The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 1 : Sleep Walking
Welcome to Naked Word Radio
And part the first in a collection of thoughts, realities and observations of life as a human, in particular, this human, speaking to you now, Peter Ball. This series of broadcasts will relate the Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart. How said heart lay undiscovered in a dark and lonely recess of the spirit, the spark that woke it up, and the inspiration that followed to make an odyssey from head to heart.
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 1; Sleep-Walking
Timewise, it’s early 2013. I have slid and slithered into a state of comfort, cold comfort. The house I live in is neat, tidy, clean, undemanding. But creeping up on me is the sensation that I don’t have a life there. Well, not my life, my very own shape and shadow in the fabric of time. It dawns on me that I’m in the waiting room, those old-fashioned spaces that were to be found in railway stations. It’s like I’ve lent my life to some shallow entity with only a surface awareness of reality. A convenient window through which there are no challenges, no questions, other than what to have for supper, or shall I wear blue suede or tan leather boots with my gig trousers?
The days passed each other by, hardly pausing for thought, and I often found myself staring emptily at space, my focus drifting away. In this strange half-sight, my mind had no control, no ability to influence the course of events. I felt a sudden lucidity and a sense of liberation. Some hidden part of me soared in its new found freedom, and saw life from above the clouds. Back down to Earth and I realised, that for myself, I had rediscovered my ability to meditate.
Long chats with a very good friend had reminded me of the insights to be found, and relevant books, many of which had lain gathering the dust of despair on my bookshelves, reinforced their crucial nature. Meditation can require a special place, and I knew that I did not have one. At the west end of the house sat an empty room. Not of things, but of character. Cold, but not damp, occupying the depth of the house, from front to back, with wide sliding glass doors leading to the garden. I moved a few pieces of furniture around to find a clear sight to the colourful world outside, and sat upon a chair. As I mentally moved inside myself, I felt the room around me. It had sat here, waiting to be something, waiting to be an active part of the house, and I suddenly knew a slender sense of self. I realised that the room and I had something in common. No sense of belonging, to anything.
This room had somehow been denied an identity. Named, not by me, as the dining room, but far too cold and remote for such an existence, stranded as it was across the corridor that divided the old house from the new. Somehow, even though it was physically joined, it wasn’t psychically connected and was suffering from a lack of soul. Like attracts like, and so it was inevitable that my lost soul would find its way to another.
In a day or so I had engineered a not so subtle commandeering of this room. I set up my computer, piano, a tv. Rearranged my musical instruments from an untidy stack to a usable rack. I used the room, found its own emptiness and matched it with mine. In this dark, silent space danced a single flame. A tiny beacon of hope, pressed in on all sides by brooding clouds of black thought. This point of light drew me like a moth and fired my inspiration. I slowly filled the room with music, poetry and art. However, it was still impossible to feel truly at home in this room. I still felt a little like a pirate, stealing passage in someone else’s vessel.
In early 2015, it was the bolt out of the blue that gave me a rude awakening. A streak of lightning originating in the farthest reaches of our solar system. Pluto and Uranus, conspiring in a conjunction of profound change allied with complete surprise. Here on the ground, in fact, over supper, I heard, but barely registered the fateful sentence. ‘I think we should go our separate ways’. Suddenly the certainty of my life became withered and wasted, but I couldn’t tell if I felt liberated or devastated. Almost a score of years suddenly melting away, like ice in the sun. Am I the lost frost or the warming water? ‘I think we should go our separate ways’, this phrase bounced around my being, and of course forced me to re-examine my very existence. This naked truth left me bereft. The fabric and foundation of my life with my partner and her family was brutally revealed to me. Suddenly being able to view these relationships from outside made me realise that I had been tolerated but never welcomed. My head had hidden the truth that my heart had felt. How did I get to this place in space, this point in time?
Imagine a gentle hillside against a cobalt sky. No clouds, no breeze, only buzzards riding the thermals, almost beyond the reach of eyesight. The sun, noonday bright, haloes my eyes and bathes my skin. Close cropped emerald green turf caps the rounded top. To one side and just below the summit lies a shallow depression marked by a lichen-covered stone and lined with yellow ochre, gunmetal grey and moss green gravel. At the centre of this is a gentle uprising of clear water, refracting the sunlight and making the stones beneath seem to dance. A pool gathers, slowly filling the shallow basin until it finds the lowest edge and the water flows over, disappearing into the stones and finding its way back to the surface where the turf edge cuts across the gravel. Thirsty black soil, dark with ancient humus, absorbs the trickle, but begins to lose its structure as it softens. The water flow begins its long journey, sculpting the landscape, highlighting the natural contours but sometimes slicing, sometimes tumbling in freefall on its way to the great estuaries on the horizon.
I sit beside the source, no need to shade these inner eyes as I gaze at the far distance. I catch a glimpse of sun on the wide, ambling river it becomes, sleep-walking into the jaws of the ocean. My thoughts flow out, wandering to the farthest corners of my imagination, dancing to some external rhythm that I recognise but cannot name. Suddenly my mind is empty, hollow like a drum, and from beyond the silence I clearly hear a beat. My heartbeat. A mercurial ocean of all my thoughts contracts, pools together in a fluid block. I see it reflecting ideas, like light beams, from outside but those within are locked there. I see feelings, heartfelt notions about the life I live, trapped like birds in a cage. This cold liquid metal begins to take on the pulse of my heart, quicksilver trembling across its surface. From my deep-within view I see my heart locked in my head. I have hidden myself so well that I didn’t, until this moment, know that I was lost.
Later, days later, in fact, I’m nursing a mug of tea, sat looking out across the garden, still with much to reflect upon. I keep seeing my cold metal mental heart. It has become a life force in its’ own right, separated from me. I can see its insularity, I can feel its fear. It has retreated, made itself into an island fastness determined to survive, alone, at any cost. And here lies the rub, the cost, for only now am I beginning to realise the depth of my problem. As I rediscover the value of the contribution to life decisions that my heart can make, I find that I have locked it away, or, at the very least, allowed it to lock itself away. It’s as though there is a part of me with a will of its own, an innate desire to be in control regardless of any consideration. Steering me inexorably and inevitably towards a world with no heart, no intuition, no inner reference. No respect or indeed any interest in how I feel. In fact, I find I am having trouble having feelings at all. I have sleep-walked into the jaws of the ocean, just like the wide, ambling river. My feet drag in the estuaries of mud, the nutritious grindings gathered in the rivers ramblings, but they are not food for me, only a barrier to any progress.
I stand up from my view of the garden, my forgotten mug, perched on my knee falls and shatters on the floor. I pick up the pieces, no chance of mending this, and feel a little bleak. Hope still sits quietly in my mental and emotional background, but is turning a little hazy. How to find my heart, I must find my heart, I must hear my heart. A mantra for my time, in my minds eye I spin the prayer wheels, cast my thoughts to all the dimensions surrounding me, think of their endless overlapping and weaving and I know that through one of these portals, I will find what I seek. My odyssey has begun.
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 2 : Even My Secrets Have Secrets
Welcome to Naked Word Radio
And part the second of the Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart.
In which we cross borders and boundaries of the mind and body, countries and continents, the narrow sea, and treacherous sand banks beckon to secret harbours where little is known and less forgiven.
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 2: ‘Even my secrets have secrets’.
It’s the late twentieth century and I live 12 floors up on the city side of the Angel, Islington. No champagne socialists here! Once upon a time all the residents in these twenty two floors lived in rows of houses and enjoyed their street-level community. In and out of each other’s houses, cousins arguing trivia, neighbours sharing beers, boys kicking balls. Teenage lasses swopping boyfriend notes. Grandparents scowl, and sometimes smile, their love spread thin like marmite. Redevelopment has shattered this community, broken up its roots and replanted its’ people too far away from each other.
There’s a lonely corner of my soul that has never left rural reality. I was born in a city hospital, spent early years breathing the city spirit and its attendant airs, but, at the age of seven, I truly came alive the day we moved to an unadopted lane lost between Essex villages. Oak and elm trees stood sentinel over the track, the elm branches full of rooks, the twisting fingers of oak caressing the breezes and calming the gales. That first day I walked along the hedgerow and found a great scattering of beautiful little blue and white trumpets of flowers. They jostled amongst dark and shiny evergreen leaves, tumbling in the shade and threading up through the goose-grass and dead-nettles. I proudly presented a posy of these treasures to my mother and was rewarded with their name. ‘Periwinkle’, she said, tiny laugh lines crinkling the skin beside her eyes. A rare sight to me, as she always seemed to wear life so very seriously.
Childhood memory over. And now I’m firmly back in 90’s Islington. In this particularly long drawn out summer I gaze out across the cityscape, spy a solitary tree and decide to set out on foot to share its spirit. I plan to mentally tap into the ground beneath, reconnect with the soil soul of the city, and share energy with this lonely outpost of tangible nature. I know it to be a sycamore, not always a gardener’s best friend but a tree nevertheless, with a life to live, leaves to shed and sticky buds to be born, ready to harbour next years growth through the winter. The dry dusty concrete paving slabs resound dully in the baking sun as my footsteps pace down the seemingly endless avenues of still elegant town houses. By a curious coincidence I find myself passing the Island Queen, a London bar of some splendour, its serving area central and available on all sides. With a reputation for a decently cynical view of the world, and politics in particular, pub sculpture includes giant Spitting Image style puppet heads. Huge gilt-edged mirrors frame every drink that is drunk and reflect the vanities of the numerous actors and musicians who unwind here. On this particular day, conversation and alcohol divert my attention and the tree becomes a flickering figment of my imagination. And I haven’t yet met all my bar-fly friends; there is still a plethora of drinking dens to negotiate, the Black Boy, the Three Hats, and the Pied Bull. I know, with no shadow of doubt, that it will be dark , even on this summer evening, by the time I get to the tree. Communing with nature by baleful sulphur yellow streetlamp does not have the same inspiration, and gradually my determination disappears, as does the drink. All too often my best intentions are marked by the succession of wet glass ring-marks lazily drying on the table.
It’s yet another nearly hangover day, they pass each other in a slow and methodical pursuit, as if unsure of which comes first, the drink or the after-effects. Today, there’s a faint trace of autumn in the air and perched up in my eyrie, peering out of the grubby windows, September does arrive. The summer suddenly breaks and autumn storms in. I must make a move, I have sat here, lost to time, waiting for the phone. Sometimes I truly believe this is the worst part of my life as a smuggler. Added to that, an adrenaline freak waiting for something to happen is a contradiction in terms. Suddenly I am startled out of silence as the telephone trills. Is this the call?
