Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dark Warehouse

I can still hear the happy roar from when I said, "This round's on me." I can remember the lewd wink at the barmaid as I told her to keep the change as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these guys who pesters every pretty girl who serves me; I just meant it in a cheesy way although I doubt she saw it that way. Maybe now that I'm a bit more sober I'm not too convinced that the intention behind it was purely innocent.

Actually the whole night in the bar seems so distant and unreal now. The images flash before my mind like the frozen panels from one of the comic books that David, my son, is just starting to read. The comics also feature many of the same clich├ęd lines that I said tonight. I did manage to play the part of the drunk businessman celebrating in a bar rather well tonight. A couple of the beautiful phrases which spring to mind are: "Ed, I don't think I've ever told you how you are not just a work-mate but a truly special friend, no really I mean it" and "I don't mean to sound odd but does everyone else think that Jessica Rabbit is hot?" I think I deserved to celebrate though; Ed and I had just made the biggest sale of the year for the company and this was my first night away from David and/or the misses for a long time.

The evening had started with Ed and I going for a meal with out clients. Ed and I had decided in the hotel that morning that regardless of how the sale had gone, a meal with the clients wasn't going to be the right event for us to celebrate or commiserate ourselves with. We decided that this sale deserved a proper celebration in the traditional British way: drinking in a pub. As fun as the evening at the Chinese restaurant had turned out to be it still wasn't what you could call a proper celebration. While the Asian ale had flowed liberally and several large metal bottles were consumed between the four of us, it was still decisively a work situation. Rich and Kate turned out to be nice enough people, both turned out to be far more pleasant when they no longer needed to negotiate in such an assertive way.

Rich was the purchasing manager for their company, you while you wouldn't guess it by looking at him in that suit, but we found out that evening that he was a keen hockey player, even playing at a semi-professional level for his local club. Only after he'd mentioned this did I realise that he had the build of someone who you wouldn't want to get into a fight with. I found out early on in the evening, from the usual ice-breaker of family, that he had a Canadian wife called Sian who, up until five months ago had been too busy designing landscaped gardens for the rich and famous to have any kids, but their first was already halfway here.

Kate was a totally different kettle of fish to Rich. During the negotiations she'd been straight faced and was entirely responsible for her company getting such a low price from our company. Once dotted lines had been signed and hands had been shaken she transformed. She was smiling and laughing with us and being very agreeable company. She didn't discuss herself much at the meal, but we discovered that she has been married but that it "hadn't worked out entirely as planned". I'm sure she must have got a very good deal in the separation. She seemed to know someone from everywhere. She knew the manager of Rich's hockey team, she knew one of the guys which Ed had cycled across America with and she knew someone who was connected in someway to every company I'd ever worked at.

However solidly built hockey players and well connected project managers don't make an evening and we went our separate ways after the grass jelly had been nibbled and poked and poked again. Ed and I were staying in a hotel tonight so that we could ratify the finer details with Kate and Rich tomorrow without once again suffering the four hour train journey. It wasn't even 9 o'clock yet so we decided to make our way to a bar to whittle away the last hours of the evening. Ed's suggested method of finding a place was to head out straight along a road from our hotel. His reasoning was that this made it far easier to find our way back to the hotel if our mental capacity became reduced for some reason.

Maybe we picked the wrong road but it was quarter of an hour away from the hotel before we saw anything other than kebab shops, chemists and estate agents. It was a pub called the Lion and Lamb. We decided to stop in for a pint to quench our thirsts, possibly staying if the place took our fancy.

As soon as Ed and I, both dressed in suits, pushed our way in we discovered that this was not a pub frequented by smart suited types. Still, we'd walked through the door and, like the good businessmen that we were, Ed and I stuck to our guns: there was no way we would back down now, especially when we were finally so close to a bar.

So we walked up to the bar, trying to ignore the glances from the t-shirt and soft collar shirt wearing locals. The grey haired barman, the only visible staff at that time, made no strong effort to finish his conversation with a white bearded man wearing a tweed jacket who sat on a stool by the bar. No sooner was I starting to feel a little impatient but then the barman abruptly finished his conversation about his grand child and walked over to me.

