GHOST LETTER 54

Chris R-1-4 Image by Christine Renney

It was just beginning to get light when I set out from the City and now it is almost dark. I have walked right through the daylight hours, from dawn to dusk.
The road on my right as I walked was blurred and noisy, like an out of tune radio or an old analogue TV but with no aerial connected, pointlessly searching for a station. But I didn’t look. Scanning the ground in front of my feet I hardly raised my eyes and was barely aware of what was up ahead, simply accepting that it was more of the same. Occasionally though I did stop and, turning from the road, I stared out over the fields, only for a few seconds but it was enough and somehow, almost subconsciously, it feels I have made my way to here.
I am standing on a high bank. I look down at the road and it is big and wide, a motorway. I recognise the names on the signs and I remember visiting some of these cities and I realise then that I must have driven on this road and on others like it.
Suddenly I discover that I want to go back, to re-visit one of these cities and, starting to move again, I choose one at random. There is a spot up ahead where the bank isn’t quite so steep and I will be able to make my way down.
But I realise just as suddenly I won’t be able to follow this road, that I can’t walk alongside it. No, I have to stay up here and I must find another way.

GHOST LETTER 53

Chris R-1-92 Image by Christine Renney

I have managed to abandon the City yet again but there it is; the point that rankles, a sharp needle stuck in my side as I walk, the fact that I have done this before, that I am doing it again.
I rarely think about my former existence, but I remember now how my past life had also been filled with repetition. But the rituals then had been more intimate and my connection with the places I frequented much more deeply ingrained and that these places had been rife with memories.
I wonder, is this what I am running from, am I trying to forget, to not feel this deeper connection. Drawing to a halt, I turn away from the busy road and, gazing out across the open fields, I realise that, if so, then I have failed.

JIGSAW

Chris R-1-231 Image by Christine Renney

To imply his job was monotonous and boring would be an understatement; the work that Jackson did was mind-numbing, soul destroying.
He joined together little pieces of metal, to be precise they were triangles of stainless steel. These triangles were thirty millimetres in length and each had a half moon-shaped cut-out on one side. When pushed together this formed a hole through which Jackson inserted a short bolt. He also attached a washer on either side and a nut which he tightened with the wrench provided. And that was it; a simple task that required a little dexterity and little thought. The finished parts were of course diamond shaped with the washer and bolt at the centre. Jackson had no idea as to what purpose they could possibly serve and he didn’t care.
The job was well paid and the shifts were short, although some would argue that three hours was a long time to sit at a task so uncomplicated and so uninspiring. But it was manageable, it was do-able. And the money was good and if Jackson worked enough shifts it was more than good, more than enough.

The factory was vast but the work rooms were small. The employees all toiled in isolation, each locked in what was basically a cell, with a bench and a chair and space enough to pace but only just.
The pieces were always dumped on top of the bench, an unruly heap waiting to be sorted and the finished parts collected in a grey plastic basket.
Jackson couldn’t help but wonder a little about the others and the work they did. Was it identical or did it vary? Were there subtle differences? But he didn’t ask, he understood instinctively that this was forbidden and wouldn’t be tolerated. And anyhow, it didn’t matter. Jackson really didn’t care.

As soon as he entered the room he sat and set to work. He didn’t dawdle and he didn’t pace. If Jackson didn’t complete the Quota during the allotted time he would be penalised. For every minute he ran over he would lose money but if Jackson ran over it wasn’t ever by more than a few minutes and more often than not he finished before time. Sometimes by as much as ten, fifteen or even twenty minutes’ early.
Jackson wondered if the others were as quick and efficient as he. But of course they were. After all, it wasn’t brain surgery and time was money and time spent away from here was precious.

