Endurance, Wisdom, Discontent and Fortitude
1). There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,
Nature alone is never spent.
In a crowded railway carriage the man opposite leaned forward and talked.
It was night and the journey would not end until morning when the unknown town would be gained.
The man spoke, sharing the time between then and whenever we would arrive. After asking the usual polite questions of ‘how far?’ and ‘how long?’ and ‘why?’, he began to describe the place he travelled from.
Near to the houses, (he said), there was a field for crops, and in this field there was a patch, about the size of a small allotment. This space was never cultivated. Here grew a copse of scrubby trees, bushes and weeds - mostly docks and nettles - but what grass there was was an intense dark green, as if something below was deeply fertile.
We children called this place forbidden, and we were afraid of something that had happened long ago and was never spoken of.
We grew older, eventually some officials came with documents, with heavy dark red seals, saying they had a right to investigate. This rough plot was closed off and we lads were told to keep out. Of course we didn’t. We crept up and around and pried and spied - and were chased away. In the end screens were erected, first just fabric ones but then steel fences and a man with a dog patrolled.
Eventually one night flood lights came on and sounds of heavy machinery rumbled past our house. Finally the whole field became a ’no go’ place with gates and bars and Ministry of Defence warning signs.
The field was flattened becoming muddy and criss-crossed with tracks, ruts and mess. The farmer was compensated and the road was widened and improved - or so they said. We just thought everything had changed and was spoilt.
Finally all went quiet and as fast as it had begun everything went away. The field gradually became completely overgrown with rank weeds, thistles, couch, burdock, teasles - and pale grey poppies. Only in the centre emerged again the one dark stain of rich grass and small shrubs - elder, hazel, birch and sallows.
The man looked out of the window at the passing lights, cables and trains.
I can never go back there, he said. Never find that again, it doesn’t exist.
He looked back at us.
So I’m travelling. Leaving it all behind.
There was once a man. He lived in a small space in the corner of opinion.
He was never expected to be anything much. As a child he was made allowances for, but considered to be a sad case.
He was brought up in the image of household gods, expected to bring blessings in service and industry.
He was taught to be stoic, accept and always do the right thing when others did wrong.
Consequently he hurt a lot but did not show it. He never gave any trouble, never disappointed, never risked or fulfilled.
One day he grew up enough and left home, he started out.
Unlooked for wisdom began to get in his way.
He got a job and cheated at the till, felt guilty, but was not found out.
He went browsing in a shop, and stole a book, felt bad, but got away with it.
He learnt to cook by burning or eating things raw and when his flat smelt of smoke he opened a window.
One day he went to the cinema on his own. In the dark a hand reached out, took his, stroked his palm and rubbed it against damp wool. A voice in the dark whispered, he sat very still, afraid but behaving and just about got away, unknowing, uncomfortable.
One afternoon he went back home for a party. They were all there, family
and their friends. He drank gin and felt it was expected, manly. His father’s colleague grabbed his arm and whispered obscenities. Was this sophisticated? He smiled and was polite.
Eventually he walked out, went away, on his own. Hurt some, bore some, learnt the hard way what life was really about. And knowing that this was just not good enough, he smiled, collected his books and wrote it all down.
3). Discontent and Fortitude
Not far from here there lived a woman who once wanted to be a man.
She could see clearly, as she said to her cat, ‘Men have the better deal’.
The cat looked back at her and shrugged his fur and yawned.
The woman got up late each morning - there was no need to get out of bed early. Each day began the same and the cat looked back at her and turned around.
She got up late and went across to the mirror in the bathroom and stared.
‘You’re not a bit like a man’, said the cat in his stare.
She looked, and hated what she saw: her hair, her skin, her nose, her two small eyes - everything about her lacked a point.
‘Pointless’, she said - ‘if I were a man I wouldn’t care. I would have a purpose and a role to play’.
‘Of course’, the cat narrowed a look and washed.
Every day she thought of washing - but what was the point.
‘If I were a man I could smell manly and that would be a virile healthy sweat. But as a woman I just have embarrassing monthly smells, and womanly stinks’.
’Too true’, purred her cat, ‘Just so’ and settled his nose to his tail.
Around mid-morning the woman had had enough of her sweaty bed, she pulled on the same loose joggers as yesterday and the day before and the day before that - and then chose an even bigger baggy top to hide in.
‘You know you can’t hide’, looked the cat. ‘Everyone can see you’ve got fat breasts and an arse the size of Australia’.
She went to kick - but the cat sprang to the top of the wardrobe and looked down on her. He looked down, as she looked down, on her pathetic, female, useless self.
Another day locked up in her body went fast and slowly by. She ate. And
the cat ate demanding food between sleeps.
She stared out of the window at the rain, and chewed a strand of hair. She thought, ‘If I were a man I could shave my square cut jaw, slick back my short cut hair, and admire my reflection’.
The cat looked.
Too soon came the night. The dark encircled the house. The door remained chained and the post unopened. The woman, curled in her chair, nursed her head, the glass beside her empty again, unfulfilled.
Then the cat sauntered by flaunting his tail, stretching his paws, and he said archly, ‘A full open woman like yourself would make a perfect human being. Stop wanting something or other. Just be’.
Later the woman washed her face, stretched, unlocked, and went out.
The moon burned like a headlight. She licked her lips, her eyes widened, something in the bushes moved. There was a smell she recognised, she tensed.
’Sorry’, the voice called, ‘Just putting out the rubbish!’
‘Me too’, she half lied.
He came forward. Thin as a whistle with a sleek mouth that bled as if singing.
‘How’s it going?’ He asked.
'Do you ever wish you were someone else in another time and body?’ He asked.
She half smiled. She threw back, ‘Do you?’
‘Oh it’s alright for women’, he said.
‘You’ve just got to be there’.
The cat in the background looked up and twitched his tail, then interjected ’The trouble is that you think too much. We animals can’t tell what we are, unless we sniff and lift our tails. We just wear our fur, unknowing and uncaring how we look’.
The cat had a point.
The man and the woman stood.
‘I like that top’, he said, ‘it suits you - do you think it would suit me?’
‘I’ll give you the name of the outlet’, she said, ’sure it’s comfortable - you’d look good’.
‘I’d maybe get it in a different colour’, he said.
’Sure’, she said, ‘please yourself, treat yourself’.
’Nice talking!’ They said simultaneously, ’see you around’. And they smiled identical smiles.
The cat tensed, lashed his tail, pricked his ears, hesitated, then sprang.