faced at “my little cruelties” and the “force that drives me to drive them into me like knives” till she goes into meltdown and is left with nothing but the “worst things a girl can feel about herself” – all that perpetual rhetoric of self-pity. Killing her without actually killing her. That was another of her phrases. She was full of them like some amateur shrink. What’s really significant about women is their relationship to language. It’s not the same as ours. When a man says ‘yes’ it means ‘yes’. With a woman language means anything she wants it to mean just so she can contradict you when it suits her.
Then there was the other bitch who used the word ‘defiled’ as if she knew what it meant. I was the defiled one, defiled by having been stupid enough to get involved with her. What the fuck drew me to her diseased self still bewilders me and makes me gag every time I think about it. Hypocrisy usually comes with tears, but women kill with tears. They weep deadly nightshade. I never did anything with her that she didn’t want in the first place. They offer up bounties and then cry victim when you take them. Thank Christ the police were too sensible to believe her.
As for Marty. Sometimes when I drive by Two Storm Wood I feel anger. I am known as a pleasant and easygoing man and I don’t see why I should be made to feel these things. I don’t want to feel them but if women behave in these ways it can’t be avoided.
We’re back now, near where we started the walk, at the edge of the wood that maroons the Royal Ballet School looking at the wide long fields and the flimsy rugby posts slipping away to low skies. I feel exhausted. Not by the physical effort but by the feelings. Killing squirrels and some of those thoughts about my sister and then the poisonous bitches who have demonised me. These thoughts intrude uninvited. They really bother me. I don’t know why. Why should I use these memories to persecute myself? It’s not me that should be being persecuted anyway.
The looney in the white is still doing his dance away to my left, staring up, stepping lightly, one-two-three-one-two-three. I have no fear, no resentment for him now. I’m drained of anger. Or I’m full of it; I don’t know which. He’s just a daft brush sweeping the world as best he can, and we turn out of the woods into the open space and towards the Roehampton Gate car park, and perhaps a second coffee and a long stare over the long view and perhaps not. I’ll make a decision once we’re there. Roxy’s waddling behind now. She tires faster these days, and can only muster a canter at a squirrel where once, even at the end of a two-hour power walk through the bracken and the woods she would have had a bagful of sprints left in her. But by God she called up the old days with that one, didn’t you Roxy? Clever girl. Squirrel killer. She knows what I’m saying. The tail’s going and she’s proud of herself, good girl.
I think of that poor lost deer. I want to find him a friend. I think of the night he wanders onto that road for the cake and looks up and perhaps has a moment in his deer consciousness where he knows that this is when it is to be terminated. I am that deer for a moment. I could write a play or a book about that deer, about its young life trotting and bounding over the spaces here with the herds, then the maturing and the time of fighting and defeat and perhaps a victory, but he didn’t look like a deer who had ever won any does. Then would come the loneliness of the place, the others seen in herd in the distance, challenging him if he got too close, the outsider, condemned to wander this crowded place alone, forever watching the others and distracting himself with the odd attempt to befriend a dog walker, a sad cry from help from the depths of deer abandonment. Then the last walk on a dark night when the smell of the cake leads the way to the final moment of loneliness and the bullet. I hate to say it, but it would make a good radio play. How would I structure it?
And I’m off. The creative process has got me.
At the edge of the wood the great plain of Richmond – as I imagine it – or the Richmond Steppes, stretch endlessly to infinity at Sawyers Wood Road four hundred yards and a universe away. This is a small but perfect system. But my creativity and fancy are interrupted as my eyes draw back to the looney in the white still at his dancing, and I wonder why no one has moved him on. A minute ago he was of no interest to me, now I want the cull to include him. He still stares up at Heaven, hands in supplication, face turned up waiting for the sign. I can think of a sign for him I would like to wave from distance: Fuck off back to your medication you mental tosser. And then I see what he’s looking at.
Up in the sky, almost invisible against the light grey clouds, a wide winged, white model plane turns and circles lazily, and I am utterly entranced. It’s very high and silent. It’s like an animal that has been released for a while and is exploring its natural place away from all the bollocks, floating and dipping, then turning into a slow loop on its back, and I swear to God I can almost feel its contentment. Then it seems unable to move against the airstreams up there, actually flying backwards like a fish hovering perfectly in a fast stream, then rising as in a thermal, then suddenly racing in a dive towards the ground then going into another graceful, slow loop, almost animate, almost having a sense of aesthetic in its movement, enjoying its own grace.
It’s as if it has a personality and a self like Roxy. Roxy flying free above the earth and enjoying her powers. And down below in his white suit is the loving owner of this extraordinary creature, this symbol of freedom. That he can spend so long flying this thing, controlling it, keeping it up there, away from the dross beneath, wins my admiration. He’s no loony now; he’s the sanest guy in the park.
I stand and watch. Roxy stands and watches me watching, then gets bored and goes back to the edge of trees to sniff and probably pick up the trace of the squirrel we killed. I stand and become part of the sky. I am locked on it. Interfacing with the other. I become my sister’s terrified body flying back up to her balcony. Just look at this Sylph, look at that plane, that’s you, flying above it all, that can be you. All you had to do was learn to fly and not be anchored down to the shit mother kept you in. You needed to learn to fly. Just for moments. Just tastes of freedom. Like drinks of water when you’re thirsty. That’s all you need now and again. But you didn’t learn. You were earthbound and all those who are earthbound are condemned. They are prisoners. Maybe if you’d given yourself time you might have learned. A little taxi. Then a hop, then a bump, then a circuit of the airfield and you know its possible..
He brought the plane down. It landed beyond him and scampered across the plain like a slightly unsteady animal and he ran after it. Actually ran, like a father concerned to find out if his child is okay. I watched him. He was oh, about four hundred yards away I guess, so I’d never recognise him if I saw him in the street – unless he were wearing white and carrying the plane – but he bent to it and tended it. They way I do Roxy if she’s been frightened. He lifted it in his arms and started walking off towards the Richmond Gate. I watched till he and the plane became lost behind the trees under the huge white sky.
Roxy was lying down behind me by this time. “Come on killer”. Our day in the park was over and an afternoon of irritation with a radio play lay ahead. The world closes back in like a shadow.
Brad the American voice-over actor is having a barbie tonight and we’re invited, Roxy. So, we’ll go. He gets superb meat and he loves Roxy, so she can go too. Brad’s a babe magnet, but so is Roxy. He attracts them, Roxy nails them. The tottie usually love her, and make a fuss of her. It’s amazing how women love dogs. If they love Roxy - and they’re bound to -, I’m in. So Roxy, I want you at your most charming. If you are, there’s a chance I’ll score and you know how important it is for me not to go too long without. You know how bad tempered I get and how I frighten you. So do your bit. It’s how I got Marty. And that other cow. Better be careful this time. No nutters please. Are you a nutter? You sure? Not a prick tease are you? Do you have proof?
Thought of a name for a radio play. I’m warming up to this radio idea now. Haven’t got a clue what it will be about but I would just love to have a play accepted with this title. Imagine switching on Radio Four at two PM and hearing the soft BBC tones of the announcer – “..and the play this afternoon, specially written for radio is Buggering Bishops by..”