It is the call, and now I have a delivery address. Early afternoon on a weekday and I step out of my door and wait for the lift. Dressed in a full-length waxed raincoat, boots and a wide-brimmed hat, I am carrying a large leather hold-all. Neatly stacked inside are layers of an illegal import, steam-pressed pollen, resinous and ready to crumble into pipe or tobacco. The weight and nature of these bars mean that I have to pretend the bag is lighter than it really is. The lift arrives, I press the ground floor button but soon find myself suspended between floors. Eventually a disembodied voice informs me that they are ‘working on it, am I alright’? A strong sense of resignation overcomes my feeble mental attempts at humour, so I wait. And wait.
At last, the lift sways into action, arrives at the ground floor and the doors open onto the biggest crowd I have ever seen in the lobby. It appears the other lift has broken down, school has just finished, and to cap it all there are burly firemen and surly policemen, some with dogs, to cover all emergencies it would appear. And there am I, looking like I have just walked off the set of the Western, ‘Unforgiven’, with my too heavy and rather aromatic bag, hoping that these are not sniffer dogs. I thread my way through the throng, but no-one is interested in me, they all want to be home, spooning spaghetti hoops into the children and chattering over coffee and ciggies. I make my way to the underground car park and swing out onto the city streets, another anonymous motor among a million. Later, in a smart suburban house, I trade in my hold-all for a carrier bag, neatly layered with bundles of fifties, lined at the bottom with my own two slabs of linen-wrapped pollen, and covered with The Guardian.
I make my way to my favourite park café, order espresso and add a large brandy from my flask. Time to reflect, yet another run across borders, for how long, or for how often do I want to this. How to measure or know when to stop? Well, I already know this answer, I have to listen in to my intuition. It’s strange that in most parts of my life I cannot hear the subtle messages my heart shares, but in this context, it’s my only clue to avoiding seven years or more as a guest of Her Majesty. In this life of flickering shadows, half truths and false trails I have rarely run into trouble, the only times were when I let greed rule my judgment. My sixth sense has always cared for me and given as great a protection as keen observation with physical eyes.
For years I have lived a life of secrets. As a child I learnt from my mother that to have my own life I must hide it from her. I carried on the process at boarding school and reveled in my possession of keys that gave me almost unlimited access. Teachers’ desk, headmasters chest, the art room store where the paper rests. The formaldehyde room where I dare not breathe, the school canteen which I cannot leave, without biscuits, milk and cheese. The gable-end rooms, up in the rooves, the bare naked stage where they plan the moves. The staff room cupboards where I hide the canes from troublesome teachers.
However, the really dangerous part of this game of secrets is the mental side, building the web of lies that must be remembered. It is also the beautiful part of the game, the delicate dance of deceit balanced on false premise and even promise. The hidden joy of knowing that ‘Even my secrets have secrets’. These distorted projections led me to create layer upon layer of artificially constructed certainties. They became a strange compulsion, a complete but totally invented realm of reality, a life that I could live, safe from the privations and invasions of the bullying crowd.
Eventually I developed a fast track process where true emotional response was automatically stored in a safe place, a bit like the buffer zone in a computer: technically available, but usually hidden in a buried folder with a forgotten password. To all outward appearances, here is a cool, calm and collected character, but the actual reality is a person spinning a subtle web of intrigue, with an agenda to control.
In the strange days of summer 2014, I am learning how a life ruled by secrets is an incredibly hard habit to break. With the help of a particular friend and a ‘spirit’ life coach I began a journey to rediscover the value of my heart and its inherent wisdom. Secrets had encouraged me to live in my head alone, I was aware of ‘head’ and ‘heart’, but had not realised for myself how my heart had been buried, almost now without trace. They should have been separate entities, but my ego had become a ruthless dictator, greedy for complete control over my person. The more I pondered on this subject, the more I found ego to be my very own ‘bête noire’. In fact, probably more like ‘trou noir’, a black hole, a window to despair, disillusion and dishonesty.
In an ideal world, heart hears the spirit and balances it with the ego. In my world of secrets, my heart had been deafened, locked out, and my head ruled supreme. As I struggled to listen to my heart, I found myself in a quarrel of identity.
It’s another summer, but in 2015, and a grey and gloomy blanket of cloud melds skyline and horizon, obscuring any sense of perspective. We’re in an historic pub, wooden beams and worn uneven wooden floors, and I am more than comfortable in the company of my particular friend. We eat fish and drink red wine. Our food foibles are not so secret from each other; in cafés, I ask for her extra vinegar, she asks for my extra mayo. The conversation flows and is full of her curiousity. She loves to know the why and the wherefore, the how do you know that to be so? Those particular questions are circling in my head, even now, like Indians around a wagon train. At that time, the questions did worry me, sent warning tremors along my neural networks, but most disturbing for me was my reluctance, and even inability, to answer them. I had no honest replies, only a dictionary of stock responses designed to deflect and bemuse the questioner. I still believed that my aura of certainty would see me through and I would not have to face or share any of my myriad secrets. ‘So how do you feel about separation after almost a score of years? So how do you feel…? So how do you feel…? So how do you feel…? This is difficult, almost impossible for me to answer. So many potential inflections, so many harmonies that I only hear as discords, each with a valid history and a dedicated legend.
I have spent too much time avoiding these kinds of questions, even pretending that I am so right that there should be no questions anyway! I feel my ego bridling, as she gently probes, I feel the panic rise and overpower my solar plexus. Sweat pours down my face, neck and back, as sudden and unexpected as a summer storm on a clear day. This happens to me more and more, with distressing regularity, but surprisingly enough I don’t want the questions to stop. I know that I must overcome this irrational fear. What appears to be a burden is actually a gift of learning. I can no longer avoid learning these lessons of honesty. My shirt sticks, traps and wraps me in flight mode and I bite my lip to avoid fight mode. But I cannot contain myself. I went and paid the bill without saying a word. I find myself uncaring of how I appear to be, unable and unwilling to be considerate or concerned for my particular friend. Our companionable comfort has fled, not even able to hide under the exposed rocks of my ignorance. I feel like a wounded bear, woken from hibernation and I’m ready to strike out. How can such anger hide in my breast and have been such a secret to me? How can it be so destructive and so separate from all I hold dear. I find it truly frightening that I am suddenly under its control, and so unable to weather and understand it until after the damage has been done. More frequently these days, anger explodes out of me and I subject the least deserving of people to unreasonable hostility. Especially my soon-to-be-ex long term partner.
Evening of the same day, I’m back in my partners house and there are only a few days left for me here. I have chosen to call my place of peace at the West end of the house, the garden room. Not that it needs a name, but In my new uncertainty, labels help me identify that which is safe. Or not. Boxes of books and objects that I never knew I owned are piled high here and there. Waiting for the unknown is a strange form of suspense and to all my friends I am pretending that I am looking forward to a new life. At least I really will be on my own, and not living alone with a partner. But there is the curiousity, even after all the years I have trodden the planet, I have never had my own home. I have sofa-surfed, carpet-bagged, done the duvet-dive, kitchen-camped and broken my fast at many an others table. But never my very own domestic space, to fill as I wish! I don’t even know what I wish…
Later, in solitude, in the quiet but still highly disturbed aftermath of this afternoons event, I find a rare moment of lucidity. I stretched and reached in the dark, but found only fleeting shadows, masking what little light I saw. My heart is still beyond my horizon, but at least I know that it is there.
The following morning after a no-sleep night I watch the wildlife through the open French door. Sparrows pick over the soil under the pea and bean plants in their grow-bag rows outside the window. A blackbird heaves a worm out of the loose soil, watched by another, beady-eyed and bendy headed, a younger hopeful, perhaps the offspring. Pigeons clatter in and out of the twin Thuja trees that dominate the far end of the garden. A dense, resinous and aromatic tree, the perfect cover for wild life, including in this case a solitary squirrel who has lived at this address for as long as I have. He has the best larder possible because in the front garden there are two walnut trees; perhaps that’s why he doesn’t seem to mind being alone. I also sit alone, in body, mind and spirit.
My partner calls a friendly goodbye as she leaves the house, there is my garden room door between us, and it makes me chuckle, and be sad that she knocks on my door before ever coming in. Such has the distance grown between us. I try to face this new reality, on my own. I wouldn’t know how to begin in person with her. So much has been unsaid for so long that the sentences are lost and buried, even the traces of where they were laid to rest have been eroded away by careful habits, and in my case, the cold comfort of an unchallenged life style. The little secrets are still there, who do I see? And when? What do I smoke? How much do I drink? Where do I go? How long was I there for? Between them all, the little secrets combine and I have a chain reaction that cannot be contained, as one strand supports another and the woven web of deceit threatens to blow up any time. I am in a no-win situation, If I don’t support these illusions they will collapse, and if I support them they will create the illusions…The question that I never ask, but am learning to is, ‘And why must it be secret?’
There is a perverse and awfully destructive pleasure in hoodwinking. On occasion, I look at my partners’ kindly face as I offhandedly lie and shame does flush my neck and colour my ears. However, the real truth is worse, she no longer asks after my whereabouts, I am no longer worthy of that much interest. Deservedly so, she will sense my separation, know that I am in isolation, know that my unreliable gaze is focused elsewhere. Neither of us can have spent all these years of intimacy and empathy without knowing our depths and heights, our widths and breadths. Yes, we both have secrets, of privacy or convenience, but the heart hears all, and I am not completely lost to it.
The postman knocks and my reverie is interrupted. A sigh escapes, punctuated by an unexpected cough. I sign for the package and have a moment of breathlessness as I turn back into my room. Back on my chair, I listen into my body, hear a rattle in my chest, and feel the dull ache in my back. I must see the chiropractor, get this sorted, get fit. I lift the lid of my laptop, the email day must begin, but something makes me stop and ponder. In my mind’s eye I still see the liquid metal of my isolated heart, can see the feelings trapped therein, they are flickering uncertainly, denied the oxygen of life and gasping for breath. I am in a dire situation, without feelings I will be lost to myself, and my quest will expire before it has begun. If I am to reconnect with my true purpose, understand why I am here and why my soul has chosen this body as a vehicle for earthly experience, I must begin this odyssey in earnest.
My ego went searching first though. Looking for gratification, looking for affirmation of its existence and its importance to me. Wishing to prove to myself, and the world around that I had presence, personality and a certain strut in my step. I still saw life through the physical window, and needed constant reminding to be aware of spirit in my life. Secrets have dominated my life for so long that I can feel lost without them, but I am changing all of that. The sense of liberation that comes from simple honesty is profound. Yes, it’s painful because I have to confess and own up to all the anguish and uncertainty I have caused. But it’s freeing because I don’t have to hide anything. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I am not. I find real answers to real questions and the layers of lies that surrounded my heart are slowly dissipating, slowly revealing the fluttering feelings that can be found within.