THE BOX

Chris R-1-230 Image by Christine Renney

Assignment: Poem
Subject: A Box

Quandary: With or without contents

He wrote to her
but his correspondence
was incomplete
simply leaving a space
where a letter should be
his words still had shape
the whole, some sort of form

His letters
making their way
from the in-tray
eventually rested in
increasingly less breakable code
in the bottom drawer of her desk
in a small cardboard box

THE MODEL

Chris R-1-227 Image by Christine Renney

If the model had been bigger it wouldn’t have survived, someone would have destroyed it years ago, taken a hammer and smashed it to smithereens. But the baseboard was a little less than a metre square and it fitted easily into the back of a small van or a large estate car and so moving it from place to place hadn’t ever been that difficult, not too much of a task. When it outstayed its welcome there was always someone able to transport it and somewhere else willing to take it. And so the model had survived and it had languished in little museums and dusty civic centres and draughty village halls. Over the years people had looked at it and a lot of them had been impressed. But no-one had really, really looked at it, not in the way he did. Jacob was the first to study and scrutinise it and to recognise just how delicate, how intricate and extraordinary it was.

The model was a sprawling cityscape of high-rise towers, a section of a much larger metropolis. It wasn’t a re-creation of a particular place, not New York or Singapore or Chicago or Hong Kong. This city was the model makers’ invention and no attempt had been made to conjure anything futuristic or other-worldly. No, this place was representative of the here and now, a city that had once been high-tech and ultra modern but was quickly fading, losing its lustre and its glow.
The model was constructed from molded plastic and the paintwork was exquisite. It had been the model maker’s forte, the masterstroke. At first glance the tower blocks appeared identical and it was only when you looked closely that you noticed the subtle differences and could see the wealth of tiny detail and Jacob couldn’t stop looking.

As he moved around the model that first afternoon and gazed down into it and it snatched the hours away from him, he wracked his brain for an analogy. The best he could come up with was that it was a little like staring at a computer generated image on a screen. A scene from a game perhaps or a video installation. A mid twentieth century city that has become jaded and has somehow lost its way. A place where no-one wants to be, certainly not somewhere that Jacob would want to go and yet he couldn’t stop looking.

Squinting in the bright sunlight, Jacob felt giddy and disoriented. Stumbling he managed to reach the bench in front of the community hall and he sat. Gradually he began to focus again and, looking up, he realised that it was a beautiful evening. After standing for so long in front of the model he needed to stretch his legs and started to walk.
Jacob had lived in this small town since he was a child and he couldn’t remember ever being anywhere else. But, as he walked through the narrow streets and alongside the rows of Georgian and Victorian houses, it began to dawn on him that he had not looked properly at the place in years. Moving out across the market square he felt like a stranger but no, not a stranger, like someone returning to their home town after a long journey and discovering it anew. It felt good and Jacob considered himself to be lucky, lucky to be here and yet he knew that, in the morning, he would re-visit the community hall and look again at the model. That he would look at it as often as he could and for as long as he was able.

GHOST LETTER 52

Chris R-1-174 Image by Mark Renney

The Bus Station is no longer a beacon, a light I can head toward at night or a place where I can just fleetingly expose myself to a little daytime bustle or I can step into from out of the cold and warm my hands on a polystyrene cup of weak but scalding hot tea.
The Station’s usefulness for me is fast fading and yet I am here all of the time now. I stalk its environs and it is hardly ever out of my sight and never clear of my mind. I am haunted by it or more accurately I am the one who haunts the Station. I am an ethereal presence, hovering above the ground, a waft of smoke with no reflection in the glass. But if they looked, if the rush hour regulars really, really looked and not just when they arrive but also when they leave, if they looked back from the windows of their buses they would see me standing here, still waiting.

