Sweater Weather

Piccadilly, 2019

It was the end of the month, the weather knew it even if the calendar in his head hadn’t quite caught up. The office was busy. It had been easy to let November slip by. 

“Well this was nice, I love coming here at this time of year” he said it gesturing with his head toward the little theatre as he bounced down the steps. Hands stuffed into pockets.

The weather had turned a few days ago, they’d both admitted to being kind of glad of the opportunity to break out their winter wardrobe, “Sweater weather” he’d called it. He had laughed (out loud – actually) when he had read that message – laughed, probably more than he should have – that’s how he knew he liked him. Even if neither of them had said it.

“Thanks for booking it” he smiled and it seemed honest. The light from the cinema’s letter board illuminated him from behind for a moment. 

It was the kind of cold that seemed to cause the light to hang in it. As if the frost trying to form in the air somehow slowed it down, by just a microsecond, barely perceptible unless something made you pay attention. His eyes sparkled a little beneath the broad brow of his beanie, as he wrapped his scarf around him and made a kind of lumpy woollen frame of his features.

“My pleasure, honestly it was really nice to see you again. I hope it wasn’t a rush, I just saw the tickets and figured we should make the most of it while we both had the chance. Things have a habit of getting away with themselves at this time of year”

“I know what you mean, there’s always a lot to get finished up before everybody breaks up and heads home.” He shivered as he finished the sentence.

“Which way are you heading?”

“Back towards Leicester Square I suppose, did you want to grab something to eat first? I’m starving”

“Sure, what did you have in mind?”

“I know a place” he said bundling his scarf closer and turning up the collar of his jacket “let’s go..”

They turned toward China Town, walking a little closer, then linking arms, both a little warmer for it. Chatting comfortably, they walked unhurried beneath the swaying lanterns and fairy lights which hung from street-lamps and gates, eventually turning into one of the small brightly lit doorways.

“Chicken or Pork?” He asked, “Oh I’m a veggie…” he responded a little self-consciously.

“Oh, so am I!” he laughed. ” … I was trying to be polite” he was sure he must be blushing now. They both smiled hoping no-one noticed.

“Two veggie?” The lady behind the counter prompted.

“Oh, yes, sorry – it seems we are”

They turned back out into the street, the buns steaming in their paper wrappers as they both bit into them. They continue chatting. Work, family, what they would do if they ever got a Gremlin as a gift. Before either noticed, the wrappers were empty, they lick fingers shyly, shared mints, exchanged glances, offering, carefully, “Thank you.” polite, affectionate, grateful, handsome.

They reached the station entrance.

“Well I’m glad we managed to make this happen… thanks again”

His eyes smile back, his pupils dilate.

He does not register it (he does). He’s too busy worrying about how his mouth has gone dry, the frog in his throat, where he wishes some words were.

The traffic of the station and the road around them swells.

They seem to hang like the frost trying to form in the air, something in one another’s expressions says, I want to, I ought to, tell them – something.

The little phrase just kind of opens like a gift. 

Immediately he’s unsure how to respond. 

Holds his gaze a beat longer, nervous like he sounded stupid now, forward, needy.

“Sorry it’s, probably a little soon…”

“You just looked…” (chooses carefully) “Cosy…”

“I mean cute” (second guesses) “… standing there.

“I had a really nice night” (he resolves to be honest).

“Don’t be, it has been (comes easily).

I just didn’t think… sorry I should just say.. (unsure of himself now too)

I’ve made it awkward…. I mean, yes…”

“Merry Christmas.”

They both exhale, laugh. The breath floats up and hangs like smoke between them.

“Maybe it is a little early but whatever – I’m glad you’re my first”. He grins.

“I hope it’s a good one”.

He leans in, a kiss on his cheek, arms around one another, the scent of soap or after shave, something like star anis, cloves or frankincense?

“Merry Christmas… and y’know, in case I don’t see you… Happy New Year. Let’s catch up after the holidays, whenever you get back into town?”

