No 165 - 2001
There was something vacated about their eyes that summer. Something haunted and empty. A distance few others could focus on. What it meant, this emptiness, this distance, no one understood at the time, least of all themselves. They came to understand it though, much later, lingering over the few photographs which remained like scattered fragments of a rail collision, trying to piece it all together, what it all meant. By then it was too late; too late to do anything about it. That summer, they’d been engulfed by a rainy season and had elected to leave it all behind. They thought that the sunshine would replenish them. They thought it could re-light their very souls. They thought it might turn them into someone new. They thought lots of things back then.
An expressionless waiting lounge, his face in close-up: something extreme in his eyes giving him the appearance of having been in a coma for quite some time. Beyond the glass a fat-necked storm shook the trees and mussed the angry hairstyles of the men on the tarmac. Anxiously watching, neither spoke of it. Some time later, the two of them in flight: Harriet clinging to an article about adultery in Cosmopolitan, Harris contemplating the void outside. What was really out there, he thought, out in the impenetrable canopy of darkness? He couldn’t say and above their heads the lights dimmed and flickered momentarily, then dimmed and flickered, and dimmed and flickered some more. A rush of music came flooding through their earphones: Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, cross-fading into The Eagles with Hotel California.
The landing itself a great relief.
An elegiac act of aural mercy killing.
The transaction of arrival in an undistinguished airport terminal: over her shoulder a blank zone of urban submission, the happiness in her eyes shaded, disguised at this point. They had arrived at an airport just as ambivalent as the one they had left. On foreign tarmac Harris found himself where he often imagined he wanted to be. But why didn’t it feel like he thought it would? He wondered, the tarmac hardening beneath his feet. Why didn’t it really feel like anything? Moving like TV dancers through passport control, somebody obtuse asked them: “What is the object of your visit?” Harris quietly considered the question for the remainder of the day, never remotely getting close to a satisfactory answer.
Captured frowning in a hard-edged bathroom interior, his cold uncertainty languishing on the tiled floor. The white marble of the Hotel Tropicalia clean and well scrubbed. Gleaming like a small palace in the moonlit bathroom, Harris pissed loudly against the marble, a scorpion life form scuttling across his shoes like the surface of an entirely different planet.
But he didn’t flinch.
He continued to piss like a King.
Their room, 2006, was large and white: it held a bed, a table, two chairs. A white piano stood by the window. Was this standard hotel practise, a white piano by the window like that? The walls were bare except for a large ivory cross and a picture hung opposite the foot of the bed: a painting of a narrow market street leading down onto a cobbled avenue where two empty doorways beckoned out to you. Like you could actually step through the texture of the canvas into the painting and walk through those doorways and find a flaming bar and an exotic barman waiting to serve you a smiling cocktail.
Harriet was at the window now, looking out at the view.
This view; was it Harriet’s alone or his too? There was something that mesmerised the two of them about the view from the balcony. They both stood dead still staring out at the pool and the tall expanse of white apartments, their low flat roofs pierced by satellite dishes and aerials; the ground studded with thick palm trees, some short and squat like huge grenades, others tall and thin and jammed hard into the earth like the gigantic spears of an over-sized native race.
The sound of waves came crashing in like low flying aircraft.
Informal shots of the pool and other unidentified idiot pool people, looking unusually relaxed in the bright informality of the pool, each consumed by a false sense of time and space. Somewhere in the deep yawning shade, morning sunbathers began to arrive before the sun could finish its black coffee and really catch fire. A pot-bellied Speedo man strode purposefully onto the poolside, placing his hands on his hips like somebody that owned the place, or at the very least thought they did. Out in the distance, the purest blue sea and an expanse of golden beach winding absent-mindedly around the coastline.
They sat beside the pool like prisoners of the sun, the two of them.
Around the edge a parade of free breasts, each sagging like cold chicken. Harris half-turned away, sickened, his back burning in the relentless sunlight. Some tiny costumes filled by children splashed about in the blueness of the pool. Impassive wives sat bored on flat loungers, their smoking husbands not talking, gorging on yesterday’s newspapers. A flailing middle-aged man sang I’m Not In Love breezily, pulling himself up and out of the water. As the man slid himself onto the floral concrete Harris noticed one of his legs was half-missing, ending at a thick knotty knee, a premature stump. Harriet was too distracted to notice, entangled in the last minute paperback she picked up at the airport: Things Fall Apart.
“I can’t believe we even made it here,” she said, lowering her Achebe a moment. Harris agreed, but said nothing verbally, indicating his agreement by murmuring generally, a generic mumble meaning nothing in particular. Harriet returned her Achebe to eye level again and settled in a comfortable half-upright posture, oblivious to a menagerie of large Italians and the unnatural confidence swelling in their posing pouches.
Harris lay watching them, frozen, haunted by the strange hooded woman who had reached out to him in the night amidst the frenzied casbah of a dream, her words(1) like a lizard’s tongue seeping into the bones of his face, echoing there still in the bowdlerising sunlight.
