I Am Not Alan

July 27, 2010

You are uncomfortable. The day outside has turned unexpectedly cold but the air in the underground remains hot and stagnant. Two micro-climates collide irritably in the sweat underneath your collar. You do not believe summer will ever come, but as it stands you are over-heating, rapidly.

‘I think it will be October forever,’

You announce too loudly. You are in an affected mood and think you are in a play.You rail, your arms flailing.

‘It’s June,’ I say.


You glower darkly and twist and turn in your seat, your neck craning awkwardly for attention. You always make a scene on public transport. I am glad the train was too full for me to sit next to you today.

We pull into a station, and wait. The doors open. The doors close. We do not move. A public announcement threatens. Then the voice, nicely spoken but stern, invades the carriage:

‘This is a passenger announcement.’


She can’t hear you. She says her vowels strangely: her aas and ees are too long.

‘Will Alan please come to the ticket hall, where his carer is waiting for him.’

Whoever he is, Alan does not depart from our carriage. Or indeed the train, because the voice repeats:

‘Will Alan please come to the ticket hall, where his carer is waiting for him.’

I think I would like to meet the voice.


You are growing louder. One more time, the voice cries out:

She smiles at you.‘Will Alan please -’


You rail, your arms flailing.

People stare.


You glare back at them.

‘I am NOT Alan,’

You announce to the carriage. I think maybe they wish you were.

Obscurely self-satisfied, you sit. The woman next to you looks you up and down suspiciously. You do likewise. I brace myself.

You are listening intently– but I cannot make out what to. You stick your finger in your left ear, shake your head, and lean towards the plastic bag on your neighbour’s lap.

You look at me, alarmed, and then back to the bag. Eyes staring, wide and round,

‘What’s in the bag,’

You ask the woman. She smiles at you.

‘Please?’ You ask, ‘Tell me.’

Your face screwed up in concentration, your wrinkled forehead off-sets your eye-patch ridiculously.confused little face

She beckons you to come closer. The bag rustles and you jump back in fright. She stills the shaking plastic and you close in, take a deep breath and peak inside.

Delight paints your features pink.

‘Pigeon,’ she says.

‘Pigeon,’ you repeat.

I can tell you want one of your own.

‘What does Pigeon eat?’

You want to know.

She takes a slice of bread out of her pocket, breaks it up and drops it into the bag. You clap your hands.

As we leave the train I catch a glimpse of the bird’s confused little face.

‘Now I’ve made a new friend too,’

You say.

I know you mean the pigeon.

I know you mean the pigeon

The weather has turned unexpectedly cold, chills his bones and makes him ache. His winter scarf, heavy in June, scratches his neck and makes his skin hate itself. This was not how Mr Smith had intended to spend his Tuesday afternoon. The call from the hospital had been unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome. There is nothing better than a family emergency for enlivening an otherwise mundane existence.

Duckman as a treeHis nephew waits in a green hospital cubicle, red bandages clutched to a hand awaiting the reattachment of its left middle finger.

Mr Smith arrives with a flourish:

‘Oh James! What have you done?’

His tone is theatrical, on the edge of an imaginary piano introduction, the twitching movement of jazz hands on his finger tips. He used to be in musicals and as such possesses awesome powers of projection. James does not answer immediately.

‘I was packing-’

‘Why were you packing? What were you packing?’

‘I wanted to know if it was working before I took it. The carving knife.’

‘And was it?’

Mr Smith is met by blank incomprehension.

‘Was it?’ he repeats, ‘Working?’

In the pause which follows Mr Smith is struck by the colour of the walls.

‘How very green it is in here!’

‘Yes, very green,’ James agrees.

‘Incredibly, green.’


Greenness lapses into silence, in which Mr Smith regains his sense of purpose, and steels himself for the all-important question:

‘James – ’. He falters. ‘If it wasn’t entirely an accident – you can talk to me, I do know, you know.’

He leans in closer, and in a conspiratorial whisper confides,

‘I am also acquainted with the black dog.’Very Green

‘The what?’

Mr Smith is suddenly overcome,

‘Oh what have you done to yourself, what have you done?’

‘I was packing – dividing, taking what was mine, just mine. She gave it to me, it was a gift, for Sunday roasts, she said. No more Sunday dinners – at least not with her – but I wanted my knife. I might love again, I might want to roast a leg of lamb for another woman. Not Her. Bet she’d hate that. GOOD.’

