Monday, 24 November 2014

Torture Towers

The place Pankhi had begun referring to as 'Torture Towers' had finally closed for the day. The peacock eyed the wobbly line of survivors trudging beyond the courtyard's blue arch, a vast, upright herd filing away in twos and threes, all solemn and slump-shouldered. This in marked contrast to how they had arrived that same morning, with jaunty steps and a cheerful demeanour.

Pankhi had asked so many questions already that his neck was sore from looking up at the massive Shire. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to risk another. "Why?"

Stouthoof gave a brief toss of his mane, the equivalent of a shrug, Pankhi hoped, rather than impatience. "Mayhap they grieve for their kin. The ones who didn't make it."

The peacock twitched his crown in puzzlement, mindful that Stouthoof had been resident here long before all the noise, smoke and towering steel, in the days when animals roamed free within these sprawling grounds and the shabby ruin to their rear was a proud stately home.

"It’s just that I find their mournful stride and weary humour very much at odds," said Pankhi, at last.

"With what, pray?" queried the big steed, nuzzling at the greener shoots of grass growing by the peacock's side of the fence.

"Well, suppose you or I had emerged unscathed from such a trial of whirling leaps and death plunges, surviving being spun at high velocity and tethered to sky-bound projectiles all day. Would we depart so subdued at the climax, so crestfallen? I for one, should be cock-a-hoop with relief!"

The other's giant flank shivered, as though recoiling at the thought of such a thing. "A fair point," he conceded. "It is as though they've enjoyed their ordeal and now feel rueful at its conclusion."

"Exactly. And on that same point," Pankhi rejoined, "would we deem it necessary - be positively anxious in fact - to return, bright and early the following morning to repeat the experience? To sing, cheer and punch the air, sprinting gladly for our doom, as did this very throng at cock crow today?"

The old Shire chewed on his cud for a moment before replying, simply. "I fear we will never truly understand our twoleg overlords."

But Pankhi was determined to do exactly that. It might, after all, prove his only way out of here. "And what terrible crimes  must have they committed to merit this  vilest of punishments? Finally, what - for Goat's sake - is our part in the process? Judge? Jury? Executioner?"

"A host of theories and half-truths exist," Stouthoof ventured, "Some stranger than others."

A squeak of galoshes began sounding up the path. Pankhi joined the Shire's bowed head at the foot of his fence and pretended to forage for stray bits of grain. "Then I would gladly know more, and of these strange environs too." He lowered his thoughts to a murmur, concentrating them at the twitching ear of his confidant. "In return, and as reward for your patient schooling thus far, please feel free to avail yourself of the fruits of my pasture, such as it is."

The shire uprooted another hummock of succulent turf and gave a satisfied nicker. "Forsooth, the grass truly is greener, and more you shall hear, my friend. But fear not the eavesdropping of twolegs. Our languages are as distinct as ever. We trading wisdom head-to-head, as it were, and saving tongue-speech for battle and distress, while they remain closed-minded and wage their gibberish aloud."

"Perhaps it would be easier to countenance this whole sorry business, were it not so."

The Shire's broad face lifted, his creamy blaze accentuating limpid brown eyes. "A luxury, as ever, we regrettably lack. Discretion between ourselves is advisable, however," he went on. "Some here have suffered more than others, losing family and friends in the recent... difficulties. And if they would rebut the opinions of allies such as myself, they might take harder still against the words of a stranger."

Pankhi's interest was piqued, his mind suddenly racing with questions, but there was no further opportunity. The green-garbed stable hand had arrived to lead Stouthoof away and Pankhi now hastened to his own coop, anxious to avoid any more grasping hands, of which he had had quite enough for one day, perhaps even a lifetime.

Most of the other animals were now tucked up in their various abodes and already snoozing. Pankhi had not yet become accustomed to the sound of the giant mass of ironwork above his head, creaking as it cooled, nor the dying smell of the fuel that powered its occupant, a fearsome flame-red Dragon, ferrying an endless payload of screaming passengers to the bowels of the earth, dozens of times a day.

Pankhi realised, with a pang of misery and homesickness that this was to be  his life now, together with the other creatures, transported here from the tranquil greenery of their homes. He wondered how those who were born here stood it. Aside from the obvious and worrying 'difficulties' the old horse had referred to, though, what other cause was there for complaint? They were fed and groomed, kept largely safe from predators. And in return? Their only obligation, it seemed, was to be cooed at and stroked, occasionally blinded by lightning that sprang forth from a small box, carried usually in the hands of an older, taller twolegs.

