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He opens the door. I squint; blinded by sunlight screaming through an upstairs window. Four silhouettes blurred into one peer down a stairwell. A parched and wasted breeze betrays the window open. The vision responds with a barely perceptible billowing of shadowy skirts, shimmering ever so slightly at its outermost fringes. Black against dazzling silver. Dark eclipsing light. As we near the topmost tread; the vision swells. My eyes adjust. Greying details establish themselves to assume clusters of three-dimensional form. Three women and a boy. Stepping forward the taller silhouette extracts itself. She smiles.
“Hello,” she says in accented English, and tells me her name. I tell her mine. “You are English?” she asks, extending a hand. I take it up. So tiny.
Close to, heavy-lidded eyes peer darkly from a pale honey complexion framed by long black hair. My nostrils catch the deliciously warm scent of skin exuding sunshine.“Please to meet you,” she says. I nod, stuck for words. The last thing I’d expected was a beautiful girl.
“This my mother,” the beautiful girl says. A woman in her late thirties steps forward. Offering her hand she tips her head. The beautiful girl moves on. “This my sister, Rosa,” she says, “And this naughty little boy, Jorge.” Her hands on his shoulders she propels a reluctant child of about eight from his refuge of soft, shadowy folds into the fore. “Jorge know to say bom dia in English. Jorge, say, hello.” The boy shakes his head vigorously from side to side. “Yes, you know it. And he count one hundred.”
The apartment is much larger than it looks from the street; filled with highly polished antique furniture and paintings. She leads me up another flight of stairs to the guest bedroom. “It small,” she says. “For this I am sorry.” But it’s bigger than my bedroom at my parents’ semi in Coventry.
She stands in the doorway, watching me open my rucksack. I look up and smile. She isn’t quite so pretty in the light. She doesn’t return my smile.
“Where you meet my father?” The question is unexpectedly direct. A sudden prickliness in her voice catching me off-guard.
“He picked me up outside Lisbon,” I say, and feel a need to explain. “I was hitchhiking.”
“Hitch-hiking?” she repeats slowly. I waggle a thumb to demonstrate. Only then she smiles. “Oh,” she says, “Hitch-hiking. That is how you call it in English?” She doesn’t move, staring intently into my face all the time. “You are very beautiful man,” she tells me.
“Thank you, but in English, it’s not usual to say beautiful for a guy. We normally say good-looking or handsome. Beautiful is mainly used for chicks, I mean ladies.”
“But you are very beautiful man.”
“And you’re one very beautiful lady,” I say. My eyes fixed by hers, we gaze at one another for what seems too long. I want to look away but can’t. To do so would make it a lie.
“Don’t lie me,” she says. And I blink.
We drift on idle crowds towards the river, anticipant chatter swelling the void night air. Legions of long-stemmed garlic spears rising and dipping as we go. We move as a mass. A mass. As molten lava shifting through streets and alleys, a burning, bubbling mass. Spuming from doorways, seeping from hillsides, down to the Rio Douro, river of gold. A mass. A beautiful mass. A beautiful mass of flesh, of sweating bodies, of bones, of arms and legs. Of vivid hues, of tin whistles, and children’s shrieks. A mass of brightly-coloured plastic hammers clickety-clicking. Of clamouring voices, of trampling, shuffling feet, a din. A mindless mass of individual souls subsumed, each hungering to be heard above the other and always against the relentless clickety-clicking of countless plastic hammers tapping heads. Tapping hands or tapping heads. Lilac garlic blossoms rising and dipping. Tapping, tapping, tapping, dark and primeval, hypnotic and enthralling. The relentless clickety-clicking of countless plastic hammers tapping heads.
“Why are they hitting my head?” I cry out.
“Not you only, all the people,” she laughs, “It brings luck.”
“What sort of luck? Bad luck?” Even with our voices raised it’s almost impossible to hear the other.
“No, good luck. They think to hit your head will bring them much luck. Now is festival of São João. In English you call him John Baptist. You have long hair. Porto is not San Francisco; many men don’t have long hair. To them you are John Baptist now. You should be happy.”
“Happy to keep getting my head bashed?”
As we near the river the mass coalesces further. Driving together and forcing apart in the same instant with a randomness of its own making, meaningless and mean. Squalling children squeezed from aunts and uncles; bewildered grannies bulldozed into the company of complete strangers. Music blaring, hammers clicking, voices singing. In the prevailing senselessness of it all, I lose her and she loses me.
A whack on the skull sets me spinning. Some idiot, plastic hammer in hand, stands grinning before me.
