Mr Cummings

Mr Cummings, who taught me English at school was considered an “Odd Man.” You could see even then, and I was about eleven when he taught me, that most of his conversations were with himself, which he involved you in if you were in the room or class, but they were not quiet conversations: he was always urgent, engaged, non-conformist and anxious not to waste a breath on just getting by. “Live it” he used to say about almost everything and being young boys, we laughed at him behind his back, and sometimes to his face, but he never seemed upset or distracted by our callow behaviour.

Gradually we understood he was about values, and caring, and looking for the details most of other people miss. He was as urgently alive as anyone I’ve met, and behind that mad eccentric engagement was the most “knowing” person I knew, although there was another side to him, perhaps a darker side. He had an empathy with souls who were suffering: if your life had plunged into shadows or you had been overpowered by grief he was the man you looked at and knew he understood where you were. He didn’t talk in platitudes; he talked in experience and his compassion was beautifully constrained.

Years later I heard he took his own life using alcohol and pills, and the outpouring of love for him at his passing told you so much about his life. I realised, as well as telling us about the possibilities and beauty in our lives, he was also trying to protect us from those ghosts which haunted him with powerful stealth.

He made me realise that troubled people are often the bravest, most determined people you will meet. That for them to wake up and live an unexceptional day takes a level of courage and will-power few of us will ever have to demonstrate. He was the kindest and bravest man I met, who fought against demons all his life, and never lost that compassion which suffering may give to us.

Many of us don’t know what we mean to those around us. How our thoughts and routines form part of a pattern that sustains them in their lives, but for Mr Cummings, the whole world was his neighbour, and taking out their trash and passing the time of day with anyone he came across was the simplest expression of humanity. He never married and had no children but those of us who knew him feel like orphans at his passing.

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“You must leave in the morning but we can say goodbye tonight” was my wife’s way of closing the door on our marriage: her voice was flat and calm: she was always calm. She had been my safe space, haven and refuge since we were ten years old but I suffered from a sense of adventure which found me one afternoon in the arms of another woman:  we might call her a diversion.

Filled with remorse I told my wife two days later after she asked me “Where has Derek gone?” that being my name. Her face hardly moved but her motions developed a closure about them once I told her, so we had the last meal, the last cup of tea, the last cuddle and final goodbye. She asked for no explanation, conduct was what it was, she  felt, and mine no longer merited cherishing.

That night we slept one last time in the bed we had bought together, surrounded by the treasures accumulated during our marriage.  We kissed and circled each other with our arms as we always did and her soft warmth, my blessed space, reminded me this was my lost haven.

I knew better than to plead but still I emptied my soul into the pillow beside her as she slept nestling against me, immersed in the silence of our bedchamber. The truth of what we do to ourselves often becomes apparent in hindsight: our journey becomes our destination and in mine was a finality that would be my life.

In the morning, we drank tea as we always did and I packed a case watched by her without comment. In her eyes was sadness but she never attempted to mend a broken vase.

“I will love you always” I said as I walked towards the door.  “I know” she said. They were her final words. 

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Cometh the Hour and Gone The Hour

I remember those heady days when we first entered college, dropped our bags and said goodbye to our parents. Those conversations filled with awkward love and soon-forgotten advice. I remember meeting my new roommates, and sharing stories and then drinks and nodding a silent “Yes” to our unchaperoned adventure and saying to ourselves and then each other, “Life begins.”

In that first year it was all about “Experience,” and not so much the strategy. We were free of the nest and ready to drink the goblet dry. In all this Harry was the seer, the sage, the conductor of the reckless, who led us out to sample life, taste love and aspects of each other. Like a rocket, careless of its future he lit our sky, “Determined to live,” he said, “And damn the morrow.”

One girl or three loved him, and gave herself in vain because, for Harry, each day was a new possibility, and every bar a chapter in his book. He recognised everything but consequence and walked through each scene like a visitor: a man passing through your life but never in it. It was all about the talking through till dawn; draining the cup dry and being “Real” with each, and wondering what that was. We were young then, and treated our bodies as immortal: drinking with abandon and smoking weed to mark our independence.

How we envied his wild reckless ways, his music and his telling comments. “If you avoid risk you avoid life” he told our young souls, and how we loved him for it. That girl I had my eye on passed right by me, and who could blame her, for when I saw her next she was parked in his room, dressed in his pyjamas and making the coffee. For this brief time she was a revolutionary, who would never forget the way he spoke to her imagination.

