Monday, 8 December 2014

Look There, On The Rocks

'It looks like it will clear up soon enough,' the captain said before they set sail.  'But for the time being, just roll with the punches, ladies and lads. You're with the Merlin of Mariners, the wizard of the west seas.'

The ship captained by the Merlin of Mariners was named the Kay Two, a large wise-looking old steamboat which had ferried tourists to and from the islands throughout its busy existence.   Captain Merlin liked to tease his passengers when they asked why she was named Kay Two.  You would imagine there was a story behind the name, but in fact, the only story behind it was the want of having a story to tell.  Sometimes she was Kay Two because Kay One had run aground off the coast of Spain during a fierce storm.  Sometimes Kay Two after Kay One, the girl who broke Captain Merlin's heart back in the days when he was just  a lowly cabin boy with the soul of a poet.  Sometimes Kay Two after the famous mountain to publicise its strength and savagery when tested and hopefully scare the oceans.  He changed the story around to suit his mood.  The steamboat was an unpopular vessel, too difficult to maintain and environmentally problematic, so it tended to be frowned upon as a relic, its thermodynamic genius underappreciated.  However it still had its part to play in the tourism game regardless of modern opinion, its vintage charm proving attractive to nostalgia lovers in their sprinkled hordes.  Lucy was one of ten such enthusiastic tourists now who had boarded the Kay Two for a short trip to the islands off the coast of Kerry.  Most of her fellow passengers were older belated holidaymakers, and there was at least one younger couple there, in idyllic embrace, who were quite content to brave the harsh weather in the hope of seeing the puffins.  That young couple were snuggled up together now, in matching yellow life-jackets, whispering delicate phrases of romantic assurance to one another, whilst gazing overboard into a cloudy abyss. 

Earlier that day, Eddie had left her standing at the hotel with her oversized raincoat flailing in the wind and holding a soggy leaflet.  She'd looked like a right fool standing there with that bloody raincoat on as he jogged off to wherever with his vulgar golf umbrella.  Took a last look at the leaflet she'd picked up in the hotel lobby.   'Puffin Island Steamboat' was blotched from the rain and barely readable anymore.  She'd dumped it in the nearest bin, and headed for the harbour.

As the Kay Two advanced out to sea, the rain sharpened and the wind pushed harder.  There were yelps to be heard from passengers as the boat ploughed into the gnarling waves.   'Brace yourselves, folks,' cried Captain Merlin from the top deck.  A shower of ice pebbles battered them as the boat was whipped around in the momentary chaos.  Any time soon, they would be ripped to smithereens.  While the others covered their faces, Lucy lifted hers up to the attack, and let the cold bullets and bluster pound her head-on.   She enjoyed being in this death tumbling around in a washing machine or something....maybe a good time to do some deep personal cleansing.  Captain Merlin also seemed to be doing his laundry out here, throwing himself at the ocean, daring the wind, releasing his demons to meet those of his apprentice Ahab, Lucy thought......I stab at thee....I stab at thee....I spit my last breath at you, you washing machine.

Lucy just wanted to see the puffins.  It was all she'd talked about in the days and weeks leading up.  'Forget the puffins, I'm not going out in this rain,' Eddie had said to her that morning after breakfast and he'd had a point, to be fair.  It was a horrible day and they no longer had time in their schedule to procrastinate, these being the final few hours of the trip.  They had put the puffins off to the last day and now the heavens were disagreeing.  It was so cold and damp the puffins would probably be tucked up indoors anyway, in their puffin-shaped caves on the cliffs.  'If you really want to see the puffins, go by your selfish self.'

Lucy could just about make out Puffin Island through the fog and frenzy in front of her.  It looked ghostly and inhospitable.  In the pictures she had seen, it looked like the most peaceful and wonderful place on Earth.  Those images suggested the kind of enchanted place that every individual dreamed of owning, their own concealed world of calm and beauty, away from the clamour and the perils of the everyday.   Those images diverged from the bleak violent landscape that now loomed.  That song 'I am a rock, I am an island'.  That metaphor didn't work in this case as the island seemed somewhat alien to human understanding.  The 'I' could never get near this rock, let alone be it.  It didn't look like a place for humans at all.  Not what the postcard said.  Great song though, no offence to Paul Simon.  

The island was OFFICIALLY not meant for humankind.  Tourist boats usually just drifted around it so that the passengers had an opportunity to view the birds.  Special permission was required in order to board the island, and this was generally only offered to researchers and scientists and the like.  Puffins were merely to be observed from a distance.  You could admire their stunning black plumage.  Marvel at their extraordinarily coloured beaks from afar.  Study their habits if you got close enough and maybe come away with some new knowledge of fortitude in nature.  The puffins lay in wait hopefully, so in the meantime, Lucy aimed her investigative beam on the happy young couple who were now smiling and joking with some other passengers and simultaneously kissing each other on the necks, ears, foreheads, hair.  The ferocity of the conditions didn't seem to trouble them at all.  They held a robust shape together, unfitted to, yet unconcerned with the environment surrounding them.  They could have been standing in a gorgeous autumnal glade right now watching a blackbird build its nest in a tree while discussing their future together.  Crackling rain, booming gales, and a world in turmoil.  All this was just another backdrop of many for these two and their indestructible spirit the bastards.

Eddie called her his 'little cactus', referring to the spiky desert plant.  It was meant as a term of affection, of course, jokingly noting her dry prickly demeanour, though she often thought there was a passive aggressive aspect to it.  She couldn't fool herself about her own passive aggression in the relationship however.  It was there alright, sitting in the background scowling, as most passive aggressions are known to do.  She had a knack for starting arguments in public places, and elevating them to rows when they should have been voiced in the confines of their own happy house.  She knew when she was doing wrong, but usually in hindsight, and in the heady moments of a bickering, you weren't given to general overview.  You were regrettably given to general oversight as it was always going to be you who was in the right.  Eddie was a good man, and she loved him, but he'd grown weary of the uproar.  He was good at putting on the show of an ideal couple.  He role-played stability on many an occasion.  But recently even he had given up on the show, and was capable of fuelling the public conflicts too, handing the meek role back to Lucy.  These quarrels were a strain on both of them.  No matter who was stoking the flame.   