The summer of 2014 will forever be scored deep in my persona. Like a message carved in a tree trunk, it’s legend permanent, it will be a testament to my stupidity and my determination. Stupidity because my ego had to try and have the last word, had to try and prove that it was an Emperor with divine right to control. I found myself flirting, sometimes shamelessly, courting danger, ignoring convention, stepping on toes and more besides. Strutting my stuff, on and off stage, swanning like a goose, shirt undone, cuffs akimbo, tie untied. And determination, determination to end this never-ending not-so-secret waltz, to write anew, to harmonise, to choralise, to equalize, to open my eyes.
Secrets have given me grief and joy, pain and pleasure. In my youth at school, my secret keys gave me freedom to explore, some would say spy. In my youth at home my secrets enabled me to have a life beyond the control of my mother. As I grew through life secrets bent my will, bent my perspective. Allowed me to feel nothing, which at the time was wonderful but on reflection has left me isolated, stranded on an emotional island of my own making with no points of reference other than those provided by my head. The most selfish map I could have found. By the time I found myself in the summer days of 2014, my selfishness filled my life and I did not see this. Fortunately for me, the love and patience of my many friends gave me grace and I began to see, and feel, the awful reality of most of my behaviour. I began to nourish and explore yet another secret, my ego leading the way and railroading my will, even worse, the will of another, my particular friend. Like the classic, one last chance crime caper, I truly believed that I could try just one more secret. I would get it right, square my relationship with my secret lives and then I could give them up for ever. My addiction to secrets still blinded me, even though I knew for certain that this was wrong and highly destructive. I began to feel world-weary, my body subjecting me to quirky aches and pains. The man in me who resisted the doctor, like most men, I suppose, found himself haunting the waiting room and hunting the internet. News with grave intent came my way and I knew I had to share it, this was too big to keep secret although I really wanted to tell no-one. I had no desire to be a burden, no desire to be in that kind of limelight. But again, this news turns out be a gift of some magnitude, for it brought my family, including those no longer with us here on earth, ever closer together.
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 3 Sleeping with the Enemy, A Thorn in the Flesh
The new day is grey, a pale wintry wash of rain smeared sky obscures what little dawn there could be. The cold in the stone step leaches through to my backside, and I stand up, tipping my cigarette end into the bin. I’m in some kind of automatic mode, barely aware of what I am doing. Rinse my mug, and a stray thought wanders through my mind, I have failed once again to take my tea without sugar. Turn off the TV, put my jacket on, lock door, get in car, roll and light cigarette. I am fighting myself, my whole being just wants to go back to bed and sleep the day away. My reason overcomes my feelings every day; herds me to work in Her Majesty’s Hotel, the nearby prison. Habit struts, parades like a peacock through my emotions, except that each and every day there are less feathers to hide behind.
I pull into the car park that sprawls in front of the grimly designed institutional building. The architect has tried but dismally failed to disguise the fact that this is a prison. Lock wallet and phone in the car. Queue to exchange my tag for a bunch of keys so big they have to sit in a leather pouch. On this day there is a search. All staff are shuffled into line, waiting to be sniffed by a dog, frisked by a warden and bag emptied over the table. And all the time that sneaks by eats into the coffee break before the working day begins, the late prep for lessons, the banter with colleagues, and most of all, my sanity. The anti-institution man finds himself buried in one of the most difficult institutions you would ever want to imagine.
Hostility in a jail is a tangible force. It flows, sluggish and intractable, like monolithic blood, grinding corridor floors a steel grey smooth. These passageways are the veins and arteries of a prison and on this drab bleak day I lean my way down the corridors that are crowded with men, most of them in their tired grey uniform, chucking grenades of conversation over their shoulders. Some men, dressed in black, mark strategic positions and stand, sombre, serious, and stationary in the tide of men striding past them. A thought wanders though my mind that I am moving in the midst of a startle of starlings being minded by a caution of crows.
My path today takes me to a more obscure part of the site. The wire mesh encased passageway leads me beside an immaculate lawn, punched along the edges by exactly spaced flowerbeds. Geraniums nod their heads in obedience to some invisible force, as do I, when I unlock the gate and report to the office. Some silent intuition hints at trouble in the air, but these days I find it hard to find certainty in anything, at work or home. It could just be my imagination, which can easily go into overdrive, but I notice a certain hesitancy on the face of one warder, who looks to the only other warder in the room. This one stands up and walks towards me, his face a mask of concern, ‘Well, we thought you weren’t coming, so the guvnor sent them to work.’ I look up at the clock on the wall, even though I’d been held up it was still only nine, exactly the time when lessons begin. I realise that the chemistry has changed, a subtle tipping of the scales away from my favour. Something is afoot, and even if I knew what it was, there would be very little I could do about it. “Oh, and”, the warder continued, “there’s a message from him.” I look at him expectantly, head tilted, waiting and wondering what little bombshell awaits. He reaches into his pocket, taking out tobacco and papers. ‘Smoke?’ he asks. I decline his offer but roll my own and follow him down the stairs and into the garden. Rain is really falling now and we huddle in the narrow shelter provided by the wall, well, at least he does. I am somehow manouevred into the fat, heavy drops and wish I had put my jacket on. ‘The guvnor says you will have to cancel the concert on this wing’.
“Cancel?” I questioned. “Why?”
“Well, he tells me that we need a Public Entertainment’s License.” The enormity and obvious irrelevance of this statement doesn’t seem to occur to the warder, who dismisses any further questions by grinding out his cigarette butt on the wall and opening the door to go back inside. I follow him up the stairs, a seemingly unending climb to nowhere. No students this morning, sent to work instead of music lessons, and no concert for the men next month. My mind is emptying, any sensible thoughts swirling like water out of the sink. Now I know I should have stayed in bed.
I find myself trembling into flight mode, I walk the empty corridors, uncertain as to where I should go. I can’t return to the office; that makes public that I have failed my students. Well that’s how I feel about it. I can’t sit outside, there’s no shelter. Finally, I choose to return to the little staff room, away from the main office. All the teachers are busy, and if any of them do return before the end of lessons I’m sure I’ll think of an explanation as to why I am there. I try to settle in the chair behind a desk, get a book out to read, but my mind is everywhere, darting in and out of thoughts, like an anxious humming bird, seeking the nectar of understanding. The irony of hiding inside the nick is not lost on me, but is overshadowed by the realisation that everything that the men and I have worked for has now been terminated.
I have lost count of all the mornings that I have threaded my way through the tired arteries of this institution, passed by the pointless cloisters studded here and there, their only purpose seeming to be as a collection point for cigarette butts. They remind me of my school, but there at least I could get an impression of a garden, placed within the confines of the buildings, a point of inspiration, a refreshing glimpse of the sky. Despite all this gloom, I know that the music room, for me and my students, is a haven, an oasis in a cultural desert. Buried deep as a dungeon in the prison complex, it is often a thorn in the flesh of the authorities with its glass partitioned cubicles, ancient sweaty carpets stained by neglect, and failed and failing equipment. You cannot escape the aroma of insufficiently washed bodies, overlaid with cheap aftershave and deodorant, or the pervasive background of tobacco, impregnated into the fabric of the room. It can be so strong that teachers unused to working in the music room accuse the men of smoking in there. I know this is ridiculous because a place on the music course is so treasured that not even the most arrogant and stupid inmate would lose their place through lighting up.
I’m still in the little staff room dodging the reality inflicted on me by the cold heart of the system. With half an eye on the clock as it edges towards lunchtime, I follow the cascade of thoughts tumbling through my mind, and settle like the pictures on a fruit machine on one in particular. The staff room door opens and a colleague walks in, dumping her bag on the floor and slumping herself on a chair. “I’ve had a real shit of a morning, sometimes I wish that none of the men will show up, and I could have a nice quiet morning. How’s yours been?”
The next morning brings the usual dilemma. I go through all the familiar but unwelcome motions. In the car, the wipers clear the windscreen but my mind is a blur, driven by the fear of the consequences of not going to work. I drive through the estate, turn into the main road but a strange thing happens as I come up to the industrial park a mile from home. I find myself in a different automatic mode, turn left, then sharp right and back towards home. Never have I felt so relieved as I unlocked the front door. The sweet tea and one-paper spliff never tasted so good, even on a cold doorstep.
For the last three working days of the week, my partner is not at home, so explaining why I am not going to work is not an issue. I can feel it brewing in importance but feel incapable of dealing with it. She will have to know, and I know that she will be supportive but still I am afraid to say anything. Even the tiniest things seem immensely difficult to deal with, I struggle to decide if I want tea or coffee. And phoning the staff office in the morning to explain my absence is very hard. I have to pretend not only to have a heavy cold, but almost to be someone else, otherwise I am convinced that they will see straight through me. I find that I have absolutely no confidence in myself and have lost the ability to decide or discern anything.
When I do tell my partner, she, of course, has sensible advice, so in the following week I find myself in the doctor’s surgery talking to a pleasant and understanding Scot with the soft tones of the West coast. Photos of his family perch on the windowsill beside a family of elephants of varying sizes. The sun is bright on the wall outside, and set in stripes by the horizontal slats of the blinds masking the window. His gentle approach tries to find the reason why I am there but I cannot find the place to begin. I hear myself waffling along and wonder what I am talking about. The doctor’s delicate probing finally picks out the stone holding back the stream of my confusion and suddenly a torrent of tears and understanding is released. I am relieved to discover that I am simply suffering from depression. ‘Simply’ seems to be an understatement of some magnitude. However, to find out that I am not going mad leaves me both numb and exhilarated. I sense a flood of feelings about to be unleashed and am afraid that I will be overwhelmed. I leave the surgery with arguments for and against medication, a local mental health helpline, but most importantly with a sick note for a month.
I’m sitting in the garden room, the day is warm enough to open the French doors but the sunlight is a pale water colour wash. My brain is struggling with the mechanics of depression and whether it’s a blessing or not that there is a physical cause. Hands folded in my lap, slumped in my chair, I watch a bumble bee fly in the open door. Scientists have decided that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bee to fly, and certainly their aerial progress always seems erratic, but no one can deny that they do indeed travel through the air. However, finding it’s way out again is another problem to solve, and before long I get up, catch the bee with a glass and a piece of paper, letting it out into the garden. I can relate to the bee’s sense of freedom after the momentary confusion of being trapped, and with a wry smile wish that a hand of a deity might reach down and release me. There are men in prison, kept on the wrong side of the door and unable to find their way out. I remember one young man, cheerfully enthusiastic but with his own particular view of the world who seemed to exit prison and enter the street through a revolving door. He had no skills that could be used legally and no reason or incentive to be otherwise. A friendly but hyperactive man, he somehow kept his place in the queue to join the music class despite his frequent absences.
