Thursday, August 24, 2006

Photos From The Attic - Part Two

Part One of this story can be found here.

I travel light, just a rucksack with a change of clothes and a few personal belongings. I don't need much; out on the road I can pick up lifts in cars; thumb out, watching as the red tail lights brighten in the nanosecond they caught my intention, the car's back end fish-tailing slightly as the driver brakes harder than necessary. I never hurry, just keep the same pace and then I'll be level with the driver - they ask the same questions: where you going? What's your name? How long you been waiting for a lift? I say nothing, beyond my final destination. They usually counter with something about 'quiet one' and 'suit yourself'.

I slump. I've got things to think about: the tape; the photo, now worn at the edges where a hundred fingers have toyed with it, turning it in greasy palms and rough skin; how I'm going to get to the bottom of my Grandad's story. There has to be answers, things he took to his grave. I just need to figure them out, which is difficult with the whining of this nasally prick sat next to me. I can't forgive him the notion that he's driving me across the country. I need to get out.

Drop me here, I say.

A glance. He sees I am telling, not asking. Sometimes you got to be direct.

There is a crunch as my boots meet the gravel that lines the side of the highway. I nod at the driver and he moves off, giving me the finger as soon as he's put his foot on the gas. I ignore him and walk, thumb out awaiting the next lift. I'm waiting for the right person to pick me up, someone that will let me be, or someone that talks non-stop but asks no questions of me. I'm not in a talkative mood. I take the photo from my shirt pocket and study it as I trudge on through the stumps of grey grass that punctuate the gravel every ten feet or so. The sky melts into the horizon, shimmering as the heat of the day reaches its hottest point, the tarmac bubbling slightly, tyre tracks faintly visible on the highway.

I stop, take the rucksack from my back, no longer a human snail; digging inside I retrieve the bottle of water, slightly warm from my body heat and drink before my thirst makes itself known. I'm immersed in the drink and the photo, so much that I don't hear the car until it's pulled up alongside me and the driver leans out, offering me the vacant seat. They only gesture, not voice. My kind of lift. I get in, silent also, place my rucksack on the back seat, the photo on the dashboard. The door closes by itself as my new chauffeur hits the gas, a slight hint of smoke off the back wheels. I don't even look at him; somehow I know he's heading towards Johnson's town: Johnson is the second person from the left, his arm held slack against my Grandad's shoulder, his teeth yellowed from smoking. I don't know if he's alive, if he's mentally stable. He was the only survivor, aside from my Gramps, and I calculate that he's in his eighties, maybe his nineties. He's old, that much I can guess at, surmise.

The next thing I know it's dark and there is rain streaming down the windshield. I am alone. Panicking, I look about me - my rucksack is still nestled in the back; it looks untouched. The photo is still there, but attached is one of those sticky notes. I peel it off and read:

We arrived, I couldn't wake you. Person you looking for lives here, number 30 Main Street. I leave in three days if you want a lift to the coast.

No name, no sign of anyone. All I know is I'm somehow at my destination, that I am on Main Street.

I grab my rucksack, open the car door and step out on to the waterlogged road, my boots slurping in the inch of mud. I begin to walk towards Johnson's house; it's easy to find, the only one on the block that's in need of a paint, that looks like an old person's abode. Dilapidated, gate broken, weeds that tower over my head; some of the windows have been broken by stones, possibly by the local kids, and have been boarded up by amateur hands. The door is falling apart, as rotten as Hitler's heart. I almost daren't knock, in case it falls into matchwood, into jagged splinters that might dig into my hands, may draw blood.

I have no need. From inside comes a voice, thick with drink, or drugs, a voice that seems to know who I am, why I'm here and knows that I'm looking for the answers that have eluded me for many years. It is a voice that has promise - the promise that I will find out what happened out there, what happened to my Gramps, what made him withdraw.


This story is continued here

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Photos From The Attic - Part One

C'mon Grandad, the tape's running.

Yep yeah, okay. How does you know that things is recording? How can you tell, like, it's a comp-pooter and there ain't know tape inside it? What if I be telling you all this and then you suddenly discover that this comp-pooter things ain't doing what you thinking it was?

Trust me, Gramps, it's taking down every word. Once you’ve done it I can play it back to you, so you know for sure it's doing its job. Now, tell me more about this photo I found in the attic, please.

Yep yeah, okay. Are you really sure?

Look, let me rewind it, then you...

C'mon Grandad, the tape's running.

Yep yeah, okay. How does you know that things is recording? How can you tell, like, it's a comp-pooter and there ain't know tape inside it? What if I be telling you all this and then you suddenly discover that this comp-pooter things ain't doing what you thinking it was?

Trust me, Gramps, it’s taking down ever...

There, are you happy now, Gramps?

Yep yeah, okay. I believe you. I think. Well, let me see now, give us here that photo, boy, and I’ll be telling you about that time. A dark time it was.