“Fuck off!” I shout. He stands there grinning. Comprehension dawning, his eyes narrow, his grin drops, and I remember I’m a stranger in a foreign land. I rub my head. “Look, man, there’s no need to do it so hard. It hurts.” He’s already lunging at me. An intake of breath; crowds cleave. Grabbing my collar he jerks me towards him. Even in the tightest spot there’s always plenty of room for a brawl.
“Don’t tell me fuck off!” he yells in fury, “I know what fuck off mean! Why you got long hair? You fuck!” Full into my face. He has the look of a speedfreak. Little stalactites of white saliva clinging to the corners of his mouth. “You fuck! What you are?” The tiniest fleck of spittle looses and flies to my lower lip, the intensity of its hate scalding the sensitive skin. I am sickened by the notion of his alien phlegm so close to my own, but sense to even touch it will incite him further. “You a woman?” he shouts, “You fuck! You fucking dirty queer! You fuck off!”
He draws an arm back. I close my eyes in anticipation. The punch doesn’t come. I feel his grip slacken and let go. I open my eyes. A shadowy figure clings to his back, one choking arm tight about his throat, a clenched fist pounding his face. Now he has both hands on the stifling arm straining to tug it away. As he succeeds, the shadow drops to the ground. Towering above it he gasps for air, a trail of blood trickling from one nostril. He glares down at his assailant. It’s her. Dark eyes filled with contempt, staring back into his. He wipes his nose on his knuckles, examines the blood, and turns to go. I pull her to her feet. She takes my arm.
“Why did he call me that?” I ask, my eyes watering, “Just because I’ve got long hair. I bet he’s a fucking queer! Do you think I look queer?”
“What is queer?” she asks.
Six years old. We are standing by the garages behind my grandmother’s council flat in Coventry. Two of us. I can’t even remember his name, or what he looked like. Except I remember his head was full of mousy curls. He was in my class at school. Our faces move closer till our mouths are touching. I hear a shout. We turn. An old man stands some distance away. The boy and I break apart, spitting dryly, wiping our lips on the backs of our hands as though we’d eaten poison berries. The man shakes a stick at us. “You dirty, little queers!” he shouts. It still hurts now.
We find a table at a street café. “You are sure you all right?” she asks a fourth time.
“Of course, I am,” I say. But I’m not all right. I don’t like being called a fucking dirty queer by a dirty fucking peasant and I can’t stand her fussing. I sulk vacantly into passing crowds. “I just don’t like crowds.” It’s another lie. “Tell me about the festival,” I ask, “I’m interested.” Three lies in a row.
“It was not Christian in before time,” she explains. “Before Christians come the people are, how you say? To worship the sun and moon for example.”
“Pagans. They were pagans. Just like everywhere else.”
“Yes, you are right, of course, like everywhere else. The Christians learn it is easier to make old customs with new, not to fight them. One custom is festival for the long day of summer.” She speaks unsurely, as though expecting me to correct her all the time. I’m all too willing to oblige.
“Combine them with the old, we say combine, not make them with.” Everything she says is a source of irritation now. “It’s no different from England, our druids used to worship the sun at summer solstice. Some still do, at Stonehenge.”
“Yes, is the same. The people see the sun is strong to make things grow. But also strong to dry the water and kill things to eat when they are make it angry.” There is an intensity about her expression that reminds me of a precocious child. “Summer solsti begin the time when the sun is very strong. For the people is a good time to tell their thanks. They give to themselves herbs picked in morning water.”
“You mean morning dew, morning water sounds a bit like piss.” I wish she would lighten up a bit.
“Morning dew? That is how you call it in English? I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologise, your English is good.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think it is true. So, the people they give to themselves herbs and garlic flower in morning dew. And they still do it today. That is why they touch your head with them. The reason for this is São John. The hittings are, how you say, symbol?”
“Yes, a symbol.”
“They are symbol of São John when he is putting Jesus in the water.”
“Baptising, we call it. So where exactly do the plastic hammers fit in?” I ask, “I don’t remember reading anything about Saint John and his plastic hammer in the bible. The only thing I can think of is Maxwell and his silver hammer.”
“Maxwell? He is English saint?” she asks.
“No, it’s a Beatles song.” Even she must’ve heard of The Beatles. “You must’ve heard it.” She looks blank.
Waving a hand I begin to chant: “Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on his head, Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure that he was dead…” I tail off, feeling my face redden. Apart from the fact my joke falls flat, the words don’t seem quite right. “Something like that,” I bluster. She obviously doesn’t know it. “It doesn’t matter. So why the plastic hammers?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It start some years before. I think in 1950s. I am too young to remember it. Before was garlic and herbs only. I don’t think there’s some meaning to it. It’s kind of joke, you know.” The impossible occurs to me. “You have heard of The Beatles?”