'Horrible day,' came a voice to her left.  A man wearing a bright red baseball cap had rolled up beside her.  He was quite handsome, though he had a rough beard.  Lucy didn't like beards.  She got into a dispute on the subject one time with a close friend who only dated potential rock stars with nice clothes as a rule.

'Yes,' she replied.  'Extremely horrible.'

'It's a-huffin' and a-puffin' get it........puffin'?'

'Yeah,' she laughed.

'Have you been out here before?'

'No.  First time.'

'You know, I hope we can see the puffins.'

'I'm sure they will be there.  This weather wouldn't stop them.  They're used to it.  And worse.'

'Yeah, they're pretty resilient, that's for sure.  I've always had it in mind to come out to see them.  I always loved puffins.'

'Same here.  Since I was a kid.'

'No way.  Fantastic.  It's also the fact that we have to come way out here to see them.  It's not like going to a zoo or anything.  To get to see them, we have to drag ourselves through all this sludge.  They're very special.'


'Sorry, I'm Gabriel.'


'Nice to meet you, Lucy.  You're here alone?'

'Eh, yeah.'

'Too bad.  Me too.  But at the same time, I like to take these trips by myself sometimes.  It's good to be free from the rat-race, you know.' 

'Oh, yeah.  I like it too.  Though my husband is with me, just not here right now.  He's back on the shore.  He wouldn't come out in the rain.'

'Oh, my.  What a weakling.'

'Yeah,' she laughed.

'He wouldn't even take a spot of rain on the face and wind in the hair for you?  I'd call that quite pathetic.'


'No significant other of mine would find herself sailing the stormy seas alone, that's for sure.'

He was laughing as he spoke, padding his delivery with jest, but Lucy felt a little uneasy about the comment, so she just smiled awkwardly and nodded.  It was perhaps too strong a thing to say considering they had only just started talking.  They were complete strangers.  The small talk had taken a nosedive rather quickly.   Even if Lucy did feel inclined at that minute to accept any input in the form of mockery concerning Eddie.  The man continued talking for a while, but Lucy simply nodded and made faint responses without looking him in the eye.  She knew it was quite rude to do so, but she wanted to convey that she'd been slightly offended by his abrupt comment about her husband, light-hearted though it may have been, so she worked to somehow bring him back to an appropriate level.  She had often done this with Eddie, and it had worked a few times.  Keep tight-lipped.  Make him sweat.  Not psychological torture, but within spitting distance.  It was something she'd learned from her mother in the younger years before dad died of a perforated ulcer.  However the device didn't seem to work on this particular man.

'You're not very talkative,' he said.

'Just not in a good mood.'

'Right.  Why not?'

'Eh, I'd rather not talk about it.'

'Okay.  Sorry.  None of my business?'

'Well, no, it isn't, but mostly, I'd just prefer not to talk about it with a stranger.  I'm on holiday.  Trying to get away from things.  A bit of peace.'

'Really?  Peace?  Take a look around you, doll.'

'Doll?  I'm not a doll.'

'Fair enough.  You're quite a negative person, aren't you?  A bit cold.'


'I can see it.  Anyway, forget about it, I'll step away.  Don't need this shit.'

Had she done something wrong?  Maybe she'd overreacted,  met the conversation with a surfeit of sensitivity.  She knew she could be a bitch sometimes, but the communication lines were always so blurred she couldn't be sure of her mark.  As the man stepped away from her, she tried to get his attention and smooth things over, but he was muttering and swearing under his breath, so she just avoided him.  The whole thing left her feeling shocked and aggravated.

The waters started to settle as the island got closer and the mist began to clear.  Sunlight slowly bled through the dark smoky air.  Above, a heavy ceiling of grey smear that made you feel groggy when you looked at it was now giving way for something more bearable.  The Kay Two seemed to be floating on a bed of cloud which was now dispersing and the rippling ocean floor was once more becoming visible.  Things were nearly blue again.

'I can see some, look,' shouted the young girl, unshackling herself from her lover for the first time on the trip.  'Where?' her man asked, trying to contain her.  'There.'  Her eyesight must have been good because whatever she was pointing at was undetected by every other person on board.  As the Kay Two closed in on the island, it gradually became evident that indeed her eyesight was excellent.  A small group of puffins could be seen on a gigantic muffin-shaped rock at the bottom of the island's abrasive-looking cliffs.  Plump little black statues with bright red and orange markings.  The boat was overcome with giddiness.

The puffins barely moved, and when they did, they walked aimlessly and clumsily, like inattentive schoolchildren, often bumping into one another.  There was a magic about them.  A stillness.  The clouds had broken enough to allow the sunlight into their zone, shrouding their part of the island in a warm syrupy glow.  It was like the sun had started shining just for the puffins.  It hadn't shined on anyone or anything else all day.  And the puffins were doing a drowsy dance in it, a sweet shimmy to show their support.  It is a fabulous thing to see a creature like the puffin in real life.  It makes you think about all the things you have seen, and might see, all the things you want to see, and will never see.  All things seen and unseen.  That's the power of puffins.  All observers on deck looked at these things that were for the first time not a talking puppet, not a humanised character on a cereal box, not a dancing animation.  They were dancing alright, but just in their eyes, in real life, and in the dreamy sunlight.

For Lucy, the puffins now unlocked restrictions on the past.  Childhood came bubbling back.  Those memories incarcerated by the government of adulthood and widening of responsibility.  Innocence. Adventure.  Pure unadulterated joy.   Butter melting on toast.  Playing hopscotch with Ann and June, her best friends.  Jason Donovan posters on her bedroom wall.  Ms. Lundy, her English teacher, Sophia Loren at the blackboard, her idol.  The smell of her favourite Nancy Drew book.  She would go to the library everyday just to smell it.  Breakfast.  Puffin Pops.  She would get up early each morning for a bowl and cover them in mountains of sugar and look at the cute puffin on the cereal box as she ate them all up.