Why was it dark, Grandad?

Yep yeah, okay. Let me tell this story, son. You want to get them there good marks in your school class, don't ya? I see that head a-nodding, but I want to hear you say it to me Billy.

Yes, Gramps, I want to do well at school.

Hmmm. Good to hear that, Billy, good to hear that. Now, back to that photo. Yep yeah, okay, I recall that day clear as a bell. That there is Jack Marriott, him’s Johnson, I forget his first name; the one on the far right we called Skipper, on account of his father being in the Merchant Navy and that there is me. A lot younger then, yep yeah, sure was. I can't remember who took that shot, but I can place it.

I was twenty-three, just turned it, when I was called up. Serve my country – something you won't have to do lad, something you don't want to have to go through. Made me the man I am today.

In what way?

Yep yeah, okay, don't be in-rupting me now! Where was I? Yep yeah, okay, I recall where we were hiding out when this was taken. It's difficult to make out, but this is the back of a jeep, the green camo-flarge cloth acting like a second skin, a barry-er 'tween us and the...

Looking back now, I wonder how he survived, what he must have been through. Mother always said that if you could look her father in the eye you’d never recover from the horrors reflected in them. I used to avoid looking, pushing my eyes to the floor when he engaged me. I keep rewinding the tape, listening to the way he started every sentence with a "Yep yeah, okay", how he spoke in his own distinct way. His choices for the pronunciation of words – comp-pooter, for example – made him sound like a Slavic immigrant or a child. I think he used it as a hiding place, to give an impression of his "lame-brainedness" (mother’s term) or "stupidity" (his step-wife's term; affectionate I'm sure) so that he wouldn't have to relive those sickening shocking experiences, be asked about them. Yep yeah, okay: protective, defensive; collusion between my Grandad and his brain, a safety feature of his human psyche. He never trusted again. Let down once, didn’t want to be burned again, to be scarred, let down and failed. It's all there in his speech, relayed all those years ago for my school project.

Yep yeah, okay – my Grandfather's safety net.

... the back of a jeep, the green camo-flarge cloth acting like a second skin, a barry-er 'tween us and the enemy. We felt protected by it, even though we knew that it could be compromide, that it wasn’t going to stop the dark hand of death from laying them bony fingers on our shoulders, should time come. Yep yeah, okay. Which it did, later. This photo, taken just before, moments it was. I'm suprised it's endourred, given the force we experients; the shaking, the battering of stones against our skulls and dirt showering us from all directions. That's why I’m deaf in he...

I think of him at that moment, animated by his memories. I was fourteen when I made that tape. It's as if it were yesterday; the bees lazily bumbling past my ears as we sat by the flower-beds, their humming like static on the recording. I was using my old computer, some kind of grey, faceless box, which to my Gramps was like something out of a science fiction novel; to me it's dated, old media – clunky and heavy like the caresses of an young, unskilled boy upon a woman's breast. There had to be more going on behind those eyes I avoided than anyone knew, there simply has to be.

I look at the photograph from the attic, stare at it intently, yet I still cannot plumb the depths of my Grandad's thoughts, to see what he saw. To me it's four smiling men, huddled together, displaying a camaraderie that isn’t forced. There is genuine love captured here. It's the same love that you can pick up on as Grandad's voice overflows from the tinny speakers of my portable player. What I don't know is how it came to be that only two of them returned from the war. They were meant to be away from the front, just learning the ropes.

I know that, had the tape survived the past years and not been damaged by rain, the slightly acidic water pouring through a hole in the roof tiles – thankfully not spoiling the faint photographs contained within a cardboard box stored only feet away from the deluge – then we might have known more. Perhaps.

What I struggle with most is that I can't remember anything he told me that day. Not one single word of it.

This story is continued here

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lights, Camera, Action

Steve is telling us his story.

He's quiet spoken, his manner, pensive.
Lines crease his forehead as he thinks, as he articulates exactly what happened, how he ended up sitting at the side of the road, the four heads of his family splattered like watermelons back at his home while he rocked back and forth, whimpering like a puppy, tears streaming down his face.

He says he has no recollection of events, no ideas how he came to be sitting on the overpass, how he came to have four pints of blood splashed on this clothes, yet no discernible wounds; some sort of amnesia, we get to thinking, perhaps selective on account of the trauma.

It's not unheard of. People blot stuff out, erase it from the mind when it becomes too much to handle, too difficult to store for long periods of time; it's volatile, inflammable.

Steve is being capricious. The Doc says he's had a bang on the head, even though he can't find any puncture wounds, no bruising. Even the Doc admits he's not seen anything like it in almost 30 years of work. Never. It's unprecedented. So the Doc says.