The first time I meet him I’m in the prison at my desk on a Monday morning in the music room, signing people in as they enter, reminding them of whose turn it is on the various items of equipment we have that still work. I’m always impressed how understanding the men are of these shortages. I have taught Art, English, and Cooking here as well and have seen these people kick off if there is a shortage of anything. Suddenly there is a tall, spare and gangly man leaning over me, inspecting the register. “I’m not on there, I am supposed to be here!” I look up at him, mentally slowing him down but already not expecting it to have any effect. Many of the men greet him as they come in. One addresses me, “No peace now boss, not now we got Tom”. Well there’s a clue. I pull a sheet of paper out from under the register, and sure enough there is a Tom listed. “That’s me, mark me in!” he insists, placing his finger squarely on his name.
“OK Tom, but there’s a form for you to fill in, if you wait a moment I’ll find one for you.”
“Cheers Pete,” he says and pulls up a chair, placing it on the corner beside me. He couldn’t get any closer without sharing my chair. It’s no surprise that he knows my name. Like in any community, all of the teachers get discussed, for better or worse, and I long ago gave up wondering what was said about me. I find the entrance form he has to deal with but he has left the chair, exploring all the corners of the music room, and returns with a guitar. I take the bull by its erratic horns, knowing that the chances of controlling Tom are fairly slender, but there are and will be indisputable boundaries between the men and me. I ask him to move the chair back to where it originally came from and he sits on it, wildly strumming on the guitar, placing his left hand fingers in a variety of interesting positions on the frets. I show him a chord on the guitar, and once I feel he’s remembered the finger positions I go on my rounds, reminding him to fill in the form. Predictably, he doesn’t fill in the form for some days.
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 4 : Sleeping with the Enemy / An End to Trust
Welcome to Naked Word Radio
And part the fourth of the Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart.
In which a man with a heart is full of ideas and a man with no heart would take them away, and there are times when you can’t let the sleeping dog lie…
Part 4: Sleeping with the Enemy / An End to Trust
In the farthest recording booth of the Music Room are two of three brothers, I did for a while teach all three, but the oldest decided to disagree with a screw and ended up in solitary. They are inside for dealing their own kind of justice to their mothers’ boyfriend, who decided to abuse her. The two remaining write a mix of rap and melody, both very talented men. Their lyrics, predictably anti-authority and pro hetero sex leave little to the imagination and sometimes give me some interesting explaining to give to my superiors. The college, who employ me to teach in the prison, wants to take away the creative side of learning music, whether it be playing an instrument or writing and recording. Their argument is that these things are difficult to quantify physically and therefore justify financially. They are, of course, not wrong, but I have to argue that the benefits of music cannot be simply contained to a mechanical process. The College would like me to teach scales and keys, clefs and staves, how to construct a chord and how to read the dots, as they are commonly called. Anything theoretical in fact, that requires no practical or physical expression of music. But a language has to be used for it to have any point, and the point of music is its ability to express emotion and reach into our hearts. I know that the battle to teach the men the gift of music is one I will eventually lose, but in the meantime the men and I will do our best. Yes, you can set tests and evaluate a person’s understanding of the theory, but to what end, and for what point?
In the booth next to the brother rappers is a middle-aged man, mild and modest. An unlikely candidate for a stretch inside I had thought at first sight. However, he had returned home early one day to find his wife and best friend in bed together. Not a man who understood fighting or violence in any way, he had somehow, in his fury, managed to break the fellow’s arm. He is learning folk songs on the guitar, and can hesitantly sing his way through quite a few. He lost his council flat because of the incident, but not his true friends. His release is impending and whenever he gets a letter from his new lady love he reads it to me. In one she describes the new duvet set she has bought, and how she is looking forward to sharing it with him. There is a crack in his voice, and I’m not entirely sure I want to hear this but it’s obviously important for him.
There are a wide range of offenders attending my class. One, a very good classical musician who had murdered his father, plays both the piano and violin, but his chances of being allowed a violin whilst inside are extremely unlikely. He is a lifer, and given the fact that he refuses to admit his guilt, he will find it hard to get parole. And without parole he might never play the violin again. There are Asians, busted for filling suburban houses with marijuana plants. There is a man learning sixties songs on guitar doing five years for embezzling a sum of money that a politician would get a few months in an open prison for. One student, a vegan who made a fortune manufacturing illegal pharmaceuticals is remembering his childhood piano lessons, and a man who claimed to be banned from every casino in the UK because he was so good at winning is trying to write love songs. Not five feet away from him sits a man at a desk, recording on a computer, headphones clamped on his shaved head. Once again I am impressed how music helps the men focus their concentration and blank out anything that could be a distraction. There was also an arsonist who clearly should be in an institution that can care for him, a drug smuggler still fighting HMRC for his money, and a host of petty criminals whose position in society more or less guaranteed several returns as guests of her Majesty.
Having done my rounds, I return to Tom and find him strumming his lonely chord. ”Teach me another, come on!” says Tom, standing up suddenly and knocking the guitar accidentally against the table. He hardly noticed, but I had to remind him that our few guitars were a precious commodity and that there was no way to replace them. He is most apologetic, but his enthusiasm is naturally greater than his care.
Over the weeks, I discover that Tom, when he’s out, lives mostly on the street, mixing casual work of a dubious nature with opportunistic thieving to fill his belly, feed his occasional habit, and support his friends. He is chaotically charismatic, having a wonderfully simplistic but healthy view of life, philosophical about its ups and downs and seemingly careless of the fact that he has no skills to help himself get out of the cycle he is trapped in. In music lessons he is a quick learner and soon has a library of chords that enable him to tackle his favourite songs. What he lacks in accuracy he easily makes up for in performance, and I find myself believing he could busk on the streets and earn a few straight shillings. His day of release comes and we all wish him well, placing friendly bets on how soon we’ll see him again!
Sure enough, the day comes up when Tom does reappear. Angling in through the door, he greets me and sits down with a guitar having dug out some song books. He is very excited to tell me that while he was out he had been busking and was doing very well, until he spotted a lonely wallet on a windowsill but didn’t spot its nearby owner! He is really chuffed that, in guitar playing, at last he has a skill that he can use that he is proud of. His playing and singing has improved and I can see him as a good busker, with the kind of energy that is magnetic, drawing people and their coins and notes. Suddenly he stands up, banging the guitar of course, and brings something out of his pocket. Sitting down again he proudly unwraps a piece of hash and tries to hand it to me. “This is for you boss, it’s a Thankyou for teaching me come on, take it!”
Trust is a fragile but essential commodity. I could expect those who don’t share my point of view to disagree with me, but not necessarily to distrust me. I could expect that for as long as I was not considered a threat, I would be left to get on with my work. I found that I had the trust of the men, and largely, the warders and governors, at least to begin with. At some invisible point, I became the face of something untrustworthy, and therefore became an enemy to a particular but powerful few. I was slow to recognise this subtle change, and discerning my enemy whilst working in hostile territory was not as simple as I might have thought. I had in fact, hoped to have no enemies, but life is never so obliging.
I’m remembering this incident, sat in my room on that pale water colour wash day, rolling a one-skinner to take round the garden. I’m remembering Tom’s struggle with why I couldn’t take his well-meaning gift, how he shouldn’t even be showing it to me, and I’m remembering, most of all, that incredible trust that he had for me. There are tears in my eyes, not only for this memory but also because I am experiencing feelings, genuine feelings. I have spent so much of life hiding from them, and why? So that I don’t suffer emotionally when they don’t work out. Working in the prison, I hid from my emotions by instinctively trying to follow a narrow and sometimes almost invisible trail, marrying the musical and creative needs of the men with the exactitudes of the system. I needed the screws and the governors and the college and the men to trust me, despite the differing expectations. In the end, the governors trusted me to be working against them, the screws had no choice but to agree. Looking up at the sky as a cloud covers the sun, I realize I am most proud of the trust the men had in me, and I blow a couple of fragrant smoke rings in the shelter of the apple trees.
I have days and weeks, and eventually months, to ponder all these things. Whether striding in the rain, leaning into the wind, sitting in the sun, playing the piano or cooking the supper. Depression is a wily beast, being both hunter and hunted. I seek it in the deep waters of my solitude, see it sneakily playing in the shore line waves of my despair. It tracks me down on the high hills that have a view beyond the normal horizons, It trails me as I fly up above the clouds in the clear light of the sun. There are times when I wish to sit down and make a deal with it, negotiate a truce, find some useful harmony to be used creatively. Poems, songs, prose and pictures, but I somehow lose heart at a critical point and find myself overwhelmed by the impossibility of everything and anything. Depression gives no quarter, it’s up to me take my life back in my own hands.
There are mornings when I’m convinced it’s purely a chemical thing, and I duly report to the doctors to get a prescription. In our brains we have synapses that release serotonin, a feel-good hormone. However, some synapses turn greedy and reabsorb the serotonin, depriving our cerebral fluid of the benefits. I took them for a few months but gave them up as soon as I felt my self-confidence reappear. I was learning to trust again, and most importantly, myself.
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Part 5 : Warrior / The Sound of the Bow
Welcome to Naked Word Radio
And part the fourth of the Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart.
In which an adventure leads to a loss, but the loss leads to a discovery. Music dances its way across the landscape and deities trample the shores. Sheep take me for a walk and piglets wrestle in the night.
Warrior / The Sound of the Bow
I am lost in loneliness. Above me, a truly empty sky, frozen in time, not a bird to be seen, not even as a distant dot. Beneath my feet, and stretching to the unseen shore, a swathe of sheep-short grass, edged by stone. Here in the far west of Ireland, fields are made by picking up the loose stones and making them into walls. No trees anywhere, just a wild fuchsia hedge, taller than a man, motionless in the hot still air, masking the old stone bothy that is my home. In the grassy banks that line the track running along the length of this tiny island grow Eyebright, Glanrosc gaelach, (glanrosh gwaylock) tiny white stars of flowers that clear the vision, Ladies Bedstraw, Boladh cnis, (balaah cnish) laid on a bed of bracken for sweet sleep. The Yellow Horned Poppy, Caillichín na trá, (caishin naw traw) that bleeds a cream coloured opiate and Sea Hollies, Cuileann trá, (cweelan traw) a fleshy spiny salt-loving succulent that, according to dusty old herbals, can be used as a liver tonic.
A bead of sweat trickles down my bare back, which is burned a leathery brown from the constant sun. I hear a truculent neighing and see Puck, a broad-backed white cob, just proud of 14 hands. I loop his working reins over my shoulder and open the gate into his field. A stubborn creature, he is of course, in the farthest corner, overlooking the beach below. This is the only horse I have ever ridden; he has no saddle and he has no need for iron shoes on the island. We make our way to the flatbed cart and I hitch him up to it, ready to collect a load of seaweed, fresh from the shore.