As the Kay Two found a spot to sit for the passengers to get a good look, the puffins noticed them, and began to look right back.  A long period of gawking began in which all present in the moment, whether off the rocks or on them, freely participated in.  The puffins were tickled about what was unfolding before them, but they had no cameras to take pictures like their guests.  You could see some of the elder puffins huffing grumpily in the background about this arrogant new technology and pining a simpler time for puffins, but the younger ones were captivated and just gawked at the Kay Two with curiosity.

One particular puffin seemed larger and was perched in the shadows overlooking the others, at the tip of a thin skewer-like rock that pointed out to sea like an arrow.  The captain, when he spotted this puffin, left the wheel and grabbed his camera to take a picture.  The passengers, seeing this moment of excitement arise, followed suit, grabbing their variously shaped cameras in unison.  The enormous silhouette of the bird just stood there.  Some people called out that maybe it wasn't a puffin.  There were many other dark seabirds to be found on the island.  Razorbills.  Manx.  Guillemots.  Petrels.  'No, no,' said the captain.  'It's a puffin.....I think.'  The other puffins began bleeping and blooping amongst themselves.....puffin-chatter....a peculiar synthesised versions of puffins to an audience of humans who had only heard these sounds through snippets of audio on wildlife websites.  The birds then started tapping their bills together like they had been reunited after many years away.  Eventually they stopped the commotion and suddenly all of them seemed to look straight up at the eerie figure on the skewer-like ledge.

As Lucy focused her attention on the larger bird, she noticed it was actually moving in a fluttery way, wriggling, almost as though it was shivering with the cold.  These shakes began to increase, disturbingly so, and there were gasps from all the passengers when it fell seemingly dead from its stoop and splashed into the sea.  A twenty foot drop at least.

'The poor thing,' cried a lady.

'Oh, that's terrible,' said another.

'We should get the body,' shouted Gabriel.  'It might be a rare one.  People will be interested.'

'Perhaps,' said the captain, a little reluctant.

'If it's really rare, it might be worth money.. . and some media attention.'

'That's terrible,' said an older woman, the one who had said That's terrible before, her silent husband nodding in endorsing disapproval.

'Swing around, Cap,' said Gabriel.

'We'll take a look,' said Captain Merlin.

The Kay Two chugged leisurely to the area where the bird had fallen. 

'I don't want to see a dead puffin,' protested the young girl who had first spotted the birds. 

'Don't worry, sweetie,' said her other half.  'It might not be a puffin.' 

'It'll still be dead though whatever it is.' 

When the Kay Two eventually reached the bird, it looked like a crumpled old leather jacket someone had dumped in the sea.  As the boat moved in closer, Gabriel stretched his arms out further.  It still looked big on closer inspection, but maybe not as huge as they'd first thought when they saw it perched on the ledge. 

'Well, is it a puffin or not?' someone asked.

'Get closer in,' Gabriel yelled to Captain Merlin.  'I can't reach it.'

'Be careful you don't fall over,' said the captain.

'I can reach there a big stick or something I can use?'

'Be careful there,' said the captain once more, but by then it was too late.  Gabriel had been  stretching so far out that he slipped over the edge of the boat and flopped into the water.  Ironically Lucy had at that moment been picturing him falling over in a private revenge fantasy.  Maybe she had willed it.  Who knows?

Gabriel splashed around frantically looking for the bird, but it wasn't there.  Soon after, he realised he couldn't swim so well and started struggling to get back on the boat.  Lucy was the first to stretch out her hand, but as she did, he was suddenly sucked under.  Maybe it was the current.  Maybe Jaws.  Maybe a Russian sub.  Who knew what lay waiting in the depths of the devilish North Atlantic?

'Where'd he go?' asked Captain Merlin, still at the wheel.

'He's away under,' someone said.

Shocked insecure expressions, yet nobody on the boat was moved enough to help.   Lucy thought of her last swimming experience.  Three swims up and down the local 20 metre pool, only stopping twice.  She'd done alright.  Could she possibly be the one to jump in and save that asshole?  They were all soaking wet anyway from the consistent spatter of sea and rain, so she would just get a bit wetter.

'Oh, okay,' Lucy said, resignedly, when there didn't appear to be any intention of rescuing him showing in the faces of the other passengers.

A bunch of puffins had gathered on the cliffs to get a better view of things as Lucy carefully lobbed herself over the side.  She lowered herself into the water and eventually broke away, plunging into the freezing unknown.  She immediately felt she would die of the cold and that Gabriel was probably already dead from it.  Luckily, he was thrashing away underneath not far from the Kay Two, struggling to get a grip of the water as though it was something you could grab hold of. 

Many shapes washed over her in the underwater gloom.  Clumps of moss and grit swirled in a chalky mess, crystal froth and fizzle appearing like lonesome eyeballs expanding and vanishing.  Bizarre creatures of the deep forming in the ghoulish vapour and passing by like ghost train dummies as she crawled toward an hysterical Gabriel.  In the dusty space around her, she thought she glimpsed the fallen bird, come to life again, gliding slowly in a gleaming ball of light, then suddenly shooting downwards into the profound insides of the ocean like it had something very urgent to be getting on with down there.  The mind plays tricks on you in the stark places of the world.

It wasn't long before she reached Gabriel and pushed him up to the surface.  There were cheers and applause from the boat and some puffins high-fived with their beaks as Lucy guided him back to safety.

A tall young guy had come out of the engine room to help.  He'd been stuck in there all the time and didn't know what was happening out on the deck.  Nobody had clapped eyes on him until now.  One of the old ladies nearly had a heart-attack when she saw him.  'Good God,' she cried.  The engine boy was quite strong and he was able to wrench both Gabriel and Lucy out of the water without hassle.  They were both given towels and taken to the doorway of the engine room to get more heat.  Gabriel's face was white.  In a bony anaemic voice, and extending very little in the way of eye contact, he told Lucy 'Thanks'.

