The Last Message Home

You heard it on a radio, some transmission made decades before, a fragment of a conversation, picked up as your ship travels its now uncharted path. “I’ll see you soon, put the kettle on,”  then  laughter and a silence which is infinite. “What was this life, and who were they” you could not say, now on some mission and in a distant galaxy, sent out to explore the universe decades ago, before the Earth was hit by meteorites.

“Life on other planets. I hope so” was all you could think of at the time, as you turned to look at Greg, the captain on this now unrecorded voyage. “Shall I make a note of it” you ask, but he just shakes his head: the answer is in his lack of interest.

What’s the point. There’s no one left who we can talk to, and nothing but these fragments of conversation bouncing round in space and prodding at our spent emotions. These brief relics of a vanished world, heard on this voyaging craft which travels on without reference points.

“Can’t beat the view” you say, trying to keep it light, but routine sapped magic from the flight some years before and silence has become the known companion. Now galaxies pass by unremarked  by two souls lost in travelling , robbed of home and context by that catastrophe which destroyed the  planet in mid-evolution.

“What does it mean” you ask yourself, but mute indifference supplies no answer. At some unspecified hour, you accept, some black hole or other matter will swallow this last evidence of man and his ambitions, and suns will rise and planets form without comment or exclamation from this lost life-form now a particle in space.

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Family Gatherings

I am well-supplied with sisters and one of them had a “milestone” birthday so her two daughters held a party at which cousins from far and wide, of various levels of connection turned up to wave the family flag and wish my sister well.

One of the interesting things is there were quite a decent number of second cousins there, which means the significant parents, the couple whose union was the common event which linked us all, are three generations back from the birth of the newest generation, if I have not explained that too obscurely. Life being what it is, or life expectancy certainly, the relevant couple are no longer with us, and are largely unknown by reputation or image to a large number of people who the gathered for the party, yet that very gathering would not have been as it was without said union, of unknown quality, which was either enjoyed or suffered  by this long dead couple.

Some may believe that they peer down on us from their favourite cloud sipping tea from a replica set of their favourite china and smiling benignly at this echo of themselves seen in so many lives and experiences: it is remarkable thought to me. I saw and chatted with a cousin I have probably seen about four times in my life and yet there was something of the family culture about her. We nodded across the divide, as it were, and acknowledged our joint routes to this place.

With her was her daughter, who I did not know existed until this weekend, and I was able to recall her great-grandfather and tell her about some of the pleasing eccentricities which made him the curious and charming man he was. He died before this young lady was born, but here he is in her, so to speak, as well as her grandmother and the great great grandparents of whom I speak.

It was sobering, moving and faintly magical to see in the movement of a hand or the quality of manner, those little signs which make us family and joint descendants of this long-gone couple. Their issue now live in a large variety of lifestyles and circumstance but somehow you can see a commonality about us all.

It is both moving and curious and makes me think, as an apprentice grandfather, if in a hundred years there may be another gathering at which a decent crowd of people gather, and they might recollect the mannerisms and people who spawned them as I sit uncertainly on my cloud sipping at my tea.

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Lost in A Photographs

The only thing she knows now: it is not safe to cry. Holding on her only strategy but here, in this old photograph you  cannot see that in her eyes, not in this image  taken way back when, before experience and grief robbed her of innocence and hope. Looking at that image now you say “Is that really her?” and yes it is. “But she looks so gentle there, like another women altogether.” I nod my head because you’ve said it all

Taken before the world tore at her  soul, when she thought her future blessed with love and children who might run along the beach .  Taken at that tender age, when plans existed but not  experience,  before war shredded  her native land, taking what she loved beyond her reach leaving those same eyes, but altered now, to view a kind of hell where only the wise and foolish dare to peek.

