A Private Person Travels The World Home
A calm day, with the sun more a diffusion than a source. A single ship, a pirate station called Radio Caroline, was anchored upon the sea’s unsettling sheen. Charles watched its mast wavering near stock-still as it transmitted popular music over the Essex coast towards London. Being a writer, Charles was interested in all forms of communication and he turned to his companion, a woman, whose name he had forgotten, and announced:
“It’s a pity that all forms of transport cannot double up on duties.”
He laughed, imagining a phantasmagoria of old and new-fangled radio stations, on rails, buoyed up simply by air, free wheeling and, yes, waterborne like mythic vessels on spice trails from Clacton-on-Sea to Samarkand or ancient Cathay…
His mind drifted, often working in slow gear yet covering much ground–rather like his magnum opus, a written work, which had been in preparation now for several years. In fact, unknown to anybody but himself, it was gradually being published piecemeal in the guise of Charles’ independent short stories, prose-poems and vignettes within multifarious magazines, journals and books world-wide — some of them very obscure or amateurish, others pukka professional outlets, hundreds ranging across this spectrum.
Only in hindsight, presumably when Charles was dead, would the reading public begin to reconcile the leviathan of his work, thus cohering the disparate widespread elements into a composite whole; gaining an organic gestalt of plot from the broadcast kaleidoscope of printed appearances.
Why Charles wrote most of his stories in the first person singular was, supposedly, because he was one.
I first met buxom Mygold on bait market day, when the streets were caught alive with sea smells. The man whom I knew in the area, by the name of Fisher Codge, happened to be hanging hooks along his washing line.
‘Goodja day, Charles,’ Fisher Codge called to me, as he proceeded to lay his nets to dry over the outside coal bunker.
‘Same to you, Codge, I’m sure,’ I rejoined, leaning over his backyard fence, ready to while away the rest of the day in his company. I had nothing else to do–better than going up to the wharf side where the market loafers were bound to be surly, with there not being much trade about these days.
Although the fishmongers did a fitful business from their varicose-veined slabs of marble, it did not warrant scraping off the scale-curds afterwards.
‘There is a glut of bait, Codge,’ I said glumly, motioning towards the knot of wriggling worm-sized maggots in the wicker basket that I carried.
‘There be more bait than fish, ‘tis true, Charles,’ announced Fisher Codge, ‘an’ there’ll come a day, I be bound, when people’ll ‘ave to turn to bait isself to feed their tummies. Then it’ll shoot up in price agin, don’ be affeared.’ He then hugged my neck closer, hissing: ‘They do say the earth isself is one great big codling.’ I nodded, bemused at his logic.
Then, suddenly, quite unpremeditated, Mygold lurched down Fisher Codge’s back steps which, if I only had my eyes about me, I would have seen had lately been donkey-stoned a waxen red. Indeed, being donkey-stoned was better than being tickled with a bunny cloth any day. But all my eyes were for this unexpected vision of Mygold..
‘Charles, I’ll ‘duce yer to me niece,’ he said.
Still nursing my neck in the crook of his arm, Codge pointed at his niece with a fish hook he had been sharpening with a huge rutted file.
‘Her name be Mygold,’ he added.
I was temporarily speechless, unusual for a bait-seller. I knew her name already, by reputation rather than physical presence; she had come to stay with her Uncle Codge from a village further up the coast.
‘Mygold, this be Charles. an ol’ mate of mine.’
And, saying this, Codge kissed me lightly on the pate, as if this was a man’s way of knighting a mate. He didn’t know I had wandered in the direction of his homestead, purely to see Mygold for my own eyes : a single minded purpose which had evidently been forgotten even by myself–until now.
Mygold made a song and dance of ignoring me. Having started to pick fish fingers from the large bowl she was lugging and, laying them out in the sunshine on the corrugated roof of the outside privy, she hummed a tunelessness that matched her demeanour.
I almost sensed the live weight of her bosom in my hands. The expanse of her bottom thrust towards me as she placed the bowl on the ground to allow her to reach further up the privy roof. When she finally turned towards me, I was faced with the most memorable features. Once seen, hopefully forgotten. Her eyes, although set back into the jowls, were large filmy oyster beds. Her nose, long and slender, with mean pinprick nostrils. Her mouth, wide and wet, with a slippery customer lolling inside. Her ears so petite they were tantamount to gills. Her hair scrawled back into wayward plaits of bottle-green tendrils.
This Mygold smiled. Codge winked. I did not know where to put my face.
She returned to the house, expecting me to follow. I cringed at the trail of glisten she left behind in her wake up the red donkey-stoning of the back steps.