Nobody on the boat had batted an eyelid about Lucy before the incident, apart from Gabriel before he approached her, but now she was the talk of their little floating and fleeting community.  She had caused quite a stir.  A valid hero.  Like Xena the warrior princess or something.

'You're a wonderful girl, doing that,' said an old lady, coming up to Lucy as she stood shivering in her towel.   
'My husband didn't do a thing, and him and his John Wayne films.......'

'I'm 78 years old,' the husband retorted, rushing to his own defence with a verbal sprightliness.

'Yeah, 78 years watching John Wayne do all the dirty work.' The lady turned to Lucy again.  'Here love,' she said, producing a small half-empty bottle of dark rum.  'Have a snifter on me.  That'll warm you up.'

Captain Merlin grunted with some relief as he turned his ship around to make the journey back to base.  The Kay Two also joined in the relief, releasing heavy blows of steam which bellowed loudly and decisively into the air.  As Lucy was being praised and celebrated by the others, she looked back at the island moving away from them.  It would soon just be a postcard again.  The puffins too.  Though before they were amputated from her life entirely, she saw one flying down from a higher ridge.  It flapped its wings so rapidly and juddered around in the wind so much as it flew that she thought there would be another accident and another one in the ocean.  But for every limp descent, there was a brave surge.  This little puffin seemed to know what it was doing.  It landed sloppily on the nearest rock fading from their sights and stared directly at Lucy as though it was saying goodbye to her.  Actually it had simply forgotten its destination mid-flight and just stopped on the rock to see if it could remember, but that didn't matter.  Not to Lucy, who waved bye anyway.
By the time the Kay Two returned to dock, the weather had soothed considerably.  The day had been liberated of its dullness and was now reborn unstained, clean air and quiet breeze.  The passengers offered goodbyes to Captain Merlin and the tall engine boy and then to each other before they set foot on the rock-steady mainland once more.  They all had to take a moment to shake off their feeling of sea-woozy.  Except Lucy.  She held onto her wooziness.  And it was quite a wooziness.  Made more so by the rum and rescue.

Then she noticed Eddie.

He was waiting for her at the harbour reading a newspaper.  She thought in that instant to disguise her unsteadiness in front of him, to hide herself and the day's events from him, but there wasn't much point.  She kept on as she was.  Eddie glanced up at her as she drew near and looked down at his watch, suggesting tacit scolding, and then he went back to his newspaper as she meandered woozily past him without saying a single word. 

Back on the island, the puffins rubbed their beaks together and chatted excitedly amongst themselves about what might happen tomorrow when the fog cracked.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Do Androids Dream of Electric Cigarettes?

for jenny

Beauty and the Beast.  The French one.

Oh, the Jean Cocteau film.

Yeah. Maybe.

La Belle et La Bete.


You like it?


I suppose you are Beauty and I'm the Beast then?


I was sweating over the computer in nervous anticipation of her reply.  We'd managed to get over the awkward introduction and she had now indicated a willingness to respond, though it wasn't  exactly a free pass to smileytown.  My emoticons had so far landed on a blank screen and lay by themselves desperately hoping to be joined by a companion.  Meeting people for affairs or relationships online was not as easy as it had been in the entrance days of the internet.   That world was now bigger than ever, a sleazy modern metropolis, over-populated, horribly polluted.  The sleazy joints were the best places to pick up chicks.  Www.chickschickchicks.  That kind of shit.  So it was more difficult to get to the next stage with young women who were constantly picturing you with your hand down your pants as you typed with the other. 

Noooo, you're not a beast.

Thanks.  But how do you know that?

:-)           (she smiled..........;-)

I might be doing beastly things right now. You would never know.  You are halfway around the world.  You don't really know me.  And you don't know what I'm doing at this moment.  I could be cutting my toenails and chewing on the shrapnel right now for all you really know. :-)

I don't think you're doing that hahaaa

That's very confident of you.

But you are right.


I don't know who you are.  I can't see you.  This doesn't seem real right now.  You could be doing beastly things.


I don't think you are a beast. If you were a beast, I wouldn't be talking to you.

What does it take to be a beast? Maybe I can live up to your standards. :-)

I don't know.

Come on, describe your perfect beast. Ugly - check.  Weird - check.  haha


A fake.  A sleazeball who wants to scam you out of your money?


 A wretched misogynistic social mistake taking out all of his anger and frustration on unsuspecting members of the cyber community?


A filthy old man in his hovel indulging in all the sick fantasies he missed out on before the internet came along?

Eh...perhaps.  Well, I don't know.  There are many beasts online, but it's the simple things that someone might do in real life that I consider beastly.

Simple things?


Like what?

Like smoking.  I think people who smoke are beasts.

I remorsefully eyed my bag of tobacco, the glossy packaging glistening in the shine of the laptop screen.  I was just planning to roll another one.  I didn't know how to reply to her.  Didn't know if I should just tell her immediately that I was in fact her ideal.  Her ideal beast.  I rolled the cigarette anyway to deliberate on the next comment.  She wouldn't know.  She wouldn't be able to see this beastly act.  And my deception was safe, so the beasts would have been proud of me.

:-I  Smoking?  Yeah, it's bad.

I hate it.

Me too.

Do you smoke?

Eh, yeah. Well, I used to. 


Not anymore.  I use the e-cigarettes.


You know, the electronic ones.  They are not real cigarettes.  Not real tobacco.  They emulate the sensation of smoking.  It's not smoke.  It's 'vapour.'


Like E-mail.  It's not mail.  It just exists in another place.  An electronic place.

What was real anymore?  The smoking.  The beauty. The beast. We prayed in our hearts to invisible gods for it to be real.  But nothing seemed material.  Everything in a dark foggy cloud.  No.  No, a vapour.  Yes.  A vaporous mist.  Modern being is the nightmare of the solipsist.

The last love story goes like this:

So Beauty and the Beast is your favourite film?