“Of course, I hear of Beatles,” she says.
“For a moment I thought you hadn’t.” Her eyes are fixed to the tabletop, one finger tracing circles onto its surface. “Don’t you like them?”
Her head shifts slowly from side to side.
“No,” she says. “I no like them.”
“I can’t believe that! What about John Lennon? He’s a revolutionary.”
“Che Guevara was revolutionary,” she says.
“Yeah, of course he was, but so is John Lennon. Look at the way he lay in bed with Yoko Ono in that hotel in Amsterdam. Far out! Right in front of the all the newspapers, TV cameras, the lot. The whole world could see them. Everybody thought it was outrageous, but they were just in bed. It was a political art statement. Freaked everybody right out. He blows my mind.”
She raises her head swiftly, her eyes needling into mine. “Che Guevara was murdered by CIA in Bolivia jungle. How you can compare?” she demands. Then, turning away, her angry gaze darts about the street. I can’t understand why she’s so uptight. She’s so fucking square she’s got corners.
“There my mother and father,” she says. “We must go to them.”
“Do we have to?”
“Yes, now is time for family, maybe later we walk and talk again.”
We return to the house. A small woman wearing a starched white apron over her black dress is setting the dining table. They have a housemaid. At dinner she pauses beside me with a bottle of wine, and glances to the far end of the table where he is sitting. He is staring at me – I can’t help thinking – a little wistfully.
“You drink wine with food?” he asks, and although we never drink wine with dinner at home, I nod.
“Yes,” Then remember my manners. “Yes, please.” He nods his head and raises a finger slightly. The housemaid fills my glass. All her schoolgirl idealism can’t alter the fact that they have a servant.
Out on the streets again elbowing our way through idiot hordes. Foolish grins plastered across peasant faces, plastic hammers and garlic stems anointing heads. Babbling and clicking. Near the house they aren’t so thick and boisterous as down by the river, and my long hair is left untapped. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling anger towards them. And I feel anger towards her, as though she’s responsible in some way for what happened earlier. I want to get away from the mob. I want to get away from her. Instead, I grab her hand yelling:
I get my revenge by barging a harmless middle-aged couple aside as we hurtle down the street. Seeing an alley where there are no crowds I drag her into it. We stop to regain our breath. She is laughing breathlessly; honey cheeks pinked from running.
Pinning her against a wall, I look into her eyes. It’s another of those moments that seems to last much longer than it really does. Her face flushed, she looks incredibly beautiful in the half-light. I lean forward to put my mouth on hers. She turns her head away, but then relents. It’s the kiss of inexperience, her lips dry and unyielding. She cuts it short, pushing me away.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I don’t know you,” she says.
“It’s just a kiss.”
As we pass a bar further up the street a group of people sitting at a table wave. Friends of hers, she returns the wave. They beckon us over to join them. A small dark man with wild black hair and an unkempt beard grabs my hand and pulls me over to sit next to him. He tells me his name, Ricardo. He seems excited, his eyes flashing all the time, his face red with wine.
“So what you think British soldiers really do in Northern Ireland?” he asks.
“Get too pissed to lay the local slags,” I answer. He looks puzzled. “Soldiers, they always drink too much beer to get girls.”
“Ah, yes, is a problem for the Portuguese army in Africa,” he says. “Men, they know in their hearts that they are not fighting for good reason, they drink alcohol not to have guilt. But don’t let that stop us from drinking our wine,” he laughs, and lifts his glass. “To IRA!” he shouts. Raising their glasses in turn, they all toast the IRA. Why do they have to be so heavy all the time? It’s a bloody fiesta, not a gathering of the clans. Not wanting to say the letters I mumble ’ooray at my glass.
“Please tell me,” she asks as we’re leaving, “what you study?” I’m eyeing up another girl sitting at the bar.
“English lit,” I answer. The girl has the most amazing legs. I once went out with a girl who modelled tights for Marks & Spencer. She had great legs. I don’t know why I mention it; of course she had great legs, she’d have to. “English literature, you know – Shakespeare and all that crap.”
My first lecturer introduced himself using those very words. “You might think I get paid oodles of lolly to stuff your brain with Shakespeare and all that crap,” he announced at my inaugural tutorial. “Well, I don’t, and I ain’t going to. If you don’t like it you can go fuck yourself.” With that he lit up a spliff and slammed the Mothers of Invention on the deck of one of those grey institutional record players. Full volume.