“I’d like that. Enjoy the time off with your family”.

“I will do, so long as I don’t end up strangling my little sister!”

“Be nice, and like I said, if it really comes to it you can just buy her that Gremlin!”.

They laugh, probably a little more than either normally would do.

Another kiss, a little longer this time on the lips, star anise, no, not cloves – ginger. 

He watches the orange jumper and hat bob down the stairs into the station, disappear into a crowd. He turns, crosses the street. Somehow he doesn’t feel the cold so much anymore as he waits for his bus.

Bag o’ Bones

I never liked the small room that backed onto the kitchen in our old house. I say room – we referred to it as such ‘the utility room’. In reality it was more of a functional hallway, leading out from the kitchen to the backdoor which led into the garden.  Late at night the little frosted glass window set into the door would flicker with streetlights and the hi-beams of passing cars. The nocturnal noises of the neighbourhood could be heard faintly from the other side. Amplified in my childhood mind the sound of the wind and local strays would be transformed into monstrosities – held back only by the beaten plastic of the old door frame.

The hallway itself contained too much of nothing to navigate easily. Alongside a bulky washing machine (itself responsible for more night-time dread rumbling) It was lined with domestic debris, used tires, toys, and acrid smelling car batteries. Christmas lights, baubles and Easter bunnies lay in boxes, arranged between Halloween masks and fake bloody paraphernalia we would string up over the course of a year. There was also an all but antique chest freezer, which had at some point in the heady days of the early eighties assuredly seemed like the height of Americana inspired modernity. Now it appeared closer to what it was, a rusting awkward coffin. Amongst the rest of the dust laden bric-a-brac were a set of heavy rattling metal drawers. The kind often seen in car repair garages. All but one of the case’s five or six sliding caddies were filled with the coin and currency of maintenance. Bolts, washers, screws, hex keys and a mix of other Frankenstein parts all oily, encrusted and iron scented. The bottom drawer however contained a heavy stained black canvas bag with a zipper. The content of which remained – for me, my elder brother and sister a mystery throughout the years of our childhood and most of our adult lives.

We were never explicitly instructed to avoid it, but the idea was asserted – in one way or another – that the greasy canvas and it’s contents were not an area for exploration. Too heavy, too potentially messy and too likely to be the cause of some unnecessary inconvenience.

On occasion, when I was requested to retrieve something from the chest of drawers by my father, a screwdriver, a bolt or nut of a particular size (years of hoarding Lego pieces in plastic buckets had taught me the value and ingenuity of cannibalisation early on) the bag was to be avoided. Having scavenged thoroughly through the other drawers, looking for the requested piece, I would holler in a reedy voice asking, “what about the bag in the bottom drawer?” A pause and always a variation of the same reply: “No, not in there.” Conceding an end to my efforts, I would reply defeatedly “…then, I don’t think we have anything”. A moment later my father would inevitable appear, tools in hand grease smeared and smiling faintly. He would tug open a drawer, shuffle rattling metal a moment, then hold up an accusatory piece to the light and inspect it for a half instant. “That’ll do”.

Each time I was certain It had not been there a moment ago.

Though I seldom had other reasons to be in the utility room (a scouting expedition for some long-forgotten toy or piece of equipment for me and my brother, scavenging a surreptitious Mr. freeze ice pop in the summer months) I treated the drawers with the kind of unusual reverence that is reserved by children for the ill understood esoterica of things indelibly marked for the adult world.

On certain nights when he arrived home late, I would hear my father enter the utility room. The tell-tail sounds of his too-heavy boots scuffing the rubberised flooring. The opening and rattling of drawers. I would wonder what his reasons for being there were. It was in the end not purely my curiosity that would catch me out, but the foil of every curious child. The explicit instruction issued by my mother upon noting my curiousity was that under no circumstances was I to “go digging in your father’s things”.