‘Come in fer a while, Charlss, why don’t yer’?’ Codge took my arm. I felt the piercing jab of a fish-hook in the back of my neck, as he heartily led me up the garden path.
‘No, Codge, I got to get on,’ I stammered.
‘Can’t yer spare ‘alf an ‘our fer a nice cuppa with yer ol’ mate. These ‘ere fish fingers on the privy roof may be piping hot by then and you can partake of a few afore yer go.’
I could not free myself, since the curved copper claw had by now reached the nodules within my back. I succumbed to the fate that often awaited an honest gentleman like me. To be hooked, lined and sinkered, all before teatime.
‘Not very salubrious those fish fingers on the privy roof.’
The woman spoke these words, although it would have been more appropriate for Charles to have uttered them first, bearing in mind his own thoughts were along the same lines.
He resumed gazing towards the Radio Caroline ship, desperate for a new twist, a new plot–simultaneously altering the direction of his concerns towards the next story…
Charles was handed a black and white photograph by a passing stranger. It contained two young ladies leaning over cups of tea in a shabby kitchen. With the light shafting from the side, like a Vermeer painting, its frozen tableau of time showed one young lady weighing in her mind something the other just said. I was to enter that kitchen via a hallful of weak-eyed home-lovers, those wan faced mooners who were not aware of the streets outside. They merely lowered their faces, hoping that I would even go away before I came.
I was on my way to find Fisher Codge again so as to give him a piece of my mind., but here I was somehow diverted. I had earlier found a man opening slots in the road with little more than his bare hands and a dock extractor. ‘My good man, why are you perforating the ground?’ I queried, pointing to my mouth.
‘Because Mr Codge said.’
‘Well, carry on then, but I fail to see the use.’
‘You’ll have to see Mr Codge about that.’
Further on, I saw two young ladies, the same as those in the photograph, squatting over some other slots. Women, I knew, often took relief together, even hefty ones, thus making it a social occasion. These were chattering a score to a dozen over their day’s doings. I turned my head bashfully, but they trilled: ‘Don’t worry, gent, we don’t mind you having a look at our bottoms.’ Against my better judgement, I ignored them and rounded the corner of the road, only to find more slots stinking to high heaven. I pressed my nostrils together, but the stench was that strong, I could still smell it in the depths of my lungs without breathing.
At last, I came to Codge’s house again, outside of which were a group of saucer-eyed crones, with mounds of quills and inkpots, playing a game that entailed crossing out numbers. One shouted the numbers on the street doors and the other shouted: ‘House!’ The stench was now so mind-blowing that I wondered why they should play here of all places.
‘Mr Codge, he be waiting for you inside. Go right in, don’t bother about the door,’ croaked the number caller. Meantime, the two young ladies had caught up and, hitching their trews, curtseyed me into that house I mentioned to you before. They followed me as I weaved between the home-lovers in the dark hallway. These fingered my trouser turn-ups as I passed. I was led into a kitchen and told to sit at a small table, which seemed to be covered with all the means of infusing tea.
The two young ladies draped themselves around the place, their eyes staring lushly at me. I wondered if they were friends of Mygold’s.
I crossed my legs. And then I suddenly saw that Codge was already there. He crawled from under the sink where he had evidently been turning an ancient spanner; his narrow head of hair was covered in dead tea-leaves. I broke the sudden silence:
‘What I want to say, Codge…’ I started.
‘Charles, you look diff-rent.”
I nodded, as if putting the very words into his mouth, and I continued with not even the merest pause: ‘Yes, Codge, as you know, me being here is not right and to put it more bluntly, I’m out of my age, out of my time, but most definitely not out of my head. I guess you’re practised in the art of shifting and can you manage all these trappings?’ I swept my hand around me, showing that the kitchen was cluttered with household articles everywhere and a particularly impressive book-shaped, black-skinnned ledger resting on the cooker.
He wiped his hands on his backside and offered one like a fish. I grasped it heartily. I then suddenly found myself in the age of sanitation when a water closet worth its salt could be flushed upon the merest tilt of a ballcock reacting to the spinning of the world. Indeed, I was soon to learn that the moon controlled the tides of toilets, untouched by human hands and I was glad to have been instrumental in placing Codge and his entourage elsewhere and whensoever. But on mulling it over, with all these modern gadgets, it seems so very unscientific and potentially messy to use the fingers of one’s hand, fingers only covered by the merest piece of perforated tissue. There must be a better way. And, no doubt, Codge is, even now, knitting his brows over this problem, testing by hand as well as bottom.