"What' ya want to drink then?" he asked in a pleasant tone. My impatience was immediately gone, this barman would clearly have been a great asset at the negotiation table.

"I'll have a pint of Brigstock's Best Bitter, " I pointed at the pump, "and my friend will have-" I glanced over to my right side to where Ed was.

As I expected, Ed finished my sentence for me, "a pint of Foxton Stout please."

"Righto." The barman turned over two clean pint glasses adeptly placing them under the pumps and started to pull each pint. I was pleased to note that he knew what he was doing. In that silence which goes hand in hand with the pouring of fresh drinks I glanced around for a spare table. The pub was only one room and was small enough that we could see the whole room without moving.There were no free tables, Ed had also picked this up, so with a silent nod to each other we sat on the stools that were by the bar in front of us .

"That'll be 4.90."

I handed the barman a crisp five pound note from my suit pocket, "There you go." He slid the fiver between the other notes in the till and handed me my single coin of change.

I took my first sip of crisp fresh beer and let the cold fluid suck the warmth from my mouth. Without saying another word the barman walked away, past the optics and out to the back, where I can only assume the kitchen was.

Ed and I chatted away for about half an hour over our pints. Ed was taking great pleasure in explaining to me in minute detail the cottage that he was looking to buy in Derbyshire. He'd only visited the place once but he already had grand plans for it. He was going to build an extension here, knock a wall through there and place a conservatory round back.

"I think you've missed your calling as a property developer," I jokingly commented.

"You may say that now, but I'm still young," replied Ed. He paused while he had a brief moment of inner reflection, "Well younger than you anyway."

"Thanks."

"What I mean though is that I have time to build up a bit of a portfolio and then by the time I become fed up with all the corporate politics I'll be able to retire early with a nice income."

I place my pint glass on the table and looked slowly up to look Ed in the eyes and then asked "You mean you're going to turn into one of those buy-to-let property moguls?"

"Something like that. Don't give me that look, it is a good idea and I'm not going to sacrifice my financial future in a misguided attempt to try to save the economy single handedly."

I could feel the desire to correct him welling up inside myself. I held back though, only replying with a short, "You know what I think of people who buy-to-let, they're selling life jackets on the Titanic."

Ed then grinned, "That's exactly my point. People are much better off with my high quality life jackets rather than some cheap one which isn't water proof. Any either of those is preferable to drowning."

I considered how tenuous it would be to extend my analogy to say that he was making the life jackets from the hull of the boat.

Before I could decide I was interrupted by a voice behind me, "Are you city boy's gambling men?"

Ed and I both turned around to face a tall man with a crackly but well kept black beard and short hair. Ed was never one to turn down a challenge and this time was no exception, "It depends, what are we betting on?"

The man raised his hand and produced a sharp point, a small brass shaft and some fins, "Darts."

Without a glance to me Ed accepted.

It turned out that the bearded man was called Dave. He was a mechanic at a local garage. I found it slightly disconcerting to be talking to a mechanic who wasn't wearing oil stained clothes. I found myself disbelieving that he was a mechanic. Those ideas soon went out of my head though as Ed and him started talking about Ed's toy of a few months back: his MG B GT, a classic car. Ed and I had spent several weeks working late into the night rebuilding the engine and as it turned out Dave was also fond of traditional British motor cars.

Dave and Ed played several games of darts, but I wasn't really paying attention to the score and I don't think either of them were. All three of us got lost in the grease soaked springs, screws and sprockets of the cars.

In the end I think Ed lost about £30 and 2 rounds of drinks to Dave. We were all in good spirits though so we didn't mind. Ed would probably complain most of the next day about how he'd almost won and how he'd have been up by £10 if it wasn't for the pot plant distracting him, or some similar excuse.

Time rolled on quickly and soon the bell of the bar was ringing and the place was starting to empty. We drank up our last drinks and bid good night to the bar man and bar maid and staggered out into the street. It was only now that I realised the brilliance of Ed's 'walk on one street' plan. Getting home seemed like it was going to be no problem at all. Our path also took as conveniently past several kebab shops, which was perfect for me for I was starting to get hungry.

