One night, a week or so later, when the moon was exactly right, no one saw her creep from the back door carrying the small, wooden box. She went to the end of the high walled garden of their terraced house, to the vegetable patch that only she had ever tended. It was already barren, save for the bare, bamboo canes, sticking out of the dark earth. She stooped and emptied the contents of the box onto the soil and then reached into her pocket for the matches. She brought a newly dashed, flowering match-head to bear on the edges of the paper.
The little flame struggled briefly, before transforming itself into a row of small tongues licking at the paper before them, smoothing the fire onward. On and on it went, gorging on the sheets of paper, until it reached the covers of the notebooks and even they shrank at its touch, withering into themselves. Above the dark, ashes had already begun to ascend and flutter, some with their edges still glowing. She thought how they looked like tiny bats, celebrating the night, their vivid red lips, thin and crinkled. She watched the strands of smoke abandoning the fire and began imagining they were made of all the secrets he never told her. Whatever would remain at the end of this would be purely theirs.
She pulled one of the canes out of the ground and used it to prod at the fire. A sliver of paper tried to escape. She reached down and picked it up. Its soft, black edges dissolved under her fingers. There were words on what remained but even by the light of this, her chosen moon, she couldn’t read them.
She handed the fragment back to the fire.
Two cats were squaring up to each other on next door’s extension, slowly unwinding their yowls until the sounds frayed and they leapt at one another. She wondered if her actions were somehow infecting the air and everything living around her.
She felt the thin tears on her cheeks and that made her even more annoyed… so she reached into the pouch of her house-dress and pulled out the last few pieces of paper.
Just three pages. No sign of stains or blurred words or letters engorged by even one single, lonely, salty drop. And all written with that expensive ball point pen she’d bought you the day before she left. In places you’d pressed so heavily with it that you’d almost gone through the paper.
“You must only use this for poems about us!”
You repeated her words, the first time in thirty years, perhaps the first time out loud. At the same time, you were holding on to the evidence that your first real act with the pen had been to write a confession of murder. The letter you’d composed and sent her the following day contained most of these words.
You knew exactly what to do next. You turned to the back of this notebook, to the very back, and, wedged neatly there, corresponding in size perfectly, was Katja’s letter, the only letter she ever wrote to you. The envelope was white but with a blue and red chevron design all around all its edge. Par Avion – Via Air Mail – Correo Aereo was printed in dark blue along the bottom. In the centre, your name and what you now thought of as your parent’s old address, in her handwriting, black ink. You turned it over. Her name and address on the flap. For some reason this was also franked, the marks like heavy frowns either side. Because the letter had never been opened these scowls were perfectly intact. You thought of how her tongue had primed the gum which still sealed it. You told yourself it was this that stopped you from moving your finger under the flap and opening it right there and then; though you knew that was only one more reason.
You weren’t sure exactly what you were feeling, whether it was something from which to take courage or at which to be dismayed. Either way, it was so unfamiliar because it was so vital. The presence of her letter flooded your mind with recollection; not of events but the pure sentiment of an old passion. You could see her face turned from you, as if she was unable to contemplate the sight of your shared pleasure, her eyes closed with your combined, contrived bliss; she appeared to struggle even to breathe within it.
In this way you were physically drawn back, your heart stirred, your blood dispatched to bring the news to every part of your body. You found yourself aroused. Without thinking, holding the unopened letter in one hand, with the other you unzipped your fly and began to tug at yourself; as if by some kind of psychometry, summoning the sense of her. It wasn’t anything like your usual routine; nothing synthetic here – in some ways hardly sexual at all. The memory of her had invaded you and its potency so intense that this had to be the only way to culminate the feeling and move on.
And when it was done, after you’d wiped the evidence away with a handy towel, you found you didn’t have that usual feeling of it being just a token release – with even that meagre reward annulled by the effort of cleaning yourself up. What had long been a grubby if inevitable thing to do from time to time had taken on, just this once you were sure, something of a eulogy.
You began wondering exactly how much chance there’d really been in your discovering the letter. After all, a part of you must have known it was there.