The dead town coming alive in a variety of blurred guises: a confusion of drunken expressions; their eyes glazed, temporarily becalmed in shabby bars and narrow streets. That evening they first hit town laughing audibly in the neon. An old sign read MIKES BAR, blinking fitfully. Somehow the glaring amusement of the grammatical error thrilled them and a grey bullish man with dense game show hair (who Harris guessed to be the eponymous Mike himself) drew them down into black swivel leather, gesticulating masterfully. Seated, Harris saw that the four walls of the bar were carpeted luxuriantly. Beneath the murmur of the sultry evening he failed to understand why. Also the oddly uncontemporary music of the place confused him, but he worked hard at putting it out of his mind.
“Who is this? Your lovely wife?” the eponymous Mike sang. “Are you married? If you want to marry here, I will pay for the wedding!”
Harris knew these words were false, but laughed anyway because he found the words amusing. Words were just words he knew, but some words were more emotionally affecting than others. Others were more amusing.
Harriet was laughing also.
She was wearing a black cocktail dress he had never seen before. Over on the bar mirror behind her hung a poster advertising something called KARMA WATER. It showed a naked girl half-hidden by some mist that rose up from the jungle spring beneath her feet. The photographer had obviously taken a great deal of care in capturing her natural beauty. Her long thin nipples stuck out like tiny red hats.
The top of the hill oddly disassociated, looking down from her perspective: a night view of the town as absolute ambivalence. Back up in the encroaching darkness, before reaching the hotel, the two of them stopped walking to look out at the sea and the lights and the stars. Like a clatter from over their heads came the uncultured squawking of some large unrecognisable birds, strange ragged creatures circling above them, dancing a technically accomplished mid-air ballet, huge overgrown ravens with the faces of rats surgically grafted onto their heads by US army base scientists. Like symbols of dark portent winging, overshadowing.
Fifty feet high with the sky narcissistic around him, his feet dangling above the simple geometry of the beachscape, crowded below. Harris in mid air the next day: the naked sand leaving the balls of his burning feet as he took to the sky like he was born to do such things. He scythed higher and higher, his fear mixing with excitement like an experimental cocktail. Below him, the beach receded into the distance. People got smaller and smaller. A woman in a red bikini disappeared like she had never even existed in the first place. He was up up in the blue like a bird, the sea washing and foaming wildly beneath him. In terms of trajectory and weight and gravity and physics, it seemed improbable, but here he was: flying, the air whip-lashing his skin, gliding so easily above everybody else it made him feel like a King must feel. Like a King must feel. Like a King.
Foreplay on the veranda: a fragmentary love scene, the mocked-up language of her body and legs in erotic tableau, not yet naked. Shifting his weight from one buttock to the other, he surveyed her uncovered body with the detachment of a cartographer mapping a strange land’s curving contours and shallow estuaries, probing the darkness of her navel, moving across the smooth marble of her belly into richer and more verdant turf-like territory. She twisted to his every touch like literary sex, their nostrils flaring with the aroma of remote Cornish fishing villages. Imperiously, he cupped one hand underneath her, then lifted as far as he was able until he could physically drink from her pelvis like a scrumptious vaginal chalice. What was extraordinary was the shortness of time that it took for them almost simultaneously to satisfy themselves...
Harriet first, by the margin of a full thirty seconds...
Screaming. Her guttural shouts underscored by a deeper squeal of pain. If anyone could hear them, it occurred to Harris, they might think he was cutting her open with a serrated knife... thrusting his hips again at greater speed, harder and harder, stopping abruptly and holding himself still for a moment. He felt like Superman. He felt like the King of the Hill. He felt like the King of everything and anything. The King of whatever he pleased. He began once more. The King began again. The King was moving slowly at first, swinging his hips in a perfect, languid rhythm. The King was in control. The King was thrusting now. The King was picking up the pace. The King was thrusting faster and faster. The King was thrusting so fast, so hard it felt like he was thrusting into thin air.
A nervous series of arabesque landscapes: barren frames, unpopulated and neutral like a zone of pure nothingness. Thrown backwards and forwards like showroom dummies. Two hostages adopting various postures of torture: the pain of the great British tourist travelling abroad. Grimly, Harris continued and clung on to the coach window, absorbing the barren landscape they were being spirited across, somewhere at the front an antiquated woman narrating the maladjusted social and political history of the place into a microphone.
Not listening. Eyes juggling irregular rock formations. Harris suddenly perceiving a new scene, another, as compulsive as any documentary about unusual sex acts: a badly crushed car, an over-turned Mini crumpled into the side of an erratic cliff, with the coach slowing down to a funereal pace, passing passing passing...
“Oh dear,” the guide saying. “Oh no. Look. There’s been an accident.”
The police already present, waving traffic on, comforting a young darkhaired girl sitting up on the road, the front of her pink dress smeared, her eyes glassy with blood. Near her, the body of a young man face down on the tarmac, not moving, covered utterly with his own blood. “Well,” the guide saying. “This is why you should never drive so fast on these roads as they are particularly treacherous. But I think the girl is okay. She is sitting up at least...”