So, late in the summer, one night assured both parents were long in bed (the sound of my father’s snoring strengthened my resolve, and likelihood of staying awake) I slipped downstairs. I could not comprehend my Mother’s attitude considering how often I had dug through those other drawers, all but categorised and creating an inventory of their contents. Pulling open the bottom drawer as quietly as I could, I unzipped the canvas bag and delved a hand in. Finding nothing on first inspection I dug deeper, the further I did the oilier and more incriminated by hands and wrists became. The small metal washers, saturated with grime clung to my skin, I peeled them off, flinging them back into the bag as I continued to dig amongst it’s content. The scent of the bag itself clung to my hands for days after, staining beneath my fingernails for weeks, and lingering in my mind longer still.

In the end, though my search was cut short, I found nothing of interest at all really.

Nothing in there to incriminate either of my parents as some wilder part of my imagination had perhaps hoped. What had I hoped for? A bloodied knife? A gun? A treasure map? perhaps letters or a mysterious looking leather-bound book? Some unexplained rotting remains? Fragmented bones or the  skull of some unnamed unfortunate? Regardless, It was not what I had hoped to find (and did not) in the end that I remember. It was the result of my actions.

I heard the cup shatter behind me before realising my mother had come shuffling downstairs. She found me elbow deep amongst the grime and gears of the bag. On hearing the noise, I turned in fright. Hallow faced and empty handed I stared at her, as she stood in her slippers, amongst the broken shards of the teacup she had been holding. Initially I had suspected she had dropped it in surprise at seeing me there in the dark, but I quickly understood this was not what had shocked her.

She stood a long time, looking at me silently.

I gathered myself to speak, as I did she kicked at the broken fragments on the floor. Her motion seemed reactionary, like a poorly aimed reflex. The small shards scattered in all directions and instinctively also I shielded my face. I stayed quiet as she continued to stand there in silence. As I looked on longer, I could see tears on her face highlighted by the dim-light coming from the kitchen.

I began to piece together an explanation. “… there’s nothing…I mean I didn’t find anything just more old bolt and nuts.”

“I don’t want to hear it.” She cut me off. Her tone was as acrid as dead batteries.

“Mum, I’m sorry… I just”

She cut across me again. “Clear this mess up and get back to bed, I don’t want to ever catch you down here again.”

She turned leaving me stunned and uncertain, I was not in truth entirely sure what had just happened, but that’s It thought –  it’s over.

Clearing the floor felt as though it took infinitely longer than I expected it to. My feet and hands were cold (I had not bothered with socks or shoes, thinking only to aid my aspirational stealthy movements on descending the stairs). The floor gradually became cold, painfully so and I began to shiver. I stumbled about looking for a brush, the dustpan thinking only of returning to the warmth of my bed. As I clumsily picked the shards of cup from the floor my fingers bled a little – creating more mess. I blotted ineptly at the stains and blood with kitchen roll and washing up liquid. Succeeding only in smearing and slurring my pyjama sleeves, shorts and knees more as I worked feebly. What seemed like hours later, when at last I did crawl silently beneath my duvet – still afraid to make any noise – my hands and face were stained and smudged.

My mother did not speak to me for days. In the morning her and my father exchanged looks but said nothing. If the topic was brought it up by either of my siblings it was brought to a blunt end. Both of them had heard the noise of the night’s events and much to my parent’s visible annoyance – feeling alternatively brave or churlish – they would take it in turns to inquire about it. If I was to so much as hint at it, I was sent to another room, reprimanded often before even being able to speak. For the longest time when my parents did look at me, it was as though I had just pissed my bed. Worse, I had befouled or demeaned some seemingly invaluable item. In time, the topic was of course forgotten, or more accurately perhaps, not allowed to be remembered. Tucked away neatly – the memory lingering like the persistent scent of oil.

Years later, both my parents passed away, my siblings decided to sell the house. I’m not sure why I had wanted to see it before they did. Nostalgia hangs like a strange key around our necks, only remembered when a lock presents itself.