I find myself almost hypnotised by Steve's drawl, the way he hangs on certain vowels. I watch as his mouth twists, the left-hand side lifting, streaking lines across his face. His eyes are darting, occasionally stopping like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Usually when we show him the photos. He stops, works stuck in his throat, choking him like chicken bones. No one goes to help. We all watch, transfixed. He turns red, raspberry, beetroot, blackberry. A slap brings him out of it, the mark of my hand tattooed on his cheek, a slime of blood smeared from lip to ear. He continues his story, the same as before:


I have to believe him.

I stand, the orange plastic chair tacked to the backs of my knees scraping its metal legs against the concrete floor as I straighten up. We've all had enough, especially Steve. Our eyes lock; his pleading, mine judging. It's stalemate. I leave the room, I need air.

I re-enter. Steve is telling us his story. His manner is quiet, pensive. His voice, ditto. I look about for a chair: take the plastic, orange-coloured monstrosity, scarred with a million cigarette burns, spillages of coffee, of unknown fluids. I look at Steve as I place the four spindles of metal on the floor, teeth gritted as the scraping plugs the flow of words mumbling, tumbling from Steve's mouth. I nod. Steve carries on, telling us his story.

I look about. Paint peeling, blue shards undulating in the breeze of the desk-top fan that sits on the Formica table in front of me, the barrier that separates me from Steve. I can hear him. Donotknowdonotknow. A keening whisper, a sound that will haunt me. I have to believe him. He says he has no recollection. It's not unheard of.

I write down the events as they currently stand, throwing paper in front of the fan so it blows into Steve's face. He stops, shock painting his face, powdering it white, ghost-like. It's a technique, to wake them, to shock them.

Them = person + guilt.

Hands dug deep into my faded 501s, shirt tails flapping as the fan oscillates towards me. I stare. I know of people who blot things out, erase them; they are too much to contemplate, to replay like the Super 8 cine films of our youth. They can't be stored for long periods of time; they're volatile, thrashing about, verbally. It's the trauma; it has a medical name just so the courts can apportion blame, costs, damages.

I stand, quickly. The chair scrapes on the floor. Steve winces. I wink at him, tell him it's time for a cup of tea, for a break; it's a chance for him to remember, to recall, to reminisce.

I leave the room. I need air.

I can hear Steve, telling us his story, but now his voice is muffled by the chipboard door, its surface littered with the scars of so many confessions and a good deal of frustration. I need air.

I re-enter. Steve is silent. No one is asking him questions. All eyes are on the tape recorder, the old, battered tape recorder; it had been mine, when I was growing up, when I wanted to be a singer and I recorded myself tunelessly bawling out the hits of the Jackson 5. I wanted to be black. If I'd known what I know now, I'd have written to Michael - hey, Mikey, wanna change colour now? And gender?

I wipe these thoughts from my head. Concentrate, I say to myself; over-and-over: mantra number one. I reach over towards Steve, see his eyes flinch, his head involuntarily jerk backwards, as if I were about to hurt him. It's a sign; the first. He is remembering. Wrist flicks, tape turns. Recording, the red light indicates. I pick up a piece of the paper on which the events are documented. I look for another sign that he remembers.

I can hear Steve telling us his real story. His confession is coming out like a bullied schoolboy who's decided it's better to come clean than to be beaten for being different: I know he's holding something back. I stare, he stops. It's a technique, to wake them, to shock them. The red light is on, it's a focus.

I stand. Steve is shouting now, wanting to unburden himself of his crimes, telling us how he shot his wife, his kids. He shows remorse, wants to right the wrong. I tell him I don't believe him, that he doesn't look like the kind of man that could pull off such a crime, wouldn't be able to squeeze his pinky around the cold steel of the gun's butt, his index finger curled like a cat around feet feeling the trigger, feeling the tightness.

You are nothing,
I say.

He starts to cry again, head buried in his hands. I see the red light on the tape recorder, that little LED shining, the colour of the blood oozing from Steve's family in the photographs.

I need air.

I can hear Steve telling us his story, wailing his confession through the concrete walls, through the steel door, through the vacuum of his nightmare. I bring to mind Steve's features, the way the skin pleats on his forehead when I show him the photos, the four heads of his family, their blood sprayed like graffiti on a billboard, bathing him in a scarlet rain. He shakes when I tell him how he was found rocking back and forth, whimpering like a child locked in the dark and dust beneath the stairs or chased by an imaginary monster from under the bed. How there were hot, stinging tears caressing his face, bringing a blush to his cheeks.

I pull open the door, the strength of my entry stopping Steve's tears, the only sound is his snot being snuffled back into his sinuses every few beats of his heart. His eyes, wet, as expectant as a mother with her swollen belly cupped in her arms, they stare at me, hopeful.

I'm sorry Steve
I say
You've not made it this time. Please can you leave the set now.

Thank you
He replies
Calm now, the acting over.
Thank you for the opportunity.

I call him back.
Get your teeth fixed.

I shout.

I need air.