By our third year, passions had cooled, and people talked more about “making dreams concrete,” and careers and strategies but never Harry. He vowed always to avoid “Death by common sense” and partied on but now there was a sense of defiance and even isolation. I found him once sitting in some bar on the edge of town and he told me, “Being lost is the doorway to discovery” but now I just smiled and said “That’s you Harry.” His acolytes loved his bravery, and the way he walked his own path, but more frequently now, he walked alone, seeking new disciples while his old followers nodded in sympathy and returned quietly to their studies.

Years later when I, by then a teacher, took my flock to London to visit a museum, I passed a figure outside the station playing a harmonica and staring at me intently: I knew it was Harry. “Did you hear the music” he asked me, “Or are you deaf now and wrapped in safety?” “All of that and more” I said, and saw love light up his eyes. I gave him some money saying “Party for me Harry” and he smiled as if I understood him. He had become unique unto himself and a stranger to company. It was the last time I saw him.

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We are all in it for the journey aren’t we? I mean we don’t have any choice; you sort of wake up on the train of life, and then some guy comes up to you and out of nowhere says, “Ticket please” which on this journey means  “What’s Your Purpose” and you are meant to have an answer: something crisp and concise, but really I don’t have an answer so I just nod and pretend to be civilised. At home I play music, and drink vodka from the bottle and shout out things like “Screw you” at the wall, which maintains its indifference to my tortured angst. At home I’m free to be lost because no one is watching.

Don’t you love that word “Angst?” it gives the mundane a sense of drama don’t you think, so that’s my new identity. Out at evening college learning to paint, and mouthing phrases like “Social torture” puts you in the middle of the circle: a bit like work, but in a different context if you get me.

That college is where I met Angela, who was shy enough to make me feel protective, if you can feel protective but still want something from someone. I mean I wanted to kiss her, because that’s natural isn’t it, and she is pretty enough, but not so much as to make her scary. Nice eyes of course, because you have to say that don’t you?  Mind you Angela really does have nice eyes so I can say that without lying. I tell the truth about facts, but most of them are boring aren’t they, but the heart of it, the breathing purpose of life: I have no sense of that.

Someday perhaps, some mystic giant will walk out of the corner shop late at night, as I am passing by for no real reason, and say “Phillip Walker. You are born to rescue blind cats,” but till then I’ll keep my purposes short and near at hand. Kissing Angela’s a start don’t you think? Perhaps I’ll ask her for a drink after class on Wednesday. She doesn’t look as if she knows what is going on either.

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A Walk Through Memory

 Love me but do not own me: Celebrate but don’t possess me;” I see her smiling as she said it; the last words I heard spoken by her face to face. Off on an adventure, never to return, crushed by a lorry in some freak accident, and silenced for eternity: a girl who made being fearless possible in my life: who faced down any challenge but intimacy.

I dared to love her but not to use the word. To thank the stars this girl, who lived for wilderness and open ended questions, had used me as her anchor and her reference point: “Conclusions” she told me, “Are only for the elderly,”   and yet she would always return to me: we all have contradictions and perhaps I was hers. She would live in any moment, in any life, as long as she was free to leave it: now she had, and I was left to live in a world no longer magicalised by her interest.

“If you want to understand something, never seek to own it:” that was her mantra. She, who loved the wilderness above all things, loved me because I left her free to wander through it, but without her noise and cheery exuberance, the stillness that I dwelt in, the place she called her sanctuary, has now become an emptiness experienced without release.

“Oh Charlie” she had told me, “I stood among the elephants, and they just let me, and we watched the sun rising together, species joined with species. Can you imagine such a moment?” and I could, because the image was printed in her eyes, bright with life and joy, but fearful of possession: that was my gift: to love her, but just for who she was and in the moment only. I, a man of no apparent distinction, was made extraordinary by her presence, and won her trust by not seeking to control her.

That face remains with me fifty years later, as all around me life seeks to find my measure, but they will not find me here. I am living in her sunshine, and in those eyes which still smile at me from a treasured photo. Now eighty-seven years old, and long past the time when people take an interest, I sometimes catch the excitement when she returned, and smile to myself, and to the puzzlement of strangers: become a man who nods to himself, and, without warning, when lost in reverie, talks out loud to a girl he loves, as she walks through his memory.

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A Coincidental Reunion

The doctor’s words  slid across his mind, played with his future and settled on the hand in front of him. His hand. “Three months at most”. The words were not ambiguous. He had a period of mobility, and armed with pain killers could cling to normal routine for a while longer:  routine,  had always been his most loyal companion, his order in an uncertain world: the habits between him and a  fear of the chaos somewhere beyond the horizon.