The young man not moving, the coach silent for a moment. His eyes drawn back, Harris turned and twisted and thought and thought, the thought causing him some disquiet, some distress, but thinking it anyway thinking he could see a boom mike craning into shot, uneasily, and... a little way off in the distance... a film crew shooting the scene, re-shooting the scene, the actor playing the dead boy getting up... the director going over... issuing him with terse new instructions... the actor sipping thoughtfully from a plastic cup... trudging back and lying down... resuming his position... the clapper board raised... then nothing: the coach swung round a bend, killing his view with solid rock. Impacted.
A courtyard silent as a morgue: within it, the two of them glacial and smiling towards the lens, emotions bloodied, desires hidden, their arms wrapped casually around the contours of a belly dancer. How he wished he was dead in the ground: dead and buried and gone forever, the belly dancer slipping her arms around them both, a smile-grimace frozen over his face. Like he was unaccustomed to smiling, or at least hadn’t done so in a very long time. Looking dead ahead, the young dancer’s hand rested softly on the vast protuberance of loose flesh bunching up around his hip. A grinning ape-like photographer waving at them now.
“Isn’t she beautiful,” whispered Harriet and Harris resented the whisper.
The last thing he wanted was to be photographed with a beautiful belly dancer. The photograph would mock him. Every time he looked at the photograph the beautiful smile on the beautiful face of the beautiful belly dancer would say: Never will you taste my vulva or caress the scent glands around my anus. Never will you kiss my knees or elbows. Never will you suckle at my bountiful breast and trace the tender skin bruised by the wire of my brassiere. Never will you run your tongue around my oyster-scented navel. Never will you thrust your mouth into my dampened armpits. Never will you press your cheeks against my pubis. Never will you part my fruit-flavoured labia with your nose. Never will you savour my ovum on your lips. Never will you watch me masturbate calmly, as I hold your penis, shuddering myself to a furious climax. These things are just not going to happen. Harris slung his arm around the belly dancer’s waist, the ape-like photographer firing off two rapid shots.
Fundamental misgivings exposed side by side at the feast, polished expressions obscenely inorganic, postured like mannequins, emptiness and fear written through their fragmenting eyes. Harris poured again and said nothing. Across the long wooden table, a nightmare reflection direct: a twittering couple: a silent man opposite Harris, a loquacious woman opposite Harriet. Decades and decades older... the yawning decades between them like the table, only not as tangible. She an American(2) in pink, he an Englishman(3) in tweed. On the coach Harris had overheard their local observations about wry fauna, Harriet making obscene cracks about their clothes, hairstyles, sexual preferences: quite unrepeatable in this new polite social context. Now in the dusk and rosy hue, weird soup slurped into deep brown bowls, they smiled: tried to be engaging, likeable even - was that possible?
Harriet coped, because cope she always could.
Harris gagged mournfully, a mouthful of soup wriggling across his tongue like lukewarm spermatozoon. Shot through, he coughed and choked and spluttered on the bloodshot sunset: a fading man stricken with emphysema, Harriet refusing even to touch her bowl as a consequence, pushing it away from her, towards him. At that moment he would have surely killed for a Mexican TV dinner.
The loud American woman was talking artfully about the soup and local customs and about the way the soup may have been made and about what ingredients were possibly in the soup. Harris said nothing. He couldn’t hold conversations like this. Why did people talk like this? What did they gain from it? For whom was it fun? Idiots, perhaps? Harris didn’t ever want to end up like these people. He didn’t even want to know these people.
Who were these people?
“We’re the Lakes,” said the English man and extended a hand towards him. For a moment, Harris just stared at the hand like he didn’t know what it was or what he was supposed to do with it. He contemplated the hand warily, dispassionately, like a priceless piece of objet d’art: flesh sagging, withered, and wrinkled like dried fruit, but crafted that way for the aesthetic purpose of a great modern artist.
Then he shook it.
(1) “ Beware the lakes, young man. For once they have you, they will pull you under and never let go...”
(2) She looked like a tall, dried-out sub-platinum Doris Day blonde. Well-groomed, immaculately madeup, she exuded the sort of self-conviction that suggested she originally emanated from some uppermiddle class background, a wealthy suburban upbringing somewhere in America; Baltimore, she said and began discussing the latest neo-Buddhist art she had brought back from Tibet last Summer.
(3) He looked... well, how did he look?: a stooping figure with stone-washed hair, early 60s, taller than most his age, yielding a distinguished easy-going confidence, a seeping JG Ballard demeanour that could only have risen from an expensive private education or possibly a military or naval career. Harris was disappointed with his attempted description. It didn't capture him at all; his essence eluded him stoutly. How could he define his presence more effectively? Should he even try? Did it really matter? Did he really have to? The silver streaks in his hair caught the dying sun, in a manner of speaking, sparkling the way precious stones must do, a thick wave of his cigar smoke (yes, he was smoking a cigar, he hadn't noticed that at first) clotting the air, the richly burnished aroma of the smoke reminding him of - of what? The beach? The ocean? The seaside? Wearing short trousers and being a small boy?
Howard Tinker was the product of an impromtu jam session between Tony Meehan and former Shadow Jet Harris. He can be found prostituting his art at www.hptinker.com. His wife and four children don’t return his calls. He lives in Dudley.
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