MASTERPIECES II

Chris R-1-204 Image by Christine Renney

I was flicking through the TV channels the other night
A skinhead appeared on the screen
An actor in front of a black backdrop
Running on the spot
Shouting into the living room
Resolute
But lonely and desperate,
Like the jagged blue ink letters
Stamped on his forehead
He was for real

Anyway, I stuck with it
The director said: I hope they gain something
They said, in their cells, it’s a laugh
Anything that got them out for a while
One bloke, he started quoting Nietzsche
Reworking his philosophy to fit his life
Prison being part of it, for him, what he did

The skinhead said he was taking the street with him
If he wasn’t here that’s where he’d be
Getting a hit, stealing a car, bricking shop windows
Acting these out could be good
I won’t be acting said the skinhead
It’s gonna be scary
Something like they’ve never seen before

(I thought about chaperoned school trips
Edinburgh and Stratford-upon-Avon
Holidays, France and Filey
The Donkey Derby)

After the first night
They were buzzing
As good as stealing a car
Better pouring it out for the people who
Listened and applauded
The Nietzsche bloke, he got onto culture shocks

(I remembered reading my own story in class at school
I thought about Warhol and his quote about fame
And then my wedding
My wife
My best man
And being his best man
I thought about the old man
And his poems
And his
Masterpieces)

THE FOLLOWING

Chris R-1-194 Image by Christine Renney

Ella wouldn’t give in. She had plagued Stephen with questions, forcing him to answer. But he was the boy who didn’t know, who supposed. He was the boy who wouldn’t say, who couldn’t commit and he answered mostly in shrugs.
When Michael joined them and decided to make an effort, she knew it was for her or at least that it was because of her. If he hadn’t, would she have persevered? Persisted in her pursuit of Stephen? Ella asked herself this constantly but found no answer. She was now the one who didn’t know, wouldn’t say, couldn’t say. She was the one now plagued with questions.
She wanted desperately to remember what he had been like before his brother died. But that Stephen was lost to her. All she had now was a post-tragedy version of Stephen, the one she had followed. Was it possible that he had once been like Michael? Full to brimming with questions of his own and a wanting for answers?
She remembered often and easily being back there in that little room. Music coming from the stereo and Stephen laying on his bed. Barely breathing or so it had seemed but managing somehow to draw in all of the air.
Michael had stepped outside. She had hoped at first it was to use the bathroom but he had been gone for almost an hour. He must have gone downstairs to the kitchen for a drink or something to eat or most probably both.
Ella listened to the music, a voice and a guitar ringing out despite the dull echo and the crackle and hiss. Despite the years and all that had happened since, the singer was making himself heard.
When it stopped, Stephen moved at last in order to turn the record.
‘Who is it?’ she asked.
‘What?’
‘The singer, who is it?’
Stephen was holding the record with both hands like a piece of delicate china. He looked down at the label.
‘Robert Johnson’, he said.
‘It’s old’, Ella said and blushed.
‘Yeah?’
‘But you like it?’ Ella asked clumsily.
‘Yeah’.
‘Why’, she pressed, ‘why do you like it?’
‘I don’t know, I just do.’
Ella had wanted to say more but the music was old and unfamiliar and she found it oppressive. She had wanted to force this, make it into something, a conversation in which they said things that were both clever and profound. But Robert Johnson had begun again and Stephen didn’t want to talk, he wanted to listen. Ella understood now that it was because for as long as the music was there he didn’t have to be.
How much longer did she sit and wait? She was sure she could hear Michael above the music crashing around down in the kitchen. Stephen had turned, was laying on his side, face to the wall. Carefully, and very quietly, she left him, stood in the doorway and glanced back.
She would return with Michael who would noisily interrupt, talk over the music, disregard and break any kind of spell that it might be capable of casting.