Sixty- three years old and not much to show. A couple of children. Lovely in their own way but gradually estranged by his lack of  circumstance.  Somewhere in later middle age he had lost his way and now  assumed the air of nonchalance so essential to survival in an urban landscape. His career was distinguished by a lack of progress.  and his character by a failure to grasp the importance of the everyday. 

He had become adept at whittling out nourishment and emotion from the bleakest scene: making a feast from a titbit, treasuring a passing view, but his time was mainly spent in solitude with music as his companion. Friendships cost money, and that was in short supply. “Not to worry”, he thought, “I’ve got  memories”. And so he had. Journeys abroad filled with adventure. Parties where common sense had left the room. Meetings with minds who touched base with life’s eternal questions. Women who moved him with a tender curiosity. Who enjoyed ,with him, moments of suspended reality among the coffee cups, the tousled sheets and the bric a brac of a careless life. In turn, they left him for more certain landscapes, but  without rancour. They had their needs, and he could not fill them.

By and large the place he sat in was full of known and unknown faces typical of a tourist venue. The rusty stalwarts like himself: same table, same coffee and a newspaper sat among the passing tourists who talked more loudly than the locals; excited by their new adventures.

Chance and coincidence were all that refreshed him, and there she was, a visitor from another land, another time and just across the shop. He remembered their conversations, lying there in bed. Her red hair, now grey, spilled out across the pillow. “You love life don’t you. You drink it up” . Her words had never left him. “It’s all I have” he replied  and they had laughed.  Now here she was, forty years on and sitting with a family, settled with her grandchildren and the picture of ordered and polite common sense. Across the room their eyes met and hers were warm; familiar but final: a nod is all it takes to share a history. He had three months but now he knew that part of him would live on in others, in their memories. Perhaps that was the right place for him.

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In Another Place

I woke up in another place, in another time, sitting in a chair and staring at a man I had never seen or met before. “ Hello” he said. “I wondered if you’d wake up here or just return to your time “present” or whatever you call it and think this was a dream”

His voice was calm and he seemed to find everything about the situation normal, though we both know “Normal” is an apparition served up to make life bearable.  

“Who are you?” I said, and he replied, “I’m your great-great grandfather’s older brother, so a connection of sorts before adding, almost as an afterthought, “Have you found love, I never did?” It seemed an odd question, but perhaps it was question he kept asking himself and anyone he met: I did not reply!

To explain, I am a man approaching his seventieth birthday, whose life has been a patchwork of misfortune and good luck, and here before me was a character claiming to be my relative: a man I’d never heard of in my entire life.

“You might recognise the chair you are sitting in” he said, and when I looked down at it, indeed I did. It was the armchair I had inherited from my father, killed when I was young and a sentimental resting place I relaxed in after working in my study.

I raise my eyes to his, no-doubt filled with unease, and he said, “There is something odd about that chair, clearly. Those in it are sometimes posted to another time although only to people who have previously owned it, as you do, if only for an interlude. Would you like a drink while you are here?”

“Yes please, a large whisky would be nice” I said and he smiled, “My favourite tipple too” Every life’s a battle between the lies and the unsettling truth or at least mine has been. How about you?

“ Do you speak  in anything apart from profundities” I asked. “I thought it was about surviving and supporting your family” but still I think I knew what he meant: I hope I did. I looked back at the wreckage which was my past and laughed as people do when they meet someone who  might understand them. He replied. “If you meet someone who has travelled through time you don’t tend to waste the moment discussing the weather, or at least I don’t” and he smiled.

“What year is it anyway?” I asked and he told me it was 1906. From my pocket I pulled out my mobile phone and said to him, “Do you know what this is?“ and he smiled and shook his head so I continued, “There are going to be many changes and events in your future but I will let you discover them for yourself. ” I did not want to alarm or depress him by saying his world was moving towards the numbing destruction which was the First World War!

Strangely, he seemed almost untroubled by my reticence and said, “The essentials are the same: you know everything changes but then nothing does”

As he said that I moved from one “present” to another or awake; you take your pick: the whole thing seemed a fantasy apart from the glass I was holding in my hand!