The old photo is now a memento. I wonder what one of the young ladies has just said, being weighed by the other. ‘Why do we always play house-housey with the same card and the same numbers?’ or ‘Blimey, he just goosed me!’ or ‘This tea’s not strong enough, not nearly brown enough!’ I could not help thinking one of them really should have offered taking tea to the home-lovers in the hall. After all, Codge was working his fingers to the bone for the sake of easing the friction of the earth through air and space.
In any event, he is no doubt still under the sink grappling with leaks as well as continental shift. I’m a home-lover myself these days, so there is plenty of time for my hobbies; studying old family trees in the black ledger, fathoming algorithms and time slots, unravelling the miscegenations of race and mythos, testing whether aunts came first, or nephews–and who could have possibly taken the photo.
When Charles and the woman returned to the bungalow, two minutes from the sea front, he suddenly remembered they shouldn’t be in residence there at all. The bungalow belonged to Charles’ friend, Fisher Codge, who was abroad at the moment. There was an element of excuse inasmuch as Fisher had often invited Charles and his various lady friends to stay and, indeed, once, said Charles could occupy the bungalow whenever Fisher was absent. But that invitation had unspokenly entailed a need for pre-arrangement, such as establishing means of access and clearance with the neighbours, instead of what had actually happened on this occasion, with Charles and the woman arriving unannounced and taking advantage of a secret knowledge as to the whereabouts of a hidden door-key. And flannelling the initially suspicious neighbours had not been difficult.
Yet, Charles did feel guilty in using Fisher’s store cupboard and his residual wardrobe. The woman had egged Charles on but, of course, she did not know Fisher, nor he her, for that matter.
Today, upon reaching the Bungalow, Charles felt over-warm since, understandably, Fisher had not left behind any summer clothes. So, the garb Charles was forced to wear was often thickly woven and itchy, especially with the dry hot weather fast becoming a full-blooded drought. He stripped to the waist and turned on Fisher’s wireless, where the pirate Radio Caroline station came through as strongly as one would expect in the circumstances. The music being played was an old Dire Straits hit, followed by an apt song from Status Quo. Then the Fortunes, and a long forgotten record by an even more forgotten group whose name Charles barely caught. Mississippi, it sounded like. Or Pussy Cat; Or Mygold.
The woman, by this time had also removed some clothing, falling short, however, of a near-nakedness that some modern-minded ladies didn’t even eschew in public. Charles recognised the extenuation of her actually owning the clothes she removed. Wear them or wear them not, they were hers to shed, disposing of them unfolded upon Fisher’s carpet, as opposed to erecting them on hangers as Charles had chosen to do with Fisher’s things.
‘I’ve always liked that record,’ she said.
‘Not heard it before, so I can’t remember it,’ replied Charles, resting his hand on her bare shoulder. She was sitting in Fisher’s armchair, flipping through the pages of a thick magazine, one full of photographs of fashionable ladies, the variety of reading material often left in waiting rooms, with text between the pictures that hardly anybody ever read. So who wrote them and who got paid for these unread [and probably unreadable] words?
Charles suddenly spotted a passage that seemed familiar. And then another.. recognisable words. Words from Charles’ own vocabulary. In fact, someone had strung them together in a way that was more than simply familiar. A passage of prose he had written this morning– on the beach…at a time before the woman had even woken up, let alone dragged her body from Fisher’s bed.
A new story that resisted giving way to the two stories that had gone before…
‘All aboard for the Motorway!’
I was in sole charge, but did I realise the precariousness of my position and the complexities of the various passengers’ travel arrangements?
Fisher Codge, there remains no doubt, was one such passenger, despite acting officiously like a member of staff.
The horizon was cluttered with steel works, in all shapes and sizes of chimney. The strange thing was that smoke seemed to be emitted from crevices and orifices–everywhere, indeed, except from the tips of the chimneys.
Codge would have made polite conversation with me, but I was busy ordering luggage.
Hillocks were like redoubts from the night land; except the journey was wholly during daylight hours.
One fellow passenger, whose luggage was the last I handled, was called Mygold. I ought to tell you she was female, since she acted and looked like something different. She seemed someone who could order matters. The only problem was that she was accompanied by some unruly children. And children did not count as luggage, unfortunately; if we could have stowed them with the critter crates, this would have been a tale of cruelty and, being a true tale, cruelty indeed.
Horrid, those children, despite looking like me. Something I put out of my mind, or tried to so so, as they were urchins with a propensity for shouting and activating the automatic doors by a method a little more brutal than telekinesis. They were dressed as boys and acted likewise.