She did not know, as we do not, the stirring of those tectonic plates which move the social landscape of our times. Could not guess that boy who smiled at her,  known as gentle in the community is now a thousand miles away preaching martyrdom and hatred to other men altered, as is he. Lost in the excitement of some appalling vision. A sweet relief, he feels, from material mediocrity, or so he thinks. What does he know?

This same women, now a mother, knows he is too young, as she was then, to understand it is the small stuff which holds the secret of a life,  longing as he is, to engage with elements of destiny and faith: this young boy, her son, seduced by evil dressed up as nobility: a holy cause he feels, a dream of cleansing a world he thinks rotted by its its greed.

His eyes are full of certainty and hate, leaving this women, his mother, now lost in the knowledge that this boy, her son, cannot hear her now, and  dreams only of martyrdom and faith. She hides in her solitude, lost for words, unable to explain, how her sweet boy, who left her home to study medicine, learnt only how to kill without remorse, and seek for brotherhood where laughter is a sin.

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Life Without Fishing Nets

Those friendships we enjoyed, so casually, in a life, not overburdened with demands, allowed us room to celebrate with ease, a freedom we now find embalmed in photographs, and  some remaining artefacts. Me grinning with a new caught fish, the harbour as it once was, when fishing was the only industry, and tourists, rare beings indeed, wandered past and viewed us as if we were actors in some play

Now, these same tourists are the staple of the town, the fleet which was its heartbeat, replaced with pleasure craft, and those huts where skilled men sat and mended nets, become cafe’s laid out to catch your eye, and tease a coin or two for absent-minded snacks.

Time and change have no sentiment, allowing man to alter, as he sees fit, the rituals and ways which in the past, where thought to be the bed-rock of a character.  In old men sitting by the harbour, I see the commentary of change, a certain melancholy not entirely wrought  by age, and wonder as I watch them, how much we understand, as we lay their rituals gradually to rest, obsessed as we are by the desire to improve.

With growing urgency we seek the new, and dream of life free of germs or dirt, but these men who ploughed the oceans for their food knew back at home that Eden was underfoot, long before we, who followed them, trampled all in our search for some new Camelot.

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A Life Changing Interview

At the age of nineteen I had a temporary and precarious job as a backroom assistant in a bakery shop. In between heaving trays of bread I allowed myself to dream, and to aid that process, I used to scan the local paper for jobs while eating lunch. At last I spotted an ‘opening’ for, and I quote, “Office Boy and Would Be Executive,” in the jobs section of the local paper. There was a number on the bottom of the advertisement rather than an address, a deliberate ploy I later discovered, so I rang the number and a cheery confident voice answered in a rich south-London accent, “Frank Kaplan, What can I do you for?” I admit I was ‘thrown’ but determined to continue, the alternative being working as a shop assistant ‘till the end of my days,’ so I said I was ringing in answer to the advertisement. “Ave you got any experience in any office of any kind?” he said, possibly put off by my young sounding voice. “No, I said.” “How old are you?” he asked and I told him I was nineteen.

“Come tomorrow at 10.30 and we’ll have a chat” said Mr Kaplan. “I’ll see if I can get away from the shop” I said. “No probs” he replied. “Either you turn up for the interview at 10.30 tomorrow morning, or you haven’t got the job. That’s how it works round here.” That was my first introduction to Frank Kaplan, and to say he was an original character is to stretch the word ‘original’ to bursting point. Still, it is the only one I can think of.

The job interview was memorable: I was decently scrubbed up and suited. I felt I had to grab at any chance I was offered; Stacking bread in the back- room of a bakery was not on my pathway to dreams. “Come in, come in” said Frank, a fat cheery man whose trilby hat was visible on a chair near his desk. “So what makes you think you’d be any good at any job” the opening question, to which I desperately replied, “Well, I think I’d certainly be quite good anyway”. There was a pause, the fat guy started laughing. He shook around a fair bit in his chair, and then began a series of wheezes and gasps meant, I presume, to indicate the later stages of laughing hysteria.

