A Moment Of Profundity

Malinslow was a town which sought prominence through its annual poetry festival and used to gather a decent supply of the well-to-do, as well as a number of dishevelled brillianteens, to listen to readings of original verse by leading poets at its annual festival: sometimes bards from the States and other continents could be encouraged to attend by promises of large cheques and a decent lunch or two. Not bad for those used to living on the thin air associated with having your head in the clouds searching for a misplaced career.

This year Sir Oswald Clarkson, a coal miner’s son from Lancashire, was the guest of honour and booked to give the final reading of the evening. His seminal work, “Thoughts Toward a Conclusion” once battled it out with steamy romances in the best-selling lists. A man of self-confessed sensibility, Sir Oswald had been brooding of late because his pen had run dry, vocabulary withered and, on the quiet, he was having some difficulty in maintaining the air of mysterious brilliance so necessary in the world of cutting edge creativity. This ‘reading’ was a welcome chance to restore his image.
Although his accent had mulled to the fruity purr of the media classes he maintained a faint Lancastrian edge to underline his status as the son of hard-working folk: no mean feat for someone who had lodged in the plumpier areas of London with a succession of wives over the last thirty years. Indeed, his wives had provided the majority of the means by which he was able to sprinkle bon-mots over various dinner tables with other literati of the period.

So here we were then, with Sir Oswald facing a packed hall in the middle of Malinslow, and peering alternately down on the paper before him and the crowd ahead. The Duke of Brookshire, paid to appear but still a trifle more bored than normal, had given a clichéd but thorough introduction to the bard and had done a reasonable job of raising the hall’s sensibility towards a level of consciousness. Hush settled over the room and faces looked expectantly up at the lectern and the distinguished figure behind it. He raised his head and, peering over his bifocal glasses, began to read…


He then bowed to the audience and sat down. The Master of ceremonies, seated beside him and with a growing sense of bewilderment said “Hope ! ?” “The truth is not long-winded” said the sage and with a pleasing air of mystery, leant down to gather up his bag. After a few moments it dawned on the assembled throng that this was it: the whole enchilada, nine yards, performance, cake, meal or whatever you like to call it. He had chosen his word with care and now it was spoken. The silence lasted for a few more seconds and then a murmur rippled through the hall. A failed dieter, with a temper shorter than some, shouted, “Outrage” while a less aggressive voice from the front of the hall said, “Was that profound?” Others comments were of a quality a polite man cannot repeat, even in print.

Sir Oswald, with commendable calm, a characteristic of the noted seer, paid no attention to the noise and, indeed, seemed about to leave the stage. The Mayor, seeing the occasion collapsing into unrest, waved his arms in desperation. “Short and sweet” said the Duke, his morale rising at last, as the threat of disorder became evident in the hall. Pains across his chest stopped the Mayor in his tracks: he was having one of his panic attacks and he heard his strangled voice as he leaned towards his deputy saying “Stop his cheque. Stop his cheque”. “He only accepted cash” replied the embarrassed official. “Five thousand pounds for a single word,” he thought to himself, “That is poetry indeed.”

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In a World Of Dreams

Every day at ten past two, following a sandwich and a cup of tea; the particular filling might change from week to week, Saul Patrick Brownlow, played Handel’s Water Music in its entirety. Just under forty-two years old, and redundant from his job as a procurement manager with a firm of stationery suppliers, he could no longer afford to go out on non-productive journeys, or anywhere at all if his financial reserves were not to be dented by undisciplined activity.

Through the music, heard while sitting in his chair, his senses left their ordered prison and opened up his heart as if they were guided by angels: the familiar notes and phrases transported him through episodes and adventures his circumstances would not otherwise allow. Through music he might journey where he liked, and kiss his ex-wife once again, or see her tear-streaked face close to his as she exclaimed, “It’s all been a mistake. I love you” and always he forgave her and opened up his arms in tender reconciliation.