His definition of literature sounded cool at the time. Now I’m not so sure, but I can’t help myself from nicking it whenever the opportunity arises. He was asked to leave before half term. Got one of our year in the club. The gorgeous Dorinda Plackett. Wanker’s dream made real. We all thought she was frigid.
“Crap?” she asks, as the girl with great legs catches me looking. I shift my gaze.
“Crap. Some say the word comes from Thomas Crapper. He was a pioneer in the science of toilet engineering.” My words are wasted; she looks confused. No wonder, I’m playing stupid mind games. “It doesn’t matter, it’s rubbish. Shakespeare doesn’t mean anything in England anymore. Most people don’t understand him. If he was alive today he’d be writing stuff like Roy Harper.”
“Roy Harper?” she asks. It’s like talking to someone waking out of a coma, questions all the time.
“You won’t have heard of him. He’s a folk singer from Manchester. His lyrics are fantastic.”
Her head turns to look in the same direction as my eyes to find them staring at the girl with great legs again. “You like my friend?”
“Which friend is that?” I ask, turning back towards her. She stares hard into my face. “You mean Ricardo? He’s a great guy.” She doesn’t believe me for one moment, but neither do I care. “Bit radical on the political front. You know: all that stuff about Northern Ireland. Nobody wants to hear it anymore.”
“No. I mean Maria,” she says. “The girl you smile to.”
“Oh her? She was smiling at me. She looks intelligent.”
“You were not looking into her mind.”
‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. For two years I thought they were the words to Purple Haze. Even now I can’t hear them without feeling uncomfortably warm. I’m still not sure. Every time someone puts it on the deck I prick my ears, but I don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing. Yet how can they? Totally irrational, I know, but I’m afraid that I might look uncool. Or even worse, they might think I’m gay. All I have to do is look at the lyrics on the album sleeve. Only I don’t have the album, and I don’t want anyone to see me looking in case they ask. Stupid.
The old bridge across the River Douro has two levels. One spans the gorge high above our heads. Her father and I stand in the centre of the lower level gazing into the dark waters. A sharp wind whips hair across my face, stinging my eyes.
“Best view of city is from bridge,” her father says in halting English. I can sense him glancing across at me. I don’t look back. “Tell me,” he goes on, “do you ever want to fly from bridge like bird?” I get the feeling he’s crazy enough to do it.
I remember hitching a lift through the north of France once. I got the same sensation. We were paused in a lay-by when this madman pulls a tiny revolver from the glove compartment.
“It’s real,” he said, pushing it into my hand. “Hold it.” Just like he was inviting me to a sandwich. “It feels good, huh?” I’d never held a real gun before. It was hard, cold, and silver. “You can shoot me if you want.”
A small lump of inert metal in my palm, yet it possessed the power to project lead missiles into the air faster than the speed of sound. The power to maim and kill. It was weird. I began to feel as though I might shoot him if I held the gun too long. I shoved it back at him before I could find out. I feel the same way looking down at the water. I feel I might push her father off the bridge if we don’t move on soon.
“Never,” I lie to him, and continue walking to the other side.
After I handed back the gun the crazy fired a shot across the nose of an oncoming van. I’ve never been so afraid in my life. I couldn’t get out of the car quick enough. For three days afterwards I kept looking over my shoulder. It wasn’t because I thought he might kill me. And it wasn’t because I was afraid I might have shot him either. You have to understand; it was because he might have shot himself after I left him. He was a nutcase, and I was a hitchhiker in a foreign country. You read things like it in the papers all the time. My fingerprints were on the gun of a nutter.
He is driving us to a beach north of Porto. Four of us squeezed in the back of his silver Mercedes. A pop song playing on the radio. Typical family Sunday outing. The sky is grey and spitting rain. Just like England. Only the pop song is Portuguese. All around the countryside is flat. I think of Chapel St Leonards on the Lincolnshire coast. We used to go there when I was a kid. It was always grey and spitting rain. At the same time it’s nothing like it.
“You like pop music?” she says.
“But you like Beatles?”
“I’d hardly call The Beatles pop, but I’m more into underground these days, people like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Family. They’re from Leicester. But they aren’t so well known, even in England. I’ve got my own band. We do a lot of Cream.”
“A group. We even do gigs.”
“You know, we play at clubs and things.” Crooking my left arm, I strum air-guitar with my right hand.
“What about study?” she asks. I look at that innocent face. I just can’t believe how straight she is.