The hard physical work has its own particular pleasure and I indulge myself in it, wearily recognizing when it is done, that I have to face my emptiness again. I sprawl in an old wooden chair, just outside the door of the bothy, looking west, out over the sea. The next land, way over the horizon, is America, and the sun is beginning to dip down to the line where sea meets sky. I open the last of the bottled beers left me by the Marquis who owns this small holding perched on the edge of the ocean, and raise it in a silent toast to she who has departed. It’s very hard not to cast my mind back over the few months that we spent together and my hopes that our relationship might have developed into something more permanent.
I am working as a chef in a popular French restaurant in the City of Bath. Housed in a Georgian stone building, the kitchen was on the first floor and the bar in the basement. There is much talk amongst the staff about a lady coming to run this bar and generally organize the front of house. On her first day, I go down to introduce myself and am met by a strikingly handsome woman clad in red velvet. Broad-hipped with an angular height, well-defined cheekbones and long auburn hair tied back, but not severely. A knee length skirt topped by a smock style top set her apart from any woman I had ever seen before. She served me with a large brandy and orange juice, a knowing smile on her face as she dutifully noted it in the staff drinks book. She fitted easily into the team and joined us in many late night suppers that I would cook for all the staff at the end of service.
Over the following weeks we discovered a shared interest in a spiritual view of life. There was an esoteric book shop down the hill and we spent many hours in there meeting all kinds of folk, from the outlandish, a man who wore boots made to look like cloven hooves, to self-proclaimed Druids and reincarnated King Arthurs. I began to see this exciting and inspiring woman as a Celtic figurehead, a high priestess. In long discussions, we explored the culture of the Celts and the ancient Egyptians. We went to parties and pubs and were an item for all to see. We took walks in the woods and lay naked in the moss, reveling in the wild nature we found in ourselves. She lived above a tattoo parlour in a quirky one-up one-down building. the tattooist was not particularly enamoured of me, having his own designs on her. One night we returned to her home to find that he had changed the lock on the door, leaving a note addressed to the ‘Wicked Witch of the West and her Ginger Tom’ suggesting that I depart, as soon as possible, never to return.
I lived in a caravan parked in an orchard on the hills outside Bath and overlooking the Severn Plain; on clear bright days I could see the Black Mountains. On days when the Priestess came to stay with me we would make plans for the near future, and play music with my neighbours on the farm. Irish tunes and Bluegrass were our preferred options and out of this I developed a love for Celtic music. Both of us, inspired by the magic of Ireland and the openness of the people, decided to give up work and left our lives in England behind. Adventuring across the Irish Sea, we found accommodation in a variety of abandoned dwellings as we made our way along the south coast. One day we discovered that our money had been stolen, and in the serendipitous surroundings of a magical country, we found a solution for survival. Newly discovered English self-exiled friends told us about the Marquis. He was struggling with hepatitis and, unable to look after his livestock and vegetable garden, he was going to return to England to be with his family. He showed us his smallholding and a few days later left us in charge. We milked goats and wrestled with piglets in the middle of the night when their tethers got tangled up. Hoed row upon row of beans, earthed up potatoes and got bitten mercilessly by horseflies in the heat. He had a brown cow that took great delight in trying to crush me against the stone walls edging the lane. I lost myself in these daily routines but couldn’t fail to notice that this life was not for the High Priestess.
What, to me was idyllic, was for her an unnecessary hardship and I could feel her yearning to move on. She had planned for a long time to visit Egypt and that desire overrode everything else. For many reasons I hoped sincerely that her journey would not separate us, but in particular I felt that we had shared a life together in some other time and there were still many things for us to learn. Our lovemaking became tired and was no longer magical. I understood her wish to sail up the Nile, climb the pyramids and immerse herself in the colours, the smells, the speech, the dry and dusty heat, and the lapis lazuli sky.
Sure enough, the day came, when I rowed her to the mainland and bid her goodbye as she caught the bus on the beginning of her journey East. For her, our time together was finished. But I could not abandon hope that we might see each other again, or even further our friendship into something greater, something deeper.
Some weeks later, I sat in the wooden chair, looking out over the ocean. I gazed at a postcard from her showing a picture of a dhow on the Nile, and felt that I had truly lost faith in myself. An evening chill crept over me and I stepped inside the bothy to find my flared jeans, an icon of the seventies, but woefully unsuitable for smallholding work. I could see no point in anything, could find no value in anything, I couldn’t even cry. And then I saw my fiddle case, propped up in the corner and mostly hidden by a collection of coats. For a moment, time stood silent and still. How could I forget my Ermintrude, given to me by my stepfather when I was twenty years old. Suddenly all the sounds of a small island came crowding in: the lonely mewing of seagulls and the squeaky-toy chatter of oystercatchers patrolling the beach. Stonechats, remarkably shy, are hard to spot but easy to hear, their call is like a clinking of pebbles. The gentle scolding of curlews with their long curved bills probed the sands below the tide line of shingle. A breeze off the sea picked up and began to play the weathered bamboo wind chimes hanging by the door as I bent down to pick up my fiddle.
I put rosin on the bow, check the tuning and begin to play an Irish Air. Its haunting melody floats out across the garden and I grow in confidence, breaking into a gentle jig that canters gracefully along. Already lighter in my own step I move out of the bothy and perch on an upturned bucket by the door. The notes are beginning to flow now as I stroke and flick the bow across the strings. The air is dancing to the lilt of the rhythms, shimmering my vision, heat strokes rippling the unkempt grass. I fall into a series of notes that step into a graceful melody. I feel like I am moving in time with it, climbing the phrases that build a picture, standing squarely in that image and then sadly facing its conclusion. Repeating the melody reinforces this storytelling, allowing each playing to emphasise an aspect or atmosphere in the overall drama.
I put down the fiddle for a moment to take a mouthful of beer, I’m still very much in the land of music and decide to follow my inner ear and improvise. At moments like these I feel free to wander through a world of notes with no particular thought of structure. Soon I am lost again in my mind, my only awareness being the expression of my mood in musical sentences of sound and paragraphs of harmonic phrases. In my music I walk along an empty shoreline, above me, a naked sky slowly fills with wisps of cirrus whilst on the horizon, puffs of melancholic clouds gather, broody grey at the bottom fading to hesitant white at their tops. The sea colour begins to lose its azure blue and shades towards a deep-ocean moody green. The swell rises and begins to crash on the shingle, plumes of spray climb the distant rocky edge of the bay. No longer alone, the weather walks with me, turns me towards the tussock strewn dunes above the beach. A well-worn bleached wooden hut faces the sea and welcomes me into its shelter as the first fat drops of rain dimple the sand. I sit on the hard bench, drawing my coat around me and watch the gathering storm vent its fury. Flickers of lightning dance on the crests of well-travelled waves as the sky is bruised and battered into a cowering purple. I feel the steps of ancient deities quaking the ground and shredding the sky and I treasure my shelter, however uncertain it may be. But in a breath it’s all over, the anger melts as the sky lightens and the sun shines on the wading birds as they come out of their hiding in the dunes. A glimmer of rainbow arcs the horizon as the last of the squall clouds rains dry. Suddenly I find myself back in the reality of the bothy garden, sat on my upturned bucket, a curious robin begging for crumbs from my hand as the resonance fades from my fiddle.
One morning I go to see the two sheep that the Marquis keeps on his land; he is so worried that they will escape from the island that they are kept on running tethers. A length of rope is pegged into the ground at each end, and leather straps attach the sheep to this line. Eventually they graze all the available grass and I have to move the tethers. On this day I need to move them to a new field, and having no collies to control them I have to walk them like dogs on a lead. Of course the sheep’s intent is to run wild and free and they are surprisingly strong, towing me at great and stumbling speed up banks, down ditches and across the lane. Puck looks at me with mild amusement as we lurch past him and into the next field. The sheep decide to pause for a while and I take this opportunity to hammer an iron peg into the ground to anchor one end of their line. Fortunately they start grazing and with some heaving and tugging I manage to anchor the other end.
In the afternoon of that sunny sheep-moving day, as I work my way down the rows of onions, bending their green tops to fatten the bulbs, I vow to never forget that my heartfelt awareness, my musical intuition, my aptitude for hearing and expressing music is a connection to the deeper me. If only I had remembered…
The Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart
Welcome to Naked Word Radio
And part the sixth of the Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart.
In which a man chooses his own death, another chooses his own heaven, and yet another chooses his own life. A melody resounds through time and a fox looks out at the dusk.
Part 6; Warrior / Missing the Target
Warrior / Missing the Target
The prow pressed painfully into my back as I searched the stars for signs in the sky above. Dawn was blushing shyly, reluctant to hide these celestial bodies from me. All around, men shifted restlessly, checking weapons or clutching amulets for strength in battle. I could hear the grunts of the men on the oars as they rowed steadily towards the shore. Spear shafts began to bang on the decks in time with their strokes, the warriors, men and women, working up their rage to overcome their fears. The grim reality of a new day rose with the sun but I put on a hard face and waited for the grinding of the keel up the shingle. Shadows became clear, and the salt sharp smell of the shore reminded me of my first landing on the Northumbrian coast.
As the eldest son of the Jarl, I am expected to be one of the first to leap over the gunwale, into the crashing surf and up the beach but a confusion of emotions battle in my mind. I can feel and hear the bloodlust brewing in the impatient warriors and yet cannot find it in myself. Time flows slow, thick as birch sap, and thoughts parade past my inner eye, broken into fragments. I see shards of fear, but not of death, splinters of anger, but not for killing. A sliver of hope shines briefly as I consider hiding out of sight, but such is the rage and pride in death and destruction around me that I would never get away with it. Suddenly I snap back into the present as we are all jolted out of balance, the ship sliding up out of the water.
The monastery is out of sight but barely a half mile away, a few minutes hard but silent running. At dawn the monks will be at their prayers, leaving no one but a few pot boys to keep watch, and perhaps placing too much trust in their single-minded god. I know that blood, gold and silver are on the minds of the men surging up the beach beside me. There is no glory in killing defenceless monks, and little chance of leaving this life for Valhalla in plundering the monasteries and villages that struggle to survive along these shores. We will be gone before the local Lords militia even hear that we have landed. The rhythm of our progress punctuates the conflict in my mind, each pounding step increasing my anxiety. I am truly struggling with the prospect of committing willful murder on men who are simply expressing their devotion.