As you returned it to the back of that old, barely used notebook, it was as if you were routinely closing a portal to your past. The quick years in between began to accumulate again, in something of an avalanche. But, simply because so many had intervened, you still had time to reach out and zip the notebook and its prize into the pocket of your work fleece, lying across the bed behind you. Now that you’d discovered the letter again you couldn’t just leave it where you’d found it; cursed or blessed as you were by it. You put everything else back exactly as it was.
You reached for your drink, for only the second time since you placed it on the tallboy. The ice had melted. It was quite ruined. As you swallowed it down in one you made a face.
Saturday 1st July 1972
It was a small, square room, not nearly big enough for a double bed so he survived with a single, beneath the window. He’d painted the ceiling a heavy blue, to which he’d added a crude solar system. Along one wall he’d attached tin foil, from skirting board to just above midway. He’d got the idea from ‘Top of The Pops’; how the Hammond organs of bands like The Small Faces and Traffic had their backs covered with a similar material, splashing the studio lights and deforming the reflections of the audience. Above the foil was a collage that covered the rest of this wall and most of the others as well. Photographs precisely cut from ‘Life’ magazine and the Sunday supplements; as well as ‘Oz’, ‘International Times’ and ‘Melody Maker’… even the ‘TLS’.
The smoke from the joint twisted up into his face and stung his eyes. Padam’s revenge was to take a couple of deep drags on it and suck down its bounty as far as he could. The effects were soon more obvious to him. His concentration was thickly spread and yet many details sailed past him. One minute he was lost in thought, the next he couldn’t recall what he’d been contemplating. Back and forth, focus and emphasis changing… ebb and flow… he expected to be deceived into new thinking… he wanted it. His wonderful understanding felt like it was running into every crack. Every now and then, Time hesitated on his behalf, allowing him to calibrate the depth of his ‘stone’, the height of his high, to a precise but indefinable degree and he could decide if it needed refreshing.
The debris of joint manufacture lay across the cover an L.P. resting on the bed beside him – The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett. Stray flakes of tobacco and the carcass of a cigarette were scattered across the plateau of the cover; a red ‘Rizla’ packet, minus its flap and a charred, makeshift, silver paper spoon. Beside these, the small plastic bag with its remnants of a deal of Lebanese Gold. Between the apparatus, Padam could make out the figure of Syd on his haunches and fingertips, as if he was about to hop like a frog across the alternate orange and blue floorboards of his own sparse apartment.
Padam felt he ought to stand up. Perhaps, he considered, he couldn’t do anything other than stand up. He needed to give his perception a different perspective. But standing involved a little thought in itself. He had to ponder its implications, co-ordinate his body. There were limbs to arrange, weight to distribute, balance to locate.
At that moment the music paused between tracks, a caesura Padam took to be a signal from fate to first stand and then take the single step needed to get within touching distance of a wall. He surprised himself with the ease in which he managed the manoeuvre. Buoyed by his achievement, he reached out in front of him with his free hand and ran his fingers over Tina Turner. She was holding a bulbous microphone close to her open thighs, at the same time as she was standing on the deck of an attack helicopter where an American airman was bleeding to death. Between that man’s stiff, outstretched legs was Arthur Brown, complete with burning head-dress, dancing next to a British soldier aflame from a Belfast petrol bomb. That fire overlapped another belonging to an immolating Buddhist monk sat cross-legged on a Saigon street, beside him a naked Bridget Bardot was peeping out from of her foetal position. A nameless demonstrator had taken up a similar attitude of limbs to cope with the blows of a police baton on the streets of Chicago. His plight was being observed from beneath the massed scarves of the Liverpool Kop.
The first few strums of Golden Hair occupied the atmosphere of his room, a plectrum cascading down each string. The hovering organ was soon moved aside by Syd’s ethereal voice, itself then stalked by a lingering vibraphone.