Mr Smith brims over with inarticulate sympathy,

‘Is it,’ he asks, ‘Is it – another man? Has she left you for another man?’

James is not listening, he continues:

‘So I didn’t see why she should get to keep it. But I didn’t want it anymore, not if it was broken, because what would the point be then? Broken. Oh God everything’s broken! Although as it turns out, the carving knife still works…’

He looks down at his bandaged hand, and then back up at his uncle. Realisation dawns.

‘Downsizing,’ he says softly, ‘Reducing,’ a little louder, ‘Taking things away,’ he declares to the green wall.

He begins to laugh, and his laughter fills the cubicle, escapes and stalks the corridors, joyful and malevolent, and the more he laughs the more bewildered his uncle grows, and so the more he laughs.

He is still laughing when the surgeon arrives to re-attach his finger.

He begins to laugh, and his laughter fills the cubicle, escapes and stalks the corridors, joyful and malevolent

On the Train

May 31, 2010

Technologically primalHe earns nine times the recognisable salary, at least. He wears his resolve like a mask. It fixes his mouth, his eyes, his skin, and he speaks the language of business, a shape-shifting re-ordering of stock words and phrases. He flies by the seat of his pants and cares what time it is in Tokyo.

He watches the red sun heavy in the sky through the train window, double through an impenetrable layer of dirt and dust which sets the world at bay. He wonders what you are doing now, and banishes the thought with a scrape of keys down the window pane. Instantly ashamed of this act of petty vandalism he turns off his mobile phone and hopes for no electronic witness – a first instinct, technologically primal.

He realises he has carved the first stroke of your name into the glass, and moves further down the carriage to escape the words on the tip of his tongue, anticipating the crashing and conclusive relief of the train pulling into the next station. He glares at the woman who collapses with too much purpose and too little grace into the seat opposite, crosses her legs and holds her phone to her ear. A portal to the world beyond the carriage, he resents her, and it. The volume is too high and announces three rings to the carriage, four, five, six.

The phone slips through her fingers. She untangles her legs and scrambles to pick it up. Her eyes meet his.

It is not magic.



‘You’re staring at me.’

‘I wasn’t.’

‘You were. You are.’

She discards the phone in a labyrinthine handbag. A cavern of arcane secrets and mysteries, he is sickened by the foreign possibilities of its contents. It is dizzying in its depth: keys crash against zips and wind-up pens in an unsatisfactory meeting of metals. The frustratingly slight tinkling of bells, he notices a charm-bracelet. He has always hated charm-bracelets – he believes you make your own luck.

No, he does not want to think about the bag any further.

She looks up and catches him off-guard.

‘You’re doing it again.’


She calculates the variables of his face: nose, eyes, mouth. He squirms, her face lights up. She reaches into the vortex and takes out a notebook and a biro, still looking, deep in thought, she chews the lid. Pulls it out of her mouth, and speaks.

‘Can I take your picture?’

He is captured, unsure and anxious, flattered, as the sun sinks beneath the skyscrapers.

The hurried sketch complete, she closes the notebook and returns it to the depths. He wonders how many men live there, in the dark. Their hands reach out to touch him. He leaves the train.

On the Train

On the Bus

February 3, 2010

You awoke in the early evening, I was not there. When I returned you demanded a bus trip, for mid-afternoon tea out of a plastic cup in a new and exciting location. On the way back you remember my absence, and are annoyed that I have been away. You intend to punish me with your conversational, guilt-inducing questions.

‘Where did you go?’ you demand, hostility impatient like a child’s.

‘Lots of places,’ I reply.

‘What kinds of places?’

I hesitate, but I do not have the power to lie to you.

‘I got on a train and went to a supermarket far away.’

‘Without me? You know we don’t get on trains on our own’ – you are anxiously disgruntled, and then just anxious – ‘It isn’t safe’.

The bus stops. Outside in the street a black dog barks and secures your paranoia.

‘Look! Look.

You point out of the window.

I reach into my pocket and take out a bottle of pills. Green.


You scowl, hold out your hand, grab and swallow.

‘Crackpot-voodoo-witchdoctor-quack’, you say.

‘It’s good for you,’ I say.