We cross the brow above the beach and I see the monastery nestled in the crook of a small valley. Lazy wisps of smoke curl above the thatch, a cockerel crow can just be heard. Pigs are rooting in the remains of last nights supper, tipped into their run by a couple of boys who are walking, heads down, back into the kitchen. Part of me wishes that they look up and see us so that they can shout a warning but we run into a gulley, winding down towards the cluster of buildings and are out of sight. Suddenly we round a corner and the open gate offers no resistance to the surge of men who burst in on the peace of this small community.
As one of the first in, I make for the only two-storey building. Set in the middle of this muddle of houses, made of stone, sturdy but squat it contains a courtyard in its centre. I pound up the stairs, relieved that so far I am on my own, and kick the first door I come to. It swings open, revealing a room, the walls lined with shelves and dimly lit by a square window. Books, rolls of parchment and vellum are piled untidily on every available surface, including a well-worn oak table, behind which stands the Abbot. His face is wet with sweat, little beads trickling down his blood-drained skin. He is clutching a leather bound prayer book in one hand, and points the other at me, his mouth opening and closing but no words come out. Suddenly finding my voice, I tell him to hide, to lie on the floor and pretend to be dead, but we have no common language. He stares blankly at me, holding the book like a shield. I wave my sword in the air, trying to express my meaning but he cowers back, chins wobbling, and trips over a stool, clutching at the window sill. Suddenly his mind is made up and as I gesture with my outstretched arms to calm the situation, he tips himself head first out of the window. Rushing across the room, I knock books and scrolls everywhere and look out to see the Abbot lying motionless on the ground, his head twisted to an unnatural angle. I cannot stop the wave of grief and despair that wells through me, burning to anger at this stupid loss of life. A shout in the doorway behind me startles me and I see a flaming torch thrown in and landing amongst the papers scattered across the floor. One of our men waves me out and urges me on through the building, breaking doors, rifling chests for treasure and setting everything alight.
We gather by the gate, two donkeys laden with leather panniers stuffed with cups and coins, gold and silver. One of the warriors wields a golden cross, swinging it at a cowering monk and dispatching him to his chosen heaven. The boys I saw earlier lie in a pool of blood, no way of telling whose, as bodies are strewn wherever they were felled. Dogs are already licking at the bodies and the heat of the burning buildings scorches our backs. The path back to the boats is filled with the jubilation of the warriors and is in stark contrast to the silent and deadly intent of our outward journey. Men and women boast of their sword strokes but I am sickened by it all and secretly long for the company of my harp. They are used to my silence, thinking it just the way of the eldest son, a young man keeping his distance to preserve his authority. In my mind I hear the notes of a haunting melody, they are as real to me as if I was actually playing them. I know I have never heard this tune before but there is an overpowering familiarity about it and an air of timelessness. The sensation is so strong that I lose my balance and sit for a moment beside the track, my head in my hands…
* * *
I suddenly come to, the room is dark, and my head is resting on my arms which are folded along the yellowing notes of my old upright piano. I can hear a sequence of notes, echoing distantly in my mind. Sitting up, I find them, pick them out one by one, commit them to memory, sensing the shape of the melody. I follow its questions and answers, lose myself in its honeysweet loneliness as I play it round and round, fitting chords and harmonies. Satisfied that I have locked this beautiful tune into my being, stored it in my fingertips, I sit up straight, switch on the lamp perched on the piano top and move round the room, closing the wooden shutters on the tall Georgian sash windows of our house in Bath.
This new melody is more than a Lament, it is an ageless Air, a haunting musical description of loss. For me, it describes the space between that which we are forced to be and that which we would dearly love to be. Time weathers everything, the relationship between partners matures, their sharp angles wear smooth, disappointments become immersed in an emotional landscape. Expectations crumble into dust or stand as an edifice to longing. For me, the High Priestess has become the Wand Queen, a woman of power, but not quite connected to it. She knows that she has lost something but cannot tell what it is. I see the questions flow across her face. Has she lost contact with her spirit self, has she misplaced the meaning of her life? Where has her independence gone? There is a world-weariness in her eyes from holding the reins of our family but hesitancy sits on her shoulders, whispering doubts in her ear. She has lost her self belief and confidence has slipped away under cover of the daily survival routine. But still she has to sit in her favourite chair, a regal smile dressing her face.
My reverie is interrupted when I hear the kitchen door close in the room next to me. I know that the Queen has just come downstairs from reading our three children their bedtime story. We live in a creaking, leaking Bath stone house that is struggling not to slip down the hill. There is no weather sill on the front door and in the winter there are snowdrifts in the hall. However, we all love it, or at least I believe we all do. Just like our house, she and I are losing some of the mortar in our relationship. Eleven years have passed since our Irish adventure, eleven years of love and music and children. We have lived both in the country and the city, in basements and bothies. We have played folk music and also written our own contemporary songs, performing at festivals and clubs, once, famously, to a room full of Goths who barely blinked during our entire show. I think it was the only time I have ever broken out in a cold sweat.
Since being together I have scraped a living in a variety of creative endeavours. Usually they have demanded a high level of input with not very good financial returns. Currently I have a workshop in the basement that contains the all-important wood-burning stove that keeps the damp and chill at bay. There is a kiln for melting glass, either for etched bowls or for fusing pigment when painting. There is a light box for cutting glass on, and a large workbench for assembling the stained glass windows. Lengths of H-shaped lead section lie on the shelves, coils of tinman’s solder are piled untidily in a corner beside boxes of glass pieces, sorted by colour. Sheets of glass are stacked in a rack, selenium yellow, cadmium red, cobalt blue. Some high quality, that cuts like butter, some grainy and gritty, stubborn and awkward to cut, but streaked and swirled with colours. My fingers are black with lead and sliced here and there with the inevitable cuts. My apron is smeared and spotted with lead and blood stains, pigments, and the occasional crust of dried black putty. I love working down here in the days, or sometimes late at night, when there is peace and quiet. I long ago discovered that any tension in the house somehow affects how I cut the glass. It requires a relaxed concentration, a certainty in pressure on the sheets, to cut smoothly and accurately. Sometimes I exercise my own stubborn streak and try to work after the children come home from school, but if it’s a cutting day, it’s a lot easier to take off the apron, wash the lead off my hands, and make supper.
The Wand Queen is expecting more from our life together than I am presently providing. My determination to eke out a living from creative projects is turning into an unwelcome obduracy for her, and our tolerance for each other is stretching thin. She has her own project, a successful shop dealing in costumes, but neither is that enough to provide our needs. The differences between us become ever greater, neither of us is able to feel as though we are making the most of ourselves. We are losing sight of our vision of life, and falling under the mundane spell of material existence. I have no choice but to get a regular job.
Having lived in and around the Georgian city for many years, finding employment was not too hard. I started out as a driver for a shopfitting company, occasional work at first, but it soon became full time despite denting the brand new van once or twice. Fortunately the company was more interested in the expensive furniture arriving intact. A regular income made many important and beneficial practical differences to our lives. But the spirit and magic that once inspired was disappearing under a swell of disappointment, for both of us. A day came when I returned home from work with good news. A couple of weeks previously I had applied for a job as the office manager with the company I was already working for. I carried the notion in my head that she would be suitably impressed with the status of this new position. Nothing like the romantic and spiritually fulfilling occupations we had once looked for, but certainly commensurate with the expectations of our modern life. I knew that the work, and its demands, would cement me further into a concrete reality, but it looked a price worth paying for the sake of our family. However, she was not impressed and I was left dazed and confused. Had I misunderstood the expectations made of me? Was I not giving enough of myself already? Both of us were struggling with fears over a loss of identity, to the point where we could only shout at each other about it.
Our kitchen was always warm and cosy and truly the centre of our domestic life. In the winter we stretched cling film over the windows for double glazing and enjoyed the heat given us by the Raeburn stove. I had traded this for a stained glass window I had made that edged a staircase. The central feature was an oak tree, sporting the fine grain and pale mysterious aura of that wood. Functionally it served as a frame to hold the two halves of the picture. The tree stood on the brow of a hill, all around lay autumn-scattered leaves, and in the branches red squirrels climbed. A jay sat, unmoving, as another took flight. A fox, its back to us, sat on the very edge of the hill, and looked out over a deep dusk sky, the horizon an ice-cream blue blending through the spectrum to a far-space indigo. I often thought of that window and felt that it was probably the pinnacle of all my years work in that craft. I never made anything like it again, and certainly it marked the beginning of the end of my attempts to be a professional.
I am sitting on my own in the warmth of this kitchen, the Queen has gone to bed and I am left wondering the price of independence. At what point do I give up, and how much of me can I give up? It feels as though I am almost stripped bare, what I perceive of me that makes my character alive is standing on the brink of oblivion. If I give any more of myself away, if I seek ever higher positions in the material world, what will happen to my spirit self? Will I lose sight of it? I sit, head in hands, a lonely candle flickering on the mantelpiece the only source of light, and realise that I have reached the end of my tether. With a sigh I snuff out the candle, walk through to the next room and make up a bed for myself by the piano.
Welcome to Naked Word Radio
And part the seventh of the Curious Chronicle of the Lost Heart.
In which I find a library of life, get lost in a landscape of pain, and learn how the fight between my various selves leads to healing.
Part 7; Pain / A Path to Wisdom
The library has a redolent glow of deep-polished amber gold pine. High above my head, light pierces through the clerestory windows, leaving dust motes dancing. Worn and rounded wooden pillars stretch away, with a gentle curve to the right, marking one of countless rows under this roof. Books crowd the shelves and wisps of light tumble from these tomes, powered by gentle ripples of colour from within their covers. Beneath my feet there is no floor that I can see, the shelves descending into darkness. I think of moving but cannot tell if the shelves are flowing past me or I am gliding beside them. Impressions and thoughts, emanate from the books and impinge on my senses but pass right through. I feel a tug of concern, and then a flash of anxiety, just raw emotion, there is no event to relate them to. I feel my mind searching for my memories and shelves fly by. The colours are getting stronger, brighter, and feelings without form merge into fragments of a real life event. These tomes must have my life embedded in their being, and all those nearby must belong to family and friends.
A sudden stab of pain takes my breath away…
In the dark, I open my eyes and the velvet black veil disappears, exposing the blind reality of night. There is nowhere for dreams to hide and everywhere for fears to stalk, their long legs striding purposefully across a wet slate landscape. Sharp edges glint dully in the light of an unseen moon. Shale-thin slices stack up into craggy irregular cliffs bordering a gulley, which itself is fractured by right-angled faults. A bolt of lightning splits the sky, gathering roils of blackened clouds are briefly illuminated.