The two of us staggered along talking about nothing in particular, it was probably about one of Ed's grand plans, when I suddenly realised that there was a group of four or five following about 100 yards behind us. The figures wore thick dark coats and their hoods covered their faces in shadow. As I looked round at them they started to run towards us.

"RUN!" I shouted.

"Arrgghh," replied Ed as he looked over his shoulder and then decided to follow my advice.

It was clear that we were not in peak fitness and that our pursuers were gaining on us quickly. We weren't going to escape them in a straight line so I decided that weaving through some side streets would probably be best.

"Take the next side street," I shouted to Ed.

"What?" asked Ed, but it was too late. I'd already dived down the narrow side street. If I turned back then I risked running straight into them so I decided to carry on regardless.

After what felt like hours of running, but was probably only a couple of minutes, I realised that I was almost starting to enjoy the run. I had slowed down to a jog and the endorphins and adrenaline were still rushing through my body. I was starting to realise that no matter how pleasant this late night job was that I was getting more and more lost.

Still there was no sign of the people who had chased us. I hoped that Ed had got back safely to the hotel and that right now he was driving around in a taxi trying to find me. The gang had probably just been some kids looking for some easy money from a couple of smartly dressed businessmen. My legs were starting to burn in complaint at the sudden and aggressive use of them so I shifted down from a jog to a slow walk.

I noticed a park up ahead and remembered that there was one near our hotel. I decided to walk around the edge of the park to see if I could see any familiar surroundings. The park had a brick wall topped in iron railings all around it. I would stop ever so often and climb up the wall in an attempt to gain some height to see around more. I realised that I wasn't the most graceful climber and that all the brick work and iron rubbing against me was really ruining my suit. I decided that the suit was probably going to be a casualty of the night.

I decided to leave the park and head off along a road lined with warehouses. I remembered seeing warehouses from outside the taxi when we arrived at the hotel so felt that I was starting to get close. I entertained myself as I walked along by reading the signs on the warehouses. I agree that it isn't the most entertaining reading but when you're drunk and lost anything to focus your mind on something other than where you are is a good thing.

As I reached a crossroads I looked to the left and saw a group of five figures with hoods walking in my direction. I panicked and my instincts told me to run the other way, so I turned right as I heard the slow footsteps behind me quicken to a running pace.

I soon realised that my instincts were wrong. I had ended up in the dead end of an industrial complex which had four large warehouses surrounded by a high brick wall covered in barbed wire. In my ever increasing panic I decided to duck down into the narrow alley between "Chef's Own Caterers" and "Mercury's Delivery Experts". I picked the alley way because none of the street lights were close to the entrance and the inky blackness could offer me some chance of hiding. The kids would get bored and move on after a few minutes if I just hid and kept quiet.

I soon realised that the problem with pitch black alleyways is that they are pitch black. My shins kept on banging into small wood boxes and greasy barrels of what I assume was some sort of oil. I tried to move slowly to make less noise but it didn't help. The clanging of the metal on metal resonated around the darkness. I still felt my way along the walls with my hands though. The further into the darkness I was then the more likely it would be that my pursuers would give up.

My right hand stopped feeling the cold steel walls of the warehouse and felt a smooth painted wood surface. I realised that it was a door and struggled to search for a handle. After some panicked grabs at either side of the door I realised that it was probably a fire door. I reached into my jacket for my wallet only to discover it missing. My mind quickly back tracked and I realised that I must have lost it in the park while I was climbing up and down the railings.

I smiled into the darkness and had to fight not to laugh. These muggers to be weren't going to get any money from me. My humour quickly switched to panic once more though as I realised that my muggers probably weren't going to be too happy about my lack of wallet.

I turned around, rested my back against the door. I slowly slid down the wall with my back until I was sitting on the cold concrete floor. I waited and listened. I could hear some movement from outside of the alleyway but no one had come close to the entrance yet. Perhaps I was safe here. As panic moved to fear and I slowly started to feel all of my body again.