You turn your back to me and talk to the glass.


The bus-window sees your wrath. I peer at your reflection and try to explain.

‘I wanted to see new places.’

‘And new people? I expect you wanted to see them too!’

‘Some new people. Only some.’

A melodramatic change of posture, you fix on me with your one good eye. Then the green pill works its way through your veins and you relax.

‘It’s too late to apologise now. But – ’

Hand raised in a symbol of peace your crooked fingers issue their benevolent blessing,

‘I forgive you your trespasses, anyway.’

You grow hazy.

‘I like the pigeons.’

‘I know you do.’

‘Can we go and read to them tomorrow?’


You lapse into silence. I think you might be sleeping. The bus stops at a red light. You stir, and I realise you are watching me.

‘Who did you meet?’ you ask, curiosity sleepy like a child’s.

‘I made a new friend.’

‘Better than me? Do you love him, or her, or it, more than you love me?’

‘No one,’ I reply, ‘I love no one more than you.’

She told me that was her name. ‘I am No one,’ she said.

Satisfied, you close your eye to dream, and the bus drives on.

All Away

November 1, 2009

‘She was an actress, she acted it all away.’

The declaration is definitive. Mr and Mrs Smith talk animatedly about an absent third party, who remains unspecified. She is less a particular individual than an absolute form of fallen person-hood, and their conversation is a testament to human suffering in the abstract.

Both are enjoying their anxiety enormously. Their eyes a-light, their voices are on fire, and the rapid flame of conversation dances in the margins of their words.

‘She was the best I ever saw,’ Mrs Smith enthuses, ‘Such passion, such talent, and that voice. Oh, that voice! There was something about that voice; a rich velvet, a purple voice.’

Mr Smith nods sagely,

‘This actress,’ he repeats, ‘This actress, she acted it all away,’

and shakes his head. Feeling the matter treated sufficiently Mr Smith is prepared to move on. He reflects on his own sadness, the day he couldn’t face getting out of bed. He hopes for a springboard to discussion, but Mrs Smith’s reflections remain fixed.

‘She parked her car in the woods to take the dog for a walk,’ she says. ‘Let me tell you about the black dog,’ he urges, ‘It follows me everywhere.’

‘No,’ she says, and resumes her course, ‘She went into the woods to take the dog for a walk. And she was never seen again.’

‘Let me tell you about the morning I stopped brushing my teeth,’ he chimes in, ‘I was thirty-three years old.’

‘Don’t be revolting, darling.’ She continues:  ‘Her last appearance on stage was a week previous,’ she sighs, and Mr Smith’s small admonition of despair goes resolutely unheeded.

Mr Smith grows impatient with this once potentially fruitful exchange. Has he not suffered too? Does he not feel? Why must she disregard the theatrical qualities of his unique tribulations? He snaps –

‘Quite frankly, my dear, I think you are being a bit previous.’

‘She was the best,’ she continues, ‘The best I’ve ever seen. Her Ophelia, her Goneril, her Lady Macbeth -’

‘Did you know her well?’

‘I met her at a party once,’ she murmurs.

Mrs Smith’s conversation has been defeated, and Mr Smith knows it. A small victory  has been secured.

The train pulls into the station. He lowers himself slowly from the step to the platform and holds out his hand. She ignores it and gropes her way from the edge of the door to uneven footing behind the yellow line.

A million miles away, or so it just as well might be, the actress dreams she is made of words. She bites into the sponge to silence the involuntary cry of the nightmare, waking.

By the Duck Pond

October 4, 2009

‘It’s a cliché, but a true one…’ she says.

In the early light the park is a junkyard of frozen machinery. Her voice echoes through the stillness, and then curtails itself awkwardly.

‘… one. It’s not me. It’s you…. ou.’

The council are in the process of draining the duck pond by the east gate, and the pool is shrunken and dried out. An imposing blue and white sign beside the dormant digger announces the general intention in specific terms: the drainage equipment will not resume its course until mid-morning. The sign does not, however, explain the overall purpose of the scheme. In the meantime the ducks return, and find their home diminished.
‘I think you have that the wrong way around,’ he says.

‘You hear it in pop songs all the time now,’ she says.

A long pause. She fills the silence, a barely audible,


They sit on a bench overlooking the dust-bowl. The ducks are indignant and peck at the dry earth. A radio from a passing car plays out the news at one minute to nine. A source of abrupt inspiration, she announces:

‘We need to downsize.’