Thorough to the point of exhaustion, and particular in every aspect of his work he might have been, but his exasperated employers had been, as they phrased it, “Forced to let him go” because, as he became more detailed and particular in researching each contract without regard to time, his “In-tray” threatened to overwhelm his desk. His doctor said he was suffering from anxiety, and so he might have been, but whatever ailed him proved too much for the company and then his wife, who asked him to leave the family home. Beside him on the table lay the unsigned divorce papers because to lose his wife would cast him into wilderness, and thoughts of such a place must not be engaged.

Once the music drew to a close he sat motionless in his chair watching the gathering winter dusk cast the furniture into shadow. After a while he walked to the window and, regardless of the temperature, opened it up and lit a cigarette. He did not inhale but let the smoke rise up from it, the sight of which brought him a curious tranquillity.
Perhaps it recalled him to a happier time when a boy walking through the park one afternoon, caught a tennis ball lobbed in error from a court, allowing him to engage in conversation with a girl who grew to love him for a time: “A miracle of sorts” he had always said.

As he stood there watching the street below, a knock on his door recalled him from his memories. Puzzled, he went to see who it might be. Sandra stood outside, his very wife, and as he looked at her, measured in his politeness although not calm, she said, “What am I going to do with you?” and he said “Take me home.”

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A Telling Reunion

She was the daughter of my English lecturer, who specialised in Victorian literature: a kindly man who had invited his tutorial group to spend the night with him and enjoy a day’s walking on the fells. Now it was the evening, and we were back in his house and about to enjoy a meal cooked by his lovely wife. They were a picture of the perfect family, and his daughter the jewel you would expect in such a setting.
I writhed within myself, and wondered what light and casual remark I could use to introduce myself to her when “Mr Glib,” or Andrew Cummings to use his real name, another of the students and one who later went on to enjoy a prominent career in broadcasting, slid in her direction and asked her in the tone of one used to dealing with life and its varied nuances, “So are you at university yourself?” and she smiled at him, revealing she was at the same university as us, but studying medicine. “That’s very clever” said Mr Glib and soon he was oozing himself inside her life and suggesting they might meet for coffee in the student union.
I am confident I was one of my professor’s favourite students because I actually had a passion for the subject he taught, but outside the world of tutorials and precisely worded essays I was socially awkward and with a wardrobe to match. Once more I had to pretend that nothing touched me and “real-life” was a subject of research rather than experience. “How do you put the fun into your day?” I heard Mr Glib ask the unspoilt beauty and soon they were sharing their passion for vintage films, which surprised me, as I had been exposed for extended periods to Andrew’s languid discussions about his interests and “vintage films” had never featured in them.
I ate my meal, and managed to bore everyone but the professor with my discussion on “Fors Clavigera” an interesting text written by the Victorian social thinker, John Ruskin. Finally Mr Glib said “This is not a tutorial Nigel” and smiled at me as if he was being kind, and then at the group with his “Where do we find them?” tolerance: I was never much good at dinner parties.

To make matters worse, Cummings went on to marry her, and enjoy a successful career, no doubt revered by his listeners and fellow broadcasters.

I met him and his wife years later at a reunion dinner where my job as an English teacher drew few gasps of admiration from the group, most of whom were gathered round Mr Cummings, apart from his wife who stood some distance away, staring at a watercolour.

On impulse I went up to her and said, “You know, when we were students, and we had that dinner at your father’s, I wanted to come over and speak to you but Andrew got there first, and the rest is history.”

“I wish you had” she said, and gently touched my arm and I wondered if she might still be my unopened gift from destiny. “How is your father?” I asked, but before she could answer Andrew came over with that smile of his which speaks a thousand languages. “How is life in the classroom?” he asked, cutting across our conversation, “Still banging on about John Ruskin?” and his manner was curiously replete and satisfied.

She looked at me, like a conspirator and said to her husband with something of an edge, “The last word isn’t everything Andrew.”
“What do you mean?” he said, but I think I understood her. I hope I did.

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Poetry In Emotion

Geoffrey Longridge, a widower of twenty-eight years standing, had lost his wife in a car accident leaving him childless and alone. Since that time, emotion was something he expressed sparingly, and in his memory of her he had, he considered, a sufficient reservoir of intimacy to provide all the nourishment required to live an ordered life.