Michael had been following her. He was all too aware now of just how far he would go, to what levels he would push and climb so that he could get close to her. Back then he hadn’t given it a second thought and like a mangy dog he had trailed behind her and of course Stephen. Stephen was the key, he was Michael’s way to her.
Ella had become an obsession and over the course of that summer in Stephen’s room both it and Michael had been able to fester until it had reached a decidedly unhealthy pitch. He couldn’t have been more excessive or elaborate in his efforts to impress her and Stephen’s room had proved the perfect platform where he could perform unhindered.
Ella laughed at his jokes. She listened to him and he to her. Each day they would begin afresh sparring together and really getting to know each other. But she was forever glancing a little beyond wherever he happened to be sitting or standing. She was talking with him but looking at Stephen, who lay immobile on the bed or was at his records, sifting through them, searching for something and back then Michael had been perplexed as to what it could be.
The collection depressed him, it was too big. It didn’t seem feasible to him that a fifteen year old boy could own so many records. He realised now that they must have belonged to his brother. Had been handed down, an unwanted inheritance, unwieldy and hard to fathom.
He had watched the girls at school pining for Stephen, yearning from afar. He had wondered now if Stephen’s grief had been part of the attraction, if it had helped to fuel their desire. A few, the bravest and most stunning, had ventured close and they tried to draw him but it couldn’t be done. And humiliated, they had to turn and walk away. They resented him then, those elite and beautiful few whilst the others wanted him all the more and yearned a little harder.
Increasingly, Michael had begun to feel trapped in that little room with Stephen and Ella the girl who yearned the hardest, the one who refused to turn and walk away.

At regular intervals, Michael started to escape. He would make himself a mug of coffee and sit at the pine table, stretch out his legs and relax. He enjoyed the sunshine streaming through the patio windows and each time he absconded he lingered for a little longer. Making himself comfortable in that unfamiliar kitchen, he helped himself to a biscuit or two and before long he was rifling through the cupboards, eating cakes and crisps, cheese and crackers, and guzzling down glass after glass of fresh orange juice and emptying giant plastic bottles of cola.
Ella was easily read. She had a face like an open book and each time Michael returned she was relieved. She tried to hide it, was annoyed with him. She turned quickly and started to sulk but just fleetingly it was there and he didn’t miss it.
Michael felt guilty and resented her a little for making him feel like that. He hadn’t done anything wrong; well, he had helped himself uninvited to food and drink but he had been a guest, Stephen’s friend or at least he had tried to be.
Ella didn’t interrogate him, didn’t ask what he had been doing or why it has taken so long? And although for a few minutes it was awkward between them he would manage to win her over and eventually they would pick up from where they had left off, their voices once again becoming a part of that little room.

Ella had caught him red-handed and he turned red in the face as she leaned over the table and peered down at the mess he had made; the strewn wrappers, the crumbs and the coffee stains.
‘Hope you’re going to clean up after yourself,’ she said.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I always do.’
‘You’ve made yourself at home down here,’ she stated.
‘Yeah,’ Michael looked up at her, defiant. ‘I suppose. Do you want a drink?’ he asked.
‘Yeah.’
‘What do you want? Juice, coffee, coke?’
‘A diet Coke,’ Ella laughed. She sat in the chair opposite him and settling she sighed.
‘I think I can manage that.’
Michael stood and as he did they heard Stephen moving on the landing above. Neither of them moved until they could hear him clattering about in the bathroom, rummaging for something.
Michael pushed the glass of coke across the table. He refilled the kettle and switched it on. They watched it boil as they listened to Stephen walking back to his room. He seemed to be taking an eternity and his every footfall was far too heavy and leaden for such a skinny boy. They heard him collapse on the bed and at last he was still, with Ella and Michael sipping at their drinks, making them last, putting it off.
The music had stopped and from where she sat, closest to the door, Ella could hear the record, the Robert Johnson record still turning, the needle caught in the run-out groove and looping unattended.

THE LION’S DEN

Chris R-1-188 Image by Christine Renney

Mum owned a phonogram and
A collection of 45’s
Marty Wilde, Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele
The Everly’s and a host of others
Did battle and she danced
Paul was crawling then and I ran amok
My first playground
And I added, with my feet,
To the sound
She would lift Paul above her head
And we moved in disarray
To Cliff’s ‘Living Doll’
Or maybe Elvis singing ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’

One night mum dreamt Paul and I
Were in a lion’s den
The lazy males lounging expectantly
As the females paced around us
Moving in for the kill
She woke in fright
Climbed from her bed
And crept quietly into our room
Leaning over our cots
Checking to see we were still breathing
And completely unmauled