You may be a beast, and I may be a beauty.  But come what may, in reality or in fantasy, we may at 
least each have this day.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Keepers of Magic Time

He would love the reeds hissing now in this late Summer breeze and the sky blue and the fields wide awake.  The butterflies dancing with the light.  But that's not my job.  I must wait.  Wait until the light slows and the land cools in the ginger fall.  

I've made a bed of the warmest brown leaves my homestead these days of paid grace.  Lying in the fields studying a canvas of quiet variation.  It may be the greatest job I have ever had.  The farmhouse etched into the furthest edges of my shot has been the only sign of civilisation for the while.  It sits in silent opposition to my world, a thumbnail on nature.  My society is the cricket, thicket, crow, and crop now.  

'Mr. Malick wants magic hour.  Your job is to capture it.  Each day for three weeks.  Wait for it.  Catch it.  Then you can go home.  He'll pay you 5000 bucks for your images.  Got it?  Good, now go get it!'

When magic hour comes, I'm electrified by the spell it casts over our landscapes and the interaction it has with the living.  All the world's passivity collapses in this seemingly somnambulant moment.   Birds sing louder.  My camera shoots faster.  Wind blows wilder and freer .  My heart beats harder.

A grey sparrow appears at my side each day in the seconds before the red indigo shower.  I've heard the renowned director has his spies.  I become more industrious in the sparrow's company.  Something is watching over me.  The sparrow stands and waits.

'Mr. Malick always shoots at magic hour.  Every day, all around the world, there are a select group of cameramen in place, ready to seize the moment, to  secure a place in Heaven.  These people are his keepers of magic time.  You are now one of them.  You are now a keeper of magic time.'

Here it comes.  The silver beams of daylight's abstraction slice through the frame and the world above glows in a dark orange mask.  Clouds are pink then yellow then green.  The structure of our universe is for a moment dissolved in a manic miasma of change.  Creatures of nature long hidden become visible in the sparkling vision, revelations of shape and colour.  A festival is brought to the soil from above and the earth sings unintelligible songs of joy in a flickering instant.

And then it's gone.

And the sparrow too.

I gather my equipment together and make my way back to the hotel, happy that I've done well for Mr. Malick.  I've kept his magic time. 

I really hope he uses this stuff in his film about sparrows.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Slots

Fang and I dripped into the hostel, our flooded footwear squelching loudly to the amusement of two smug foreigners drinking beer in the lounge area.  Shanghai had apparently been witnessing a heatwave that week but we'd arrived in the middle of a bombastic rainstorm.  We quickly checked in and went to the room to greet the beds.  

There were four beds.  Bunks.  Two of which, the lower ones, were already occupied.  One of our temporary roommates, looked South American maybe, was there, lying on one of the beds with his face flashing in the spasmodic light of whatever film he was watching on his portable computerised thing.  He looked like he'd been there all day.  Get a life, I thought to myself.  The other occupant was absent, just some clothes and a towel marked his silent presence.   We decided to get moving immediately.  We had a show to attend at 10 so we only had time to change our ringing socks.

The rain had died down upon leaving, which was a blessing, but we made sure to pick up some umbrellas in a little store beside the hostel for possible security before leaping into the first taxi we could find. 

It was my first time in Shanghai.  Even in the rain and smoky darkness, it was exactly as I'd imagined.  Shadow people busying past under a messy mosaic of wet electric lights through the rain-riddled windows of the taxi.  I had to nudge Fang in the arm along the way.  He'd been nodding off intermittently since getting off the train.  It didn't surprise me.  We'd been travelling for a long time.  Kunming-Chongqing-Chengdu-Xian-Nanjing-Shanghai.  We'd stopped for at least two days in each city.  Five in Chengdu.  Shanghai was our final stop before taking the long long long journey back to Kunming.  Travelling around China can be a challenge of some fortitude.  The trek had become easier in recent years due to advancing transportation facilities.  High-speed trains racing up and down the country were now reducing the burden of painfully persisting and demanding journeys for sore travellers.  Even so, China's immense size still meant that not everywhere was accessible via these comfortably modern means.

We arrived at the gig and hooked up with some mutual friends we had in the city.  It was a noisy show with not too many people in attendance.  I expected more punters at my first gig in the Pearl of the Orient.  The venue was reasonably big, so perhaps even with 80 people it still looked kind of empty.  Fang received a second rushing wind of energy during the first band's performance and went to flirt with a girl.  I admired him for his audacity.  If he saw someone he liked, he would dart across the room and just start talking to her.  No short opening glances followed by more sustained looks of intent for Fang.  He'd just get in their faces immediately, eye to eye, no soft hints offered.  If he'd been an architect, he wouldn't have bothered with all the drawing and designing.  He'd have just dropped a billion bricks to the ground from a helicopter and hoped for the best.  

My Chinese listening was at its worst when dealing with voices sounding from a P.A in large spaces, so I was unable to fully make out the rallying speech the singer from the headlining band made towards the end of their set.  The spitty hiss on the loudspeakers and harshness of the barked dialect made it difficult.  The only words or phrases I picked up on were 'They are bad people.  You are good people.'  However I completely understood the crowd's reaction.  As the singer finished speaking, there was an explosive roar from the audience.  I observed Fang turn away from the girl he was dealing with in that instant and direct his attention at the stage as the band released an hysterical few minutes of thunderous punk rock noise that sent everyone in the room to a mental place.  I couldn't speak Chinese so well, but I was quite capable of moshing in Chinese.

We met an old Japanese man as we were stumbling back to the hostel.  We got lost on the street and we asked for directions and it turned out that the old Japanese man was staying at the same hostel.  He guided us back home.  He told us he loved the food in Shanghai and he'd been eating until all the restaurants closed and now it was time for bed.