 Her photographs were everywhere in his house, and conversations with her departed soul remained central to his life. She had been his co-conspirator, his map and compass, and without her he had become a mannered, dutiful soul, working latterly as the chief librarian in his local town.

His sensibilities were tuned to connect with ideas and vistas rather than people: he had a quality of civilised distance about him which marked him out in the community. He was a receiver rather than the teller of stories, but you could tell the quality of your words by the power of his response. Sometimes, in a stubborn attempt to awaken interest in an artistic dimension among the local population, he would invite speakers to give talks at the library on matters literary, or sometimes just to recount their recent adventures. He loved the way some small event could help an individual discover themselves.

So it was that he invited a poet, who had recently returned from the tropics, to give a reading from her latest book of poems: the product of her experiences there. Her sense of life and its adventures seemed exotic to a man whose formative, and then more mature impressions, were gathered throughout a life bound by ritual and routine within the small English county where he had lived. At the appointed hour she arrived at the building and he guided her to the room were a small but appreciative audience applauded her entrance. Brief introductions were made and then the poet began her recital.

The audience was moved by her assurance and intensity: her words stirring their imaginations. She was the living embodiment of artistic courage: a dramatic reader of her own verse, and the audience responded to her charged urgency. At last the reading was over and, noticeably, the applause at the end of it was more real and energised than the polite clapping of hands which had signalled her introduction. After the event, poet and librarian sat together on a bench near the entrance and looked at the abstract painting before them, which seemed almost like a conceptual map of imagination.

“Do you like abstract art ?” she asked him earnestly. “Yes” replied Geoffrey and suddenly he seemed to be no more than a puppet. A will stronger than his own pushed him forward and he found himself kissing her forehead, then her cheek and finally her lips with a release and abandon which, till now, had been entirely alien to him. She was the first women to whom he had opened himself in twenty-eight years and he was stunned by his own actions. 

Instead of shrinking away from him she seemed to be somewhere between the polite and receptive as he talked to and then kissed her in turn and again. Finally, without any comment on his behaviour, she told him she had a dinner engagement. They rose from the bench and he showed her to the door.

He had no address for her, apart from her email, or any knowledge of her circumstances, excepting some blurb on her website and after she had gone he sat down again and stared at that painting as if it might supply him with an answer. What does a polite man do, living largely within convention, when he has stepped outside himself and kissed a lady so? The painting offered no advice.

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Retrospective Love

The mourners stood around him eating cakes and sandwiches not made by him. Some catering company he employed to do the work, did the work while he stood near a corner of the room, watching his guests share memories of his wife and stain the carpet with their drink and crumbs. He, who hated fuss above all else, and kept emotions strictly under wraps, nodded as each passing face offering him comfort and support, not realising that all he longed for was their silence. Mavis, his  wife now deceased, who spelt reflection with the word ‘Abyss’ had filled his life with whims and groundless fears, till her death offered him relief and left him with the chance to dream once more, and sit and watch the natural world and catch his breath.

So thorough was his daily care of her that those around her wondered at his discreet gentleness and diligent support for one who loved hysteria as if it were her only child. In fact, by chance or was it luck, the union had proved fruitless in that way, and wardrobes full of dresses and shoes would be her brief legacy. 

He loved her without doubt, but more for herself than him, he always thought, and sought to ease her constant anxieties. Strangely once she knew that she must die, courage came from somewhere in her heart bringing its dignity to her passing. She, who made a fuss of everything, and thought a chipped cup a calamity, faced her death with humour and her spoken thought that, “You’ll be alright,”  was her last comment as her husband sat beside her on the bed.

He, who for years had lived within his wife’s concerns, alone at last, could set his dreams alight, or so he thought. He might explore and get to know people he had not yet met, and tread the path to discovery, and taste adventure ungoverned by her fears.