I sat as impassively as I could through his whole performance, which ended with him looking at my CV, obviously lacking in both content and detail. “It’s the way they walk Stanley. The way they walk. Tells you all you want to know.” He explained to me later on when I asked him why he took me on, “But what about their competencies?” I might ask, and he would reply “Stuff that. You can always learn to be competent, but character is character, and that’s what I look for in a man. I’ll find the opportunities, you tidy up after me and we’ll get along just fine”. “Have I got the job then I asked nervously”. “Course you got the bloody job. Start now. “

“But what about the bakery?” I asked. “ Who gives a toss about the bakery,” he said “ I need you here” I looked at him and I thought to myself, I’ve only been there a couple of weeks and here’s a permanent job of sorts and a bit of excitement so I’d better grab it. “Okay” I said, “I shall start straight away”. “That’s what I mean” said Frank. “Character: you’ve got spades of the stuff. You just don’t know it yet” What he meant by “Character” was not yet clear and the definition of what constituted “good character” was to become an ongoing topic, made more interesting as his unusual approach to life became apparent.

He was a great respecter of the marriage state as long,  “it did not cramp his style.” He believed firmly in the payment of taxes, but not by himself, and thought  “The Truth” was a horror novel put out by some disturbed Hollywood mogul. In short he introduced me to a view of life which would have been astonished my mother. A ducker and diver to his very marrow, Frank Kaplan thought honour was the fall back position of the foolish and the timid, and in our short time together he tried to show me that “There is another way Stanley. Another way me old sport”

It was a vigorously developed philosophy explained to me during our short time together, before representatives of Her Majesties police force walked in and interrupted our Monday morning conversation. His final parting words to me, “At least I’ll see my pals again.” Good old Frank. He had friends everywhere, or so he said.

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Possibly A Step Too Far

I don’t know how long it had been, or how you would characterise it. A friendship of sorts, naturally, but what was the garnish, and was there magic in it? The question began to bother me, so one morning, as I met young Sandy on the way to collect my paper, I stopped her and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question” and she looked up at me and smiled in that tolerant way, which makes you feel she knows you,  and said, “Of course not darling. Go on, ask away”

She calls everyone “Darling” if you really want to know, but it still gives you a bit of something. Makes you feel special, as if you’ve been selected. I always felt so. “I wondered if you’d like to run off with me and start a family,” I said, and I have to admit she looked a bit startled, stepping back a little, and sort of frowning as she did so.

“You must be joking” she said, and you note there was no “darling,” but I was not surprised really, but I was still curious. “Why not?” I asked because I like the details, the background to the answer and all that sort of thing, if you really want to know.

“Because you’re old, fat and smelly. Wait till I tell your wife.  I just  felt  sorry for you, but now I think you’re weird, you sad disgusting pervert”

“Fair enough” I say, because I was only asking, and no offence intended.  Still I thought it worth a pop. I would have spoken longer, but she walked off in a hurry, and something in her manner said I’d been a bit rude. Of course I didn’t mean to. Be rude I mean. I just thought she was pleasant, and blokes like me don’t get that much ‘pleasant,’ especially at home.

It got worse later, when my wife got back from shopping, and something in her manner suggested she’d met up with Sandy, and they’d shared a note or two. “You filthy old pervert” said my wife of thirty years, you see she’d picked the phrase up, as if she’d rediscovered who I was, and really wished she hadn’t. “I really don’t love you, you’re filthy and disgusting, and no-one round here likes you, they feel sad that I’m still with you, if you really want to know.”

“You really want to know” is my thing, my single catch phrase, part of my character, but when  I annoy her, she steals that as well. “Love’s not in the air” I ask, feeling a bit silly, but got to make the best of it, that’s always been my way. She tells me to get lost, and not for the first time, so  off I go quietly, to meet my old friend Ron. Ron’s a bit different, I’ve known him from my schooldays, and his home life is unusual: he still loves his wife. He calls her his “Dream Chicken” which I always thought was stupid, given they’re both sixty, but he doesn’t seem to care.