But I didn’t know what had hit me when a puckered lady ensconced herself in the same carriage as Mygold and myself, complete with far too many suitcases for one person to need, let alone carry. The trouble was that Codge had departed to start the engine from the front and the puckered lady needed to order her unseemly baggage. I could have strangled her. She was worse than the worst of Mygold’s brood. I looked longingly at the leather strap hanging on the door to the outside world. If only it were not fixed to the window…
‘You’re going to the Motorway?’ I asked.
Why I asked such a question is beyond me now, since there were no intermediate stops. Indeed, I can’t remember whether I asked it of the puckered lady or of Mygold or of the general gathering for anybody to pick up. Imagine my surprise when one of the children piped up, thus: ‘Yep.’
The carriage was, of course, a sleeper, with the journey being so long [albeit wholly daylit]. I could not, for the life of me, envisage the bedding arrangements. If we were all of a similar sex it may have been easier. What was more, I could see the same thoughts were going through the puckered lady’s mind.
It was then that the train’s tannoy barked into life, with Codge having reached the front but it didn’t seem to be his voice: ‘I wish all travellers to the Motorway a speedy and comfortable journey. I am now dis-applying the brakes… turning the lever to allow the steam to travel to…” And so he droned on, explaining every manoeuvre of his cross-discipline job. I yearned for the old days when rail staff were not quite so polite and informative. I settled back into my seat, forgetting I was a member of the train’s staff, too. I closed my eyes on all my worries and waited for the first tunnel; the train slowly and majestically drew out from the terminus, amid cheers from spotters at the sight of yet another punctual departure. I soon fell asleep and joined Mygold in a mutual dream. Whether I was merely dreaming our mutuality I would never eventually discover.
When I woke, we were in the middle of a tunnel, it would seem, as it was dark inside and outside. Luckily, the children had not been as noisy as I had dreaded. I simply heard them in some kind of quiet story-telling game, one that included Chinese Whispers, as well as Dares. The puckered lady, well, I could no longer hear her nagging whines.
‘Has she gone to the necessarium?’ I asked, startling myself with the sound of my own voice. Indeed, I had awoken unaccountably seething with rage, so much so I didn’t feel there were enough outlets for the fuming to escape. There came one of the children’s whisper, which may or may not have been intended as an answer, thus: ‘Yep’.
I heard the comforting sounds of Mygold still snoring. Whatever the case, I relaxed, but we still had to cope with the puckered lady’s unwieldy luggage. But I did have a hard shoulder. Lucky that.
Charles snatched the magazine, ignoring the woman’s bleat of aggravation, and stared at its cover. Its date was several years ago, which was not surprising if it was one of those stale waiting room time-fillers.
But he had only written those paragraphs this morning. Surely he would have recalled reading this magazine before, even if absentmindedly, as one does. But he never read such things. They were beneath the likes of him, after all. His forte was prose meticulously crafted with a swelling pride that only wordsmiths of the highest calibre could wield. The throwaway lines of this garbage in a glossy fashion journal could be nothing to do with Charles.
Fisher’s wireless was now pumping forth a more modern noise, tastelessly, a driving beat. He flicked the switch off.
‘Whatever’s the matter with you?’ the woman asked. He didn’t dare say anything in reply, in case it had already been said before. A paranoia of plagiarism plagued him: a vulnerability of doubts surrounding even the originality of himself as a person.
Outside, he heard the crude tinkling tunes of an ice-cream van as it drew up near Fisher’s bungalow, reminding Charles of childhood days when such sounds were a beckoning thrill, stirring him to plead with his mother for a shilling to buy an Orange Maid. Or was it only a threepenny bit?
The following morning Charles again rose early, abandoning the woman, dead to the world, in Fisher’s bed.
The sun, as yesterday, diffused rather than shone. Only the empty sea would be cold enough. The day was still too young for the holiday yachts: like mosquitoes kissing a millpond, he remembered yesterday’s yachts. He vaguely saw a distant tanker: like a steel-works or, eventually, a breeze-block upon the wide horizon’s tightrope. Or was it becoming a single pirate spice rigger bearing a strange book symbol on its blossoming sail? A blossoming sail, despite the lack of wind.
One golden day some sense would be made of the world, he hoped, as he opened his notebook to copy out his thoughts. Sooner or later, someone might even understand the words he wrote. But, soon, many of the world’s dreary home-lovers would be arriving from all points of the temporal compass, having threaded the ultimate tunnel vision.
Charles chucked the notebook away into the sea and started the day’s first sandcastle, as if Planet Earth were a giant potter’s wheel.
He’d forgotten his own first person singular name. But somehow he remembered the woman’s…
A radio station mast swayed on the horizon.
Full circle upon a private trip was yet one more pirate person.