But now alone, and challenged by his imagination, he realised the very door that kept this world beyond his reach, gave him the licence to shape its landscape and possibilities without cost.  As he reflected thus, a wave of sadness startling in its suddenness, swept through him as he realised how her concerns had shielded him from himself, and allowed him his whimsies without risk. Nothing, he finally understood, makes a dream more frightening than it becoming possible

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Career Changing Moments

As a young teenager my passions swerved between football, and history. You can’t “do” history, or not easily if you’re a small boy, because people like Henry XIII are too busy getting married again to discuss their motivations with you, so, in the end, football became my sole obsession. 

In my imagination I was quietly modest, but with a killing touch on the ball which would see me ease down the wing with lightning speed before swerving past the opposition defence and slotting the ball neatly into the back of the net. The real star players seemed to have little to do but stand around and save their energy for applauding me as another of my goals was marked up on the scoreboard: not a bad life really.

 Sadly these daydreams did not end with a career in professional football,  and me surrounded by bathing beauties holding plates piled high with delicious sandwiches.  Life in the guise of realism and common sense tactfully advised me that a future as a professional footballer  might not be available to a boy whose other hobbies included bumping into furniture and wearing odd socks. 

I am reminded of another scenario where dreams were challenged. In days of yore  during an English lesson, the teacher, a keen sports enthusiast, sets his pupils the task of writing a poem: twenty minutes are allowed and then a selected few can offer them up to the critical skills of their master. “Ok then”, says the teacher,        “Whose first out of the starting blocks.” A small shy boy with dark curly hair raises his hand and waits to be called. “Yes Shakespeare” says the teacher. “Read us your gem”

“To be or not to be” begins Shakespeare quite nervously. “No No NO ” says the master. “To be or not to be” What are you talking about boy ?. ..Either it is or it isn’t, Make up your mind. Do not dither” Shakespeare tries to argue but it is clear his teacher is not going to be impressed. ” All right, sit down and have a go at writing something that isn’t so painfully indecisive.”…  “Right who’s next”

“Ah Partridge, says the teacher, stand up and let’s hear what our bowls captain has to offer.”  Partridge clears his throat and declaimes the following words ….”Custard was a clever Boy,…. He liked to eat a lot….. One day he bit off far too much,…. and found his throat was blocked”

“Brilliant” says the teacher. “Short pithy and with an important lesson on greed. Just what the man on the go needs to read in these days of gluttony. Ah there’s the bell. We’ll have a few more poems in the next lesson boys.”

Despite these gruelling examinations of talent some of these boys went on to forge admirable careers in the world beyond the school gates. Shakespeare, unbowed by his teacher’s comments, went on to become a skilled carpenter who, among other things, worked on the revolving staircase at the Globe Theatre where his old classmate Partridge was busy forging a career as a playwright !

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Discovering Art

Captain Crab, recently retired as ‘Officer in Charge’ of the stationary dept at Slumpdown Barracks, could claim, in secret anyway, that whatever the situation faced by British troops, regardless of the weaponry at the enemies disposal, the men supplied by him would never be without a biro.

Now in his mid-fifties and with a largely faultless record he could boast a coveted long-service medal to wear at ceremonial occasions.  Let’s be candid, despite his record, which was safely resting in the file marked “Bland,” in Whitehall,his departure from the military had not been cloud free.

Some reckless soul had introduced him to the subtle pleasures of JD and coke after a luncheon involving an investigation of a challenging fish pie. We don’t know why, but those smooth, gentle yet titillating flavours had sung to his mouth as if they were conducted by angels. He felt required to try this new pleasure “Across the ratio range” which he told his commanding officer at the subsequent enquiry, had demanded the consumption of an entire bottle of “ holy nectar.”

He had been found standing in front of his mirror with his smooth and gentle cheeks, “As soft as doughnuts” as his wife would say, displaying an unusual redness of colour;  looking at his reflection and saying, “The name is Crab: Crababababa, then switching to “Crabuley, the Crabster, Crabunicious and other impressive variations when the Colonel in charge of ordinance paid him a surprise visit.  For reasons which were never fully explained he, Captain Crab, was wearing a ballet skirt.  Given his previous exemplary record, they decided to pretend he’d had a nervous breakdown and discharged him from the army on medical grounds with immediate effect.