I tell him the whole story, and he nods his head and tells me, “I’d best speak to Carol. You’ll be staying at ours a bit” Thanks mate, I say” because I ought to, and then I ring my daughter and say, “Your mother’s had a fit” and then I hear her screaming, “I never want to see you. How could you do that to my Mum” and then the phone goes silent and I just shake my head.

She’s always had a temper, just like her mother. Try, but you can’t tell them if you really want to know. A week or two should do it, then I’ll pop round for clothing, and fix something that’s broken, and she she’ll say “I hate you” and I’ll say, “No change there then”  we’ll soon be back to normal, sitting there in silence, She likes watching dramas. The one’s you see on the telly were people fall in love.

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Is it “Van Go” or “Van Golf”

You know the situation. You’re standing there drinking a cocktail you couldn’t afford in a month of Sundays, because you’ve been shoe-horned into some corporate hospitality “Shindig” by a friend who happens to know your are “Always in need”, of cocktails at least, if not a square meal, when some dude in a suit so expensive you could have bought a small apartment for the price of it, comes up and sucks you into a conversation.

“What’s your  reason for being” he asks, which is odd given this is a party full of  Bankers, although your friend says another word but beginning with “W” if you catch my drift.

Should you tell him, “I play the harmonica in a one man street band outside  London’s premier tube station,” or would that be too odd you wonder. Clearly it would be, so you decide to lie, the fall-back strategy of the socially uneasy, and say “Administrator” and smile, hoping he won’t ask you another question.

That hope is crushed, because, unknown to you, he has designs on the girl who invited you, and so seeks to ridicule you while he can. “Almost interesting” he says, with just the right amount of dismissal implying “You just don’t cut the mustard.” Then, as your “friend” turns to notice him, he asks you, “And who is your favourite artist” and you are about to say “Van Gogh” which sounds quite near “Van Golf” when you recall some over-dressed presenter on the television referring to him as “Van Go” as though he knew something  which you didn’t. Our cocky Banker is  almost sneering at your lack of wealth and knowledge now, and Sandra, the friend of whom I speak, is beginning to be interested in your reaction to this being, who is the very picture of superiority.

“I don’t have one” you finally reply, because that just seems safer, and Mr Smug does nothing but raise an eyebrow before turning to your companion, the lovely Sandra, and saying “You do have interesting friends,” in a tone which suggests the opposite, before sliding from your company leaving her looking blank, and then she says, “They really are all tossers aren’t they. That’s why I had to bring you. At least you don’t talk garbage.”

To say you feel happy is really not to nail it, but you are grinning in a mad way when she says, “Stuff them all.  Lets get out of here” and you say, “Just a minute” and you walk up to the Smug One, tap him on the shoulder and say, as he is turning, “Van Golf, or Van Go for the pretentious, which I presume you are” before spilling your red drink by deliberate accident down the front of his shirt and saying, “I only apologise when I mean it” before walking off with Sandra.

This was her leaving party, and that was back in 2007. By 2009, your  life has moved on a bit, and you are now playing in a band with a growing reputation, and still doing “requests” outside that tube station on occasion for old times sake.  Sandra, who now works in PR, plays the banjo with you on some evenings, and you enjoy what politer society calls, “a deepening relationship.”

So there you are one evening, playing on your harmonica, and “lost in the music,” when a faintly familiar face turns up, but much more scruffily dressed and with longer hair and without delay he says, “I wanted to apologise for being a prat when we last met”  “Not a problem,” you say,  but both Sandra and you are amazed at the change in his looks and manner. Turns out he got made redundant in 2008 after the financial crash, fell into a depression and then re-invented himself as a graphic artist: crazy I know. Just goes to show we are more than our circumstances, although we are so often defined by them. He’s learning the guitar now.

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