Sunday, 7 February 2016

Eminent Domain: Barrow

Barrow is seated at his desk gazing out across the city, the day dissolving, night settling in soft, sooty layers, blunting the edges of the vast concrete bunkers across the river. The window is open and from the street gardens and rooftop farms, the re-wilded parks the scent of flowers and ripe summer fruits, vegetables, spices, grasses, herbs, come swelling through the room.

He takes a deep breath, this burnished, sap rich, pollen heavy dusk. Rose is waiting  for him back at the hotel. He squints, tries to make out their room, to see if the light is on. Imagines her reclining on the bed, grey skirt tight, a stark white blouse, smoking a cigarette, ice-blue eyes crinkled at the edge as she scans another manuscript. Perhaps she is not there at all but in some other room with some other  lover, showering away the sweat and soured sweetness of the afternoon.

The end of a short day, all his days growing shorter. The past pulls at him, tugs his guts. He is that age. They tell him that this is merely the andropause, his testosterone levels dipping, that he should go and get a shot of something, exercise more, take supplements, keep his  mood elevated, his focus sharp.  And yet he almost welcomes the melancholy, a spiked, blueish-purple  surge he has found himself, perhaps, beginning to savour.  

And today’s date? Of course, this is why your mood has shifted, why those thoughts are creeping in, why loss and pain and the cold, lapping edge of grief are at you,  Barrow, old boy. It was today they died. And yet every year somehow it takes you by surprise.

He takes in another lungful of sweet night air, releases it slowly, the cracked leather chair creaking beneath him. Almost time. Barrow would rather not have his session today, he has had this hour, at Frith’s gentle but implacable insistence, once a week for twenty five years now, not a single one missed. What more can he have to say, to reflect on?

The soft chime, exactly on 6 of an incoming video call and there up on the screen the old man is smiling patiently out. Good evening Doctor, he says. Perhaps he continues out of sympathy for, solidarity with Frith, not to let this relationship, if that’s the word, lapse. Odd to have watched Frith age, though at forty when Barrow was a mere twenty he had already seemed old.

Well, he said. I have been thinking, and he was aware suddenly of the dream he had had the night before, as though Frith’s mere presence, the owlish, inquisitive gaze had summoned the memory, about my parents.

Frith nodded.

I dreamed of them, actually he said and paused allowing himself to remember.

I dreamed they were still alive. Had never died. He rotated in his chair and looked out of the window again, sun almost gone now, the horizon a band of hammered brass. We were in the old house, in Deptford. The kitchen. As it was I suppose. My mother was explaining to us, the door open on to the garden, we had a little garden then, they loved it, spent many hours there, toiling over making things grow, live. As if, he said, that having three children of their own weren’t enough life for them. The dog, the cat. My father, always bringing people back to the house.

But in the dream, he was distracted by the details of the case, the open pages on the desk and swivelled around a little more. They were explaining to me that they had decided to step back from political activity, from agitation, as we used to say, that they felt too great a responsibility to John and Andrea and I and that for all their convictions their children had to come first. I was arguing against them, with all the stridency of youth and yet, he paused. That was the opposite of what happened at the time, I wanted them to be less openly opposed to the State, to its agents, formal and informal once they clearly became targets. Wanted them to step back. I was frightened, I suppose. A boy. My siblings were committed, only I argued against it. And then to be the only one to  survive.

But Doctor, we have been over this many times.

He remembers again jumping down from the window into the blanket stretched taught below, the neighbours upturned faces. That moment on the ledge, the fear, the desire to stay and die with them, smoke billowing out around him, the crackling heat, his back on one side shrivelling as the half melted lamp stand fell against it, so it was the pain, the revulsion at the stench of his own charred flesh that finally galvanized him, made him  jump, jump and live, a reflex, beyond his conscious control, that made him perhaps a traitor to himself, so that he sometimes imagines that half of him is still caught up there, half way out of the open window, his back burning, the dizzying drop down into the street before him, suspended between two fears, and all of this has been a fantasy, a dream of a world that is yet to be.

In the dream my mother was saying to me, when you are older you’ll understand, you’ll understand, and I had a sense that they were right, that I was a fool and I felt relief that they were deciding to step back. And when I woke I was happy, comforted to think that they were still here, and that I would be able to see them.