As the chemical wore off I felt the warm and tired glow of exercise and alcohol surround my body. Here I was, all alone, no wallet, being pursued by some unknown people who were not going to be happy if they found me. I cursed myself silently under my breathe for having left my 'phone charging in my hotel room. If only I had my 'phone now I could have called for help. My 'phone was probably sitting on my hotel room table vibrating away as Ed repeatedly tried to call me.

My mind then drifted onto thoughts of my lost wallet. I imagined if anyone would find it. I imagined an early morning jogger, while jogging to try to fit between the pages of the newspapers they read would find it. The jogger would pick it up and examine it. They'd probably open it, find that there was no money as I'd spent it all in the pub, and if I was lucky they'd return it to a police station. Then people would know I was missing. Hopefully I would have escaped from between these warehouses by then. I hoped that I'd get a call from the receptionist at the hotel to let me know that the police had found my wallet and that I could go and collect it. I sat there in the darkness and hoped.

I strained my ears to try to hear what was going on outside the alleyway some more. I could hear the slow dripping of water from further into the alleyway. I could still hear people from outside the alleyway. They sounded closer than before but that didn't worry me. I felt a calm flow over me. I felt like the emptiness and nothingness of the bare metal that surrounded me was pulling all fear and worry out of me. I didn't know where I was or what was going to happen. I was cold and in pain and my head was spinning. Despite all of this I still started to feel like none of this mattered.

It wasn't that I didn't care about what was going on with me, it was more that I felt that it didn't matter what happened to me now. If my end was being attacked by muggers who have been denied the chance to steal a quick couple of pounds then that was how it would be. Whatever the reason that have driven these people to pursue me, I held them no grudge. I decided that I probably never would know why they chose me and Ed. That didn't worry me though. I didn't want to know why, I had reached a point of acceptance. What was about to happen was what was meant to happen.

I don't kid myself for a moment that I wouldn't have wanted things to turn out differently. Even at the time if someone had asked me: "do you want to live or die?" I would have chosen life every time. I hadn't given up, I had just accepted the hand that fate had dealt me.

I found myself getting lost deeper and deeper in my calmness and the happiness it brought. I was vaguely aware of a silhouette of shadow that started to look down my alleyway. It grew larger as it started to come down the alleyway towards me. The thuds and metal clangs as this figure walked into the bane of my shins felt distant and far away. It was only when the figure raised it's arm and switched a flashlight on in my face that I snapped back to reality.

I tried to look past the blinding light of the torch. I tried to distinguish shapes, my eyes and brain searching for anything that could hurt me. I looked for the glint of a knife or the bulbous shadow of a bat but found none of these. Then the figure did something I was not expecting. He spoke to me.

My brain quickly wound back up to speed, but not fast enough to work out what he had said. I tried to ask him to repeat himself, but all I could manage was a strained sound of confusion and a single word, "huh, what?"

"I said: Mr Roberts, you need to come with me."

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Under The Branches

I don't think I've ever posted this. I found it again while looking for another story that I thought I'd lost.

As under the arms of the old oak I lay,
I let my thought drift out over that grass.
Daisies and buttercups held my elation,
while the canopy held the harsh sky at bay.

With not yet one score of age to my name,
bestowing to old arms respect and awe.
Wisdom of ages flowing around me,
beauty now past that I hoped to reclaim.

Though living my life to some degree,
I felt I never had what I sought.
Looking for elusive harmony,
Ignoring all that I thought sultry.

My view from upon this highland,
did put my running mind to rest.
Yet I did not find what I sought,
only my folly over land blazoned.

Rolling green to me present,
a mirror to my own self.
Through gazing deeper I found,
a potion I used to foment.

My wounds disappearing,
my eyes opening wide.
The rain that day washing,
the mist began clearing.

Sky stout with thunder,
heart starting lifting.
Jubilant climax
cast doubt asunder.

Lonely hilltops
bring company.
Rays of sun held
in hard raindrops.

Mind now free
from the hurt.
Happiness
from wise tree.

Decay
now gone,
to light
gave way.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Only Halfway There

"Are you sure this is where you want?" asked my taxi driver.

"I think so," said I, "just pull over on the left here."

I looked out of the dust covered windows into the dusk light. The driver turned off the engine and the silence left hanging just grew and grew.