‘Lean out your window, Golden-hair… I heard you singing in the midnight air…’
Padam’s hand wandered on; over a Prague Spring student riding a Soviet tank toward the Lincoln of a smiling J.F.K.; Napalmed Vietnamese children ran silently screaming toward a grinning Ho Chi Minh. Robert Kennedy and his disbelieving, leaking head, lay next to Malcolm X, both men, their shirts ripped open, ties yanked aside, being given first aid. For that reason they’d raised Malcolm’s feet and placed them on the shoulder of Timothy Leary, eyes closed; hands conducting his thoughts, a flower behind each ear. He was half perched in the midst of the Grosvenor Square riot, where a demonstrator’s boot was just about to make contact with the ear of a policeman while, the other side of them, George Best was in mid-air, volleying a football. On Padam’s fingers went; General Loan, shooting a suspected NLF officer, whose face had been swapped with that of Richard Nixon. Jeffery Miller’s prone body at Kent State lay alongside that of Che Guevara’s at Vallegrande. The scene from the Lorraine motel, Dr. King’s entourage standing over his supine body and pointing toward the Olympic podium, where Tommy Smith and John Carlos were giving their black gloved salute, heads bowed; their upraised arms like lightning rods.
Cymbals sizzled in the background… ‘My book is closed; I read no more,
Watching the fire dance on the floor’.
Padam’s fingers halted at a postcard fixed uncertainly to the wall with sticky tape; James Dean standing over a kneeling Elizabeth Taylor, a rifle threaded between his upraised arms. The postcard’s edge abutted another. Here, the previous scene was mirrored in a Giotto painting of the crucifixion, Mary looking up in reverent despair at her suffering son and God.
‘I’ve left my book; I’ve left my room…’ now he was singing alongside Syd, thinking how well their voices chimed, ‘… for I heard you singing through the gloom’.
His hand moved down the wall, across a giant close-up of a contraceptive pill stuck over the puffball of a nuclear test, as it blossomed on the brilliant blue skin of the Pacific. A picture of the Earth from Apollo Eight; appearing like a beautiful glass marble half submerged in a sea of black ink. A CRS policeman in Paris, was flinging a cobblestone in the direction of a cowering priest, his white flag a blood-stained handkerchief, trying to get one of the wounded of Derry to safety. Padam’s fingertips snagged on the billposter of The Ten Point Programme of the White Panther Party:
‘We want a Free Planet; We want Free Land; Free Food; Free Shelter; Free Clothing; Free Music; and Free Culture; Free Media; Free Technology; Free Education; Free Health Care; Free Bodies; Free People; Free Time and Space; Everything Free …for Everybody!!!’
‘Singing and singing a merry air…’
Below that, the San Jose Chapter of Hell’s Angels at Altamont, pool cues raised behind them, were poised to strike the head of Charlie Manson, his stiletto stare always managing to turn Padam’s eyes away whenever it was met it full on.
‘… Lean out of the window, Golden-hair’. The cymbals fulminated and then dissolved. The organ slowly exhaled.
Padam turned slowly to the side and took the half a step he needed to get to the record player. It was sitting on the top of what had once been his bedside cabinet. He raised the Perspex lid and lifted the tone arm from the still-spinning record. It seemed a good point at which to end the music. He’d be going out soon and he’d just acquired the notion that he wanted this song, complete with its Joycean connection, to be the inspiration that propelled him.
From out the corner of his eye, Padam caught someone looking at him. He wheeled round instinctively, expecting to see his mother standing in the doorway of his room. But it was just Hendrix. He was looking down his eyes at him from his poster on the door; an imperious dandy sat on a peacock throne, a cravat at his throat, a silk jacket with wide open eyes as their design. These fixed him even harder.
‘If you can just get your mind together…’ said the ornate words running across the bottom of the poster.
“James… you startled me,” Padam said, acknowledging his presence with a courteous nod. Time hesitated. He came to a verdict. Just as Tyce had told him, this stuff was okay, ‘Betta dan Bush weed’, as Tyce put it. It did a job and it wasn’t expensive. Not like the new lot. He took another pull.
On the opposite wall, above his long, low bookcase, the collage continued. Here the TLS had come into its own. So many poets and writers…
Eliot at his Faber desk…
“Anne Sexton in your summer dress…” Padam intoned, getting an idea. “Whitman, old pal… your beard’s a mess… Wystan, your face like my unmade bed… Sylvia… oh Sylvia…” she always made him hesitate, “…if every woman adores a fascist, then every man loves a high priestess…” He considered writing all that down but then decided he couldn’t be bothered.