In this moment of waking doctor I supposed that the world was not what it is now, that the Autarchy had not happened, that we were still a country in which exploitation reigned and yet for all that I was relieved that at least these few people I had loved were still alive. I kept my eyes closed a little longer Doctor than usual, did not want to enter this world, this better world they were prepared to die for and did, and never saw. Nor did I wish, doctor to return to the stream of my own history, swelling in a great, dark bottleneck at my back. For a moment doctor, I really felt myself to be between two worlds and believed I might awake into either of them. Would I rather live in this better world, with the loss of my loved ones and the things I have done, the blood on my hands doctor, the lives I took, how that weighs on me, or a world with greater oppression, lesser freedom in which my loved ones were still with me, struggling, in which my hands were clean?

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Eminent Domain: Rose/Crane.

Crane buzzes her in. She takes the lift to the thirteenth floor, new shoes too tight still. Has she dressed up to impress him? He looks older by a few years than the  photos that are circulating, has lost most of his hair, a few clumps  sticking up on top, grown longish at the side over his  big ears, his  face thin still, though getting slack around the jaw, baggy around the eyes.  He has a  paunch, thin legs, thin arms, well over six foot and stooped.
He ushers her in. She re-read a few articles on him on her way over, though she was fairly  familiar with his case anyway, he was briefly famous, twenty or more years ago, bemused in documentaries or on TV shows, his case written up in newspapers and studied in journals, then forgotten about.  Now he has re-emerged with this novel, Resolution Way.

Tea, he asks, or something else? I have some juice somewhere, no alcohol I am afraid. She  accepts some tea and takes a seat on the leather sofa. The flat is sparse, she might even say spartan, bare walls, plain floorboards, no shelves nor ornaments nor books. Just the  computer on a desk in the far corner, a wooden chair, the sofa, the square grey rug. In search of  some relief from the  plainness she  gazes out of the  window to the concrete  balconies opposite, the  plants, the vines, and creepers crawling over them, jewelled with grapes and gooseberries, green tomatoes, summer fruit.

After a few minutes he returns with the tea things. He has put a pair of thick-framed glasses on. They must be the same age, yet he reminds her of her grandfather.

To  what do I owe this pleasure? Crane asks with a sympathetic smile

It was best to be frank. Well, I was curious more than anything. This book you have written, some of the studies that have been done on you, and so on. I have meant to pay a visit since the 90s actually, ever since I became  aware  of  your case. I suppose  the book galvanized that intention.

Ah he said, adopted a mock-theatrical tone. You still speak in the old ways. The book. Its popularity is a little mystifying. Do you like the book? he asked then rushed onward to cover up her answer. I am not sure I do, I am grateful for the opportunity to write and be read, something I have here that I would never have had back there, if i had stayed. None of this, he swept his arm out to indicate the bare apartment.

It has been found significant, Rose said. You have made your contribution.

Crane turned away from the window, his eyes trembling in the lowering light. Yes I have, haven’t I, he said eagerly. I have given, haven’t I?. Yes. That was all I wanted to do, but it was so hard for me there, so many barriers.

Well, Rose said I remember the old world too. Not so different from your world perhaps.

I fear, sometimes when I am waking up, eyes still closed that I will awaken into that world, that this has all been a dream, these thirty years since I went stumbling off the road in the dark, weak with hunger, felt myself beginning to drain away, the night crushing in on me, hearing my own breathing, my own distant screaming and then the rush, the shattering and the sense of being flung, finally, terminally, expelled you might say from one world and into this.

This world, Crane says, standing with his back to her, gazing out over the city, seems to me  impossible. How  has your world become this?

Haven’t you read up on our history, Mr Crane, she asked?

He turned, I have, oh, I have. It makes no sense to me of course, a man with my condition. A condition so advanced now. The books all seem to contradict each other, to be histories of completely different countries, different worlds and so I have concluded that I have simply died and gone to heaven.

He ran his hand up over his forehead, the head in which eighty percent of the brain has been slowly eaten away, morsel by morsel, drip by drip. How can it be that he still functions, more than functions, even if he is prone to delusions, ecstasies of confusions, incapable of maintaining a clear, coherent sense of events, thoroughly convinced of the reality of the world claimed to once live in?

She had joked with the students yesterday saying perhaps it is as Descartes said, the soul enters the body through the pineal gland and animates us, as long as that remains intact there is life, thought. She imagined it was all, perhaps, some great conceptual joke, some game that was being played, a performance piece orchestrated long ago and that soon enough the true author of the  work, an arch-prankster, a wit, a satirist, one of the old guard, McFairlaine most probably, would reveal themselves, explain how they had found a willing actor, fabricated Crane’s non-biography and medical records, taught him his eccentric manners of speech and forms of thought and let him loose upon the world to make his claims, to summon something enigmatic, something impossible, uncertain, haunted into the world.