I stand alone, the cliffs growing taller either side of me. Rain begins to fall, beating my face. Lightning arcs again and I feel the shock of it, a silencing wave hits my solar plexus and I know that a thunder-roll of pain will hit me within the next breath. Sometimes I can’t tell if this burning steel ache is trying to escape from me or force its way in. Sometimes I lie, stifled in its grip, pinned in my body, unable to find hope in the gloom. Sometimes I glide through it, head in my hands, and in the clouds, focusing beyond the pain. I know also, that it will subside, sometimes naturally, but more often than not with the aid of pain killers.
How do I feel about this? I’m glad to have relief from pain; it’s unpleasant, uncomfortable and unwanted. It also seems to be unwarranted, whatever have I done to deserve such an interference? I throw a net into the sea of my memories, seeking an understanding, but I’m not even sure what I’m looking for. Have I done wrong to someone? Is that the cause of my illness? Have I been unfair to others? Have I been honest with myself? I circumnavigate these recollections and become convinced that knowing the cause of the suffering is part of the cure. But where to look? This lifetime? Or some other, and if so, which one? Is it karma for bad behaviour, or is it deeper than that? Am I on the wrong tack altogether? Pain might not just be about suffering, it could be about learning new wisdoms and expanding my horizons. Not a burden but an opportunity. What can pain really teach me?
Pain has fallen off, sneaking silently away in between breaths. It seems that even pain itself needs relief. Floating on my refound freedom, I am in the gulley between the high-sided slate slab cliffs. They curve away from me on both sides and I find myself moving towards the centre of a circle. Below me I catch a glimpse of reflections, shifting and dappling, light on water. To my right, a thin and hesitant shaft of clouded gold falls low across my vision, illuminating a solitary narrow ledge on the farthest slate wall. The beam flickers and falters, as I am drawn towards this tiny outcrop. I can see a man, sitting there alone, legs crossed, knees slightly overhanging the edge. There is a strange but comforting familiarity to this person, I recognise the roundness of his back as he leans his elbows on his thighs, I know the angle of the cheekbones, the untidy hair and the questions dancing on his tongue. Gladly I flow into myself and see the dreamscape from the lonely outcrop in the rock face.
At peace, I remember that each and every one of us can help heal ourselves. Even the simple desire to be well, to not be beaten down by ailments is enough to make a difference. But I know that I can do better than that. I sense golden flashing flakes of light, dancing gently all around me. As I breathe in, they move towards me and as I breathe out, they hover, like butterflies seeking nectar. Soon, they are flowing into me, forming a column that reaches above my head. Two strands appear, coalesced from the dancing flakes spiraling around. Connecting rods grow between them, forming a ladder that twists through the air, circling its way from the ethereal to the material. I see this as a DNA filament, life’s fundamental building block. As I watch, a single column burns down through the centre and the twining cords gradually become a pair of snakes, golden and poised. There is no fear, no venom, no discord, for this is the true Caduceus. Above the heads of the snakes a pair of wings appear. Knowledge flows freely through this symbol of The Messenger from the gods. Wisdom in healing, wisdom in writing, wisdom in negotiating. Knowledge in the sciences and all communications, these are all attributes that contribute to the spiritual growth of humanity. I breathe in this golden elixir, knowing that healing is taking place. The foundations of my illness lie in the disharmony between body and soul, and I must remember how to incorporate and utilise that which unites.
I feel it, faint at first, like a new shoot pushing against a seed case. A rhythmic pulse, a tiny heartbeat, flickers in the unbidden being nestling in my lung. I have no wish to nurture it, no desire to better our acquaintance, but still it lives, a parasite with no conscience. No care of damage created, just anxious and aware of its own survival. No thought of co-operation, only manipulation. Division is its heaven, unity its hell. Angry, roiling black clouds agitate the skies above, I catch glimpses of tempestuous deities, lightning streams from their fingertips. I sense the joy in this terrible storm, an acceptance of destruction that borders on insanity. Beneath my feet, buried in the burning heart of the ground and underlying the oceans I see particles of light, from ethereal indigo to lifeblood red, naturally attracted to each other but unable to draw together. Unseen barriers isolate them from each other, and like fading fireflies, they splutter uncertainly, starved of communion. I sense the frustration, the anger that each particle feels, forced to give away the very essence of itself before it can be made greater. Light and love, trapped in the heart of our world, become lost in longing. Darkness and division soar in freedom, reveling in the despair that corrodes the atmosphere.
In this bleak and emotional landscape I see lonely sentinels, tall and slender towers studded across the slate-flat and cracked terrain, stretching to the dim and gloomy horizon. In a shudder of understanding I see these as my secrets, those times in my life where I have chosen to ride out the storms by hiding. Those times when I have chosen blindness and have sleepwalked into separation from family and friends, lovers and partners. Those times when I have forgotten who I am and why I came here to schoolroom Earth. Now I see the truth of them, pinnacles of resistance left stranded and isolated from each other and the life that spawned them. My heart aches at those lost opportunities, the moments that could have brought harmony.
Pain re-awakes, drilling down through my shoulder, causing a sharp intake of breath and a needle-sharp stab in the outside corner of my lung. I am pinned to the bed, a butterfly on a board, memory of flight fading fast. I close my eyes, try to float above the crunching crystal sea of hurt, and breathe the golden healing light in to my being. It buoys me up, carries me as in a cradle and tips me gently forward. Glowing threads radiate from my feet, roots seeking a hold in this barren place. My skin thickens and hardens into bark, little vertical corrugations travel the length of the trunk. My arms become branches, my fingers clutch at the air like twigs, aiding my balance. A sudden flutter of twinges condense into a gnawing ache deep in my heartwood and I focus to find its cause. In a steady pulse, ripples of growth emanate from my centre and travel to the outer ends of my branches. All along the limbs, little buds appear and fresh green leaves unfurl from within. They have an inner glow that highlights them against the forbidding sky and I find that I can breathe in the darkness and breathe out light. The dreamscape brightens, bringing dawn to this desert, a rose petal sun peeps over the horizon, melting the angry clouds above and around.
The deep ache of pain is still there, but now I am not afraid of it. It tries to distract me, tries to eat away my will, my determination that I will not succumb to fear. I have been there, been lost in the landscape, walked the path with certainty either side of me and still managed to meander into indecision. I have tried to stand still, in time and space, tried to make sense of the conflict within, but fear always flicked my resolve carelessly aside. Part of me is trying to grow up, to evolve, to include my feelings and put behind me the divisive arguments that my intellect provides. Another part of me is gripping fiercely onto old habits, afraid of change, but worse still, afraid of losing control.
The sun has risen above the horizon, rose petal light has warmed, the distant slate hills have softened, dusty, grainy splashes of green colour the ground. The sky holds a promise of a very good day to come. Clearly heard is the chatter and gossip of wildlife. Scurrying squirrels, blindly curious moles, belligerent badgers. Skylarks and swallows swoop and soar. A hawk hovers, another dives in and out of the hedgerow. A trout bubbles the surface of a gentle stream which is ambling in tandem with the lane. In this world I am comfortable and inspired, at peace with myself but more than ready to question how I feel, or what I think. I don’t have a need to be defensive, my roots search deep within the soil, down into the rocky strata that underpin the fertile earth. I don’t have a need to be afraid, my branches reach into the air, but my spirit soars higher. I can sense, even if I can’t see, the angels and guardians who surround us all. I feel whole, complete. Yes, my body is a bit broken at this time, but it’s not finished. I feel a connection with this life and with other lives I have led. Above all, I can take my place in the pantheon, learning to utilise all my wisdoms, from the mundane to the spiritual. However, I must beware that I don’t respond to the reflex of fear, It’s almost as though there is, contained within me, another person, another character who has no wish to be counseled spiritually, and that can be summoned, like an unwanted genie, with a gentle rub of the intellect.
A flicker of fear trembles through my nervous system and dark clouds start to simmer on the horizon. Colour drains from the landscape, my feet grip the ground, terrified of letting go. The air thickens and I struggle for breath, a cold wind scours my face, freezing my tears in place. I cannot think deeply and I hear a real-life conversation as though from underwater. The words have no clarity but I know that this is because of me, not the speaker. I struggle to focus, I see the lips form the words and they begin to make sense but there is no context. I try to read the face but my intellect taints the meaning. That rational and protective being, my ego, my material self-believer, brooks no interference in its so-called ‘superiority’ over my spiritual self. I see the person speaking in front of me but instead of reading sympathy, I see antipathy. Instead of encouragement I detect dismissal, and instead of harmony I hear discord. My rational self would rather keep control of the ever-leakier vessel that is my body, than navigate to new shores under the direction of my spiritual self with the prospect of repair and renewal.
Hope has not departed; through the mists on the lonely moors of distraction in my dreamscape, I sense a flicker of sunlight. Perched on my ledge in the slate-angled cliff, I see a smudge of colour green the hills and soften the sharp edges between sky and ground. A sigh of relief lightens my breath, a flutter of heart beat awakens my curiousity, banishes the gloom. The sky fills with the view of the real-life conversation and I see myself from above. Gracefully and gratefully I take up the leaky vessel that is my body, and listen to the conversation unfold. I watch the face, read the concern in the questions and I accept the care that is offered. The words I speak are not defensive, not dismissive or destructive, and I suddenly understand that learning to love both my successes and my failings is the greatest gift. And it can be shared.
Part 8 / Curious Chronicles of the Lost Heart / Reap what you sow / Spring
In which the intrepid adventurer plays with fire, gives up on Algebra but still makes it to College. Will he get to stay there?
I suppose I should feel guilty, but I bloody don’t! After four terms of the misery I suffer from these people, my so-called compatriots at school, I think it’s their own fault. Metere quod seminas! Reap what you sow! I used to be afraid of what they would do to spoil my day, but now I’m just resigned to my cupboard being emptied all over the floor because it was ‘untidy.’ Or perhaps they would take my cap from me before we all have to walk through the town to the Cathedral on Sunday morning. And then punish me for not wearing it. All these things do make me angry and I save it up for the chance to get my own back. This casual but compulsive cruelty creates a cycle that it is hard not to get drawn into.
* * *
Two long oak tables, bleached from countless years of scrubbing, stand side by side in the Boarding House dining room. Seated around them are 22 boys, one housemaster and one headmaster. Long, heavy curtains keep out the winter night and industrially bright lamps glare down on the diners below. Conversation is punctuated by barely suppressed chuckles from the boy’s bubbling testosterone, it’s the last day before the Christmas holidays and the excitement is palpable. Giles, my arch companion and co-conspirator, sits opposite me and is holding forth halfway down the second table. As second-years we have risen slightly up the pecking order and like to pass on the benefits of our vast experience in school. This evening’s diatribe concerns end-of-term behaviour. Just how far are we allowed to go as we wreak a trail of havoc in the Boarding House?