“Why do you have to be so heavy all the time?” I ask. “If you really want to know, I dropped out of university. Now I’m in a rock ‘n roll band. Nothing big, we mainly play at pubs and colleges. We almost caused a riot at Nottingham Poly.” I laugh. “You should’ve seen it. You would’ve loved it.” But I see she isn’t laughing. “Studying is for straights. There are a lot more important things to do than bury your head in books all the time. You’ve only got to listen to the words of Bob Dylan. Times they are a changin’, powerful stuff. There’s revolution going on. A real revolution. The first revolution in history without guns and bombs. Ten years from now the world’s going to be a totally different place. You won’t be able to recognise it. Just you wait and see. No more bunches of old guys telling the rest of us what to do. Peace and love, that’s what the university of rock ‘n’ roll teaches.”
“Music cannot change world!” she spits, and turns away.
“Try telling Bob Dylan that.”
As I come through the door in the shop below their apartment I see her father standing in the doorway of his office. A handsome man still, he is balding at the temples; his greying hair swept back from a tanned brow. He beckons me across. He wants to tell me something.
Ricardo sweeps a generous arc through the air with his arm. “Freedom Square,” he announces ironically. We are sitting at a table outside a bar in Praça da Liberdad. The wall opposite is covered in bright red graffiti: a dripping hammer and sickle beside crude capitals, Ricardo explaining it’s against the war in Angola. “Against all imperialist warmongers,” he rants. “America in Vietnam, the English in Ireland, and Portugal in Africa.”
I can’t ask a simple question without getting Marxist rhetoric shoved down my throat all the time. It’s worse than reading the May Day edition of Red Mole.
“You see that guy standing by wall over there?” Ricardo points a finger at a man reading a newspaper. “See, the one looking away now I point to him.”
“He’s a policeman. A so-called secret policemen. One of Salazar’s ghosts. Some secret, they follow me all the time.”
“Why? You ask why? The police they can follow everybody in Portugal. Nobody asks why. I am communist; I am a student. In their eyes I am a dangerous criminal. I don’t like war in Angola. I don’t like war in Mozambique. I ask why our soldiers are dying there. We don’t belong in Africa. It’s not war for freedom; it’s war for oil and diamonds. Five times they arrest me this year. Two times they beat me.”
“Do you think you should be pointing?”
“Tell me, John, are you frighten?”
“No, of course not, what’s there to be afraid of?”
“If they arrest me, they arrest you.”
“But I’m English,”
Ricardo laughs. “You are English? You think they care that you are English? It means shit to them. Here the English can’t help you. You are with me. It is enough for them. But don’t worry, they will only beat you.”
“Still, I wish you hadn’t pointed.”
“Come, we will go somewhere better. I will buy you wine. Do you know Fado? Porto is famous for it.”
“Is it some sort of wine?”
“Fado is wine for the ears. It is the music of Porto.”
“I’m more into rock, you know, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.” Nobody seems to be into decent sounds. I feel I have to justify myself far too often. Suddenly, I long to return to England. To see impossibly green fields and talk to people I understand, to people who understand me.
“Yes, of course, I know them,” Ricardo is saying. “But when you are in Porto you must hear Fado. I will take you to see Fado.”
“What’s this thing you’ve got against kissing?” I ask her. “Haven’t you ever kissed a guy properly before?” ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. We are sitting on the sofa, arms about each other, the words of the song playing through my head. But they aren’t the words.
“One time,” she says.
“How old were you?” I press my thigh gently against hers. So gently she could hardly notice.
“Sixteen,” she says, and looks into my eyes. I move my face back towards hers. The second kiss is more relaxed, her lips moisten, and she opens her mouth a little. I move a hand towards her breast. She clamps her fingers tight round my wrist.
“Please stop,” she says, tugging my hand away. “I not ready for this.”
Leaning back I release a long sigh. “Too young, eh?”
“Not too young.” Her eyes reveal the extent she’s hurt, and I know I’m glad. “I have eighteen,” she says.
“Just as I said, too young. Old enough to know what you want, but too young and afraid to take it.”
“How old you are?” she asks.
“Twenty-one. Too fast to live, too young to die.” She looks at me blankly. “James Dean, you know, Rebel Without A Cause.”
“Ah, James Dean. He is very beautiful man.”
“Was, he’s dead.”
“Too young to live,” she says, slowly disengaging herself and resting her head on the back of the sofa.
“No, too young to die. You’re never too young to live, or love,” I say.
“It is no love you like. You like the fuck.”
“Same thing. If you’re in love you make love. It’s as simple as that.” I’m tired of her bourgeois catholic moralising. “Haven’t you heard about free love?”
“Of course, I hear.”