‘Yes, from a fixed unit to something more fluid. But individual. Everyone’s doing it now.’

‘Companies. Not people.’

‘All the same,’ she says, and the morning blows a long pointed finger of cool air between them, shaking the leaves from the trees. The digger rattles its chains.

‘I think I only loved you because the

weather was cold,’ she confesses.

He suggests central heating next winter,
‘Less emotionally expensive.’

Neither of them move for a while. He wonders if her choice of language has been influenced by the council’s drainage plans. She wonders if the point of departure has already passed her by. They stagnate.

To the west of the pond two pairs of shining eyes recite. She stands up and starts as if to apologise, but thinks better of it. Her heels ring out hollow on the tarmac above the sounds of their chatter.

‘It’s not me. It’s you.’

Reading to the Pigeons

October 4, 2009

‘It’s good to have dreams,’ you say, ‘But what’s the point if you are about to stop breathing?’

‘You’re not about to stop breathing,’ I say.

You exhale and the lights in the carriage come back on, and we continue thundering forwards, however many feet beneath the earth. They only flickered for a moment.

‘There’s nothing funny about madness,’ you say.

‘I’m not laughing, and you’re not mad.’

‘I’m creative.’

‘Yes,’ I say, but I don’t sound convincing enough and you sulk.

The rush hour commuters swell the train with the smell of cold coffee and warm photo-copying, paper-cuts and paper-clips, and a bitter unease that catches in the back of my throat. I hold my breath.

‘You’re not about to stop breathing,’ you say in a silly high voice that comes from the top of your head.

I suggest we leave the train.

Pain is ugly, it comes in waves. You face me on the escalator like a child afraid of heights, and I watch it twist your mouth, a gruesome blue. The wave breaks and passes, and I am sure that you are well and I only imagined it. We step out of the station and the sunlight catches me off-guard and flecks my vision with heavy black spots. I can see around the edge of things.

‘You look different,’ you say.

‘So do you,’ I say, ‘Speck-ly.’

The air by the river is stagnant with hateful heat, a climate we never grow accustomed to, even if we have lived here all our lives. Summer in the city is always surprising when it arrives.

We reach the spot, a grass scrap beside a concrete pillar.

‘Here’. You are definite.

I shrug, and put the keyboard down. Today you decide you will read Foucault at the pigeons, in D minor.

‘A cliché,’ you announce, ‘But a true one,’ and begin.

The boy in the torn T-shirt tattoos a red flower onto his wrist using a needle and a red ballpoint pen. He hunches over himself, perched on the old woman’s wall – the house opposite the supermarket – from which she heckles the traffic every dole day, reeking of whiskey, paint and peonies. But today she isn’t here – because today is Monday.

The boy’s expression is grotesque with concentration: his mouth is stretched wide in unwavering dedication to his task. He is a gargoyle on a high cathedral wall and the supermarket door is a portal to a hell lit with neon strip lights.

Their constancy is really a fast-flickering, a high frequency sound which screams in my ears, though those inside do not seem to hear it. It is the voices of the dead, who laugh at the living and their cut-price purchases: all those who have perished on this ignoble plain, a spillage in the cereal aisle.

The supermarket gargoyle has failed as anathema. People come, people go, but I try not to judge him too harshly.

His eyes roll back in their sockets and he slips from the wall, blood thick with red ink.

I shut my eyes tightly and step over the threshold. I remember her. The last time I saw her she was propped up in boots with holes in the soles, and a purple puffer coat on top. Her hair was falling out, she swayed. The history of her madness is well-documented: she likes sponges, they are all she ever buys.

She stands before me, her basket full of fibrous yellow fruit.

‘Do you eat it?’ I ask her.

She doesn’t reply and continues filling her basket.

‘Do you actually eat it?’

She stops. I lean forwards and press down hard on one of the sponges, my finger’s weight impressing. We hold our breath, and the roar in the aisles is still.

Centuries pass, empires crumble, and anticipation stretches between us like a current of electricity. It holds us fixed, magic. We wait.

The sponge springs back against the transparent plastic packaging, and the spell is broken. She smiles, a fine line drawn in red-ink.

‘Sponge cake,’ she says.