Today’s servers clatter the plates down in front of us. It’s Friday and it’s macaroni cheese with tomatoes, bread, and marge. We are almost the last to be served and I’m poised with my fork over the plate when a shout is raised. Everyone looks up in surprise, I mean, no one shouts at meal times, especially with the Head present. But the shout is persistent; it’s Matron, and we can see her in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. She’s waving her arms and pointing over her head and suddenly we can see and smell smoke. Fear grips us all as we are marched out of the dining room, through the sitting room, along the corridor and into the classroom where I spent a large part of my first year. We sit in silence at the ancient name-carved desks reading whatever books were on the shelves. I exchange a furtive glance with Giles and feel an extra twinge of fear. I can see it in his eyes as well. We have both just pulled off the greatest coup in our ‘bad boy’ school career. Has it somehow slipped out of control?
In the week before term ends, it’s customary to play all kinds of tricks on your fellow boarders. Apple-pie beds were the most popular and, more rarely, ‘ragging’. This involved ripping blankets and sheets off beds, overturning chairs and generally making a mess of a room. Every dorm has five beds, but the Head and Second Boarder have a room halfway up the stairs. Compact and more comfortable, this room is always a target. And this year Giles and I had taken advantage of their absence, directly before dinner, to ‘rag’ their room, throwing blankets around and tipping books on the floor. Emptying drawers and cupboards, we then ran on up the stairs, through the Housemaster’s room and down through yet more stairs to the dining room. We were just in time for grace.
Fire engines arrive and, soon after, the Head comes into the classroom to talk to us: ‘The fire in the Head Boarder’s room is out. There was a lot of smoke from a blanket thrown over the heater. It would appear that someone has ‘ragged’ this room. As you are all aware, we take such misdemeanours very seriously and those responsible will be dealt with severely.’ To no-one’s surprise, there is silence in the room.
On our return to school, the smell of freshly applied institutional grey paint barely covers the sooty stink clinging to bedclothes and curtains. There is little talk of who the perpetrators were but the lower three dorms are confined to the school grounds for the first two weeks of term. This is a general warning rather than a determined headhunt, and no real deterrent to the truly disobedient. The Headmaster interviews each boarder at the beginning of a term. Usually, it’s about domestic, school, and social matters. Of course, he asks me if I was responsible for the fire in the seniors’ dormitory and, of course, I lie, explaining my late arrival for dinner by being in the music room, practicing for my Grade VI piano exam. I could sense his scepticism, see the disbelief in his eyes, and my fate hung in the balance for a few short moments. We both knew that I was a suspect, but he could not prove otherwise and my belief that dishonesty allows us to avoid responsibility for our actions is reaffirmed. My intuitions’ need to encourage me to feel remorse over my actions is drowned out by the pleasure of having got away with the crime.
Looking back to those days, I can see that this was another small but significant step on the path to losing my connection with my heart. Every time I lied so that I could win, I made myself deaf to the gentle inner voice reminding me of the importance of truth. And the admiration from others at my ‘success’ was more rewarding than the quiet joy of being honest.
It’s later in the term and we junior boarders are doing our homework in a classroom under the supervision of a senior boarder. Spring is well on the way and the early evening light streams through the windows. These are set high in the walls so that we cannot stare out at the school grounds, and I’m struggling with Algebra, a language that promises to unravel the secrets of the universe. As far as I care they can remain in a tangle, I’m not going to miss them, I am concerned with more mundane and mortal matters: simple survival on a daily basis.
Schoolwork is secondary when faced with competitive predators on all sides. From prefects and upwards through the system, corporal punishment is available as correction or torture, depending on the mindset of the perpetrator. And if that’s not enough, casual but hurtful violence is used to establish the pecking order. We all contribute to a vast web of deception. Lies are told, excuses invented because successfully evading responsibility for wrongdoing is rated more highly than taking the rap. Being cunning achieves better results than being honest. I am learning that it’s all about winning, regardless of cost to mind, body, or spirit.
Sitting two rows away from me is a boy who has been spending time courting my attention. I’ve no real idea why and feel no particular draw towards him. He’s a third year so our only contact is out of school hours. He catches my eye and nods. I look away but the boy in the desk next to me passes me a crumpled ball of paper. With some discretion I unroll it and read the message. The older boy is requesting a meeting in the corridor by the Biology Lab. The heavy numbing stink of formaldehyde that emanates from this room requires it to be off the beaten track so I know this is not a public get together. I also know that he is a smoker, but we all do that around the back of the bike shed, so neither is that the reason. It suddenly dawns on me that this older boy wants sex and I almost burst out laughing. I know that some of the boys ‘enjoy’ each others company, and it’s strongly rumoured that the Housemaster is fond of boys, he certainly likes caning their bare bottoms, mine included. But boys do nothing for me and in neat handwriting on the crumpled paper I firmly turn him down. I pass the ball of paper back but its passage is spotted by the senior boarder. The note is confiscated and read many times. I can guess exactly where this note will end up.
After dinner, I am summoned to the Housemaster’s room. I know this room well, every wall lined with books, some crowding up to the windows as if they could see outside, and some lying untidily asleep in the dusty corners. A blur of pipe tobacco and aftershave hangs in the air, collecting under the ceiling. He turns on the light and draws the curtains, sits behind his desk, and I stand uncomfortably in front of him. I suddenly wonder who is the most nervous? He taps his pipe out and, while thumbing new tobacco into the bowl, he asks, ‘Did you mean what you wrote on the note?’ I stare at him blankly for a moment, instinctively trying to work out the real meaning of this question before answering.
‘Of course sir.’ He’s wondering if I’m worried that I will be found out, that secretly there already was an arrangement between the boy and I. I’m suddenly learning very fast that sex, recently a subject only vaguely in my awareness, is rapidly showing itself to be yet another kind of game.
‘So you’ve never met him in this way before?’ My senses are on high alert now even though I have nothing to feel guilty about. For once I can be honest and don’t have to double-think or spin a web of alternative truth.
‘What about with other boys?’
‘No sir.’ He strikes a match and breathes the bowl of his pipe into glowing life.
‘Been smoking?’ Ah, a lie required. Every week I get caned for smoking, despite never having been caught cigarette in hand. Usually another smoker who has been caught, informs on me in the belief they will get a lesser punishment themselves. I know though, that I receive the same number of strokes that they do.
‘Well, with regards to the note, under no circumstances do we tolerate such behaviour. The boy will be expelled and you will not talk to anyone about this matter. Understand?’
‘However, you know that communication between boys during homework is forbidden?’
‘And were you focusing on your homework?’
There is no other answer, ‘No, sir.’
‘Drop your trousers, bend down. Four strokes.’
At the time my response to this event was numbed by the suddenness of it all: from crumpled note to the boy’s expulsion in the space of days. I did feel guilt at his departure but didn’t know why. I hadn’t done anything, yet felt like I must have, and I was rather startled by the severity of the school’s response. Sex was something never referred to by the teachers and we boys only ever traded casual and poorly informed conversations about it. In my world, sex had been as interesting as a planet alone on the edge of the universe. Suddenly, I had lost my easy innocence.
* * *
Several years and several jobs have passed by and once again I find myself in education. I’m attending a teacher training college in Yorkshire and enjoying the companionship of the students but struggling with the authorities.
I spend long hours at the piano, occasionally attending lessons but mostly improvising on all kinds of themes, especially with one particular pianist. There are two uprights in one room on opposite walls so we sit back to back. Our focus is our ears, listening for or creating key changes, climbing through moods and diving deep into our imaginations. This college specialises in the Arts so I spend time with actors, artists and writers. Yes, we are all there to learn to teach, but we can also explore our favoured media. There is a body of strong student opinion and I find myself drawn towards union politics. I get myself elected as the First Year Representative and have a seat on a variety of college committees. We don’t consider or discuss anything of great importance but there is a small caucus of tutors, lead by the Principal, who disapprove of this arrangement. This is the beginning of the downhill relationship between the Principal and me.
I attend a village school for my teaching practice, and although I struggle with some aspects, getting up early and paperwork just two examples, I am passed by my tutor, the classroom teacher and the Headmaster. The Principal has other ideas and vetoes their decision. The music department and I have our differences as well because I rarely go to instrument lessons and they begin to warn me that I could fail the course.
Despite these difficulties, my heart is actually happily involved in the whole process of student life. I can feel a connection with teaching and the schoolchildren. All this fighting with the College is, at its heart, just a difference of opinion between the system and me, and I am sure that there is a constructive path to be found through it all. Fellow students and tutors all hold their own opinions within the education structure and happily survive. I confidently set out to work hard, make amends, catch up on my studies and give my tutors reason to be proud.
My second teaching practice is in an even tinier school than the first, perched on a hill beside two terraces of red brick houses deep in mining country. Slag heaps, like giant molehills, litter the landscape, slate grey scars spoiling the verdant green mystery of the rolling hills. The local mine has closed so now there are only eighteen children, divided into three classes. I love it here and do much better than the first time, passing with flying colours. My celebrations are short-lived though. I receive a summons to see the Principal, who has never felt that I am really teacher material, and I suspect he hasn’t changed his mind.
His office has a wide bay of Georgian sash windows, looking out over the College grounds. Capability Brown, an 18th Century landscape designer, was given a sweeping hand here: brushstrokes of trees border an islanded lake and broad swathes of meadow unroll to the skyline, a distant edge circling around to enclose the whole. Directly outside his office, the ground slopes gently away, ambling down to the boathouse beside the lake. The grass is trimmed to perfection, looking brushed and combed. I sit down opposite the Principal, his silhouette dark against the sunny day. I have a sense of déja vu, feeling as though I have already heard the conversation that is about to unfold. I suspect that he wants me to leave college, but I’m in a dream and struggling to focus on the present. His voice meanders in and out of my thoughts, and I am dimly aware of refusing to resign. He informs me that the college reputation will suffer if I have to be expelled and I am startled back into the present. I look at him and realise he’s not concerned with me at all, and hear his next sentence with crystal clarity. ‘And you are starting a family, it will be very difficult to continue your studies.’
‘But not impossible,’ I reply. A long and considered silence follows and I see him carefully putting anger aside. Quietly and deliberately he says, ‘Well, I have no choice then but to expel you.’
There is nothing for me to say as I get up out of my chair and walk round his desk to the window. I look out at a spot five or six yards from where I stand. It was here, on a quiet Sunday, that I lay with Bean, my wife-to-be, in the cold Spring sun, in a madness of joy and carelessness. I know now that my career as a teacher is finished. I am not surprised, and to my amazement, I am not at all saddened.
Feeling the Principal’s impatience bristling up my spine, I turn to face him, smiling. ‘Sic fiat, So be it,’ I say.
I suppose I should feel guilty, but I bloody don’t!