I had made trips back over the years, at Christmas, or Halloween. My relationship with my parents and siblings was good. Outside of those things which unavoidably erode the course of years we all got along. We looked out for one another when we could, even if we did not speak as much as I sometimes felt we should. But then who does?

My sister gave me a copy of the keys and said to check if there was anything left in the house, before the remaining contents were cleared by the removals company we had all split payment for. She mentioned a strange smell in the back room by the kitchen but seemed to think little else of it.

Having passed through the rest of the near empty rooms. I rounded the corner from the kitchen into the rear room. It smelt strangely of old spice and rot. Decay, festering and rancid. As I rummaged amongst the few remaining items, wondering at what the source of the smell could be my eyes landed on the set of metal drawers.

Pausing a moment, I looked around the room, glancing over my shoulder before approaching it. Slowly, cautiously I pulled open each drawer. Each rattled open lightly in turn, the content having been dispersed by time or necessity. Eventually I reached the final drawer. As I pulled it open, it came heavier and more stubbornly than the others. The smell shot up into my nostrils, I coughed and gagged a little and spat to one side. Without waiting to think I pulled the zipper open glaring down into the canvas bag. It seemed filled to the brim, but only with more of the same mechanical odds and ends that had, years ago filled the other drawers of the cabinet. Unwilling to plunge my hands in for fear of what I would find. I poked tentatively. Hesitantly I dug down further and to my relief still found nothing, yet the sour smell lingered, was certainly stronger as I sat crossed legged on the floor in front of the open drawers. I hauled out the bag itself, with some effort – It seemed to weigh more than it ought to have.

I peered into the back of the drawer and still saw nothing but a few small pieces of rubbish, an old whisky bottle the label dried out, a scattering of coins, cigarette packets. I extracted each carefully, plucking them from the stained metal bottom of the drawer which was lined with a red gooey filament and matted rust. As I did so there was a rustling noise from somewhere behind the other boxes.

I turned following the noise, just in time to see a small red tail flash toward the garden door. I approached the door and with the toe of one shoe, pushed aside part of the filthy plastic frame to reveal a small hole that had been warn away.

Understanding better now, I returned to look at the drawers. I tugged at their weight pivoting them toward me so I could examine the back of them. I squatted down, drawing the neck of my t-shirt over my nose to cushion the smell. In the bottom corner of the unit I saw another small hole which had been rusted or gnawed open over time. Picking up a screwdriver which lay idly on a nearby box, I prodded it into the gap. It returned coated with a wet brown filament, traces of matted decay and spider web. The remnants of what the fox had dragged in, buried here in the back of the drawers. The tiny hole was stuffed and stored with what had become a festering nest of tiny pelts and broken bones.

After I had explained the mystery of the strange smell (my sister insisted it had not been so overwhelming when she had last locked up the house) we took it upon ourselves to dispose of the mess, too ashamed to leave it to a team of strangers already burdened with carting off the last forgotten remnants of our past.

To be sure, we cleared the hallway entirely, for the first time in what was likely decades. Grateful to find nothing else. When we had finished there remained a pooled rust red stain on the peeling Formica floor where the metal drawers had sat. Curious, I squatted down and tugged at the torn corners of the flooring around it, revealing the bare concrete beneath. As I peered under I saw it too was stained by the same dark substance. Given nothing but time and opportunity the oil and rot had managing to seep down and make itself part of the house’s foundations. “Well I guess that’s it, nothing else we can do about that now”. “I guess not” replied my sister, rolling her eyes at me as I wiped my hands along the front of my jeans, and stood up.

We closed the door, turned the key and went on with our lives.

Drowned in Moonlight.

Carrie Fisher probably knew I was gay before I did.

For the record I never met the woman, the closest I would come would be sitting in a room with a couple of hundred other over-hyped up geeks in a convention centre in east London during the summer of this year.

Fisher was giving a talk at the “Star Wars Celebration” (Yes, I’m enough of a deviant to attend something including the laudable term ‘celebration’ in its title) where she and her probably-as-famous-by-now pooch, Gary, were interviewed by former co-star and Ewok, Warwick Davis.