Eighty percent gone, all his abilities migrating over time to the thin outer layer of his brain, spreading in a densely trembling net across its surface, still intact for the moment, but the water levels were rising, isolating more and more areas, the faculties crowding onto the last few, grey overburdened islets, the overlap, the babble and deepening confusion of time and place, memory, sight and sound, a polyphony of coloured voices ringing in his ears until one day he would sit silent, mouth agape in this  bare room in which time had slowed and stuttered to halt, a palimpsest of  impossibly fine, overlaid moments sifting kaleidoscopically past his unblinking eyes.

Does this seem to be heaven to you, Mr Crane?

He smiled. It does, yes. No hunger, no fruitless work. Comradeship. Nature. The music! Though I miss the people I knew there, he said.

Well, even heaven has its discontents. She lit another cigarette.

I tried to tell their story at least he said. I thought that might ease their suffering in invisible, unknowable ways. I imagined I might reach across the divide between worlds and rest a hand on their shoulder.

Yet you have been here now as long as you were ever there.

He nodded. I was young in that world. I formed attachments. I had parents. I fell in love.

And has love eluded you here?

Well, he said. Love here is so general. So Universal. My love was formed elsewhere, has proven to be stubbornly particular.

A weak thrill went through her. Yes, she knew that too, with her morbid attachments.. Here she was, on the pretext of discussing his book, her intentions plain. Here was someone even more wounded than Barrow, but lost too and dying, growing daily more enfeebled.

She could imagine nothing more erotic than holding a dying man in her arms.

I had a dream, she said, in which Crane was standing at the window of his flat exactly as he was the night I went to visit him, his head was huge and open on one side, cross-sectioned. There was the outer shell of his brain, a thin, greyish layer outlined in black, outlined again by the brittle boundary of his skull, the centre empty. I stepped up onto the table next to him, climbed inside his head and curled up, but it was cold, uncomfortable and so I shifted position, rolled forward and realized I could see out through his eyes. The city he was gazing on was not this one, this London, it was dark and there were distant fires burning, helicopters buzzing through the night, some landmarks I recognized, old seats of power and prestige that we have razed, new skyscrapers made of chrome and  glass, citadels ringed at the base with fences, dogs, men with guns.

Something, someone was calling to me and I knew I had another self there, understood that my own life, all its volatility, my moods, the voices, thoughts, ideas, memories that assailed me didn’t come up from some hidden depth within me but were the ways that other versions of the same self, in those other worlds, impinged invisibly on mine. I determined to go and meet myself, stood up and found I was in  a cave, the caves I was taken to see as a child, patterns worn in the limestone by the slow, persistent drip, the stalactites and huge dark lakes where shoals of tiny, translucent fish flashed and angled.  The tunnels lead on to deeper caves where the air was colder, the water darker still, the shapes more elaborate, the colours wilder. And so I set off. Perhaps if one was brave, pushed on one might emerge, on the other side, in some other world perhaps, Crane’s world.

And so I came to a foot tunnel, dank light and dull enamel tiles greyed with age, I could have been thousands of leagues beneath the sea, my footsteps echoing and the concrete underfoot uneven and stained. I knew, in the way one knows things in dreams, Doctor, that it came out on the other side of the Thames, came up, not in this word, but in that one, the world Crane claims to have come from, the world he wrote about. And I set off to find myself there, running, almost frantic, along the darkened riverbank. I felt,
You felt.

Hunted. In terrible danger, but compelled to know, and thrilled that at last I would be reunited with myself. That I would be able to take myself in my own arms and that I would be able to be an object of love for myself.


I know, she says, but this was not the child, the child I lost I am sure of that, this was a world in which so many, all of them were, the only word I can think of is benighted, and. She felt some tremor in Frink, almost imperceptible, and paused for a moment anticipating the slip, the pun, the double meaning, he might have caught.

I felt I had to know how and why we lived that way, what these other, human possibilities were. The terrors. The joys.


Oh all of us she said, all of us, you too, we were all there, ourselves but completely different in almost every way. Souls existed and were material things and took shapes and were iterated and reiterated across an infinite number of worlds. And when I awoke and saw Barrow was there in bed beside me I didn’t recognize him, not just for a second or so but for the best part of a minute as I lay there with my heart racing, trying to understand where I was, trying to make sense of his face.