Certainly there was risk of a sort. Small, cruel hands capable of inflicting casual malice. Tugging rather than petting, for example, unmindful of a creature's tender parts. But Pankhi had learned to squirm from such minor skirmishes, to weave and dodge, strutting for safety. Among such other tiny assailants were the pluckers and throttlers, of whom he had gleaned valuable advice from Gawain, the farm's red rooster in those first, bewildering days.

 "Yer plucker wants a trophy, see?" he warned. "And believe me, those 'andsome fevvers of yours’d make a fine one f'rem." The best way of foiling these miscreants, he said, was to "'ave a 'bolt'ole' in mind and make straight for it, sharpish like, the minute you feel one of those teeny-tiny mitts on your derriere."

"At least we've the run of the yard," Pankhi said. "I feel sorry for the pigs and goats confined to their pens, whether they've plumage to fret about or not."

 Gawain assured him they all tried to look out for each other, best they could. Worse than the plucker, though, he said, was the throttler. Not always bigger kids either. Some of the littlest ones had the fiercest tempers and the meatiest grips. "You 'ave to look for a certain gleam in their eye, a shiftiness they have about 'em. The kind of leer that smacks of malice aforethought."

And in those cases, and only those, mind, you should do whatever was necessary to survive, because it might literally be you or them, see. When such an encounter occurred, often in a cacophony of shrieks and a cloud of feathers, the other animals might be relied on to close ranks and make it difficult for the greengarbs to find a culprit from within the melee.

"A sharp biff to the boko with the old pecker should settle their hash," Gawaine confided, from atop his fence-post perch. "Or else use the claws that Goat gave you." Careful not to leave any marks, though, he'd cautioned. Those who did and were subsequently caught, whether in self-defence or not, got carted off to the brown shed apparently, sometimes never to be seen again.

Pankhi thanked his gaudier bedfellow, vowing that whatever help he was capable of, he would gladly provide.

"As a matter o'fact," sniffed the rooster. "I've a mind that big showy fan o'yorn - singularly useless in any other aspect - might be put to good use in such a situation, as a sort of feathery smokescreen, like. Which is why I reckon we should look arter one anuvver, fowl to fowl, in a manner o' speakin'."

Pankhi bobbed his sleek, turquoise head, dumbstruck for the moment at being lumped in the same genus as a common cockerel and quite appalled by the suggested misuse of his magnificent train. Before he could argue against this heavy cost of inclusion into the rooster's alliance, however, Gawain ploughed on, clearly having taken the peacock's mute series of nods as a vote of approval.

"Oh, there's one last type I forgot to mention. Worst of all in many respects."

"Worse than throttlers?" Pankhi said, already convinced he had been consigned to a special kind of hell.

"Because of 'ow innocent they seem," the Rooster crowed, pecking at the ground and making those darting, dabbing movements typical of his breed. "We call 'em the 'feeders'."


"It might well be somethin' scrummy lookin'," he blinked. "But if you want my advice, never give in to temptation, no matter 'ow 'ungry you might feel. Why, only last week this hen o'mine, Gertie, got herself all gummed up with some blob of stretchy goo she was slipped. Swears blind it was forced on her, but I'm not so sure. She gave in to temptation is my guess, and paid the price." He gestured toward the brown shed with a glint of rue.

"'Sides which, it ain't allowed. The greengarbs don't take kindly to it. You're just as likely to get carted off and poked and rattled till you cough it up. So - stand on me - it ain't worth the risk."

Pankhi settled down into his nest of shabby straw, his head still humming from the noise and heat of the day. Beyond the tall oaks that fringed the farm, an owl hooted. The animals wriggled and rustled in their own beds. With a last thought for his new comrades, and a prayer of remembrance for those they had come to replace, the peacock fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Now That's News.

 "I don't know that I want hard news," says Tim, his cursor hovering over the thumbnail of a mullah gesticulating outside a mosque. "Hard news is like hard porn. Tedious or messy There’s no middle ground."

I know what he means. Both involve a bombardment of grotesquerie we're depressed by and inured to, but can't quite bring ourselves to turn off. Something springs out of it we respond to. Some call to casual righteousness or insufficient rage. Nonetheless, this won’t be much of a lunchtime argument if I agree with everything he says.