"This is definitely the right place," I confidently stated. I looked at the meter, £47.50, and started to dig around in my pocket for my wallet.

"You OK, mate?" asked the driver. He turned around in his seat to face me. His face wasn't like I was expecting, but then taxi drivers never are. You only see the back of their head and their eyes in the rear view mirror and your mind builds an idea of what their whole face is like. This taxi driver reminded me of one of my old school teachers, at least the short clipped black hair trying to hide the subtlest of bald spots and the narrow band of his high ridged eyebrows had. Now that I'd seen the whole of his face it was far more kindly than I had imagined. Constructed images of hard shadowed brown eyes with overbearing eye brows over sharp cheek bones faded to a soft round face with smile lines reaching around his mouth and a jolly twinkle in his eye.

"Yeah, I'm fine," I shot him a smile to try to reinforce the point. I then realised that might have been too much and overcompensated while trying to form a neutral expression. I ended up in what I think probably looked like a frown. I breathed out and let my face relaxed. I was coming to realise that I was more highly strung than I had thought I was when I was still in the city.

"I know it's probably none of my business, but in my fifteen years of driving a taxi there are only a small number of people who want driving to a car park on the coast at dusk. And you don't look like one of those dogging types either," his eyes simultaneous leaked concern and cheekiness.

"I appreciate your concern, " I paused while I tried to remember if he'd said his name during the twenty minute journey.

He helpfully provided the answer, "it's Steve."

"Well Steve, I appreciate your concern but don't worry, I'm not coming out here to throw myself off a cliff or to watch some, erm, cars. I just wanted to... no, I needed to get out of the city for a few hours. Breathe the refreshing sea air," I didn't mean to sound quite so aggressive but I was starting to feel a little rattled.


I realised that I'd had my hand on my wallet for most of the conversation since the taxi had stop. I focused my attention on my wallet and pulled out two crisp twenty pound notes and a crumpled ten pound note that had seen better days. Steve graciously accepted these and turned away from me as he dug around for change.

"Here's your change, " he said as he handed me back two coins, "and here is a card for the taxi company so you can call a cab when you want picking up."

"Thanks." I pocketed the change and card, opened the door and stepped out in to the brisk sea air.

After slamming the door closed, I looked over the car towards the sea. I heard Steve start the engine and the taxi then rolled away. I wondered if he had considered saying something more to me. I think we were both glad that he had decided against the idea. I dug my hands into the pockets of my leather jacket, glanced up and down the road that was deserted but for Steve's gradually shrinking car, and walked towards the shoreline.

I had been dropped on the other side of the road to an empty car park. The car park lay between two hills that rested either side of it. Looking between the hills and past the car park I could see a small shingle beach drift down under the sea that was shimmering with the last of the low autumn sun. Paths lead away from both of the far corners of the car park, winding slowly through the scraggy grass roughly following the edge of what I assumed was a cliff. The beach appeared to be in a small bay, enclosed by the rising land of the two hills. The place seemed to match my memory of it, but at the same time there was something about the light or even just the air itself that made it all seem so much different from the last time I was here.

I elected to take the path to the left, if only for the reason that the side of the hill was vaguely south facing and I was hoping to be able to catch just a little of the last warmth of the sun. I secretly knew that the sun probably had no more warmth to give me this day, but I let my mind dance around this flaw as I walked over the coarse gravel of the car park. When I reached the edge of the car park I found that the footing got more solid under foot but I found that the path wasn't as well defined as it had looked from the other side of the road. What had appeared to be a solid but winding path of sandy soil surrounded by grass turned out to be patches of solid with no grass surrounded by undulating grass. The grass hid small hollows and holes that were hungry to grab my foot and twist my ankle. I concentrated on getting from one stretch of solid soil to another, my head firmly pointing down.

As I scanned the ground for hazards I found that I didn't really know why I had come here. I knew why I was climbing this hill, it felt like the right thing to do. I didn't know why I was at the coast though. I felt I needed to be away from it all, but there were plenty of places where I could have gone. I didn't honestly know why I had picked here and that alone worried me. I felt that I no longer knew myself, the events of recent times had left me so unsure.