I carry on regardless. “While you lot have been living in the Middle Ages, the rest of the planet’s undergone a sexual revolution. We’ve suddenly woken up to realise we’re free to do what we want when we want. We don’t need the church pushing us about anymore; telling us what to do all the time. We’ve realised we don’t have to do what we’re told. That’s real freedom. You only have to know it.” I glance across at her. She sits, staring up at the ceiling; that pained expression on her face. I feel a sudden urge to hurt her further. “If you’re such a big revolutionary, how come you’ve got a servant living with you?”
“She is not servant. She always live in my father’s house. All my life she cook and clean for family like another job. She live in my father’s house because her family they are poor in faraway place.”
“But you let her serve you hand and foot.”
“I cannot tell her not to work in my father’s house. She work for everybody. It’s what she want. What she do if she no work here?”
“She’d work in a factory.”
“You have factory where she can work?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then which factory?”
“I don’t know, there must be hundreds of factories in Porto.”
“Sure, in Porto we have hundred of factories. Hundred of factories with broken machine and no work. And thousand of worker. For each job there are ten, maybe twenty.”
“There must be something she can do.”
“Yes, she do it. She clean and cook for family.”
Now we both stare at the ceiling in hurt silence. I can’t think what makes her so uptight all the time. Moments pass before either of us talks again.
“Have you ever tripped?” I ask. She looks at me strangely.
“When I am child I trip many time. Why you ask?”
I laugh. “God, you say the funniest things. Placing my hands on either cheek I kiss the tip of her nose. “I don’t mean that sort of tripping. Have you ever dropped acid? LSD?” I can see by her face that she hasn’t. And then I laugh again. “It’s the most amazing experience in the world. The universe. You’d love it. Look, I brought a couple of tabs of purple haze with me, just in case I met someone really special. It’ll blow your mind.” I turn to look her in the eye. “You know, whatever you might think,” I say, “I do love you.”
Her father beckons me across to the doorway of his office. A handsome man still, he is balding at the temples; his greying hair swept back from a tanned brow. He wants to tell me something.
Air polished to steel. So clear I see it in its invisibility. Clear as ice chrome. Reflections within reflections. Refractions within refractions. Reflections within refractions. Refractions within reflections. Colours so intense they vibrate light to hear and feel. Colours so sharp they pierce the eyes. Gently. Colours so pure I smell their scent. Sense their scent. The scent of pure colour. Wow! I can’t help smiling, neither can she. The happiest I’ve ever known. It’s incredible. Heading nowhere on a bus out of somewhere, purple haze kicking in. Far out! “Far out!” I whisper loudly, echoing, echoing. She smiling. Far out. In that very instant I know there’s no need for words. Communication without words. If all the soldiers and all the politicians learn to communicate without words there will be no wars in the world. No words. No words no war. No word war. No world war. No war no more. The most profound and amazing revelation. We get off the bus laughing. Treading rubber paving, laughing. Soft and yielding steps into sky. Laughing. Flying on wings of acid.
Laughing. I have a hard job keeping the bits of the world together enough to form a picture. Laughing. You don’t know how incredibly funny this is until you do it. Joyful. Full of joy. The bits fragmenting from time to time into tiny chips of multi-coloured brilliance. Shards. Kaleidoscopical, yet more three-dimensional than that. I would love to have one of those right now. A kaleidoscope. Far out! One that could see all round. A hundred and eighty degrees, or is that three hundred and sixty? But that’s on a flat plane. All round. I’m thinking of something that wraps completely round like a sphere. All round. Yet not a sphere. Something both inside and outside my body simultaneously. Something possessing infinite dimensions. More like three hundred and sixty billion degrees. A kool-eyed-dopascope. Way out! Now, that really would be amazing. She looks at me grinning intense. The warmness of being. And I know she’s thinking exactly the same thoughts in exactly the same moment in time.
The warmness of being envelops us. Grinning intense. In tense. Exactly the same. Exactly. In present tense. We burst into giggles that go on and on till my face aches from joy. Lemon n’ lime grin corners eating into my cheeks. Pulling my ears towards my mouth, my mouth towards my ears. I want this trip to last forever, and I know it will. Forever: just a space. The same, everything the same. Just right. Perfect. Intense presence. Preordained. Happening exactly when it’s supposed to. The same moment in time. In time. In tune to the rhythm of the universe. Everything happening in time. Every thing. A restaurant from out of nowhere coinciding exactly with the point I feel my stomach yawning empty. In nowhere. Exactly in time. Exactly, exactly the same moment in time. Coinciding. Colliding. Kaleiding. An incident of coincidence. Amazing. A gigantic airship orange grounded. Moored by strands of pith cotton; hamburgers fresh from the grill. From nowhere. Now here, in nowhere. Freshly peeled Zeppelin with flashing neon sign. Freaky. A shimmering gas-filled monster bug cocoon undulating life onto its nest of liquid stones.