His wife, who luckily never got the full story, was unsettled by his unscheduled appearance at their army lodgings, with the news that “I am retired with immediate effect” and that they would be moving, forthwith, to their holiday home at Belchering on Sea, which nestled in a small cove on the south coast.

He swore to avoid all contact with the JD and coke concoction, and returned to his normal habits apparently untouched by the abrupt ending to his career. His only problem, as it had always been, was explaining his record in the army. “Can’t say too much” and “Better not go there” normally sufficed with new acquaintances met through his wife’s sea-side hobby of thistle painting, or the weathered locals often found nestling in the corner of the bar at ‘The Reckless Gull” where he and the missus might seek refreshment after their Saturday shop.

Not everyone was satisfied with this elegant brush off unfortunately so he decided to reinvent himself as an artist. Here luck was with him, having been christened with the name “Cornelius,” Those of you with marketing pretensions can see immediately that, in the seaside environment, any painting signed with the name “Cornelius Crab” was bound to sell, just to have  that name on your wall when you returned to some boring dwelling deep inland and far from the coast where myths are created with every passing tide.

So well did he do at his new calling that he dropped the word Captain, and took to boasting that he never fired a shot in his entire army career. Surprisingly canny for one who spent most of his working life  in stationary, he realised that a hint of pacifism, combined with his army background,  revealed that inner turmoil which gives edge to the most casual artistic profile

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My One True Love

When I opened the door there was Jennifer, my lifetime’s love and all she said was “I made such a mistake back then,” and looking at her, all I saw was the love of my life, worshipped in eternity who I met at university and who passed me by as being too unworldly for her tastes.

In her eyes I saw the magic which always held me : the blend of arrogance and fear which draws men to their undoing.  I have been married to a woman who has tolerated my failings, as I have hers, for many years, and together we are blessed. but she was never the object of my dreams

“Who is that” shouted out my loyal one, and I lied “Just some salesman” as I indicated to my lover with my hands that I would be with her in five minutes.

Sure enough, shortly afterwards I shouted out I was off for my coffee which I enjoy every Saturday: for the first time in thirty-five years, my heart was filled with turmoil and deceit.

 There she was at the end of the road, arms outstretched and waiting for my embrace: seeking for that reservoir of understanding I offered her so freely in my student years. Yes I did return that embrace: I could not help myself, and immediately she sought my hand with hers as we walked off to the park but I am not unknown in this area and reticence saved me.

My wife is not my dream but she is my friend, my dearest friend: my most precious friend and in the eyes of this woman, who I sought to make my own in those days when the world was mine to conquer, I saw nothing but hunger and chaos. Stepping back I said, “I will always love you Jennifer but we made our choices and I was not yours” before turning on my heels and returning home.

As I opened the door my wife was standing at the foot of the stairs saying, “That was a quick one”  but her eyes asked more questions than her words. Betrayal, I realised, need only last a moment to cast it’s shadow for eternity.

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Reaching An Understanding

Our courtship was built on a meeting in Hawaii where we were both on holiday, and we discovered we both lived in the same city. “Is this fate?” she asked, and I just nodded my head and leant to kiss her: our first kiss. I called her my ‘Guardian Angel,’ sent to save me from myself, and she sort of laughed in that indulgent way people do when they think you get them.

Sunsets, starlight, euphoria: those things have got a lot to answer for, because that is not where marriages find out if they will work, but none the less that is where we decided we were made for each other and we got married, just at the end of our vacation and a day before we were due to fly back to London.

She was the answer to my prayers I told myself. A beautiful girl, but homely and able to laugh at herself, but with just that edge of magic which keeps you guessing and lets you swallow the hook so deep that when she tugs the rod you feel the pull from the centre of your being and the miracle is, she doesn’t even know she’s fishing. I found out later that she does it anyway, to any man she meets, but perhaps the extra magic of the Island made her think this was the deal: the moment in her life when she discovered herself: it was for me and I have the certificate to prove it. A fact I reflected on when she began to talk about herself.