The energy, and barely contained lunacy was apparent, here you had a woman who was less concerned with pandering to anyone’s opinions of her, or indeed in allowing herself (or Gary) to be interviewed by Davis, but rather making sure she and everyone in the room had a good time.

Fisher recounted mocking, but loving stories about co-stars, including much speculated time spent with Harrison Ford while on set (which she would go on to write about in her now final publication) and more recent accounts of failed days out with Mark Hamill, who was also attending the convention. (If you’re curious just search @hamillhimself’s twitter feed from this summer for #GOWITHHER)

The kind of person who could rally a group of several hundred nerds behind a nonsense cause in the name of enjoyment as well as she could portray a space-princess rallying to save her home planet. Sparing no thought for false flattery of her co-stars, or indeed of herself.

As Fisher told them, rather than tabloid worthy tidbits, the insights were stories about friendship and companionship, displaying a great depth of authenticity and humility for the lunacy she well knew to be celebrity life.

Reflecting on her experience of being part of Star Wars she was quoted elsewhere stating:

“It exploded across the firmament of pop culture, taking all of us along with it. It tricked me into becoming a star all on my own.”

She did not fain to dispense commentary, judgment or advice besidthat which she felt she knew.

When asked by an audience member on stage in London, if she had given any advice to the cast of the latest movies, laughing she replied the only advice she had for Daisy Ridley (Rey) was to try and avoid going through the crew “like wild fire” as she had done.

princess-leia-behind-the-scenes-starwars17-520x321

What I saw on stage then, seemed to me as much an address to a group of friends in her living room as it did any form of interview.

Amongst the sword and blaster brandishing bravado of the space cowboys, the image of a princess holding her own – something other than the typical action hero archetype that we are so often drawn to as kids – was something that whether I knew it or not, seemed to bury itself deep in my memory systems.

Years earlier as I had watched that far, far away galaxy on near-infinite VHS repeat, what I was tricked into was understanding of everything that revolved around the princess figure Fisher portrayed.

Before I had any idea about terms, or even abstract concepts like “queer icons” I knew about Alderaan and the fact that in certain galaxies a princess could swing a blaster just as well as a smuggler or a would-be Jedi – in fact often they were better at it.

For the first time it occurred to me in a sense that seemed to stick that heroes are not always the bravest or the most loudly spoken. Villains are not always what their mask makes them appear to be, and that a princess is not easily defined by a cinnamon-bun hair cut.

princess-leia

As years passed by, it was always reassuring to learn that the woman who had so iconically embodied many of those notions of a gender equal universe, happened to embody so much of the ethic and individuality in her own life.

Some time after, I remember being struck to find out while watching a Stephen Fry documentary that Fisher also suffered painfully from manic depressive disorders.

Again it hit home, that this iconic figure from my childhood could  be at once the source of such unapologetic joy, sass and strength while also suffering from debilitating personal issues.

Reading later, I came across a version of this interview Fisher gave with ABC, speaking about many of the personal issues that surrounded her and her family, while talking about the publication of her book “Wishful drinking”. In it interviewer Kerry O’Brien asked Fisher:

“How does your daughter Billie deal with all this? Because at one point in the book when she tells you she no longer wants to be a neurologist with a specialty in schizophrenia, but a comic and you say, “Well, baby, if you wanna be a comic, you have to be a writer, but don’t worry, you have tonnes of material. Your mother is a manic depressive drug addict, your father is gay, your grandmother tap dances and your grandfather shot speed.”

CARRIE FISHER: And my daughter laughed. And that’s all you can ask for: that she knows that stuff that isn’t funny, just, it better be funny.

KERRY O’BRIEN: In fact you said, “Baby, the fact that you know that’s funny is gonna save your whole life.” Is that what saved yours?

CARRIE FISHER: And it has.”

It seemed to me that much like the characters she portrayed on screen, the real strength in Fisher’s own character seemed to stem from her laser sharp, objective sense of wit and humour.