I woke early the next day.  I'd been waking up early in all the cities we'd visited even after parties and late nights.  The thrill of travelling always had that effect on me.  Fang continued sleeping and I predicted he would stay there for a substantial part of the day.  I was used to his routine at this stage.  I went down to the restaurant and lounge part of the hostel.  They had a Western breakfast on the menu so I ordered it with some degree of excitement.  I'd become accustomed to various common Chinese breakfast dishes,  but I couldn't deny homesickness with regards my own culturally relevant brand of unhealthy food.  I hungrily went for it.   A fry-up in the morning worked perfectly after a night of drinking even if it happened to be lacklustre.  Lacking the dirty unhealthy but digestible fibre that made it famous in my own neck of the woods.  That's what it was, this one.  Half a sausage, no beans, bacon that was mostly fat, a fried egg that looked like the sun setting over a natural disaster. 

'Hello,' said a voice behind me.

'Hello,' I said to the voice.

It was the old Japanese man from last night.  He was dressed like he'd just been out for a run, a cerulean blue tracksuit from an 80's comedy film and a headband from an 80's music video.  He'd been out running in the 1980's. 

'Good food?' he asked.

'It's not bad,' I said.

He was very old, but remarkably nimble.  As we got talking, I became even more impressed with his vitality.  I was used to being in Dublin where the older folk were so devastated by cigarettes and alcohol that speaking was an effort for them.  Their voices were slow wheezed sounds, each word a struggle.  This elder Japanese man  eased his words out.  In eloquent English.  He told me that he came to China every summer.  He loved Shanghai and travelled alone each year.  He mostly just went to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai.  Everybody knew him.

'Hi, Kazuo,' said the hostel owner, strolling past us.

'Zhen.  Hello,' the Japanese man gladly replied.

His name was Kazuo.  He was from Osaka, a place that had intrigued me for many years, a place I had always wanted to visit.

'I hear there's a lot of good rock music in Osaka,' I said.

'Oh yes,' said Kazuo.  'Elvis lives there.'


'He owns a little apartment in the block next to mine.  I see him every day walking his dog.'

'Wow,' I said.  'I thought Elvis was dead.'

'No, he's alive and kicking.  Living in Osaka with his doctor.'

'His doctor?'

'Yes, she's Japanese.  He married her after she cured his appendix.  Her name is Yoko.  She's not a nice woman.  Very unfriendly.  I prefer her husband.'

We talked for about an hour or two about many things.  Japanese films.  Asian films in general.  Differences between Ireland and China.  Ireland and Japan.  China and Japan.  Development in modern Chinese cities.  Sake.  Baijiu.  Whiskey.  The weather.

In the back of my mind, I had a question I wished to ask him, but I wasn't sure how to put it exactly.  It was a simple question but for some reason seemed to me too loaded a query as I considered recent political spats between China and Japan.  On surface level, it was a trivial question, but I viewed it fuelled with segue, follow-up, and growth.  I was reluctant to ask, but as I ordered a bottle of beer, I found a way in and asked him, 'So what do you do, Kazuo?  By the way, would you like a beer?'

'No, no.  I'm fine.  Thank you.'

'Ok. So what do you do?'

He told me he was retired, but that he'd been a civil servant for many years.  He told me about his successes and failures.  His work preserving a Wayo temple that had been singled out for demolition by government.  His minor role aiding the protests over industrial pollution and eventual poisoning in Minimata. Following his time as a civil servant, Kazuo went into business for himself as the owner of a chain of amusement arcades and small casinos.  His company had apparently seen much illness and triumph.

'I used to be addicted to slot machines,' I told him.

He smiled and laughed off my addiction.  'Well, I hope you won't hold anything against me.'

'No, I blame myself for that.  Anyway, it wasn't so bad.  I wasted a few hundred, but it wasn't exactly  high-rolling.'

'I distanced myself from the problems of gamblers many years ago,' he said.  'It's not that I didn't have sympathy for them.  It was just the only way I could do that kind of thing.  You have to raise a wall around you in business if you want to be effective, you know.  People and their individual problems need to be blanked out.  It's a little cold, I know.  But that's the way I was.  It's in the past.  I'm not sure if I can say sorry for it. I was successful partly because of that attitude.'

After some more discussion about gambling and further coverage of his adventures in the twentieth century, Kazuo suddenly fell into a dark silence.  The friendly energetic man was replaced by a more pensive and sombre one.

'You know, I've been here before,' he said.

'In this hostel?'

'No.  Well, yes.  But no.  That' not what I mean.  I've been in China before.  I was here many years ago.  With my compatriots.'

'Wow,' I said.  'The war?'

He nodded one single sluggish and protracted nod.  'It was maybe 60 years ago?  Maybe.  I don't recall.  Half a human lifetime ago.'

I ordered another beer, and this time Kazuo also agreed to have one.  We took gulps in unison when they arrived and he continued recounting his previous experience of China.

'We didn't ask too many questions back then.  We were all so confident.  Too confident to require any answers.  Or to show the desire for them.  Now I think that people should always ask questions.  They shouldn't be afraid to stand up in the crowd and just ask.  There are too many social shackles restraining us.'

Kazuo took another swig of beer.

'I could have asked more questions.  I knew which questions I wanted to ask.  But I didn't.  I didn't want to look stupid.  Everyone else was in agreement, so my question would have fallen on deaf ears.  And laughter probably.  I didn't want them to laugh at me.  Looking back, I realise that the others maybe felt the same way.  I'm certain they did.  But we all hid it.  I think that just made things worse.'

'Yeah,' was the only response I could squeeze out.

Fang suddenly joined us at that moment.

'Good morning,' I said, as he staggered to the table and crashed into one of the wooden chairs as though he was a malfunctioning robot being carefully navigated to safety by its concerned controller.

'Good morning,' he said, his eyes almost lifeless.

'This is Kazuo,' I said.

Kazuo gave Fang a nod and a smile.  Fang acknowledged this.  'Hey.'

'Do you want a beer?' I asked.

Fang shook his head and groaned.

Kazuo and I laughed.

'I can't remember coming back last night,' said Fang.

'Kazuo helped us,' I said.  'We met him and he showed us where the hostel was.  If we hadn't met him, it's likely we would still be out there wandering the streets.'

'Cool,' said Fang, showing his approval.