“The news isn’t like porn.Porn is positive, at least in the sense that something gets delivered, even if it's only a half-pint of throat yogurt. News, on the other hand, is always negative. You don’t see ‘em talking about countryside clean-ups or respectful teenagers or pillars of the community spending their tax dollars on methane globes and solar energy."

I liquefy a parmesan shaving on my tongue, creaming the inside of my throat with Sicilian sea salt in three brisk swallows while he continues surfing, his mouse arrow a swirl of motion-blurred arcs.

"That’s cause it’s not interesting,” he concedes. “Has to be death all the time. Death, rape and politics."

"The big three,” I say. “The holy trinity."

"Champagne corks popping off-camera if they squeeze all three in." We’re off on a lunchtime riff. Freestyling. They don’t always get as spicy as this.

"Throw in a celebrity for the motherlode. It makes those anchormen and women hot.  The viagra of factual reporting. They can barely wait for the credits to finish. "

“That’s wish-fulfilment on your part.”

I prod a clutch of artichokes with a cheese straw, displacing oil. The modern newsdesk and its ungraspable woes. The constant reprisal of old crimes and disasters, as though their bones aren’t bleached enough, still harbouring shreds of meat under the settling dust. Especially those unresolved iniquities where the perpetrator somehow slipped the net. We have to make sense of things, of course. To understand how and why they happened and to prevent their recurrence. But of all crimes, the culpritless one requires most scrutiny. Larceny and outrage are powerful spurs. We need to know how exactly this showing of heels and shaken fists came about.  

He filches a queen olive from under my nose. “The internet isn’t the place for news, anyway.”

“Unlike porn, which is what you’d be glued to if not for the office firewall.”

He ignores me diligently, snapping off a single tine from a plastic fork for a toothpick. “For one thing, it lacks viewpoint. We don’t know how to feel.”

He’s right, damn it. The news is a static, recreatable feast and must be relayed in a certain way and in the correct environment, preferably on a big living room TV, where a familiar face delivers senselessness in a fierce but restrained voice. Like when judges rein themselves in to read out verdicts they don’t necessarily agree with, or your aunt telling you about the death of a favourite dog. It isn’t just the spoken word, we want to be told how to react by an expression we’d feel comfortable wearing ourselves.

“As a species, we can’t abide loose ends,” I observe, inserting a sun-dried tomato into my upper lip and mashing it against my teeth. “That’s why the same stories pop up time and again.”

He grunts in what I choose to understand is agreement, rolling the toothpick around his teeth like a poker player. “And all this ‘new evidence’ leading to fresh government enquiries, preferably requiring hotel subsistence and airline travel. Do they emerge, weeks later, creaking with fresh dossiers of evidence?”

“After filming countless re-enactments with slim-hipped men and dog-faced women?”

“After indulging in an orgy of note-taking and forensic dusting?”

“No,” I conclude, unnecessarily. There is a middling silence while we tackle the obduracy of cooked ham, respecting the etiquette of the shared platter in this aspect at least.

“For every unsolved Edinburgh slaying,” Tim declares thoughtfully to a flaccid scrap of prosciutto. “It has somehow become necessary to dig up a car park in Doncaster on a ‘hunch’.”

“For every Ponzi scheme hatched in Skipton seven years ago,” I add, with a mascarpone smile, “a fact-finding committee has to leave urgently tonight for the remote kingdom of Burundi to tie up ‘factual inconsistencies’.”

“And everything’s already happened that was worth talking about. Now it’s about reconstructions of defeat, regurgitating failure for early detection. Nobody cares any more, not even the victims.”

“Especially not the victims,” Tim agrees. “They just want to forget it, probably.”

I think about them, squeezed from their orbit, no different now than their antagonists and inhabiting the same dowdy realm. Dead, escaped, incarcerated, lost, roaming abroad, reconstituted, rehabilitated or spiritually elevated beyond judicial help. On whose authority do the newshounds and headline writers seek to prolong these events in our consciousnesses? Who decides what Pentecostal misery and sibilant grief we ought to reimagine? Should we crave the remembrance, in vivid detail, of how dead children died, or catch yet another parting glimpse of the lost millions we'll never see a penny of?
“It’s over,” I say. “Crime, felon and victim alike, gone to their separate destinies, unaffected by new light, fresh judgement or revised opinion. Jack the Ripper, Madeleine McCann, the Great Train Robbery, Hillsborough. Let it go."