“Wow!” I whisper loudly. “It’s beautiful!” Shining forms of fascination. Mutating the instant of thinking, bug skin rippling orange jelly. Forms of fascination. Forming fascination. In fast formation. Walls of gelatine tits moistening, jiggling and wobbling. Nipples glistening. Elastic luminosity. Titillation. Tit elation. In tense. In tents. Tits in tents of tangerine latex. Lemon nipples straining. Gossamer plasma rippling. Yellow toggy-bag heaving amorphous lemonisity. Animosity. Enraging spermatozoa. Wet and slimy. I’m sweating, seeping slime. Breathing fast. Billowing sails of fear. My body fills with winds of fear to bursting. Swelling to bursting. Poison clouds of green fear. Snails of fear. I see the giant green snails of fear sliming luminous trails towards me.
Thought made real at the point of thinking; thought realisation; realising thought. Predicting the unpredictable. It’s incredibly scary. My stomach an imploding vacuum of terror. Networks of billions of tingling nerves prickling my skin. Entangling trails. I’m freaking out. Entrails strangling. It’s unbelievable in its intensity. Intense. Intensifying. Intensely intestinal. Intensely terrifying. I’m getting extremely bad vibes from the airship bug. I don’t want to go inside. I really am freaking out badly. I have to tear my eyes away. I turn. Three hundred and sixty-five degrees of fear. Why that number all of a sudden? Three hundred and sixty-five. What’s the hidden significance? Three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. Real significants are always hidden. A warning. The third degree is the worse. It’s a trap. A number trap. We have to find somewhere else to think. Somewhere the warmness of being.
I see she senses bad vibes too. Think, think, I force myself to think. The only way out of a number trap is numerical. Pure logic. Three, six, five. Three, four, five, six. Somewhere the warmness of being. Which is the true order of numbers? The natural order. Think about it. Somewhere the warmness of being. When you think about it long enough you know it doesn’t have to be one, two, three. Arbitrary labels to random sequences of values. We don’t know it’s one, two, three, we’re only repeating what we’re taught. I can’t believe I just thought that. In that one thought somewhere lies the question that is the answer to the quintessential question. Quintessential. We just have to think it long enough. Think about a word long enough and it loses all meaning. Quintessential. Five essences. Essential quins. Sensual twins. Wow! I need to tell someone, but I see she already knows.
We could be sensual twins. It’s so incredible. Wow! “Wow!” I say. Echoing, echoing, wow-wow, wow-wow, and we both laugh. We laugh-laugh. We laugh-laugh so much we can’t stand, tumbling to green velvet pillows. Gliding. Green velvet pillows filled with down of cloud. Cloud down. Down into cloud down. Soft and silent. Quintessential. Sun shining out of blue. Silent blue. Silence so silent I hear it. The silence of quintessential blueness. The quite eternal senselessness of blue. The intense essence of blue quietness. The internal scent of blue. Quintessential blue. The missing colour. More than blue. The missing shade of the spectrum. All the while staring us in the eyes. Consequential blue. Sequential blue. The blue of ultimate sequence. Ultimate blue. Blue ultimatum. Even more than blue.
Quintessential blue. It goes over your head, man! Literally! “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky!” I yell. You just can’t see it unless you look!
Wow, the thoughts are amazing! This is as high as it gets. I know it’s possible. I know it’s possible to kiss the sky. Her skin glistens purest joy seen through meagre veils of dawn mist. Her eyes sparkle tiny diamonds onto emerald velvet cloud. I want her to know everything I know. I want her to know everything. I see by her eyes she does. I kiss her sparkling wet diamonds. So soft. Soft wet diamonds. Soft wet diamonds sparkling onto emeralds. Into emeralds. I kiss her mouth of soft wet diamonds into emeralds of velvet cloud down. You only know it when you’ve done it, man. Wow!
Her father beckons me across to the doorway of his office. A handsome man still, he is balding at the temples; his greying hair swept back from a tanned brow. He wants to tell me something.
“They arrest him!” she shouts. Everything has to be so dramatic.
“Ricardo. The police they arrest him and nobody knows where they take him!” Tears stream down her cheeks.
“But they’re always arresting him. He told me.”
“And always they free him next day. Now nobody see him for three days.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know them!”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be all right.” She has to exaggerate all the time. I put my arms around her to calm her down. Our last day together, the last chance we have of making love and she wants to blow it. Her father has bought me a bus ticket to Spain. I know he wants to get rid of me, and I want to be got rid of.
“Don’t touch me!” she cries, breaking free.