The three of us sat for another hour or so talking on softer topics.  World beers.  Hostels and hotels.  Life on the road.  Roads in China.  Roads in Japan.  Roads in Ireland.  Roads in general. 

I got up to go the toilet.  It was a strange kind of eager 'rest'room, decorated in much the same way as the hostel itself; it was like any other international hostel in the world, these toilets, sti ckers promoting DJ nights, bands (secondary, seemingly), youth  causes (still don't know them), photographs of guests in worldflung locations.  Post-it-notes saying a variety of things in all variety of languages.

Taking a shit felt like a journey through being and time.

The door started shuffling.  I was sure the person was trying to get in. I ignored it as I thought the person would ascertain that it was being used due to the door being locked.  But the door kept shaking.  As though the person thought it was jarred or something.

'Hold on,' I chose to shout.

Whomever it was kept fidgeting with the door as I was wiping you-know-where.

'I'm sorry,' I heard a sweet female voice say outside as I disposed of my dishonoured napkin.

'That's okay,' I said.

I came out of the toilet to be faced with a pretty young girl who seemed a little embarrassed about her transgression at the door.  I didn't have it in me at that time to be kind to her charms and just gave her a 'what the fuck?' look without saying anything.  Perhaps it was the few beers I'd had that had devoured my good nature, or maybe just the absurdity and aggravation of the incident.  The girl slid nervously past me into the toilet and struggled scrappily to get the door locked.

When I returned to Fang and Kazuo, they were talking about the fairer sex.  Or Fang seemed to be imparting his sexual misadventures and unfair dismissals from the night before.

'She made me buy her three drinks and then said goodbye after lecturing me about politics for 30 minutes,' he told Kazuo. ' She had strong views about the world.  I couldn't deal with that last night.  Too drunk and tired.'

'She sounds like she was an interesting girl,' smiled Kazuo.

'Not me,' replied Fang.  'Not me.'

'Are you married, Kazuo?' I asked.  Maybe impudently.  Once again, the beer...

'Yes, yes.  But she left a few years ago.  She went to the other side.'

'Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that,' I said, sympathetically.

'Yes, she moved to the other side of the city with my biggest business rival at the time.  I think she was too young for me anyway.  I've never had any children.  Sometimes I think that is a good thing, and other times, I think, no.'

'I don't want to get married,' said Fang.  'Fuck it.  Too much pressure.'

I was so used to my Chinese and Japanese friends elevating the concept of marriage to peak pedestals that Fang and Kazuo's remarks came as surprising and refreshing, and also somewhat depressing.

'I get the pains of convention too sometimes,' I told them.  'I mostly don't think about it, and then occasionally I find myself dwelling on the aging process in relation to the aging processes of people around me.  You know, that there are kids twenty years younger than me getting married and having babies.'

'Well, those same kids are sixty years younger than me,' joked Kazuo.

I'd been engaged to a girl for about three years.  Being engaged for so long put us into a kind of miasma of incarceration which began to slowly put the lights out on the whole relationship.  It was never meant to be.

 'In China, the parents like their children to get married at the right age,' said Fang.

'What is the right age?'

'They say 26.'

'What if you got married at 28?'

'No, 28 is the right age for having your first baby,' Fang replied.   '30 is the right age for asking your boss for a raise.  32 is the right age for investing in property.  34 is the right age to make your first million.'

Fang was joking.  Kazuo didn't realise until the laughing started.

'My parents are not as forceful as my friends about marriage and all of that,' Fang continued.  'They would like it if I got married, but they don't say so much about it to me.'

'This is similar in Japan,' said Kazuo.  'Everyone wants to feel happy about the standards they have for family life.  It's tradition.'

'I want to have fun with the girls,' said Fang.  'For as long as I can.  I want to fuck as many as possible.  If I meet one that I'd like to spend more and more time with, then maybe I'll marry her.  I don't know.'

The pretty young girl who had followed me into the toilet whisked past us.  I watched Fang's head turn like a gliding movie camera, his eyes seeking the perfect cinematic representation of the girl's form.  He nodded at Kazuo and me, grinning.  She sat down at a table not far from us in front of a large flat-screen TV.  She was with another girl whose back was turned to us.   On the TV behind the pretty toilet girl, there was a muted news broadcast of the riots in Guangzhou. Chinese men were jumping on Japanese cars and smashing the windows of Japanese sushi restaurants as an answer to recent political disputes about whose territory was whose.  The pretty toilet girl thought I was looking at her.   She was probably feeling extremely uncomfortable because I noticed that Fang had not yet pulled his gaze away from her.  I had to pray she wasn't camera-shy.

'I hope China and Japan don't go to war,' I blurted out.

Fang then redirected his fix from the girl to the TV and caught what was being shown.

'Oh no, no, no, no,' said Kazuo, addressing my comment.  'It would be very stupid.'

'Those people are stupid,' Fang said, pointing to the image on the TV of a young Chinese man ripping a cherry blossom to pieces with his teeth.  'I wish they would just shut up and go home to their beds.  Making things worse.  Nationalists.  Cocksuckers.'

'All wars are stupid,' said Kazuo.

'I don't think all wars are stupid,' Fang replied.  'Sometimes there are violations which need to be responded to.  And military action is maybe the only response.  But, yes, most wars are stupid.'

'What was the stupidest war?' I asked. 


'The Cold War.'

'World War II.'

'The Galactic Civil War.'

'My marriage,' said Kazuo.

We laughed.

But Kazuo was dead serious.

'Too many of my friends have a silly hatred of Japan,' said Fang.  'They always say bad things about the Japanese, even though they are decked out in Japanese styles every day.  The people my age.'
'I can see why people in China would hate Japan though,' said Kazuo.  'We Japanese did horrible things in the recent history.  I know all about it.'

'Yes, but that was many years ago.'