Over the previous month I'd found myself alternating between one extreme and the other. One day I would be decided upon a clear course of action, it making sense over all others. I'd go to bed knowing my place and knowing what I should do. However with sleep came nothingness and with the morning came a change of mind. This went on for weeks until I decided to come out to this place by the sea. This place which reminded me of the sweetness of all that I was contemplating.

Self reflection does, however, pass the time and I soon found myself at the peak of the hill while still considering my mental state. I turned to face the sea and took a couple of steps forward. In front of me there wasn't a sheer cliff with craggy rocks at the bottom, just a steep slope covered in what looked like bracken. The bracken looked thick enough to allow a slow, smooth and soft plunge to the sea, yet not strong enough to act as an anchor for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves sliding down this slope. The wind buffeted my back and I decided to take a step back, just to be on the safe side.

I realised how fitting my position was. I imagined someone could take a photo or paint a picture of me from the top of the other hill. My silhouette would be against the fading light of the sky, bathed in the red glow of the sun. The sea would roll before me and the land slide away behind me. It would describe the trials that everyone has to face, with the solid ground of the past behind them and the turmoil of the sea before them. It'd win prizes. It would be reviewed in the papers: "this latest work elegantly describers the human experience in a few skilfully placed brush strokes" and "this work once again goes to demonstrate that while many try to emulate this artist's unique style, none come close". All of the critics would forget about the man on the edge though. They would either see me and project themselves into my place or watch me from afar, like the artist, as an interesting juxtaposition of ideas, colours and shapes.

I'm was still there though, still on the crest, green behind me, blues and reds churning in front of me. For the first time in my life I think I realised what purgatory was about, I realised that I, myself, was in purgatory and had been for the past few weeks. I was in the middle. I wasn't balancing on a knife edge; I was more like the spider who can't get out of the bath. I was too scared to go for the unknown, to go down the plug-hole, but I wasn't strong enough to climb out of the bath. I realised that in some ways I was wishing for that shower of water to wash me away, to relieve me of my choice.

I wanted anything but this nothingness, give me heaven or give me hell. The state of nothing, the state of in-between, nothing could be worse than this. I didn't want to be left neither one way or the other. This realisation helped though as at least I knew where I was now. Knowing where you are is usually half the battle in solving problems. If you know where you are then you can try to work out what to do next. So that's what I did, I tried to work out where I wanted to go and, more importantly, how I could get there.

I drew out the ashes. It was strange when holding the ashes before me they didn't feel nearly as heavy as I had thought they were whenever I thought of them in the back of my mind. I considered lifting the lid that secured them, secretly hoping the hope beyond hope, the desire for a phoenix trapped in that urn. I wished to open it and I'd free the bird of fire, restoring all that was, repairing all that was damaged, returning all that has been lost. We live in the here and now though, this is not a world of myth and legend. If phoenixes ever existed they are now rare and far between. This fear of looking through the open neck and seeing nothing but ash is what stopped me tearing open the jar right there.

I knew that nothing, no matter how unlikely, ever has a zero chance and that's what stopped me casting the ashes off the edge. Part of me knew that there was just dust and powder in the container, that it was now as good as nothing. This was the part of me that took me to the top of this hill by the sea.

The other part of me hoped that it wasn't worthless. That was the part that made me hold the blue pottery closer to me. The thick cold wall of clay separating me from the ash yet at the same time keeping the long cold embers together and near me; stopping them from scattering to the wind.

I wished for something to help me, for something to free me from this place between. I wanted someone to come and tell me to throw the jar to the sea or to tell me to look inside. I wanted a voice, I wanted guidance. Suddenly my silent pleas were answered by a whisper. A whisper so inaudible that it almost just passed me by on the wind. I knew where it had come from though. The whisper had come from the container that I held in my arms. I raised the urn to be level with my head and rested my ear gently against the chilled cobalt blue glazed ceramics. I felt that I knew what I heard before I heard it, I'd know it all along but it had always been hidden in the noise: a truth indistinguishable in the foam of dreams.

With those whispers the bottom dropped out of my world and with it me and myself slipping out of purgatory.