As powerful as any death star or lightsaber that may need to be faced up to, Fisher was able to look the often cruel twists of life in the eye, just the same as the malevolent leaders of evil empires, and tell them with a smirk “only you could be so bold”.

There is undoubtedly for me, something of a life lesson to be taken from that.

An honest self aware attitude, unafraid to laugh at the whims of the fates, or indeed at yourself.

Amongst a certain set of people, there’s is a well known printed poster that has been replicated countless times since some point in the late seventies or early eighties. A version of which used to adorn several of my school books over the years.

It features a selection of quotes from the various Star Wars movies, the space-fonted title at the top typically reads;

“Everything I Know about Life, I Learned from Star Wars”

Thinking about it I gleam an odd pride from the thought that that quote could be accurately applied to me, ironically or otherwise, and in it there is an undeniably rumble of truth.

Amongst the lessons I’d like to think I, and a generation like me might take away from the mythos of a galaxy far far away, are the lessons of a life well lived such as by Fisher.

They may not be lessons that will provide you an easy ride through life, but they will at least mean that should you find yourself playing the damsel in distress, you’ll be more than capable of coming up with your own rescue plan when you need to.

princess-leia-behind-the-scenes-starwars8

“I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.” – Carrie Fisher. 

The Night The World Didn’t End.

There is a deep rumbling and I wake, I turn over and I sit up.

From my position on the edge of the bed, I cast a cold eye outside the steel frame of the window. The panes are filthy with the fumes from decades past and encrusted with the time warn dirt of ages.

Outside the orange sky burns, making a blackened stencil of the city.

The sound of fires and explosions crack. The faint smell of gun powder and sound of screaming carries across the air.

From a fourth floor window I watch the streets over flow.

In the shadows that stretch to the edge of my feet I contemplate the night. The sick unnatural sepia light from the burning streets does not reach me here in the dark.

Tonight is the night of burnt buildings and treason. Before the sun rises over London the palace crumbles, politicians, and prostitutes clutching babies are turned into rumble.

I must remember the sun.

The river bubbles with smoking debris, the clock hands stand at the same small minute and hour, but the bell will no longer chime.

Heretics are burnt at the stake. Opinions and rumours are collected and buried in mass graves.

I must remember the truth.

I must remember to write this down and study it. The same way that the history of countries, or geography, or art should be studied.

The same way I study your anatomy as you lay here next to me.

Softly, breath in, breath out.

Softly; we are here.

Another rumble, that small personal thunder, I watch your lips part and I smile.

What little pains there are flicker as they cross my mind, and expire like the fire works outside – they pop and extinguish.

I must remember.

Tomorrow, perhaps the saucers will come, the earth will erupt under us  and the river will bubble again, like your sister’s rage over cold toast and…

Rumbling again…

In the dim light I see your nostrils flare like roman candles and extinguish like the the cake at a children’s party.

We have perhaps fifty years.

Or thirty.

Perhaps twenty more times to watch the full moon rise.

Ten?

Maybe less.

Perhaps, if we are lucky we have a few years before the meals in front of us are out numbered by the meals that are behind us.

I must remember to mark each date upon the calendar as if it were an anniversary, or the end of the world.

I must remember.

I turn my eyes back to the window, I push it open and breath in the orange night’s air.

The explosions and cracking have slowed, the yelling has lessened. The revellers and the fireworks are nearly done for another year.

Below the last of those dressed in the ghostly remnants of their ancestors pass by, they do their best to honour the dead and to remember.

Somewhere there is a man with two dogs. One of them lays shivering on the street, the other sits like a sentinel, sharing body heat and warmth with  both of them.

I remember.

I turn back over and close my eyes, there are no more bon fires, there is no more rumbling for now.

The blankets are warm and I no longer shiver.

In the morning, there may be burnt toast, the milk may be finished (or soured) there could even be the black death.

I must remember the truth.

Sitting here at our kitchen table, eating breakfast, I try to remember…