'There are still stupid people in Japan today,' Kazuo continued.  'I met a person from Uyoku Dentai, the nationalists, some years ago.  It was at a dinner party with an old business colleague.  The man started to argue with me because we'd begun employing a new Chinese company to build our arcade machines instead of using Japanese technology.  When I told him that it hadn't been my decision, that I was retired, and that it had been the decision of a new director in our company, he ignored me, and baited me into a conversation about the war.  I told him I'd been involved in the war.  He said 'No, you weren't'.  When I told him about the things I'd seen and done, he said 'No, you didn't.'  The only time he said 'Yes' was when my old business colleague, who had some right wing views, asked him if he would like another drink.'   

'Piece of shit,' said Fang.

'Yeah,' I said.  I chose to, as best I could, leave them to it.  After all, what could I bring to this discussion?  But another complicated perspective on what nationalism is and what it has produced.  From an islander from an island with multiple chips on either shoulder.

'That girl I was talking to last night was like that too,' Fang went on.  'All I wanted to do was bring her home and give her a fuck, but she was too easily annoyed when I mentioned an American rock band I like who are coming to China soon.  She got upset that I was focusing on an American band and not a Chinese band.  And she started talking about imperialism and things.  I was too drunk and horny to say anything intelligent, but she got upset when I said that national pride doesn't mean simply taking sides.  She left quickly with my fuck.'

'Yes, but that's just talking,' said Kazuo.  'And that is good.  It's good that there is an open debate, that you can have a talk like that with a girl in a bar.  There is no violence in it.'

'Look at the TV, Kazuo,' said Fang, pointing to the images that were flashing above the pretty toilet girl's head.  I decided to shoot her a smile in that instant.  She raised her eyebrows and went back to conversation with her companion.

'Yes, but that is the violence of a stupid few,' said Kazuo.  'Not everyone in China would do that.  Even people with considered nationalistic views.  There is no general idea amongst the larger part of society that all Japanese should die, is there?'

'No,' said Fang.  'But the agitation is there.  And people do use those words.  They shout things like 'Kill Japanese dogs!''

To illustrate this, Fang had raised his voice in order to emulate the rioters on TV, and the owner of the hostel who was close by heard him and came over to us.

'Okay, guys,' he said, in a reserved way.  'How is everything, Kazuo?'

'Everything is fine, Zhen,' smiled Kazuo.  'Nice talking here with my new friends.  International conversation in the international hotel.'

'Okay,' said the owner.  'If you could just keep it down a little, guys.'

'Agreed,' said Fang.

'Thanks,' I said.

Kazuo took out a pack of cigarettes and offered them to Fang and I.

'Arigato,' said Fang.

Bu ke qi,' replied Kazuo.

'Cheers,' I said.

We had to go outside, to a little den at the front of the hostel, as they didn't allow smoking inside.  It was mid-afternoon and the sun was shining again.  The rains were taking a break.  The street looked different to Fang and I as we'd only experienced it in the dreary fog of a pissy evening.  It was a narrow and humble little street that could have been found buried in the middle of any Chinese city.  The sun was catching only one side, the one across from us, and climbing up its walls like curtains unfurling to darkness.  A street-vendor across from us was standing in the entrance of his stall reaching his neck up to catch some of the glare on his face.  His wife was behind him looking at him like he was a madman.

'Have you eaten?' I asked Fang.

He shook his head.  'I couldn't eat anything.  I'll get some snacks for the train.'

'What time is your train?'


'I'm leaving tonight also,' said Kazuo.  'Much later.  It will be sad to say goodbye to China again.  But I suppose I will come back again next year.'

'I wish I could visit Japan too,' said Fang.

'That's funny.  I like being in China, and you would like to be in Japan.'

'Why do you want to come here to China?' asked Fang.  'I would rather be somewhere else.'

'Well, travelling is important.  It gives you an adventurous spirit.  But you'll always find something to love in your hometown.  Even if there are factors that work against you there.   I love Osaka.  That's where I grew up.  But I don't come out of my home so much there anymore.  I prefer to stay inside and read.  I don't like to be around all the people of my city anymore.  Now, when I come to Shanghai, I love to be with people.  I like to walk around, and eat in the restaurants, and talk to people.  Meet new friends.  Like you two.  Very different from when I'm at home.'

The pretty toilet girl and her friend made their exit at that moment.  All I had seen of her friend was the back of her head, a spillage of long black hair.  A full profile now revealed  zombie contacts, a nose-stud, and a feathery beard.  Her girlfriend was actually a young male Chinese metaller.  He was wearing a Slayer T-shirt.  Fang was even more shocked than I was.  They eyed us with momentary contempt and then looked away as though we mattered no more to them than the air pollution.

'Oh, you're a Slayer fan, are you?' Kazuo asked the young man before they were out of our range .

The young metaller looked back at him in shock.

'Yes,' he said, weakly.

Both Fang and I were also shaken.  Kazuo was a man who was probably in his eighties.  You wouldn't have figured him to be someone with a knowledge of thrash metal.

'Have you seen them live?' enquired Kazuo.

'No,' said the young metaller.

'Oh, you should,' said Kazuo.  'Fucking awesome!'

The young metaller smiled.  The pretty toilet girl had a puzzled expression on her face.  They continued on their way.

Kazuo turned to Fang and I.

'Slayer is a rock band?' he asked.

'Yes, I answered.  'Classic thrash metal!'

'Rock music?'

'Yes,' said Fang.

'Ah,' said Kazuo.  'Thought so.'

The sun had just about rolled itself over the adjacent buildings by this stage and the street was a relaxed blue in the shade.  Kazuo, Fang and I sat and smoked and talked until ashtray succeeded ashtray and a mountain range sprouted up before us.  Faces passing us on the street looked curiously at the three of us deep in our conversation in the mountains.

I moved to dog-ear the moment.  And moments like it.  It was comforting to find these little slots in the day, secure pockets in this frothing world of hurried discourse, in which rational people could calmly discuss all manner of things.

_____ in Ireland. 
 _____in China and Japan.
 _____between China and Japan and Ireland.
 _____in general.

We each had another long drink.  Then Fang and I said goodbye to Kazuo and we all embarked on our long long long journeys back.