In places the gallery here was overwhelmed by larger images: An ‘Easy Rider’ poster, Captain America and Billy riding their customised motorcycles across an arid, Arizona landscape, their shadows flat and black on the smooth highway; the machines themselves seemingly suspended within the halos of their own tyres: Martin Luther King addressing the multitude from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his head angled to one side as if in puzzlement, the microphones on his podium always reminding Padam of a window box of strange, dying blooms: There was the enamel ‘Toc H’ sign he’d prised off the side door of a nearby church. Its quiet brown background and cream, sans serif lettering a comfort to him. No guest of his so far had ever known what it meant. To Padam, the sign was alive; it expanded and contracted with the temperature of his room and ticked sinisterly as it did so, sometimes flicking off a piece of its corroded back in the process. He thought of the girl who’d woken him in the middle of the night because she was terrified by the noise of the foraging vermin she’d heard.
But there was one image that, to him, dominated the rest even though smaller than the other posters. Having pride of place in the centre of this wall, was a reproduction of a black and white, Rollie McKenna photo of Dylan Thomas. It had been taken in the Boathouse in Laugharne. Somewhere out of shot, Thomas’ tour manager, John Malcolm Brinnin, would be explaining details to him of what would prove to be that final, fatal visit to America.
Once again Padam stared at the image. He always wondered how the poet managed to settle such a look of childlike trepidation upon his drinker’s distraction. One hand sits on top of the other in front of his mouth. Stubby little fingers those on display, the ones below he may be slyly gnawing; the casual, grey flannel shirt bursting with beer fat; that dark cloud of curly hair perched on top of his bloated, ale-mottled face. But it was the eyes as always that told the story … he was staring into his own fear.
“You knew exactly what would happen if you went – didn’t you, Ditch? But you still went.”
Padam made to sit back down again on the squall that was his bed; from here Syd’s L.P. cover looked like a raft upon it. The heavy, velvet curtains were pulled back. The sun from a gentle summer’s evening was seeping into the room, resting itself on the window frame. It had already overwhelmed the decapitated Belisha beacon Padam had converted into a reading lamp. Alongside it sat a teeming ashtray and beside that an incense holder, from which the stems of the previous burning still protruded. Its fine ash was hunched on the sill below, along with a reasonable accumulation of dust. He thought how his mother never entered the room now; at first as the result of a bargain they’d struck but eventually because she couldn’t endure the chaos of it all.
Padam looked down the length of the bed, towards his staved-in pillow. He wondered briefly what the chances might be of him not having to place his head back in that same recess tonight or – hope against hope – if another might be created alongside it. He groaned at such optimism. But whatever the outcome, he could comfort himself with the plans he’d already made for the following day.
Above the pillow, attached to the small, blocked-up fireplace behind it, was another full page photo from ‘Life’. It was again from Paris in May ‘68, black and white as always; a beautiful, young woman carrying a sign high above her head. Beneath the granddad shirt she was obviously bra-less, her nipples as defiant as her expression. The words scrawled on her placard were ‘LA POESIE EST DANS LA RUE’.
“That’s my girl!” Padam said.
He took a couple of final drags on the joint until it became too fiery. Then he stood up again, perhaps a little more unsteadily this time and took the three paces it needed, straight across the room, to reach his desk. The piece of furniture fitted so neatly in the alcove beside the door it was as if it’d been made to measure. He casually pushed some of his latest notes and drafts behind his typewriter until he revealed the glass ashtray and there stubbed out what little remained of the joint. Staring back at him from a small section of bare desk top was the letter opener with its Celtic cross handle, a fake emerald at its heart. His father had brought it back for him the last time he went to see England play Wales at the Arms Park. ‘I was in this shop, Robert… and I was thinking, didn’t he tell me the other day something about wanting to be a man of letters? Well, then I thought I’ll get him something to open them with…’
Padam picked it up carefully and kissed the hilt. Then, after pushing the knife back under the pile, he reached down and tugged open the middle drawer and drew out Routledge’s Universal Encyclopaedia (1935 edition). He opened the book randomly and reached into the cavity he’d hollowed out there. From it he removed the special purchase he’d secured from Tyce the previous evening. Padam didn’t need to look at it; he simply pushed it down between his sock and the high lip of his desert boot, until it rested reasonably comfortably under the arch of his foot. The arrangement with Phillips was to meet in the bar of the Student’s Union. Padam couldn’t remember what time. It didn’t matter.
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