“Let it go,” echoes Tim, clicking through a raft of links via Fox, the BBC and CNN.  “Find something good to say about litter-picking in Lowestoft for a change. Or a new species of deer in the Belgian Congo.”

I muse on this while sipping Irn Bru and leaning back in my chair. Everything in the news arises from the need to defer any kind of satisfaction with what unfolds in the moment. Everything that was already pure, arising of peculiar happenstance and crucially unknowable. It attempts to pin down our inexplicable miseries. If this one event hadn't taken place we would probably all be happy now, it suggests. If that thing were to happen again we’d be twice-betrayed, so we need to stay vigilant, not let the seductive present carry us to a grim and uncertain future. Despite this, I am playing devil’s advocate. It doesn’t do to let Tim think he’s right too often.

"You don't want to know what's going on in the world? How about chemical spills and forest fires?"

"They always happen in other countries, to other people. When did we last have a proper blaze or a tsunami? When was the last time you recognised a tattoo on the charred wrist sticking up from a crumpled sunroof, or a sooty-faced neighbour crying in their underwear at the roadside?”

I’d love to be able to take issue with this but can’t. “Never.”

“Exactly. Our News is crap, unless it’s about someone famous. Celebrity tax-dodgers, kiddy fiddlers, wife-beaters. Pier-end comedians, faking their own death. A trusted gameshow host snorting coke off the tits of an underage runaway. Now that’s worth a click.”

“What about factual stuff. Health and science and whatnot?”

“I don’t want to know that what I’ve been eating, drinking or rubbing into my balls for years suddenly causes cancer. Everything becomes bad for you that started on the upslope of healthy. Tune in to see what kills us today. Social media. Pickles. Foot lotion. No thanks.”

"Let me ask you this, then. How would you prefer to be entertained?"

"I’m glad you asked," he says, maximising another window. A video buffers and stutters, before successfully streaming footage, on the third refresh, of a dog driving a car. Brimming with confidence and undetectable energy, the Dalmation sends an SUV lurching up the road, while black men in white vests bump fists, venting a thorough and pixellated approval.

Tim snorts pesto onto the keyboard and scoops up the last bell pepper with a ragged wad of focaccia. “See now? That’s news!”

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Kiss of Life

I died in a very interesting way. Gripping the manifest, I swang from the low bed of the wagon. It was only a few feet to the ground but my left knee gave way on landing. It had been dodgy ever since Corey Fenwick clattered it with a piece of drainpipe in Sunday school twenty years ago. Drainpipes were made of lead back then, so it would have packed quite a heft. I don't think there was a particular reason. Random violence was a common boredom-beater in those times.

So I leapt, when I should have known better. You get to an age where you have to accept a lack of invincibility, where things you used to manage with ease suddenly appear improbable. I couldn't know that for me the age would be thirty-five, but perhaps it had been on the cards ever since I tried to clear my driveway gates in a hurdler's leap and got my feet caught in two wrought-iron curlicues. That ended badly too, although nowhere near as badly as this.

I jumped. I don't know what it is with the jumping. I wasn't a hurdler, nor had I any ambition to be one. I just liked to jump, either over things or from on top of them. Height didn't seem to be a factor, nor circumstances (I once jumped from a hotel balcony in Albufeira, fortunately landing in the swimming pool and not some oily sunbather's lap.)

I just liked to jump, is all.

Actually, I jumped from this particular deck, because the driver of the truck it belonged to was a lady and I wanted to impress her. An Eastern European lady, attractive and wholly anomalous to the profession. It made a change. She wore a cheesecloth shirt, tied at the waist. It was summer, an even spread of sun and high, thinning cloud. She had long curls. Her hands looked strong and she smelled of light sweat and heavy tobacco. What I remember most was that she didn't need language to tell me to do all the work. Her lashes and lips were a universal translator.

So I landed and stumbled, feeling that gunshot pain in my knee. I tried to cushion it by squatting like a frog, and the biro in my top pocket, (a Bic biro - red, ironically) pierced my neck. It had a sharp, tapered top. An assassin couldn't have managed it better. It popped through my carotid and lodged itself in my windpipe. I can be thankful (one always looks for the positives) that exsanguination was marginally quicker than the choking. It still took a while, but those wide, shocked eyes and the Dubrovnik Marlboro kiss sustained me, and sustains me still.