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A Life Resolved

I have always loved the voyage of life while showing little regard for safety or sense of a destination; I was always the sauce on the dish but never the main ingredient. Still there was one dish I wished to be at the very heart of it Sheila was my oldest dearest friend from primary school, who I’d known since the age of eight and with whom I had always maintained the deepest, open yet strictly platonic relationship. “Once you are married, never look over the garden fence” I said to her when we were in our thirties during my second marriage and she had nodded saying, “You are so wise” which was embarrassing, it being the last thing I ever was: I had loved and longed for her since our early teens but such was her appreciation of my earnest monkish exterior I never had the courage to admit my feelings .Life being what it is I married two women over a span of thirty five years producing four children but always, as I fell asleep, dreamt only of “My Sheila!” who, in my waking hours, did nothing but shake her head at the passage I had walked through life. She saw something in me but I don’t know what it is In our early seventies our friendship deepened because her husband Eric, a profoundly decent and caring man who became my dearest friend and football terrace comrade ( how can that be I hear you ask), died in his sleep and in her desperation she turned to me for comfort which I gave without limit, always aware of the boundaries set by kindness .On my eightieth birthday she suggested a joint celebration: did I mention we shared the same birthday, and whispered, one wheelchair driver to another, “Why don’t we get drunk one last time.” I have never reject that celebration so there we were on the veranda of our shared care home sipping from an illicit bottle of port slipped in by her eldest son earlier in the day when she said, “Do you think it’s time we got married?” and I said “Yes,” and who could not love her for the question. She took a lost man and brought him home!
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A First Connection

When I met her she felt her beauty was a recollection: her power to attract, she feared, long since gone and she was defenceless against the scrutiny of those less charitable than herself. She was a drunk in a bar at some place I had never visited but had stopped at in search of shelter. I don’t know how old she was but I’m guessing she thought her sixties seemed like youth and she was now alone with her incongruous health: drunk and smoking like a wild thing: she could still stand and dance and become the abandoned hippie she might have been fifty years before.

I joined her at the bar, and later in her bed, because she dreamed she could still connect in a way her age had no sense of. “Youth has judgement on its side but little else” she said to me as we got undressed and then she started giggling: her accent and the way she spoke hinted at a forgotten education and her movements of her youth. After a pause she reached up to kiss me as if physical was the only language left with meaning. She had travelled life, mostly alone, sometimes beautifully, often lost and seldom comforted and I determined that in my arms, if nothing else, she would find a kind of peace. Out here in the social wilderness there is little left of etiquette, credible gestures or sermons for the meek. All we have is kindness and the hope that beauty and tolerance might still be related.

She was the wisest, loneliest, poorest and most beautiful person I have ever met, who sought a night of abandoned celebration. In her heart and soul she would never be old. Every sentence she spoke was marked by a quality of pathos drenched in whisky and every weakness by a movement of her hand. She talked as if we were both still young and careless of the consequence, and yet we both knew life will challenge your dreams and leave most of them exhausted.

Somehow, despite the madness, disappointments, and that hard knowledge carved out of experience; something in the way I held her brought her home and, before she fell to slumber, I saw light fill her cautious eyes. I love heroes and heroines, and she will always be a bit like that to me: the lady who died in my arms just after she found herself. The wise sometimes find value in the worthless and she saw something precious in my life. Love was a drink late to her table but I was honoured to bring that chalice to her lips. I too can drink, I can’t say otherwise, but the way she looked at me restored fragments of my dignity.

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A Recognition

As a student I hide myself behind an unremarkable exterior but wondering about those paragraphs in history,no-one can explain, where brave men live, striding across ungoverned terrain where only the courageous or foolish dare explore. 

She must have known that because a girl just sat down beside me on the train and said, “What do you seek in life?” and, of course, the normal or replete among us would have granted her the briefest of glances before saying “Nothing” and then returning to their newspaper but that is not what I did.

My imagination, always careless of the sensible, took over and I said, “Something about the definition of life: about how connecting with another, or anybody is the only thing which saves us from the bald truth: that the universe is not interested in your history.” 

 To my surprise she did not look round for the conductor and say “This is a madman, get him off the train,” but replied, “Me too, I’ve got no answers either, so I just bought a ticket to the end of the line and when the mood takes me I will get off and explore wherever I’ve landed. Come with me: it might be fun!” and for reasons I cannot explain apart from the lack of choice, I did what she requested.

She was not a girl fixated on material success and , like many of us, dreamed of that unlikely dance where the everyday and wonder join within our souls. Perhaps she had discovered, like me, that curiosity may bring you to the edge of wilderness from which few of us return.

We worked as a waiter and waitress at a cafe in Cardiff at the end of the  railway line, and discovered we could connect with people who did not dream of being important until, heartened by each other’s company we saved the wherewithal purchase the cafe from the retiring owner: a lifelong friend.

Finally, soothed by routine and the recognition we gained from each other and our customer’s we became engaged and then married: it was the bravest wisest thing I ever did and joined with her I discovered that wonder is often hidden within the mundane. We rescued each other from absurdity and celebrate that everyday !

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