“As a young girl” she said, “I learnt about terror. I mean really learnt. The knowledge you are at the mercy of something pitiless and dark for whom your cries are the icing on the cake. “My uncle would threaten me but never touch me, so there was nothing to see if anyone asked, but his look alone could burn deep within my soul,” and what man couldn’t be moved by her outpourings.” It seemed a bit indistinct, but her tears were real enough and of course I went and put my arms round her and she looked up at me and said, “You make me feel safe” and who wouldn’t melt under that statement; except later on I learnt she had a way with creating dramas and didn’t actually have an uncle: three aunts and a vivid imagination but no uncle.

Those people who can be anyone you want to meet are the most dangerous people you can discover because they don’t know who they are themselves, but they know you are a stage on which they must play a part. She could do lots of things well, but not for themselves but just because they made the current “Her” more convincing.

I kept her this side of sane by taking everything she told me to be real and the truth, and thus I never threatened her, and in protecting her found I must love her because without someone like me she really would be lost. She was, in more ways than I can ever describe, my own creation, and protecting her fragile entity became my whole life’s work. 

She was loyal in her way and always seemed well-meaning. None of us are entirely real are we? We are all partly a figment of someone’s imagination and sometimes of our own. I think my darling just took that to extremes and I rescued her. I think that’s what it was.

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That Moment !

I’m an “In between engagements” kind of guy who has taken many jobs to keep the world from taking too much interest in his lack of circumstance. I am still seeking my calling, my destiny, the true expression of myself while passing the time by becoming friends with many occupations which some describe as “An insult to your abilities” without truly defining what those abilities might be.

A turn of phrase perhaps, and one or two observations about the frailty of the ego which draw occasional interest from people who have led a more directed life than I. So it was with Jane, a noted business guru who I met while I was cleaning her room as part of my job as a staff member at a conference hotel in Switzerland. She surprised me by coming into her room when I presumed professional duties would have demanded her attention elsewhere.

She seemed on edge and anxious to engage someone, anyone, me it seemed, in conversation and we got to talking, crazily, intimately, as if we were equals, and I had no idea what was on her mind but in this room, and alone in this space, your last phrase or observation was all you were judged by and, somehow, in that sphere, I garnered her respect. “When you end your shift come back to me” she implored, and I said I could not, but she said, if I wanted to I would find a way and to look at her, competent and fragile, strong yet challenged  by endless doubts, I found myself too weak to refuse. 

Perhaps this was the start of something; some preordained connection touched by angels. At the very least my head was turned so, three hours later, there I was at her door, and she was opening it dressed in very little and already offering up a glass of wine.

We kissed of course, crazily, as if some force larger than ourselves had made us puppets and briefly I was swept up in some  magical existence. Later, exhausted from our physical activities we faced each other across the bed, and now she was naked in that careless way which says “We have no secrets now” but of course we always do. I remember my father, perhaps unwisely, saying to me while he was staring out of the window and holding a large whisky in his hand, not his first, “If a women is good at sex she’s often bad at life: approach with caution” and his words came back to haunt me as I raised my eyes to hers and saw that almost drunk sense of euphoria found in those who think destiny has raised a chalice to their lips.

Having paid for my attention with herself she told me about her life: her controlling parents who wanted her always to excel, her husband, “That useless lump,” who worked as a “Life coach” on some disregarded magazine and then the woes and regrets with which she’d packed her life until she seemed almost sobbing with anguish and dispair. “You are so wise” she said, “Why do you live like this?” and sadly she was not the first to make that observation, but I nodded and said, “Every life is perplexing when you get too close to it” and so we talked on and she shared her private chaos until, scared at last, I said I’d better be off or my wife would wonder where I was: perhaps that was a reckless thing to say.

In an instant she became another woman: one who looked at me with arrogant distaste. “Another married player are we! Another cheat!?” Suddenly her voice was full of venom, perhaps forgetting that she herself was married. I dressed as quickly as I could and hurried down the corridor and then the staff stairways but still there was Jennifer, the senior house-keeper, smirking in her usual unsettling manner and saying, “The manager wants to see you,” and I knew that once again I had been the source of my own undoing.

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