“I only want to kiss you.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“OK, so I want to make love. How wrong can that be? It’s the most natural thing in the world. I’m leaving tomorrow. We’ve done it once, what difference does another time make? It’s just the church telling you not to.”
“Was wrong! Is no church to telling me. I feel shame.”
He beckons me across to his office. He wants to tell me something. Clasping one of my hands in both of his he looks into my eyes.
“I want that you enjoy yourself,” he says. His palms are uncomfortably warm and moist. He closes the door behind us and locks it.
I stash my bag in the bus hold. She clings ever more tightly, as though to reassure herself I am not yet gone. I cup her face in my hands. She starts to weep.
“I’ll be back,” I whisper. I love you. You know that. You’re the sexiest, foxiest lady in the world. You don’t think that I’m going to give that up do you? I’d have to be fucking crazy! I know guys that would kill to have a chick like you.” She smiles, and we kiss.
“I love you,” she says. “Promise to me you come back.”
“I already said it,” I smile.
“Yes, but promise to me,”
“I promise.” Smiling, smiling, smiling.
The bus motor fires up.
“It’s time to split,” I smile. But she won’t release me without another kiss. We kiss. I smile and tug her clinging arms away to hold both hands. We kiss one last time. I board. From outside she follows my passage down the aisle to the rear, blowing kisses all the way. Kissing, kissing, kissing. When I find a seat on the back row, she is looking up through the window, her cheeks shining wetness, smiling through the tears. Smiling, smiling, smiling. I smile back, my face tiring from so much smiling. I want the bus to get on its way, but it’s an age before we begin to move. And even then, slowly. So slow she’s able to walk alongside until we are out of the bus station, and begin to pick up speed. She waves frantically. Closing my eyes, I breathe a sigh of relief. Escape at last.
I hear a thud then a hiss of brakes. Opening my eyes with a jolt to see it’s nothing but a red light. Looking down, I see her tear-stained face staring up at me again. She’s beating her hands against the bus panels for my attention. The driver starts up once more and she runs alongside. The bus picking up speed I gesticulate for her to move away. The stupid girl takes no notice. I can’t believe how stupid she is. Suddenly, she’s gone. Feeling a terrible rush of blood I turn quickly in my seat to gaze out of the back window. Just beyond the traffic lights her body lies sprawled in the road. I press my face against the glass. A man rushes towards her. He bends. She raises her head. Just a trip. She tripped. I can’t help it; the thought of the connection. I start to laugh. Soon I am roaring. Staring out of the rear window, roaring, tears of laughter streaming down my face. And, although I have to be too far away, I know she sees me laughing. In that moment we both know she’ll never see me again.
Her father stands in the doorway of his office. A handsome man still, he is balding at the temples; his greying hair swept back from a tanned brow. He beckons me across. He wants to tell me something. Clasping one of my hands in both of his, he looks into my eyes.
“I want that you enjoy yourself,” he says. His palms are uncomfortably warm and moist. He closes the door behind us and locks it. Placing an outstretched hand behind my neck he pulls my head towards his. He runs his fingers through my hair. Our faces move closer together till our mouths are touching.
“I love you,” he says, “Promise to me you come back.” I promise.
Purple haze all in my brain. Lately things just don’t seem the same.
Actin’ funny but I don’t know why. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky. Jimi Hendrix.
Copyright © 2004, 2011 Bryan Hemming
Purple Haze was first published in Oct 2004 by Bewrite books in The Creature in the Rose, a collection of short stories. And here’s Purple Haze by the Jimi Hendrix Experience:
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Bryan, you are so skilled with the pen. You have people travel with you – through the streets, the tapping of heads, the strike, the tussle, to the nearby cafe, and on and on. You really really have flow. You are magnificent. A craftsman.
Vivid, fluid narrative. A journey. You’ve obviously travelled too, with all the knowledge I see you have of places.
I read it several times…
GORGEOUS. SHITTIN’ GOLD BEAUTIFUL. I see why you advised me to read this. Thank you, I learned a lot. Also, thank you for taking the time to give me feedback, I really appreciate the offering.
Great to hear you really liked it, and took the time to let me know.
Very impressed with both the content and design of your site. Will dig a bit further into it in the coming week. For any reader wanting to see one of your blogs, I post a link: http://anachronicworks.tumblr.com/. It’s well worth a look.
This is some fantastic writing. Fascinating stuff. 🙂
Thanks. It’s great to receive positive feedback.
I’ve only just got round to noticing there’s a community of short story writers on wordpress gradually fusing together. It’s great.
With that in mind I intend to read a lot more work now, and hope to be able to offer positive feedback of my own.
I certainly intend to read more of your work.